A Journey to Remember: Three Days on the Ptarmigan Traverse

Like so many Cascadian epics, the Ptarmigan Traverse begins with a car shuttle. But the four hours of bouncing between potholes along the Suiattle and Cascade Rivers give me time to get to know my adventure partners. I previously climbed with Anthony throughout the Cascades for a couple of months, but Ken is relatively unknown, and our planned schedule is ambitious, to say the least. How better to test a new partner than to challenge them on an accelerated three-day off-trail push over challenging terrain? 

Before we know it, we’ve reached the summit and bask, suspended in the sky, in the warm sunlight above endless summits.

Ironically, the off-trail push begins at one of the most popular trailheads in the North Cascades. Warmth from the previous heatwave lingers overnight, but the glaciers hanging overhead assuage our fears that despite the distinctly “un-Cascadian” weather, we’re still in the depths of the American Alps. Morning dawns humid and murky. Wildfire smoke lurking nearby is forecast to blow out by evening, but a gray haze still lingers. As I set off, my pack weighed down with an extra ten pounds of camera gear; I’m thankful for the notoriously gradual switchbacks up to Cascade Pass.

Sunset at White Rock Lakes. Photo by Wyatt Mullen


In just over an hour, we reach the pass and split from the main trail, following the well-worn tread towards Cache Col. This unsigned trail, carved through the heather and stretching towards the remarkably rugged terrain south of the pass, first caught my eye in 2020 as I ascended Sahale Arm, and led me down a Ptarmigan Traverse research rabbit hole spanning time and space. Some 80 years after the Ptarmigan Climbing Club members completed the original improbable traverse, we are taking off on one of the premier mountaineering routes in the Lower 48.

As we cross steep snowfields and remnants of glacial ice to the crest of Cache Col, leaving the busy world of Cascade Pass behind, we are filled with anticipation for the adventure ahead. Mt. Formidable and the majestic Middle Cascade Glacier dominate the skyline. And yet, even though the terrain suggests challenges that no liability-conscious forest service trail builder would dare to confront, a clear, boot-beaten trail continues through the wilderness. As we descend, we stumble upon a family of ptarmigan—a mother and four chicks—that zigzag through the heather.

At the glorified tarn named Kool-Aid Lake, we encounter other wildlife. Chased off the summit of Hurry-Up Peak by oncoming rain, we spy a trio of mountain goats surrounding our backpacks where we left them far below. A nanny and her two kids wander the shore of the lake, partially camouflaged by the background glacier. We shoulder our backpacks and move on, passing over the terrain crux of the route without incident while coming face to face with the Middle Cascade Glacier.

The glaciers of the modern Ptarmigan Traverse are shadows of their twentieth-century counterparts. For now, crossing them remains relatively simple, but as they continue to retreat, steeper, looser rocks will be exposed, and challenges will mount. For now, the spectacular view from the Middle Cascade Glacier to the glacier-clad Sentinel Peak and the turquoise Le Conte Lake at its base remain, but one day both white and turquoise will fade.

Descending into Cascadian Shangri-La. Photo by Wyatt Mullen


We set up camp on a viewpoint above the idyllic Yang Yang Lakes, a pair of aquamarine gems set in emerald green meadows, and watch distant thunderstorms cruise the skyline. Shifting gaps in the clouds allow heavenly rays to fall on the surrounding glaciers. To our right, a goat head pops up above the cliffs, and a pair winds their way down the slope. These goats are tenacious in their never-ending quest for salt. They are aware that humans provide a source of salt in their urine, and even rocks tossed in their direction fail to dissuade them. We will need to pee far enough from our tent to limit the likelihood of nocturnal goat wrestling matches.

At day’s end, a small golden band straddling the western horizon illuminates the gathering clouds. Over the next half hour, the sun sinks, and a rich orange light spreads, dazzling us with saturated color. Every second, the hue along the Cascade Crest shifts from gold to orange to red, then magenta. Finally, as darkness falls, we retire to our tents while the goats snuffle nearby.

Anthony and I wake to broken clouds. Ken has decided to remain in camp while we explore the upper reaches of Mt. Formidable. A marine layer fills the west side valleys with clouds, providing a visually fascinating backdrop as we ascend the loose, class 3 face of Formidable. The wildly remote peaks of the Buckindy Group float on the cloud layer, embodying the classic Cascade alpine drama.

Before we know it, we’ve reached the summit and bask, suspended in the sky, in the warm sunlight above endless summits. The wild crest of the Cascades snakes out below us, separating west from east and rainforest from desert as it slides from high alpine ruggedness to smooth forest cover. The giants of the range rise above the morning haze: Mt. Baker to the north, Glacier Peak to the south, and the massive bulk of Rainier hovering on the horizon.

Sunrise at the toe of the Dana Glacier. Photo by Wyatt Mullen


But we cannot remain sky-bound for eternity, and all too soon, we descend back to camp, rejoining Ken, who has managed to keep the goats at bay in our absence. We shoulder our packs and climb out of the lake basin along granite pathways among tarns and blueberries to the base of Le Conte Mountain. A side trip to the summit—now at roughly the halfway point of the traverse—provides breathtaking views of the South Cascade Glacier. One of the most-studied glaciers in the western hemisphere, the extent of the retreat of the South Cascade—monitored since 1957—is indeed alarming.

We continue the traverse across snow cover, glacial blue ice, rocks, and scree. Crossing a shoulder of Sentinel Peak the weather abruptly changes. The cobalt blue sky vanishes from sight as a thick glacial fog blows in from the west, reducing visibility as we pick our way past supraglacial streams and cross the head of the valley glacier.

Blue hour below the Dome. Photo by Wyatt Mullen


After crossing Lizard Col, we drop towards White Rock Lakes, one of the most remote—and stunningly beautiful—spots in the North Cascades. Located at 6,000’, the lake’s outlet gushes over a small, rocky ledge in an exquisite multi-tiered waterfall, overseen by the complicated north side of Dome Peak. The Dana and Chickamin Glaciers cling to a cirque’s striped wall and innumerable waterfalls flow like silver light into the Agnes Creek Valley below. Purple monkey flowers bloom everywhere. A solitary tent lies hundreds of feet below, welcoming us to a Cascadian Shangri-La.

The sun quickly descends below a western ridge, but the late light lingers on the face of the 9,000’ summit of Dome Peak, a rich, warm glow that reminds me of a Renaissance painting. I can hardly decide where to point my camera. The waterfall? The lakes? The glaciers? The flowers? The eastern sky glows Orange! Fuschia! Lilac! Tangerine! Peach! By the time the light fades and darkness settles over the landscape, I am exhausted – and ecstatic.

Ken and Anthony settle into their sleeping bags, but I’m drawn to watching the Milky Way rise above Dome Peak, which is the view of a lifetime. A meteor streaks across the sky every few minutes, joining the Milky Way ballet.

The next morning, Dome Peak is mirrored in the lake’s still waters. The reflection dissolves with ripples and vibrations as the first orange sunlight falls on the glaciers, etching every crevasse in vibrant detail.

Mt. Rainier peers over the shoulder of Glacier Peak. Photo by Wyatt Mullen


The route ahead looks impossibly steep, but by the time we ascend snowfields through post-glacial terrain, we find ourselves moving confidently and easily to the Spire-Dome Col, at 7,800’, the high point of the traverse. Once again, the view is remarkable. Behind us a sea of peaks rises toward the sky, stretching back to the glaciers overshadowing Cascade Pass. Ahead of us stretches ridge after ridge, emerging from dissipating marine layer clouds and culminating with Glacier Peak’s massive summit. Below us, our exit route out of the alpine appears.

The next 2,500’ of descent is on a mixture of sandy glacial till and snow through meadows and bogs, leading to the ever-so-blue Cub Lake, where we enjoy a refreshing swim before moving on. We relish the last minutes of alpine beauty, feasting as we go on luscious blueberries—a parting gift—before the steep final climb out of the lake basin.

The Descent out of the Alpine. Photo by Wyatt Mullen


And then the bushwhack begins. As far as unmaintained trails go, the decommissioned Bachelor Creek Trail starts reasonably, but as we descend, the brush gets thicker and thicker until movement slows to a crawl. Frequently, the trail forks, every fork dead-ending in horrors of slide alder and nettle. We thrash and bash and crash for more than an hour before finding a faint path.

The next section is only generously called a “trail.” The Downey Creek Trail is frequently flagged, but wrong turns abound, and every mile, a new avalanche path has erased the track. The final six miles, we struggle to extricate ourselves from a forest that doesn’t want to let go. We thrash and bash and crash our way through the brush as progress slows to less than one mile an hour, but eventually, we make it to the Bachelor Creek log crossing (4,100’), where Anthony and I rinse some of the forest debris off our skin.

I’d heard that the last mile was the most questionable section. A fire in 2020 closed the trail for a couple of years, and reports indicated that hundreds of downed trees choked the way. I’m ready for the last mile to take an hour, but then we get to a fresh pile of sawdust and a cut log. And another one! And another one! The Forest Service has saved the day! Notches cut in some of the trees allow us to climb over them. It’s not a walk in the park by any means, but so much better than I feared. Two hours after leaving Bachelor Creek we’re back to our car!

We have come full circle—exiting the wilderness, exhausted and exuberant after three days on the Ptarmigan Traverse, which, for me, is unrivaled in Washington State. And you can be sure I’ll be back.

Inspiring a National Park

The Off-Trail Alpine Route, known as the Ptarmigan Traverse, was first completed in July 1938. It took 13 days for the four members of the Ptarmigan Climbing Club to make the journey. Fifteen years passed before a second group navigated the Traverse. This group included the renowned photographer Tom Miller, whose photographs of the stunning scenery were later published by The Mountaineers in a landmark book, North Cascades (ITAL) in 1964. This book played an important role in establishing North Cascades National Park in 1968.

Sunset behind the Buckindy Group. Photo by Wyatt Mullen

Born and raised in Skagit County, WA, Wyatt Mullen is a landscape photographer and science communicator interested in the impacts of climate and weather on alpine regions. He spends much of his time trail running, skiing, and backpacking throughout the greater North Cascades ecosystem. Visit him at wyattmullen.com.

One comment

  1. When did you do this trip? I’m trying to figure out how bad the exit is…

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