When Jeff called Wednesday I was instantly psyched. The beautiful south face of Three Fingers has been looming across from us for years on our after work climbs of Mt. Pilchuck. We've dreamed and schemed about skiing it, but the road normally doesn't melt out until summer, so it was always put on the back burner until last week after we read that it was clear to the trail head.
Jeff picked me up in Lake Stevens at 5 a.m. and we drove up in the dark. As the miles went by we reminisced about our death march down the closed road last summer when we bailed off an overly ambitious traverse. We were happy to find an empty trail head and started hiking as the first light of dawn lit the sky.
It amazed me how easy the crappy trail felt with the anticipation of beautiful skiing above. We could see bright red sunrise clouds through the trees, but didn't get our first view of the mountain until it was over.
Hiking shoes got us half a mile past the lake then the snow was continuous enough to put on skis. Our hike down last summer was still fresh in our minds so route finding was easy.
We maintained an easy pace across the long traverse to Camp Saddle.
We were almost giddy looking at line after line of beautiful snow waiting to be cut the next day.
We'd hoped that the snow would be good (it was ok) in the shade off the saddle so we dropped the fall line to the glacier.
We skinned easily up the glacier to the saddle where the trail crosses over to the south face. Jeff committed himself to an icy direct route at the head of the glacier which required crampons while I booted over to the low point and put my skis back on to traverse down and across the south side below the next rocks.
We managed to skin to within a couple hundred feet of the summit, reveling in the amazing views opening up around us.
We'd been worried about climbing the ladders so we brought some cord, slings, and bieners but the summit blocks were filled in with ice and snow so it was an easy climb across the south west side, but it was nice to have crampons and axes.
We'd tried to keep a positive attitude about getting into the hut on the climb up, but it was weighing on both our minds. Snow caving it was our other option, so we had to make a decision quickly or we'd waste a lot of time and energy for nothing. When we first tried chipping at the rime covering the door we found two feet of ice that looked like it would take hours of hard work with axes to clear. Jeff started in on it while I very carefully climbed over the top to look on the other side. The snow there was softer, but the smooth steep slope falling away to the east face is one of the more exposed spots in the Cascades, so I came back to get some gear to tie myself in. I returned and made much easier headway than Jeff, but when I finally got the shutter up I found that the window only opened from the inside. It was very frustrating seeing the latch inches away! I climbed back and found that Jeff had managed to dig a deep hole in the snow and chip away a slot at the bottom of the door. After about an hour and a half he finally pulled on the latch cord and we were in! This was for sure the crux of the weekend!
After a little rest Jeff talked me into a run down the South Face. I was pooped, and the sun was sinking low, but we figured the snow would be icy in the morning, so we had to make some turns. In my dreams I wanted to drop down as far as possible, but the snow was already icing up, and we wanted to get back to the hut before dark, so we only went down as far as our skin track.
Watching the sun set behind the clouds I was very glad Jeff talked me into it.
We were happily cooking dinner when we were amazed to hear voices outside an hour after dark. I went over to the door and opened it up for the Hummel twins who had followed our skin track to join us for a cozy night on top. Jeff and I sipped our whiskey and played Texas holdem while the Hummels regaled us with tales of steep skiing and near disasters averted.
I was the first one up in the morning but was sorely disappointed by the socked in weather. I did manage to get a couple of tantalizing views down through the clouds, then came back in to drink coffee and wait for the anticipated clearing.
Around 9:30 we finally gave up waiting and decided to head out. The Hummels were first down. They had carried their skis up to the hut, while Jeff and I left ours a couple hundred feet below. I didn't envy them the super exposed side stepping and awkward skiing down the summit block.
We met up at the entrance to the glacier gully heading down just below the summit. The new snow that had fallen in the night added to the soft sun protected snow for nice turns in a spectacular setting, even if it was socked in and snowing.
We'd talked about skiing something else, and the snow was so good we had to check out the Middle peak. Skinning up to the saddle between the North and Middle was easy. We booted it from there up ever steepening snow until the last 30 feet of rime covered ice shut us down.
Jeff and I had left our crampons down at the bottom, and we wouldn't have skied it anyway, so we stopped there and skied down in a whiteout.
After grabbing the gear we'd left at the bottom of Middle we skied by brail down and across the glacier over to the climb out. In a total white out we booted to the saddle south of Camp Saddle so we clicked the skis back on and traversed down and across and climbed up to find our tracks still visible. The long traverse back to Goat Flats on funky lumpy snow in flat light started to do in my thighs and I took a couple of good spills. The snow turned to misty rain, and the skiing got even funkier, but it was low angle and we had it dialed in right back to our shoes.
That damn trail seems to be about half up hill on the way out! I was feeling my old bones at this point so I took it easy, not wanting to twist an ankle or knee. Jeff hung back with me while the Hummels booked out. They were waiting for us at the car to say goodby and then they were off into the dark for their long drive back to Tacoma.
I retrieved the beers I'd stashed in the snow and we did a "Prost to a great climb!" as we started the drive home.
It should be a good Summer for hiking... but bad for droughts and bugs.
Don't bugs need water?
Yes, but that is what those many hundreds of lakes and stagnant ponds in the mountains are for. My prediction: Bugs will be WORSE than during last summer, unless we get some sort of freakish warming and then freezing activity during March/April to kill off the first hatchlings.
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