So you all know my ski talents. Or lack thereof. I joked earlier today that I should be in TOO (Turns On Occasion) or TS (Turns Sometimes) instead of TAY (Turns All Year). So given those ski skills, of course skiing the Ptarmigan Traverse sounded like a great idea. I had wanted to do the Ptarmigan Traverse since I moved here, in fact it’s crazy how simple it felt after so many years of dreaming about it. Working at REI, a customer had mentioned it to me, probably chuckling at the young starry eyed grasshopper in front of her who only knew hiking and had never seen the Milky Way and got scared driving forest roads because there were psychopaths out there, man. And here she was, with years of mountaineering expertise, pulling up pictures of the Ptarmigan Traverse, on top of the world, sparkling blue glaciers and green valleys and nothing for miles besides you and the scenery and the stars. I set her up with her new hiking boots, wished her well, went to the back room, and wrote down everything I could remember her saying. In fact, I think this is how I discovered Summitpost. So I put the Ptarmigan Traverse on my to do list, a far off dream for years ahead if I still lived in Seattle.
- Distance: Roughly 35 miles
- Elevation Gain: No idea. Highest point is 7800ish (Col next to Spire Point). Take note that there’s way more up and down than I expected – this wasn’t a “get up high and traverse flat” it was a “get up high, HAHAHA drop 1400ft, HAHAHA climb 1400ft, HAHAHA drop 700ft, actually go up 200ft, no really now drop 400ft, HAHAHAHA GOT YA back up 1400ft ” marathon
- Weather: A million degrees and sunny always
- Commute from Seattle: 6 hours if you include both trailheads
- Did I Trip: Actually no, I don’t think I had any spectacular wipeouts! Must have been a boring trip.
Well, a week ago, I tossed the idea to JT. Ptarmigan traverse? 3 days? Totally doable, shut up, I’m out of shape, no I’m not trying to climb Dome at the end, no I don’t want to start up at 10pm, our last trip resulted in us being overdue can’t we just have one solid normal trip at least to prove it’s possible again? I can’t write two “we got stuck out overnight” blog posts in a row. Luckily, after extensive bitching and threatening to bail right then and there, he obliged to a “normal” trip. 6/24-6/26, time to make it happen!
First, let me give you a small piece of history. This traverse was initially completed in 1938 by four members or the Ptarmigan Climbing Club, who took 13 days and actually went south to north, from Dome to Cascade Pass. They never published it. No pictures, no written account, nothing. In 1953, five climbers wondered what could be south of Cascade Pass, and did the same traverse in the opposite direction, knowing that there was a route that went IF they could find it. And now there’s me, sitting on my couch with Google and Facebook and a GPX track on my smartphone and my satellite messenger beacon is also a GPS with great maps and I’ve never really stared into a void wondering if a route goes, because I know that yes, it does, and hundreds if not thousands of people have already done it and I have decades of beta at my fingertips.
We started up around 5am on Saturday after spending hours dropping off cars at each trailhead. Seriously, dropping cars off is my primary stressor before a traverse. Who knew? Anyway, at Cascade Pass, the road was gated around 2 miles from the trailhead. Surprisingly no one was checking for overnight permits: the National Park now requires permits via a lottery system, and apparently even trailhead camping is not allowed. Lucky for us, we were heading south, leaving the Park almost immediately after Cascade Pass. We walked the road to the parking lot, and from there we were able to head straight to the pass on skis, though that won’t be the case for long. We needed to boot the steeper sections (I don’t have ski crampons), and wow I felt like crap. I announced that if I didn’t feel better by the top of Cache Col, I’d be bailing. JT gave me plenty of shit. Hey, you’re only as good as the weakest member of your party and that’s ME. So I have the power right now.
Well, spoiler alert, we got to Cache Col and I felt fine, minus the five seconds where I nearly shit myself as a ton of rocks fell off the face next to us (and into a moat, as I ski-ran across the slope away from it). Unfortunately, I was starkly aware of the fact I seemed to have regressed in skiing abilities. Okay, so the skis were relegated to training weight. The only thing worse than skinning steep slopes is the awkward downhill traverse with skins, which I promptly gave up on. This meant there was a lot of booting in my near future, starting with the downward traverse to Kool Aid Lake. It’s still amazing how much faster this passed with snow cover as opposed to talus fields like the previous year.
We had already been through the first third (ish) of the Ptarmigan Traverse when we did Formidable last year, so nothing was too exciting besides Red Ledges. Last year, they were an easy scramble. This year, they were steep snow, which was great (sarcasm) because I had no waterproof gloves. Yeah yeah, don’t say anything. I legit wasn’t expecting steep snow. Which is funny, because for some reason I had brought an ice tool and not an ice axe. JT eventually was nice enough to give me his whippet since he had an ice axe and a pole, but for a while, I had the two extremes. Ski poles, and an ice tool. No bueno.
We were past Red Ledges quickly, and carried on towards Middle Cascade Glacier. Why isn’t there a North Cascade Glacier? There is a South Cascade Glacier we’ll reach later, and a Middle, but no North? Who named these?! Middle Cascade Glacier was nicely covered, and we skinned to the Spider-Formidable Col with a plethora of water breaks and breathers (aka me stopping for 90 seconds because I’m tired and sweaty and sunscreen is wearing off and I can’t drink and skin uphill at the same time or I run out of breath because I’m out of shape).
Getting to Spider-Formidable Col seemed to fly by, probably because we were familiar with the area. I was disappointed that Le Conte Lake was still frozen, and not boasting its spectacular blue color from last year. Yes, Le Conte Lake, at the base of Le Conte Glacier, which is on…. no, you didn’t guess it. It’s on Old Guard. Le Conte Mountain does not host Le Conte Glacier. Shitty namers, keeping us on our toes. Also, there’s a trail that comes up that valley called Flat Creek Trail, which amazingly stops short of Le Conte Lake. Think of the views from that lake! When (okay, if) I get rich, I’ll sponsor that trail. Jeez.
I expected Yang Yang Lakes to be like a 30 minute downward traverse from the S-F col, but psych! It took hours of booting across steep slushy slopes in the baking sun. Oh, and I also got to self arrest on the way down the col thanks to snow balling up in crampons (I clearly wasn’t whacking them enough, and don’t even mention that skis should be on my feet, I have no chance in narrow chutes yet) so everyone thank JT for his whippet. We finally crawled into some shade and marveled at where we had come from. Okay, let’s get to Yang Yang and reevaluate there. We figured to do a three day we at LEAST had to be at Yang Yang night one.
We reached Yang Yang around 5pm and decided yeah, we’d get to the ridge above it and camp there. The ridge had looked super mellow from a distance, so we skinned up to a small couloir, booted up the steep (it wasn’t really steep, just too much for skis) part, and topped out on a gorgeous rolling ridge with patches of talus and heather at the base of Le Conte Peak. We set up camp on a small cluster of talus with a stunning background of Mt. Formidable and Spider Mountain. I can’t put into words how content I was. Tired, satisfied, blown away by the views, cozy in my down quilt, there is nothing better. I always have this annoying urge to run in circles or knock out a ton of work or start huge projects and it’s always hanging over my head, except when I’m wiped in the alpine. We laid our wet gear out to dry, enjoyed our dehydrated meals, tried to rehydrate our poor battered bodies, and went to sleep. I managed to wake up for sunset and again to get a glance of the Milky Way (new moon = amaaaaazing stars). I slept through sunrise, and we got a lazy start around 7:30am.
The next section of the traverse took us east of Le Conte and up to the base of Sentinel and Old Guard, where we wrapped slightly east of the peaks. The Le Conte Glacier last August had a small ice step (or so I was told – the group was in a whiteout and I have to wonder if they just didn’t skirt it enough). Regardless, the picture on the left hides a huge ass crevasse with a huge bridge over it (the obvious center rise) with basically a small ice cliff on the right when it’s all melted out. This time of year, with all of the snow fall this winter, it wasn’t even noticeable.
From the base of Sentinel and Old Guard, we traversed south and dropped down onto the South Cascade Glacier. Cue nerd out: this glacier is super cool. We found a few cameras and some measuring equipment. This glacier is one of the most studied glaciers in North America, having been consistently measured since the 1950’s. They have daily stats, which are immediately recorded and available to the public! The average temperature the day we crossed was 65 degrees (aka “Fucking Hot”). There’s a research station at the terminus (the second hut was taken out by an avalanche in 2000), but I didn’t know that as we crossed it, thank god (I’d have wasted hours going to check it out). There’s a “trail” that connects back to Middle Fork Cascade River (which is a “trail” that goes down the drainage below Kool Aid Lake and the Middle Cascade Glacier, shocker I know) and eventually to the Cascade River Road, but I put “trail” in quotes because routine maintenance stopped in the 70’s and a huge wildfire took out what was left in 2003 (despite some attempts in 2001 to rehab part of the trail).
Prior to that (now we’re talking 1950’s), there was a 14 mile trail that connected to Siuattle River Road (PDF warning) that required you to climb up to 7,000ft just south of the hut, hop over the ridge, and then trek out via the Downey Creek drainage, similar to the Ptarmigan exit now but meeting Downey Creek further east. That was replaced by the aforementioned South and Middle Fork Cascade River Trails in the 60’s, which at the time made it only a several hour hike from Cascade River Road to the glacier. I originally assumed the trail was how everyone accessed the glacier – you’d think with such a heavily studied glacier, there would be a well maintained foot path. But it turns out this glacier is large and flat enough to land a freaking plane. I’d love to find out whether researchers still schwack up the South and Middle Fork Cascade River Trails nowadays. The trails seem to get more and more wild each year without maintenance and foot traffic.
Going by coordinates, I think I should have captured the research station in this pic, but I don’t see it anywhere! Maybe it was taken down and it’s just the cameras and measuring sticks (I’m sure there’s a fancier name) recording everything. I can’t find confirmation or recent pictures of the research station, so I’m not sure it’s still current. EDIT: I think I caught it in this pic to the right!! On the ridge to the left above the lake. I found a post on WTA suggesting it was operational as recently as 2006, have not seen anything else more recent. This article in the Seattle Times in 2009 came out when the glacier had effectively shrunk in half over a 50 year time span. Interestingly, back to the PDF linked above, a perfectly preserved tree was found as the glacier receded which dated back to ~5000 years ago. This suggests that the glacier was as small ~5000 years ago as it was in 1958, but it was rapidly advancing at that time, fast enough to shear and store a tree trunk for the next few centuries. I wonder how old the oldest ice in this glacier is. (Also, the fancy name for the measuring sticks is “measurement stakes” so I wasn’t too far off.)
Anyway, JT was not enthused by my nerd out, and we carried on. The col here is a mellow approach with a short, steep drop down to White Rock Lakes, which easily compose the coolest camp area I’ve seen in the North Cascades so far. Unfortunately they were still frozen over too, but the views of Dome (mostly obscured by Elephant Head and Overdrive Peak) are spectacular. You gotta camp here if you do the traverse. The only bummer was the discovery of an abandoned blue bag, complete with human shit inside which I only discovered after accidentally flinging it everywhere. I joked last year about wanting to be the Patron Saint of Alpine Shits because I have such enthusiasm for the human composting toilets, and I guess that includes packing out all alpine shits as tributary to the Mountain Gods. So I plopped it in a ziploc and carried on my way. Looking across the hills to the next col we had a brief “holy shit, we traverse THAT?!” before we thought about when we looked back at Spider-Formidable Col and it looked insane but was pretty mellow up close. Okay, so it might look ridiculous, but when we get closer, it’ll be fine. And it was! It was actually incredibly mellow.
From White Rock Lakes, you drop down a few hundred feet and traverse to the Dana Glacier, which you ascend to the second huge col to the right of Overdrive Peak. It may be mellow, but it takes forever. For. Ever. For starters, it’s several hundred feet taller than the col that you crested to get to White Rock Lakes, and on top of that you drop DOWN from White Rock Lakes as you traverse to the base of the glacier. We skinned some, we booted some, we skinned more, we booted more. JT shouted back to me “careful, we’re crossing running water under the snowpack!” “Yeah, neat, you can tell because of the change in texture!” It was an obvious difference, which usually means something hollow. I got closer, and laughed again. “You can also tell from the hole where the first guy fell through.” Someone had a beautiful full fledged ass deep posthole. Thanks for finding it, man. Also, speaking of shitty glacier names, the glacier on the left (between Elephant Head and Dome) is the Chikamin Glacier. Chikamin peak is nowhere near us! At least Le Conte Glacier is kind of near Le Conte Mountain!
We switched back to skins, and after what felt like a few hours of skinning sloppy slidey warm snow and baking in the sun and sweating and sun-burning and wondering if I was putting on too much sunscreen to even get tan we finally reached the col next to Spire Point. Holy shit. I forgot Glacier Peak existed. Oh my god. It’s glorious. Everything is glorious. JT started scrambling up a spire to our left while I lazed around below. 2 minutes later I was following him, because shit I wasn’t missing out on views. This was our last chance to be on top of the world. Better take advantage of it.
It only took us like half an hour to get to Cub Lake. Once again we laid out all of our wet gear, JT set up shop in the shade, I laid in the sun, we enjoyed meals. I blew bubbles and napped and tanned while JT did ski runs and tried to convince me to be fun. Shut up, this is as close to beach tanning as I’m going to get, let me enjoy my sun naps. We camped on snow right next to the outlet of the lake.
We got another lazy start around 7:30am after I woke up at 6:30 with Ghetto Superstar in my head, and booted it up to the pass above Cub Lake. Ski boots are great on steep heather (seriously). Cue immediate fuckup with my GPS app that led us way too far left and resulted in a steep forest traverse which wasn’t bad for me, but JT was trying to ski and ended up booting through trees. Oops. When you hit the saddle, follow your nose, not your GPS. There’s one mellow way down into the drainage, and that’s where you should go. Luckily we backtracked quickly and picked up the trail, which led to one of the more miserable exit hikes I’ve had.
The Bachelor Creek Drainage would be MISERABLE without a bootpath. I laughed at first, because I was like this isn’t a bushwack, there’s a trail the whole way! But as you drop in elevation, the vegetation gets taller, and thicker, and soon those “beautiful clear alpine meadows” turn into “stifling meadows of death.” Thick bushes on either side, trees to scramble under and over at the same time, skis getting stuck on everything, bugs sticking to your sweaty face, nature sucks. After what felt like an eternity (I think the Bachelor Creek Drainage is actually only like 3 miles) we finally started seeing signs of civilization. A log had been sawed into pieces to reveal the trail! We must be getting close. The trail is getting more heavily worn. Oh my god another sawed log. Holy shit!! It’s Downey Creek!! There’s a legit bridge to cross over Bachelor Creek to start heading south! I died with happiness.
Not literally. What we actually did was walk right past it, stop in our tracks, and realize we were both out of water and should probably fill up. We dropped packs and carried water bottles and bladders back to the stream junction where we filled them, chugged, filled them again, and lay on the ground savoring the nectar of the gods. JT switched to trail shoes and I glazed over watching his repeated futile attempts to click his ski boots into his skis sideways without taking the skis off his pack. I finally started walking because I couldn’t watch, and my feet hurt, but I knew I was better off in ski boots than trail runners. Bring on the pain, baby. Around this time I also realized that the flip flops I was so excited to wear were actually in JT’s car, not my car. Shit. I announced it to him but he didn’t process my pain. Probably too busy wrapped up in his own brain.
The 6 miles of the Downey Creek trail went surprisingly fast, and were quite pleasant. You don’t spend much time along the river, but you wander through thick green jungle, over streams, past tons of different types of vegetation. Everything is so lush and alive! Including the spiders, which like to make webs across the trail, to capture their favorite meal which is obviously humans. JT mistakenly assumed I was scared of spiders and started warning me of spiders. No, I don’t care about the spider. They can chill. But if they start building a web, the friendship is over. Built your shit three feet to the left please because I am the destroyer of dream webs and I don’t care how perfect it is. I even accidentally ate some. That’s right, I can EAT your HOME.*
It’s not really fair of me to complain about the Bachelor Creek exit, because the rest of the exits are worse. And Bachelor Creek used to be worse. A brief list of alternate exits:
- Middle Fork Cascade River: A bushwack down from the Kool Aid Lake/Middle Glacier section of the traverse. Trail was destroyed by a wildfire in 2001, not maintained since then, and never got to the real head of the valley anyway, so have fun.
- South Fork Cascade River: A bushwack down from the South Cascade Glacier, which apparently used to be pleasant. From there you can either follow “the trail” to meet with Middle Fork Cascade River, or take the ancient exit, which is schwacking up and over the ridge south of the glacier and dropping into the Downey Creek valley, where you will at least eventually encounter the Downey Creek trail.
- West Fork of Agnes Creek, from White Rock Lakes or Dome. It’s tempting on a map. Here’s a quote from 1953. “If anyone is interested in obtaining information on hanging valleys, waterfalls, slide alder, whip willow, and the latest beaver dam projects on the West Fork, we will be glad to inform him on such matters.” And here’s a quote from 1980. “From where our party entered the alder thicket to where we got onto viable trail took 16 hours, working very hard to traverse a distance of a little less than 4 miles. To make forward progress, we had to ascend the alder branches and jump from branch to branch about 6 feet off the ground, periodically falling out into the devil’s club below.” 4 miles, 16 hours. A quarter of a mile an hour. Babies crawl faster than that. And I doubt it’s better now, with another 30 years of thick Cascades brush growth. Nature sucks.
- In conclusion, the best bail plan is to either finish the traverse, go out the way you came, or get injured and call a helo. I put those in order of preference from best to worst.
Okay, back on track. I had insisted on leaving my car at the Downey Creek trailhead, because I love the feeling of getting back to my car. And this was a perfect one. You pop out on the last few feet of trail and can see the glimpses of yellow through the trees. There it is!! My car! Yay! We dropped our bags next to it and I struggled out of my sopping wet ski boots. We only took 10 minutes to revel in our weekend before hopping in the car to drive all the way back to the Cascade Pass trailhead, where we’d get JT’s car.
Oh, by the way, I was back in Seattle by like 10pm. So we had an awesome, epic trip that still went smoothly, no complications, no overdue notice, no snow ledge bivvy, no helicopters. Just sunburns and nosebleeds and amazing views. Shit, we were even out before dark. So let it be known that casual trips are possible!