Trip: Ptarmigan Traverse N-S - Formidable, Spire, Dome, big storm
I had originally hoped to post this closer to when we went on the trip so that the conditions would be up-to-date, but I've been a weekend warrior this spring and summer and computer time has been minimal. Anyway, enjoy!
Jon and I, along with our friend Dylan, did the Ptarmigan Traverse over 8 days July 20-27 despite a dubious weather forecast. We had a full North Cascades experience that included Formidable, Spire, Dome, world-class scenery, a long road walk, and 60 tent-bound hours at White Rock Lake. It was one of those trips that changes you for the better and stays with you long afterwards.
Preparation and Menu Planning
The Ptarmigan Traverse has been on my radar for many years. My parents, aunt, and uncle did it in 1979.
Then, 11 years ago, my cousins went on it with their parents (TR here.) Their stories and beautiful pictures inspired me to start climbing in 2006. However, it took a long time to get around to doing the Ptarmigan Traverse. Last winter, we decided it was high time to block out a week late July and finally go (foolproof for weather, right?!).
I hadn't been on a trip this long since I spent 23 days guiding a group of high schoolers through the Olympic Mountains 2009. Planning this trip was much more involved than a typical weekend mission. Jon was determined that we wouldn't starve and set the goal of packing 5000 calories per person per day. This turned out to be just right. In an effort to increase our nutrition, we bought a food dehydrator and added peppers, bananas, cherries, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, and mushrooms to our menu. We had great nutrition from these! Other items of note include ghee (think condensed butter), a large wad of coconut oil (great in oatmeal and curry dinners), Triscuit crackers, Walker's Shortbread, gummy bears, instant miso soup mix from PCC, and full-fat powdered milk. Most stores carry fat-free versions of powdered milk, gross. Look in the hispanic section at Fred Meyer and you can find 'Nestle Nido Fortificada', fully fatted dried milk.
The menu: most of the meals were boil water and serve.
- granola - granola, powdered milk, dried fruit, walnuts, coconut flakes: just add cold water
- muesli - muesli from PCC, powdered milk, extra fruit and nuts - possible to just add hot water and let sit. Could also boil a few minutes.
- rice noodle curry: curry powder, rice noodles, concentrated coconut oil, dried veggies, tuna
- curried lentils mix from PCC bulk section: a few minutes of boiling the lentils and veggies, then add instant rice, coconut fat, curry, and let sit for 5 minutes.
- Mexican Beans & Rice: dried black beans, instant rice, cheese, dried veggies, ghee. This one had some notable after-effects, much to Dylan's dismay. (Jon quote of the summer: "every fart is a social experiment")
-mashed potatoes: potatoes, salt, ghee, parm, cheese, bacon bits, dried veggies
-pasta/pesto: angel hair pasta, pesto, parm, bacon bits, smoked salmon, dried veggies (we did this one twice)
-cous cous with vegetables and tuna
Dylan's and Jon's packs weighed a hefty 65 lbs. each, while mine was 45 lbs. Proportionately, Dylan and I were carrying 36% of our body weight, whereas Jon got stuck with 46%. I didn't feel too sorry for him, though, since he'd been tearing it up in the mountains all summer and I was still not feeling 100% fit after having pneumonia in May.
Food for the trip
The week leading up to the trip, the weather forecast began deteriorating in an alarming way. Multiple systems of rain coming our way, in late July! Early Sunday morning we congregated at my house, and dithered away several hours agonizing over weather models, racking our brains for alternative plans, etc. I lay in bed, angry about the weather ruining my dream trip, while the guys kept the stoke high. Around 8:00 AM, the guys concluded that we'd probaby have one full weather day in the tent. We decided to go for it and bumbled out the door, but promptly found that we had a flat tire on our Subaru. Thwarted again! Fortunately, Firestone is open on Sundays (the only place that is) and we headed over to Ballard for a quick fix (insert several hours here). Then, off to Cascade Pass! I was filled with doubt and angst that morning. Not the most auspicious start. [Apparently we also left our garage door open when we left, but our neighbors kindly closed it for us.]
We dropped a car at the Suiattle trail head and then starting hiking from the Cascade Pass trail head at 2:00 PM, taking a slow and steady pace due to our heavy packs. "We will eat our way to happiness!" Dylan quipped. It was completely socked in, which made the whole thing seem pretty surreal. At Cascade Pass we got our only views of the day for about 2 seconds before mist enveloped us. We then traversed over the Mixup Arm to Cache Col, a bit mossy and chossy but nothing scary. I hadn't been mountaineering much in the past few years, so I was a little nervous about the few crux sections along the traverse. Mixup Arm was the first "crux" but it didn't have anything difficult, perhaps due to the nice snow conditions. As we descended to Kool-Aid Lake, visibility became nil and we wandered around trying to hit the lake, but our collective map powers brought us safely to camp near dusk. The weather models called for good weather tomorrow, right guys? "70 degrees and sunny!" became Jon's mantra that week..sometimes accurate, sometimes completely ridiculous.
Cache Col in the mist
We awoke to more fog, but during breakfast we started to glimpse mysterious peaks around us. New scenery! New mountains! Two other parties were camped with us, but after this day we didn't see anybody, from near or far. Apparently, they all turned back due to the weather forecast and their shorter timeframe (5-6 days). Maybe they were smart...Yeah, they were definitely smart if they didn't have 8 days like us. Red Ledge was the second crux of the trip. Some careful work with crampons and an ice axe and it was done quickly enough. I should have worn my gloves, though. You definitely don't want to fall, but it wasn't too scary. Afternoon sun would soften the snow a lot.
Spider Formidable Col and the rest of the Traverse
After climbing the Middle Cascade Glacier, we descended moderately steep snow down the Spider-Formidable Col and set up camp just below Formidable, on some pleasant rock ledges. We filtered water from a snowmelt pond. At this point, Jon and Dylan were like 'tightly coiled springs', and decided to unleash some pent up 'manergy' on Formidable. They sped up Formidable via the south face, there and back again to camp in 4 hours. Apparently, they trundled lots of rocks and had a great time. I stayed at camp, enjoyed the good weather, and took in the scenery. The boys wanted to bag Spider too, but when they returned from Formidable it was time for dinner and they figured they'd tag it next morning. I wasn't so interested in the chossy peaks up north and also wanted to save my energy so I could just get through the traverse. I had no idea what my fitness would do over the week. I had mostly recovered from pneumonia by late May but kept feeling surprised by my lack of stamina in the early summer.
Despite Day 2's beautiful skies, the Day 3 dawned with threatening clouds. No time for Spider--we needed to move! We quickly made our way over to Yang Yang lakes, where it began to sprinkle on us. From there, we ascended a steep couloir to the Le Conte arm. I thought this was the scariest part of the trip: a long, 40+ degree pitch of firm snow. Jon climbed below me, encouraging me to keep moving and stay confident, while I periodically called up to Dylan and asked him to make the steps a bit smaller. I think I busted through a lot of my steep snow fear on this trip. I did get mad at Jon when I looked down and saw that he wasn't wearing his helmet.. We quickly crossed the Le Conte Glacier between rain showers. Fortunately, the Le Conte Glacier was sunny for a bit. There were some really cool, huge crevasses. It began to pour on us as we descended down to the enormous South Cascade Glacier. Spirits remained high and I was content because I still got to see all the views...just slightly menacing versions of them. We knew we needed to get to a good camp, because we were anticipating one weather day in the tent. We made our way through intermittent white-out and showers to the southern end of South Cascade Glacier. We don't have GPS and were hoping to find the correct notch in the whiteout. Thankfully, the clouds parted at just the right moment to keep us on track. We descended to White Rock lakes, down climbing a short snow cliff from the notch. This was another crux section, one that no trip reports mentioned, but it was definitely face-in, down climb territory. What a great day of dynamic weather!
Le Conte Lake below
Le Conte Glacier
Excited to have finally reached camp, in the rain.."70 degrees and sunny!"
Days 4 and 5
Rain, and lots of it. This kept up largely confined to our MegaLite for 60 straight hours. The wind whipped our mid and splashed us with condensation. Gradually, our down sleeping bags became more and more water-logged, and all articles of clothing became soggy. The first day we entertained ourselves with riddles, word games, books, and naps. Jon and Dylan pondered such things as how 4 men buried in sand can tell what color hats they have, the mysteries of light switches, and how many pretty pink elephants Dylan had (oh, that was a tricky one). The weather cleared a few times, giving us tantalizing views of Gunsight and the chance to do emergency sleeping bag drying operations - hold it up in the wind and it dries pretty well.
The second day, however, was more grim. We'd only been expecting one weather day, but this one was far worse than the first day. We descended into silence as wind battered the mid, spending most of the day laying quietly, interrupted only by emergency events that required fast action:
(1) Digging a trench to divert water from running into the tent. We added onto the trench several times.
(2) Hastily resurrecting our tent after it collapsed in strong wind gusts. The ground around the stakes turned to soft mud and they pulled out, so we shoved ice axes through the stake loops and buried them in rocks.
(3) Realizing that the constant buffeting by wind was causing the tent to rip in multiple places. To solve this, Dylan and Jon jumped out into the storm and constructed a truly monstrous rock barrier to protect our fragile tent.
(4) running out when the rain stopped to 'dry' sleeping bags in the wind.
This experience made me decide not to go on long mountaineering trips with dubious forecasts with only a Mega Lite. Unfortunately expedition tents are expensive and we don't have one. What would we have done if the tent actually had failed? We were two or three days from civilization and needed clear weather to navigate. Hypothermia would have been a real possibility. We agreed that we didn't have many good backup options. Commitment!
My entertaining husband
Our tent during a small break. The site in the foreground was the boys' first choice of campsite, but luckily I inherited my mom's habit of 'shopping' for campsites and we found a gravelly one on top of a little rise!
Tent damage, nothing a little repair tape can't fix.
At last, we woke to clear skies! Relief, sweet freedom from our prison! All the doubt and anxiety of the storm vanished. We quickly set up a massive drying operation and soaked in the views, feeling like we had come back to life. Originally we had planned to climb Dome and go over to Gunsight, but with 2 weather days we were out of time. Around 11 AM, we packed up and headed up the Dana Glacier to Spire Col. That was an interminable slog. We had puffy afternoon clouds which made for great alpine ambience. We then headed over and up to the main peak of Spire, climbing by the east face route. Several pitches of unroped scrambling, with a final pitch of low 5th, brought us to the tiny summit. Then, down we went to camp high on Itswoot Ridge.
OK views from White Rocks lakes
Dylan levitating from happiness
Headed towards Spire
Typical summit pose on top of Spire
Dylan and Dome
All week long we had been looking forward to climbing Dome, hoping that the weather would improve during this, the most spectacular leg of the trip. And the day dawned perfectly clear! (In fact, it would be irritatingly clear for the next 3 weeks.) We set out around 9:00 AM. We were all pretty tired by this point and I, as usual was the caboose. The boys chose to access the route by staying high from camp, but it was a loose and unpleasant hike. Grumble. Turns out we were 500 feet above a nice climber's trail. We made our way to the very flat Dome Glacier, and followed this up to the col just beneath the main summit. It was hot that day. Easy rock scrambling brought us to the top. The very, very top looks like it involves some exposed au cheval moves, so we roped up, but it turned out to be quite easy. The snow softened up nicely by the time we descended. Many episodes of boot skiing brought us to camp. Feeling a bit sad to leave the high country, we packed up and started on the long deproach. We made it down past Cub Lake, up over the steep little ridge, and then a few miles down Bachelor Creek, to just above where the main bushwhacking starts. We found one of the only flat spots along Bachelor Creek for camping. There were a few more below us.
Heading up to Dome
Dylan, the boot skiing pro
As the crow flies, Bachelor Creek is about 3 miles long. But, given all the twist and turns of the climbers trail, us mortals on the ground must travel either 5 or 6 miles, whacking bushes all the while. At points, the trail becomes very hard to find. Don't give up! Believe that it exists! There is sporadic orange flagging and the trail always re-appears. Take the time to make sure you are on the trail, or else you will find horrendous bushwhacking. We made it though with no problems, stopping to find the trail periodically. Dylan and Jon did a great job navigating. We took a short rest at the intersection of Bachelor and Downey creeks. After that, it was a long grind of 6.7 miles to the Suittatle River Road. I was exhausted during this part and the downed trees were particularly annoying. Then we had 9 miles of road walking to the car; strangely I got a second wind for this part and was pretty upbeat. The guys, whose boots had gotten wet during the trip, were pretty miserable during the roadwalk. I think that waterproofing and short gaitors saved me from a similar fate.
Jon sad to be leaving the mountains, camped on Bachelor Creek
Too much of this
Glad to be done with that road walk!
We shuttled over to Marblemount and found that the good folks at the BBQ shack were willing to cook for us even though they'd closed for the day. Score! What a trip. I think we'll be back again. It would be even more fun without the rain and road walk.
There are snaffles everywhere on this trip. We hung the food in the tent and avoided the typical lakeside campsites. Oddly, not a single store in Seattle had Ursacks or chainmail stuff sacks. Our food survived just fine, save for one small mouse chew at White Rock Lakes.
the Suiattle River road is supposed to be done in October. They had heavy trucks al the way up at the trail head, but since the new bridge isn't done, the gate is still closed 9 miles down. Why they couldn't gate it further in is a mystery to me... I expect the Bachelor Creek route to get a lot more traffic next year.