Five years ago on July 29, 2011 my friend Brenda and I completed the Ptarmigan Traverse in the North Cascades of Washington. I wrote about our experience together on my previous blog (Toward The Mountaintop Inch By Inch), and to celebrate our 5-year-Ptarmigan-versary, I thought I would share the story again. It's funny looking back how much I've changed/improved in the realm of hiking and mountaineering (i.e. I haven't carried a 49lb pack since, and I never will again - what was I thinking?!), but my spirit of adventure, my desire to explore and my friendship with Brenda has remained a constant.
1tra·verse - noun \ˈtra-vərs :
something that crosses or lies across;
a route or way across or over;
a curving or zigzag way up a steep grade
The Ptarmigan Traverse is a relatively famous mountaineering route in the North Cascades which traverses from Cascade Pass to Dome Peak (from Dome, the route heads down the Itswoot Ridge to Cub Lake and then 4 miles of bushwhacking and 6.6 miles of hiking down to the Downey Creek Trailhead on the close Suiattle River Road). The route was first completed by the Ptarmigan Climbing Club in 1938 and it took 13 days for the climbers to complete the route. The photos taken on their trip (of never-before seen places in the Cascades!) were used in a book which was instrumental in helping the North Cascades attain its National Park status.
My adventure on the Ptarmigan Traverse started, as many climbs do, as a dream. Several years ago, I saw a few photos of climbers on the Dana Glacier and became intrigued - where is this magical place? As I gained both skill and experience climbing, the Ptarmigan Traverse was always in the back of my mind - haunting me like a long lost unfinished task. Last year I brought up the idea of completing the traverse to my friend and climbing partner Brenda - she was enthusiastic about the chance to complete the trip. We talked about and planned the trip for nearly a year - discussing campsites, proper gear, routes, travel logistics, dates, etc. When July rolled around, I could hardly believe that the dream was about to become reality. The realization was both thrilling and terrifying - are we ready for this? Do we know what we are getting ourselves into?
Due to the fact that the final stretch of trail ends at the closed Suiattle River Road, we decided that the week before we would ride our "crummy" mountain bikes 9 miles up the road and stash them in the woods (and then jog 9 miles back to the car). By doing this, when we made it to the Downey Creek Trail the following week, instead of having to walk 9 miles with heavy packs - we would only have to hop on our bikes and coast (mostly) downhill for 9 miles.
Brenda and I affectionately called this day, "going to the end at the beginning". After nine miles of gentle pedaling we made it to the Downey Creek Trailhead. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to reach this point after 6 days of being in the mountains - will I be relieved? Will I be ecstatic? Will we even make it here? There were so many unknowns!
I went to bed at 1:00 AM on the morning of July 24, 2011 after working a late night. My alarm went off at 4:30 AM on the morning of July 24, 2011, and I lept out of bed with the energy of somebody who had been asleep for days. This was it - day 1 of the Ptarmigan Traverse.
I drove to Tacoma and met with Brenda, her husband Dave and our friend Steve. They were going to assist with our vehicle drop, so that we didn't have to drive from the Suiattle River Road all the way back to Cascade Pass to pick up a vehicle on our final day. They also were going to hike the first 3.7 miles with us to Cascade Pass.
After dropping Brenda's car off at milepost 12 on the Suiattle River Road, we all piled into Dave's jeep and headed towards the Cascade Pass Trailhead. As we bumped along on the Cascade River Road, its familiarity was comforting - this road had brought us to the Eldorado trailhead and the Snowking trailhead in just the past month alone. As we passed the Eldorado trailhead and ventured onto the last few miles of road before the Cascade Pass trailhead, my pulse quickened - this is it, it's really happening!!
Once at the Cascade Pass trailhead, final pack and clothing adjustments were made. Sunscreen was applied. Snacks were consumed. Dave helped me hoist my extremely heavy day-one pack onto my back. As it settled into a "manageable uncomfortableness", we headed off on the 36 switchbacks that would gently take us to Cascade Pass, and the beginning of our adventure.
After a nice break at Cascade Pass, Brenda and I said goodbye to Dave and Steve - thankful that they had been with us at the start of our journey. The next part of our route would take us up and over a steep saddle called Cache Col and down to Kool Aid Lakes. As we hiked away from them, I felt a twinge of nervousness - from now on, it would just be the two of us - dependent on both ourselves and each other for safety in the days to follow. The grade steepened tremendously almost immediately after leaving Cascade Pass. Away from the gentle trail, we were now traversing steep snow slopes with dangerous runouts. As we carefully side-stepped the slope, I had to focus on each step, instead of the drop off to my left.
Soon, Cache Col came into view - but not before we realized that we needed to downclimb a near-vertical snow slope in order to access the large snowfield leading to the col. While the route was probably relatively easy with a light pack - downclimbing with a 49lb pack is anything but easy. The weight of the pack alters balance and movement significantly. I plunged my ice axe deep into the snow for a solid self-belay, and with a deep breath, swung my foot over the lip and began to carefully downclimb the slope. The snow was solid, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I slowly made my way down to a safer location.
Finally, at Cache Col - our route for the next 6 days presented itself. The terrain was steeper and more rugged than I could have imagined. We found a stream to collect water before we made it to camp, and we watched as two gallon-sized boulders bounced down Magic Peak and landed at the base of another small stream that we had almost chosen to use as a water source. If we had been standing there, we would have been seriously injured or killed - the freakish nature of the incident startled both of us, and served as a reminder that we were guests in the North Cascades - guests that could easily be halted in our tracks by any number of mountain-related accidents. Our awareness level for the next 6 days needed to be focused and sharp at all times.
Once at Kool Aid Lakes, the sense of solitude was unlike any that I have ever experienced - other than the tracks of a few climbers ahead of us, we were truly alone in the mountains. As we prepared our dinner, I felt a strange twinge of uncomfortableness - what was I doing out here, when I could be safe at home? Why couldn't I have picked a safer hobby, like knitting? I'm not sure why I experienced that sensation, as I am typically very comfortable in the mountains - afterall, I made the choice to do this trip, and I had been longing for this moment for years. And yet, in that moment - alone - I felt afraid of what was to come. The first day had been more difficult than I had expected - the following day would take us up the infamous red ledges and beyond - what challenges awaited us around the next bend?
As the sun dipped down below the rugged horizon, the light changed from gold to pink - we watched the sunset from inside our tent, wrapped in our sleeping bags. The quiet in that moment was pure bliss - two pairs of eyes gazing at the day's final rays of sunlight, two minds ready for sleep but anxious for the next day, and two hearts beating in unison with the same love for the mountains.
I slept soundly in my tent that first night at Kool Aid Lakes and woke feeling refreshed. My anxiety had melted away with the setting sun the night before, and as I woke to a new day rising, I felt prepared for the journey ahead of us.
After packing up camp, we started off to tackle our first obstacle of the day - the infamous Red Ledges. The conditions surrounding access to the ledges vary from year to year - sometimes they can be difficult to access due to steep snow and/or moat conditions. This year, with excessive amounts of snow, we were tasked with climbing up a very steep, but solid, snow slope to gain the ledges. After a quick walk on the dirt, we crossed an exposed snow gully (see photo - definitely a "no fall zone") and then climbed up one more steep slope to exit the ledges. The ledges were definitely a fun start to our day, as conditions were perfect and a solid self-belay with the ice axe felt very comfortable on the steep slopes.
Once past the ledges, we began our traverse towards the Middle Cascade Glacier and the Spider Formidable Col. To our right, wispy clouds began to swirl delicately in the valleys below and large, puffy clouds billowed on the horizon. As we donned glacier gear (ropes, harness, etc...) and headed up the Middle Cascade Glacier, the clouds seemed to creep closer and closer. Just as we arrived at the Spider Formidable Col, we felt a huge gust of wind and almost immediately we were engulfed in a complete whiteout.
Using a GPS to verify our position, we descended the steep slopes after Spider-Formidable Col and began to traverse towards Yang Yang Lakes. With occasional "peek a boo" views through the clouds, we were able to navigate relatively quickly. Finally, after a long traverse, we came to easier slopes above the lakes. As we walked blindly through the fog towards our destination, we arrived at one final steep snow slope - I started carefully down the slope, and suddenly, my crampon wobbled on the steep snow and I lost my footing. I fell to the ground and, hurled by the momentum of my large pack, I slid all the way down the slope. As I slid I was careful to keep my crampons out of the snow - one bad snag could easily lead to a broken ankle or leg. The slope had a safe runout (i.e. I wasn't going to slide off a cliff), so I was not overly concerned. As I came to a stop, I looked up the hill at Brenda, just in time to see her also lose her footing and slide down the slope as well! We both lost poles on the upper reaches of the slope, and as I walked back up to retrieve them, I realized that our harmless slip was a good wake up call - given the speed at which we fell due to our large packs, falling on steep/dangerous slopes was not a viable option!
As we set up our tent and began the water collection process from a nearby creek, the rain began to fall. We climbed into the tent at 2pm and took a nap. Upon waking around dinner time, the rain was still coming down. We made a conscious decision to forego our usual bear-aware tactics of cooking/eating away from the tent, in favor of the less-hypothermic option of staying dry. I boiled water in the vestibule and we enjoyed our freeze-dried meals from within the comfort of our dry abode. I ate a delicious meal of gumbo, and as I spilled turkey broth on my hands, I said a quiet prayer that bears didn't like turkey.
As we fell asleep, listening to the rain on the tent there were many things that we did not know : my SPOT messages to my family over the past two days had not gotten out, and the thunderstorms taking place in Western Washington were a cause of concern for those who were worried about our safety. My mom saw a weather graphic on the news which was meant to illustrate the high number of lightning strikes - the entire North Cascades area was covered in RED. The weather forecast had originally called for improving conditions on Tuesday/Wednesday - this would not be the case.
In our small orange tent on the shore of Yang Yang Lakes we enjoyed our ignorant bliss. Unaware of the challenges to come, we were content to fall asleep listening to the rain - hopeful that tomorrow would be a better day.
From the pages of my Ptarmigan Traverse notebook :
Day 3, Sitting @ Yang Yang :
woke up @ 4am - fog
woke up @ 5am - fog
woke up @ 6, 7, 8, 9am - fog. Ugh! Hard to leave camp w/ low vis, especially because next stretch of journey is supposed to be the most beautiful. Met our "neighbors" - Chad, Brian, Brian and Kyle. They are from Portland. Brenda and I played a game throwing a rock at a towel. We walked around the lake - saw elk tracks. Brenda saw bear poop. Still very cloudy at 12pm - no signs of it lifting anytime soon.
The moment before I unzip the tent door and peel back the rain fly is a moment of hope - I hold my breath, suspended between the cozy environment within the tent and the unknown conditions outside. Will the sky be clear? Will our journey continue today?
As I unzipped the tent on that Tuesday, July 26, 2011, my heart sank with disappointment - fog. While we were in the possession of a GPS and maps (of course!), we had really been looking forward to this particular section of the journey. Today we were supposed to travel from Yang Yang to White Rock Lakes - this route would take us near Sentinel Peak, Le Conte Peak, and the South Cascade Glacier. This section on the traverse is extremely remote and obviously very difficult to access, and as a result, it is visited by a seldom few.
We decided, with heavy hearts, that we would stay at Yang Yang Lakes an additional day. According to the weather report we had read before departing, the conditions were supposed to improve on Wednesday. We hoped that a day would make a difference, and so we decided to make the best of our time at Yang Yang Lakes. We entertained ourselves by sleeping sporadically, hiking around the lake, scrambling on rocks near camp, throwing rocks at a towel and, in general, enjoying a peaceful day spent in the wilderness.
Other than speaking briefly to the four climbers from Portland, I had not spoken to a single soul other than Brenda since we left Cascade Pass 3 days prior. As we sat in the tent, singing tunes from the Sound of Music ("When the dog bites/ When the bee stings/ When I'm feeling sad/ I simply remember my favorite things/ And then I don't feel so bad."), I felt so lucky to be in such a special place together. Ultimately - each day of the Ptarmigan Traverse, whether it followed our planned itinerary or not, was a unique facet of the adventure. As somebody constantly seeking "meaning" through my adventuring, I knew that this day of waiting would contribute to my recollection of the experience as a whole. I felt certain that at the end of the traverse, the true meaning of the experience would reveal itself to me - but I knew at this point that it had not yet come full circle. That night as we drifted to sleep, we were hopeful that the next day would bring clear skies for our journey to White Rock Lakes.
To be continued...