Fog pouring over Cascade Pass. © Jason Hummel
  There and Back Again  
  Alone on the Ptarmigan Traverse  
  by Jason Hummel  


Deep in the North Cascades of Washington, a steep, winding road leads toward Cascade Pass. The finished road was imagined by planners as a highway to connect the Okanogan and Skagit Valleys, but it was never completed. Mile-high walls of rock and ice, like those of nearby Johannesburg Mountain, valiantly guarded this region against encroachment and today the remaining road is open to its end a few months each year, 3.6 miles from the pass. On Wednesday night my car slowly climbed this winding road to its head, where nicer weather in the valleys had escaped this place. I could only imagine what lay hidden on peak-tops shrouded in fog. That night I was going to begin the Ptarmigan Traverse, whose name comes from the climbing club whose members first traveled this high route in 1938. They summitted so many peaks along their inaugural 13-day traverse that their itinerary has yet to be repeated to this day. More importantly, they pioneered an untamed, cross-country path through the heart of the North Cascades, something that few trails and even fewer roads have managed to pierce, let alone cross.

NIGHT ONE: Cascade Pass to Cache Glacier

While the Ptarmigan Traverse is a wonderful hike, the peaks along the way are a large part of why people go in the first place. Reflecting on my plans (which didn’t include any summits), I fancied myself climbing one or two of them somehow, but that wasn’t practical. I had other challenges to surmount and right then I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to handle those. Better to be reasonable, but was going alone reasonable? That scared me more than anything else, but it’s also what allowed for me to set off on such an interesting journey in the first place. Earlier that day I had made several stops to hide my road and mountain bikes and my kayak which, alternatively, would take me back to my car some 67 miles of river and road, all after the 30-40 miles of foot-travel along the Traverse. Normally you’d have two cars, but unfortunately my clone was working (my twin brother). What I had was the few hours of that day remaining and another three days to finish the whole affair and return to my car.

Goat below Cache Col. © Jason Hummel
Goat below Cache Col. Enlarge © Jason Hummel

To begin, I had a choice to sleep in my car or on heather-carpeted slopes above. Not willing to ignore my newfound freedom, I left at 8 p.m., soon happening upon two headlamp-illuminated hikers returning from a late climb of Sahale. Pulling up to chat as they were getting water, they pleasantly told me of their climb and warned of a local bear in the area. Their words of caution were ignored as I continued up into the fog.

With the last people I saw that night behind me, I found myself alone. Being away from the comfort of home is a wild feeling, and can be addicting and demoralizing at the same time. You feel satisfied when you complete what you set out to do while, on the other hand, you can become insanely terrified at times when you feel you have no control, and within the eerie aisle of this trail I felt that. With tree branches slapping me in the face, fog slithering down the slopes, and the night encasing me within my headlamp’s brightened sphere, I couldn’t help but allow maddening sounds to fracture my thoughts. I imagined these sounds coming from mischievous little devils whose job it was to magnify each and every sound tenfold. At breakneck speeds, my efforts to escape the fog pushed me forward and my attention was behind rather than ahead; in an abrupt way, that was about to change. Materializing from the night, the bear’s glinted-yellow eyes met mine, now stricken with fear, and the ground shook. I felt like I should find a rock or tree to crawl under, but I didn’t. Instead, I stubbornly backed down the trail and waited, soon releasing the breath I’d been holding the entire time. I could hear him further down the slope. When all was clear I forged ahead, having avoided being some beast’s supper, up the trail even faster than before.

My adventure included more excitement soon after. It began with shoes on instead of boots and crampons, and nearly ended on mud-layered ice over cliffs. In an attempt to gain some purchase after crossing a gully, I reached for a boulder which then slid on top of me, throwing me careening down the slope to where an icy gully waited. Its gullet was left empty except for the rock and this forced a smirk. “Take that you bastard!” I continued on, upset and angry with myself, making clear attempts to avoid every other big rock on the mountain.

Not long after, the fog fell away and the heavens opened up. Mountains silhouetted the darkened skies and I settled down for the night, satisfied. Overall I was glad I had continued on rather than spending the night at the car, because going to sleep below Cache Col with the mixture of stars and mountains above couldn’t be beat. I only hoped the days ahead would be easier, but no less adventuresome.

DAY TWO: Cache Glacier to the South Cascade Glacier

Sunset over South Cascade Glacier. © Jason Hummel
Sunset over South Cascade Glacier. Enlarge © Jason Hummel

Getting into the North Cascades in summer is much different than in winter or early spring. I usually prefer snow-blanketed heights in June, but not that morning when I arrived at Kool-Aid Lake. Seized as I was by those shadows walking ridges and fog and clouds still boiling and frothing in the valleys, I couldn’t help but want to linger.

With my early start I was soon making up lost time, but I would lose it again on Red Ledge, which is the name for a short climb around a steep and narrow ridge called Art’s Knoll. I searched high and low for the correct route, but ended up settling for another way. It was on red ledges, albeit not the correct ones.

I didn’t put boots on until I came to Spider Pass. The Middle Cascade Glacier is fairly flat, but seasonal snow drops steeply off the far side of the pass. Tom Miller has a photo in the book, The North Cascades, that was taken here, and I hoped to imitate it. I hardly managed to outrace my camera’s timer. Le Conte Peak’s rock-thorned summit, the milk-toned waters of Le Conte Lakes, and the pasty-white Le Conte Glacier remained to satisfy me.

At Yang Yang Lakes I had breakfast on the sandy shore farthest from two people who were resting in their camp between the lakes. Eventually sauntering over, I bothered them for directions to Le Conte Glacier, the route not obvious to me. Very helpfully they pointed the way. I bade farewell and soon worked up a steep gully toward a higher bench.

The LeConte Glacier was the most challenging glacier of the trip and excellent conditions made my work easier. By the time I neared the glacier’s end, the day was cooling and my shadow stretched across the snowfield. Knowing I wouldn’t get much further, I raced over a rock-strewn pass to the sight of the South Cascade Glacier, reminding me of the equally fantastic Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus.
No more than half an hour later, I set up camp on polished ledges set between two waterfalls. That day’s progress was disappointing, as I had wanted to reach White Rock Lakes that night, but my trip wasn’t about time and speed. I promised to catch Friday morning’s sunrise as a compromise. With that to look forward to, I was already feeling better about my situation, especially with dinner served before that night’s sunset, whose warm, colorful glow made up for my lack of dessert.
DAY THREE: South Cascade Glacier to Downey Creek Trailhead
I awoke in a flurry of fear, since light had already swept the land and I realized the sunrise I anticipated was gone. Somehow, my nocturnal clock had swindled me! Hoping to still catch the early sun, I hustled over a pass, to discover it was the wrong pass. The mistake cost me an hour and a half and sunrise. Having heard that White Rock Lakes were the most beautiful lakes along the traverse, I had wanted to see them at their best. At the correct pass, I was unexptectedly rewarded with the most fantastic cirque thus far, and I had it all to myself. In the distance, the Chikamin and Dana Glaciers bulge like muscles on Herculean warriors and, just below me, White Rock Lakes lay melted into stone like eyes of Greek goddesses. Further above and surrounding the valley, miles of cliffs thundered with hundreds of streams. I was in awe of nature’s power in this place, because it was real and tangible and more alive than in the flatlands where roads full of cars travel by houses and skyscrapers.  
I didn’t linger at the lakes long because I wanted an excuse to return here, so after a rest beyond them I continued toward a gully and the toe of the Dana Glacier, where the slabby rocks flattened and an opening in the ice drew me forward to investigate. Leaving my pack, I climbed into the ice cave where watery sounds reverberated. The wildness of this place was so hard to leave behind and the fear of being there was tantalizing. Time was short, so I left the cave to climb atop the very same ice, realizing the ride I’d have with a misstep. I took more care.  
Heart racing, I reached another pass and looked down now onto the familiar. The unknown had spurred me forward, and without it now, I was both relieved and disappointed. I felt like a bug whose voyage toward the light turned out to be flames. My excitement was extinguished, but all these feelings were short-lived. The three times I’ve been in this valley before had never left me disappointed, only humbled.
Hopping my way down to Itswoot Ridge, Dome Peak could be made out between rock and snow. In none of my visits here have I been to Dome’s summit which made leaving difficult. Instead of Dome, waiting for me were miles and miles of brush and meadow, fallen trees and muddied swamps. I set a goal to reach Six Mile camp before taking a break and possibly rest for the night.

I reached 6-mile camp at the confluence of Bachelor and Downey Creeks, as far as I thought I would get. After dinner darkness brought out the stars which could hardly keep me company through the thick canopy of forest. Instead the resident mouse unfettered by my presence munched anything he could find until I packed everything away, everything except my fingers which were all that remained peeking out of my sleeping bag. A sharp pain raised me not long after I closed my eyes. The CARNIVOROUS bastard only managed to get one chunk of skin before I decided to finish my hike off in the dark. Never had I had a mouse do that.

I reached the parking lot later that night and started a fire. With my bed set and the fire flickering, I saw in the shadows another mouse. Any fingers were kept in my bivi and my pocket rocket stove and fork close at hand. My rest lasted a few hours. I had a big day ahead, and I was too full of anticipation to sleep long. Near the parking lot I headed into the jungle where I switched my overnight gear for a kayak and paddle

Jason Hummel with kayak. © Jason Hummel
Jason Hummel with kayak. Enlarge © Jason Hummel
DAY FOUR: Kayak the Suiattle River, Class III - 24 miles and bike 43 miles to Cascade Pass
The change from high alpine to cold glacier runoff was exhilarating. This section of river had been pounded by huge floods that filled most rapids and corners with logs and debris. For the most part I boat-scouted and had to portage a few log jams that I couldn’t squeeze through.

In contrast to the upper section, the lower portions featured a canopy of trees, filtering sun dancing on waves, and clean rapids. Along the way, I met a group of rafters who were spending a few days on the water. One guy told me how they used to float the Cascade River in drift boats which must’ve been exciting.

Fun and exciting for me were the miles and miles of wave trains and boulder gardens. The splashes were always refreshing. I rounded hills, rushed by tributaries, sped through rapids, crashed over rocks to finally meet the Sauk River exhausted and tried. My hands felt like lead weights. But with no time to rest; I exchanged kayak for hidden road bike and hit the highway.

Only a few cars passed me by as I cycled toward the Cascade River Road; my head down, I grinded the miles away and found myself making great time. That is until I started clicking the gears down and down until I could go no lower. My legs were now jello, so anymore punishment was too much. Reaching the end of the pavement, where the mountain bike was hidden, was a short-lived relief. I knew the mountain bike portion would be worse and it was.

I traded bikes, drank a little water (as I had only a liter) and rode out. Every creek tempted me for miles. When the road steepened, I’d walk for short distances, but I knew more riding was needed. I had no time to walk the entire way. Finally reaching mile 21, I stashed my bike in the trees next to the gate and walked. The sky was darkening by then, and every car that passed was another temptation. I was on a mission, though, and to give up this close would be a shame. I was determined to spend the night with my camelback as a pillow before giving up.

At 9:30 p.m., 74 hrs after I began, I reached my car. Another mile would’ve been too much. I was done and better than happy that my solo venture had been a success. I will never forget the experience. The solo journey changed me in more ways than I can explain; seeing so much country in such a short amount of time was very satisfying. Traveling from the high country to the low country, walking high ridges and glaciers, kayaking rivers and riding the highways completed a circle all of the way back to the beginning; a round trip journey completed in fine style.

Trip Summary

A trip through the North Cascades connecting the Ptarmigan Traverse on foot, Suiattle and Sauk Rivers on kayak, and North Cascade Highway and Cascade River Road on bicycle and foot to complete a loop under human power, beginning and ending at the Cascade Pass Trail Head.

Completing the circle without support necesitated caching items near where they were needed: hiding a kayak, a road bike and a mountain bike at strategic locations. This process was completed on day 1. On exiting the trail on day 4, the pack was stashed for the kayak. At the end of the river portion, the kayak was stashed for the road bike. At the end of pavement on the Cascade River Road, the road bike was stashed for the mountain bike. At mile 21, the mountain bike was stashed to end the trip on foot, as it began. Stashed items were retrieved by car.

Day 1:
Cascade Pass to Cache Glacier

Day 2:
Cache Glacier to the South Cascade Glacier

Day 3:
South Cascade Glacier to Downey Creek Trailhead

Day 4:
Kayak the Suiattle River, Class III - 24 miles and bike 43 miles to Cascade Pass.

Personal Note

My trip had taken 73.5 hrs, but felt much longer, especially since it was my first solo overnight outing. I’ve always had the perfect cohort in my twin brother, but my time had come to discover a different side of the mountaineering adventure, and I had. The journey was amazing — from high mountain ridges and glaciers to cold rivers and scorching highways. The trip began and came full circle to my car, in which, unlike when I had first set out, I was now happy to sleep. Plus, who would want to spend the night where wild bears or carnivorous mice could get you?   

Jason's hands at the completion of the kayak portion. Photo © Jason Hummel