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Author Topic: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse  (Read 6699 times)
ski_photomatt
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June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« on: 06/29/04, 06:36 AM »

For my 100th post, I thought I'd up the bar for the somewhat dubious distinction of longest post.  I'm not sure if I made it, but it's probably close..

w/ Phil Higuera
                                                                               
In his book "The Best Ski Touring in America" Steve Barnett makes an off-handed comment about "deep, jungle filled holes" when comparing valleys in the Western Cascades to those east of the crest.  The line has become somewhat of a legend amongst our friends, and whenever I have a commanding view of a deep Cascadian valley, especially one without a trail, I can't help but think "wow, that's some impressive jungle filled hole down there."  One of the many virtues of the Ptarmigan Traverse is that it manages to avoid travel in any of these holes, except of course for the exit, mile after never ending mile, but we'll get to that.

Truth be told, this wasn't the first choice for a high route this spring, as I had just walked the traverse for the second time last fall.  The snow pack, weather and our work schedules conspired to make it the only feasible choice however.  The high country along the route is superlative and skiing is always a drastically different experience than walking, so we shouldered our heavy packs and started the trek from the Cascade River Road Thursday morning.  Unfortunately, the car shuttle and shenanigans with the workers starting repair work on the road conspired to push our departure time back to 10 am.  We had hoped to make it to Spider-Formidable col the first night, but with this late start and precious 4 hours of sleep the night before, it was not to be.

From Cascade Pass we skied a short distance into Pelton Basin and climbed a snow gully to the Cache Glacier instead of making the steep traverse across Mixup Arm.  Above 6500 ft on the glacier we ran into recent snow;  it wasn't too soft on skis, but was fairly rotten, with our poles penetrating several feet.  In the fall, Cache Col is protected by a moat and a hundred feet of steep mud, but in the spring it is nothing more than a gentle snow slope, buried under many feet of snow.  By the time we arrived at the col after 5400 ft of climbing, it was mid-afternoon and the sky was beginning to look fairly ominous.  The weather forecast when we left called for sunny skys on Thursday, but "I'll be damned if those clouds don't look like rain clouds," I thought.  We skied down below Cool Aid Lake, then climbed past the lake to make a descending traverse over towards Red Ledge.  The ledge itself was mostly snow covered, with a section melted out;  a steep gully bypassed most of the ledge, but it too was partly melted out.  Is that snow rotten?  The entire prospect looked a bit too unsavory for our tastes, so we instead climbed some brush and a snow gully on climbers right to gain the ridge above.  By this time it was approaching early evening, and the clouds overhead were starting to grow worrisome.  Sheets of rain were falling to our south and west, but were re-evaporating in the dry lower atmosphere before hitting the ground.  Occasionally, a few sprinkles would touch down.  We decided to make camp instead of pressing on.  That evening we were treated to a fiery sunset behind Johannesburg, some impressive god rays through the isolated rain squaws and a lightning and thunder display to our south west.  "Sunny?"  Hum, something was amiss with the forecast.

Friday dawned crystal clear, and after enjoying the view of Formidable and Spider over breakfast, we made a descending traverse below the Middle Cascade Glacier.  The talus here was melted out, but we didn't mind as the beaten trail made for easy upward progress.  We skinned up the glacier to the col, then made a long descending traverse to Yang Yang Lakes.  A steep snow gully gave access to the arm below Le Conte.  By this time, dark clouds had again billowed up, and appeared to be raining to our north.  The snow hadn't refrozen over night, was quite rotten and we were concerned about the steep traverse to gain access to the Le Conte Glacier.  A clap of thunder sounded and we paused to weigh our options.  I desperately wanted to make it past the Le Conte Glacier on Friday, both to climb Old Guard which I hadn't previously done on either of my trips, and to give us an opportunity to ski Dome the following day.  It began to snow, and in a moment of weakness perhaps, we decide to stay put.

Saturday morning, after cramponing up Le Conte arm, we made a long descending traverse on softening snow, then roped up at the base of the Le Conte Glacier.  I knew we'd be walking across what later in the season are gaping crevasses, so the rope seemed prudent.  The snow on the lower glacier only superficially re-froze, and was soft and rotten below the thin surface crust.  This surely would would have been very soft the previous afternoon we consoled ourselves.  We arrived at the Sentinel - Le Conte col without incident and took in the view of the South Cascade Glacier.  The entire Ptarmigan is spectacular, but the section from the Le Conte Glacier to the Dana Glacier is perhaps the nicest, and my favorite.  As we arrived at the col above White Rock Lakes, I swear I heard Phil's jaw drop.  All at once, and for the first time in the tour, one can see the entire cirque from the Chickamin Glacier over to Spire Point in one unbroken wall of ice and rock.  The curiously perched Gunsight; the heaving mass of the Chickamin, broken beyond belief, reminiscent of a drying lava flow as it runs into the slabs and rubble above over its long tongue;  Dome and Elephant Head aligned in the center, their twin forms anchoring the scene;  the twin lobes of the Dana Glacier, and finally the improbably sharp Spire Point.  Below snow line, the most impressive jungle filled hole of the trip, Agnes Creek, gracefully arcs out of view.  It is one of the most spectacular views in the Cascades, forever protected by days of work and toil, and a previous generation of thoughtful, hard working politicians and conservationists.

We made some fine turns down to White Rock Lakes, then traversed below the Dana Glacier and climbed to Spire Col.  The climb was very hot - at one point Phil stopped to roll in the snow - but soon enough we arrived at the col to nice views of Glacier Peak.  We took a break for some food, and I told Phil what I knew about the original Ptarmigans.  We skied down to Itswoot Ridge and made camp in one of the more scenic camps I've seen.  Phil took a run towards Dome, while I contently sat and watched clouds blow past the peaks.
                                                                               
After packing up on Sunday morning, we skied and hiked out.  We were able to ski down to Cub Lake, then climb to the Bachelor Creek divide on mostly bare trail, before skiing down to the gigantic slide path in Bachelor Creek.  Here we packed the skis for the last time and began the brush battle.  The trail in Bachelor Creek has fallen into disrepair; we cursed the brush and downfall until finally arriving at Downey Creek.  In one particularly annoying alder thicket, Phil wondered out loud what it must have been like for the pioneers.  Did they carry machetes?  I replied simply, "They were harder in those days."  We switched to running shoes for the final hike out Downey Creek, down what must be the longest 6 miles in the entire range.  Most of the trail here is in fine shape, but the riparian zones are overgrown.  As I pushed through a particularly thick section of thorny bushes and devils club high over the tops of my skis, I more than once heard Phil snicker, "hehe, jungle filled holes."
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Jason_H.
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #1 on: 06/29/04, 06:48 AM »

I've always wanted to do that. I'm jealous. Thanks for the stoke. I've only been to dome and to gunsight notch, but haven't had to opportunity to see what is in between. Show us some pics when you get a chance.
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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #2 on: 06/29/04, 07:46 AM »

Nice story, Matt. Congratulations on completing the trip in such iffy weather and snow conditions. I especially liked your acknowledgement of the conservationist legacy.
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Sam Avaiusini
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #3 on: 06/29/04, 09:27 AM »

very cool!  Nice re-cap, Matt!  I'll have to remember the term "jungle filled holes" next time I'm buried in schwack!
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Sam Avaiusini
ski_photomatt
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #4 on: 06/29/04, 12:43 PM »

Both Phil and I shot film, so I'm not sure when photos will be coming.

Quote
I especially liked your acknowledgement of the conservationist legacy.

I wanted to go a step further and acknowledge Tom Miller's book, The North Cascades, but it was getting long and decided to cut it.  Perhaps now is a good time..

Last fall Lowell and I hiked the Ptarmigan with Phil Fortier and Brian Miller to recreate some of the photos in Tom Miller's book.  Lowell wrote a nice story and published some photos on the web about the trip and book on his site here.

Shortly after I got home from that trip, I luckily found a copy of the rare book on eBay.  The seller didn't know what she had and was cleaning out an attic;  I quietly snatched it up for considerably less than it is worth.  When it arrived, I was delighted at the photos.  They are timeless.  They could be of any mountaineers from any generation, and as such make an instant connection to anyone who has known and loved the North Cascades.  Because of the hard work by conservationists, the mountains and experiences remain unchanged.  "Climbers at Cache Col" could be any one of us, our children, our grandchildren, or our parents, our grandparents, ...
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Kirsten
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #5 on: 06/29/04, 01:42 PM »

Great trip report!  Sounds like an amazing trip.  I can't wait to see it for myself.  My boyfriend and I are planning on doing the Ptarmigan starting this Saturday and finishing the next Sunday (giving ourselves plenty of time to relax, climb and enjoy the scenery).  Our original plan was to travel on foot, although after reading your TR, we may opt for skis.   From what you wrote, it sounds as though the snow was getting pretty rotten but there was still lots of it.  I wonder, with a week of 80+ degree temperatures, how much has the snow melted out and would we be better off on skis?  hmm. Huh

Also, were the lakes melted out yet?  Was there plenty of running water or were you melting snow?  It seems as though we are hitting the traverse just at that in-between time.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks in advance!  Smiley
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ski_photomatt
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #6 on: 06/29/04, 02:03 PM »

The lakes are melting out and there is running water everywhere.  We were able to sleep on bare ground each night.  The snow was rotten primarily above 6500 ft where it hadn't consolidated yet, but that has most likely changed.  I'm not sure whether to recommend skis for a trip next week or not;  there should be decent coverage higher up, but I'd imagine you will have to carry them quite a bit at the low points.
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Kirsten
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #7 on: 06/29/04, 05:44 PM »

Thanks for the quick reply and all the useful information!   Smiley  I think we will go with our original plan and not bring skis.  


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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #8 on: 06/30/04, 08:55 AM »

Quote
I think we will go with our original plan and not bring skis.


Probably a good choice. But bring ski poles! My wife and I walked the Ptarmigan in early July some years ago and we both carried only short-ish ice axes. They were no virtually help at all while plodding through soft snow. Trekking poles would have been just the ticket.
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Phil_H
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #9 on: 07/01/04, 07:02 PM »

Matt's jaw dropped a few times too....

For those of you who wanted to see some photos from this trip, I've put some up on my web site:

http://students.washington.edu/phiguera/04_PtarmaginTraverse/index.html

This trip was hands down one of the most spectacular I've been on, due to the scenery, the remoteness, and the company. One of the interesting things about the PT was the way perspective screwed with me as I looked across valleys to the future route. Matt warned me about this, but even with the warning, it was amazing how I thought "we can't ski/climb up that" from one perspective, and then we'd happily skin up the slope once we were at it. The pictures do some of this justice, and I put the route on there to illustrate some of this (like the picture of Colchuck Col in Burgdorfer's book).
« Last Edit: 06/09/05, 07:20 AM by Phil_Higuera » Logged
Zap
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Re: June 17-20, 2004 Ptarmigan Traverse
« Reply #10 on: 07/02/04, 04:14 AM »

Phil, nice layout of your TR and photos on your website.  Zap
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