Saturday, July 10, 2004

Ptarmigan Traverse

North Cascades, WA
Ptarmigan Traverse
July 3 - 10, 2004

After a year and a half of dating and each going on separate week-long trips last year (Nate to Mt Robson and me to the Sierras) we decided that it was time for a week long trip of our own. After a few conversations and ideas ranging from the Bugaboos to the Wind Rivers, we finally decided…the Ptarmigan Traverse! Nate had spent a week last year battling rain/snow on Mt Robson so wanted a trip where we would have better chances of seeing good weather. It is well known in the Cascades that the weather is almost always reliable after the 4th of July. That being said, we picked the week of July 3 to July 11 for our trip. That way we would maximize our vacation time as well as be almost guaranteed good weather...(ha).

Day 1 – Saturday, July 3rd
After a week or so of last minute purchases, buying and weighing food, packing, and checking weather forecasts, the day had come. We met Pat at 8am on Saturday, July 3rd. He was heading out on Hwy 20 to do some climbing of his own and offered to drop us off at the start of the traverse. My stomach was in knots during the two hour drive and frankly, I wished the drive had been longer…I was so anxious, nervous and excited at the same time.

Due to heavy rain last fall, which washed out part of Cascade River Road, the road is closed at the Eldorado Trailhead while the National Park Service makes repairs. The thought of walking an extra 3.5 miles along a forest service road did not sound pleasant to me as I had done the same stretch of road a couple years prior and hated the experience, but none-the-less, we would not let an extra 3.5 miles (and about 1500 feet of gain) on pavement stop us from doing the traverse! Pat gave us each a big hug, wished us luck and sped off in Goldie…gulp…

The walk on Cascade River Road was not as bad as we expected and we made it to the Cascade Pass trailhead in an hour and a half. We were quite pleased with this time as we were both carrying fairly heavy packs and even stopped twice to take care of some hot spots on my feet. After more switchbacks than I could count, we reached the top of Cascade Pass and found ourselves surrounded by a herd of goats including the most adorable baby goat! What a sight! Our plan for the first night, per Pat’s suggestion, was to camp at Cache Col. We pushed on for another hour or so past Cascade Pass but with clouds moving in and it getting late, we decided to make camp on the edge of the Cache Glacier. We cooked our first dinner, filtered some water and hit the tent for our first night on the Ptarmigan Traverse. Nate bought me a 30-degree lightweight down sleeping bag (an early birthday present) to use on the traverse, which I was very excited about using, unfortunately, this proved to be a very bad bag for me to use on snow. It was a rough night of sleep party due to me being freezing ass cold but also because the new REI Half Dome that Nate bought for the traverse was buckling under the heavy winds we were experiencing! Talk about panic! We began to wonder if all this “lightweight” gear was going to be adequate! Luckily, we made it through the night and woke up to….a white-out…

Day 2 – Sunday, July 4th
We awoke to low cloud cover but luckily had scouted out the route to Cache Col the previous afternoon. We packed up camp and headed up the glacier. We quickly arrived at the Col to find ourselves still in the clouds. Luckily there is an obvious climbers trail which we followed down from the col. A mix of snow and trail brought us down to Kool Aid Lake. By this time, the clouds thinned and the sun was bright in the sky. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in our underwear in the sun, reading and taking in the views. I decided to check my blisters and in the process of taking off the moleskin, ripped off a large section of skin from my right heel…yuck! After a small freak-out on my part, we cleaned the wound and bandaged it with mole foam, gauze and tape. A small discussion ensued about whether I would be able to continue the traverse w/my heels as they were (blistered and bloody) as well as the looming weather forecast. The forecast was predicting “Partly cloudy, chance of showers. Freezing level 6500ft Wednesday night.” We decided to take our chances and continue along the traverse tomorrow if the weather was clear. We also decided our new nicknames would be Mango (inspired by Nate’s orange t-shirt, sunglasses and a Saturday Night Live character) and Moleskin (inspired by Kirsten’s heavily bandaged feet).

Day 3 – Monday, July 5th

We awoke to gorgeous, clear skis and incredible views of Mt Formidable and the Middle Cascade Glacier. We would go on!! The day was easy enough, no problems navigating through the red ledges (which looked sketchy from camp) or the glacier. As we topped out on the Spider-Formidable Col, we were awarded with amazing views of Yang Yang Lakes and the Le Conte Glacier. We set up camp that night feeling very pleased w/our day of travel and looking forward to what we had ahead of us. The only nuisances were the mosquitoes, which were a major nuisance, and a curious mouse rummaging around in our stuff in the vestibules.

Day 4 – Tuesday, July 6th
We woke to the unsettling sound of rain, heavy winds and thick clouds. The day was spent in the tent reading, relaxing, and playing games. We felt okay with the idea of taking one rest/rain day. The tent was handling all but the biggest gusts fine, and staying very dry. Nate was reading a book called “Fatal Storm” which is about the Sydney to Hobart race in 1998 in which six sailors were killed during a brutal storm. Nate decided that this was not the best book to be reading while stuck in a rainstorm in the middle of the traverse with no other people around. After reading the first chapter, I agreed. (Note from Nate: In my mind, the declining conditions we were experiencing seemed to be paralleling those in the book, making it difficult to separate the book from reality. Bad idea, bringing that book – lesson learned.)

Day 5 – Wednesday, July 7th
SNOW!!!! In July?! Unbelievable! We woke up at 5:30am to the sound of wet snow sliding off the tent fly. We felt dread in the pits of our stomachs. Another day was spent in the tent, this time mostly sleeping and trying to think positive thoughts. But sleet was blowing sideways into the tent almost all day, making positive thoughts hard to come by. We even began to miss the mosquitoes. Hopefully we would be able to move camp tomorrow…

Day 6 – Thursday, July 8th

We woke up at 7am to low dense clouds. Not another day stuck at Yang Yang Lakes?! I couldn’t be asked to re-read my book or spend another day just laying around! There was almost no wind and the clouds seemed reluctant to go anywhere. But after breakfast and a game of backgammon, we looked out our Half Dome window to see clearing skies. Time to go! We quickly packed our backpacks and headed out to take advantage of the clear skis while we had a chance. We took a steep snow gully that lead up to the saddle below Le Conte. Route finding was obvious and we quickly found ourselves on the Le Conte Glacier. Navigating the glacier proved to be straight-forward. Nate found a snow bridge and led us between two fairly large crevasses. He even got to use the third tool he carried to pound in a picket in the steep slope on the other side so that we would not both go careening into the crevasse abyss below. As we ascended to the Le Conte – Sentinel Col we found ourselves in a white out. At some point I remember hearing Nate say, “We’re here!” This was a nice surprise since we really could not see a damn thing and didn’t realize we were so close! Topping out on the col in a white-out really is not fun as one of the main reasons we did this trip was for the views. This was the second time now that we were robbed of our views due to clouds. Despite the white out, we continued along using the altimeter and the shadows of the rock cliffs on our left to be our guide as we traversed around Sentinel. Eventually, the skies cleared and we were awarded gorgeous views of the vast South Cascade Glacier and the valley below….breathtaking!! We roped up again to cross the South Cascade Glacier, moving in Echelon formation as we were paralleling the crevasses. We reached Lizard Pass and there it was….White Rock Lakes, Dome Peak, Sinister, Gunsight, the Chickaman Glacier….WOW, the big views we had been waiting for! What a site! We descended Lizard Pass to White Rock Lakes and set up camp.

Day 7 – Friday, July 9th
We awoke Friday morning in high spirits because there was not a cloud in the sky and we knew our friends Marcus, Anastasia and Becky were going to meet us that night on Itswoot Ridge. We had planned to climb Dome Peak together. We had a leisurely morning of buttermilk pancakes and coffee. As we were packing up, the wind picked up and we noticed some dark, threatening clouds looming on the eastern horizon. Clouds don’t move northwest in the Cascades, do they?! Hmm… Our Pavlovian response to the sight of clouds was instant panic.

We found the trail out of White Rock Lakes and it was actually quite a different path than we had expected based on the map. It was easy to follow and we quickly made our way to the Dana Glacier. As we had experienced already twice, at Cache Col and the La Conte-Sentinel Col, when we reached the Spire Col on the Dana Glacier, we were in a white-out. This was by far the worst white out we had experienced yet, we could only see 50 ft or so. This was a very stressful time for both Nate and myself. We decided to take our chances and descend from the Col and try to make our way to Itswoot Ridge. The description in the Beckey Guide says ”from the Col, traverse west to the third gully.” Neither of us could quite figure out what “third gully” Beckey was talking about. We started down the snow and were suddenly cliffed out. Nate spent some time studying the map all the while the clouds began to lift a little – just enough to give us a peek at where we were trying to go. Eventually we figured out what third gully we were supposed to descend and headed down. What a relief. The thick, dark clouds hung low and Itswoot Ridge looked gloomy. We decided that we would descend to Cub Lake to camp, that way Marcus, Anastasia and Becky would not have to travel quite so far.

As the afternoon and evening went on, the clouds slowly made there way down to us at camp until we were eventually surrounded by yet another white out. We had turned on the radio in the hopes that our friends would be joining us soon. Dinner came and went and there was still no sign of our friends. Had they decided not to come in? Was the weather going to be bad tomorrow? Were they still hiking up Downey-Bachelor Creek? We settled for the conclusion that forecast must be really bad for tomorrow so they would not be joining us. In any case, after feeling really sad that our friends weren't there, we turned off the radio and went to bed.

Day 8 – Saturday, July 10th
We woke up Saturday morning to still more thick, low clouds. We decided our best option would be to not climb Dome Peak but to head out and either sleep at the trailhead or sleep at one of the campsites along Downey Creek. As we started packing, the rain came. A sprinkle at first, but eventually it turned steady and consistent. We hiked on trail up to Cub Pass and down through meadow towards Bachelor Creek. I was a bit concerned about the avalanche debris field that I had read about but figured we would deal w/that obstacle when we came to it. I mean, come on, the avalanche was a few years ago, there must be some sort of climbers path through the debris like there is on the Boston Basin approach, right?

We hiked along in the rain and eventually came upon the debris field. Holy crap…it was a huge mess. Okay, into it we went…slowly but surely started to make our way through. Suddenly we came across a big ol’ pile of bear poop. I immediately start my NOLS course bear yell “HEEEEYYY BEAR”, over and over again so they bears would be aware of our presence and not eat us. All of the sudden we hear our echo. Wait…is that our echo? Maybe it’s people? Nope, must be our echo…Suddenly we hear “KIIRRSTTEEN!!!” Oh my god, could it be Marcus, Anastasia and Becky? It is!!! We spot Marcus who had dashed up the debris field. We fight our way down through the jumbled mess of fallen timber and brush and all of us enjoy a slighty tearful reunion. The first humans we have seen in a week! Turns out they had had a rough day of bushwacking and route-finding on Friday and *only* made it in 11 miles.

We all decided that we did not want to head back up to climb dome mainly b/c it was pouring rain, we were soaked to the bone, and we were all exhausted. Back we went down the “trail.” Marcus deployed a useful matrix-kung fu tactic of clearing brush w/his ski poles. He was surrounded by a halo of brush and leaves. It was much easier going on the trail since the bushwack crew had already scouted it out for us. We had a first easy crossing of Bachelor creek and proceeded down the trail for the second crossing. The log used to cross the river was rather slick due to the heavy rains. Becky, Anastasia and myself decided to cheval across it while Marcus and Nate figured their feet and boots were already soaked and forded the river. The trip down was pleasant at the start but as the miles wore on and feet were sloshing in our boots, the conversation lulled. Eventually Becky pointed out her 30-minute marker and Marcus passed his 20-minute marker…we were home free! The rickety ladder placed on the Downey Creek bridge proved to be no problem and we were all quickly back at Rufus (Marcus and Anastasia’s Astro Van) changing into our cotton, drinking TRBs (triumphant return beers) and eating TRCs (triumphant return chips)! Best of all, we still had plenty of time to hit La Hacienda in Arlington as it was only 7pm.

We piled into Rufus and headed down the Suiattle River Road. Suddenly we notice it is getting rather noisy in the car, which we all thought was due to the fact that we were driving on a rutted our forest service road. As the noise gets louder, Marcus quickly stops the car and runs to look at the tires. Low and behold, we had completely shredded the back tire and were actually driving on the rim! Luckily, Rufus has a spare and it was nice and full of air. Marcus changed up the tire in record time because we’ll be damned if we weren’t going to make it to the Mexican restaurant! Everyone knows the best part of coming out from several days in the backcountry is the opportunity to eat hot, greasy, subpar food and have it taste great! But to conclude, the Traverse was a bit more of an “experience” than we were looking for – hoping instead for more of the lounging in our underwear type of days than we got, but it was still beautiful and we look forward to doing it again. In say, 5 years or so.