In early August, Trail Butter Co-Founder, Jeff Boggess, joined Trail Butter Pro and dear friend, Willie McBride, in the North Cascades of Washington State in an attempt to complete a classic mountaineering route known as The Ptarmigan Traverse.
Hear from Jeff and Willie as they detail their summer expedition from start to finish below.
Ptarmigan Traverse - August 5-6, 2023
Total Mileage: ~35ish
Total Time: 2 days (14 hour day + 12.5 hour day)
Adventure Crew: Willie, Jeff, Jared, Paul
Start Time: ~7:00 am
Miles Traveled: ~15
Time On Feet: ~14 hours
Most Memorable Moment: Meeting the Abeggs and climbing up onto LeConte Glacier, also descending to White Rock Lakes and looking across at the next day's climb to Spire Col.
Camp Location: White Rock Lakes
Completion Time: ~ 9:00 pm
Start Time: ~8:00 am
Miles Traveled: ~20
Weather: Smoky in the am, cloudy and some drizzle in the pm.
Time On Feet: 12.5 hours
Most Memorable Moment: The view from the ridge above Spire Col and the steep descent to Cub Lake... the bushwhack was memorable too of course ;)
Camp Location: We got back to the car!
Completion Time: ~8:30 pm
Adventure crew from left: TB Pro Willie, Jared, Paul, & TB Co-founder Jeff
Congrats on completing the Ptarmigan Traverse! Can you provide a summary of the experience as a whole?
Willie: Wow, what an amazing, challenging, and powerful experience and a seriously badass route! I'd been wanting to do the Ptarmigan Traverse for many years so finally getting it done felt really great, especially with a solid group of close friends. There was a full range of emotions of course: excitement, joy, pure mindfulness, camaraderie, as well as anxiety and fear, trepidation looking at the obstacles ahead, a sense of empowerment and accomplishment looking back at some of the gnarly terrain we'd just come across or descended. It's a full roller coaster and part of the reason we do these things I think. :)
Jeff: For me, this one definitely took me out of my comfort zone at least once in regards to mountaineering skills, being the novice that I am, but thanks to the always solid guidance and leadership of Mr. McBride and friend, Jared, we enjoyed safe passage and good times through this rugged stretch of the North Cascades. I hadn't really explored the North Cascades and was left in awe that such impressive mountains and expansive glaciers were so close to populated areas Seattle and Everett. To be able to traverse a route that keeps you so high and alpine over gorgeous glaciers, slabs and passes was a real treat. Can't wait to get back out there and off trail to explore more of what this amazing range in our backyard has to offer.
Do you recall how you first heard about the Ptarmigan Traverse?
Willie: I don't recall exactly the first time but I do remember an article on the Patagonia website about the route and definitely had heard the name spoken of over the years among climbers and other outdoor folks I know. It always was referenced as being big and remote and stunningly beautiful and it justifiably grew in my mind over the years as being this major, and essential to be done, journey through some of the most amazing and wild mountains in the lower 48.
Jeff: I don't recall exactly when I heard it first mentioned either, probably through the Mazamas, but it seemed to pop up often in adventure talks of classic routes of the PNW. The title of 'The Country's Most Beautiful Mountaineering Route,' given by Outside Magazine certainly piqued the interest and once Willie and I collectively started talking about wanting to attempt it only increased the allure. I also had a friend recount her adventure on the Ptarmigan a few years ago which added to the interest in someday doing it myself, even with her agonizing description of a night-time, miles-long bushwhack to finish it off, which we would endure ourselves though it seemed to be much more tolerable during the day.
What gear did you find to be essential while you were out there? Anything you wished you had on hand?
Willie: We wanted to go as light as possible of course without sacrificing any of the true essentials--crampons, helmet and ice axe, an adequate sleeping set up, and good food to give us all those calories we very much needed. Other than that we kept it minimal, I liked the lightness of running shoes but would opt for something a little more stiff/substantial next time for stability on the snow; otherwise, we packed pretty well for the two-day push with no real regrets.
Jeff: Thanks to friend Graham, I had some Petzl ultralight loaner gear on board and really was amazed by how the Leopard crampons brought so much grip and security out on the glaciers, well, once Willie set me straight on how to wear them;). As far as what I wish I had had on hand? I'd agree, a sturdier pair of shoes would've been nice but overall it seemed we were well prepared.
What did you eat along the route?
Willie: Trail Butter, Spring Energy, Lara Bars, Epic Salmon jerky, things like that during the day, ramen and tuna for dinner.
Jeff: Trail Butter, GoMacro Bars, Skratch Chews, Electrolyte and Recovery drink, potato chips, Ramen, jerky, dried mangos, fig & fruit bars, dehydrated dinner, Instant coffee.
What was your favorite point along the traverse?
Willie: Looking down at White Rock Lakes was special, just such a beautiful place and knowing we were camping there and about to stop and relax for the evening made it even sweeter.
Jeff: I too really enjoyed that night out with the amigos at White Rock Lakes. In addition to that, the sunny climb the next morning with the crew in good spirits having LeConte Glacier behind us, over a beautiful granite slab and glacier up to Spire Point stood out as a true highlight.
Describe a challenging moment or two you faced along the way.
Willie: Climbing up onto the LeConte Glacier was a bit anxiety producing as there was a lot of exposed ice mixed with more crevasses than anticipated and self arrest would have been very difficult in the event of a fall...so there were a few tense moments there for sure. Descending to White Rock Lakes and looking across the valley at the climb up to Spire Col that we'd be tackling in the morning was another intimidating moment, reminding me the importance of staying present and taking challenges one step at a time.
Jeff: I'd have to say without a doubt the crux stretch up LeConte Glacier as well where I felt a little underprepared for the challenge as slopes steepened and ice hardened, but thankfully, with one step in front of the other and great leadership from Willie and Jared, we got through. Looking forward to building those skills and getting more comfortable on mixed run/hike/mountaineering routes!
Did you come across any other parties out there?
Willie: We ran into 4 parties (11 people total) which doesn't feel like a lot when you're out in such vast, remote terrain. Meeting the Abeggs* was really cool – witnessing what felt like a family of literal mountain goats in their beloved, natural terrain was powerful and seeing folks doing what they so clearly love into their older years was deeply inspirational.
Jeff: Totes agree with Willie.
*Note: Amongst many notable accomplishments, Jenny Abegg (one member of the 'mountain goat' family) along with Kaytlyn Gerbin completed the 'Only Known Time' on what they've named 'The North Cascades High Route' in July of 2022.
You two have enjoyed a number of adventures together. How does this latest completion rank?
Willie: Jeff is definitely one of my top adventure partners of all time so to do another awesome journey together--especially one that we've wanted to do for some years--was great. I feel so grateful to have shared and continue to share such powerful and life-changing experiences together. The Ptarmigan Traverse wasn't the longest or most challenging thing we've ever done together but it was surely one of the best.
Jeff: It's always a pleasure to share in Willie's love of the mountains and adventurous spirit that has pushed me to new endurance heights over the years. The P-Tarm definitely is up there on the all-time list thanks to the amazing place, good adventure buds and being able to meet the challenge with a safe and successful attempt.
Do you have future adventure plans in the works? If not, what do you hope to complete with the other some day?
Willie: Jeff and I have a few major bucket list items on the agenda in the coming years. The Rainier Infinity Loop is on that list, as is Tor de Geants, and some other big ticket items like those. There's lots to look forward to! :)
Jeff: I think I may have shook on the Infinity Loop so I guess we're doing that! ;) Would love to explore more routes that mix run, fastpack and mountaineering disciplines if Mr. McBride is down.