August 4-11, 2012

Ptarmigan Traverse:  Cascade River to Suiattle River

Hurry-Up Peak aka S Mountain (7800′+)
Art’s Knoll (7200’+)
Hahlakl Peak (7004′)
LeConte Mountain (7762′)
Old Guard Peak (8240′+)
Dome Peak (8920′+)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: North-Central Cascades

Starting Point: Cascade Pass Trailhead (Cascade River Road)

Way Points: Cascade Pass & Mixup Arm & Cache Glacier & Cache Col & Kool-Aid Lake & Red Ledges & Middle Cascade Glacier & SpiderFormidable Col & Yang Yang Lakes & Hahlakl Peak summit & LeConte Pass & LeConte Bench & Sentinel Pass & South Cascade Glacier & Lizard Pass & White Rock Lakes & Dana Glacier & Dana-Dome Saddle & Dome Glacier & Itswoot Pass & Cub Lake & Cub Pass & Bachelor Meadows & Bachelor Flats & Bachelor Creek & Downey Creek (hike & climb)

Ending Point: Downey Creek Bridge (Suiattle River Road)

Campsites: Kool-Aid Lake & Yang Yang Lakes & White Rock Lakes & Dana-Dome Saddle & Bachelor Meadows

Summit: Hurry Up Peak (climb via Northwest Slope)

Summit: Art’s Knoll (hike via West Slope)

Summit: Hahlakl Peak (hike via North Ridge)

Summit: LeConte Mountain (climb via East Face—South Ridge)

Summit: Old Guard Peak (climb via Northwest Snowfinger—Northwest Face)

Summit: Dome Peak (climb via Upper Dome Glacier—Northwest Ridge)

Sidetrip: Dome-Chikamin Saddle & Dome Benchmark (climb)

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

I first attempted the ultra-classic Ptarmigan Traverse back in September 1981 as a party of three.  We made it to White Rock Lakes and then bailed out, for a variety of reasons.  Our exit route took us over a low saddle west of the lakes and down into the green purgatory of upper Downey Creek.  It was a day that will live in personal infamy as one of my two all-time worst bushwhacks.

Last week––a full 31 years later––I completed the traverse with Mike T, Fay, Kevin K, George W, Steve, Deb, and Eileen.  Being a group of eight, we reaped the benefits of mathematical purity:  our car set-up involved four cars with two people each; our shuttle involved two cars with four people each; our tenting arrangements allowed for four pairs; and our glacier travel generally involved two rope teams of four people.

Over the course of a week, we enjoyed great camaraderie, a healthy snowpack, good weather, few bugs, splendid terrain, and a sprinkling of mountain hijinks.  Collectively, our group also tucked in eight summits along the way.  Naturally, there were a few mishaps too, but they paled in comparison to the highlights.

Day 0 – Car Shuttle & Car Camp:

We all met in Darrington under a large shade tree in 90-plus-degree heat.  Plans for setting up cars at the beginning and ending points of the traverse were quickly finalized.  Because the lower Suiattle River Road was temporarily closed, we had to drive over Rat Trap Pass to leave two cars at the closure gate near Milepost 12, then drive back over the pass.  This consumed much time, and it was evening when we finally arrived at Mineral Park Campground on the Cascade River Road.

Day 1 – Cascade Pass Trailhead to Kool-Aid Lake:

We drove up to the Cascade Pass Trailhead and started our hike.  The weather was sunny and warm, as had been predicted for the entire week.  We hiked up to Cascade Pass, then ascended to Cache Col before dropping to still-frozen Kool-Aid Lake (6.8 hours from TH).

Hurry-Up Peak & Arts Knoll From Cache Col

With some time before dinner, Kevin, George, Mike, Eileen, and I scrambled up Hurry-Up Peak (Class 2-3 with moderate exposure along the summit ridge).  This is an excellent viewpoint for Trapper Lake and the north-central Cascades.

Scrambling Up Hurry-Up Peak

Trapper Lake From Hurry-Up Peak

Kevin, Eileen, and George On Hurry Up Peak

Storm King Mountain and Mount Goode From Hurry-Up Pk

We were back at camp (3.2 hours R.T.) in time for an icy dip in Kool-Aid Lake.

Day 2 – Kool-Aid Lake to Yang Yang Lakes:

Our day started with a traverse over to the famous “red ledge,” which required a bit of steep snow climbing with pickets for protection.

Crossing To The Red Ledge

Crossing To The Red Ledge

Once past the ledge, most of us hiked up Art’s Knoll before continuing on to the Middle Cascade Glacier.  We hugged the glacier’s left edge until above the crevasses and then contoured easily to the Spider-Formidable Col (6.8 hours from camp 1).

Ascending Middle Cascade Glacier

Agnes Mtn & Gunsight Pk From Spider-Form Col

Steep snow led down the other side of the col, and from there we made a long sidehill traverse over snow and some rock before descending to the inviting parkland of Yang Yang Lakes (9.2 hours from camp 1).

Descending To Yang Yang Lakes

Everyone took a dip in the lakes to wash off, and Kevin garnered a hearty round of cheering when he stripped down to his rainbow-striped skivvies and ran across the last remaining patch of floating ice.

Evening At Yang Yang Lakes

Day 3 – Yang Yang Lakes to White Rock Lakes:

Fay and I awoke early to get a headstart up to LeConte Pass.  Soft morning alpenglow on Old Guard Peak portended a day of fair weather.

Morning Alpenglow On Old Guard Pk

Morning At Yang Yang Lakes

We somehow got separated during the ascent but both ended up topping out on Point 7004 (Hahlakl Peak) before reconnecting at a 6900-foot bench directly below the northeast face of LeConte Mountain.

LeConte Mountain From LeConte Pass

Mt Formidable & Spider Mtn From LeConte Pass

We grabbed summit packs and hurriedly climbed snow and talus to the mountain’s false (south) summit.  From here, the true summit looked impossible to reach, but Fay found a key ledge (seriously exposed Class 3-4) that led toward the true-false notch.

LeConte Mtn From Ridge Scramble

We scrambled more exposed rock to the true summit, and Fay left a register.

Fay On LeConte Mountain Summit

We could look straight down on pea-soupy South Cascade Lake…

South Cascade Lake From LeConte Mtn

…and straight out to the continuation of our traverse.

Old Guard Pk & Sentinel Pk & Dome Pk From LeConte Mtn

By the time we had returned to our packs on the bench (2.1 hours R.T.), Mike was waiting and the rest of our group had passed by en-route to the Sentinel Pass.  I hustled on to the pass to catch up with them (7.2 hours from camp 2).

Rope Team On LeConte Glacier

Spire Point From Sentinel Pass

Kevin, George, Eileen, and I made a sidetrip over to Old Guard Peak, which involved a steep snowfinger followed by fun Class 3 scrambling on super-grippy gabbro rock.

Heading to Old Guard Peak

Eileen Scrambling Up Old Guard Peak

For my money, Old Guard probably gives the greatest return-on-investment of all peaks in the Ptarmigan Mountains.  We spent some time on this well-positioned summit, marveling at the countless array of surrounding peaks, before returning to the pass (2.6 hours R.T.).

Sentinel Peak From Old Guard Peak Summit

Chikamin Glacier From Old Guard Peak Summit

Fay had proceeded southward to climb Lizard Mountain, so we met up with her, Mike, Steve, and Deb at Lizard Pass.

Traversing To Lizard Pass

Firm snow led down to half-frozen White Rock Lakes (12.7 hours from camp 2).  We made camp in a windy, rocky meadow with an awesome view of Dome Peak.

Windy Camp 3 At White Rock Lakes

Dome Peak From White Rock Lakes

Day 4 – White Rock Lakes to Dana-Dome Saddle:

The morning started out sunny, but low clouds poured over from the west and quickly engulfed us in a cold mist.  We packed up and continued our southerly traverse over heather and snow.  Within a few hours, the weather had completely cleared up.

Traversing Toward The Dana Glacier

We stopped for lunch on a rock knob at the top of a steep stream gully, feeling pleased with both the weather and our progress.  However, our good mood suddenly changed to shock and dismay when Eileen’s backpack went tumbling down the gully!  Fortunately, Kevin was able to pluck it from the stream, and the only damage done was a thorough dousing of her gear.

After lunch, Mike and Fay branched off to climb Spire Point, whereas the rest of us continued on to make camp at the Dana-Dome Saddle (5.2 hours from camp 3).

Sentinel and Old Guard Peaks From Dana Glacier

Glacier Peak From Camp 4 At Dana-Dome Saddle

With camp established, George, Kevin, Eileen, and I headed up Dome Peak.  It was my third climb of this magnificent mountain and was every bit as awe-inspiring as the first climb.  George just kept murmuring the words “outstanding…outstanding…outstanding,” whereas Kevin and Eileen showed their approval with huge grins.

Traversing Dome Peak Summit Ridge

George, Eileen, and Kevin On Dome Peak Summit

We returned to camp (3.9 hours R.T.) in soft evening light.

Descending Dome Glacier

We were happy to find that Steve and Deb had found a nearby water source––our biggest concern for this campsite.  Fay and Mike arrived 15 minutes later, bursting with tales of their drama-filled ascent of Spire Point.  Because George had carried his medical degree on the trip, Steve, Fay, and Kevin felt obliged to present him with an assortment of personal lacerations, abrasions, and contusions for treatment before dinner.

Camp 4 At Dana-Dome Saddle

Day 5 – Dana-Dome Saddle to Bachelor Meadow:

We awoke to calm, blue skies and the promise of another fine-weather day.  Our original goal had been Gunsight Peak, but group motivation was not equal to the climbing demands.  As a consolation, Eileen and I headed back up Dome Peak to reconnoiter the Chikamin Glacier, while the others spent a relaxing morning in camp before heading on to Cub Lake.

Eileen Climbing Upper Dome Glacier

Our reconnaissance took us to Dome Benchmark on the mountain’s eastern shoulder, where we found not only three USGS markers but also the wood and wire remnants of the old triangulation tripod.

Dome Benchmark

From this seldom-visited vantage, the summit of Dome Peak looks remarkably like a large granite frog!  Ultimately, we concluded that the only reasonable access to the Chikamin Glacier is via the high saddle on Dome’s north ridge––and even this would involve some dicey down-climbing around a gaping bergschrund.

Dome Peak Summit From Dome Benchmark

We returned to camp in mid-afternoon, packed up, and followed the tracks of our group over to Itswoot Ridge and down to Cub Lake (2.3 hours from camp 4).  George and Kevin were just finishing a cool-off swim in the mostly-frozen lake, and they informed us that the others had continued over Cub Pass and down to Bachelor Meadow.  We all regrouped in the verdant meadow by early evening (3.5 hours from camp 4).

Camp 5 At Bachelor Meadow

Day 6 – Bachelor Meadow to Suiattle River Road:

After a leisurely morning in camp, we packed up and started hiking down Bachelor Creek.

Traverse Crew In Bachelor Meadow

The long-abandoned trail is quite good in some places but badly overgrown by brush in other places.  Nonetheless, with eight pairs of eyeballs, we were able to tease it out all the way to its junction with the recently maintained Downey Creek Trail (4.2 hours from camp 5).  From there, we all shifted into overdrive to cover the next 6 miles out to the Suiattle River Road, arriving just in time for a last supper on the bridge (7.9 hours from camp 5).

Last Supper On Downey Creek Bridge

Our cars were waiting for us 9 miles down the road, and that distance is merely a long blur of gravel at the end of a fabulous week.

Approximate Total Stats:  21,000 feet gained;  23,000 feet lost.


—————- Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) —————————–