The Ptarmigan Traverse

August 7 - 12, 2020

The Ptarmigan Traverse is supposed to be the most scenic high alpine route in the US, weaving its way along the Cascade Crest. Needless to say, it completely deserves the reputation.

6 days of backpacking through thick brush, crossing several glaciers, scrambling over boulder fields and loose scree, climbing up (and down) steep gullies, swimming in frigid alpine lakes, and gawking at some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth (and the animals that call it home).

DAY 1: Cascade Pass to Kool-Aid Lake

After shuttling cars and picking up bear cans from the Marblemount Ranger Station, we started off from the Cascade Pass Trailhead at about noon. Our backpacks were super heavy – mine probably weighed about 60 lbs. Stoke levels were high – although it was a bit cloudy, we were expecting clear skies over the next few days.

The Cascades are named after the innumerable waterfalls and rivers that cascade thousands of feet down the mountainsides, as the snowpack melts over the relatively short summer. We could hear the incessant sound of flowing water throughout the entire trip.

They might look innocuous, but traversing these steep snowfields made for some of the sketchiest parts of the entire route. The snow can be hard and icy, and a fall would not be pretty.

Looking up towards Cache Col, our first crossing of the Cascade Crest. The snow gully looked pretty steep, especially right at the top. We saw the party in front of us skirt along the left edge, and decided to follow suit. The narrow slot between the snow and rock was a bit tricky to climb up, especially with our heavy packs – a good warm-up for some of the challenging terrain to come!

As we descended down the other side towards Kool-Aid Lake, the fog really started coming in. We started fearing that the poor weather might continue. We found some camping spots right by Kool-Aid Lake, and settled down for the night.

DAY 2: Tent

By the next morning, the fog was as thick as ever – and it started raining, too. We didn’t want to be heading out in such conditions, and decided to keep an eye on conditions. By 11 am, we decided to stay put at Kool-Aid Lake. We didn’t want to get all our stuff wet, and more importantly, didn’t want to be crossing glaciers in white-out conditions. We had an extra day built into our itinerary to climb Dome Peak, but it was looking like we’d have to sacrifice that for the weather.

So, we literally spent ALL DAY in our tents. Napping, listening to music, and fearing that we’d get to see none of the epic views we were looking forward to. The highlight of the day was when we were paid a visit by a Ptarmigan with her little chicklets.

Later that evening, it had stopped raining, and the fog kept teasing us by lifting briefly, and then just rolling right back in. I went to bed having mentally prepared for zero mountain views for the rest of the trip – and that I’d just have to come back another time and do this trip again.

DAY 3: Kool-Aid Lake to Yang-Yang Lakes

I woke up at 6 am the next morning, to a sight I’ll never forget! The fog had disappeared, the skies were clear and blue, and Mt. Formidable was bathed in golden light! The weather gods had smiled upon us.

With the inversion layer shrouding the valley below us, and open skies above, we packed up camp and headed out for the day.

Our first ‘obstacle’ of the day was getting onto the ‘Red Ledge’ – known to be one of the crux sections of the Traverse. In early season, the transition from snow to rock is pretty straightforward – but later in the season, a moat forms, making the transition potentially challenging.

There was a pretty well-defined bootpack leading down low, which we followed into the moat. About 20 feet of scrambling on loose rock and dirt got us onto the Red Ledge, after which it’s an easy walk across the narrow ledge, to solid footing.

We were soon treated to the first epic glacier views of the trip – the Middle Cascade Glacier. From here, we could see the Spider-Formidable Gap, which we pass through to get to the other side.

After some boulder-hopping and traversing steep slopes of scree and occasional (hard) snow, we got on to the glacier and roped up. The Middle Cascade Glacier is fairly crevasse-free towards the upper left, and having a distinct bootpack to follow, made things even easier.

One of my favorite moments in the mountains is getting to a saddle, and feeling my jaw drop to the floor on looking over onto the other side. These were the epic views I was hoping for, and we were blessed with the clearest, bluest skies imaginable.

We saw a mountain goat roaming around, and stopped to shoot some photos. It was really cool to take a few moments to simply stand there and observe this beautiful creature wandering his spectacular stomping grounds.

On this route, the spectacular views simply do not relent.

This is LeConte Glacier with Yang-Yang lakes. We got some prime lake-side real-estate to set up our tents, right between the two lakes. A refreshing dip in the ice cold water felt so good after a long and hot day in the sun!

In the middle of LeConte Glacier sits Old Guard Peak, surrounded by a sea of snow.

DAY 4: Yang-Yang Lakes to White Rock Lakes

Starting off from Yang-Yang Lakes at about 6:30 am, we had to first gain the ridge above us. The trail from the southwest side of the lakes first ascends up through a boulder field, and then through a steep gully full of vegetation.

From up on the ridge, the route enters a snowfield which descends to the base of Mt. LeConte, towards LeConte glacier. LeConte Lake is below us, one of the most insanely blue hues I’ve ever seen.

Passing through the saddle just to the north of Sentinel Peak, you get a view of the massive South Cascade glacier, and Cascade lake at its terminus. Then it’s more boulder hopping and through scree fields to descend down onto the glacier.

From here, you can see Lizard Pass, from where you drop down into White Rock Lakes. Straight across is where the route ascends the Dana Glacier. We did rope up while crossing the glacier, but noticed no open crevasses at all. 

Approaching Lizard Pass was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip. As you near the saddle, Dome Peak starts coming into view. What a phenomenally spectacular sight.

As you get to the saddle and look over, it gets even better. Steep slopes of snow and scree fall below you, toward White Rock Lakes. And a panorama of glaciated peaks across the valley.

We found some campsites with great views of Dome Peak, and the Dana and Chikamin glaciers. White Rock Lakes is Marmot central. Be careful with your food, they’re on the prowl!

Sunset on Dome Peak. To shoot this photo, I was perched on a rock in the middle of this stream.

DAY 5: White Rock Lakes to Cub Lake

First rays of light hitting the crevasses of Dana Glacier.

Morning light warming up Dome Peak.

High up on Dana Glacier – the last glacier crossing of the trip.

Great views of Glacier Peak, as we descend out of the alpine.

DAY 6: Cub Lake to Suiattle River Road

Our final campsite at Cub lake. Crossing that snow patch on our way out was probably the sketchiest part of the trip for me. A slip would have sent us straight into the water!

… aaand a bushwhack for the finish.