The Ptarmigan Traverse is relentless: 35 miles off-road with 25,000 vertical feet along a series of jagged peaks in Washington State’s North Cascades. Here’s all the gear you need to suffer from it.
We woke up at the first light of day, our bags wet with morning dew. After a long day of scrambling the Ptarmigan Traverse in heavy fog, the clouds parted just before sunset. We chose to leave the rainfly out of the tent in hopes of seeing stars. Despite the wet morning, it was worth it. The heavens seem so much closer when you sleep in the alpine.
We quietly packed up, tearing down tents, stuffing gear into bags, and shoveling oatmeal and instant coffee. The next few miles of the classic lower 48 mountaineering route were visible from our campsite: a big climb up a scree-laden slope, a thin ridge trail, and a long glacier traverse.
The crossing of the ptarmigan: a celebration of suffering
Opened in the late 1930s, the Ptarmigan is widely known as one of the finest mountaineering routes in the country. Its 35 miles roam off-road alongside a handful of surreal alpine lakes, across half a dozen glaciers and along ridgelines with jaw-dropping views.
We endured the 25,000 feet of elevation change as we hiked end to end in three days. But some groups take twice as long to soak up the scenery. Regardless of how long you plan to spend on the traverse, proficiency in glacier travel and backcountry navigation is required. Although parts of the route are well traveled, much of it leaves you feeling alone. It is important to be independent.
To complete it safely in three days, we had to travel light, reducing our gear to the bare essentials. Dehydrated food, versatile clothing, minimal beer and only one change of socks. I aimed to keep my pack around 30 pounds, including group gear like rope, tent, and stove.
After a long game of Tetris gear, here’s what I packed up.
Ptarmigan Traverse: how to travel light
Mountain Hardwear Ozonic Shell ($200), Kor Strata Hoody ($220),
and AP pants ($90)
This kit could take you halfway around the world and back easily. The Ozonic doubles as a windbreaker for morning or chilly rides, the Kor Strata breathes well without sacrificing warmth, and the AP Pant is the last pant you’ll buy—I promise. If you’re going to increase your salary, at least do so comfortably.
Black Diamond Vision Harness ($150), 7.9 Dry Climbing Rope ($200), Vapor Helmet ($140), Snaggletooth Crampons ($220), and Raven Ultra Ice Ax ($120)
There are very few equipment companies that have stood the test of time quite like Black Diamond, which has been manufacturing premium products for over five decades. Known for their Camalot, Black Diamond now manufactures almost all the gear you need for technical climbing and mountaineering.
The new Vision harness is about as light as it gets, and the 7.9mm dry rope is ideal for glacier travel, and the Vapor helmet is also lightweight without compromising on safety.
Snaggletooth crampons are versatile – they have vertical and horizontal points, good for glacier travel and more technical ice climbing. The Raven Ultra is BD’s lightest ice axe, ideal for long, hard days in the mountains. Most importantly, this whole setup is reliable day in and day out.
Osprey Mutant 38 Tech Pack ($170)
A longtime fanboy of Osprey packs, I recently got my hands on his new Mutant 38 for solid alpine purposes. My immediate conclusion: The Mutant is everything you want with nothing you don’t want.
It was designed by guides for routes like the Ptarmigan, with a comfortable, snug fit, extra loops for snow and ice gear and easy rope carry. With 38 litres, I had enough space for three days without losing too much.
MSR Reactor stove with 2.5L pot (originally $260, on sale for $195)
We wanted to bring a lightweight stove that could boil water quickly and melt snow in no time. The reactor is the best out there. With the 2.5 liter pot, we were able to boil enough water for the five of us at once, which made our lives easier.
MSR Mutha Hubba NX 3-Person Tent ($500)
At night, the Mutha Hubba is a spacious three-person tent with room in the vestibule for bags, rope and various gear. It’s built to withstand wind and rain, without breaking your back as you drag it over glaciers and down scree slopes.
Mountain Hardwear Ratio 32 Bag ($230) and Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Pad ($200)
The Ratio has become my go-to bag for almost any type of travel. I sleep relatively warm so others might prefer a 15 degree pack. But I like the Ratio because it’s simple, durable and very compact.
I often bring a warmer sleeping pad – usually the Therm-a-Rest SV. But I needed to save space and weight, so I opted for the NeoAir, the lightest pad on the market. Needless to say he treated me well.
GU Stroopwafels ($22)
Who doesn’t love a delicious snack? This one packs carbohydrates, amino acids, and electrolytes into one tasty cookie. I feast on GU treats on long runs and long distance hikes.