5**** Snowcave in the Three Fingers Lookout

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Trip Report
Washington, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Mar 6, 2010
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5**** Snowcave in the Three Fingers Lookout
Created On: Mar 8, 2010
Last Edited On: Dec 18, 2013

A 5-star snowcave!

(Link to trip report from my Sept 2008 overnight at the lookout.)
(March 2010, this trip report.)
An aerial photo I took of the lookout the following winter. Also see the video below, which really puts a winter ascent in perspective!

Video footage I took flying around the snow-encased Three Fingers Lookout on January 3, 2013.

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.

It is my goal to eventually visit all the remaining standing fire lookouts scattered about the mountain ranges of Washington. Click the following link to go to my webpage on fire lookout structures of Washington, which gives a bit of history of fire lookouts as well as a complete listing of the remaining standing lookout structures in the state.

The Route

Topo map of approach via Goat Flats Trail.
(Click on images to enlarge)

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.


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.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.

(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
Cornices near the summit.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
The buried Three Fingers Lookout. The door is below where Dave is in the photo.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
Inside the buried lookout. A 5-star snowcave.
(Compare to Sept 2008)
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.

More on my website

This trip report is copied from my website, which has several other climbing trip reports and photographs from the North Cascades and elsewhere: http://www.stephabegg.com.


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Viewing: 1-5 of 5

Marmaduke - Mar 9, 2010 2:55 am - Voted 10/10

A very Cool Place!

Wow, what a place, it would be great to spend a few days or more there. The tranquilty, the views, the hike, everything about the place is great. Some questions: Can anybody stay there? What is the cost? How is the place heated? Very nice page!!


StephAbegg - Mar 9, 2010 9:17 am - Hasn't voted

Re: A very Cool Place!

The lookout is open and free to anyone who can get up there. Anyone can stay overnight, but it can get "crowded" on a summer weekend sometimes. It is maintained by volunteers and just basically by anyone who goes up there. There are 92 old fire lookouts scattered over WA state (see map on my TR). About half of them are open to the public. It is not heated, and its pretty sparse (you bring all your own overnight gear, stove, sleeping bag, etc) but it is a VERY cool place to stay and wake up in!


Marmaduke - Mar 10, 2010 3:56 am - Voted 10/10

Re: A very Cool Place!

Thanks for the info, hope to make it up there sometime. I have friends in the Seattle area so no excuses. When is it that there is less snow but not to the point where it's too easy for the weekend warrior to be there and all the crowds? Troy


StephAbegg - Mar 26, 2010 8:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: A very Cool Place!

Usually the trail is covered with snow until July. However, this year the trail is already uncovered, so its just a matter of how much snow you want up high, considering slide danger and tricky slopes. Up high, July-Oct should be good for most alpinists.

Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Mar 26, 2010 8:01 pm - Voted 10/10

Your page is..........

quite amazing! It's almost too much to take in, but I tried anyway.
Thanks for letting us have a peek.

Viewing: 1-5 of 5

5**** Snowcave in the Three Fingers Lookout

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