Born and raised in Cornwall, UK, Tom Powell is a storytelling photographer with an affection for bicycles and the outdoors. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada.
There are two qualities that the majority of discerning lovers of the outdoors possess. One is a well-curated collection of lightweight equipment, collected over many years, painstakingly selected for the weight and space they may take up in a backpack. The other is a passion for the outdoor spaces in which they spend time. And with this second possession comes a certain responsibility to become a custodian of everything that they have come to enjoy.
On a recent trip to Washington State’s historic Three Fingers Lookout, located northeast of Seattle in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest of Snohomish County, a group of good keen friends and I arrived at the trailhead after riding bikes just over six miles uphill on closed forest service roads from the parking lot. With spirits high and energy reserves somehow still full, our leisurely plans took on new importance when we stumbled upon a large pile of building materials, accompanied by a hand-written request taped to a tree: “Please take me to the lookout.”
We paused only for a moment at the three fingers trailhead under the dappled morning sunlight as we contemplated our next socially conscious move. Fueled by ego and fresh legs, we each picked up two of the painted wooden boards, weighing them up against our meticulously packed bags. We had taken the time to tune each backpack to the gram, bringing only the most essential ultralight items necessary for the 12-hour, 17-something mile climb ahead. But the request proved hard to ignore, and we chose to nearly double our loads before embarking on the long scramble to the summit of Three Fingers Mountain with our extra baggage and the hesitant bravado it gave us in return.
In the process of hoofing up we learned that there are multiple techniques for carrying six-foot pieces of lumber up a mountain: stacked and horizontal in both backpack straps, under the arm and through one strap, and, the most effective, both boards facing upright as if ski touring. They were sometimes handy to use as makeshift trekking poles during moment of serious elevation gain, or to sit on when stopped for a rest in goat flats. But mostly, the wooden boards simply seemed to only get heavier and more cumbersome the longer we carried them.
"Our relief was short lived—the hut was full of other hikers and none showed any sign of wanting to give up an inch for an extra set of bodies."
After the long day hike up to the final snowfield and a semi-technical scramble with a bit of route finding and more exposure than I felt comfortable with while being loaded like a pack animal, we reached the 1930s-era fire lookout that our cargo would eventually become a part of. Views of glacier peaks in the North Cascades, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier added to the moment of satisfaction. But our relief was short lived—the hut was full of other hikers and none showed any sign of wanting to give up an inch for an extra set of bodies.
Resigned, we used the boards we’d carried to create a deck on which to drink our summit beers. Watching the sun sink, lost in the vast golden West Coast vistas, it was clear we had the best seats in the house. The close proximity of the fire lookout meant we quickly made friends with a group fresh out of the U.S. Marines, and that friendship eventually secured our place inside the shelter for the night.
The day's final trial was contending with the snoring that prevented very few of the 13 inside the crowded hut from getting any sleep—but like carrying the planks, the inconvenience was temporary, and just another thing that cemented us all as friends by the time we left in the morning.
Scroll on for a visual journey from start to finish, shot on 35mm disposable camera.