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Linking Three Fingered Jack and Mount Washington

Wheeeewww. This trip was a doozy for me. I felt absolutely destroyed after we finished and I’m pretty sure I drank 4 liters of water before I peed. Insanity. Anyway, the gist of the adventure was linking 2 of the Cascades on foot: the crumbly Three Fingered Jack with the slightly-more-solid Mount Washington. When we originally mapped it, it looked like we would be covering 20ish miles and gaining around 7000′ during the day. The Monday before we left, we checked our own work and saw that the mileage would be closer to 30. Woof. But, we accepted the challenge, packed the truck on Friday night, and headed out of Portland as soon as possible so we could get to sleep early.

The trailhead at Santiam Pass was pretty crowded and our fears of running into hordes of other people out to attempt Three Fingered Jack began to feel all-too-real. We decided to wake up at 4am and hope we would be able to pass everyone with enough cushion to make it through the technical portions without bottlenecking with everyone. Our packs packed, breakfast and extra water was set out, and our stash of “post-3FJ, pre-WA gear was ready to rock.” We fell into a restful slumber.

Saturday morning, we prepped in a flurry. We could see the headlamps from other parties already starting up the trail so we started moving as quickly as possible. Our general strategy for these “light and fast” alpine starts is to begin with fast-hiking. My body doesn’t wake up quickly enough to go balls-out from the beginning and I always feel like vomiting if we start off too fast. Besides, I’d developed a strange and sharp pain in my left knee the night before and was worried about aggravating it. The pain didn’t seem to be bothersome while I was moving though- only when I had to squat down to pee!

We slowly increased our pace and within the first mile, passed two large parties carrying an exorbitant amount of gear. The first party let us by without question but I had to loudly request for the second party to let us by. I was immediately irritated but was happy to be passing people. Fortunately, aside from seeing glowing eyes on the side of the trail and nearly peeing my pants (it ended up being a backpacker’s tied-up dog), the remainder of the trek to the climber’s trail went without incident. It was a gorgeous morning!

The scree field was brutal. The last time we’d been up 3FJ had been in winter and aside from a stretch of 60ish degree snow slopes, the approach to the technical sections had been relatively straightforward. The scree set us up for a brutal one step forward, three steps back situation. It was great.

The sun was nearly up when we hit the ridge and made our way toward The Crawl. We climbed with the sun and quickly set up to head through the upcoming pitches.

I led us through The Crawl, placing a couple of pieces and clipping a slung boulder to belay Andy over to me. This “scary” traverse was infinitely simpler than I remember it being nearly two years ago. It’s funny how people’s skills and comfort levels progress over time!

Once we hit the spire, we were still all alone. I lead up the first pitch, placing two cams quickly into solid-enough pockets and Andy climbed past me and up the summit. We snapped a quick video and made 2 raps back down. Still fighting time, we simul’ed back through The Crawl and were off the technical portions and fast-scrambling down before we saw anyone else. Their reactions were hilarious when we told them why we were moving so fast: “Is that some sort of record?!” “Did you guys even bring a rope?”

We laughed and bombed down the scree, picking up the pace on the way down and loving every minute of the beautiful trail.

Back at the truck, we swapped out gear, pounded more water, and each grabbed our 2 liter bladders. We were worried that the next section of PCT would be burned out and lacking shade and wanted to have as much water as possible. At 12 miles in, I was starting to feel tired and, as usual, had zero appetite. I forced NUUN and a bunch of chocolate-chia granola into my stomach and we started off, crossing the highway and entering a section of some of the most beautiful terrain I’ve ever had the pleasure of running through. Most of it was shaded and we were so very grateful!

At mile 18, I was sick. I half spit up/half vomited up half of a bar, noted that I was already worried about running out of water, and was momentarily ready to quit. We were so close that I couldn’t justify it. This day wasn’t going to be the fast day I had been hoping for but I sure as hell wasn’t going to quit. I choked down some Newman Os and willed my body to keep it down. We only had a couple more miles of runnable trail left- the climber’s trail off the PCT was riddled with downed-trees and more brush than I remembered encountering on my previous trip up Mount Washington nearly 2 years ago.

We lumbered up to the ridge, relishing in the shaded sections as the day was becoming hotter... and hotter... and hotter.

When we started traversing over to the spire, we saw a woman sitting alone on a rock. She said her friends were climbing and that we should “be careful because it’s treacherous.” We laughed and kept making our way over. When we reached the base of the pinnacle, we saw two more people waiting for their friends who were making their way up to the summit. Our tiny packs must have made us conspicuous because they were eyeing us warily as we started solo’ing up the rock, easily pulling through the 5.3ish initial move. We reached the summit and met a wonderful and hilarious couple who gave us a PBR! It was so amazing and still slightly chilled :)

We chatted with them for a while and enjoyed the light summit breeze for a while, shaking out our tired legs. We looked through the summit register, signed our names for the second time as a team, and finally began scrambling back down. We busted out our ropes & harnesses to make the final rappel back down to “solid ground.” As we passed the woman who had warned us about the “treacherous mountain,” she exclaimed, “wow that was fast! you guys must be experienced!”

We had a good laugh about that for a while, our exhaustion definitely not inspiring many feelings of experience.

The way down was horrible. At this point, it was so hot that we couldn’t even run the flat sections. We were too dehydrated and didn’t have nearly enough water to sustain anything more than a fast-hiking pace on the way out. I found myself weaving drunkenly down the climber’s trail, willing myself to move for 15 minutes at a time and swishing small amounts of water around in my mouth.

By the time we were headed back down the PCT, I was nursing Mentos and staring at a dead watch. I felt destroyed. By mile 27, I found myself sitting down on the side of the trail, turning my bladder upside down in an effort to drain any remaining water out of it. I did NOT want to keep going but since no other options remained, I picked myself up off the ground, tried to mask my exhaustion with an air of lightweight humor, and started walking again. Sitting became my primary focus. My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow and I became fixated on the idea of Grapefruit Juice and Sprite. Totally fixated. I decided in these moments that dying of thirst has to be the worst way to die.

By the time we could hear the highway again, we were slowed to the slowest walk I think we’ve ever walked. When we reached the edge of the highway, I sat down, tears welling in my eyes as I looked up at the truck, 200 yards away but at the top of a small hill. I was done. Toast. All I wanted was water. Or juice. Or sprite.

Andy kept going. I eventually followed, slamming as much water as I could into my body and sitting in the cool shade of the truck for a few moments. We had done it. And I was tired.

Portland, OR, USA

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©2020 BY CORIE L. TRAYLOR. CREATED AT SEA LEVEL.