A North Cascades Exploration
A Brief Look at the Ptarmigan Traverse
August, 2001

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The character of my trips is determined as much by my partners as the destinations or summits. Dave Green and I share a common desire for beautiful scenery in rugged country surrounded by glacial torrents, precipitous peaks, and cool mountain air. We found this and much more in a six day adventure that tested our strength and determination in the North Cascades of Washington State.

We arrived in Seattle with a plan to hike to the North side of Mt Challenger, but plans are meant to be changed. While looking over maps at the Seattle REI we were drawn to the glacier at the head of the South Fork of the Cascade River and its surrounding Peaks. A study of the Green Trails map showed a trail along the river from about 1600ft on Cascade River Road gradually ascending to 5300ft at South Cascade Lake 11.4 miles away. The lake and glacier are surrounded by two unnamed peaks on the West, Le Conte Mountain, Sentinel Peak, and Old Guard Mountain on the East, and Lizard Mountain to the South. A few miles to the North another possibility arose in the form of the aptly-named Mount Formidable.

Sunday morning after a good night's rest in Sedro Wooley we packed 6 days food and fuel and headed to the trail head. Even with heavy packs and a late morning start we hoped to be camped by the lake in mid-afternoon. The first 2 miles was an easy forest road followed by a half mile of pleasant hiking to the junction with Middle Fork Cascade River. We rested there ignorant of the struggle ahead. Let me spare you the details and just say the so-called "trail" became a nightmare of bushwhacks through fly infested thickets and scrambling detours around side streams. We finally decided to camp just past the confluence of the river and a rushing stream (High Log Creek) with no clue where the trail was from there.

Refreshed the next morning we backtracked to the stream crossing and did manage to pick up the trail. A half mile of relatively good trail then a steep ascent placed us before our toughest trial. The next quarter-mile rose through a dense thicket of thorny berry bushes standing more than head high. We forced our way not seeing more than a few feet ahead and frequently losing sight of the sky above or even our own feet below. The sun was hot and the bushes blocked any breeze that might alleviate the hordes of biting flies that swarmed our exposed flesh (Dave later counted 12 killed with one swat). Emerging from this nightmare we rose through pleasant forest then a couple of high bogs and finally reached our destination in late afternoon. After a quick dip in the lake (yes, it was COLD) we headed up the lateral moraine to get a look at our surroundings. It seemed all was worth the trouble as we gazed at the peaks in the setting sun.

On Tuesday Dave and I became "tourists on a glacier". We climbed back up the moraine then dropped down onto the South Cascade Glacier just above the lower icefall. Our original plan for the day was a quick ascent of Sentinal Peak but as we walked up this rather mild glacier our desire to see more of the valleys and peaks around us overtook the need to struggle (probably unsuccessfully) on steep exposed ridges. We continued up to Lizard Pass at the far Southern end and ate lunch while gazing to the South at Spire Point, Dome and Sinister Peaks surrounding the beautiful blue water of White Rock Lakes, and turned North for a distant view of Mount Baker. We crossed the glacier to the scree slopes below Sentinal Peak and headed up toward the Sentinal - Le Conte Col to get a look at what lay to the East. After traversing steep scree and snow slopes we met a group of 13 people that were headed South on the Ptarmigan Traverse. Our struggle on the hike in caused us to consider this a possible alternate retreat so we plied them for information. After learning this was their third day out from Cascade Pass we realized we'd miss our flights home if we returned that way. We bid them "safe trip" and scrambled on up to the col. Before us was the awesome form of Mount Formidable and Spider Mountain but our attention was drawn to the smoke rising from the fire burning up the slope above Flat Rock Creek (part of the "Rex Creek Project" fire mentioned in news reports). We now knew why our view of Mount Baker the previous evening was so obscure. We reversed our route down from the col, swung across the glacier above its crevassed mid-section and were back in camp in time for another frigid dip in the lake.

With three days left before catching flights home our options were limited. We discussed staying and trying a peak we mistakenly thought to be Mount Buckindy but decided to head back down that horrendous trail and look for something else to fill our remaining time. We got a reasonable start while the air was still cool and the insects inactive and headed down. Anticipating the berry thicket I donned my expensive shell pants and jacket hoping they'd spare me the scratches and cuts that were now starting to heal after the first struggle. Going down is never as bad as up and we were aided by the trail clearing efforts of ten college girls that had followed us up to a USGS research station beside the glacier. Oh I didn't mention them did I? You'll just have to ask me later. Anyway, we managed to make it out to the car by dinner time.

Thursday before breakfast we headed to the Marblemount Ranger Station to investigate an idea for our remaining two days -- hike to Cascade Pass then South to Kool Aid Lake along the route of the Ptarmigan Traverse. The hike up to the pass is said to be spectacular when the air is clear but this day the views were attenuated by the smoke from the fires to the East. The high pressure system that had parked over the state giving us unseasonably good weather was now working against us by denying a breeze to blow the smoke away. Following the description from Fred Beckey's "Cascade Alpine Guide" we took a narrow path through heather slopes to the South across the arm of Mix-up Peak. True to form "Beckey's Guide" had grossly underrated the difficulty. We'd made good time on the "tourist" trail up to the pass but traversing the steep slopes above steep cliffs required care. All was going reasonably well but slow until we hit one little finger of steep snow followed by a steep dirt slope. I have no problem with steep ice, solid steep rock, or steep snow, but steep loose dirt scares me. Being careful of each step we inched our way across then headed up to a little shoulder beyond which lay the Cache Glacier. Our slow progress worried me so when Dave arrived I advocated stopping here for the evening. After a short discussion we went on knowing that we could return here if necessary. We began up the glacier which really was rather tame until we arrived near the top of Cache Col. A narrow snow bridge in the hot sun caused us to give a tight belay but proved no real obstacle. From here it's a short half mile down to the lake described in Becky's Guide as "easy". Yea, right.

Kool Aid Lake is a 100 foot wide pond on a little shelf below a perennial snowfield. The ridge directly behind includes Hurry-up Peak, and Magic Mountain while the view across the valley is dominated by the East flank of Mount Formidable towering over the Middle Cascade Glacier. It's a perfect campsite with level space for several tents but not frequented enough to develop annoying camp critters. Dave and I watched the sun set in the smokey haze while discussing the "green flash" phenomena (uh, ask Bill Wright).

Friday morning we awoke to find ourselves inside a dense cloud layer. It had a top at about 6200 feet so on our way back up to the col we climbed into a brilliant view of blue sky surrounding peaks protruding through a blanket of feathery white. A breeze was blowing and had apparently dissipated the smoke and also worked to keep those sadistic flies away. This lifted our spirits greatly as we headed up and over the col. Descending the glacier went quickly and we lunched back at that little shoulder under Mix-up Peak before tackling that steep dirt slope. As expected the footing was precariously scary as I crossed so Dave decided to attempt a detour. We were making great progress so I told him just to take his time. You'll have to ask him for the details but lets just say that's the first time I've had to throw a rope down to someone then belay them with a munter hitch from a mountain ax driven into turf. Soon after, we descended back into the clouds and hurried the rest of the uneventful way back to Cascade Pass where we could look like cool mountaineers among the tourists. Thirty-four switchbacks later (I counted) we were back down at the car and the trip was over.

Those are the details. I've left out quite a lot in the interest of keeping you awake. For the additional stories of the ten college girls, the research station in a USFS designated wilderness area (yes, it had fixed anchors), or the "bearded man" that surprised us at dusk at our camp, well...

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Proud to be an American!
Mack Muir