Exposure

The Country's Most Beautiful Mountaineering Route

The Ptarmigan Traverse in Washington State’s North Cascades has had the word “classic” pinned to it nearly from the time it was pioneered in 1938. You don’t get much more high-n-wild in the Lower 48 than on this 35-mile-plus mountaineering trip, which starts in North Cascades National Park and immediately dives south into the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

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Photo: Stephen Matera

Along the way the route crosses a half-dozen or more glaciers and permanent snowfields. Some climbers rush through the route in three days, but why hurry when you can awaken each day to a cyclorama of Northwest peaks to climb, and views like this? In July our group took a leisurely six days.

Photo: Stephen Matera

The Ptarmigan Traverse begins with 3.7 miles of switchbacks through old-growth forest to Cascade Pass, one of the prettiest day-hiking destinations in the Northwest. Say goodbye to North Cascades National Park as you head to Cache Col. The traverse is as much off-trail backpacking as it is mountaineering; be proficient with an ice axe and crampons, and be comfortable with glacier travel. 

Photo: Stephen Matera

“Loveliness is paid for partly in the currency of suffering,” legendary Northwest climber Fred Beckey wrote in Challenge of the North Cascades. In other words, to be high, you first gotta get high. Here, the party grunts up a slope of Mixup Arm toward Cache Col on the first day, bent by 40-plus-pound packs. We didn’t stint on the whiskey.

Photo: Stephen Matera

Sunset hiking at Kool-Aid Lake, evening of day one. The traverse gets its name from the pioneering trip by members of that 1938 Ptarmigan Climbing Club expedition, according to Northwest climbing historian Lowell Skoog, keeper of the great site, alpenglow.org. Fifteen years later a group that dubbed itself the “What is South of Cascade Pass Anyway?” Expedition returned. The stunning pictures they took, later collected in a book, helped provide impetus for 1968 creation of North Cascade National Park.

Photo: Stephen Matera

A climber ascends a rock rib beside the tumbling Middle Cascade Glacier. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex, which also includes two adjoining national recreation areas, boasts over 300 glaciers as well as countless snowfields. Climbers on the traverse get up close and personal with ice. The glaciers are being hammered by climate change, however.

Photo: Stephen Matera

From camp at Kool-Aid Lake, the mountains before you look impassable—which is frequently the case in the ragged North Cascades. But on the Ptarmigan there’s always a way to sneak through. Here, the route follows the Red Ledge, a broad angling ramp, around a spur.

Photo: Stephen Matera

Just another ho-hum lunchtime view. A glissade awaits through the notch, down to a popular camp at Yang Yang Lakes (“lakes so nice they named them twice”). In the shade off-camera rests an enormous mountain goat. The night previous, the goat galloped over the author’s bivvy in the dark, just missing his privates—then the goat followed us the next day in hopes of lapping up the salt in our urine. We dubbed him the Chupacabra.

Photo: Stephen Matera

The steep climb out of Yang Yang Lakes, on firm snow. Just out of sight a huge cornice menaced above, warmed by hot sun. A misstep here, or a cornice fall, would’ve resulted in a long, painful slide—or worse. Though much of the Ptarmigan is straightforward for fit, experienced folks, this is still serious, remote country. Don’t count on others to rescue you.

Photo: Stephen Matera

Typical Ptarmigan walking in early July, headed toward the LeConte Glacier and 7,726-foot LeConte Mountain. Depending on how long you take to do it, and when (snow is easier travel than shifty scree) the traverse isn’t wildly arduous. Climbers walk about seven miles a day and ascend perhaps 3,000 feet.

Photo: Stephen Matera

There’s a reason they call the North Cascades the American Alps—mountains beyond mountains. And once you get off the beaten path, you’ll find almost nobody else. Before heading across, the author looks out across the South Cascade Glacier, one of the biggest ice cubes in the tray.

Photo: Stephen Matera

A sunset bivvy at White Rock Lakes. In the background: Dome, Sentinel, and Gunsight peaks, along with the Dana Glacier and the spectacularly-fractured Chickamin Glacier. The lakes are so nice we lazed here and spent two nights. More ambitious (and talented) mountaineers could tick off any number of other summits along the route: the Lizard, German Helmet, Formidable, Spider…

Photo: Stephen Matera

A moody evening on Itswoot Ridge, below Dome Peak, near trip’s end. During great weather, marine-layer clouds can push in from the cool ocean to the west and shoal against the Cascades, making for dramatic scenes.

Photo: Stephen Matera

Hopping baby crevasses on the Dome Glacier. Early July after a typical snow year proved an excellent week for the trip—great weather; still plenty of snow coverage for quick travel; and not yet warm enough to make the glaciers sloppy and the snow-bridges sketchy.

Photo: Stephen Matera

Climbers approaching the summit of 8,920-foot Dome Peak, a remote, prized peak near the end of the traverse—“a massive Gothic structure,” as Fred Beckey described it. In about 20 minutes a thick cloud moved in and squatted on the summit; from the top we couldn’t see 20 feet. So it goes in the fickle Pacific Northwest.

Photo: Stephen Matera

No Pacific Northwest traverse is complete without a hellish bushwhack—and the Ptarmigan doesn’t disappoint on this count, either. The trip ends with a roughly 15-mile descent from the Dome Peak high camp on Itswoot Ridge to the finish at the Sulphur Creek Trailhead that includes some classic Northwest alder bashing. Want to experience the Ptarmigan, but not on your own? For guided trips contact Mountain Madness, American Alpine Institute, or Pro Guiding Service

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