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John Guilford's Hikes

Three Fingers on 2003-09-03/04

Date: 2003-09-03/04

Location: Three Fingers

People: (including myself): Glenn Engel, Dave Rasmussen (Mike Riley, Brian Barton)

			Alt.	Miles
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. 

[ PIX1 ] 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. 

[ PIX2 ] 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. 

[ PIX3 ] 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. 

[ PIX4 ] 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. 

[ PIX5 ] 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 start melting. 

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 water ahead. 

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. 

[ PIX6 ] [ PIX7 ] 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. 

[ PIX8 ] 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 the rocks. 

[ PIX9 ] [ PIXd ] 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. 

[ PIXb ] After dinner we hung out for a while watching the sunset, watching the lights 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. 

[ PIXc ] 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 couple pikas.

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. 

[ PIXe ] 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 water. 


[ PIX1 ] Reflection in Saddle Lake. 

[ PIX2 ] Glenn looking at Goat Flats. 

[ PIX3 ] Traverse on far side of ridge from Goat Flats.  Trail is visible as a diagonal line in picture center. 

[ PIX4 ] View of glaciers and the lookout (faintly visible at center left). 

[ PIX5 ] Dave crossing the icy snow finger.  Note how little his foot digs in.  John is behind with the bagel. 

[ PIX6 ] 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. 

[ PIX7 ] Dave and John from the point of view of the previous picture. 

[ PIX8 ] Dave (below) and John on the rock scramble below the ladders. 

[ PIX9 ] 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. 

[ PIXa ] View down the east face of Three Fingers looking into the Squire Creek basin. 

[ PIXb ] Sunset from the lookout. 

[ PIXc ] View of Mt. Baker under the morning's whispy clouds. 

[ PIXd ] 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. 

[ PIXe ] 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