Mt. Three Fingers

August 30 - September 1, 2003

Matt Alford, Chris Alford (Mom)


Alpine Mom!  Taking a breather at Tin Can Gap, with the summit (peak on far right) clearly in view.

I slowly belay the rope in as mom moves around the exposed corner high on the south peak of Three-Fingers Mountain with the Three Finger's Glacier falling away 500 feet below her feet.  “Almost there” I reassure in a calm voice.  Mom doesn’t seem convinced as she grips the rock and looks upward at the last 100 feet of vertical rock and the precariously wired rickety wooden ladders leading to the summit.  “I don’t know if I can do it”, Mom says weakly, tears nearly welling in her eyes.  ”You can Mom, I know you can”.

Dreams are the fuel that drive the engine of life, the things that break the mundane routine of our everyday, the spark that keeps us striving for that sense of satisfaction and completeness in life.  Some people dream of making millions of dollars, other of traveling the exotic corners of the world, still others of marrying and having six children; my mom’s dream had long been to climb Three Fingers Mountain.  As a young child she decided that Three Fingers was her favorite mountain, though by a somewhat unorthodox process.  Mom would gaze east from her home in Everett and see Three Fingers not as a beautiful and majestic mountain, but rather as a huge bowl of red Jello with whipped topping.  Mom has always had a weakness for desserts.  She told herself that one day she would go and find out if Three Fingers tasted nearly as good as it looked.

As some do, Mom’s Three Fingers Dream got lost somewhere between three children, a successful career, and a marriage of 31 years.  Life has a funny way of working out though, and my mother just happened to conceive, carry, and raise me; a 26 year old overeducated, underemployed, dirtball-climbing bum.   Although going against the grain in life has caused me strife at times, it has afforded me a unique view of the power the human spirit holds to accomplish great feats in the face of adversary, fear, and doubt.

“Mom, you will be tied in to this rope at all times, your perfectly safe.  I know your scared and you’re doing awesome”

“I don’t know Matt, I just don’t think that I can do it”, mom’s worried words echoed.

“It’s up to you Mom, but I know you can, and I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you could.  You have come so far, don’t give up now.”

We set the calendar date for the last weekend in August.  With any luck, our nearly perfect northwest summer would stretch a bit longer and the mountain Gods would shine upon a mother and her son.  For several months mom hauled a pack up and down Fobes Hill in Snohomish, increasing the weight systematically until she was walking up to 3 miles with a 30-pound pack.  Her fitness showed as we hiked up the trail to Goat Flats on a perfect Sunday afternoon.  Time passed quickly with conversations of life, happiness, women, marriage, sex, and drugs.  I have always felt a special closeness with my mother and I could feel the bond grow stronger as we marched on towards a common goal.

Mom finishes hauling her load into Goat Flats.

Late in the afternoon we pitched the tent overlooking the Three Fingers Glacier with Whitehorse Mountain and the summits of Three Fingers towering above us.  I shoved food and drink down Mom’s throat for the next several hours reminding her that the mountains were no place to be on a diet, in fact, I pointed out that eating hoards of junk food was half the reason that I climbed.  After a mountain cocktail of cherry brandy and hot chocolate, Mom was out for the count.  Unfortunately her snoring kept me (as well as anyone else on Goat Flats) wide-awake.  I remedied the situation with two more cocktails.

Mom watches the alpenglow fade on Goat Flats shortly before retiring to the Bibler.

I lead up the first ladder and stem across to the second.  “Hhmm, this is a little harder then I remember a couple years ago, and really exposed”, I think to myself.  The scenarios run through my head.  “What if she freaks, freezes and refuses to move, petrified by fear?  What am I going to do then?”  I pull up the slack in the rope and anchor the belay off a huge bolt drilled in the rock.  “Ok Mom, your on, come on up” I yell down.  Mom steps tentatively over to the base of the ladder, looks up with dread, and begins to climb.  I am all smiles.

A 6:00 am alpine start for summit day.   I rose and cooked a pot of oatmeal, which mom and I split.  I packed overnight gear for two in the case that Mom’s dizzying pace wore me out and we had to bivy at the summit.  We started out towards the summit ascending the steep trail to Tin Can Gap.  Conversation waned as the hiking was much harder and the trail rougher.  Nonetheless I was still impressed with Mom’s pace and my confidence grew that we would reach the top.  At the Gap Mom took a ½ hour break and I scouted the route ahead.  A compacted snow finger blocked the path in a quarter of a mile, and farther ahead a short glacier crossing would be required.  I darted back down to Mom who was resting in the sun.  “You ready to go?” she asked enthusiastically.   I smiled and nodded.

Mom reaches the top of the first ladder and looks stressed.  She can’t quite reach over far enough to grasp the second ladder without abandoning the security of the first.  Moment of truth.  “I can’t do it Matt, I am scared” through a shaking voice.  “Grab the rope, reach over with your left foot and commit Mom.  Your on a tight top rope, you can’t fall anywhere.”  Mom, listens, controls her fears, follows directions, and in a few grunts reaches me at the belay.

We reached the first snow finger that had compacted into ice by late August.  I broke out the rope and tied Mom in with a bowline on a coil and took up all but 15 feet of slack.  The finger was only about 50 feet wide but a fall would have caused serious injury as arresting would be nearly impossible.  I kicked steps and mom carefully followed, again I was impressed with how well she handled the new challenge.  We roped again at the glacier crossing and I gave mom a little lesson on the dangers of moats forming at the base of the rock.  We diverged widely around a collapsing serac and were soon again on dry ground.  Two more hours of steep trail and we arrived at the base of the huge snowfield leading to the south summit.  Mom was really beginning to fade, so we sat down and threw an electrolyte drink down her throat.

“Ok Mom, one more ladder, only 20 more feet and we are at the top” I tell her with a huge grin.  Mom doesn’t seem as convinced.  “I have never done anything this scary Matt”.  “It’s fucking great, isn’t it”, I reply, taking advantage of the chance to drop the F-Bomb in my Mom’s moment of weakness.  “Don’t use that word Matt!”  Evidently the fear of death has done nothing to quite the “Mother” inside my mom!  I shake off my scolding.  “Ok Mom, same operation as before.  I go up and anchor the rope, put you on belay and then you climb up.  When I call that you are on belay, unclip from the anchor and climb up to me.”

Mom looked up at the football field size snow ramp and I could read the apprehension on her face.  “You’ll be fine Mom, don’t worry”, I tell her as I retied the bowline around her waist.  I unloaded the second ice ax and gave mom a lesson on self-belay, rest step, and ice ax arrest.  I snowballed her with info and was off kicking steps before she could protest.  We reached the base of the summit blocks and I short-roped Mom through the 3rd class rock.  We rounded the final corner to the base of the ladders.

Mom emerges at the top of the final ladder as I belay her in.  “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God”, my devout churchgoing mother openly takes the Lord’s name in vain as she steps off the ladder onto the 30 degree slab of rock.  “Nice work Mom”, I encourage as Mom scrambles to the safety of the fire lookout.  I am booming with pride as I step inside the cabin and congratulate my 56-year-old mother on her first accent of 6854 foot Three Fingers Mountain.


Mom clears the second ladder clinging to a rope while being belayed by another rope.

We sit around the cabin for an hour as I point out the peaks of the North Cascades on this hazy first day of September.  We eat some lunch and decide to go back down to Goat Flats instead of staying the night at the cabin.  I am a little disappointed that we won’t be high for the sunrise but I think we are both anxious to get back through the technical difficulties of the climb.  I belay Mom back down the ladders and we scramble off the summit block.  Mom takes the lead back down the snowfield and we un-rope where the terrain turns to rocky trail.  My mother prides herself on her uncanny ability to suppress the urge to defecate for weeks at a time, but evidently the endocrine response caused by exposed climbing is greater then Mom’s resolve to not poop outside.  Lacking a bluebag, I carefully explain the finer points of the “smear method” and Mom hurriedly scrambles over behind some rocks.  Knowing me all to well, Mom calls over her shoulder that both myself and my camera better stay put.  Obviously she fears that she too would end up a star of the stinky link on


Mother and son share a moment on the summit of Mt Three Fingers.

I sit outside my tent long after Mom has crashed out.  Not wanting to carry it out, I graciously finish the pint of brandy and sit in awe of the pink light moving up the adjacent peaks as sun sinks in the west and the buzz settles in my head.  I think about my existence.  For the past year I have centered my life completely on climbing, working only enough to finance my next adventure.  Often I feel misunderstood, and need to explain that the adventure is what feeds me; that the satisfaction I get is worth what I must sacrifice to obtain it.  Just for a second today, I believe that Mom and I had a complete understanding.  Standing at the base of the ladders, Mom was faced with a choice.  Either turn around and go down, or face her fears and self-doubt, step out on that limb and live in the unknown for just a moment.  The summit was only 100 feet higher; did it really matter to go all the way, until she could go no higher?  She had already come much further then ever imagined.  Why was that not enough?  In that instant, I believe that Mom grasped the draw that I feel to climbing harder, faster, and higher.  It is these moments when time stands still, your mind is clear, and you are completely absorbed in the present.  These moments of complete immersion in action, of do or don’t, black or white.  These moments where we see inside ourselves and the shells we wear in the world are pealed and we are left only with who we truly are.  Mom lived one of these moments for the first time in her life on those ladders, and gained an incredible sense of her own power to achieve great things in that instant.  It’s not the top that draws man to the mountains; it is what is drawn out man in the process of climbing that calls us back time and time again.

It is dark now and I am drunk.  I reflect back on the season of climbs and ponder which was the most satisfying.  Castleton Tower in the sandstone Southwest?  Crimson Chrysalis in Nevada’s Red Rocks?   Rainier’s seldom climbed Ptarmigan Ridge?  Maybe the direct East Buttress on South Early Winter Spire?  Yes, all fine accents on classic lines, but none measure up to the weekend I spent climbing Three Fingers Mountain with my mom in the summer of 2003.      

-written October 2003

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