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[TR] North Cascades/Glacier Peak Wilderness - Ptarmigan Traverse (modified) 07/24/2021

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Trip: North Cascades/Glacier Peak Wilderness - Ptarmigan Traverse (modified)

Trip Date: 07/24/2021

Trip Report:


While it's probably been too long for this trip report to be of any use to folks *this year*, I figured I'd throw this up here anyway. Sorry I didn't get it up here sooner!
I recently did a modified version of the Ptarmigan Traverse with an alternate exit via the S Cascade Glacier as we were told that Downey Creek was closed due to last year's fires. There were four of us - Doug Diamond (me), Mark, Bryan, and Peter. We did end up choosing to take ropes and harness with us, and though we only really used them on one day, we were glad to have them then.
In general, the route was in very good condition, with a lot of the big crevasses being very visible, the moats at the edges of the glaciers easily traversable, and the snow only somewhat slushy. Mostly. Bugs were atrocious at all the lakes, especially Yang Yang.
The South Cascade exit, while an interesting modification, is not one I would likely repeat. I'm glad I did it, but as you'd hear from most other folks who have done that "trail", the bushwhack out was completely brutal. For long sections, you are fighting for your life against alder and vine maple which have somehow grown directly out of moderately steep talus fields. The rest of the time, you are working hard to make sure you're roughly 'on trail', so you don't get cliffed out. It is doable, but just. Anyway, see below for our day to day itinerary. As you'll see, we took a pretty leisurely approach, which I would recommend. The views and terrain up there are so fabulous, you'll want to spend more in every spot.

Day 1: Cascade Pass to Kool Aid Lake

We had heard that the road to Cascade Pass had experienced a washout and was slowly being repaired but was not open yet. Thankfully, we found that it was open all the way to the trailhead and appeared to have been so for at least a day. We ended up going a little high out of the pass itself and having to backtrack, as the trail stays below the cliffs as it traverses over towards the first glacier. First glacier was straightforward with good snow conditions. We camped in the col, as Kool-Aid appeared to have multiple groups already camped.
Day 2: Kool Aid to Yang Yang
Getting onto the Red Ledges was not especially daunting. There was some minor moating, but there was still a good place to get down onto the rock next to the snow and climb onto the ledge from there. In future, would consider going all the way past the ledge on day 1 to camp in the heather just after the Red Ledge. Crossing the Middle Cascade Glacier was a little more complex than the first day, but as described above, snow conditions were still good and the crevasses were all very obvious. Went without rope, though we did find the snow to be much softer over on the Spider side. Got to Yang Yang without much trouble.
Day 3: Exploratory Mission to LeConte
We were going to try to scramble LeConte as a 'rest day', but it ended up mostly being exploratory. The main path to the summit looked daunting for some of our crew in softer boots and we were having trouble interpreting the Beckey description for the alternative route up. Got a closer look at the LeConte for the next day's work, and hung out at the lakeside, slowly being consumed by mosquitoes and biting flies. This was probably the worst site for bugs...
Day 4: Yang Yang to S Cascade Glacier
We roped for the LeConte glacier and were glad we did. The tongue up onto the glacier was steep, slushy, and narrow. We zigged and zagged between crevassed and wet blue ice on the one side and moated edges with audible running water underneath on the other. It was a little sketchy. Once up onto the glacier, though, things calmed down. Some bigger crevasses still in the stages of opening up, but were visible due to trenching of the snow bridges. Crossing over to the S Cascade involved a little rock scrambling and yet another talus descent (so many), but we found the rocky heights above the glacier so charming we decided to stay there instead of continuing on to White Rock Lakes.
Day 5: Sentinel Peak and Move to White Rocks
Camped high above the S Cascade made Sentinel Peak too tempting to pass up. There was a good path onto the rock, though the top tongue was so hugely moated that you couldn't see how far underneath you'd slide if you fell. Would've been a long climb out... The scramble to the summit was not especially difficult, but a few steep dirt and scree ledges had significant exposure in the event of a slip and slide. Some members of our party turned back, but we did have some tag the summit. We were this year's first entry in a new summit register placed in August of last year. On return to camp we decided to move down to White Rock Lakes, which takes the cake for most beautiful of the many amazing camps. Highly recommended. And too windy to be terribly buggy.
Day 6: Down the S Cascade
On a normal traverse, we would have continued on to the Dana Glacier and over to Downey Creek under the shadow of Dome, but with the closure, we had committed to the S Cascade exit. We had stashed our car at the beginning of that trail and hitched a ride to the Cascade Pass trailhead, so it was our route out. We planned to take an easy day down the S Cascade to camp at the bottom and rest up for the hellish bushwhack out. Glacier was in fine condition, no problems finding a place to stay at the end. Consumed remaining supplies of whiskey and rum.
Day 7: Bushwhack the First
We set out, wading across the outlet from the glacial lake. Nice to start a long day with wet feet, right? We followed a few deer trails, making our way to the right of the outlet river and also right of the knoll in the center of the valley. We were making towards the trail line marked on the old USGS quads. We did find some (scant) evidence of long past trail work including some downed trees with cuts, but it was mostly route finding and frequent checks of the GPS to make sure we weren't going to cliff ourselves out. Bugs were pretty atrocious, and the descent became quite steep in the woods after the large meadow. To avoid cliffs, we waded into our first section of vine maple, alder, and 7 foot ferns. Oh how I grew to love the respite that the ferned sections represented. For the next several hours, we fought through section after section of these. In the woods between, there was sometimes a visible footpath (faint), and we are incredibly grateful for the trail crews who flagged the trail. Between our GPS, the topo maps, and the flagging, we were able to find the way. Without any of the three, I'm not sure we would have made it. Flagging started being easy to find about a quarter mile before High Log Creek and continued pretty regularly until the end. We lost it a couple of times in the deep brush, but were always able to find it again. It was a brutally hot day, and we definitely ran out of water. THERE IS NO RELIABLE WATER BETWEEN THE MIDDLE FORK AND HIGH LOG/DROP CREEK. FILL ALLLLLLL OF YOUR WATER BOTTLES AT HIGH LOG IF YOU TAKE THIS ROUTE. After 12 hours of bashing our heads against this trail, we'd made it just over halfway. You'd have sections of lovely trail and then half to scramble down into a deep washout and back out the other side. Eventually, we decided to deviate down to the river proper because we desperately needed water. After sitting down, it became clear we weren't getting back up that day. We set up a bivvy and had probably the best night's sleep of the whole trip. Highly recommend the riverside camping, despite some bear sign...
Day 8: Freedom and Beer
As it turned out, by this time we'd done most of the hard bits. It took us about an hour and change to finish the last two miles to the Middle Cascade crossing, and the log bridge was in good condition. After that, it was a quick jaunt back to our car, and the waiting cooler of mostly-not-hot beer.
Thanks again to the WTA trail crews who have been working on that trail. Or really Trial, as that typo almost came out. Without the flagging it would have been much, much harder to do. Even if we could have navigated by map, seeing the ribbon to confirm that you're right was so important to keeping our spirits up. Thanks so much.
Gear Notes:
Took crampons, ice axe, rope, harness, and pickets. Used everything but the pickets.

Approach Notes:
Road to Cascade Pass is back open

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Just got back from doing the PT last night; bugs were not atrocious at all for us, so it's a good time to go if you can get the time off work/other commitments!


(Except I see the CC RR is now closed due to that Pincer Creek fire, so nevermind.)

Edited by tanstaafl

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Our intent was to exit via Sinister Arm–Totem Pass–Suiattle Pass–Lyman Lakes–Spider Meadows, but once our fearless leader got a good look at the Chickamin Glacier he felt the conditions were too sketchy for our team and we bailed out via the standard route.  The people I was with were very in touch with the outside world via InReach so they had someone contact the Darrington Ranger Station to let them know we were doing that, so we were even "legal."

fwiw, I may be a wimp but next time I will most likely take steel crampons, not aluminum, unless I do it significantly earlier.  There was more blue ice than I anticipated, much of it wet and mushy enough to get aluminum crampons in but a fair bit of it you just sort of skittered around on.

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