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Trip Report    

Ptarmigan Traverse

Dates Aug 25-31 (7 days). We had heard that the Le Conte glacier was difficult and that low snow made it necessary to spend a lot of time on talus and scree, but decided to give it a go. One of our party slipped in a 3rd class gully on the first day, getting bruises and small cuts. After that, we treated the scree with a great deal of respect, wearing helmets the entire rest of the trip, and carrying ice axes even when on heather (for the dirt self arrest). The Cache glacier is in good shape, with few challenges. Kool Aid lake (our first camp) was still partly frozen over but all tent sites are free of snow. The red ledge was difficult to access because the snow had melted down, but by traversing right and climbing into the moat, it is relatively easy to ascend the loose scree to the ledge itself, which is much easier than it looks. Yang Yang lakes (our second camp) are melted out and lovely. Day three, we headed out towards the 'snow finger' route, up the valley from Yang Yang, but the snow had completely melted out, leaving a loose scree gully (detecting a common theme here?). Instead of hazarding the rock fall in the gully, we went up the stream a few 100 feet then ascended a series of sloping heather benches. They proved to be much steeper than they looked, and were quite scary. I would not recommend this route. According to Beckey there is another route that can be accessed by dropping below Yang Yang then climbing up "the obvious goat path" directly to Le Conte pass. This would be the route we'd suggest after our unpleasant experience on the heather.
We had heard that the Le Conte glacier was melted out to ice and very broken up. This proved to be true, but we did find a way through, by climbing up over glacier ice to the normal route, but then dropping down climbers left, across a series of ramps and bridges weaving through the center of the broken up middle of the glacier, eventually managing to work our way to the upper middle area of the glacier which is continuous snow to the col. This route is not for the faint of heart, and would not be a good idea for parties smaller than three or four people. We did not use pickets or ice screws but were glad we had them available if needed. Steel crampons and stiff mountaineering boots would have been helpful; we managed it with aluminum crampons but only because the snow/ice had softened up enough to give us excellent traction.

There is a lovely high camp above the South Cascade Glacier (camp 3). The route is quite easy across the snow and rock and upper part of the South Cascade glacier to the col above White Rock lakes. We were amazed to see a wolverine ahead of us in the valley (confirmed by finding the tracks in the snow). They are extremely rare so it was a profoundly special encounter. The camp at White Rock lakes (camp 4) was melted out but one of the lakes was still frozen over. We scoped our route across the Dana glacier to cut over to the col between Dana and Dome glaciers, planning to climb Dome peak, but the weather closed in on us, and we aborted, heading up the standard route to the col on the right lobe of Dana glacier. There was some exposed ice and some weaving around crevasses but the route is still relatively open. We weathered sleet and severe wind gusts nearly knocking us off our feet, and were grateful to top out and drop down into the relative calm of the other side of the col. The descent to Itswoot ridge is over loose scree and talus (again) and was quite unpleasant in a white out. We definitely plan to return in earlier season. Cub lake provided a lovely refuge (camp 5), then we were off to the wet brush of Bachelor creek. As long as you catch the trail through the avalanche chute, the brush is bad but not impossible. The place where the trail crosses the creek is a bit tricky--look for a log across the creek, and don't be fooled into continuing too far on the left side of the creek. The trail along Dewey creek is in good shape except for numerous downed logs. There is a bridge crossing Dewey creek when you reach the Suiattle river road, but it may be under construction (we crossed on the weekend, with no problems). There is a big log below that would probably work to ford the creek if the construction is blocking the bridge. The 9 miles out on the road is monotonous but easy. Can't wait to return when the road is open again next year! By the way, we had heard that the road will be completely closed, even to hikers, while they are working on it this fall. Be sure to check current conditions.

In all, this was a stunningly beautiful trip. It was a privilege to witness these beautiful and imperiled glaciers while we still can.