Ptarmigan Traverse 2016 - Best of the Northwest Best of the Northwest

Ptarmigan Traverse 2016

Western Washington, hiking, climbing, Best of the NW year-round trails.

Despite inclement weather our team of 5 completed the classic “Traverse of the American Alps” in 3 nights 4 days.

Highest point – 7,769’ Dome/Dana Glacier Col
Lowest point – 1,499’ Downey Creek trail head (exit)



Ptarmigan Traverse Illustrated Map Click to Enlargen

Ptarmigan Traverse, Click to Enlargen

We shuttled cars, leaving 2 at the Suittle River Road Downey Creek Trailhead parking lot on Wednesday Evening. Choosing to stay in a trailer “cabin” near Marblemount.

Day 1:


Ptarmigan Traverse Day 1

Ptarmigan Traverse Day 1

Thursday morning, we got a 7:30am start waiting for the freshly baked Cinnamon Rolls at … bakery. Fueled with creamy whiskey frosting and espresso we hit the trail at Cascade Pass by 9am. 1:40 to Cascade pass where we took a “substantial break” and chatted with hikers parting ways to the Sahale Arm camp.


The trail from Cascade Pass steepens across talus and snow fields to gain the Cache Glacier where we roped up for the first time. Didn’t see any crevasses open, but was good practice to get the team on rope in mellow conditions.



Cache Col Bubble wrap around viewer

Views from the lookout above Cache Col are some of my favorite of the traverse. The cirque to the red ledge, Middle Cascade Glacier and Spider Formidable Col are all visible from here (as improbable as it looks, yes that is actually the route). A short but time consuming drop to Kool Aid Lake has a great position for Camp 1.


Day 2:



Navigating Crevasses and Ice on the LeConte Glacier

Planning on a long day 2 to get a jump start on the impending bad weather and chance of thunderstorms moving in we awoke to find ourselves in a cloud. Not the type of weather we wanted for a long day navigating multiple glaciers and passes.


A solitary sucker hole in the clouds fooled us in to believing the weather would lift if we kept proceeding. We found the entrance to the Red Ledges snow covered. Steep, but felt more secure than the previous year entrance on crumbly rock.


Roping up on the Middle Cascade Glacier at 6,400’ we found much better snow conditions than the previous August. I was able to get a good measurement of visibility being last #5 on the rope. Could see 3 out of the 4 team members ahead of me. Reid once again did an amazing job navigating through crevasses in the cloud with help of the GPS Topos map on the iPhone.


Reaching the Spider Formidable Col fully snow covered we stayed roped up on the steep decent into the cirque that wraps left around finally descending to the Yang Yang Lakes basin. We got too low once and ended up in cliffy heather terrain. Tried to stay high connecting snowfields before connecting to surprisingly deep Yang Yang Lakes decent trail. Was much faster on snow that the previous year talus crossing.


Faced with thicker clouds and soupy air we took an extended lunch break at the Yang Yang Lakes camp at 1pm. Having a frank weather conversation, we decided not to camp but continue on to White Rocks Camp. We didn’t want to get caught in worse weather on the LeConte Glacier. Given the difficulty of reversing the route or bailing (bushwacked out the South Cascade Glacier Drainage the previous attempt).


The trail from camp south is defined but disappeared in the talus. Spent some time looking for the entrance to the steep goat path in very low visibility. Were able to gain the entrance with out too many false approaches. The steep path is crucial to gaining the ledge to the LeConte snowfield. Had an extra 2,000’ climb to two false entrances on the ridge last year. Were glad to have the knowledge of where to find this secret passage and keep our momentum for the day going.


The ridge was mostly covered with snow and traveled quickly, fortunately because we were exposed to the wind here and wet clothes were getting increasingly cold.


Dropping in to the LeConte snowfields around 7,000 feet for better or worse we still had 150’ visibility, but were at least protected from the wind from the LeConte rocky massive above to our right.  Made good time crossing the LeConte snowfield. Walked past some amazing snow sculptures formed from rolling snow balls from the higher peaked where the wind wore away the bottoms to form a surreal Stonehenge like rock garden.


Roping up at the base of the LeConte Glacier were glad to see a good boot pack on the steep snow entrance. Winding through some of the biggest crevasses of the trip we eventually came to a band of horizontal ice maybe 10’ high where Reid placed an ice screw. Not especially technical, were able to easily front point and climbs with one axe. The cost of a fall would be high though with a large open crevasse 30 yards below.


Arrived at White Rocks Lake Camp, combining days 2/3 due to poor weather

Arrived at White Rocks Lake Camp, combining days 2/3 due to poor weather

The grade lessened eventually and we were relieved to find ourselves at the rocky band LeConte Col. Traces of bookmarks assured us we had found the correct col to descend and cross into the large flat expanses of the Upper South Cascades Glacier. Disappointed to have no view of the rarely seen south cascades glacier we slogged on over countless ice worms. Stayed roped in but there were no traces of Crevases on the upper glacier.


After plunge stepping another steep section we arrived at dusk to the first of the White rocks lake completely frozen over. A short rise to the south east gave us one of our first partial views of the long 14 hour slog. The bottom of the hanging Dome/Dana glacier emerged framed in by the clouds in the dusk light.


Found a wind protected camp by the outlet of the large White Rock Lake. Set up tents, had a hot meal and went to sleep in the rain to put an end to day 2/3.


Making good use of the hot water bottle in the sleeping bag trick were able to partially dry out some socks, gloves and tights.


Day 3:


Crossing By Dome Peak up the long Dome/Dana Glacier

Crossing By Dome Peak up the long Dome/Dana Glacier

Started from White Rocks camp crossing right across talus and wet foliage along the Dana/Dome cirque drainage. Trail petered out past a waterfall near the den of some creature. Navigated a coular between rock bands to a high perch as the weather cleared to give dramatic views of Dome Peak with partially blue skies!


Soaked in the views and layered up the sunscreen for the long gradual climb up the Dana/Dome glacier. Noticed the boot pack to the left towards dome peak (we chose the direct-short variation). A few crevasse high up but mostly a long steady climb back in to the clouds. Tied up and spaced out from the team found myself drifting off daydreaming as we slogged on back up into the clouds.


Long decent on snow fields (would be incredible on skis). Traversing left above cliff band in Iswoot ridge to find trail that wraps back under cliffs crossing waterfall to lush lower basin of cub lake wrapped in steep bluffs and cliffs.


Day 4:


Bachelor Creek Crossing into well Maintained Downey Creek Trail

Bachelor Creek Crossing into well Maintained Downey Creek Trail

Departed Cub Lake on tricky footing wrapping the north base of the rocky surroundings. Glacier Peak soon came into view above Cub Lake making me wish I would have brought a polarizing filter to capture the upper white glaciated flanks making them distinguishable from the sky. Short steep switch back trail to a high point decending back down into the Bachelor Creek drainage. Through blowdowns then dense folage and eventually loosing the trail for a creek crossing, short steep alder into tree stand avoiding as much slide alder as possible. Crossing ½ mile stretch of dense wet alder and foliage before finding the Bachelor Creek trail again. Continued down on the east side of the creek crossing multiple tree fall areas taking wide sweeps to refined the trail again. Eventually decending fairly steeply to the Downy Creek junction and camp area. Log crossing from Bachelor creek into Downy Creek Drainage following left contour above downy creek climbing again then traversing what seemed to be endless miles before dropping 1,000 feet in the last mile back to the Downey Creek Trailhead on the Suittle River road and our friend with the car shuttle and cold beers.




60m 8ml dry rope for 5 people

Brought 3 ice screws, used 1

Glacier Travel Crampons with front points, Ice axes, trekking poles





Established in 1938 by the “Ptarmigan” climbing club from Portland, OR who amazingly also completed 11 first ascents of near-by peaks along the way.
The classic Alpine traverse travels from the North Cascades National Park Cascade Pass South through the “Alps of North America” to the North Side of the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Covering nearly 35 miles typically completed in five days, four nights to a week many parties opt to camp at the lovely lakes along the way traveling North to South:
1. Kool Aid Lake
2. Yang Yang Lakes,
3. White Rock Lakes
4. Cub Lake

Day trip summits of near-by peaks: Mix Up Peak, Magic Mountain, Hurry Up Peak, Mt. Formidable, Spider Mountain, LeConte Mountain, Sentinel Peak, Old Guard Peak, Lizard Mountain, Dome Peak, Spire Point

The first line in most descriptions of this route is that it is NOT a backpacking route.  We can attest, this is mountaineering terrain from the departure spot on  Cascade Pass to the intended out put trails Bachelor and Downey Creek trails (which have reportedly been recently maintained by the Washington Trails Association).

Expect traveling through difficult terrain, navigating, vertical gain and loss over talus, scree, boulder fields, snow fields, and glaciers with arduous bail options through steep and dense forests. Discover detailed maps and links to guiding resources below.

Our average speed during our 31 mile 10,000 cumulative gain adventure loop was 1.1 miles per hour.  Heavy packs and difficult terrain includes, steep goat paths, talus, scree and boulder fields, snow fields, and glaciers.

The fastest known time for the traverse is 12 hours and 17 minutes set July 28 2012 by Leor Pantilat & Uli Steidl. Watch the video here.

For those interested in pursuing the route we are collecting our map data and will be creating custom maps and video with descriptions of cruxes and travel considerations (including possible bail out points like the one we experienced).

The links below are great resources for those who have traveled this route expertly multiple times.


See last year’s attempt and bail route here:
Ptarmigan Traverse Attempt 2015 (one of the lowest snowpacks on record).

Dome Peak

Dome Peak

From Cascade Pass Trail head to the Suittle River Road Downey Creek trail head I clocked 62.55 Km on my Suunto Ambit watch.

Strava interpreted the data as 45.2 miles with 10,760 ft elevation gain.
There is a bit of a discrepancy between the two platforms:
Strava – 45.2 miles – 10,760’ elevation gain – Calories 8,123Elapsed Time 80:18:09

Movescount – 38.87 miles – 11,955’ – elevation gain – 13,937’ elevation loss – 10,297 kcal – Moving Time 40:35

Tap & Go


Weather forecast LeConte Glacier



Moves Count GPS Map



Strava GPS Map

Alpine Traverses

Click for more classic Washington Alpine Traverses

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