It was one of those rare late-autumn stretches of high pressure over the Cascades, the kind that made me begin to wilt in my cubicle, hover at the office windows like a moth, and ponder the value of green-and-white paper. Fortunately, the weekend forecast called for more of the sunny same. After the week of consolidation, the avalanche danger was minimal. Definitely time for a snowy North Cascades mountain adventure!
So, what to climb? Usually I start pondering that question by Monday night. Sometimes as early as Sunday. Of course, there are always peaks that are perpetually on my list until I achieve their summits.....at the time of this trip, Vesper Peak was at the top of my to-climb list....
Thanks to the email-networking skills of my friend Mike (who unfortunately was unable to join the climb at the last minute), on Saturday I found myself part of a expedition of five headed towards the summit of Vesper. I had climbed with Gabriel and Brian a couple of weekends previous, and I had not met Lindsay or Kevin before. Great, new climbing friends!
The trailhead for Vesper begins at the end of the Sunrise Mine Road (Forest Road 4065), which is 29 miles east on Granite Falls along the Mountain Loop Highway. As we had predicted, the Sunrise Mine Road was impassable due to snow. Fortunately, it's only 2.3 miles to the summer trailhead. This made for a total of 12.8 miles and 4200' gain to the summit. (Note: The Mountain Loop Highway closes after the first heavy winter snowfall. Hence, this area was a good choice for the weekend, as the peaks along the highway would soon be inaccessible for a few months.)
The climb is relatively straightforward, just following the general line of the summer trail up the east flank of Vesper. Although it was snowy the entire way, we did not put on snowshoes until we were just past Headlee Pass (Kevin, who was the lone skier of our group, had his skis on from the car, except for the last part of the ascent to Headlee Pass and a short section through the forest, where the snowpack had not quite reached a wintery skiability). Headlee Pass is usually the crux of the route. For us, the snow was deep so it was just a matter of endurance. Some parties report problems finding this pass, but it is essentially the last viable option at the head of the valley on the right. To the right is a photo showing the location of Headlee Pass.
From Headlee Pass, the summit is in view and beckoned us onward. It was impossible not to enjoy ourselves. The sun was warm and bright and the snow was sparkling and powdery. A layer of clouds chased us up the mountain as they rose throughout the day. Rather than obscure our views, the clouds made for a 360° landscape of mystical mountain summit islands. It was a perfect pre-winter day for a summit siege in the Cascades.
It was calm and sunny, so we enjoyed a long break on the summit. This summit certainly felt a bit more special to me than most. Vesper had been at the top of my to-climb list ever since I nearly lost my leg in a climbing accident on the North Face in September 2010,
fourteen and a half months previous. Achieving the summit was akin to tying off a lose end.
By the time we started to head back down, an army was marching up Vesper. We counted 14 other people (and 1 dog). Most of them were on skis and ended up passing us again after they had tagged the summit. By the end of the day, the slopes had taken on a ski-hill like quality. It's unusual to see so many people in the mountains as the snow starts to stick, but everyone seemed eager to take advantage of the nice weather.
We made it back to the car just before darkness set in. A fun and monumental day!
Photos from the climb
The five of us
Looking out to the west towards the Olympics from the summit of Vesper, we could see bizarre columns rising from the tops of the peaks, and other peaks squared off into giant flat-topped Utah-like blocks. Similar reports
were made by other parties in different locations on the same day. Intrigued, I did some research, and discovered that this effect is called a superior mirage; this occurs when when warmer, less dense air is above cooler, denser air near the surface, causing light waves to be bent so that objects appear to be higher than they actually are.
miles round trip (4.6 on road)
, Descent: 3h20min
- 6 am - Met in Granite Falls and started driving up Mountain Loop Highway to trailhead.
- 7 am - Started hiking up Sunrise Mine Road (2.3 miles).
- 8 am - Arrived at summer trailhead.
- 10:30 am - Headlee Pass.
- 12:20 pm - Summit (enjoyed a 40 min lunch break in the sun).
- 1 pm - Began descent.
- 4:20 - Arrived back at car.
- Total car-to-car time: 9 hours 20 minutes