John Guilford's Hikes
Three Fingers on 2003-09-03/04
People: (including myself): Glenn Engel, Dave Rasmussen (Mike Riley, Brian Barton)
Start: 9:45am 3020 0
Saddle Lake: 11:30 3771 2.3
Goat Flats: 1:30 5000 4.5
Tin Can Gap: 3:10 5740 6
Lookout: 6:00pm 6854 7
Leave Lookout: 8:00am
Tin Can Gap: 9:30
Goat Flats: 10:30
Saddle Lake: 12:00
Down: 1:30 14
This hike/climb spans the gamut from old growth trees, to berry covered
meadows, to barren rocky hillsides, to snow fields and glaciers, to a rock
scramble with ladders.
Though I've been up to the lookout on Three Fingers a couple times
before, this was the first time I planned to spend the night at the
lookout. We started off with a party of five. Three of us were going for
the night, while two of us, Mike Riley and Brian Barton, were going for a
day hike. The two day hikers quickly outpaced us overnighters, and we lost
them from view. We only saw them again near Tin Can Gap when they were
heading down and we were heading up.
The day was hot and sunny, unusually hot after a extra dry summer.
One of our concerns was finding water near the lookout. I drank 1/2 liter
at the trail head, and I drank heavily on the way up to Saddle Lake. There
we replenished our water as that was the last sure source of water before
the lookout (short of melting ice). It turns out that our fears were
groundless as we found plenty of liquid water nearer the lookout as the
snow fields melted in the warm day. The temperature ranged from about 70 to
near 80, though in the unrelenting sun, it felt considerably warmer.
Due to the dry summer, we elected to go without gaiters and without
ice axes. Leaving the ice axes behind was probably a mistake as the dry
conditions, instead of leaving the way clearer, meant that the snow we had
to cross was icier than on my previous climbs. Ice axes wouldn't have made
the footing better, but it would have provided greater safety in the event
of a slip.
The trail up from the trail head to Saddle Lake isn't nearly as nice as
the Blanca Lake trail that I had gone on a couple days earlier. This trail
is rocky in places and rooty in others. That meant that one had to
concentrate of their footing which made enjoying the surrounding scenery
more difficult. The trail first climbs, then eases to a more level
stretch, before climbing again to Saddle Lake.
From Saddle Lake, where I ate half a bagel and we applied sun screen,
the trail enters more open meadows. It still climbs, however, and you pass
through alternating climbs and more level meadows. We found quite a few
blueberry/huckleberry bushes loaded with little, tart berries. We were
beginning to feel the sun now that we were more exposed.
Continuing on, the trail makes another climb up to another plateau
(though the trail always is climbing) past Columbine and Nobel lakes. The
trail then climbs up onto Goat Flats. Here there is a pit toilet.
Numerous trails are worn into the meadows here. One should stay on them as
much as possible due to the beating that Goat Flats has had from overuse.
We rested here, had a snack (an apple in my case), and used the facilities.
After Goat Flats, the trail crosses over to the south side of the ridge and
begins a climbing traverse eventually ending in a couple of switchbacks to
Tin Can Gap. Here the terrain is more rocky and severe. This seemed like
prime marmot territory, but we didn't see nor hear a single marmot.
However, the next day when we came down, we saw plenty of marmots. They
must have been sleeping during the heat of the day when we went up.
Near Tin Can Gap (where I ate another half bagel), we ran into Mike and
Brian coming down. They were setting a really good pace, especially
compared to us, and got back out about 6:30, not too far from the time we
got to the lookout.
At Tin Can Gap we came across the first snow field we had to cross. It
was only fifteen feet wide, but it was somewhat icy so you could only kick
steps in about a half inch to an inch. It wasn't bad, but one had to
wonder what it would be like the next day when it hadn't had all day to
Just past Tin Can Gap, we found water running down the middle of the
trail. Not knowing what we'd find further on, we decided to refill water
bottles here. This was a tedious process. Glenn fashioned a little
fountain using his spoon which made it easier. After the bottles were
filled, we continued on. Of course, ten yards up the trail we found a much
better source for water. We dumped our somewhat silty bottles and refilled
from here. Another ten yards further, we found an even better source. All
in all, we found great sources of water until we neared the lookout.
However, it was still prudent to fill up earlier as we couldn't count on
As we climbed, we felt the heat and the altitude. The once saving
grace was that as we were spending the night at the lookout, we didn't have
to budget time for getting back down. We could take our time to get to the
lookout. We only had to be there by dark.
After Tin Can Gap, the trail runs along the ridge line, sometimes on
one side, sometimes on the other. At one point one has the option of going
around on the left over a steep snow field or climbing over the top of the
ridge and avoiding the snow. If the snow conditions warrant it, it is
easier to go over the snow, which is what I did on my 1989 climb. Today,
due to the icier conditions, we elected to go right and over the rock
ridge, climbing down the moat between the snow field and the ridge rock.
The trail finally switchbacks up and gets to a
second snow field. We crossed this and then started scrambling up a rocky
slope. It turns out that one could ascend the rocks
just above the snow field and
skip the snow field entirely. We came out that way.
But from below, it seemed the
trail led across the snow.
After scrambling and switchbacking up through the rocks, we reached
the final snow field below the lookout. There is no alternative, one must
climb this to get to the summit. It wasn't too bad. It was icy in spots,
but we could kick in steps and be reasonably secure. At the top of the
snow field is a couple more switchbacks then the trail curves around the left
side of the promontory and one sees the three infamous ladders and
the lookout itself. It was a bit tricky crossing from the second to the
third ladder with a full pack on as the pack tended to get jammed between
Finally! We reached the lookout. After opening some of the shutters
and some of the windows to air the place out, we settled in a bit. Inside
the lookout was an "operating procedures" brochure. Among other things, it
included directions for the latrine, which had to be among the most unique
ones I've seen. Since the lookout is on solid rock, you can't dig a
latrine. Instead, you climb down the topmost ladder, go out on a rocky
ledge. After you're through, you pitch the rock with the waste over the
side and let the "glacier composter" take care of it.
After we settled in, we started boiling water using Glenn's and
Dave's home made alcohol stoves. Soon we had hot water and made dinner
from freeze dried foods. I had brought two 2-person meals. To my
surprise, we couldn't finish them. I had thought that their serving
recommendation was optimistic, but I guess it isn't too far off.
After dinner we hung out for a while watching the sunset, watching
of Everett, Marysville, and Jim Creek turn on, took some photos, and got
ready for bed.
Thinking I might arrive early enough to get bored, I had brought along
a book to read, but neither I nor Glenn, who also brought a book,
ever got around to reading.
I did get a chance to look through the log book kept in the lookout.
I was somewhat surprised when I quickly happened upon the entry from my
climb in 1998.
We hit the sack a bit after 9. I had trouble getting to sleep. My
down bag was way too warm for the conditions. Furthermore, one could hear
the wind whistling around the lookout (it seemed to have picked up), and
then one of the shutters started creaking. This went on for an hour or so
before Glenn got tired of it and got up to close the shutter. We all ended
up getting up. To my surprise, when I went outside, there was just the
gentlest of breezes. I had thought it would be pretty windy based on the
noise when trying to sleep. I guess the lookout just sounds that way.
The next morning we got up about 6:30, heated water for breakfast
(one packet of oatmeal in my case), packed up our stuff, closed up the
lookout, and started down about 8. The morning was a bit cooler, so I wore
my fleece jacket during breakfast, but I stripped out of it before heading
down, and stripped to one shirt soon thereafter. The sky was cloudy but it
looked like it would burn off soon.
Coming down the ladders with the pack wasn't as tricky as I had feared
it would be. We found the summit snow field icier than it has been the
previous afternoon. Glenn had a pair of strap-on instep (four point)
crampons. Glenn took one and I took the other. Dave just headed down the
snow field, eventually doing a sitting glissade to the bottom. I preferred
to carefully step down. The footing was interesting. I had to step flat
footed with the foot that had the crampon whereas I had to dig the edge of
my other foot into the snow.
Soon after getting off the snow field, we found a good source of melt
water and proceeded to refill and treat our water bottles. As we were
heading down and I knew there were other sources of water ahead, I only
filled 2L instead of the 3 I carried up.
I half expected some of the looser rock to be trickier coming down
than it had been going up, but that proved not to be the case. Needless to
say, we made better time going down.
The finger of snow near Tin Can Gap that we had to cross was a bit
trickier. The first two thirds of it wasn't bad, but the last step or two
were pretty icy. I crossed the last bit with a pole belay from Glenn.
By now the sun had broken out and the day turned sunny again. On the
long traverse before reaching Goat Flats, we found a fair number of marmots
completely unlike the day before when we had seen none. We also heard a
Despite the earlier forecast for a cooler day on Thursday, it seemed
it was going to be as hot as Wednesday. However, going down hill, it
wasn't as much of an issue.
We took a break at Goat Flats. Up till now, we'd been using trekking
poles (except for the final rock scramble near the lookout). On the way down
they weren't as much use and at Goat Flats we backed them up and continued
down without them. As usual, the
final stage of the hike, in this case the part from Virgin Lake to the
trail head, seemed to extend on interminably. On this stretch, the rocks
and roots prevented us from making appreciably better time than we had on
the way up.
It was a delightful hike. It was the first time I ever slept at a
summit. It was different climbing Three Fingers with an overnight in
mind. On the plus side, the lack of time pressure (as we only had to get
to the lookout by dark) was a good thing. The down side was having to
carry more stuff. I'm not sure if I prefer doing it as a day hike or as an
overnighter. I guess it would depend on my mood.
Things I'd do differently: knowing what I know now, I would have
brought the ice axe along, just for the added measure of safety on the icy
snow patches we had to cross. Knowing we'd have good supply of water
nearer the lookout, I would have drank more on the ascent to Goat Flats and
Tin Can Gap. I think I let myself get a bit dehydrated trying to conserve
Reflection in Saddle Lake.
Glenn looking at Goat Flats.
Traverse on far side of ridge from Goat Flats. Trail is visible as a
diagonal line in picture center.
View of glaciers and the lookout (faintly visible at center left).
Dave crossing the icy snow finger. Note how little his foot digs in.
John is behind with the bagel.
Ridge route. Glenn is the little white dot above the right side snow
patch. The trail leads from the bottom right of picture behind the snow
patch and up and over the ridge on the left. Note: Glenn is taking the
next picture from this spot.
Dave and John from the point of view of the previous picture.
Dave (below) and John on the rock scramble below the ladders.
Ladders to the lookout. Dave just crossed from the bottom to the
middle ladder. John is on the rock between the middle and top ladders.
View down the east face of Three Fingers looking into the Squire Creek
Sunset from the lookout.
View of Mt. Baker under the morning's whispy clouds.
The lookout viewed from the east. The only way to get to that side of
the lookout is by going out the window with the steps.
John at Saddle Lake on the way down.
For my notes: weight of pack at start with sleeping bag,
thermorest, shirt, socks, fleece jacket, food (2 dual freeze dried, 3
apples, 4 bagels, 2 oatmeal), and 3L of water: 26 pounds. At end, it
weighed 21 pounds with a half L of water. Food consumed: half bagel at
Virgin Lake, apple at Goat Flats, half bagel at Tin Can Gap, half of a
freeze dried dinner at the lookout, one oatmeal for breakfast, an apple at
Goat Flats, and a half bagel at the trail head (plus some snacks of
sunflower seeds and craisons).
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Last updated on: Mon Jun 8 16:50:16 PDT 2015