A 5-star snowcave!
(Link to trip report from my Sept 2008 overnight at the lookout.)
(March 2010, this trip report.)
The Three Fingers Lookout
THE LOOKOUT: When Darrington District Ranger Harold J. Engles and trail foreman Harry Bedal decided to construct a lookout in 1931, they picked a high rock spire overlooking thousands of acres of old-growth timber on the Snoqualmie National Forest to the east of Seattle, Washington. This high rock spire was the south peak of Three Fingers. All the materials for this gabled L-4 cab had to be lifted the last 1,000 feet via a windlass made from telephone wire. The top 15 ft of the summit block was blasted to make room for the fire lookout cabin. The only way to get up to the lookout was (and still is) via a series of ladders on the final exposed summit perch.
The Three Fingers Lookout was staffed for only ten years and abandoned in 1943. It was restored in the 1980s, and is maintained by volunteer hikers and kept open to any hikers who can get there. It is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register.
TRAILHEAD: Three Fingers/Goat Flats/Saddle Lake Trail No. 641. To get to the trail, drive 17 miles up the Tupso Pass Rd. No 41, which branches left off the Mountain Loop HWY 6.5 miles east of Granite Falls (the turnoff is unmarked until a small HWY 41 sign about 100ft down the road, so make sure to pay attention!)
ROUND-TRIP DISTANCE: 16 miles if you are luckly enough to start at the trailhead
TIME: On this winter trip, getting up to the lookout took about 7-8 hours at a mellow pace and a few short breaks. On my summer 2008 hike to the lookout, it took us a little under 5 hours to get to the lookout. The descent times were about equivalent to the ascent times.
TRAILHEAD ELEVATION: 3,020 feet
SUMMIT ELEVATION: 6,854 feet (used to be 6,870 ft before 15 feet were blasted in 1931 to make room for the fire lookout cabin).
NOTE: Goat Flats and the lookout are quite popular, especially in the fall when the route becomes more straightforward. If you want to spend a night alone in the lookout, your best bet is to go midweek (or in the winter!).
(Click on images to enlarge)
Earlier in the winter I had found the Winchester Fire Lookout to be the perfect place to not study for a midterm. So, with finals looming, I decided to head to the Three Fingers Fire Lookout on the summit of Three Fingers in order to perfect my studying techniques.
In the wintertime, this summertime hike becomes an advanced mountaineering challenge, including many dangerous snow slopes and digging through about 5 feet of hard snow to reach the door of the lookout, which is buried under an impressive coating of rime. Most years, it would not even be feasible to reach the lookout in the winter, as the 17 mile dirt road to the trailhead would be buried under snow (I suppose you could skin up it, but that's adding quite a lot of mileage to the trip). The winter of 2010 was definitely the winter to attempt the Three Fingers Lookout, as the unusually high snow line kept many approach roads free of snow to the trailheads.
Below is a series of photos from my overnight adventure with Dave Chase to the 5-star snowcave on the summit of Three Fingers. I've given some comparison shots from my hike to the lookout in Sept 2008 to show how the conditions are wildy different in the winter.
|Saddle Lake, 2.5 mi up the trail.|
|View of Three Fingers from Goat Flats.|
|Trees at Goat Flats.|
|The route follows this ridge above Goat Flats until it steepens, and then heads right to traverse a south-facing slope.|
|We crossed a lot of wet slides. Most of these slides had happened the day before, which had also been uncharacteristically warm.|
|Track of a rolling rock.|
|Dave on the traverse between Goat Flats and Tin Can Gap.|
|Dave traversing towards Tin Can Gap. The south facing slopes were a bit soft, and there were several wet slides that had occurred, but a week of fair weather had consolidated the slopes enough that slide potential was low. Slide potential is definitely something you have to consider in spring-like conditions such as these.|
|The view of Three Fingers as seen from Tin Can Gap. The photo on the left shows a route overlay for the possible approaches from here (on glacier if enough snow, or on ridge above if late summer).|
I was a bit concerned about crossing the steepish north-facing slopes due to avy potential, and we actually turned back at one point and descended around one of the first upper slopes since I just didn't have a good feeling about it (it was pretty wind-loaded). But most of the north-facing slopes had already slid, and the snow conditions were feeling stable, and certainly less sloppy than the south-facing slopes we had just crossed, so we felt the risk was worth taking.
|A cool cornice above Tin Can Gap.|
|Another cool cornice above Tin Can Gap.|
|Sun and snow.|
|Traversing the upper Queest-Alb Glacier. Tin Can Gap is in the background.|
|Dave in a cool wind-formed valley on the upper Queest-Alb Glacier.|
|Looking back at the traverse across Queest-Alb Glacier. We chose a high route, but depending on snow conditions it might be easier to drop lower on the Queest-Alb Glacier.|
|Zig-zagging up and up.|
|The final slope to the lookout.|
|Cornices near the summit.|
|In the summer the lookout can only be reached by a series of ladders. The ladder gullies were full of snow, so we just climbed up steep snow to the lookout. This photo is taken looking down where the ladders are.|
|The buried Three Fingers Lookout. The door is below where Dave is in the photo.|
|I wouldn't let Dave have the shovel, I was having too much fun reliving my snowfort building days.|
|It took only an hour to dig ourselves to the door. It probably would have taken a bit longer, but some skiers had been at the lookout 4 weeks previous so the snow in this area was not as compact as it could have been.|
|What a place to not study!|
|The summit of Three Fingers has a unique 360° view: Mt. Baker to the north, Glacier Peak to the east, Mt. Rainier to the south, and the Puget Sound and Olympics to the west.|
|Alpenglow on the buried lookout.|
|Alpenglow on the slopes below. Note all the wet slides from the warm weather.|
|Inside the buried lookout. A 5-star snowcave.|
|How we got in. Fortunately, the shutter over the door on the lookout does not go all the way to the ground.|
|An "Osborne Firefinder", an instrument that would aid the firefinder in plotting the exact location of a spotted fire on a map.|
|Cooking dinner by candlelight.|
|Hot chocolate "with marshmallows."|
|City lights below. I didn't do much night photography, since clouds moved in overnight, and the lookout was cozier than the steep precipices on all sides|
|Rime on my ice axe the next morning.|
|Traversing the upper Queest-Alb Glacier in a whiteout on the way out the next day. Our tracks from the day before had been obscured by the wind, but we made sure to maintain the relatively level traverse we had made the day before, as well as note certain landmarks (like the wind-sculpted valley) along the way to keep ourselves oriented. You can quickly get lost on this sort of terrain in a whiteout, so it pays to pay attention on the approach.|
|Nice stratus cloud layer above 5200ft. See my cloud page for more photos of clouds.|
|Takes about 20 seconds of this and I am already planning my next escape into the mountains.|