Dale and I had been discussing an early June attempt on Ptarmigan Ridge since our trip to Patagonia together in January. With a stellar forecast and a great spring of climbing under our belts, we set up our strategy. We didn’t have an extra car for a shuttle and we only had the weekend since Dale was flying in from CA, so we decided to start and finish at the White River Campground and pack the approach from there to high camp in one day.
We left the car at about 6am on Saturday morning with a pretty light setup (light tent, 30-degree down bags, 3 screws, 3 pickets, 4 pins, a few nuts, and 3 cams; no skis or snowshoes), and quickly booted to St. Elmo Pass in a little over 2 hours. From there, we crossed the Winthrop on a relatively firm boot pack without roping up, and continued traversing to the camp on Curtis Ridge in about 4 hours from the car. There was a ton of helicopter activity around Liberty Ridge at this point and we hoped it was a training exercise. It wasn’t until Sunday evening when we learned what had transpired. Terrible, sobering news.
As we roped up and dropped onto the Carbon Glacier, the temperature had risen and the sun was exceptionally strong. We aimed for a weakness WSW of where we got onto the glacier and gained the upper shelf after wading through knee-deep snow and crossing a number of crevasses. From there, we went through a large bowl and turned NW to get around the rock band. This was where the snow conditions were the worst. We took turns post holing to our thighs at times. Thankfully, some old avalanche debris was more solid and the rest of the way around the rock band was easier. On the NW-facing slopes, the snow became “hot pow” as Dale jokingly described it, which was much better for booting. We quickly ascended the rest of the way to camp below Ptarmigan Ridge at 10,300 feet by 3pm.
The rest of the afternoon and evening were perfect. We ate a geriatric dinner at 4pm, took a nap until 8pm, had a second dinner at sunset, and fell asleep again with alarms set for 1am. In the morning, after drinking coffee and packing up, we were moving by 2am and could see a few different sets of headlamps on Liberty Ridge across the way.
The snow was a perfect consistency for fast climbing—firm, but secure for steps. We traversed down to ~9,800 feet, crossed the bergschrund, and began ascending the ~45-degree slopes. From the photos we’d taken, it was clear that we should hug the cliffs on our right all the way to the hourglass, so route-finding was pretty easy. The hourglass was steep, but secure and we made it to the cliff band above at about 4am, right as the alpenglow was starting. We had remained roped together to this point, but hadn’t needed to place any protection.
At the cliff band, we chatted out whether to go left or right. From our beta searching, the cliff band on the right looked short-lived, so we decided to make it more interesting by going left to the ice cliff. We pitched out an easy ice and steep snow pitch to a rock outcrop on the right, then headed up to the ice and traversed right toward a good-looking ice chute. From there, with a great picket belay, Dale led the ~AI3 crux of about 30m with the three screws we’d brought. It was super fun and gorgeous with sunrise lighting up the ice cliff.
From the top of the ice cliff it was a long slog to Liberty Cap. We stayed roped for a while and then put the rope away as we continued up the lower-angle slopes with a rime crust, reaching the summit by 10:30am. We met a couple who were just finishing Liberty Ridge and chatted them up a little while melting snow at the summit before beginning the descent.
The descent to Camp Schurman was long and a bit painful, given the soft snow, but was otherwise uneventful. We post holed to our thighs on our way to the Interglacier, glissaded down as much of the steep slopes as we could, and then trudged out the rest of the way to the car.
While the route was fun and absolutely gorgeous, the climbing itself was surprisingly easy and felt short-lived for how much ground we covered to do the route. Perhaps I was spoiled by a very icy Liberty Ridge last spring and we should have shortened things by approaching from Spray Park. Regardless, this was a great adventure.