Ragged Edge Topo
Always read the fine print! It is as true of climbing beta as it is of signing a contract. This thought crossed my mind as I clung to the damp, lichen covered north face of Vesper Peak. I was stuck halfway across the sheer fifth pitch traverse of the new "Ragged Edge" route. Just a few feet below me the face of Vesper Peak abruptly dropped away leaving nothing but air between the edge and granite slabs lying hundreds of feet below. Struggling to maintain my footing on damp lichen covered slab and set cams in shallow flared cracks I thought, this is a 5.7 climb? Then I remembered the fine print—the route setter had put a disclaimer in his climb description stating that, "The ratings...are potentially soft."
Why was I there? It is a question I often ask myself on climbing trips. It was the first Sunday of October and by that time the year before the weather had turned; rain in Seattle, snow falling in the Cascades, and me sleeping in on the weekends. Based on that expectation I had stowed my alpine gear for the season instead of leaving it in a pile in my living room like usual for the whole summer when it gets used every weekend. The answer is that it was a post on Cliff Mass' popular weather blog that sent me running to the mountains where I was sneaking in one more alpine climb for the "summer" season—six harder-than-expected pitches on Vesper Peak's Ragged Edge route.
Fall in Seattle
"Summer is NOT OVER," declared the University of Washington meteorology professor in a September 27th blog post. He predicted that the following weekend's weather would be good, a continuation of the balmy Indian summer the Northwest had been enjoying. I read this in the middle of the week and it threw me into a panic—I needed to plan a climb for the weekend ASAP! Like most coastal Northwesterners, good weather makes me anxious. When the sun is shining I have an unbearable need to get outside and do something, well knowing that I will have nine months of rain the rest of the year to be inside.
Vesper Peak had been on my "to-climb" list for a while and it seemed like as good a time as any to bag it. I discovered Vesper Peak's North Face route while idly flipping through pages of the Selected Climbs in the Cascades
guidebook during a bout of armchair mountaineering. It sounded like an easy alpine climb relatively close to Seattle, the trailhead is located about thirty miles east of Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway. I had grand climbing plans for the summer of 2014, but life intervened and I climbed very little. So I really wanted at least one more climb for the "summer" season. Fortunately, climbing friend Kirsten was free and interested in climbing Vesper too.
At Kirsten's suggestion we decided to climb the new Ragged Edge route, which was a variation on the North Face. The Ragged Edge had just been put in the year before. Some BOEALPS friends had just climbed it a couple weeks before us, declaring that it was easy and could be done in eight hours car-to-car. The climb was rated 5.7 and the approach hike was around eight miles round-trip. It sounded great, just the sort of lark I was looking for. A fun, not too difficult alpine climb with a moderate approach hike was what I imagined. I thought it would be like Prusik Peak's West Ridge minus the twenty-mile thru-hike. I expected a day of Type 1 Fun, but before the day was out our climb had ratcheted down on the Fun Scale into Type 2 Fun territory.
Sunrise Mine Trail
If you are not familiar with the terms Type 2 Fun
and The Fun Scale
they are handy terms for outdoor adventure and particularly apply to mountaineering. According to the Urban Dictionary Type 2 Fun
is defined as: "An activity that is fun only after you have stopped doing it." The Fun Scale includes Fun Types 1 to 3. Type 1 Fun
is fun at the time and in retrospect, while Type 3 Fun
is not fun at the time and you still regret it in hindsight.
The morning of October 5th it was still dark when we left Seattle at half-past five. We drove through a thick pre-dawn fog that blanketed the Snohomish Valley and extended past Granite Falls. We were on trial two hours after leaving Seattle. The morning mist was still rising from the valley as we started ascending towards Headlee Pass. It made me think of some lines from Ray Bradbury's The October Country
, "...that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay." In spite of the chilly fog-shrouded start to the day as soon as the sun was up it warmed quickly. I expected a brisk fall climb so packed both puffy and shell jackets, but we were not long on the trail before we were hiking in t-shirts. The hillsides along the approach to Headlee Pass were painted in vibrant fall colors like we don't usually see on the west (wet) side of the Cascades. The bright splashes of yellow, orange, and red a testament to an unusually sunny fall. Mass' predictions were true; it looked like fall, but felt like summer. It was shaping up to be exactly the kind of day I was hoping for.
Approaching Vesper Peak
After Headlee Pass the trees thin out and there is a long traverse across a talus-covered slope. It is easy to lose the trail on the rocky slope, but there is a route across marked with cairns. It is worth sticking to the trail because it is the path of least resistance across the talus and will save time and effort. After the talus fields the trail ascends to a small snowmelt pond called Lake Elan, which lies in the basin between Sperry and Vesper Peaks. It is a nice spot for a campsite and there were a couple tents pitched there. Before Lake Elan there is an obvious path up to Vesper Peak that forks left off the trail, but that leads to the East flank walk-up to the summit—our descent route. We kept going to the lake and then up scree covered ramp to the saddle between Vesper and an unnamed peak to the north, beyond which is a traverse below Vesper Peak that lead to the start of the Ragged Edge.
The start of the traverse is at the saddle around 5700 feet. You cross above the Vesper glacier, circumventing the traditional North Face approach, which means you can leave your crampons and ice axe at home. Kirsten and I stopped for a snack before starting the traverse, finding comfortable seats on the white granite boulders and feeling warm in the "summer" sun and admiring the stunning Cascade Mountains views. The day was still in Type 1 Fun territory. At the saddle we ran into Brad and Joseph again. They were climbers we met at the trailhead who were also attempting the Ragged Edge. They would be one pitch ahead of us on the climb up to the fifth pitch where we would end up having to pool our efforts to get to the summit.
Heather Ledge Traverse
From the saddle we had a traverse across the heather covered ledges to the base of the variation start. A misstep on the ledges would mean a couple hundred feet fall to the Vesper glacier below. There was an "oh shit" exposed bit when you drop down from the saddle, but after that the heather ledges got a little wider and I could breath easier. Once we got to the start of the Ragged Edge we had a little further to go since we were doing the variation start, which, just getting to the start of was tougher than anticipated: exposed, steep, slippery, and covered with wet heather.
Our beta for the climb came from a post on Cascade Climbers from Darin Berdinka who put in the route (see links section below). The beta was great; he included an accurate pitch-by-pitch description and a photo of the route with a topo overlay. He also installed bolts in some of the hardest to protect sections, which were very appreciated. My only complaint was that the ratings of all the pitches felt about a grade too low.
Kirsten thought that the pitch ratings might be accurate, but we were just there on the wrong day. Even though it was warm in the sun, the North Face was in the shade the whole day. It had rained the day before and the route had yet to dry out. There were many little grassy ledges on the route that were still sodden and I was constantly wiping my shoes on my pants in an attempt to get the mud off of them. Being a new route that had not yet seen a lot of traffic, the Ragged Edge was still covered with lichen, which combined with the mud on my shoes made smearing all those slabs a tough proposition.
The variation start was a layback flake, which Kirsten lead and admitted she struggled with a bit. Neither Kirsten nor I brought our "A" game that day. I had not climbed much during the summer. Kirsten had a great climbing summer, out every chance she got, but on Vesper she was sick and looked visibly exhausted. She admitted that she had considered to canceling, but like me found the temptation of one of the last warm days of the year overwhelming.
In terms of protection the route was neither fish nor fowl, it was a mix of trad and sport climbing. We brought a rack of pro, but there were also bolts and even pitons on many of the pitches. The Ragged Edge felt like a work-in-progress and we were beta testers (in the software sense). In the software release cycle "beta" is the final step before the software is considered code complete and ready to release. I work in software as a web developer for an ecommerce company (no, not Amazon). On the Ragged Edge there was a lot of was crumbly rock that broke off in our hands. There was still a lot of dirt, moss, and lichens. So I thought about logging some bug reports as I would at work. Berdinka recommended bringing a bristle brush to clean off some of the holds, a useful piece of advice we failed to heed. This was my first time climbing a relatively new route so I did not appreciate how much work goes into cleaning up a "code complete" route.
Bolted Slab | |
Mid-route | |
Lots O'Slabs | |
Brad and Joseph were just one pitch ahead of us and we often heard them cursing as they found their way. It was handy to have them ahead of us because they kept reporting back details of our next pitch. The climbing ended up being tougher than expected and we almost had to bail out when we ran into the 5th pitch. Brad and Joseph got stuck on the start of the 5th pitch. There are two bolts on the start of the fifth pitch, but Brad was struggling to reach the first bolt. I was able to start it and clip the first two bolts, but couldn't complete the traverse. I had trouble keeping footholds on the damp lichen covered slabs and the shallow flared cracks did not give me much confidence in the pro I was placing. I had to return to the 4th belay station.
Fourth Belay Station
The ledge at the start of the fifth pitch was only a couple hundred feet below the summit. As mentioned before the east flank route is a walk-up and we could hear people at the summit chatting. It was maddening to be so close yet so far away. Fortunately, Brad was able to finish the traverse, very lucky case of teamwork. We switched ropes so Kirsten was on the rope with Brad and I was on the rope with Joseph, which we did to save time since Kirsten was already set-up on belay. Since we had been immediately behind them on the route I had a lot of time to see Brad and Joseph climbing and I had confidence in their competence. We were all aware that we were burning daylight and needed to get to the summit quickly. Brad took our rope with him so I could top-rope Joseph. When Kirsten followed Brad she clipped the rope Joseph and I were on through all the pro Brad had set.
On a side note, Vesper is another name for the planet Venus when it rises at night and is know as the "evening star". It also gives its name to Vespers, evening prayers, which was appropriate because as evening was approaching I was praying that we would get to the summit quickly. The alternative was rappelling back down the way we came and traversing the heather ledges again in twilight, which was not an appealing prospect.
I was the last person off of the ledge since I was belaying Joseph. I had enough time to psych myself out. I kept thinking about that drop-off just a few feet below the traverse and imagined the scenarios of me falling off. It is not like I have not been in other situations where a fall would have dire consequences; it was just something about that dramatic sheer drop that had me picturing myself splattering on the slabs below. I completely lost my "lead head", that state of mind that allows you to lead climb. The beginning of the pitch up past the first two bolts that I climbed confidently so recently nearly defeated me and I fell on my first attempt. I had to remind myself that Brad had really sewn up the traverse with pro and Joseph had me on belay so that all I had to do was kept my cool I would make it safely across. I did make it, but my heart was pounding by the time I completed the traverse.
Fifth Pitch, looking back
The fifth belay station was crazy exposed; looking down was not something I would recommend to someone trying to get his or her lead head back. That said I was more than happy to swing leads with Joseph and finish the sixth and final pitch. I was ready to stand on the summit. Even the final "5.5" along an arête and heather covered slab to the summit was tougher than expected, but still an improvement over the fifth pitch. Vesper made us earn it every step of the way.
As the day dragged on and the climb kept taking longer than we anticipated Kirsten and I went through that process of lowering our après-climb plans for beer & grub. We went from discussing our options for a late lunch and early return home to early dinner and a later return home to finally let's just hope we get off Vesper in daylight and we'll hike out in the dark and we'll eat at a gas station and call it good.
We did not reach the summit until 6 p.m., which was three hours later than our worst-case scenario. We sparred a few minutes at the summit for a round of high-fives and summit photos with Brad and Joseph. One of the few good things about reaching the summit so late in the day is that it was the "magic hour" (as photographers call it). In the last hour of the day all the surrounding peaks were bathed in a golden light and we were able to take really good photos of the views from Vesper Peak's summit.
Although our descent was a walk-off, sunset was at 6:41 p.m. so we were anxious to be off the peak and across the talus field before night descended. By the time we returned to Headlee Pass it was dark and we had to finish the hike out by headlamp. That was ok; the trail from Headlee back to the trailhead is good and easy to follow, although there was one more stretch of talus field. Fortunately the moon had already risen so we had moonlight to help illuminate our hike out.
No regrets, it was only briefly a Type 2 Fun adventure, but most of the day was Type 1 Fun (or simply "fun" for those of you less pedantic than me, i.e. everyone). Vesper Peak is a beautiful hike and a place I will return to with non-climber friends since the south side of Vesper is a walk up. I think the views from the summit of Vesper Peak are some of the best in the Cascades. From there you can see the entire range from the Mount Baker and the Pickets up near the Canadian border all the way down to Mount Rainier while to the west the Puget Sound is visible.
My only regret came Monday morning when I was reminded how woefully out of shape
I am. In May I saw Steve House and Scott Johnson speak at the Seattle Patagonia store about their new book, Training for the New Alpinism
. Professional climber House and his coach Johnston wrote a book about how to train for mountaineering. I was impressed by their presentation at Patagonia and bought a copy. I have been slowly working my way through it (it's a hefty tome) and trying to incorporate the lessons into my life but as it turns out occasional training hikes up Mt Si with a pack loaded down with water jugs does not really compensate for long hours hunched over a computer keyboard at work. There is a contribution to the Training
book called TINSTAAFL: There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
by Mark Twight that I think applied directly to me. That next morning after Vesper I was so sore I had to sit down to get dressed because I couldn't lift my leg high enough to step into my pants. Maybe it is not such a thing bad thing that rainy season is here, now I have all winter to get in shape again. That will happen, right? [written as I reach for another donut]
Looking North from summit of Vesper Peak | |
Looking North-east from summit of Vesper Peak
Sperry Peak West Face | |
Morning Star, Del Campo, and Gothic
Timeline & Map
| Sunday, October 5, 2014 |
|5:30 a.m. ||— ||Leave Seattle |
|7:40 a.m. ||— ||Start hiking at Sunrise Mine Trailhead |
|9:29 a.m. ||— ||Headlee Pass |
|10:40 a.m. ||— ||Ledge Traverse |
|Noon ||— ||Start Ragged Edge |
|6 p.m. ||— ||Vesper Peak Summit |
|8:50 p.m. ||— ||Back to car |
Vesper Peak Route Map
Cliff Mass Weather Blog
University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences Professor Cliff Mass' blog is a great resource for information about Pacific Northwest Weather.
Vesper Peak's Ragged Edge from the guy who pioneered the route in 2013
Darin Berdinka put a lot of work into the route and shared some great beta. His pitch-by-pitch description and route overlay over a Vesper Peak photo was a big help during the climb.
Vesper Peak Ragged Edge trip report from September 2014
Fresh beta from a month before our attempt with some good photos
Accident report from a Vesper Peak North Face attempt in 2010
Most of the report is about her accident, rescue, and recovery, but typical of Steph Abegg she still included a good photo of the route with overlay notes and an approach map with useful notes.
Vesper Peak as a day hike
The Vesper Peak offers some really stunning views. Since the east flank is a non-technical scramble, it is a place I will return to in the future with non-climber friends
BOEALPS (Boeing Employees Alpine Society)
Boealps is a Boeing employees' club, but classes and volunteering are open to non-Boeing employees too.
The Oatmeal relates in four cartoon panels exactly how we experience the weather in the Pacific Northwest
The Urban Dictionary's definition of Type 2 Fun
The Fun scale
Talus vs. Scree
This is something I have scratched my head over for years, but there was a good discussion on a SummitPost forum that explained the difference.
Nelson, Jim; Potterfield, Peter. Selected Climbs in the Cascades, Volume II. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2000. Revised 2004. Pgs. 105-109.
House, Steve, and Scott Johnston. Training for the New Alpinism: A manual for the climber as athlete. Ventura, CA: Patagonia Books, 2014.
Green Trails Maps. Silverton, WA, Map No. 110. 1:69,500. Seattle, WA: www.greentrailsmaps.com, 1997. Original Issue 1977.
Green Trails Maps. Sloan Peak, WA, Map No. 111. 1:69,500. Seattle, WA: www.greentrailsmaps.com, 2005. Original Issue 1977.