Self-reliance, a trustworthy companion plus a full-quiver of mountaineering skills are essential for navigating the Ptarmigan Traverse in the North Cascades.
“And the weather has to be on your side, or you just can’t move,” said George Momany, who completed the grueling five-day cross-country trek in September with former Spokanite Bill Erler.
The route begins from the Cascade River Road with nearly 4 miles on a relatively easy North Cascades National Park trail south of Ross Lake and state Route 20.
At Cascade Pass they left official trails and followed routes used mostly by mountain goats over ridges, peaks and passes, plus some tense travel on glaciers.
“You’re roping up and into your crampons every day,” Momany said. Their gear also included helmets, harnesses, crevasse rescue devices, ice axes, a picket and ice screws and food for five-plus days.
The route was pioneered in 1938 by four Ptarmigan Climbing Club members who devoted 13 days to finding their way and making first ascents in a trip that’s become prized for remoteness, wildness and alpine adventure.
Momany estimates he and Erler covered more than 45 miles, but the navigation challenges and daily gain and loss of elevation over sometimes-treacherous rock and ice is how the route achieves its epic status.
“The scenery is always spectacular and there’s some pretty walkable stretches in between the hard stuff,” Momany said, noting, “You can work it out every night to camp and swim at an alpine lake, although some have ice at the edges.”
None of those lakes - Kool-Aid, Yang-Yang, White Rock, Cub - is served by a maintained trail.
“We never saw a soul during the trip,” he said.
He described the LeConte Glacier stretch as “imposing,” and noted that a guidebook describes the wrong notch in the rocky ridge for safely descending on the other side.
Certain single moves, such as the jump from the glacier to rock over a bergshrund, left no margin for error: “You might not die quickly, but you’d want to if you messed up,” he said.
Past Dana Glacier they climbed a steep snowfield, made good time and set their sights on climbing Dome Peak.
“It was a 15-hour day, lots of vertical (6,400-feet gain, 6,700-feet down), Class 4 climbing at the top, but worth it,” Momany said. They camped under the stars on Itsamoot Ridge.
Day 5 was highlighted by what Momany describes as “a three-hour alder fest” out of Cub Lake and out over the blowdowns on the unmaintained Downey Creek trail.
“The day totaled 1,100 feet of ascent and 5,800 feet of descent down to the 9-mile hike out” along the washed-out Suiattle Road.
Momany said he and Erler enjoyed a similar dose of pushing their limits a few years ago on the Thunderbird Traverse in Glacier National Park.
But he said busting your butt hiking and camping with ptarmigans is much more relaxing that a similar ordeal among grizzly bears.