Sunday, July 17, 2016

The awesome, cloudy, rainy, gorgeous Ptarmigan Traverse

I could put off this post because I haven't yet written about the manatees of January and the Icelandic fjords of March, but the delays are getting quite ridiculous.

Earlier this month Mike and I completed the Ptarmigan Traverse in the North Cascades. I'm including a map because a disturbing number of you (Americans and Canadians) have never heard of the North Cascades. You are missing out.

The Traverse is a classic mountaineers route for people who also like backpacking, which made it perfect for me. The scenery is out of this world; you need some alpine skills (and equipment) to reach it; and it criss-crosses across a mountain range. Oh, and there is some suffering. The quintessential route.

We meant to climb it last year in late summer, but that plan failed due to wildfires, drought, timing, and the fact that our skills are super rusty. Going earlier in the season, with a guide, this year was so the way to do it. We could traverse on snow - not talus - and did not have to fret about route finding. John (of Mount Baker Mountain Guides) took on that fun task. Thanks, John!

Example 1,001 of a slope that's much better to traverse on snow than on the loose rock beneath!
About that suffering: the trip was six days. There was a strong, but by no means perfect, correlation between pain and gain.

Day 1: Cascade Pass to Kool Aid Lakes: Suffer Score: 7. Views: 9

Mike and I did not exactly train for this trip. We just figured we had the cardio fitness to muscle through. That was true, but the hot climb on the first day was miserable nonetheless. We got started at 12:30pm and made it to camp around 5pm. John suggested climbing nearby Magic Mountain as an evening jaunt. Uhh... 

About to leave the NPS trail and start the traverse. 

John, running off some extra energy at the end of day 1.
Mike and his favorite trip hobby: snacks. This was the view from Camp 1.
Day 2: Kool Aid Lakes to Yang Yang Lake: Suffer Score: 2. Views: 8

Day 2 started with clouds and rain. John insisted it was a "marine layer" that would burn off by 11am. Like clockwork, we were able to dry off and get moving by noon. That meant traversing the super-sketch Red Ledge, which actually went off just fine thanks to a nice snow finger. Of course, I slipped on that snow and came a millisecond closer to plummeting to my death than I would have liked, but no harm, no foul, right?

Shortly before the slip.
After that, it was easy-peasy cramponing over and up the Spider-Formidable col, down to Yang Yang. 

Day 3: Yang Yang to... Still Yang Yang: Suffer Score: 0. Views: 0.

Of the groups who were on the route at the same time, we were the first to arrive at Yang Yang. Good thing, too, since there was only one level and dry spot to camp. This turned out to be clutch when we had to spend the next 30 hours in our somewhat-waterproof tents waiting for the "marine layer" to "burn off." (It was actually quite nice, all rest and snacks, even if it meant one less day for summit attempts.)

I spent a lot of that day enjoying my fluffy new sleeping bag. 
Mike kept up his snacking and hot drinks routine. Also watching the bog to see if it would flood the guys camped down by the lake.

Day 4: Yang Yang to White Rocks Lake: Suffer Score: 2. Views: 9

Mid-morning on the second day at Yang Yang it started to look like the rain had stopped for good. We  scrambled to pack up and head out. While a good chunk of that day was spent in the clouds (and a bit of sleet and rain), the times when the visibility improved were just awesome. Photos fail to capture the 360-degree glory at White Rocks. We had a debate whether it was the most beautiful place we'd ever seen, or just in the top 3.

Beauuuuutiful views. The running joke was that all of our photos could be of a blank sheet of paper and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
Scouting campsites at White Rocks.
First to camp = happily dry when the rain began again.
On the way out the next day.
Day 5: White Rocks to Dome Peak to Cub Lake: Suffer Score: 7. Views: 10

Day 5 was our only truly good weather day of the traverse. It was a beaut, Clark. A beaut.

Any suffering that day was just because it was a longer day. But it came with awesome views of the valley, great snow conditions (on the way up), and the opportunity to pop out of the clouds on top of Dome Peak. 

The trio of women we camped near got a later start that morning. You can see them following our tracks around the slope. 
John checking out the route.
Back off, marine layer! 
My only regret - maybe - is that with somewhere short of 10 vertical feet to go on the summit of Dome, I freaked out about the exposure. True to form, I'd been quite stumbly on the trip (e.g. Red Ledge). The very realistic (in my head) chance that I would lose my balance and fall to my death, taking Mike and/or John with me, was just too much. Perhaps that missed climbing day at Yang Yang caught up to me.

Whatever. It was spectacular to be up there and have Mt. Baker and Glacier Peaks as our only company above the clouds. 

On Dome Peak, with Glacier Peak behind us.

Not a terrible view on the descent.

Approaching Itswoot Ridge.
Day 6: Cub Lake to the Car. Suffer Score: 10. Views: 2

The final day was all about getting out of dodge. Normally the exit day is the throwaway day, when you only need 1/2 a snack bag and can bomb off the mountain quickly, arriving at the car by noon. 

Heading to Cub Lake on Day 5.
The Traverse did not permit such an easy exit. We got an alpine start to beat the rain for the scramble up out of Cub Lake and down through the brush. The bushwhacking is legendary but for some reason I didn't think it'd be too bad. And God laughed.

The only shot of the bushwhacking in which I am taller than the foliage.
It took 8 hours to travel the 8 miles to the car: 6 hours to travel 2 miles, and 2 hours to travel 6 miles. Guess which part was on trail? 

Devil's club, slide alder, hidden logs, hidden bogs, can't see your feet, can't see your hands, boots wet, feet swollen, out of food, out of water... Mike spent the better part of the day mentally crossing off the list any future hike that would require a bushwhack. 

By now, though, it doesn't seem so bad. 

I miss backpacking.

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