skiing the ptarmigan traverse
A cool wind fresh off the Dana glacier washes over us and continues up toward Lizard Col. Phil, Jordon, and I are sprawled across a grass-covered hillside beneath a cluster of frozen lakes. Basking in ephemeral sun breaks, resting tired legs. I take a long breath, lie back and close my eyes.
We’re perched near the spine of the North Cascades, miles of trail-less wilderness surrounds us. The day is calm and peaceful. It’s early June and the hiking trails below tree line are teeming with weekenders from Seattle, but up here the mountains are locked in snow. With two-thirds of the Ptarmigan Traverse behind us, we’ve yet to see another soul.
Lying with my back in the grass and cool air flowing over me I think on my love for this place. How good it feels to be a tiny speck upon a huge landscape as we move slowly through it. Deep in the wilderness with a couple great friends and a simple task, I don’t want it to end. I want to look over these peaks as afternoon fades to evening and watch the colors change on glacier and granite.
“Man, I’d really love to kick it here for a good while, what do you guys think of staying here tonight?” I ask Phil and Jordon, interrupting Phil’s attempt to buy three of Jordon’s cookies for a salami and cheese cracker.
“Hmmm, I don’t know…” Jordon says “I think that would make tomorrow really long. We have five miles on snow, then that long hike out, hard to say how rough that will be. And we still have to drive home.”
The North Cascades have called to me ever since I straightened the folds of a national park topo at Powell’s books in Portland years ago. Five hours from Portland, the sprawling range of rock and ice is entirely different than the volcano-dominated skyline of the Oregon Cascades.
Phil, Jordon, and I had been scheming explorations in the North Cascades for years, and made excursions to Glacier Peak and Washington Pass to get a taste of the range. After skiing great conditions on Mt. Rainier’s Emmons Glacier in early summer of ‘17, the three of us were feeling frisky and ready to attempt a bigger tour. We didn’t think twice about what it would be, we knew exactly what we wanted. The Ptarmigan.
Pioneered in 1938 by a climbing club of the same name, the Ptarmigan Traverse crosses 30 odd miles of massive glaciers and craggy peaks as it winds its way along the Cascade Crest from Cascade Pass to the Suiattle River. I loved that the route offered the opportunity see miles of North Cascade wilderness from a high perch. I loved the idea of moving for days through this big wilderness, where retreat would be difficult and we’d rely on our skills and each other.
I’ve spent a number of nights in the backcountry with Phil and Jordon individually over the years, and was psyched when we all committed to a weekend for an adventure together. They’ve got unique perspectives on time spent outside and the big questions in life, and they’re willing to offer them up on the skin track. Add to that their mountain savvy and fitness, and you’ve got everything one aspires to find in mountain partners. Our personalities compliment each other, we work through problems well together, and get excited about similar projects. Let’s get you all introduced.
Phil grew up on skis, and you’d have no trouble guessing it watching his effortless descents of steep lines. While he’s used to the featherweight snow of his home Rockies, he’s come to love long winters of Cascade Concrete and skiing in the rain. Whatever the weather, he brings the stoke. Hey Phil!
Jordon’s a hard-charging splitboarder from Seattle who lives on a sailboat when he isn’t exploring the high cascades. He’s got a penchant for minimalism and a thirst for hoppy IPAs. Hi Jordon!
Then there’s me. A reformed tele skier with a goofy grin. I love taking on big physical projects in the wilderness and am known for spending way too much camp time scribbling in notebooks.
Weekend’s first light found us climbing from the back of Phil’s truck to the roar of meltwater draining from the glaciers above us. We rubbed sleep from our eyes and shoved sleeping bags and three days of provisions into our packs. The forest service road was gated but snow free, so we strapped skis and boots to packs and set forth on foot.
After a couple miles of hiking dirt gave way to snow, and we donned our skis for the short skin to Cascade Pass. A mile away loomed the massive cornice protecting Cache Col, the rest of the route invisible beyond its gateway. Part of the fun of a long mountain tour is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. A rare chance to embrace the unknown and get lost in the adventure, puzzling it out as you go. We took a few minutes with the visible portion of the route before Phil led us onto it, down-climbing the steep entrance and kicking steps for Jordon and I to follow.
After the steep initial descent, we switched back to skins for the traverse to Cache Col . We reached the base of the pass and quickly climbed to it, motivated by the warming cornice hanging above. We skirted the cornice via a melted-out line at its left, dusting off the cobwebs and warming to movement in the alpine.
In short order we were deep in the mountains. We worked as a team, checking each other’s navigation as we considered the variables of the route. At glacier crossings we tied into a 30 meter cord and scouted for snow bridges across their broken expanse. When glacier gave way to snow and rock we looked for weaknesses, working our way through a vast and wild landscape.
We stopped often to consult our maps and the lay of the land in front of us, locating ourselves among the crags and ice of the landscape and comparing our progress to our intended line. We’d pause for a minute, select a path forward, and continuing on.
There’s nothing like the presence and connection to the landscape that comes from long days in big country. Working with the challenges that arise, enjoying the simple pleasure of working hard on a single task.
We allowed two nights for the route. Enough time to pause, gaze out over the landscape, and share some hearty giggles.
We looked across the valley at a rock spit that blocked our path forward. Its sheer walls thrust out above the canyon before plunging into the steepening depths. The summer sun beat upon rotting snow fingers rimmed with crumbling rock. From afar we weighed unappealing options. After some deliberation we agreed on the most secure of the scruffy bunch and skied to the base for a closer look. Inspection revealed a climbable line and we ascended mossy rock to the couloir before booting to the security of the summit.
There’s a satisfaction in honing skills and using them to access the places you love. In the Cascade high country in Spring, practice with skis serves you well. Skin the flats, strap them to your pack for steep climbing, and lock your heels down to make quick work of the descents. When scree and brush lurk under the snowpack and there are no trails, skis are the fastest - and sometimes only - way to travel. Plus they’re FUN! Rip those skins and enjoy the visceral thrill of linking turns a thousand feet to the valley bottom.
Stoke-filled descents will get you about 5% of the way through the Ptarmigan. As with most long mountain tours the bulk of time is spent skinning, booting, and trying to hold a high line on long ridge traverses.
The sun dipped behind the peaks and signaled the end of our first day. We found a flat, protected bench for our camp, dug some water from a frozen lake, and settled in for the night.
With warm weather in the forecast, we worried about wet avalanches on the steep slopes ahead. To mitigate the danger, we woke early and ate quickly, hoping to cover ground before the warmest part of the day. Luckily, the clouds that swallowed our camp at breakfast hung around through the day, shielding the snowpack from rapid warming and allowing for safe travel.
By mid day we were looking over the Dana Glacier, with a decision to make. Camp in this gorgeous spot and risk an epic final day, or get some miles in before nightfall?
“Maaaaan, I wanna camp here tonight!” I said, thinking of how nice it’d be to wake up in this place. “Think we can pull it off?”
“I don’t think so man” Phil said, echoing Jordon after a long look at the map. “We still need to traverse the Dana glacier, climb over Spire Pass, and drop to Cub Lake. That’s before the last climb and who knows what that schwack’s gonna be like getting back to the trail…then we have to hike ten miles. So I’d vote we move along.”
“damn” I said. Seeing the wisdom in my partner’s assessments, I let my afternoon nap aspirations fade and steeled myself for more climbing.
We collected our snacks from around our grassy patch, packed up, clicked back into skis and started the long traverse toward the steep glaciated slopes of Dome Peak.
We crossed the Cascades one last time at Spire Pass and spent a last night on snow at another lake locked in snow. The next morning, we savored a last long look at Glacier Peak on the climb to the route’s exit.
It’d be nice if the story ended there, but that isn’t the way of scrappy PNW ski mountaineering. Memories of corn snow and expansive views faded fast as we descended into pitched battle with underbrush reawakening from the rapidly fading snowpack. We skied weakening snow bridges over roaring creeks, into thickening trees before removing our skies and launching headfirst into the face-whipping, ski-grabbing slide alder of the lower slopes.
Soon the snow gave out entirely and plastic boots kicked up rich black loam. Some more scrappy fighting, evergreens now, and we were on the trail, quickening our pace despite tired legs and heavy packs.
Back at the car by early afternoon, we immediately stripped off steaming ski clothes and dug around the car for hot beers and a bag of chips. We sat next to each other amidst a sprawl of discarded ski gear. It felt great to have had the chance to spend three undistracted days with great friends in big, beautiful country. To work through a shared challenge and get to know each other a bit better by facing adversity together. We Laughed and savored a few last moments outside before piling back into the car, firing up the trip theme song, and blasting down the long gravel road towards civilization.
-notes on planning-
Our primary resource for trip planning was ‘Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes Washington’ by Martin Volken. I created and printed the following map with information from the guide. No guarantees as to the accuracy, and bear in mind - the Ptarmigan is remote and rugged with various objective hazards. Assess your skills carefully and look before you leap.