Painted Traverse

|| Background ||

Most weeks, my routine is the same:

  • Monday: edit photos, write trip reports
  • Tuesday: Read up on the weather
  • Wednesday: Begin brainstorming ideas…reach out to friends
  • Thursday: Continue brainstorming ideas…get lost in how many ideas I have
  • Friday: Changed my mind about 5 million times…finally decide on an idea

This week was no different. Early in the week, Dan and I had been chatting about doing something on Sunday. For a few weeks, I had been eyeing the “Painted Traverse”, a ridge traverse below Glacier Peak that looked so aesthetic to me. I had been struggling to find many trip reports from anyone doing it in a single-day; most reports I had read were from overnight or multi-night trips. Finally, Dan was able to dig one up from an old NWHikers post.

I stumbled back and forth between what we should do for Sunday…sorry Dan. I described my struggle to Dan as if I was a kid in a candy store: I knew I was going to get some candy, I just couldn’t decide what I wanted! With so many options that intrigued me, which one to choose?!? Thankfully, Dan kept us honed in on the Painted Traverse for Sunday…and MAN am I glad he did!

|| Route Description ||

The Painted Traverse follows the ridgeline above the North Fork Sauk trail from Painted Mountain all the way to White Pass, passing over:

  1. Painted Mountain
  2. Magenta Peak
  3. Black Mountain
  4. Skullcap Peak
  5. Purple Peak
  6. Portal Peak
  7. White Mountain

Im my opinion, it is aesthetically a BEAUTIFUL line, so simple yet striking against the backdrop of Glacier Peak.

The route makes a beautiful loop, from Painted Mountain all the way to White Mountain, down to White Pass, and then back along the N Fork Sauk trail to the trailhead.

The route is largely off-trail: there is an old, faint trail up to Painted Mountain, which is good for the first few miles but then quickly fades as the grade steepens up past the old “lookout”. Once past Painted Mountain, there is no real “trail” until White Pass, where you follow the North Fork Sauk trail all the way back down to the trailhead. At times, there was an apparent footpath from hikers who had beaten down the low tundra in places, but it was faint at best.

For the most part, the terrain consists of low heather, meadows, and pleasant ridges. Dan described some of the meadows as something out of The Sound of Music…simply put, you feel like a kid, romping through the meadow.

Wide open ridgelines are magical on this route.

The crux of the route is the route-finding…there is ALOT of it. At times, the ridges become steep and contain numerous gendarmes, which force you off the ridge and require you to routefind ways around. Some of them are straightforward…many are NOT. If you are comfortable scrambling on exposed Class 4 or even low Class 5, you may opt to continue along the ridge for some of these sections, but Dan and I were not and chose to traverse around.

The most confusing part of the route is certainly between Magenta Peak and Black Mountain, where there are numerous sections of gendarmes, as well as the challenge of finding your way up Black Mountain, with its numerous loose, scree gullies. Dan and I lost at least 2 hours here route-finding, choosing one gully only to climb halfway up and realize it was the wrong one.

The saddle where crossed over to the NW side below Black Mountain. Route-finding here was very confusing, and we lost a few hours because of it.

Dan and I chose to traverse clockwise, starting with Painted and going towards White, and we believe this is the best direction for multiple reasons:

  1. The 4,000′ climb up to Painted Mountain from the parking lot goes quickly this way. Coming down this steep grade at the end of the day would be painful and unpleasant, as opposed to the low-grade switchbacks down from White Pass and then the river-grade trail along the North Fork Sauk.
  2. Climbing up the screen gullies on the SE side of Black Mountain seemed more favorable to us than down-climbing them. The terrain was loose and crappy…going up was bad enough, going down loose scree garbage would be worse.
  3. Coming down from White Pass at the end of the day was cruiser. We ran the miles of trail down from White Pass in just under 2 hours. Walking up this in the morning would be much less efficient, as running down from Painted Mountain would not be nearly as simple.

Overall, the route is just over 22 miles with approximately 12,000′ of elevation gain, depending on your measurement device. There is a 4,000′ climb up to Painted Mountain, numerous 500′-600′ along the ridge, and then a 1,000′ climb up to Black Mountain from the saddle between Magenta Peak and Black Mountain.

I believe that the “primetime” for the route is late August once the route is mostly snow-free. Dan and I were able to traverse the entire route without microspikes or any form of traction. Earlier in the season, say in June or even July, snow would make this a much more involved traverse; there are steep sections around Black Mountain that I would not feel comfortable traversing without an axe or crampons/microspikes if they were snow-covered, especially the scree gully.

|| Trip Report ||

Dan and I met up in Darrington around 6:30 PM the night before. I had just finished Glacier Peak and drove out to town to meet him where we would have cell service. Dan and I agreed that we wanted to start the day early…based on the information we had been reading, we were guessing the trip would be between 10-15 hours, with 10 being an aggressive and hopeful estimate. Dan had work the next day and I had a lot of schoolwork to catch up on. Neither of us would mind starting in the dark, especially since the climb up to Painted Mountain appeared to be straightforward with minimal route finding challenges. We agreed on starting around 4 AM. We collectively agreed on our goal for the day: once the headlamps were turned off after sunrise, we did NOT want to have to turn them back on.

The North Fork Sauk Trailhead was PACKED with Glacier Peak and PCT hikers, but Dan and I were able to find a spot to pull in and sleep in our cars. “See ya in the morning!”

Before heading to bed, I packed up my gear for the day:

  • Distance 15 pack
  • Z-Poles
  • Puffy jacket
  • Mini first-aid kit
  • Garmin inReach
  • Headlamp and extra batteries
  • x2 tortillas
  • x2 protein bars
  • bag of trail mix
  • Mango and Starburst
  • 500 mL Hydrapak soft flask
  • Sunglasses + Hat
  • Sunscreen

Time-check: 3:49 AM start from North Fork Sauk Trailhead

Alarms were off and we were up, munching on breakfast and quickly getting dressed and ready to go. By 3:45, we were locking up our cars and starting the brief walk over to the trailhead. Start the track! Within about 1/8 mile, we turned left to head up the Red Mountain Trail. The marker indicated there was an old lookout 1 mile up the trail…nope! Most of the fire lookouts in the Cascades are now gone, and this was no exception. The trail was very good for that initial 1 mile…past the lookout the switchbacks and ended, and we started to just climb up the hillside towards Painted Mountain. The forest was pretty bare, though, and there were not many blowdowns or shwacky sections. Occasionally, we would see some orange flagging, indicating that we were on some kind of “route.”

As Dan put it, our timing was “golden”. Just as we began to push higher into alpine meadows and near the top of Painted Mountain, the sun began to illuminate the Cascades all around us. WOW! Sloan, Pugh, White Chuck, Baker, Shuksan, Glacier, EVERYTHING was incredibly beautiful.

Sloan in the morning light.

Time-check: Painted Mountain — 6:15 AM

The wind howled as we crested Painted Mountain and it was COLD. I was hiking up in my puffy, something that is rare for me as it is a FURNACE. On top, Dan and I snapped a few photos, then looked out towards the ridge ahead of us…WOW, so aesthetic. It was going to be a good day. We could see the entire ridgeline, spanning out for miles, and it seemed so gentle!

Dan on Painted Mountain.
Dan heading up the final steps to Painted Mountain.

We began to trot down Painted towards Magenta Peak on low heather and meadows. Dan exclaimed it felt like being a kid again, running through the meadows without a worry in the world! I agreed. So amazing. We descended the 800′ down to the saddle between Painted and Magenta, then climbed back up the gente ridgeline to Magenta. The ridge was very straightforward here and easy to follow. By now, the morning light was so soft and the headlamps were in the pack. REMEMBER…the goal for the day was to keep it that way!

Dan heading down towards Magenta Peak, with Glacier Peak looming large.

Time-check: Magenta Peak — 7:09 AM

Ridgeline like this was constant through the day. AMAZING!
Not my typical camera but the iPhone will do.

Magenta in the bag! Now for the hardest part of the day, finding our way to Black Mountain. From the reading we had done, we knew this was going to be tricky route-finding, and INDEED IT WAS! Nearly immediately after coming down from Magenta the ridgeline steepened into a stretch of ledgy gendarmes. We looked left…NOPE, right…MAYBE. We opted to descend right a bit and side-hill on heather slopes. Every now and again we would climb back up to the ridge to see if we could continue along it…NOPE. We certainly added some miles and elevation gain with the numerous route-finding failures along this section.

Looking back at Magenta Peak and the steep ridge between it and the saddle below Black Mountain. We traversed to the left side of the ridge in this image and side-hilled on low heather.
Looking out across the slabs and snowfields below Black Mountain, with the NW face in the distance.

From our reading, we knew that at some point we would want to cross over into the NW basin beneath Black Mountain, where we could traverse across slabs and short snowfields towards the NW aspect of Black Mountain. The challenge, though, was where to cross-over? There were numerous points along the ridge, but most cliffed out or were not feasible. Dan and I ended up finding the lowest saddle point along the ridge between Magenta and Black to be ideal, but it took us many tries and lots of side-hilling low heather to get to it. We had cruised up the 4,000′ to Painted but we were SLOW on this section, moving well under 2 miles an hour.

We found the lowest saddle point to be the best-cross-over.

Time-check: 9:00 AM — saddle point between Magenta Peak and Black Mountain

FINALLY…we reached the saddle point and began to traverse over towards Black Mountain. We crossed a few short snowfields and made our way across slabs and benches towards the NW face of Black Mountain, where numerous ascent options laid out in front of us. Hmmm…which one to take? We had read that there was a gully system towards climber’s left, but in front of us there seemed to be 3 such gullies. Well, we had to try one! Dan and I opted for the gully farthest to climber’s left, almost at the NW ridge leading up to Black Mountain. At first, the gully system was easy, mostly Class 2 with maybe one Class 3 move.

Dan making his way up our first gully…only to realize that it didn’t go.
Our second gully attempt…this one went but was loose and crappy.

Dan moved on up first and quickly reported that the gully didn’t “go”…it led to a gendarme and then cliffed out. Well, back down we went, trying the next gully over to climber’s right. This gully looked like garbage, loose scree and dirt, but it was low-angle. As we sifted our way through loose rock, we managed to gain entrance up towards the summit of Black Mountain. It went, although it was certainly not pleasant.

Time-check: Black Mountain — 10:40 AM

On the summit of Black Mountain, ready for a snack break.

We snacked on the summit of Black Mountain, a bit worn out from all the twists and turns it took us to get here. This was DEFINITELY the mental hurdle of the day. Both of us mentioned how, even though we weren’t quite halfway yet, it felt like we had passed the halfway point just because of the route finding challenges of getting up to Black.

Getting down from Black was simple…we traversed back down from the summit towards a saddle point and then began to traverse towards Skullcap Peak along low heather and onto a bench system. We were glad to fill up on water along the way, with snowmelt before and after Black Mountain being our only water sources along the ridgeline. We began to pick up our momentum again once we were off Black Mountain, as the terrain began to mellow out again to low heather and meadows. Next up Skullcap, then Purple, then Portal, then White. We could see a faint footpath at times along this section of the ridgeline. Hmmm…more hikers than we had expected? We didn’t see anyone but we could tell many of the trodden down plants were recent. On top of Purple I found a summit register, with the latest entry being the day before. YEP…that made sense.

Looking along the ridgeline.
From time-to-time we would find a footpath like this along the ridge.

The ridgeline was so aesthetic…we couldn’t stop looking out at the vast expanse around us. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the wind had died down. The only thing that could have made the route any better was a little more water availability towards the latter half past Black Mountain, but I could manage.

Dan having a great time with Glacier Peak.

The final section up to Portal Peak was the only real “shwack” for the day. We had to push and shove our way through thick heather for around 100 yards, but once we were through the summit was not far away. We laughed, tired from the climbing, as we thrashed our way through the heather.

Dan climbs up a meadow on his way towards Portal.

Time-check: Portal Peak — 1:19 PM

From Portal, there was one left for the day: White Mountain. We followed the ridge down to Red Pass, where the PCT crosses over, and began back up the ridge towards White Mountain. A few times we had to duck off the ridge to avoid a gendarme or too, but overall this last section was AMAZING. Within an hour, we were on top of White Mountain, the final summit for the day! WOOHOO! We gazed back at the ridgeline behind us, proud of what we had done. The day wasn’t over yet though, we still had many miles back down to the trailhead along the North Fork Sauk trail from White Pass. Mentally, though, the day changed from off-trail navigation to following a trail, putting one foot in front of another as time ticked away.

Looking out at the ridgeline towards White Mountain.

Dan and I filled up water just below White Pass and prepared for the descent down. Here we split up, as I wanted to run and Dan wasn’t sure if he wanted to run or walk the switchbacks and river-grade trail. We both had inReaches and agreed to send each other messages once reaching Mackinaw Shelter, the footbridge around halfway between Mackinaw and the trailhead, and then once reaching the trailhead. I stowed my poles in my pack and away I went!

For the first time in a while, I felt AMAZING running down the trail towards the trailhead. Even having done over 10,000′ of gain for the day, my legs felt like they had plenty of juice in them. I was impressed with myself, having been injured just a few months ago and only really putting in training volume for a few weeks. I cruised down the switchbacks, reaching Mackinaw Shelter in around 40 minutes. From here, it was river grade down and out. Every now and again the trail would climb slightly uphill and I would give myself a quick rest by walking instead of running.

By 4:40 PM, I was nearing the end and I could see on the map that I was a mile from the trailhead. BEAT 5 PM!! I kicked my butt back into gear, with a goal now in sight. 4:55 PM–DONE! WOOHOO! My total time was just over 13 hours, which was longer than I was hoping for but seemed appropriate based on the route finding challenges and the fact that Dan and I had only run the downhill section from White Pass, walking the rest.

|| Notes ||

  • This is an EXCELLENT route, one that begs to be run in a day. I truly believe that 10 hours is a reasonable time estimate if you can dial in your route finding between Magenta and Black. I really think that someone fast could do this in 8 hours, even with the 12k gain.
  • In my opinion, wait for this to be mostly snow-free. It will be simpler terrain and there will still be water sources along the way.
  • I would HIGHLY recommend doing this route when it is dry; if there’s a rainstorm the day before, long sections of this will be wet side-hilling, which just sounds gross to me.
  • The only reliable sources of water were around Black Mountain, both before and after. There are some seasonal streams listed on the map near Painted Mountain and Magenta Peak, but in late August they were not running.
  • The ridgeline is exposed…don’t get caught out in a storm. There aren’t many great places to bail.
Tagged with: