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Josh Lewis and I had been talking about doing Three Fingers together for years, almost since we first met on Summit Post. I remember him telling me about how he can see it from the roof of his house and I kind of got the sense that it was one of his favorite mountains. Since my first ascent of the mountain in 2006, it’s still the most impressive, exposed hike that I know of. To be done without technical difficultly, you need a good weather window some time between late August and October. On a high snow year like this one, August may be too early. With the amount of snowfall in this part of the Cascades, Three Fingers is a late bloomer for sure.
I called Josh on the evening of September 12th and told him that I thought this was our chance and “could he be ready early the next morning?” To my surprise and delight he asked if we could “go tonight?” I always enjoy a good night hike and soon enough we were on our way to the trailhead. After navigating the deep potholes in Forest Service Road # 41 we reached Tupso Pass at 10pm. To my dismay I discovered that one side of the belt buckle on my pack had fallen off at home and also that Josh forgot his headlamp. I did my best to attach my load to my waist and Josh did his best to remember what the ground looked like in front of him as my own light passed over it. This may sound like an easy task but the Three Fingers trail is not maintained. The first several miles are a mixture of rocky, muddy streams that have adopted the trail as their own. The ground has been so eroded that many tree roots are floating in the air right at ankle or knee level. Somehow Josh navigated this gauntlet with only one stumble and nothing serious.
At 2.5 miles we reached Horseshoe Lake and it was nearing midnight. We were both feeling tired and decided that this would be our bivy spot. We searched the area around lakeshore but everything was soft mud. The whole top layer of soil between here and the car had been mud. I’ve seen this kind of thing before when snow has just recently melted off. I found one spot next to a snow patch where the dirt seemed solid enough to lay our gear down. Not the kind of spot I would usually pick but it would have to do. We rounded up all our grub and sweet smelling stuff into a sack and using my camera case cord I threw it up into a tree branch and tied it off. We didn’t feel like sharing our food supply with other animals, large or small. Goodnight.
It was cold in the morning, even in a 17 degree Fahrenheit bag. Breakfast was oatmeal with brown sugar, scones from Starbucks, and dehydrated strawberries. We left our sleeping stuff at the lake and didn’t take long to start moving again. Soon we entered the lower meadows with their alpine grasses and flowers and blueberry bushes. These natural gardens are riddled with small tarns and trickling streams. I noticed that somebody had been eating good. It looked like a bear had settled in this area because there were many large piles of dung scattered around. This must be the same bear somebody had reported seeing the day before. We kept our eyes peeled but didn’t see it. We reached the first vista facing north and there was my old friend Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters range.
As we came into Goat Flats at mile 5, the mosquitoes were getting thick so we stopped to put on repellant and continued on. I saw one tent and asked the occupant if he was planning for the summit. He told me Goat Flats was the end of the road for him this time. Beyond Goat Flats there’s a nice traverse over to the slope that leads up to the ridge top and Tin Pan Gap. This slope faces south and there is a view of Mount Pilchuck and Rainier if it is clear enough. I remembered that on my first trip this slope had been a wash of fall colors; red, yellow, and orange but today, a month earlier it was still green and loaded with lupine and other flowers. At one point Josh and I stopped in a thick patch of lupine and listened to the air buzz around us with the sound of hundreds of bees. What a happy sound. I could have spent an hour in a spot like that but it was not quite hypnotizing enough to push the though of the summit out of our minds so we continued on.
Around the bend we could see Tin Pan Gap above and after another traverse over melting snow patches and a few switchbacks we were at the top of the ridge. From the gap we had our first intimate view of the Queest Alb Glacier stretching out below us and leading over to the North and South summit towers and the shorter one in between. After 6 miles, the lookout hut still looks incredibly far away but we didn’t think about that because this is when the route gets really interesting. The ridge between the summit and Goat Flats runs East-West and is extremely exposed in most spots. Part of the way it follows a trail but at times it is covered with snow. There is one fixed rope in a gully but for the most part you are left to your own choices and abilities.
At the first airy snow traverse I decided to give it a try. I told josh to wait while I tested the snow without crampons. I did have a couple sets in my pack but really only brought them as a backup. This was not the kind of terrain for Josh to learn how to use them. With the first step I found that what looked like snow was actually frozen solid ice without any traction. A fall on the slope would only have one chance for a proper arrest and could prove fatal. I backed off and reassessed our options. We could drop down into the bowl of the upper Queest Alb glacier. But I don’t like glacier travel un-roped even if most of the crevasses are open and visible.
I decided we should enter the moat where the top of the glacier had melted away from the rock wall. A fall there would be sheltered from the long drop by the snow-wall and would be less serious. So we moved higher and found the slot. On one side we had the slippery wet rock wall and on the other, slippery snow. Moving slowly and using our axes as a mobile handhold on the snow side, we had fun with it. We found the gully with the fixed rope and beyond that a catwalk with a drop on either side.
We crossed plentiful piles of talus and here the route turns more towards the north as it switches up into the final stretch. We ascended the permanent snowfield, which I felt was large enough at this time of the year to justify putting on my glacier goggles. At the top of the snowfield we scrambled up the fissures in the rock, an easy class 3 and then it was just a few paces to the base of the ladders. I remember my terror of the ladders on the first trip. I had agonized over pictures and descriptions I had encountered while planning. It’s true that I’m not as comfortable with exposure as some. But as I’ve learned, each exposed experience pushes the fear barrier back a little farther. There are three old wooden ladders that lead to the summit lookout hut. They look haphazard but in truth they are solid and well attached.
The distance between the top of the second and the third ladder is several feet and there is a bit of a gap to navigate through. This is where I made my mistake one the first trip. I had stashed my poles sideways on the back of my pack and so in the height of my fear, while leaving the second ladder for the third, they stuck on the rocks on either side, holding me fast. I looked down 400 feet at the glacier, another mistake. I knew that if I fell here there would be no stopping in the steep couloir at the base of the ladders. After a tense moment I let go with one had and reached around to yank my poles free.
Nothing quite as exciting as that memory happened this time. Without fear clouding my thoughts I found the ladders to be easy and in a moment Josh and I were on the summit.
He reached it first and I heard his shout for joy echo on the rock walls around me. It was a special moment for us. One we had been wanting for a couple of years. And the view! So many familiar peaks I have had the pleasure of knowing and beyond them, others I am not familiar with yet. But may be in the future... One can go on dreaming and it’s easy in a place like the summit of Three Fingers. After a few minutes on the top a small private jet flew past very near to the hut. I waved at the pilot and he saw me. Then he came around for one more pass even closer, only a few hundred feet from where we stood. There was one other man on the summit, a quiet fellow. He had spent the previous night up there and would spend the following one as well. He told me he was on the way home from a summer in Denali National Park. We chatted about Alaska and Josh did his thing with his camera. He’s a nut for photography. We signed the summit register and it was surprising how few pages were filled in between today’s date and where I signed it two years ago.
Below the ladders we had a nice glissade side by side on the snowfield. The ridge didn’t present any difficulties this time since our route was freshly familiar to us. I noticed a ptarmigan on the trail, acting strange, almost trying to get us to see her with her soft cooing noises. I looked back the way she had come and saw her two young holding still and silent. Back at Goat Flats the day was winding down so we pushed ourselves back to the lake. We reached it just before dusk and the mosquitoes were on us again this time more persistent. I was impressed with Josh’s positive attitude. Any other 15 year old would be complaining by now, but not him. We packed up our gear and set out on the last leg of the journey. The last couple of miles were hard for me and may be him too but if so he didn’t say anything. I don’t care what anyone says, 4000 feet of elevation change and 15 miles in one day is a lot. I recorded the route
with my GPS. It is available for download and especially interesting if viewed in Google Earth
. By the time we got back to the car I was tired. But oh what a day! This was a trip we both won’t forget.
Josh made a trip report
also, posted on NWHikers.net