Writings

Thoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.

Three Fingered Jack Backcountry Skiing

This past weekend, a bit sad that we weren’t driving out to Colorado for the Grand Traverse, Taylor and I went looking for some new terrain in the Mt Jefferson wilderness. Neither of us had ever been to the Three Fingered Jack backcountry off of Santiam Pass (near Hoodoo ski area), and the forecast looked favorable for skiing on Friday and Saturday.

three fingered jack backcountry

Approaching Three Fingered Jack through the burn area.

On the North side of Santiam Pass is Three Fingered Jack, and to the South (and slightly more distant) is Mt Washington. While Mt Washington is a picturesque peak reminiscent of the Paramount Pictures logo, Three Fingered Jack is a much more rubbly remnant of a volcano, forming a sawtoothed projection aligned from North to South.

Map of the Three Fingered Jack backcountry

Map of the Three Fingered Jack backcountry. Generated using Caltopo.

All information on the internet to date suggests accessing Three Fingered Jack no earlier than May to June, when the Jack Lake trailhead opens to the East. Given that the line I’ve drawn on this map, from the road to the peak, is only about 3.5 miles, that seems crazy. From Santiam Snowpark, the logical winter approach rises through a large burn area on a gradual grade before joining with the tapered tail of Three Fingered Jack’s ridge.

Reaching the south ridge of three fingered jack backcountry

Reaching the south ridge of three fingered jack backcountry

The favorable forecast didn’t pan out for us, with low clouds traded for the promised sunshine. Still, the approach through the burn was beautiful and easy, and we quickly gained Three Fingered Jack’s south ridge.

The south ridge of three fingered jack.

The south ridge of three fingered jack.

The travel on this ridge was nothing short of asinine. Here, it seems, the winds of the Pacific Ocean sweep unhindered across the cascade crest, scouring deep grooves into the winter’s snow which extend remarkably far to the windward West, while the East is dominated by large and fragile cornices. In retrospect, were one to want to reach the upper reaches of the South ridge without getting sea-sick on these slow rollers, an approach that stayed low and off the ridge to the East would be much faster and less aggravating.

On the upper reaches of three fingered jack

On the upper reaches of three fingered jack.

We did our best to move forward with the plan to get high on the mountain, but the weather continued to deteriorate, and we were forced to ski the trees instead.

A variable ski to summit lake led into a quick skin to above Martin Lake, where, by sheer luck, we managed to descend unknowingly through one of only a few gaps in an enormous cliff band.

Ascending back through the burn with cornice debris.

Ascending back through the burn with cornice debris.

Having made a few turns, we decided to head back to the burn area for some surreal turns through the burnt-out pines.

Skiing the burn

Skiing the burn

Here, we were lucky. The sun emerged, the winds had swept a few inches of soft snow onto a smooth base, and all was well in the skiing world for a long run down through the pines.

Ascending Tumalo mountain.

Ascending Tumalo mountain.

Reversing our approach through the burn area made for a quick escape, skiing to the road in about ten minutes. We packed our things and headed to Bend for the night, hosted by the mother of Free Range Equipment’s own Tosch Roy. Refreshed by a real bed and some home-made granola, we took advantage of a brief morning storm to enjoy some turns on the local Bend go-to, Tumalo Mountain.

Pacific Northwest bluebird.

Pacific Northwest bluebird.

In typical style, the weather again deteriorated, and we found ourselves skiing dense powder down Tumalo alone, and in a dense fog. It now feels like the shoulder season here in the PNW– it’s not quite done being winter, but it’s also not a full-fledged Spring.

I’m looking forward to some real Spring skiing, and maybe another storm or two in the meantime. In about two weeks time, we’ll be hopping on a plane to see what the glaciers of South-Central Alaska have to offer a skier. Until then!


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