Le Conte Slam via Ptarmigan Traverse / 經雷鳥縱貫上伯爵滿貫

On this Fourth of July weekend, I went tackling Le Conte Slam via the famous Ptarmigan Traverse. The yellow pup and I were also here a year ago. Despite the promising forecast earlier in the week, the weather turned out quite bleak in the first two days.

Le Conte Slam from camp
Le Conte Slam from camp

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Le Conte Slam at a Glance

Le Conte Slam = Sentinel Peak + Old Guard Peak
伯爵滿貫=哨兵峯+老衛隊峯

Access: Cascade River Road
Round Trip: 32.6 miles
Elevation Range: 2400′-8261′
Gear: helmet, ice ax, crampons
GPS Track: available
Dog-Friendly: no pets

Logistics Overview

July 3-5, 2020

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3

Day 1 – Friday, July 3
Ptarmigan Traverse Southbound (12.7 miles + 2 miles of road walk)
Night 1 – Le Conte-Sentinel Col

Day 2 – Saturday, July 4
Sentinel Peak + Old Guard Peak (3 miles)
Ptarmigan Traverse Northbound (2.8 miles)
Night 2 – Yang Yang Lakes

Day 3 – Sunday, July 5
Ptarmigan Traverse Northbound (10.1 miles + 2 miles of road walk)


Day 1

Cascade River Road to Le Conte-Sentinel Col

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3

Cascade River Road

Part of the reason for this trip was to check out the status of Cascade River Road. I had hoped that the information on the NCNP website wasn’t current. But to my surprise, they did lock up the gate two miles before the Cascade Pass Trailhead. Damn.

I slept by the milepost 21 signage on Thursday night before half a dozen vehicles. Then the next morning, I began walking at 5:30 AM under a cloudy sky. There were also a handful of hikers getting ready to start their trip.

Roadside attraction
Roadside attraction

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Cascade Pass Trailhead

The two-mile walk plus 1000′ altitude gain to the trailhead was uneventful. But it went by in the blink of an eye. There was one large snow patch by the second to the last road bend. But it looked to be the only thing that kept the road from reopening.

I greeted the only person in the parking lot marveling at Johannesburg Mountain. What do you know? He turned out to be another Bulger finisher I saw two years ago. With Josh’s company, the 3.7-mile hike up to Cascade Pass went by fast.

Snow patch before Cascade Pass
Snow patch before Cascade Pass

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Cascade Pass to Cache Col

The mist hadn’t yet socked in the area like last year. So I scanned the route above the pass and saw two hikers. But there was much more snow this time. After gearing up, Josh and I bid our farewell. Then I went uphill toward Cache Col.

The snow had made it efficient in going through what otherwise would have been a rocky path. Before long, I got my first look at Cache Col. Going down the other side of the ridge was usually steep. But it was even trickier with cornices.

Cache Glacier and Cache Col
Cache Glacier and Cache Col

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Kool-Aid Lake

Clouds swept across the mountaintops just as I made my way up Cache Glacier. The two distinct tracks from the other parties sped up the walking. Before long, cornices on the col forced me off to the left. Then I went up to the top via a loose rock ramp.

Visibility on the col was eerily similar to last year. So views were nonexistent. But I followed the existing paths down the steep terrain. Even in crampons, I slid left and right as I made my way toward Kool-Aid Lake. Soon, I reached the snow-covered pond.

Kool-Aid Lake under the snow
Kool-Aid Lake under the snow

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Red Ledge

Glad I had been through this area twice before. So I spotted the next crux–Red Ledge–right away. I made my way up toward the ramp below Arts Knoll. Then I noticed three climbers going up the steep snow. More snow had made going through this section sketchy.

The parties before us had cut out solid steps. So we only had to worry about not slipping off the steep incline, especially in the gully. At the end of the ramp was another steep section of snow. I needed to be extra mindful of my foot placement.

Climbers exiting the Red Ledge
Climbers exiting the Red Ledge

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Middle Cascade Glacier

I caught up to the three climbers above the ledge. Visibility ahead had improved. But the clouds had overtaken the top of Mount Formidable. Later I followed the group through the western slopes of Arts Knoll. Before long, we reached the northern tip of Middle Cascade Glacier.

It soon drizzled. Then I said goodbye to the climbers and then made my way up the glacier. By now, visibility had worsened again. But many thanks to the other groups who also dug out solid steps through this part. Most of the time, I could only see a few feet in front of me.

Le Conte Slam via Formidable-Spider Col
Le Conte Slam via Formidable-Spider Col

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Yang Yang Lakes

By the time I reached Formidable-Spider Col, I could barely make out the headwalls on both sides. But I kept my head down and focused on following the steps. Then without stopping, I went down the south side and continued.

Wow, what terrible weather! But if it weren’t for the existing path, I would have had to rely on my GPS device. As I lost more elevation, views to Flat Creek Valley expanded below 6600′. Soon, at the bottom of the hill, the serene Yang Yang Lakes came into view.

Le Conte Slam via Yang Yang Lakes
Le Conte Slam via Yang Yang Lakes

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Bypassing Le Conte Mountain

I walked past the snow-covered upper lake. Then I realized all the tracks had ended here. So I took a break by the lower lake and found the access gully to the southwest. Later I went up toward the snow ramp. It looked doable, but it was steep from 6400′ to 6600′. Then I was right back in the cloud zone.

I walked down to the 6450′ saddle before going up toward Le Conte Mountain. Meanwhile, I stayed on or west of the crest on moderate terrain. Then from the flat area at 7000′, I dropped down toward the northeast buttress of the middle peak. I kept an elevation of 6600′.

Flat Creek Valley
Flat Creek Valley

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Le Conte Glacier

Views to Flat Creek Valley reappeared as I neared the northwestern end of the glacier. Here the steep part went from 6600′ to 6800′. Then visibility weakened as I climbed up higher on the snow. I moved slowly in the mist. At the same time, I stayed close to the headwall of the south peak.

At one point, the clouds were so dense that I stopped walking. Later, when I could once again see the one crevasse to the east, I then continued. My goal was to reach the Le Conte-Sentinel Col today. So I could have more time should the terrible weather persisted the next day.

Le Conte Slam via Le Conte Glacier
Le Conte Slam via Le Conte Glacier

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Le Conte-Sentinel Col

Eventually, I reached the col four hours after leaving Yang Yang Lakes. Then I found a few nicely built, and dry, bivy sites on the pass at 7300′. The top one was big enough to set up my single tent. So glad I didn’t need to spend the energy I didn’t have to carve out a spot.

To the west, the clouds slowly dissipated as the end of the day drew near. There were many unfamiliar high points in that direction. I also had a glimpse of Spire Point before it disappeared into the mist. The one bird that paid a short visit was my only animal sighting today.

Camping below Le Conte Slam
Camping below Le Conte Slam

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Day 2

Sentinel Peak + Old Guard Peak
Le Conte-Sentinel Col to Yang Yang Lakes

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3

Late Start on Le Conte Slam

I woke up at 5 AM the next day to yet another cloudy morning. Since I couldn’t see much outside the tent, I went right back to sleep. Even after a few hours, the visibility didn’t improve one bit. But I got up and made breakfast, and then I waited.

At 11 AM, a group of three climbers came up to the col. They stayed at Yang Yang Lakes the night before and saw me going up the snow ramp. Then this morning, they took the same route through the access gully. Glad they could make use of my tracks to this point.

The Three Musketeers
The Three Musketeers

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Sentinel Peak of Le Conte Slam

The guys continued their traverse after an extended conversation. Then I left shortly and followed their steps down to the southwest edge of Sentinel Peak. From there, I made my way up the snowfield along the rock wall. The crux of this climb was finding an entry point up to the ridge.

Luckily, a steep snow finger at 7400′ provided access. Then two-thirds of the way up the ramp, I moved onto a rock ledge. Next, I went up a short section of low class 5 steps into a gully. From there, I got on the west ridge at 7650′. Another 600′ of walking up loose rocks put me on the windy and misty summit.

On the west ridge
On the west ridge

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Sentinel Peak Summit Plus Outro

There wasn’t anything to see, not even Old Guard Peak right next door. So I left the summit after a short visit. Back on the west ridge, I stayed on dry rocks down to 7500′. Then I went around to the south and got back on the snow ramp. I faced in to get through the steep incline.

Back at the tracks, from a distance, I saw the three climbers I met yesterday above the Red Ledge. They had spent the night at Yang Yang Lakes also. It looked like they were on track in getting to White Rock Lakes later today. Soon, I made my way back toward my campsite.

Sentinel Peak east ridge
Sentinel Peak east ridge

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Old Guard Peak of Le Conte Slam

Before reaching camp, I shortcut up through moderate snow to 7400′. Then from the col, I made my way onto the southwestern edge of Le Conte Glacier. Since I couldn’t see much in front of me, I stayed close to Sentinel Peak’s northeastern side.

Later, through the mist, I saw the snow ramp on the northwestern side of Old Guard Peak. But before I went up, I peeked into the Old Guard-Sentinel saddle behind the snowbank. It was deep! Later I climbed up the snow a short distance. Then I moved onto the rocks.

Snow ramp on Old Guard Peak
Snow ramp on Old Guard Peak

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Old Guard Summit Plus Outro

As other reports had mentioned, the rock scramble was on easy class 3 terrain. There were a few wet places to bypass because of the snowmelt. But overall, it was straightforward. The sky showed some blue right before I reached the top. Then it went back to being cloudy again.

I stayed a little longer this time because the clouds were now shifting. I waited to photograph Sentinel Peak right next door. But the mists never budged. But later on the way down, I got a glimpse of the peak. At the same time, I got a quick look at Le Conte Glacier down below.

Northeast view
Northeast view

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Back to Yang Yang Lakes

Glad to have my tracks to follow in the clouds. Before Long, I was back at camp. I had thought about staying another night here. But then I decided I would try going as far back north as possible. That way, I would have a relaxing third day on the exit.

It took just over two hours going back to the lakes. There was a lone tent on the southern end of the lower lake. So I set up my camp on the opposite side of the water. Then I enjoyed the rest of the quiet evening before bed.

Evening flow at Yang Yang Lakes
Evening flow at Yang Yang Lakes

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Day 3

Exit

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3

Northbound Exit

Despite terrible weather, the final day was glorious! This trip was the farthest I was on the traverse. So far, I’ve come from the north three times and the south twice. To think that I had camped at the halfway point made me want to continue. Alas, another time!

So that left me with the missing link from Sentinel Peak down to Spire Col. If I were to return, I would just traverse without climbing peaks. I would also want decent weather every day. Back on Cascade Pass, I chatted with a group of day hikers. Then I began the ~6-mile uneventful hike back down to the gate.

One last view of Le Conte Slam
One last view of Le Conte Slam

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Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3

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