Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Day 128 - Facing My Fears on Three-Fingered Jack

August 31, 2012
Day 128
Miles:  15
Total Miles:  2021

On Top of Three Fingered Jack

The morning of August 31st, I crossed Highway 20 at Santiam Pass before making my way up the trail toward Three-Fingered Jack six miles farther, distinguishable by it’s many peaks jutting into the sky.  At 7,481 feet, TFJ is not the tallest volcano in the cascades, but it is never the less a very distinguishable and dramatic form visible from hundreds of miles in either direction.  It is said to have three primary pinnacles, thus the name Three Fingered Jack, but seen from the south it is not obvious which of the many spires are the namesake three.  

The PCT passes west of the summit where it connects to a spur trail which leads to the base of the mountain and there I find a piece of Day’s Inn stationary snagged from our Bend hotel room, placed under a rock.  Siddhartha’s scribbles are scrawled across it:  

   “I’m addicted to rock.  I can’t help myself.  I am climbing Three-Fingered Jack,” 

he announces to Washout, Threshold and I.  Looking up from the note toward the peak I can barely make out the jagged top of the mountain through the trees lining the short side trail to the base of the mountain.

View of TFJ from the PCT
The Pacific Crest Trail follows generally the crest of a series of mountain ranges, southern California peaks, Sierra Nevada Range, and the Cascade Range in OR and WA, through snowy passes and along high ridges, but the trail itself does not summit any major peaks - instead it winds around the base of mountains, bringing thru-hikers within spitting distance of most of the prominent peaks in the cascade range.  Many peak ascents involve the PCT as the primary access route, and it is possible to position yourself to climb a dozen or more major peaks as you complete a thru-hike of the PCT.  The trail is well-worn in most places and is graded for stock, so hiking the trail itself is relatively predictable - you will not be scuttling over boulders or hanging precariously on rock walls.  But for those seeking these greater thrills, peak-bagging along the way can provide a challenge and reward unparalleled on any other long distance trail.  The pull of a summit is to some, very hard to resist.

Siddhartha had been bragging about his climbing exploits throughout the hike.  As if hiking 20-30  miles every day was not enough, he had found the energy to climb a half a dozen or more peaks before TFJ including Mt. Thielson and Middle Sister.  It is not that I am jealous or even competitive, for we all hike our own hike (HYOH) and my journey is not Siddhartha's journey,  but I do have something to prove to myself - that I can step off the well-worn path and be a risk-taker, even a path as magical as the PCT, and tread where few tread to experience what few experience.  I am on this quest to challenge myself, push my limits, see what is possible.  Just four months ago it seemed the biggest stretch just to get to the start of the trail.  Now with over 2000 miles behind me, I am seeking a greater challenge, something to test my new found confidence.  

Pulling out my journaling pen, I scratch out a response below Siddhartha’s message, 

“I can't let him have ALL the fun!” 

and carefully placing the note back underneath the rock for the others, I head up the trail.

Sand and Scree Wash on TFJ
Past the initial jog through the trees, the trail quickly disintegrates into several paths up a steep sandy slope.  I choose my route and begin the climb, all gear on my back, my feet slipping a half step down the mountain with each step I take.  The route I chose is not a trail, as it turns out, but a wash of sand, scree, and rocks, and the effort to climb it is substantial.  The only solid footholds in the sand and scree are the infrequent large boulders buried deep enough to support me without sliding down the mountain under my weight.  Making frustrating progress in the scree, I decide to make my way over to the tree line to use the buried roots and branches of the small trees as footholds, and slowly make my way up to the solid rock outcroppings on the upper part of the mountain.

At the tree line I slide off my pack and leave it and one trekking pole and in a conspicuous place for retrieval on the way back down - needing a free hand for the rock scramble ahead.  Before continuing I throw out the hiker call/response “cueee!” and listen for several seconds ... nothing.  

Exhausted and out of breath, I approach what I believe to be the summit on a rocky embankment only to be presented with another much taller rock tower to my left.  Straining to see the top, unmistakable in his hunter-neon-orange cap, I catch a glimpse of Siddhartha sitting like a Bodhissatva silently surveying the view from his perch.  In a world of his own, unaware of my presence, I feel like I am intruding on a personal moment.

Siddhartha on the Summit
Sending out the call again, I see him immediately perk up and look around.

“Cueeeeee!”  I call

“Cueeeeee!”  his voice reverberates down to me

“Where are you!!”  

“Turn to your right!”

“I see you!”  followed by,

“...this could very well be the stupidest thing I have ever done.”  

This last response is an apparent attempt to discourage me from following him.  This gave me pause and should have halted me from climbing further.  It didn’t. 

To get from where I stood to where he sat at the top of the rock spire forming the topmost point on Three-Fingered Jack took me two hours of effort.  At one point, I had to decide between two equally disturbing routes.  I took what looked like the safest route only to find myself, after twenty minutes of white-knuckle climbing, clinging to a crumbling rock wall, a thousand foot vertical of nothing but gravity and terror below me.  This “safe” route took me to a precarious place with no way forward, and I had to backtrack across a rock wall traverse, one of the most dangerous spots I have ever found myself, to get back to a solid platform.  Rock was crumbling beneath every other handhold, falling with eerie silence into the chasm below and then sending up echoes as it crashed and broke hundreds of feet below me.  I dared not look down for more than a brief moment.  I made my way slowly back to safety, took a few breaths, closed my eyes with gratitude that I had escaped a horrible fate, and then looked up at the only other route to the top, the route I had deemed much too risky for Free Soloing when I reached it earlier.  It was now the only way forward.

The route required a tricky move of leaning my center of gravity away from the wall while ducking under an overhanging ledge, before reaching the safety of the rock slope on the other side.  “Jeff had made it," I told myself.  “If he can do it I can do it.”  And I did...guided by Siddhartha's encouraging words, I rehearsed the move in my head several times, took a firm grip and leaned back, nothing but my fingers clutching baseball-sized knobs of crumbling rock to keep me from plunging down the mountain.  I made my moves while testing each and every hold, and emerged safely on the other side.  

Looking up at the Wall
I had climbed to a saddle beneath the peak spiring 40-50 feet above me, and the only way to the top was up a sheer a vertical wall that often leaned in more than 45 degrees.  Siddhartha had already descended this wall to meet me here at the base of this tower.  

As I sat down to survey the challenge in front of me, Siddhartha described his strategy.  The climb was fairly strait forward but it did require one or two deep stretch moves.  The way up, he told me, is not the problem.  It’s down-climbing that can be a problem.  With no one there to direct you and no way to see the footholds angled beneath you, you are forced to “feel around” for footholds.  The term used to describe climbing, as we were, without any man-made protection is free soloing.  To free solo this wall would be risky, but with two of us I felt more confident.  Yet, doubts still fluttered around in my head.

Mts. Thielsen, Washington and the Three Sisters from TFJ
“I will stop if at any time I feel myself panicking or out of control” . 

“A slip and fall will certainly mean a broken back, severe trauma to the head and probably death”.

“At least Siddhartha will be here to carry my body down the mountain”.

“It would be a shame if I fall and die and am not able to complete my thru-hike"!
As I sat there working up my confidence, Siddhartha ascended and descended the wall again, as if to say to me, if I can do it twice, what’s your excuse?  As he was on the wall a shadow floated by me and looking to my left I saw a large bald-eagle circling the rock tower.  Soon another eagle came into view and both soared in circles around us several amazing feeling came over me.  I am in the company of eagles!
Rushing with adrenaline and pride, I climb the wall, moving deliberately and with deep concentration, and finally sit at the top - the real summit.  A wash of something indescribable flows through me as I sit there surveying the landscape - Washington and Thielson and the Three Sisters visible to the south.  Looking north I see Mt. Jefferson’s unmistakable conical snow-covered peak.  I can look down in all directions to see the volcanic walls of the summit spire falling steeply away below me.  Siddhartha is on the saddle below, the size of my thumb, cheering for my accomplishment and angling for a picture.  

View from the Summit to the Saddle at the Base of the Wall
Fear begins to wash away and a flooding of emotion comes over me as my eyes well up and tears stream down my cheek.  Courageous or foolish - it didn’t matter right now.  Sitting here on this peak I begin to realize how precious these experiences are.  Had I not taken a big risk and stepped out of my comfort zone to take my first steps on the Pacific Crest Trail four months ago, I would not be sitting on top of the world today.  This experience alone makes it all worth it.  The feeling is amazing and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Down-Climbing the Wall
The down climb was daunting but having no choice I made quick work of it.  A few cross-throughs, a few long stretch moves and I was down on the saddle again high-fiving Siddhartha.  We made it down the mountain safely, making good time.  The sand and scree that slowed me down on the way up the mountain sped up my descent as every step was the same as three - practically running down the mountain with poles in hand and sand filling my shoes, I felt like I was tele-skiing.  Down in the trees again, Siddhartha and I rested and ate lunch.  He pulled out a box of red wine he had carried from Bend and I shared my aged Asiago cheese.  A fitting celebration for a memorable morning.

As I continued north on the PCT that afternoon, I tingled with satisfaction at the recent experience.  I knew I was hooked, “addicted to rock” as Siddhartha put it.

I am reminded of something Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech.

Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart”.

Looking back at TFJ from the North
And so having faced my fear of death, if only briefly, I am more determined than ever to follow my heart.  I found the challenge I was seeking and it opened up a whole new world of adventure.  There is something about climbing a mountain that is distinct from hiking a trail.  The pull of the summit somehow gives a purpose and energy to every step that is sometimes lost in a long distance hike.  The energy is focused and purposeful.  The goal is not months away, but only hours, and the reward is often out of this world.  I knew this wouldn't be my last summit attempt on this trip.  If a 7,000 foot crumbling volcano can offer so much, imagine what is waiting for me on the top of mountains twice this size!

Have you had an experience where taking a risk has opened your mind to new opportunities?  How has taking risks in your life shown you a new or different path?  Please feel free to leave a comment.


  1. Fantastic post! I'm definitely not going to be able to just walk right past TFJ next year :)

    1. Thanks for reading Kimberlie. Some of the best memories I have of the hike are the times when I went off trail. I would suggest taking advantage of as many of these opportunities as possible. Just be safe!

    2. In my already-long life I have taken many stupid risks, and have learned from every one. Yes, I know the joy of simple rock-climbing, both above and below the ground. The joy of accomplishement is beyond explanation. Always calculate the worst that can happen, then ask yourself if that is worth the risk. So many things are.

  2. If your books are anything like what I just read on your climb of TFJ.. it will be on my list of books to buy!!
    A trail angel for a brother.

    1. Hey thanks for commenting! I am working on a book but it will some time before it gets completed. I have a few more adventures in mind first. :) Thanks for the encouragement!!


PCT Northern Terminus

PCT Northern Terminus
On September 30, 2012 I reached the Northern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Thanks to everybody who supported and followed my journey. It was a life-changing experience!