The Ptarmigan Traverse

In 1973 my college buddy Marc Dilley and I went on a famous mountaineering trip in the North Cascades of Washington, near the Canadian border. It is called the Ptarmigan Traverse. It starts at Cascade Pass, which is reached by one of the most spectacular hikes imaginable, spectacular because you are surrounded by incredible peaks on either side. From Cascade Pass, you leave the trail, not to see another trail for 5 or 7 days, depending on how fast you do the route. Most of the pics below are by Marc, and I have shown some of his other pics in posts on Lewisii tweedyi, Fall Trip to the Enchantments, and The Kayak, High Tech Watercraft of the Arctic.

The view below is by Marc, and shows me in stylin' red socks, wool knickers, and ventile cotton anorak, standard mountaineer garb of the 70's, when wool was king and synthetic fabric was only a dream. We were camped with a view of El Dorado Peak, about halfway to the second pass of the trip, Cache Col.

Looking down at where the trip started we could see Cascade Pass and Forbidden Peak, and Sahale Arm, which leads to Sahale Pk off to the right of the picture below.

Our second night on the trip was spent at a small lake named Kool Aid Lake. There is usually no lake to be seen here, as its usually frozen and covered by snow. In the evening at Kool Aid Lake a cloud formed over us and swirled about in the golden evening sun. It had a real magical air about it.

The photo below is of me looking down at the valley floor from Kool Aid Lake.  I was trying a hair style called the "mountain man". The route of the Ptarmigan is on the mountains above those big U shaped glacial valleys. The valley bottoms are impassible, with devils club and alder thickets, and no trails.  The valley walls are very steep, and level out on their upper part to a flatter profile, which is covered by snow and glaciers.  The glaciers have carved away the mountains until all that is left is a knife edge ridge between the glaciers on either side of the ridge.  The route of the Ptarmigan follows these upper areas high above the valley floor, and crosses the glaciers and the passes between the glaciers and ridges.

On the third day of the trip, you have to cross a rocky ridge near Mt. Formidible, and also this snow filled gulley. This is called "the red band", for the band of red rock that leads up to the snow gulley. I crossed first in this photo from my third Ptarmigan, cutting steps in the hard snow. Then I belayed my partner across. The run out below the snow crossing is not pretty, so your heart is pumping pretty good as you move your ice axe with each step, and concentrate on not tripping on your own crampons. Carrying a 70+ pound pack does not make things easier either.

The photo below shows the group after leaving Yang Yang Lakes, climbing a ridge, and approaching the main obstacle of the fourth day. The route is to head toward the dark rock wall, descend to the left towards the big scary glacier, then pick your way through the crevasse fields of that big mother glacier, and top out on a pass next to the pointy peak at the right of the picture. The crevasses were so incredibly deep, maybe 200 feet deep. Crossing the snow bridges was a little disconcerting.

The view below shows the glacier more clearly, and our route up the right side of the glacier, through the crevasses and up the slope.  The visible crevasses are easy, its the hidden crevasses that are dangerous.

Mark Gibson descending a steep snow slope with a big pack. The danger was in sliding down the snow and sliding right over the little rock ledge, below which were cliffs.

We camped on an flat spot below Le Conte Pk, and in the evening thought we would head up and see if we could climb it.  We took ice axes, but no rope.  It got pretty steep at the top, but we reached the top, looked around, and then looked down at our route.  We all thought "Oh Crap, that is a lot steeper than I want to downclimb!".  It was dang steep.  The fellow in the photo is standing about vertical, and you can see that the snow slope is right in his face.  It had to be 60 degrees, which is the steepest snow can stick to rock.  Plus if you got sliding you would be down in those rocks long before you could self arrest.  Do not ever climb Le Conte Pk without a rope or a helicopter, thats what I learned.

The view fromWhite Rock Lakes to Dome Peak (below) is pretty impressive, and its made more impressive by periodic calving of house sized chunks of ice that break off the glacier and fall over the cliffs below, forming a temporary white flow of ice pieces over the rock. That goes on all day and all night.

The last pass of the trip is on the ridge between Dome Peak and Spire Point, and is called Spire Pass.  We climbed Spire Point, then rested at Spire Pass (below) before heading down to Cub Lake.  The slopes below Spire Pass on the southern side were so steep and slippery with grass and moss that we thought about putting our crampons on for the descent. Of course there was no trail.

The photo below shows me in white and another guy approaching the top of Dome Peak, which has really breathtaking dropoffs on either side.  It is definitely not a "dome". It was tempting to get down on hands and knees and crawl out there, when you realized on either side was just about vertical for a long ways

The photo below is as we were rappelling down from Spire Point.  Spire Point is so sharp there is no place to sit on the summit, even for one person.  Each person gets to a ledge below the summit, pulls up to the knife edge ridge that is the summit, looks around at the view over your knuckles, maybe peeps down the other side, which is vertical, and drops back down to the ledge below.  From the ledge we rappelled down. Its about a 5.5 climb, which is enough for me when the exposure is like that. A rock was kicked down from above that came down the route like a cannon ball.  It didn't hit anyone, or they'd be dead.