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 Oregon Mountaineering Association
131 NW 4th St. # 258; Corvallis OR 97330
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Learning to Climb

Climbing Three Fingered Jack and Mt Washington on an outing with the Oregon Mountaineering Association

[This was written by an OMA member as part of a writing class. For information on reprinting or reposting please contact the OMA. There is generally no cost but permission is required.]

Three Fingered Jack loomed like a giant rotten tooth of rock as we trudged onto the ridgeline.  The loose soil slowed our progress to half-steps as the wind whipped through the stunted pines along the spine of the mountain leading to the “Crawl." Soon we would have to rope up.

This intimidating image keeps many would-be climbers away from the mountains.  However, Three Fingered Jack and Mount Washington are peaks that anyone in reasonable physical condition can successfully climb with an experienced leader or guide.

Some of the members of our group had taken a basic mountaineering class through the Oregon Mountaineering Association (OMA) and were familiar with rock-climbing but were novices to serious mountaineering. Still, success was merely a matter of overcoming our fear and following the instructions of the volunteer trip leader and OMA member, Jim Frankenfield, and his volunteer assistants.

As we waited for Jim to climb ahead and set up a belay, our thoughts were focused on the first technical section of our two-day, two-peak weekend in Central Oregon. All around us were steep slopes of reddish-brown rock and dirt.  Below was a carpet of pine trees and the dots of blue lakes.  The cool alpine wind was the breath of mountain spirits, threatening to steal anything that wasn't securely attached to our bodies.

This section, known as the "Crawl," is a rock ledge against an overhanging cliff face that exposes climbers to potentially deadly falls.  "It's not the difficulty of the climb," said Jim, "but the cost of a mistake."  This is why we wore harnesses and clipped into the rope.

Although not to be taken lightly, mountaineering in Oregon is as accessible as the Pacific Crest Trail that runs north-south through the Cascades, west of Sisters and Bend.  From the trailheads near Oregon Highway 20 you can climb Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, the Three Sisters and Broken Top.

While we were facing exposed climbs up class 5.1 - 5.3 rock -- the easiest classification of technical rock-climbing -- you can climb both Middle and South Sister without ever roping up.  Vic, another member of our group, characterized these easy climbs as "slogs." Anyone who is comfortable with five-to-ten mile trail hikes should have little trouble reaching their summits.

After the “Crawl," we reached the saddle and faced the final technical section, up a chimney -- a crack in the cliff that offers secure hand and foot-holds -- and on to a short steep section that led us to the summit.  Including the second half of our group, all seven of us (plus leaders) reached the peak -- a tiny seat at 7,841 feet.

The Oregon Mountaineering Association is a non-profit organization that provides opportunities to learn mountaineering by practicing in a safe group setting.  The annual membership fee is a bargain -- even if it were only for one climb a year. It is small fee that allows you to learn at your own pace and make contacts in the climbing community.  Members have full access to the web site and can post their planned hikes and climbs if they would like to travel with a group.

Jim Frankenfield, the OMA trip leader and an experienced mountaineer, was our ticket to successful climbs. For inexperienced climbers it is a good idea to employ a guide or to climb in a group that includes at least one member who can provide the tools and knowledge for a safe journey.  By contacting one of the local clubs or guiding services, anyone can enjoy Oregon's alpine worlds.

While the guide services will likely provide ropes, harnesses and helmets, you should invest in a small amount of gear.  Most back-packers and hikers already own the sturdy leather boots and weather-resistant clothing required in the constantly changing environment of the mountains.  Wool and synthetic fibers are preferable to cotton.  For comfort, most climbers prefer shorts or pants that allow for freedom of movement. Ask the guide service that you choose what to bring and remember that much of the required gear can be rented inexpensively at stores like REI.

Once we were safely back at the trailhead, we drove into Sisters for dinner and beer.  The proximity of hotels, restaurants, resorts and stores is what makes the region so accessible.  You can spend the day hiking, boating, climbing or hunting and then enjoy the amenities of civilization.

The next morning we left our campsite and followed the Pacific Crest Trail south through the pine forest toward another climbers' trail and the North Ridge of Mount Washington – a four-mile hike.  While it had rained throughout the night, the clouds had begun to dissipate and the ground sent up a thin mist of evaporation.  The fine needles of the trees were dappled with droplets of water that sparkled in the early light.

Weather is another concern in the mountains.  Conditions can change quickly and safe decisions must be made at a moments notice.  This is why Jim keeps a radio in his car that is capable of picking up National Weather Service and Forest Service updates.  If he had any doubts regarding the conditions, he would have cancelled the climb.

As we hiked, I remembered viewing the mountain from the highway as a Matterhorn in perspective.  Like Three Fingered Jack, it presents a daunting image of impassive and unforgiving rock.  Still, getting onto the ridge was the most physically challenging segment of the climb.  Once we were on the ridgeline, every tired step brought us closer to our reward.  Soon, the adrenaline high of exposed rock climbing to 7,794 feet would replace the pain of fatigued muscles.

For the most part, the final segment of the climb is a scramble or free climb.  Jim picked the easiest routes between boulders and up the side of the mountain.  The greatest danger was the loose and unstable condition of the rock.  "Don't step on this one," said Jim as he tilted a rock with his boot. ..."

Our helmets minimized this hazard, but rock-fall could cause serious injury or death due to the steep faces and long drops. Caution and attention are crucial behaviors in this unforgiving environment.

As with Three Fingered Jack, two sections of Mount Washington should be climbed with a rope.  The first leads from the saddle up a nearly vertical face -- which presents an opportunity to rappel on the way back down.  The second is less steep, but between the loose rock and exposure it is not worth the risk of a free climb.  In fact, Jim had us rope up on a third section on our decent, bringing home the most important lesson of the day:  When in doubt use all of the precautions at your disposal.  I would not consider tackling this peak without an experienced leader, but even with my low level of rock-climbing experience the rope was never tested.  Once again, everyone in our group reached the summit.

The saddle offered us views of Mount Jefferson, Black Butte, Hayrick Butte near Hoodoo Ski Bowl, Three Fingered Jack, and I've been told that on a good day you can even see Mount Hood.  Below is Big Lake and numerous pristine smaller lakes and woods  From the peak, you can see the Sisters and the black lava flow that stretches through the lowlands to the south -- around Belknap Crater.

While we made our camp near the trailhead, those who prefer a hotel bed to a foam pad can stay in Sisters and take day trips out to the trail.  From there, anyone can hike in, climb to the ridgelines and with an experienced member can even attempt to summit.  Once you have breathed the alpine air, taken in the views and safely returned to the Pacific Crest Trail, you will be hooked on thrill of climbing.  You will be a convert to the religion of the mountains.

Always remember, there are inherent risks to mountaineering. Every year there are documented fatalities and injuries. Practicing safe climbing only minimizes the dangers.  It is up to you to decide whether the rewards are worth the risks.  Again, the presence of an experienced leader or professional guide and knowing your own level of comfort will allow you to make the most of Oregon's mountains.

Footnote: In addition to volunteering time to the OMA Jim Frankenfield runs the CyberSpace Avalanche Center and works as a private guide.

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