Ptarmigan Peak

Ptarmigan Peak (4,911 ft.)

Via the Rabbit Lake trailhead: 7 miles round trip, 3,250 ft. elevation gain. Difficulty: Class 3. My time: 3.5 hours

Via the Glen Alps trailhead: 10 miles round trip, 3,140 ft. elevation gain. Difficulty: Class 3 My time: 4.5 hours

Summiting Ptarmigan Peak is a rite of passage for aspiring Chugach ’schwackers and scramblers. At 4,911 feet, it is the highest point in a roller-coaster ridge of tundra and crags that begins with Flattop (the most-climbed mountain in the Chugach) some three miles to the northeast. Flattop may be many people’s first Chugach peak, but Ptarmigan is likely to be their first challenge. Climbing it requires routefinding as soon as you leave the Powerline Pass or Rabbit Lake trails, and its summit perches atop a series of steep, rocky fins and gullies.

Though the approach is short and it’s a relatively fast climb, in terms of terrain difficulty alone Ptarmigan is probably on par with the tallest Chugach front range peaks, including Williwaw, Tikishla, and North Suicide. If Ptarmigan Peak pushes you toward your limits, that’s OK. But for those who reach the summit in good shape and wanting more, hundreds of miles of Chugach wilderness is now calling.

Ptarmigan Peak in winter

The author climbing the northwest ridge of McHugh Peak, with Ptarmigan Peak in the background. The standard route ascends Ptarmigan’s west ridge, between the peak’s northwest face (in shadow) and its southwest face (in sun). Photo: Simon Wigren.

Season

Snow often collects and forms cornices on the main route, even though it receives plenty of sun exposure and wind. The gullies that provide access to the summit on the southwest face are steep and avalanche-prone. Even during low-snow years, nontechnical winter ascents probably aren’t safe. The best time of year for nontechnical summer climbs typically ranges between early June to late October.

The top of the west ridge and northwest face

The top of the west ridge and northwest face, shot from the top of Peak 3 in early April.

Routes

There are many possible routes up Ptarmigan, including some truly fierce mixed rock/ice routes on the north face. The standard, Class 3 summer route begins at Ptarmigan Pass, a broad bench of tundra immediately to the northeast of the peak. There are two approaches: the Glen Alps parking lot and Powerline Pass Trail, or the Rabbit Creek Trailhead and Rabbit Lake Trail. I prefer the Rabbit Lake Trail approach because it’s a little shorter, the climb to Ptarmigan Pass is easier, and parking is both available and free.

Map of Ptarmigan Peak climbing routes

Map of the Ptarmigan Peak west ridge route. Note that this USGS base map does not include the Powerline Pass or Rabbit Lake trails, which run through the valleys north and south of the peak, respectively.

The Approach

Park at the Rabbit Creek Trailhead and walk past the gate up the Rabbit Lake Trail. The trail is well-worn and fairly well-maintained, and is easy to follow provided you stay pointed up-valley and don’t detour onto one of the old road cuts up the mountainside. Follow the trail about 2.4 miles through the alder and across a few avalanche runouts until you break out into open tundra below Ptarmigan Pass. There are many small paths cutting up from the Rabbit Lake Trail toward the pass. Choose any one of them or strike out onto the open tundra your own way. This part of the hike is a bit sloggy, but the footing is generally good and if you embrace the thigh burn, you’ll be up it in no time.

As you reach Ptarmigan Pass, the terrain rolls over and flattens. Stay on the southern edge of Ptarmigan Pass and walk toward the base of Ptarmigan’s west ridge.

The Peak

The view of the craggy summit pyrimid rising straight above the flat tundra of Ptarmigan Pass may be daunting, but the climb is not really as difficult (or as long) as it looks. In fact, the summit of Ptarmigan Peak is only 1,300 feet above Ptarmigan Pass–the same elevation between the Glen Alps parking lot and the summit of Flattop.

The main route follows Ptarmigan’s west ridge, gradually moving over onto the southewest face when the ridgeline begins to cliff out. Begin by following the tundra-lined crest of the ridge, which steepens steadily and becomes progressively rockier. There is enough traffic consolidated here to make a faint trail.

About half way up the ridgeline, the faint trail runs into cliff banding and begins to disperse onto the southwest face. Move back and forth across the face as needed. There are many options here, and unless you sidehill around the entire mountain basically any of these chutes and gullies will take you to the summit. All of the routes up this part of the peak contain steep terrain and loose rock, but you should not feel like you’re “rock climbing.” Don’t be afraid to backtrack and explore. Just be careful not to cross the west ridge and swing onto the northwest face of the peak, which is very cliffy.

Climbing gullies on Ptarmigan Peak's southwest face

Navigating the gullies on Ptarmigan’s steep southwest face.

Before you know it, you’ll scramble up a pile of large broken rocks and find yourself at the top. Directly to the southeast you’ll see a steep crag of rock that might look taller, but this 4,880-foot point (often mislabeled as the true summit in online writeups) is actually 30 feet lower than the true (west) summit.

Enjoy the expansive views of other nearby Chugach Peaks, including North and South Suicide, Avalanche, the Ramp, and Williwaw–and maybe start thinking about your next Chugach adventure.

The author (right) and Dylan Watts (left) on the summit of Ptarmigan, in August 2001. Ptarmigan was my first “real” Chugach summmit and the start of many backcountry adventures.

Other Resources and Trip Reports

Considering how accessible the peak is from Anchorage, I’m surprised there isn’t more information online. One high-ranked trip report suggests that it’s easier to climb the peak in the winter. Unless you have technical winter mountaineering experience, this advice is probably best avoided.

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