out of the woods | three fingers ski

3500 ft gain . 3900 ft high . 17 miles

This is a story of how we didn’t get out of the woods, and I’ll forever be asking “Are we out of the woods yet?” (cue: Taylor Swift’s single from her 1989 album). The backstory is that ever since I’ve been out by the Mountain Loop Highway, I’ve been enthralled by Three Fingers. It seemed so daunting compared to the straight-forward hikes like Mt. Dickerman or even Vesper Peak. Reading trip reports on WTA, it seemed like it used to be a doable hike because generally WTA doesn’t have descriptions for hard scrambles, but Three Fingers had a decent route description and a few trip reports every year. But the issue is the road closure before the bridge, adding some 9 miles to the true trailhead. Most people mountain bike the forest road or attempt a slightly shorter route up the Meadow Mountain scramble.

But spring 2019, my friend Tyler tackled this mountain and camped overnight at the lookout. First of all, I didn’t even realize there was a lookout – camping in a building makes all the difference for shelter. And secondly, he told me about his shortcut route that cut many miles off the trail and forest road section. So I held on to his gpx tracks in the hopes of finding an adventure partner who’d want to climb Three Fingers with me.

Come spring 2020, I finally have a good weather window and an awesome partner to send this mountain. But here’s where we start our adventure.

Hour -1

(Pre-Trip) Due to self isolation from Covid-19, we took separate cars to the trailhead in the morning. Until the road got icy that is. My little compact car definitely didn’t have the clearance nor the tires nor the powerful 4WD to gain that hill and the rest of the forest road. So my friend Kylie came to the rescue in her Subaru. I sat diagonally from her in the back seat, ensuring the minimum 6 feet spacing and rolled the windows down for air freshening. We made an adventurous, incredibly bouncy way up 1 mile of icy/slushy road before turning the car around and getting our gear ready.

Sunrise on Mt Pilchuck
Hours 1-2

We ended up parking 4.4 miles from the Google Maps trailhead, where the road block was. It was a fairly leisurely walk on skis where we actually lost about 400 feet in elevation. We met one guy getting his truck unstuck and making a mess out of the snow. The poor guy had unintentionally spent the night out there just to wake up to get his truck going again. At least he seemed to know what he was doing with his shovel and wrench. We continued following the truck tracks to the bridge. I was honestly surprised by how far people had been getting their vehicles – clearly confident drivers on that narrow forest service road. We got to the bridge and clearly, people were able to get down and around this rock block with the help of some multi-point turn business. Super impressed. By then, my feet were already getting sad and blister-prone. So we took a nice break on the icy bridge before continuing.

Skinning on forest service roads
Hours 3-5

We continued over the bridge and on the forest road again. Knowing that the shortcut would be steep steep steep, we decided to take the Meadow Mountain trail that connects to the Tin Can Gap and the rest of the trail to Three Fingers. We skinned up 2 miles of road for about an hour before we saw a trail flag that matched the trailhead location on various different GPS trail markers on our phones. We transitioned out of our skis and I traded ski boots for trail runners. I felt like a true skimo person, half skier-half mountaineer. The forest was dense and hardly snow-covered. We saw the Boulder River Wilderness boundary sign and thought for sure we were on the right trail. Over and under logs and crossing a couple creeks, we traveled about 15-20 minutes before the faint trail started to disappear. And then it was clear we weren’t on the “Meadow Mountain trail”. In fact we were about 200 feet below the trail, yet the trail we were on was not marked on any map we had.

We decided to head back to the wilderness sign to find the trail again. Perhaps it was behind the “unmaintained” sign. We searched for a while but nothing made sense. There wasn’t even a faint animal track and nothing on the hillside looked like a reasonable path up. We debated spending more time to bushwhack our way up Meadow Mountain or heading back to the shortcut route that we knew was flagged the whole way up (thanks Tyler for that tip!). It was already mid day and we wasted so much time, why not go a route that’s difficult but certain? So we headed 2 miles back down near the bridge and found the cutoff to Tyler’s tracks.

Wilderness boundary
Hour 6

One mile of road should take less than hour, especially if flat, right? Wrong. Up till now, I hadn’t the pleasure of walking amongst slide alder. After half a mile of skinning, I gave up and carried the skis diagonally on my back. Yes the bindings were biting my back, but yes it was better than navigating heinous slide alder and transitioning in and out of snow and mud. And oh river crossings too. One whole hour for one whole heinous, overgrown, flat, washed-out forest service road. Moral was way low. 7 hours and 9 miles later, we were finally going to make progress uphill. Hooray.

Some slide alder witchery
Hours 7-11

According to Tyler’s gpx, he traveled 5 hours over 5 miles and 5000 feet of gain to the lookout (including the slide alder road). I assumed we’d take slightly longer given our extra weight of skis and our lesser fitness level. But an average 1000 feet per hour seemed reasonable. And okay, if we were going 700 feet/hour, then we should turn around. The path up was a true climber’s trail. Incredibly steep. And in less than 1 mile, you gain 2000 feet of elevation. The first half was snow-free, but at least kicking in steps with ski boots was kind of like doing the same in snow. We definitely did some class 3 tree climbing and used some existing hand lines to get up some areas. The flags were consistent and frequent, so we were never lost. In my mind, I just kept wanting to see what was around the next corner. And this also became a trip where photography was a lesser goal.

On the ridge between the shadows and the sunlight

We’d frequently look at our elevation gain. I kept on being in disbelief that we’d gone so little in so much time. Maybe the GPS was wrong, but we were still making good headway up. And then the sun started getting lower. We were starting to enter heavy shade. Now there really was no turning around unless we wanted to head steeply into darkness. So we ventured up until the snowpack was consistent. Still too steep to truly skin up. When we finally gained the ridgeline, the slopes had mellowed out and we were able to transition back to skis. Over beyond the trees we could see Three Fingers. So far away, so high up. We also saw the other ridge we had to get up and over to connect us to the peak. There was no way we’d get there before sunset, and probably hours before we’d reach the lookout. But sleeping in the lookout with that perfect alpenglow sounded oh so nice.

Pretending you can see the alpenglow on Three Fingers behind the thick trees
Hour 12

We finally reached a flat, meadowy area on the ridge. It was time to make camp since we weren’t about to head further. We were tired and distraught. This was supposed to be the epic trip before Kylie headed to her new job in another state. But we were still in the forest with no views. Using her 6th grade knowledge, we each made our own snow cave to tunnel in for shelter. Separate caves with a nice barrier to ward off coronavirus. 12 hours later we finally were done moving and could enjoy some dinner before a restful sleep.

Camp: snow cave edition
Hours 13-25

We had cozily slept in our separate caves. A bivy sack would have been nice to keep my sleeping bag drier, but a rain jacket did the job for most of it. It was a fairly warm given how cold it got at night. As I slowly drifted off to sleep watching the stars shift in the sky, my face got colder and colder and I burrowed deeper and deeper into my sleeping bag. I’d wake up on and off but feared needing to get up to pee and put on frozen shoes to do that. So I made myself fall asleep over and over.

Hour 26

We managed to sleep a full 12 hours, but at 9am, we realized we were going to get a late start. At least the sun was up and the morning was warmer than the night. We repacked and began heading downhill.

Hours 27-29

For the first 200 feet or so, we skied downhill. Kylie was impressed by how much I’d improve since one month prior, I was more scared to go down the same steepness with fewer trees. I have to say that skiing inbounds and implementing everyone’s helpful tips have made a world of difference. So at least we got some turns in for hauling the skis around. But once we got back to the edge of the ridge, we put the skis back on our pack and started down climbing the snow. It was that steep. Plunge stepping was good in some areas, but when you’re unsure how far you’d plunge and how stuck your skis would get in the snow, sometimes that’s not the best way down. Plus that extra unbalanced weight could really throw your center of gravity off. Eventually, we made our way from firm snow to patchy snow to soil and shrubbery. At last, we could finally see the overgrown road again. Hallelujah! We could finally take a better mental break.

Stream crossings and water breaks
Hour 30

I kept thinking that 1 mile should not take 1 hour, but those slide alder makes it like driving through mud in MarioKart. I chose to walk the whole mile and Kylie chose to skin it. It was a tortoise and the hare situation. She’d usually skin faster than my walking speed, but then would get more caught in alder and take more time to transition in and out of skis when the road had dry sections. We were basically neck and neck the whole time.

Hours 31-32

Last 2 hours spent skinning up the forest road. But before, at the bridge, we met 2 guys who drove their truck all the way out to test the new tires they just got. And then they proceeded to drive around that boulder wall and onto the bridge. It was a fairly mindless walk, but I kept having to retrain my mind to think about things other than my blistered feet and not thinking every corner would be the car. But we did make it eventually, however uneventful. Thankful to be back and able to rest my feet again. 6 hours the second day was much better than the somewhat pointless 12 hours of wandering the first day. And we finally got out of the woods as we drove away.

Heavy pack
Post-Trip Thoughts
  • Apparently I was carrying 30 lbs of gear, excluding skis and a couple other items. So some 40 lbs of extra weight going uphill is a lot more effort than normal. But with winter overnight gear and the heavy weight of crampons and ice axe, there was very little that I could have conserved.
  • We could have had better turnaround decisions and better pre-trip planning to understand each route option we had instead of having wandered aimlessly.
  • Either earlier or later in the season would have been a better time. So we could directly skin up the mountain or climb without skis and drive up to the new trailhead.
  • Building a snow cave was a new skill acquired, as were navigating through dense, steep terrain with a winter pack and climbing with ski boots.
  • The climber’s route is well marked by flags. Cross the broken bridge, make a right turn shortly after and follow it for about a mile through the alder till you find some flags to the left. We took this pretty far till we set up camp but it’s a good one.

Photos shot on Canon Rebel T6

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