Ptarmigan Traverse

North Cascades, Washington

August 15 - 19, 2009

Dave and Jill, Matt and Jenny


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Satisfied with our trip at Itswoot Ridge on Day #5.  Sadly, the last good views.

Now that the trip was over I had hoped everyone, but especially Jenny, had enjoyed themselves.  She had fought to get six days in a row off from work and I hoped that the trip - three days of horrible weather, blisters, and a never-ending bushwhack was all that she had dreamed of.  As we drove from Suiattle River to Cascade Pass to pick up the car I couldn't ask, but I knew.  Her projectile vomits said it all.  If there is one reliable indicator of an enjoyable and memorable trip it's the projectile vomit.  As for the rest of us, we were high on Codeine - not really to temper any real pain, but to make the last 9 miles of dirt road walking mentally bearable.

The rest of the night was a blur.  Pick up the car at Cascade Pass, drive to Seattle (why?), and finally on to Wenatchee... just in time for Jill's first day on the job.

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As far as I can tell the Pacific Crest Trail does a nice job of staying near the crest, all the way from Mexico to Canada.  The idea being that the crest will showcase the best scenery from each of the regions it passes through.  However there is one notable exception where the trail does not stick to its plan.  As it approaches Dome Peak, the southern guardian to the great North Cascades, the trail hangs a hard right in order to avoid the rugged, glaciated terrain along the crest.  This is where the cross-country route termed "Ptarmigan Traverse" comes in - spanning what may be the most impressive terrain south of Canada - from Cascade Pass to Dome Peak.  The trip had been #1 on my list for ten years, always thwarted by time constraints or weather issues.  I knew if I could get Matt signed up that it would get done, regardless of weather or any other constraint.

Plans for the trip were hatched while bivied on the summit of Mt Goode the previous summer.  Matt, reluctant to do anything that doesn't afford the opportunity for a leader fall was brought to his knees by the view from the top of Goode.  Spread before us were the peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse.  Never one to do anything the easy way he suggested bringing our wives.  True to our word we scheduled the trip several months in advance only to have it threatened by cancer, employment (employment!), and finally the weather.  We were ready to leave Wednesday, but the weather wasn't, so we waited until Thursday.  When Thursday offered no hope we salvaged the evening by staying at Cliff's.  We were forced to begin Friday no matter what the weather offered.

Day 1 - 2

For the first two days of the traverse we saw nothing.  A splitter forecast and games like charades by our high-spirited wives kept us moving past the Red Ledges to a camp recommended by Cliff on Art's Knoll.  Our time-frame was tight, but we took a gamble to not continue to our planned destination at the Yang-Yang Lakes.  I had waited 10 long years to finally do this trip and had no desire to blow through the first half without a view.  This put us in jeopardy of not making it out on the scheduled day, but the girls were optimistic and the boys had extra space in their packs.

Day 3

If the weather didn't clear on Sunday we would be forced to return the way we had come from Cascade Pass.  Like a kid trying to sneak a peak at his Christmas presents I kept waking up during the night to see if Mt Formidable would emerge from the clouds.  Around 2 a.m. I had my first sighting of the mountain - the mighty north face of Formidable with clouds roiling in the valley below.  I didn't sleep the rest of the night.  At 5 a.m. I finally got up and walked up and down the knoll enjoying the views and pointing my Canon in every direction.

We set off under clear skies fully optimistic that we would stay the night at White Rock Lakes - the place of my dreams.  After a wrong turn on the Middle Cascade Glacier we reached the col between Spider and Formidable.  At this point the route drops steeply down a snow slope, and heeding Cliff's command "belay the women", we wasted two more hours.  The day was passing and the LeConte Glacier was still a very long traverse away.  A failed attempt to bypass the Yang-Yang Lakes wasted more time and led to group tension.  Clearly, our plan to make up a day and reach the White Rock Lakes was doomed to failure.  Just to put an exclamation point on our ineptitude, we found the longest and scariest way to reach LeConte Arm.  Finally, cooler heads prevailed and we made the first good decision of the day - to stop. 

Day 4

Our camp was fantastic, but not the White Rock Lakes.  Could we just camp there the next night?  This would make us one day late and lead to Jill missing her first day of work.  Still it was tempting, until I ran a few scenarios through my head.  One scenario had Jill getting fired and me having to work as a 9th grade science teacher in someplace like Burien.  Truly a horrendous and unacceptable outcome. 

Despite having to blow through the lakes, Day 4 will stand out in my memory as pure magic.  Once over the LeConte Glacier the best scenery in all the Cascades starts to show.  Directly below us was the South Cascade Glacier, a body of ice with a remarkably consistent low-angle grade that makes it much less appealing to look at than a map might lead you to believe.  Making up for the disappointment of the boring S Cascade Glacier are the rugged peaks from Spire Point to the Gunsights.  We had lunch at the White Rock Lakes and reluctantly kept marching across the valley to the Dana Glacier.  The pitch on the glacier was much friendlier than it looked from the lakes, but the foreshortening effect led us all to underestimate the amount of work to get to Spire Col.  Most of our group was finished at the col and in no mood for shenanigans on the way to the ridge.  We took Fred's advice and descended the third gully all the way to Itswoot Ridge where we made  one final gorgeous camp. 

A satisfying sense of completion swept over me that night.  I had finally knocked off my most coveted North Cascades trip.  My wife was still smiling.  Skies were clear and Glacier Peak was close enough to touch.  Or, maybe it was just my reluctance to carry any leftover 151 back to the car.  After our lovely brides retired to their dens Matt and I stayed up long enough to watch it go completely dark and have some male-oriented conversation.  The evening will likely stand out as my favorite of the summer.

Day 5

I awoke grumpy.  The good part of the traverse was over and now we had to pay the price for all the alpine walking and good scenery.  A long slog back down into the jungle followed by 9 miles of road walking.  To add long term misery to short, Jill had signed up to work for an entire year - beginning in less than 24 hours.  By the time it was over Jill had cried twice, Jenny had puked multiple times and the boys were popping illicit pain meds.

Just a few years ago I waxed melancholically about how the innocent days of endless road trips and long summers in the hills would be ending.  They did.  Women, jobs, and mortgages have made those days something that can only be cherished in our memories.  Could we be standing at the edge of another precipice?  Dave and Jill have jobs of their own, are making low-ball offers on homes, and hear the beats of the baby drums getting louder.  Perhaps we'll look back fondly at the innocent days when all it took to do a week-long trip in the hills was for Jenny to get Saturday off.  This is a most depressing thought.  May we all resolve to not get saddled with unnecessary obligations and keep our calendars simple and clear so that a magnificent trip such as this can be scheduled every year.  Where to next year?

On the car shuttle back towards Cascade Pass.  Poor weather derailed us on the way to the pass.  Instead, we opted for beer and chips at Cliff's.


Washing dishes outside the bus.


The weather hadn't improved by Friday, but we set off anyway.  Our group pretending to enjoy themselves somewhere on the Cache Glacier.  Since visibility was less than outstanding we let the cliffs on either side of the glacier funnel us up to the col.


Gloominess at camp at the end of Day 1 above Kool Aid Lake. 


We spent the first half of Day 2 rolled up in our sleeping bags.


We quickly became bored and decided to pack up camp and move through the Red Ledges, which we thought to be one of the cruxes of the trip.


We couldn't see anything from our new camp on Art's Knoll, but it did provide a better venue for charades.  Not sure what Jill is working on here...


After camp games there was nothing to do but sit and enjoy the lack of a view.  Photo by Jenny


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