Floris van Breugel on February 16th, 2021

A few weeks ago Aubrey and I made our way south to explore Gold Butte National Monument. Though it is one of the nations more recently protected areas, established in 2016, what makes the area special is its ancient history. Sandstone sculptures shaped through countless seasons of weathering are scattered about the desert landscape. Occasionally, these natural works of art are further embellished with petroglyphs created by the ancestors of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, aging from 700 to a few thousand years old.

The Buffington Pockets and Muddy Mountains

We started our trip at the Buffington Pockets, a little outside of the monument. Here we found strangely colorful sandstone sometimes rivaling the best abstract art you might hope to find in a modern art museum. While wandering the canyons we found several mylar balloons, likely having found their way here after escaping from parties in Las Vegas. In our desert adventures we’ve found quite a few of these flying pieces of trash, however, there is often story associated with them that is fun to ponder. On our last trip we found one celebrating someones 100th birthday. This time, we found a remarkably well preserved Woody balloon.

After a night at the Buffington Pockets, we made our way across the desert landscape towards Gold Butte, taking the scenic route. We made a little detour to visit the Muddy Mountains Wilderness Area, on foot. Here we found a secluded valley decorated with colorful sandstone mounds. Near one of them we first smelled, and then saw, several recent animal carcasses including a bighorn sheep and fox. We suspect a mountain lion must have had a nice home there, but didn’t stick around long enough to find out. The following morning we were greeted by our campsite by a band of hungry wild horses.

solitude, sandstone, nevada, deserts

Desert Bonsai : Prints Available

A tiny shrub, from the right angle, looks like a lonely tree in this surreal sandstone landscape.

abstract, sandstone, nevada

Purpleheart : Prints Available

Strange colors and patterns in the sandstone abound in southern Nevada's sandstone country.

Mylar Woody

The Muddy Mountains

Gold Butte National Monument

Our first few stops in Gold Butte were to explore some of the many petroglyph panels adorning the sandstone outcroppings. I was, however, equally intrigued by the natural “art” consisting of impossibly crisp lines of color cutting through the otherwise light pink stone.

Enjoying the views and wondering what was on the minds of the people who created these petroglyphs.

petroglyphs, gold butte nm, nevada, deserts, man in nature

Seven Goats : Prints Available

Seven of the 'twenty-one goats' petroglyph panel in Nevada's Gold Butte National Monument.

abstracts, sandstone, nevada, deserts, gold butte

Sandstone Art : Prints Available

Mother nature is the original modern artist, and sandstone is her favorite canvas.

That evening we returned to an area we had visited several years ago, known as little finland. Having little to do with Finland, I imagine the name stems from the strange and fragile sandstone fins that decorate the area. Many of these larger shapes likely started out as small pockets like in this image, resembling the tafoni found along many coastlines. The white residue found in the area is consistent with the hypothesis that these structures likely formed, and continue to evolve, through salt weathering.

Overnight a significant thunderstorm moved through the area and listened to the pounding rain and crashing thunder from the comfort of our bed in the truck. The following morning Aubrey got to enjoy her coffee in bed while taking in the lovely scents of a wet desert.

sandstone, gold butte, deserts

Melted Stone : Prints Available

Weathered sandstone takes on strange shapes, almost like chocolate melting in the sun. Found in Gold Butte National Monument, NV.

Morning coffee in bed.

On our last day we explored a few other sandstone outcroppings in the landscape, finding several more remarkable petroglyph panels. Although people have no doubt written theses about the meaning of these panels, I myself wonder if some of them weren’t simply the works of young men and women looking to make their mark on the world.

deserts, nevada, gold butte nm, joshua trees, red rocks

Desert Contrasts : Prints Available

The spiky green Joshua Trees contrast beautifully with the sensual and smooth red sandstone found in Nevada's Gold Butte National Monument.

petroglyphs, sandstone, canyons, nevada, gold butte

Canyon Stories : Prints Available

Petroglyphs adorn the walls of this narrow sandstone canyon in Nevada's Gold Butte National Monument.

gold butte, nevada, landscapes, grand landscapes, deserts, open spaces, warm

Golden Buttes : Prints Available

Protrusions of colorful sandstone adorn the wide open country of Nevada's Gold Butte National Monument.

The Circus

The goat men. What do you suppose they are up to? Who made this “drawing”, and why?

Tags: , , ,

Floris van Breugel on November 15th, 2020

The professor and pandemic life has, unfortunately, limited Aubrey and my opportunities to explore over the past year. However, two weeks ago we finally got away for Nevada Day–a statewide celebration of Nevada’s admission to the union 8 days prior to Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, made possible by a $70,000 (today’s dollars) telegram of the entire state constitution.

We headed out to the Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon to explore some hot springs and rocky landscapes. Aubrey did the planning for this trip, which gave me a rare and wonderful opportunity to be surprised at every turn. I had absolutely no idea what we might expect to see, and I was astounded with how beautiful the canyons were. The landscape was reminiscent of eastern washington (but with a little less water). The similarity isn’t surprising given that the basalt layers were formed by the same volcanic activity that formed the Columbia River Plateau, and the canyons here were carved by sudden massive floods, not unlike those that occurred across the Columbia River Plateau.

Aubrey in some warm reflected light of an impressive slot canyon.

Me exploring the fascinating patterns of the High Rock Canyon area.

Cooking breakfast in our heated ice fishing hut (it was cold out!).

canyons, nevada, deserts, red rocks, slot canyons, black rock desert

Rock Tumbler : Prints Available

An ancient flood sculpted this deep canyon in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, leaving beautifully rounded boulders in its wake.

nevada, rocks, canyons, deserts, black rock desert

High Rock Cathedral : Prints Available

Towering walls of lichen covered rock make for endless echoes in this colorful side canyon of Nevada's High Rock Canyon in the Black Rock Desert.

Earlier over the summer we also made a trip to the White Mountains, but I never got around to sharing any of those images–after all, there was only one. A twisted old bristlecone root ball.

bristlecone pine, trees, abstracts, white mountains, california

Heart of an Ancient : Prints Available

Hidden among the graying weathered branches and roots of this old bristlecone pine is a heart of red. Perhaps it will provide a little shade for the next generation.

Tags: , , , ,

Floris van Breugel on June 29th, 2020

Though it has been a stressful, strange, scary, and confusing time, some things never change: the peace and quiet of the wilderness. Fortunately, social distancing is no problem in the Nevada wilderness, and Aubrey and I have had a chance to get out and explore our new(ish) home state through a few trips over the past 2 months.

Not far south of us are the Pine Nut Mountains, a large expanse of rugged terrain festooned with lumpy granite boulders and, as you might hope, pinyon pines. Earlier in May we explored a small portion of the area, perfectly timed (by chance) with the peak bloom of the desert peach. These shrubs are covered in lovely flowers ranging from cream colored to bright pink. Apparently, in wet years, the fruits are like miniature fuzzy peaches, and delicious according to the Cahuilla.. I look forward to trying them someday!

flowers, desert, spring, desert peach, nevada

Desert Peach : Prints Available

Blooming desert peach (Prunus andersonii) along the foothills of the Pine Nut Mountains in Nevada.

nevada, desert, pine nut mountains

Pine Nuts : Prints Available

Granite boulders, pinyon pines, sage brush, endless sunshine, and big views characterize Nevada's Pine Nut Mountains.

Pine nut camp.

For our next trip, we explored the mountains east of Bridgeport, known primarily for gold mining in the early 1900’s. As with the pine nuts, small to medium granite lumps gave the otherwise mostly barren mountains a charming character. For years I’ve been search for rocks that seem to be miniature mountain peaks, and here I finally found one. Technically these scenes are from California, but just 2 miles or so from the border, so let’s just pretend it’s Nevada.

eastern sierra, rocks, open spaces

Granite Peaks : Prints Available

Wide open spaces, the smell of sage, and small granite boulders that want to be gigantic mountains, with views of the Sierra Nevada crest.

Desert evenings.

The final adventure I have to share is from Northeast Nevada, in the Ruby Mountains. While you would be correct in thinking most of the state is arid sage-land, I can now confirm that there are in fact pockets of lush greenery! But the pockets are small. Much of the Ruby Mountains share the same landscape to our previous destinations, with misshapen granite lumps, and mountain mahogany trees near the hill tops. These shrubby trees are, like the desert peach, in the rose family, and often take on shapes reminiscent of the African savannah.

After exploring the boulder landscape for two days Aubrey and I did a short little overnight out of Lamoille Canyon, the crown jewel of the Rubies. The flowers were just starting to bloom, and up above treeline, the snow had clearly just melted a week or two ago and the corn lilies were putting on quite a show.

trees, nevada, ruby mountains, sunshine, forests

Mountain Mahagony : Prints Available

Mountain Mahogany trees dance in the dwindling sunshine of Nevada's Ruby Mountains. These shrubby trees bring to mind scenes from the African savannah, and seem to grow where nothing else possible could.

Aubrey resting in a pothole.

trees, nevada, ruby mountains, sunshine, forests

Emeralds and Rubies : Prints Available

Endless fields of emerald green corn lilies burst into life after the winter snow melts. Although the Ruby Mountains were named after garnets found by early explorers, I like to pretend the vivid red sunrise light helped inspire them a little, too.

Tags: ,

Floris van Breugel on March 1st, 2020

A few weeks ago Aubrey, myself, and some friends celebrated George and Abraham’s birthday by driving out to west-central Nevada to see what we could find in and around the Toiyabe Mountains. We found some hot springs, wide open spaces, pinyon pines, junipers, burros, and many empty roads. It was a lovely break from the busy life of a young professor! I look forward to returning to the area in the spring, when there may be some flowers out and about.

The blue thing is our new replacement of our red cube: an ice fishing hut! It served us well as a portable living room.

nevada, open spaces, warm, mountains, deserts

Toiyabe Light : Prints Available

Late afternoon sunlight dances across the basin and range of Nevada. Pictured here is the western side of the Toiyabe Mountains, with some Juniper and Pinyon Pine in the foreground.

birds, nevada

Pinyon Jay : Prints Available

Pinyon Jays perched atop a pinyon pine in Nevada's Toiyabe National Forest.

burrows, wildlife, nevada, desert, black and white

Nevada Burrows : Prints Available

Wild Burrows pose in front of the eastern Toiyabe Range in Nevada.

Tags: , ,

Floris van Breugel on December 1st, 2019

Many months ago now, Aubrey and I were fortunate to have found time to go on our annual adventure. For about 10 years I had wanted to explore the Gardiner Basin in the Sierra, which is the basin that the popular Rae Lakes loop circumnavigates. It takes quite an effort to get in, and out… our loop was about 35 miles and 11,000 feet up and down. But it was worth every step.

Our trip started with some thunder and rain, and for a moment it almost felt like we were back in the Northwest. After two days of weather, the skies parted and we enjoyed crisp and clear weather as we navigated our way through the granite landscape. Our route took us past the Rae Lakes, to the Sixty Lakes Basin, and up and over a remote pass into the upper Gardiner Basin. Once there, we saw very little signs of any human activity.

Our camp beside a remote lake provided stunning view of Mt Gardiner. One of the symptoms of getting older is that I now have to get up to pee in the middle of the night. On this particular occasion, the milky way was fortuitously aligned with Gardiner Peak. A cluster of Jeffrey Shooting Stars provided the perfect foreground.

The following day we descended 3,000 feet through forest and granite, alongside steep braided waterfalls. Reaching the bottom of the valley of course meant we needed to climb right back up. The faint use path barely provided any guidance, but the mosquitoes motivated us to keep moving. For our final day we scrambled up and over the pass, through an epic avalanche path, and made our way back to Kearsarge pass.

Hopefully such adventures will become more frequent again, now that we are getting settled into our new careers and home. Our little parrot is doing a great job of bringing some wilderness into the home, though. Pictures at the end 😉

Kearsarge Rain

Kearsarge Pinnacles, Sierra, Verdant

Verdant Sierra : Prints Available

Moss and blooming Sierra Shooting Stars provide a verdant foreground for the Kearsarge Pinnacles under stormy skies in California's Sierra Nevada.

Muir Selfie

Sierra, Shooting Star, Meadow

Summer Frost : Prints Available

Sierra Shooting Star flowers bloom in a field of frosted grasses in a meadow in the wilderness of California's Sierra Nevada.

Aubrey Granite Hopping

Gardiner Zen

Milky Way, Sierra, Mt Gardiner

Star Garden : Prints Available

The milky way lights up the dark skies over Mt Gardiner, deep in the wilderness of California's Sierra Nevada. Blooming Sierra Shooting Stars offer a fitting foreground.

Sierra, Waterfalls, Wilderness

Waterfall Wilderness : Prints Available

A big snowpack in 2019 followed by hot summer days leads to plentiful cascades in the wilderness of California's Sierra Nevada.

Camp Gardiner

Waterfall Bath

Birthday Camp

Heather, Sierra, Summer

Summer Heather : Prints Available

Blooming heather covers the hillsides of this remote canyon in California's Sierra Nevada.

Birthday Pudding

Birthday pudding: pistachio / chocolate swirl!

Mosquito Hell

Mosquito carcasses decorate my face after a bloody battle.

Spot the Cairns (there are at least 2). When trained and moving, it is remarkable how good the human brain is at finding cairns!

Avalanche Destruction

Baby Wasabi, ~ 1 month old.

Wasabi, ~6 months old.

Wasabi, ~8 months old.

Tags: , , ,

Floris van Breugel on August 3rd, 2019

It’s been a busy few months since moving to Reno, starting a lab at UNR, making friends, skiing, biking, and welcoming a small dinosaur (parrot) into our home, but at long last Aubrey and I finally had a chance to do some backpacking over the past two weeks. Here’s a few images from our first trip.

To get back into the swing of hiking and camping we decided to take a short warmup trip to the Desolation Wilderness, an area I’ve heard of often, and probably visited many years ago, but have few memories of. The Desolation Wilderness is southwest of Lake Tahoe (just an hour from our home!), and is mostly known for the plentiful lakes. The largest and most famous, and in many ways most beautiful, is actually a shallow reservoir called Lake Aloha. I’m not sure who decided on the name, but it inspires a tropical hawaiian feeling that is surprisingly appropriate. Aubrey brought along an inner tube floaty and we took turns paddling among the many granite islands. The pine trees almost looked like palm trees, and despite the snowy backdrop, it almost felt like floating in a tropical lagoon.

Sierra Nevada, Snow, Melt

Summer Melt : Prints Available

Summer greenery impatiently appears as the winter snow finally begins to melt away in mid July in the Sierra Nevada.

Lake Aloha, Sierra, Desolation Wilderness

Alpine Lagoon : Prints Available

The warm(ish) waters of lake Aloha and plentiful granite islands make for an almost tropical experience in the Sierra alpine. To get this view point I scrambled up to an overlook of polished granite.

Pollen, Desolation Wilderness, Lake Aloha

Sierra Pollination : Prints Available

Pollen collects along the shores of Lake Aloha in California's Desolation Wilderness, arranging itself in gentle curves on the calm water. 

Tags: , ,

Floris van Breugel on February 25th, 2019

At the beginning of this year I started my new position as assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. The last few months have been quite busy with starting up my lab, getting settled into our home, making new friends, etc. So, adventures have been a little infrequent. That said, Aubrey and I are really enjoying our new home and jumping off point. We’ve already had more great backcountry ski days than most other years, and it’s only February!

Last weekend some friends from Seattle came for a visit, hoping to escape snowmageddon. Of course, Reno welcomed them with larger than normal snow and unusually cold weather. We headed south to find a pocket of good (but cold) weather, enjoy some desert hot springs, and explore Nevada’s geology.

PS – the post title is a reference to our state song.

hot springs, nevada, deserts, white mountains

Fish lake hot springs : Prints Available

Sunrise over the fish lake hot springs with a view of the snowy white mountains.

deserts, nevada, colors, tuff, monte cristo range,

Volcanic colors : Prints Available

Colorful mounds of volanic tuff are scattered across the mountain ranges of Nevada.

Our camp for the night. It was cozy and wind free in our red “hot hut”.

Modern desert truck art.

Tags: , ,

Floris van Breugel on October 6th, 2018

Fall has arrived! Here in the northwest, that means the blueberry bushes are turning red, the larches gold, and a plethora of other plants are taking on shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple. It also means that the rains have come, bringing with them the mist and wetness that so characterize the northwest. Last weekend Aubrey and I went out to a remote area in the Cascades to enjoy the colors and rain, and we were not disappointed. Getting away from people here means you have to work for it, and we did. Our approach involved biking up 8 miles and over 3,000 feet gain on a forest road, followed by 6 miles and 1,500 feet gain on foot. The ride up wasn’t as bad as we had feared, but with an overnight backpack on biking is not particularly comfortable. Well worth it though, for the quick ride back to the bottom on our hike out! Once we broke through treeline we were treated to never-ending views of every color imaginable. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

~ ~ ~ Click any image to see a pop-up larger view! ~ ~ ~

Cascades, Fall, Mountains

Autumn Rainbow : Prints Available

A cornucopia of fall colors decorate the mountains of the Cascades.

Camp selfie!

Larch, Autumn, Cascades

Lonely Larch : Prints Available

A lonely larch with its gold autumn colors clings to a rocky island in Washington's Cascades, while a colorful sunrise develops overhead.

Aubrey taking a stroll along the colorful path.

Cascades, Autumn, Forest

The Red Carpet : Prints Available

Autumn reds of the blueberry bushes adorn the forest floor of this golden larch forest in the Cascades.

Alpine lake!

Cascades, Pika, Autumn

Autumn Pika : Prints Available

A Pika watches me from the safety of its stone house. Autumn is a busy time for these creatures, as they gather vegetation to prepare for the winter ahead. 

Cascades, Autumn, Larches

Autumn Gems : Prints Available

Autumn colors shine like gemstones in the early morning light in the eastern Cascades. Early October is an incredible time to be out in the mountains, with the golden larches and red blueberry bushes. 

Cascades, Autumn, Rain

The Great North Wet : Prints Available

Misty skies and a light drizzly rain make for a real cascadian experience in the mountains, while the autumn larches add a touch of color to the landscape. 

The ride home.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Floris van Breugel on September 12th, 2018

Autumn is coming! The days are getting shorter, there is a crisp snap to the air, and the first rains are blowing in from the Pacific. To celebrate the changing of the seasons, Aubrey and I went out to the White River, east of the Cascades, and paddled the 14 miles of the twists and turns upstream of Lake Wenatchee. The tributaries of Lake Wenatchee are one of five spawning grounds for sockeye salmon in Washington, and now is the time that they are beginning their upstream migrations. Sockeye salmon fry (the baby fish) are unusual compared to other salmon in that they need a lake to mature, before they head out to the ocean (though land-locked populations also exist, called kokanee).

The river was never more than 300 yards or so from the road, and yet, it felt like a real wilderness, almost like being far from civilization in Alaska. In addition to the salmon, we saw bald eagles, river otters, american dippers, and lots of evidence of bears (paw tracks). It’s nice to see a healthy wilderness ecosystem thriving so close to civilization.


A calm moment on the river at the beginning of our float. Photo by Aubrey.


The view from my packraft as Aubrey comes around the river bend in her kayak.

Autumn Color, Leaves, Washington

Autumn Arrives : Prints Available

Autumn colors slowly take hold of these maple leaves along the White River in Washington's Cascades.

Sockeye Salmon, Spawning, White River

Spawning Sockeye

Aubrey paddles down the White River, past a group of spawning Sockeye Salmon. 

Sockeye Salmon

Male and female Sockeye Salmon (male is the one closer to the top of the frame).

Sockeye salmon swim through the shallows to calmer water upstream.

Gravel Bar Camp

Our camp, on a gravel bar in the middle of the river.

Cocktail hour

Some unexpected rains materialized in the evening, just as we poured ourselves a manhattan. No problem... boat-umbrella to the rescue!

Tags: , , ,

Floris van Breugel on August 7th, 2018

Eighty years ago, a group of four hardy souls from the Ptarmigan Climbing Club (Bill Cox, Calder Bressler, Ray W. Clough, and Tom Myers) set out to discover what lay south of Cascade Pass, and although they (and many subsequent explorers) found out, words can’t do such a place justice.

So, last week Aubrey and I together with our friend Shawn set out to find out for ourselves, following the now famous mountaineering route called the Ptarmigan Traverse. The route begins at Cascade Pass, and follows the Cascade Crest closely for about 15 miles southward, gaining and losing about 8,500 feet, before finally descending 6,000 feet to the confluence of Downy Creek and the Suiattle River (a mild bushwhack). During the traverse the route crosses the crest at least 7 times and travels over five major glaciers and a few nameless ones. The views never stop, in fact, they seem to only get better. Every time we approached a new col, we couldn’t wait to see what visual feast we would find on the other side.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Traversing Ptarmigan : Prints Available

The Ptarmigan Traverse travels through some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain in the lower 48. The route is named after the Ptarmigan Climbing Club, who pioneered the route in 1938. Their name comes from the Ptarmigan, a small chicken-like bird that lives in the Alpine. We were lucky enough to see a mother Ptarmigan and her seven (!!!) babies on our first afternoon. What a view, looking out over the Middle Cascade Glacier and Mt Formidable.

As we travelled through this extraordinarily beautiful and rugged landscape we couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like for the early pioneers. What gear did they have? What food did they eat? What was their experience like? Although the Ptarmigan crew never published their story, it’s possible to gain just a little insight into their accomplishment by noting a few basic facts.

According a historical mapping database, the most recent topo maps for that area when the Ptarmigans made their trek in 1938 would have been the 1:250,000 USGS quads produced in 1901. These maps had 100 foot contours, and did not label any of the lakes on the route (it’s worth seeing those old maps – search for cascade pass, and select the 1901 Glacier Peak quad). That shouldn’t be terribly surprising, I suppose, given that the maps predate airplanes (the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903). Thus, the topography could only have been generated from photographs and measurements taken from nearby peaks. But, with none of those peaks having been climbed in 1901, there must have been a substantial amount of interpolation involved. Given these limitations, the quality of the maps is actually quite extraordinary. Of course, the Ptarmigans probably had some notes from their friends and prior trips to mountains in the area, but a lot of mystery would have remained.

Not only were the Ptarmigans the first to find their way across this landscape, they actually had to do it twice. At the time, the Cascade River Road to Cascade Pass hadn’t been completed (that wouldn’t happen until a decade later), so they hiked from Sulphur Creek to Cascade Pass, and back again. Oh, and they summited every major peak along the way (most of them first ascents).

Because of the second world war, and the remoteness of the adventure, the trek wasn’t repeated until fifteen years later. For this second trip, in 1953, Dale Cole, Bob Grant, Mike Hane, Erick Karlsson and Tom Miller, took advantage of the new Cascade River Road to hike south from Cascade Pass (reversing the original itinerary). This trip was, again, before the USGS had updated these maps, and a full decade before the first 1:24,000 quads for that area were published. They did publish their story, and you can read about it here: South of Cascade Pass (page 38).

The only major change to the mountaineering route people take today, and the 1953 route, is a preference for climbing up Le Conte Glacier instead of going over the pass just south of Le Conte Mountain (which involved a steep and rocky descent to the South Cascade Glacier). Looking at the old maps, it’s easy to see why this wasn’t an obvious route.

Tom Miller, of the 1953 party, brought his camera and published his photos in a 1964 book, which proved important in designating the North Cascades as a National Park in 1968. Ironically, the vast majority of the Ptarmigan Traverse itself lies outside the National Park. Fortunately most of the traverse is protected by its shear remoteness, and the generally good ethics exhibited by people who travel there.

~ ~ ~ OUR ADVENTURE ~ ~ ~

Now that you know a little of the history, I can recount our story. Compared to those first explorers, it doesn’t feel like much of an adventure, but was one of the most beautiful and fulfilling “hikes” I’ve done! To be clear, this is not a backpacking route. It requires technical knowledge, glacier travel, and general backcountry mountaineering expertise. We took the standard 5 days to really enjoy the trek, but the entire route has been done by crampon-wearing long distance runners in just over 12 hours. I recommend taking the extra time!

Hover your mouse over some of the images to reveal our approximate route.

Click to see pop-up bigger view.

More photos here.

~ ~ ~ DAY 1 ~ ~ ~

The trek started with an easy and wonderfully maintained trail to Cascade Pass. Others have commented that the trail was “designed by someone who thought humans should never be forced to walk perceptibly uphill” [ref]. Relative to the rest of the route that may be true, but you’re still gaining 1,800 feet before you’ve eaten any of your food!

At the pass, we stopped for a snack, checked the map, and started making our way to Cache Col. The route clings to some steep scree and can’t-slip snow slopes above the Pelton Basin. This is the qualifying exam. If you get through that section without too much of an adrenaline rush, you’ll be okay for the rest of the route.

Around the bend we arrived at the first glacier of the trip, Cache Glacier. It’s the mildest glacier, and was a good opportunity to practice roping up and finding our group pace. Before long we were at Cache Col, with a superb view of Mt Formidable to the south. As we made our way to Kool-Aid Lake, where we would camp for the night, we stumbled upon a mother Ptarmigan, and her seven chicks. I couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the trip, than to see the routes namesake bird on our first day (image at the top of the page)!

To our delight, we had the half-melted-out Kool-Aid lake all to ourselves that evening, and immediately went for the first of our alpine swims in the patch of open water.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Pacific Northwest, Cascades

Cascade Pass

Taking a look at the map before we leave the (official) trail, and head for the mountains. Hover your mouse over the image to reveal our approximate route.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Climbing Cache Col

Shawn ascending up to Cache Col. We came from Cascade Pass, which is around the corner. Hover your mouse over the image to reveal our approximate route.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Sunset on Kool Aid

Our first campsite, at Kool Aid Lake. We had the entire place to ourselves that night! Views of Mt Formidable and the Middle Cascade Glacier in the distance.

~ ~ ~ DAY 2 ~ ~ ~

Day 2 involves two sections that had made us rather anxious while reading all the route information: the infamous red ledge, and the steep descent from the Spider-Formidable Col. That morning we drank our morning coffee and looked out at the red ledge, an improbable looking route across a colorful band of rock in a steep cliff face. From camp, it doesn’t look possible. But then we saw two white specs–a mother goat and her baby–traversing the ledge. After realizing the it was lagging a little, the goatling sprinted across the ledge in a few seconds to catch up with mom. If a baby goat can sprint it, surely we could walk it?

Fortunately, we had timed the snow conditions just right, and getting onto the ledges (the trickiest part) was relatively easy. From there it was, as the goats had demonstrated earlier, an easy path through the cliff band. From here we traversed towards the Middle Cascade Glacier, passing safely above some impressive seracs in the blue glacial ice below. We roped up and made our way to the Spider-Formidable Col, where we feasted on the new view, jalapeño-cheese sausage sticks, and some spicy mangoes.

The descent from the Col is just steep enough that you can’t see what’s below, making it a little unnerving to commit. We had lots of time, and lots of aluminum pickets, so we set an anchor and Aubrey belayed me down so I could get a good look. Right about at the end of our rope (130 ft), I could finally see a clear path all the way down. I set a new anchor, and brought in Shawn and Aubrey. From there, we determined it was safe to glissade the rest of the way – our favorite mode of downhill movement on summer snow!

At the bottom, we strapped on the crampons again, and made the scenic traverse towards Yang Yang Lakes, which would be our camp for night 2. The lakes really are quite spectacular, devoid of all Yin, and solidly full of Yang. (Yin = negative/dark; Yang = positive/bright).

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Staring down the Col

One of the steeper sections on the route is descending from the Spider-Formidable Col. It's just steep enough that you can't see over the edge, but it turned out to be entirely glissadable. Hover your mouse over the image to reveal our approximate route.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Yang Yang

Shawn starts the descent to Yang Yang lakes, our camp for night 2. Hover your mouse over the image to reveal our approximate route.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Ying and Yang Yang : Prints Available

Sunrise on the Le Conte Glacier, seen from the Yang Yang lakes.

~ ~ ~ DAY 3 ~ ~ ~

Day 3 started with a steep descent up a narrow snow gully, which tested our comfort with the crampons and axe. By this point in the trip, we were feeling more at home on the snow, and thanks to the day-old boot pack, it was a relatively easy ascent. From there we traversed the crest for a ways, waving good-bye to Mt Baker as we skirted the east flanks of Le-Conte Mountain towards the Le-Conte Glacier. Prof. Le-Conte must have made quite an impression on his peers, as there are at least three mountains that bear his name (in the Sierra, the Smokies, and the Cascades). I suppose it’s fair, as we was a physician, geologist, and a conservationist.

The Le Conte Glacier is the most active along the route, and we had read stories of parties that got turned around here, or had to climb in and out of icy crevasses to get through. Again, however, the snow-gods smiled on us, and we faced no such problems in getting onto the glacier as there was still a healthy layer of consolidated snow covering any would-be obstacles. We placed a few pickets for back up on the steep section, and then it was a long and easy slog to the pass.

At the pass, we crossed the crest yet again, gaining a new view, this time of the South Cascade Glacier. Compared to the maps, and historical images, this glacier has retreated the most in the past 50 years, losing close to half a mile in that time (image comparison here, and for me see: The Ptarmigan Traverse – Then and Now).

Up until this point we had been following some mysterious, and expertly routed boot tracks. Now, for the first time in the trip, we could see our mysterious “guides”. We caught up with them at the pass to White Rock Lakes, and had the benefit of their reconnaissance to know that we could safely glissade almost the whole way down.

The White Rock Lakes are the most spectacular campsite on the traverse, with commanding views of Dome Peak and the hanging Dana and Dome Glaciers. In addition to having time the snow just right, we also seemed to have hit peak heather-blooming time. All along our route I had been trying to find nice compositions with these delicate and colorful pink flowers. Finally, with the view of Dome at sunrise, I had found what I was looking for. A few clouds would have been nice, but the rich morning light made up for it.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Reflecting on the Route

Aubrey takes in the view after ascending a snow gully above Yang Yang lakes. Hover your mouse over the image to reveal our approximate route.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Staying Hydrated

Shawn, always on the lookout for an opportunity to hydrate. This time, right before we ascend the Le Conte Glacier.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Crevasse Hopping

Aubrey makes a gratuitous hop over a tiny crevasse. You couldn't have gotten your big toe stuck in it if you tried...

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest


A delightful glissade down to White Rock Lakes. Why people would choose to walk down these slopes was beyond our understanding... Hover your mouse over the image to reveal our approximate route.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

White Rock Camp

Camp at White Rock Lakes, possibly the most beautiful campsite in the Cascades!

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Alpine Bliss : Prints Available

Classic view of Dome Peak at sunrise, near our camp at White Rock Lakes. Some blooming alpine heather completes the alpine feel.

~ ~ ~ DAY 4 ~ ~ ~

Day 4 was the first time on our trip where we debated what the correct route was. The route we had indicated on the map said one thing, the description said another, and the topography suggested that both would work. We watched one other group take the low route, so we opted to explore the high route. In retrospect, the low route was probably the better choice for our conditions, and the high route better for a ski-traverse, but it worked out fine in the end.

We roped up on the Dana Glacier, our final one for the trip. It was a long way up to Sentinel Pass. One step in front of the other.. it never seemed to end. Finally we made it, and had lunch on the rocky pass with a new and final view: Glacier Peak. After a little route finding on the way down, we easily glissaded to Itswoot Ridge, and made camp on a curiously shaped snow bank. Why? Because it would make for a more interesting photo and experience than camping on dirt! Also, it was an excuse to use the shovel we’d brought for naught. We had plenty of time, so we made this camp a palace, complete with a flagstone entry path.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Top of Dana Glacier

High point of the traverse - at the top of Dana Glacier, with a view of Glacier Peak in the distance.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Rise and Shine

Sunrise on Itswoot Ridge, with a view of Glacier Peak. Aubrey takes in the view of the hanging glaciers on Dome Peak from her sleeping bag. Note the custom mosquito netting skirt around the megamid. Aubrey and I designed and sewed it, and it was a life saver, even up here on the snow!

~ ~ ~ DAY 5 ~ ~ ~

After a lovely sunrise, we said goodbye to the hanging Chickamin Glacier, Dome Peak, and our days in the alpine, and started our 6,000 foot descent into the jungle that is the low elevation Cascades. Cub Lake provided the last view of Glacier Peak, before we entered the brush. Most of the reports online suggest that the hike out is a bushwhack, and I admit that there are indeed some bushes that need to be whacked to get through, but it is not a true bushwhack. A true bushwhack is one where you lose everything attached to the outside of your pack in a stand of slide alder, the devil’s club attacks any exposed flesh, and it takes 2 hours to travel a mile. There was a (good) trail, you just have to be careful to stay on it. One wrong turn, though, and you would truly regret it. But before too long we found ourselves at the “bottom”, and soaked our sore feet in Bachelor Creek before following the maintained trail along Downy Creek back to our car shuttle.

Want to see more photos? Here you go!

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Verdant Views : Prints Available

Back in the land of emerald green, and bugs, and our last glimpse of Glacier Peak.

Ptarmigan Traverse, Cascades, Pacific Northwest

Icy Feet

Icing my sore feet part way through the hike out.

Tags: , , , ,