The Unit Climbs Three-Fingered Jack

by Rod Harney

After being warned to expect a long, laborious hike in, I was pleasantly surprised to find our party turning off the Pacific Crest Trail after only three hours. It had been a delightfully gradual climb through shaded forest,passing the occasional clearing that allowed ever closer views of the ridgeline approach and summit of Three-Fingered Jack. The gradual slope turned steep as we left the PCT with Jack's pinnacles towering above us. Though we were getting quite close, as we achieved the final approach ridge, the actual summit looked foreboding and impossibly vertical.
Forty minutes later, after scrambling up the steepening ridgeline, our boots seeking purchase on coarse volcanic rock, we were nestled with our backs against a sharp ridge on what might, by some, be called a ledge. We settled in. The Crawl was holding up progress. About fifteen climbers ahead of us were waiting their turn at this very exposed traverse.
As we waited, the wind picked up substantially and we watched clouds begin to form up -- subtly sinister. Several of us (myself included) silently wondered how wise was our clothing selection earlier that morning. We layered on what gear we had and snuggled against the rock seeking the little protection it would afford us. (I was thinking about that nice, warm, heavy fleece shirt I had left back at the car!) While so occupied, we had a chance to catch our breath, munching on our Kit Kats, Cliff Bars, and dried papaya -- and generally look around in aweand amazement. I took time to visit the various precipice edges that surrounded us. Every edge is an adventure for me. Approaching them with anticipation, I love the feeling I get as my eyes scan downward, fathoming the depths. Three-Fingered Jack is a treasure for edge lovers. Once up on the solid rock of the pinnacles, every corner turned offers a new spectacle, a new dizzying height to tickle your insides.
As quickly as the wind picked up, it quit. "Somebody pulled the plug on the wind machine," I heard someone say. And suddenly it was our turn in The Crawl. On this traverse, you don't just look over the edge,you climb over it to find a narrow ledge for your toes and you duck under the overhand that curls above your head. As I made my first committed move out onto that ledge, I found a great, tennis-ball sized knob of rock with myright hand. "Oh, perfect!" I said quietly to myself. Putting my trust in it, I was just about to release my other hand when the "tennis ball" crumbled away. "Oh, perfect!" I thought -- this time with a little different inflection. Taking a divot out of my helmet on its way to the moraine far below, that rock didn't help to instill much confidence. It did, however, govern how much trust I put in those bombproof looking holds.
The Crawl is probably only a 5.3 or 5.4 scramble, but the exposure gives a whole new meaning to words like awesome and exhilarating. Even with the use of a fixed-line, I found myself continually questioning the quality of my grip, my state of balance, the traction of my boots against the rock, and, yes, my sanity of being there at all. We crossed without incident, but I am certain that there were at least some raised heart rates.
Emerging from this first crux, a good scramble led up a couple hundred feet more to a slope of rock, fifty or sixty feet below the summit. Surrounded by the several pinnacles that make up the very top of Jack, we waited once again for the climbers ahead of us. We lounged, but this time stripped down to shorts, T-shirts and sunscreen. We chatted, enjoyed the now beautiful weather and again checked out the various precipices. Overall, we spent nearly as much time waiting to climb as we did climbing; but I didn't hear one complaint. Who can complain about perching atop a mountain -- especially with such a beautiful day. To relieve any potential boredom, Jon entertained us with stories about the Lieutenant's red shirt, and the crusty old sailor with a wooden leg, a hook fora hand and an eye patch. Its tough to keep a tight hold on a mountain when you're laughing.
To save time, the final pitch was climbed with a fixed line rather than belaying. Bob led and set up the rope. His high-strength tie-off, literally wound around the top of the peak, brought amusement, as well as a sense of security when the time came to rappel off. Each one in turn climbed the vertical face, cruising up it like the perfect climbing wall -- hand and foot holds everywhere! Climbing this face, up and away from the group of climbers gathered below, each step, each new hold brought increasing concentration and intensity. The sounds offriends just a few feet below were swept away in the focus of the moment. It quickly became a very personal climb.
A five foot diameter knob greets one at the summit. It leaves very little room for maneuvering, so some ventured out across the twenty foot knife-edge that led to what is arguably the true summit. (Maybe five or six inches higher than the rough knob.) I found myself drawn to cross it. My edge addiction was at least momentarily satiated as I crawled carefully across -- fingers clutching the acute knife edge honed sharp by the winds and sands of erosion.
Sitting atop, I found it difficult to relax. There was nothing above. Nothing in front or behind. Nothing off to the sides. There was nothing there to reference, except down -- way down! What an incredible RUSH! And from there, it was, as they say, "all downhill" back to the cars.