Change and Constancy in Ptarmigan Traverse: The Spirit of Family Adventure
Love and lore of the mountains brings one family together for a walk down memory lane. Read more about this incredible trail and discover your own.
July 29, 2003; Day 1: At Kool-Aid Lake for the first time since 1979—unreal… Startled to see a trail carved through this pristine cirque basin, and honestly, relieved. When Sue and I were younger, the thrill of the unknown seemed to be the main impetus behind our trips to the mountains; now with our daughters along, I’m thankful to be relieved of some of that challenge. Despite the trail, the mountains seem unchanged—certainly highlighting the changes in us, now 25 years later.
The morning woke socked in, but the low-lying clouds quickly burned off, revealing yet another bluebird day in Washington’s North Cascades. I’m perched on a boulder above Yang Yang Lakes; down the heather-laden slope and across the valley before me, another sharp ridge rises in the distance. From right to left I can draw a straight line between the col that we passed the day previous and the glacier we will attempt to cross today. I look down on our tent, a small gray dot in a landscape of stark greens, blues, whites, and blacks, and see my family beginning to pack up camp.
I’m 18 years old, hiking the Ptarmigan Traverse with my parents and my 19-year-old sister, Steph. The Ptarmigan Traverse is a fabled trip within the lore of our small family—I grew up hearing stories of my parents’ 1979 trip, of days filled with uninterrupted high country travel, tales of peak bagging and food rationing, the surreal beauty of White Rock Lakes and the challenging glacier crossings between campsites.
I arrive back at camp and scramble to filter two Nalgenes of water while the others put the finishing touches on their packing. I take off my rain pants, beading with morning dew, and stuff them into my pack. I recently acquired a new pair of rain pants but opted to bring my mom’s old ones from the ’70s instead, a pair of bright blue and green GORE-TEX pants from the old company Crag Customwork. Some of my parents’ original gear has come and gone, but these still work perfectly after 25 years and the GUARANTEED TO KEEP YOU DRY® promise rings true.
My mom and I sit down side-by-side to strap on our gaiters; hers are old relics from her early days of mountaineering, mine a gift last Christmas: reflections of old and new. Though time passes and bodies grow older, some things remain constant. I find myself comforted that these mountains were here decades, centuries, even millennia ago, and are still here today, largely unchanged.
My dad, efficient as always, sits on his neatly packed bag, his head bowed and a journal in his lap. I wonder if he’s reflecting on his last trip here, or thinking about the days to come.
July 31, 2003; Day 3: Our girls are so strong, so competent. Yesterday, for the second day in a row, they arrived in camp far before Sue and me. Gone are the days of coaxing them along with 15-minute breaks every hour. Feeling nostalgic for those trips when the girls carried just their hat and gloves and a few snacks on their backs, yet grateful that we were able to teach them such self-sufficiency and strength. Now they’re carrying some of our load (thankfully!), and we’ve started to teach them the complexities of orienteering and safe glacier travel.
We shoulder our packs, hitting the well-defined trail just beside our camp. I can’t believe that this trail has appeared in the last few decades; apparently, my parents tell me, so too have water filters, and Therm-A-Rests, and the integration of GORE-TEX product technology into a myriad of outdoor products. I think back to the stories I’ve heard from that trip—a group of five young twenty-somethings, in my imagination running all over these mountains, hopping from peak to peak, traveling gleefully with heavy packs and boundless energy. I wonder if that’s in my future, soberly realizing it’s in my parents’ past.
August 1, 2003; Day 4: Arrived at White Rock Lakes. This place is absolutely beautiful, more beautiful than I remember it. The girls beat us here (again), and immediately shed their packs and T-shirts, running over to the snowfield by the lake and glissading into the freezing water of the glacial tarn. I remember doing the exact same thing back in ’79: it did, and still does, feel like the epitome of play to me. Last night at dinner, Jenny shared that she used to resent that we don’t take vacations to Disneyland like ‘everyone else,’ now feeling grateful for these trips together. More and more I am seeing a spirit of adventure emerge in my grown-up daughters.
Each evening, sitting in an inviting meadow, surrounded by an amphitheater of peaks, I stare at the next day’s glacier with doubt and uncertainty. It looks impossible, I think. And yet my mom reminds me that looking straight at the slope from afar makes it appear far steeper than in reality: a lesson in perspective I store in my mind as applicable for daily life as well as the mountains.
August 2, 2003; Day 5: Gazing up at the glacier from my perch on a granite boulder near camp; I remember back in ’79 how each evening we’d look at the route for the next day, staring up at our next glaciated obstacle course with a pair of small Minolta binoculars, wondering if it would be possible to cross the maze of crevasses and ice. I don’t doubt our ability to progress anymore, but I hear the girls questioning, each night, if the next day’s glacier will halt our progress. It’s a curious paradox that comes with age and experience: on one hand, we learn to believe the impossible—to trust our abilities—yet, on the other hand, we forget how to dream.
With the passing of each day, we realize the impossible, and as our clothing grows dirtier and our packs lighter, we start to feel closer and closer to the earth and to each other. Descending into the trees on our final day, I realize that I am beginning to sprout my own dreams, and that my parents’ love for these mountains is beginning to feel real to me as well. The Ptarmigan Traverse behind me now, I wonder if I’ll too be back in 24 years, and what changes I will see in myself, against the backdrop of these now-familiar mountains.