The Ptarmigan Traverse, Mount Formidable, Sentinel Peak and Dome Peak

The Ptarmigan Traverse was something that Sergio and I had been discussing for a while. Finally, the time was right. I won’t go into all the details of the trip since it is reasonably documented and if you already know all of the secrets the sense of adventure just won’t be the same.

Day 1: Cascade Pass to camp near Mount Formidable
With the help of Sergio’s wife we abandoned my Kia at the barricade on the Suiattle River road then headed for the Cascade Pass trailhead. It was very generous of Agata to participate in the car drop since it would mean that Sergio and I wouldn’t have to drive to Cascade Pass after the trip to pickup a car. I thanked her but getting up early on her day off and a speeding ticket on her way back Seattle said “thanks” in a way I never could have.

We departed the trailhead around 9:30 and arrived at Cascade Pass in a little over an hour where we would see the last people for more than 4 days. We reached Kool-Aid Lake in a little over 4 hours. We stopped for lunch but had no intention of staying any longer than that.

Ascending the Cache Glacier

After lunch we located the Red Ledge and scrambled through the moat then up a few feet to reach the easy ledge. From above we could see where we were heading next and soon arrived at the Middle Cascade Glacier. We kept left then traversed to the slightly lower notch on the left of the Spider-Formidable Col (far less than the 100 yards described in CAG and other plagiarized accounts). As I reached the notch a whole new world appeared before me.

Sergio above the improbable Red Ledge

Mount Formidable and the Middle Cascade Glacier from near the Red Ledge

Agnes to Le Conte from the Spider-Formidable Col

From the col we descended 200-300 feet then began traversing right over snow and talus looking for a good spot to camp. We were being picky and it paid off. After crossing a small rib of gravel we spotted just the right bivy site on a pedestal of sorts immediately below the notch in the rib (more like a ridge) we would have to cross to get to Formidable the next day. It was time to relax and take in the views of the new world.

The Le Conte Glacier from our first camp

Day 2: Mount Formidable and on to camp south of Sentinel Peak
We left camp around 8:00 in the morning and climbed to the crest of the rib then dropped west down a scree gully to the basin below. We traversed the basin then ascended snow and talus followed by a short scramble to reach another rib. We went up the rib a little then traversed left to the base of a moderate couloir. We climbed snow then into the moat for about 100 feet up the couloir where Sergio went right then up a short chimney while I kept in the main gully. As I climbed past a number of rappel slings and the climbing became class 4/5 I hoped that Sergio’s way would be a better way down. I ran into Sergio above the couloir for the final 500' or so of easy scrambling to the summit. We took his way down (10 feet of class 4) then returned to camp and packed up.

Sergio near the summit of Mount Formidable with the Buckindy group in the background

We arrived at Ying-Yang Lakes and it was tempting to just stay there lounging in the sun. We finally forced (actually I think Sergio forced me) ourselves to keep moving. We at least wanted to get over the Le Conte Glacier before calling it a day and began hiking up the talus slope south of the lakes for a few hundred feet before locating a path angling back to the left then up steep heather. The way was not obvious from the lakes but the path got us to the flat area of the ridge crest much faster than I had expected.

We ascended the ridge then traversed around the east side of Le Conte Mountain on snow and slabs then roped up. I led to an obvious snow bridge on the far right side. Closer inspection revealed that the bridge was paper thin. I went left and found a good bridge without much searching. We dodged a few crevasses by going farther left before heading back to the c.7300’ notch north of Sentinel Peak where we got our first view of the South Cascade Glacier. We began the long traverse south losing very little elevation. After c.0.7 miles a post that we assumed was used for a fixed reference by researchers studying the glacier became a target. We locked in on it and found a good bivy site nearby. Again we had lucked out since this camp was at the bottom of the slope we would ascend the next day to reach Sentinel peak.

Sergio on the Le Conte Glacier with Mount Formidable in the Background

Our first look at the South Cascade Glacier

Day 3: Sentinel Peak then to Itswoot Ridge
In the morning we ascended the slope to a moat to the right of the obvious ledge/ramp cutting across the south face of Sentinel. Once into the moat we reached the ramp which wasn’t difficult but will keep you on your best behavior. From the end of the ramp it is easy scrambling to the summit. We returned to camp, packed up and headed down to the South Cascade Glacier. We crossed the glacier then traversed to the notch above White Rock Lakes. Gaining the Dana glacier looked impossible from the notch but there was no going back now.

Near the summit of Sentinel with the South Cascade Glacier Below

Agnes to Dome and the Chikamin Glacier from Sentinel Peak

White Rock Lakes and the Dana Glacier

Getting down to White Rock Lakes was a bit tedious but I thought they were the best lakes on the traverse. We speculated that the route would stay high and traverse to the patches of snow below the glacier but we were soon spiraling downward on the path losing a lot more elevation than we had hoped.

As usual, getting onto the glacier ended up being much easier than it had initially appeared. After some talus and scrambling we slogged up the glacier without encountering much in the way of difficulties to reach the notch east of Spire Point. CAG says to take the 3rd gully to the west but as far as I could see all of the gullies offered loose class 2/3 to the snowfield below. Keeping just west of the crest of Itswoot Ridge we arrived at the usual camp about an hour later. This was where I first met Sergio almost 3 years before and it marked the end of the unknowns… or did it?

At the top of the Dana Glacier

Day 4: Dome and an unsuccessful attempt to reach Sinister Peak
Sergio and I made an attempt to reach Sinister Peak by hiking to the Dome Glacier then by crossing to the slope south of Dome. We arrived at a significant barrier at c.6900’. Our motivation was dwindling and we gave up searching for the ramp or whatever it was we were looking for to get into the basin south of Sinister after ascending several hundred feet and finding no way down. The ramp is not obvious from the top of the barrier but the most likely spot seems to be lower (refer to the USGS 7.5 Quad). We decided to head back to the Dome Glacier and settle for Dome Peak. We reached the summit ridge and made the final exposed class 3/4 scramble to the summit for a few photos then returned to camp. Although we had both been here before and we would have rather been on the summit of Sinister, Dome provided a nice look back on the traverse and was a fine ending.

Sergio on the summit ridge of Dome Peak

Sergio lets out a little steam near the summit of Dome Peak-Gunsight and Sinister in the Background

Day 5: Back to the Civilized world
We departed camp the following day. I estimated it would take only 4 hours to reach the road… 6 hours later we finally ran into the first 2 people we had seen since leaving Cascade Pass. They didn’t look like the type that would make it far from the trailhead but they had made it farther than I had given them credit for. We reached the road in about another half hour. The washout at the bridge over Downey Creek is significant but the car was only a quarter mile away.

Cascade Alpine Guide, Volume 2, 2nd Edition; Fred Beckey; Pages 228-229, 237, 238, 240, 242, 243-245, 364-365