Round Trip Distance: 16 miles
Summit elevation: 6,870 feet
Cumulative Vertical Gain: 4,000+ feet
It was foolish to be doing what I was doing. I did not have crampons or an ice axe. Richard and I had just left Goat Flats and the trail had gone from a rocky alpine trail onto a 40-degree slope of ice that had to be traversed. The sheet of ice ended with a vertical cliff of several hundred feet. With the right equipment, it was sketchy but passable. Without the proper tools, attempting to cross it would be deadly stupid. We retreated to the trail and scrambled the loose rock slope to a narrow moat-like gap between the top of the glacier and the rock. We kicked and clawed our way through that moat, staying below the slippery surface on the top side of the glacier. Eventually, we emerged onto a long, open, and gently ascending snowfield. We crossed the snowfield, scrambled the ridge, ascended the ladders, and pulled ourselves to the summit cabin where we beheld the most spectacular views we had ever witnessed. Surrounded by the countless peaks of the North Cascades I stood gaping at the 360-degree panorama from the lookout windows. The sunset was spectacular as the mountains cast their shadows across the landscape and the city lights grew brighter, reminding us of the other world that was far below us. Our cabin stood on the edge of a 2000 foot sheer rock face. The illumination of the Milky Way Galaxy grew brighter and brighter. There was no wind and no sound in the cold night air. We prepared a delicious dinner and rested on top of the world. Getting there had been worth the foolishness, although I vowed to purchase the right gear before ever doing this again.
This was the climb that ignited in me a passion for alpine scrambles.
Alpine scrambles are climbs that do not require ropes. The most important thing for safety while scrambling is staying on the correct route. There are incredibly exposed mountain summits that can be accessed this way, but if one gets off course, it can become deadly dangerous.
As my passion for competitive distance running waned, I merged my love for trail running with the thrill of climbing. I found that I could summit a distant peak in a fraction of the time it would “normally” take. It was undoubtedly the most hazardous of my hobbies.
Three Fingers is arguably the most spectacular fire lookout in the United States. It was constructed in the early 1930s, a feat that required blasting off the top of the mountain, blasting a trail, and constructing a tram to transport the materials to the summit. The lookout was staffed between 1933 and 1940. To reach the summit one must cross a glacier, climb three wooden ladders, and a rope. Much of the trail is covered in snow until July, making ice axes and crampons necessary. Rumor has it that a fire spotter assigned to the lookout once suffered from vertigo so badly that he had to be carried off the mountain.
Sleeping in the cabin gives a person a secure feeling in spite of the precariousness of being on top of a tiny mountain peak. While inside you feel like you are hovering in a helicopter above the North Cascades. Endless peaks are scattered to the North, South, and East. Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, and Mount Rainier are the big ones jutting towards the sky from the land below. To the West is the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. The sunsets, the sunrises, and stargazing, are awe-inspiring.
While it is free to spend the night in the cabin, it will cost you a great deal of effort and courage. It is first come first serve if you hope to actually sleep inside. Fire watching equipment and relics from the past 75 years remain in the cabin and bring past adventures into the present.
I shared my excitement over this climb with my close friends, Nate and Bob. They were not mountain climbers or extreme athletes, and Nate’s lifestyle at the time was not especially active. I knew it would be a stretch for both of them. This is not an easy hike for anyone, but I was convinced these guys could do it and the experience would be unforgettable.
I may have misrepresented the difficulty of the hike when I invited them along. As Nate later said, “I thought we were going on a hike, not a flipping mountain climb.”
Here are some photos from one of my climbs up Three Fingers mountain. https://link.shutterfly.com/5cjQmmh4kbb You get the picture? This is not your average hike.
It was the middle of summer and we planned to do the climb on Sunday, after church, returning on Monday. We would have to push hard to summit before darkness.
The church service went long, and I was detained by parishioners with important prayer requests regarding ranging from international politics to a painful, ingrown toenail. At 1:15 p.m., we gathered at my truck in the church parking lot. I noticed that Bob and Nate were both wearing low ankle hiking shoes. I recalled the loose scree, talus, and glaciers we would be crossing while carrying backpacks. “Is that what you’re wearing?” I asked.
“Obviously,” replied Bob.
“Oh. Well if there ever was a hike where I would want ankle support, this is that hike. But you’ll probably be fine.”
I reached into my pockets to get my keys to unlock my truck, but my pockets were empty. I had a sinking feeling as I frantically went through the small bag containing my laptop. I could not find my keys. Peering through the driver’s side window, I spotted them in the console on the floor between the front seats.
“Do you have a hide-a-key or a spare anywhere?” asked Nate.
“Does Heidi have an extra key we could use?”
“Do you have AAA?”
“No. But if I can find a wire hanger, I can get into this truck!”
I ran back into the church building and ransacked the custodial closet, the lost and found, and under the bathroom sinks.
“Eureka!” I shouted triumphantly, “They still make wire hangers after all.”
Racing back my truck I began the process of frantic bending, twisting, looping, and reaching for the driver’s door handle with the wire hanger jammed between the edge of the window and the door. I cautiously slipped the loop around the tip of the door handle, only to have it slip off, again and again. The wire hanger dug into the red paint along the door of my truck, scratches deepening along with my feelings of frustration.
One hour later, after suppressing countless expletives, the loop around the handle held fast, and the door unlocked. I glanced at my watch nervously as we piled into the truck and began the drive. Racing against the pending darkness I was fully aware of the significance of a one-hour delay. It represents the time it takes to climb a couple of miles.
The drive seemed exceedingly long that day, especially the final 18 miles over a washboard pot holed Forest Service Road. By the time we arrived at the trailhead, the sun was already getting low on the horizon and the air felt cool.
The first 2.5 miles took us on a gradual climb up to Saddle Lake. We avoided mud puddles, stepped over exposed tree roots, and made steady progress, filling our lungs with air scented by the pine trees and the rich vegetation. Saddle Lake was serene and looked like a great place to camp. It was completely unoccupied.
A fast hiking pace over terrain will cover at least 20 minutes each mile, but as I looked at my watch, I realized we were only making 30 minutes per mile, and the steeper and more technical sections were still ahead. We had 5.5 miles to go, some of which was over a glacier. My favorite part of any climb is in the alpine area, above the tree line.
I urged my friends to get moving, feeling deeply concerned over the rapidly approaching dusk. We zig-zagged our way through the trees and brush before leaving the tree line and entering the open terrain of Goat Flats. We caught a glimpse of the lookout, still 1200 feet above us, looking like an unnatural tiny box balanced on an enormous ballast.
The sun descended below the horizon covering the mountain and the snowfields with a dark pink glow. The sky grew darker and darker with every minute.
As we approached the exposed ridgeline of Tin Pan Gap, I pushed Bob and Nate along. They were laboring, but I did not care. “Hurry up! We only have two miles to go. If you go fast, we can be in the cabin in less than an hour!” We needed to make it to the lookout, where we would have shelter, cots, and comfort. We donned our headlamps and pressed forward as the sky grew darker and the stars grew brighter. Nate and Bob looked at me vacantly, willing their feet to keep moving.
It was difficult to see the trail. In rocky alpine areas, climbers rely on stacks of rocks called cairns to know which way to go. There are no worn paths or clear trails. Twice, I mistakenly led our group off the trail towards an impassible drop-off, before backtracking and regaining the correct route. Bob and Nate looked at me with eyes that expressed nervous uncertainty and concern.
Soon I could nothing beyond the small beam of my headlamp, and we were still 1000 feet below the summit. The trail in front of me fizzled out into a maze of darkness scattered with rocks, snow patches, and the sheer cliff above the Queest-Alb glacier. I was not sure where the trail had gone. I stopped abruptly.
“You two stay put. I need to find the trail.”
Bob and Nate stood frozen on the rocky ledge as I scrambled around, looking for our trail in the dark.
“Matt?! Don’t leave us Matt! Be careful!” they shouted after me as I scrambled around looking for the trail while avoiding the cliffs and loose rock. I climbed over ledges. I retreated from impassible walls of granite. I felt panic and frustration.
I could not find the trail, and we still had a long way to go to get to the summit. We had no choice, but to spend the night where we were. I had not planned to spend the night under the stars, but I had brought a one-man tent along, and we all had sleeping bags.
We found a flat space on a ledge above a cliff that cascaded down to the glacier. I am not a real touchy-feely kind of a guy, so I told Bob and Nate that they were welcome to squeeze into the one-man tent. I was content to sleep under the stars in my sleeping bag along with a bivvy sack I had brought. We put the tent together, ate our dry snacks, and gazed at the stars with disappointment, uncertainty, and awe.
That night I had a dream that I was rolling over in my sleeping bag, being pulled downward by gravity, and helplessly tumbling down the cliff, falling onto the icy glacier, and sliding uncontrollably towards my anticipated doom. Waking up, breathless, I realized it was only a dream. I fell back asleep, only to have the dream repeat itself.
It was a long night with very intermittent sleep. I felt relief when the black sky began to brighten on the Eastern horizon.
Awkwardly, Bob and Nate crawled from the one-man tent. Bob gazed at the edge of the cliff, just twenty feet away.
“Guess you guys will have to get married now,” I joked. They didn’t laugh.
“Do you know what I dreamt last night?” Nate asked.
“That you were falling off that cliff?” I responded.
“How did you know?”
“Great minds think alike.”
I glanced at my watch, wondering if we should make a run for the summit, or return to the trailhead. Now that it was light, I left our campsite in the direction where I assumed the trail would be. Quickly I located it just a short distance away. I rushed back.
“We can leave our tent and sleeping bags here, go light, and still make the summit. We will pick up our things on the way down. I think we’ll be fine.” I announced persuasively.
Neither Bob nor Nate looked convinced, but I knew that the most spectacular parts of this climb were just ahead. We had not come this far to turn around now. Unenthusiastically, they gathered up their necessities and with sore legs, continued the ascent.
We walked the spine like trail along the exposed ridge of Tin Pan Gap. The views were breathtaking. Rounding the corner, we entered a long, steep snowfield. Here we used our ice axes and carefully kicked footholds in the snow. It was a difficult and slow process, but we kept going. The lookout at the summit looked impossible to reach but it grew a little bit larger with the passing hours.
Exiting the snowfield, the trail resumed and took us along exposed cliffs, causing our hearts to race with adrenaline. Finally, we saw the first wooden ladder.
“Messner. I thought this was supposed to be a hike. This not a hike. Are you trying to kill us?” Nate asked with all sincerity. He gazed up the old wooden ladder with its splintering steps.
“You have made it this far. Isn’t this amazing? You’re almost there. You should be fine,” was my response.
Turns out, “You should be fine” was not enough assurance for either Bob or Nate. There was some doubt in the word “should” and that expressed a potentially deadly risk. “You should be fine” became a joke to Nate and Bob as I unconvincingly pushed them along.
“I will go first,” I volunteered.
We climbed the ladder. A rusted metal spike was the only thing holding it to the side of the granite cliff. I examined it as I climbed, concluding that if it had held this long, it should hold today. We regrouped on the ledge above the ladder, our hearts were racing with exertion and the dizzying cliffs that surrounded us. The next ladder took us across a gap at a 50-degree angle.
We slowly made it to the last ladder. Grasping the rungs tightly, I was careful not to look down. At the top of the ladder there was a thick old rope with knots in it. It was there to help us get to the summit. By now the sun was bright and sweat was pouring down our faces and into our eyes.
“Matt, will that rope hold us? It looks like it could break?”
“Looks pretty sturdy. You should be fine.”
Grabbing the rope, I made the steep scramble to the summit, and I waited. Next up the rope, was Bob. And then Nate. We crawled away from the edge to the flat area in front of the cabin door.
Looking around, we were truly on top of the world, surrounded by breathtaking views of mountains, valleys, and rivers. To our west was the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. To the North was Mount Baker. To the south, was Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood. We stood in awe, smiles on our faces, exchanging high fives, and hugs.
I opened the old door of the lookout, which was unoccupied. Apparently, we were the only people on this mountain, this day. Dropping our packs, we gawked at the views while digging through our backpacks for snacks.
Bob took out his iPhone and began taking pictures. He took a video, asking Nate, “Nate, how do you feel?”
“Matt, Nathan wants to kill you, how do you feel about that?” Bob said, chuckling.
“It’s an appropriate response,” I replied, smiling, and thinking about what I had just taken Nate through.
The cabin looked luxurious after spending the previous night on the cliff ledge. Success! It was a good feeling to have made it. We savored the comfort of the shelter, but by 10 a.m., we needed to start making our way down.
I have always known that most climbing accidents take place on the descent, not the ascent. This is when people are tired, and gravity allows people to go faster than is wise. Downclimbing is way more dangerous than upclimbing. I was cautiously optimistic about our return journey. Today we would be putting in some serious miles, pushing ourselves to our physical limits.
We were already sore, and sleep-deprived yet it was time to get moving. There was no way I was going to spend another night under the stars.
Down the ladders we went. Across the glacier, careful not to slip and slide uncontrollably into the rocks below. Past the whistling marmots and the wild blueberries. Across Tin Pan Gap. We picked up the gear we had cached it that morning and carried our burdens across Goat Flats, where we entered the forest. The remainder of our climb was just a hike. We were going to make it back alive!
By this time, Nate’s legs were like rubber. We had not brought enough food and we were feeling lightheaded. Nate’s boot caught a root and he staggered into me as he walked behind me.
Have you ever started laughing at something you really shouldn’t be laughing about? And the harder you try not to laugh, the more difficult it becomes to not laugh? I grew up enjoying the slapstick physical humor of The Three Stooges and Loony Tunes. Cartoon images invaded my mind.
Nate tried to keep steady, but out of nowhere, his boot failed to clear another rock. Then it was a tree branch. Next, it was a log. Each time, he staggered forward, catching himself, audibly cursing. He never fell, but he would nearly crash into me every time. It really was NOT funny at all, but I found myself trying to suppress my laughter each time I heard his uneven steps followed by a colorful word.
Eventually, I could not hold it in anymore. I burst out laughing! Glancing over my shoulder while laughing uncontrollably, I made eye-contact with Nate. He was not laughing. I stopped laughing, but the smirk on my mouth remained. I could not get my mouth to cooperate with logic. Nate was tired, and this was NOT funny.
I focused ahead and hiked on.
“Ooof! Dang it! Flipping Middle Finger Mountain!” Nate exclaimed.
I lost it again. My face was bright red as I burst into uncontrollable gut-wrenching laughter. Looking back at Nate, I knew I should stop laughing. He was glaring at me.
“What’s wrong Nate? That was funny! I get it. Middle Finger Mountain. You are hilarious!”
Nate reached for the handle of his ice axe.
Maybe it was not so funny. I decided to transition from hiking to jogging, just to be safe. I had crossed a line and I did not want to feel the tip of an ice axe in my back. From that point to the trailhead, there was no way anyone could get lost. I kept running. Bob and Nate were on their own.
After fifteen minutes of jogging with my backpack biting into my shoulders, the trees parted and the trailhead parking lot appeared in front of me. I dropped my backpack onto the ground with relief and weariness. Nate and Bob staggered out of the woods several minutes later, with smiles are their faces. We had survived what we would jokingly refer to as Middle Finger Mountain, and we learned some important lessons.
Give yourself enough time to accomplish your goals. If you try to do it too quickly, things can go poorly, and the journey will not be as enjoyable.
If you lose your way, stop. Wait until it is light, then you will be able to relocate the way and still get to your destination. Jesus made a big promise to be there for us during the moments of confusion and uncertainty. He said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
- When have you tried to accomplish a goal too quickly, or taken on a goal that was too ambitious?
- In what ways do you need “light” and “direction” to find your way towards the accomplishment of any goals right now? Set your course on following Jesus and the light will come.