GRANITE FALLS — More than 6,800 feet above sea level, precariously balanced on a slab of rock that it’s slightly too big for, the Three Fingers Lookout is an act of defiance.
How the elements haven’t done away with the 90-year-old hut must be an act of divine intervention. It looks as if one good gust of wind could send it flying off the mountain.
“It doesn’t seem like it belongs, yet there it is,” said Zach Graham.
And there it will stay — at least, so long as volunteers in love with the 14-by-14-foot shack, like Graham, have a say.
The Friends of Three Fingers Lookout made sure to have a say this year when they noticed shutters had been ripped off and a window had been busted out, exposing the innards to wind, rain, snow, sleet, hail and whatever other punishment Mother Nature had in store. Volunteer crews replaced broken windows, installed new shutters and applied fresh coats of paint.
Maintaining the lookout, exposed to the elements as it is, is a perpetual but worthwhile chore, volunteers say. When one thing is fixed, they’ll find another problem that needs addressing. In 2015, for example, a group installed a new roof.
Climbing up the 8 miles and 4,200 feet to the little building in the Boulder River Wilderness is an arduous journey, one that requires planning, route-finding skill, hardy legs and, advisably, an ice ax and some crampons. Those who get the jitters in high places should maybe think twice.
The trailhead is about 16 miles northeast of Granite Falls. According to the Washington Trails Association, you first have to walk or mountain bike up a washed out road. Upon reaching the actual trail, you’ll hike a couple miles to the meadows of Goat Flats, and then up to Tin Can Gap. Trudge along the ridge, over some rocks, across a glacier and through a snowfield.
At the end, there’s a set of three ladders, comically piled on top of one another along the rocky ledge, as if they extend up to the world’s highest roof — and perhaps they do. They’re secure. Just take it one rung at a time and you’ll get there, one trip report says. There’s a rope you can grab to heave yourself up that final bit.
The hike is intimidating enough to ward off the masses, so you can find some sense of solace along the way. By the time a Herald reporter learned of the project, rain was in the forecast. At 6,854 feet, that meant snow at the lookout. The reporter, having never been, couldn’t muster the courage to make the journey, or perhaps he exercised a modicum of common sense. So he had to live vicariously, through a Zoom meeting with the folks who trekked up there, and stayed up there for days at a time, as they patched up the aged and battered lookout.
There were grizzled veterans: Don Sanderson, the leader of this pack; Arthur Wright, an Everett Mountaineer who acted as a maintenance advisor; and Malcolm Bates, the guy who literally wrote a book on Three Fingers.
Then there were the young’uns: Brenna Anderst and Zach Graham, who seek out fire lookouts wherever they are; the other Zach, Zach Schrempp, playing the part of carpenter; and Kimarie Scholz, who, with husband Nate Scholz, schlepped her son, Zadek, up to the top and took an initial inventory of material.
There were other volunteers and helpers. Like the Everett Mountaineers — Jason Griffith, Karl Eckhardt, Sarah Clinckemaille and Andrea Lin — who hauled up tools and supplies. Not to mention the countless friendly hikers, who grabbed a thing or two at a time as they made their way up the mountain, spared some water and packed out garbage.
Helping with coordination were Forrest Clark of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and Bridget Wisniewski of the Darrington Ranger District. Louis Coglas, along with Wright, also was a maintenance advisor.
Stepping into the fire lookout is like “stepping back in time,” Bates said. This peak was first summited by Harold Engles and Harry Bedal, local mountaineering legends of yore. They had the idea to blow up a chunk of the rock and put a lookout on top. Inside, there’s still an old Osborne fire-finder and an Adirondack canvas chair, built by Harold Weiss, one of the original lookouts, along with some other trinkets. (This place, apparently, was a lure for Harrys.) When Bates, author of “Three Fingers: The Mountain, the Men and the Lookout,” first made the summit in the 1970s, there were still some old Life and Collier’s magazines, though those are now long gone.
Sitting in Weiss’ ancient chair, “you get a sense of what it must’ve been like to be on top of the world by yourself for months on end up there,” Bates said. “Daunting and also quite marvelous, I would think.”
To be there is to feel a connection with the U.S. Forest Service workers of the past. Graham called it a magical place, one worth preserving for future generations.
Graham and Anderst became the unofficial Three Fingers tour guides when they stayed up there. Anderst said she enjoyed seeing people poke their head above that precarious-looking ladder for the first time, sometimes with a look of fright or intense concentration, sometimes beaming with excitement. The couple would show the visitors around and have them get on their stomach and peer over the ledge on the eastern face, to grasp the sheerness of where they were.
Staying up there for days, Sanderson said, “we saw a lot of the different moods of the mountain.” Sun, rain and, yes, snow, even in August.
Once, he and Schrempp collected some rime ice off the cables to boil, to avoid making the trip down to get some water.
On a clear evening, you can see city lights stretch over the expanse of the Puget Sound lowlands, said Wright, the Everett Mountaineer who has been to the lookout many times. Seattle’s skyscrapers, so tall up close, from there look like a set of miniatures. Ferry boats, little more than dots, bob on the sea.
Turn around, and you are confronted by the mountains of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Volcanoes, behemoths of the Cascades, loom in the distance.
Unlike when you’re standing atop Mount Rainier, Wright said, the mountains there are up close and personal.
“You’re in and amongst the peaks,” he said. “Nothing seems small, except you.”
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