Vesper Peak is part of an intriguing subrange of rugged mountains west of the Cascade divide that rank as one of my personal favorite alpine areas. I’ve always found the scenery here remarkably imposing yet unnervingly intimate: Beautiful but hallowed in the dark, mysterious way. The mountainsides here feel more dangerous to me than other places I’ve visited, for some reason. I feel awe and inspiration here, but not in the sniffing-the-flowers-happy-epiphany sort of sense. I find this enigmatic quality reassuring.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Monte Cristo-Big Four area the past couple years after a flood of exploration to places with names like Mt. Forgotten and Gothic Basin. Lately I had the itch to go back (last winter, Grandma, Adam and I went for an easy hike along the mossy Robe Valley trail). The Sunrise Mine trail to Headlee Pass had been on my mind this summer: I felt excited but anxious about returning to Vesper Peak after two lackluster attempts that resulted in mostly lounging at Vesper Lake. On Friday, it turned out the third time was the charm! I enjoyed this trip so much I’m thinking about making Vesper a semi-annual tradition. The final thousand feet is considered class 2 climbing (occasional use of the hands) but to tell you the truth I consider the lower down rough trail up the infamous slot gully (to Headlee Pass) to be more nerve-wracking.
Snow added to the challenge factor for this hike: In fact, very surprisingly Vesper Lake lower down is still snow-bound. Even before I saw the lake I knew I’d have the whole ball of wax- from Headlee Pass I could see several left-over snowfields flanking the top of Vesper. My heart sank and I gulped. It quickly became apparent I was wise to bring my ice axe, which I’d heavily debated at the trailhead since 9 times out of 10 I only use it as a walking staff with a trekking pole. At the outlet of Vesper Lake, I caught up with a pair of friendly climbers (they were preparing to head up for some routes on the sheer north face of Vesper). One of them told me I should be able to find a work-around with the snow. Surprisingly, I was in a sporting mood (for a very wimpy, nervous nellie) and chose a direct route straight up over the snow. It was starting to rain and I didn’t like the idea of wandering a lot because I’d always heard the easiest route on Vesper is pretty much straight up. So at the 5800 level I began the tedious chore of kicking steps into steep firm snow to reach periodic islands of the slabby granite Vesper is beloved for. Occasionally I’d come to a surprisingly hard patch of snow and use my axe to scrape out an inward sloping platform. Doubt crept in as it started raining heavier, but I vowed to press upward in spite of the temporarily-fading local views of Sperry and Morning Star Peaks. It was a murky morning, I couldn’t tell what was fog and what was lingering forest fire smoke. The idea of not reaching the top for a third time was worse than reaching the top and not seeing anything. Yet I was terrified at the prospect of getting caught up high in fog and rain. I heaved a sigh of consternation and looked down at the hundred feet of steps I’d taken forever to fashion and fell victim to the horrible habit of mine where I ponder what Oliver Fern and Adam were doing at that moment and rather wished I was there. But when I do that it has the effect of keeping me rational and giving me razor focus. I was fine. My borderline acrophobia in the middle of the snowfield passed and I steeled myself to leave my little granite island and tackle the next 50 feet of steep snow. It went smoothly.
I never enjoyed a mountaintop more! I navigated my way past a few dead ends on steep rock and yawning moats where snow met granite. Eventually I found myself on the final few hundred feet of easy slabs and a weight was lifted. I thrilled at the views over Vesper’s abrupt north face. The steep slabby scrambling changed to pleasant heather benches and easy rock-hopping under the summit. The rain stopped pelting and the mist cleared. Even the smoke seemed to sink lower into the valleys.
I took this picture on the way down to give a representational look at the angle of snow I went up. At this point I was on a big island of granite making my way to the next short impasse (I was a tad dismayed to find the steps I’d kicked a couple hours earlier were now iced over a little in spite of the sunshine). Up on the summit I’d thought about looking harder for a snow-free route on the way down but I felt it was safer to follow my original path (plus, I’d seen some things I wanted to shoot). The way down wasn’t as dicey as I thought it’d be. I had cottonmouth as I descended the snowy parts but my footing was pretty secure. That’s one advantage to kicking steps with size 15 feet!
I doodled this map today for the fun of it. The green dots show how I got off-track in 2004 crossing the South Fork of the Stillaguamish and went the entirely wrong way. It was such a mind-bendingly stupid episode I won’t bother with the details, but in my defense the trail had been temporarily re-routed and the hunter’s path I was on had cairns all along it and I got stuck with two other guys who made the same mistake. The more I tried to lose them the harder they tried to follow me (disconcertingly enough, one of them was a pilot for a major airline which shall remained unnamed). I’d almost gotten rid of them when I found a deep mine shaft full of water and I felt it was only decent of me to share my awesome discovery. At any rate, I made friends with the pilot and we joined forces but higher up in Wirtz Basin I had to shake him loose when he started boring me out of my skull with idle conversation and I felt I was risking shorting my hearing aid out for nothing (I never saw him again). I came back for more suffering in 2006 with Eric, that time we were just lazy and gave up at the lake. I didn’t feel like a total failure because deep down I knew we were two fat, out-of-shape guys who had no business trying to hike 4,100 feet in one day.
In other news: Oliver Fern visited the Japanese Garden for the first time this afternoon.