The morning here is extraordinarily calm and peaceful, and astoundingly beautiful. It is 7:00 a.m. and my tent is aglow with hot sun already because I am up high – 5,700′ – at Dolly Vista Camp. I clamber out into damp loam and look across the vast steepness of Dolly Ridge and the Vista Creek gorge below. If I was going to build a ski resort this is where I’d build it. The distant mountains of Miner’s Ridge to the north are crystal clear. I look down on top of a layer of clouds that slices from east to west, separating the Ridge’s snow-streaked black rock from the evergreen forested base.
Though it is early and I am near the summit of these ridges, it is warm enough to bask lazily. I discard my sleeping bag, laying it to warm in the sun on the roof of my tent as I do every morning that is calm and sunny, and just lay out, soaking in the sun…
Glacier travel, hot springs and true wild adventure across open, trail-less mountains. Its only noon, but this is going to be a Fourth to remember.
As a kid did you ever read those choose your own adventure books? And did you ever wish that you could choose a third option, one that wasn’t there? Well today I chose that third option. It is called Ptarmigan Glacier. Somewhere, down there, just two miles north but 4,000 below, the PCT crosses the glacier’s chalky white outflow. Milk Creek it is called. Hundreds of switchbacks take you down to it and then back up the other side to curve around and head south again toward Kennedy Ridge and, nearby, Kennedy Hot Springs. And I thought “Why? Why hike 20 miles? Why gain and loose and gain again thousands of feet in elevation?” I thought this because I had seen how close Kennedy Ridge was – just three miles as the crow flies. I had seen and wondered about the glacier between us. I had never traveled on a glacier before.
Under less snowy conditions reaching the glacier would have been difficult. You would have needed technical rock climbing gear to ascend the steep and jagged breccia ridges that wall it into it’s protective cirque. Likewise, the PCT would be much easier to see and to hike of there were less snow. Accepting that I could not change the conditions I embraced what lie before me: an utterly beautiful day, and lots of snow. I looked back at Dolly Vista and, rather than descending down the ridge on the PCT, I started up it. 8,000′ Kennedy Peak loomed straight ahead. Once I got a clear view of the bowl below and the far flanking ridge I got out my map and compass and plotted the point where I would cross onto Ptarmigan. It was a mere .8 miles away. I dropped in and crossed the bowl, stomping each step and occasionally slipping but marking good time. The western aspects were hard but luckily the steep climb to the saddle where I would cross to Ptarmigan was a northern aspect that had been in the sun all morning. I climbed with my bare hands in the soft snow and it was pleasant.
On the ridge I made lunch, an amazing and healthy chicken fried rice with actual chicken in it! I had started soaking the chicken, quinoa and corn chili together that morning so that now, hungry and down to my last cup of water, I just added a Knorr rice side and brought it to a boil. While I waited I plotted a couple of routes across – 1.2 miles this time – plus an escape route I could not reach the far saddle to exit the glacier.
– The descent onto the glacier was immediately difficult. The snow was much harder. My knees began to ache with the exertion of driving each heel into the crust for every step. Then the climbing began. Driving my toes in with every step, then stomping into my arches to change muscles. But I made progress. I ascended to the back of the bowl and as the aspect turned northward the show softened. The first half mile took me an hour and was fraught with dangerous slips. I stomp each step but invariably one would fail. If the lower foot falters your legs splay out. You either draw them tightly together and break your upper foot free to begin a sideways slide, or you turn downhill and fold your other knee dangerously underneath you. On the other hand, if your upper leg falters you naturally rotate uphill which places you on the balls of your feet. Maybe you stand, maybe you fall, but either way you begin a blind glissade. I’m not carrying an ice ax and crampons anymore. Today is the first day they’d have been of any use. So when this slide begins I sit up, turn to face downhill, bend my knees a little and drive my heels into the snow. Usually it takes one of the small divots that a pebble will make as it melts into the snow, to actually stop. I see it coming and jam a heel deeply in. But this type of out of control slide only happened maybe four times.
The last three quarters of a mile crossing the glacier felt amazing. I was warm and crossing soft snow with a pack I love in boots I could sleep in. I found myself on the glacier’s far side ready to begin the descent to Kennedy Ridge and the PCT in less than three hours including two lunches. I felt reluctant to leave my accomplishment so soon. I considered summiting Kennedy Peak. I shuddered at the nuances of the ascending ridge line. Too steep to hold much snow, far more dangerous than what I’ve just crossed.
The climb down to Kennedy Ridge was no joke. I got cliffed out twice. Strange twisting snow features, but with slopes that steep I was thankful to be descending on snow and not rocks or dirt. The look back up at the deforming layers of Ptarmigan Glacier was astounding. I found the trail alright, 95% buried in snow just like when I left it, and was soon wending my way along the narrow ridge with precipitous drops down to gushing streams far below on either side.
The junction sign was inscribed simply with ‘Kennedy Hot Springs’ and ‘White Chuck Road’ but somebody had added something between them with a sharpie – I just couldn’t tell what it was. “Both” and then a word with an R as the third letter followed possibly by something washed away long ago. It didn’t matter, if there was a hot spring I was going, landslides and down trees be damned. I continued down the ridge to have a relaxing soak and pondered the word puzzle. It took me until where I could hear the White Chuck River to think of permanently. Permanently was a word with an R as the this letter. I was not surprised when the trail dumped out onto a rocky, rooty, lifeless gray flood plain. I crossed and sat by a spring, albeit a cool one, and had a drink. There hadn’t been any water on the hike down and in my haste I had forgotten to fill from the burgeoning creeks when I crossed onto the ridge. I made lunch and dried my feet in the sun and it was hot. I have up on finding a hot spring but I noticed a cairn on the far side of a log that last across the river so I resolved to leave my pack and explore after lunch.
I didn’t have to walk far see the glowing orange tufa cone, a sure sign off a hot spring. I practically ran along the decaying gray river bank and across the bobbing wet log, then I climbed through ferns and crossed high above a washed away part of the hillside on a fallen tree thinking “This can’t be the way everybody goes, its far too dangerous to make it a routine, but its ok for now,” and I plunged my hands into the orange bottomed pool. The tepid water warmed my hand but the muck began to swirl up. I tried for two hours to clean the pool and then to dam the outflow and raise the pool to some former glory I had imagined. I climbed around on the tacky limestone tufa over the raging river below in bare feet, with only the occasional fear that I might slip and fall to my death and be washed out to the Pacific Ocean. Eventually the afternoon turned gray like all of the torrent-thrashed banks river banks and I resigned myself to soaking my feet in the muck. After two long days the blister on left foot was going strong and had still not popped.
Thirsting for celebration I made a campfire and got out some marshmallows that were well past there expectancy. I cut the gooey blobs from their bag and gooed them together with broken up Hershey bar and globbed them onto a stock for roasting.
Marshmallow in that form does not roast well. It seems that in that form, where much of the air has been removed, heat is transmitted very quickly through the ‘mallow. It becomes a dripping blob in seconds and you wouldn’t think it’s that hot, but it is. I put out my hand to catch the delicious zebra stripped mass as it stretched away from the stick. It fell cleanly and quickly into my palm, and I was bewildered by what happened next: it burned. It burned terribly. I went in with my face, because why burn my other hand. Now it burned my lower lip. I ate it, hurriedly, anyway because – Christ! – I had to get it off my lip and hand! I put cold water on my new adornments – blisters – and cooked the rest of the marshmallows.
Start: Dolly Vista Camp
Camp: Kennedy Hot Springs
Distance: about 6 miles