Bill Affolter

Lost? Or Possibly Misplaced in the North Cascades

Bill Affolter at White Rock Lakes

So here's a John story. It must have been the summer of '74 when John asked if I'd be interested in doing the Ptarmigan Traverse--a classic route in the North Cascades--like where else? I fancied myself a budding mountain man and knew I'd be in good hands with John as leader so I jumped at the chance.

John, myself, John's then wife Terri, and an east coast buddy of John's, Alex Medlicott were the team.

We started by traversing a steep snowfield east of Cascade Pass. I thought it was steep anyway though I don't think John was particularly impressed with it. We then came to the White Ledge. This was a narrow ledge that offered possible death if one slipped off it. We didn't slip. Then, just as my sphincters were beginning to relax, we came to the Red Ledge. This was a narrow part of the trail that offered certain death if we slipped so I think we actually roped up for that one. At least I did. I was starting to rethink this trip when the fog hit as we were crossing a snowfield directly across from Mt. Furious or Mt Nasty or Mt.Terrible or one of those. I do remember it was a dark jagged forbidding--maybe that's it Mt Forbidden, anyway I remember hearing frequent avalanches the next few days from its slopes. I say the next few days because the fog never lifted for 4 days and we simple sat and waited, not sure what was above us or below us, though we were more worried about what was above us since we were camped in the middle of a modestly steep snowfield. Anyway I remember we spent many hours trying to talk ourselves into the fact that the sky was getting lighter by a lumen or two when of course nothing at all was happening. Waiting paid off though and it finally cleared although we were now way behind schedule. We were with the Legend of the North Cascades though, so we knew we could stretch the limits and continue on.

It was a great next 2 or 3 days and be bagged a couple of peaks and had a couple of great campsites and eventually were poised for a long but very doable last day's hike out.

We got up early and started up a long glacier-snowfield to whatever the last pass was. I'll bet John remembers the name (and the elevation, and the peak to the north south east and west and the drainage, etc., etc.) When we got to the top however our leader was perplexed because we were 200 ft too high or low whatever to be at the right place. This was worrisome, but what was stranger still was the fact that our compass was off by a few degrees. This, through the retropectoscope might have given us pause, but John was not about to be second guessed by a couple of crude instruments. Press on! he ordered and of course we did, over the pass and down an increasingly steep and treacherous slope. The fog was so thick we couldn't see above or below but we had faith and on we went. At some point Terri started to become hypothermic so we knew we needed to get down so we finally glissaded the last few hundred feet into the unknown, not unlike Shackelton's loyal crew on S. Georgia.

We finally found ourselves on a wide glacier ringed by high peaks and not apparently where we thought we would be. We anxious looked to John for guidance. John meanwhile had pulled out the maps and was with an air of should I say, mild concern, trying to figure out where the hell we were.

After consulting his errant compass and altimeter and turning the maps this way and that he announced that we were probably, I stress the probably, on the Spire Glacier. He also noted that we would have to stay the night, a foregone conclusion at this point and try to make it out over that pass, he pointed to a pass or what could be a pass at the top of the glacier. When we asked if he were sure it was passable he grunted something that no one heard or maybe wanted to hear.

That night since we had run out of food we each ate one of our boots. Or was that another trip--anyway it didn't matter, we had put all our hopes on John's navigational skills even though our faith was slightly shaken by the day's events.

It should be no surprise to hear that when we came to the "pass" with some trepidation the following day (maybe that was the name of that peak - Mt. Trepidation), we emerged on the other side exactly were John had predicted. We practically skipped the next fifteen miles to the trailhead and waiting car, where we quickly tore up and ate the leather seats.-or was that another trip.

So that's it. Now I'm not saying John got lost on that trip--that's close to heresy I know, but maybe he got like confused or something. Anyway it was a rare and memorable trip and I wouldn't have missed it for anything and if it weren't for the Red Ledge I might even do it again.

Bill Affolter