BackgroundOur original Ptarmigan Traverse trip was actually planned for last September, but with the weather looking iffy we opted for Glacier Peak instead, which, smoke and mosquitos aside, was a fine climb. In the interim our group expanded, in addition to myself, my father, and our friend Allen, three of Allen’s college friends, with whom he backpacks annually in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, joined us. For better or worse, this left me as the youngest member of our group by 28 years.
The photos I took can be found here, others, taken with a much better camera, are here.
Day One - Cascade Pass to Kool-aid LakeAfter being dropped off at the Cascade Pass trailhead, we covered the three and a half miles to the pass in a few hours and then, after lunch, headed up toward Cache Col. Carrying what must have been a 50+ pound pack and having climbed Mt. Shuksan two days earlier, progress was somewhat slow. In the bowl below the col we met the last people we would see for the entire trip: a group that had climbed Spider Peak. At the col itself we found a fascinating snow feature – a late-season cornice that resembled a cresting wave, part of it so curved it touched the slope and formed a small tunnel. From there we descended to Kool-aid Lake, which was almost completely covered in snow and bore no resemblance what-so-ever to the gag-inducing drink (like many locations on this route, “Kool-aid Lake” is overdue for a renaming. In my opinion, Hurry-Up Peak should revert, as Beckey suggests, to S Mountain and Magic and Mix-Up should be renamed as well).
Before the trip I had outlined an ambitious schedule of afternoon/evening peak climbs but even on this first day I realized that they were infeasible given the speed of our group as a whole. I had hoped to climb Mix-Up, Magic, S, Formidable, Lizard, Sentinel, Old Guard, and Dome, and the only one of these I would even attempt was Magic that first day. After dinner I headed up to a saddle between Magic and S and then along to the ridge to the north. Because a layer of mist had settled around that elevation, I remain unsure as to whether I summited the peak; I simply traversed the ridge until I was no longer comfortable with the down-climbing required to reach the next high point, which looked to be around the same elevation as where I already stood. Looking back the next day I identified a snow dome near one of the summits that I knew I had reached, and from that angle (above Red Ledges) it looked like the high point, but I remain unsure.
Day Two - Kool-aid Lake to Yang-Yang LakesIn the morning we packed up and left Kool-aid Lake around 8:00, traversing across to Red Ledges, which, although somewhat exposed, was not challenging, and then up to the Middle Cascade Glacier and the Spider-Formidable Col, where we made the first of our route-finding errors. Instead of heading for the leftward gully (left from the ascent, eastward in actuality) we descended from the rightward gully through loose scree and dirt to a cliff band. Not fully realizing our mistake, we traversed east across loose rock until we reached the snow-filled gully we were supposed to have descended. Under normal circumstances it would have been a sketchy section, with full packs it was slow and very dangerous, a fall in any number of places could have resulted in injury or death and although we had ropes, none of the rock was solid enough to make a rappel anchor. This mistake slowed us down by about two hours and effectively nixed my hopes for Formidable that afternoon. As if to make up for it though, the meadow between Yang-Yang Lakes was among the more beautiful and pleasant campsites I have ever stayed in.
Day Three - Yang-Yang Lakes to White Rock LakesTrue to form, we got our token day of bad weather coming out of Yang-Yang Lakes. From the trail heading down from the lakes we traversed a small treed ridge before crossing a snow slope and climbing through some scree to a discernible “goat path” through a heather arm that lead to a shelf-like ridge below Le Conte Peak. The cloud ceiling was about the level of the ridge and once there visibility dropped to about 50 feet. The route across to the Le Conte Glacier required that we drop down below several rock buttresses and then ascend back up, which seemed annoying at the time but actually gave us the opportunity to get below the mist and verify that we were on route. Once on the glacier however, we began to encounter problems.
Before the trip my dad had taken our maps to a friend of his who had done the traverse multiple times and asked him to literally draw the route on to the map with pencil (we then had the maps laminated). This was helpful most of the time, as we had no need to decipher cryptic route descriptions (which we carried none-the-less), but unhelpful on the occasion that the route he outlined was blatantly wrong, as it was in this instance. Beckey’s guidebook directs the climber to the Sentinel-Le Conte col and then around Sentinel to the west, our route however, took us to the Sentinel-Old Guard col and then straight down the south side of that massif. Despite the mist we correctly identified the col as outlined on our maps, but were alarmed by the complete lack of any sign that other parties had come that way (footprints, cairns, etc). Additionally, the reverse snow slope was very steep and required slope-facing down-climbing.
With the rest of the group holed up in the col, I dropped my pack and reconnoitered down the couloir. I descended perhaps 200 ft, to below the cloud ceiling, before scrambling over to a rock outcropping from which I could see the South Cascade Glacier. From that position it looked as if the couloir emptied onto a snowfield about 1000 ft below, from which the glacier could be reached with some difficulty. At this point we were still unsure if we had found the correct col, and it seemed from my position as if an easier couloir might be found farther west. After I had climbed back up to the group we ventured in that direction but found the slope increasingly steep and crevassed. By this point I was convinced that we had definitely reached the col marked on our map, but that we should consider the “alternate” route outlined by the Beckey guide, the clouds were beginning to break up and we could see the gap he mentions several hundred feet below us. In the end this is what we did, but first we traversed under Old Guard and verified that there was not an easier pass in that direction.
Descending down to the Sentinel-Le Conte col we passed over a small section of exposed glacial ice at the western terminus of the glacier and from there we could see a faint boot-path in the snow below us that continued, intermittently, around the western flank of Sentinel to a rocky arm above the South Cascade Glacier, directly across from which was Lizard Pass. On our map several “gaging stations” were marked below South Cascade Lake, of these we saw no sign but we did see a structure of some kind on the ridge across the glacier as well as a concrete pillar at the edge of the rock outcropping and a pole planted in the glacier itself, presumably for measuring movement. The South Cascade looked completely uncrevassed so we simply walked across without roping up and then descended to White Rock Lakes – a 10 hour day that left all of us exhausted.
Day Four - White Rock Lakes to Cub LakeThe good weather with which we arrived at White Rock Lakes continued for the remainder of the trip, with a few clouds occasionally moving through in the afternoon. The route from this point forward was more simple, and generally without incident, but in some ways our group never recovered from the confusion around the Sentinel-Old Guard col. There was often considerable debate over routes I found readily apparent, and in some the stress of route-finding seemed to produce a strange sort of blinders, as if attempting to navigate purely by instruction. Despite all of this, the climb across the slopes from the lakes to the Dana glacier and then up to the col beneath Spire Point was uneventful, if slow, and the descent to the Itswoot-Cub bowl was simple enough. There were several good bivy spots near the pass that led up to Dome Peak, but none were large enough for our group and regardless, I was the only one interested in a peak climb. We had planned a extra day, which, depending on who was asked, was intended as a rest day, as breathing room in case weather forced us to stay in camp, or as an opportunity to climb Dome Peak. In the end we did none of these things and simply descended a day early after camping on the ridge above Cub Lake.
Day Five and Six - Cub Lake to Downey Creek Trailhead and the Suiattle River RoadThe descent to the Downey Creek trail was not half as bad as it was reported. After following a climbers trail through the upper part of the Bachelor Creek valley, we encountered an avalanche slope with a number of fallen trees, which could be crossed only with considerable difficulty. By staying relatively high on the south side of the valley however, we remained in the forest until we began to pick up the trail again. From there we descended through mud, thick foliage, and general unpleasantness to the log crossing and then to the Downey Creek trail, about four miles from our camp above Cub Lake. The remaining 6 miles along Downey Creek would have been a pleasure, the old growth forest was quite beautiful, but for how eager we were to get to camp.
The remaining eight miles on the dirt road was as expected and we were out by noon.
EvaluationThe Ptarmigan Traverse turned out to be more magnificent, more strenuous, and more technically challenging than any of our group had anticipated. For some of us, down-climbing loose, exposed rock, traversing steep heather slopes and cramponing across snowfields where the chance of a successful arrest was minimal, was a welcome challenge; for others, it was a terror they never desire to repeat.
The basic confusion was two-fold – our group essentially conceived of this trip as backpacking with some glacier travel thrown in, which, although meaning that we were well-prepared equipment-wise, is far from the truth: nearly all of the most technical and challenging sections are off of the glaciers. Secondly, we had acquired a set of two extremely detailed maps, contour intervals of 40 ft, that made the terrain seem considerably less challenging than it actually was, us being accustomed to the 80 ft intervals on Green Trails Maps.
An additional note on multi-day climbing trips:
The difference between urban and backcountry life one most notices on 3+ day climbing trips is sterility. “civilized” life is devoid of organic contamination: we wash everything, often with disinfectants, to remove any living (or dead) material, whether we are its origin or not. Becoming accustomed to a greater degree of involvement with the natural world is, of course, close to the core of why we go into the wilderness, but often we seem to assess what this truly entails rather badly. Becoming one with the natural world is not a mystical communion with the forest gods, it’s having bugs in your soup. You have to come to a different, more functional, understanding of what elements of cleanliness really matter: sweat and dirt will get everywhere – this is not really a problem, pine needles in your socks, snow in your boots, the sun on your face – these are problems. Frequent baths in snowmelt are an activity some will, of course, insist on, but they are only even an option in warm weather. There is a part of me that looks forward to a hot shower, but there is also a part that wishes we could get past our obsession with sterility and just accept that being a part of the natural world means being literally immersed in it, and that “it” is as much grime and insect life as glorious sunsets and colorful wildflowers.