Monday, September 14, 2009

Vesper Peak, September 12, 2009

Headlee Pass, Vesper Peak (September 12, 2009)

This was the destination for the annual Unbirthday hike. While it didn’t fall on my birthday, we couldn’t have picked a better weather day for this strenuous undertaking. Incidentally, I am not telling how old I am except to say I’m a year older than I was last year and this trip was proof that, well, uh … I’m feeling older too.

Stats differ on this hike – ranging from 8 to 10 miles (trailhead to summit) with elevation gain ranging from 3,900 feet to 4,200 feet. That being said, let’s just say it was a tough trip and the only reason I made it to the summit was desire (it wasn’t stamina).

Each time I’ve been there, I say “never again”; however, the passage of time is deceptive. I forget how rough the trail is but remember the wild, desolate beauty of Wirtz Basin and the rocky bowl below Sperry and Vesper Peaks.

This year was tougher than usual. For starters, there no longer any user-friendly bridges (man-made or otherwise) on the trail – in late summer/early fall the crossings are tricky but manageable. The fat, user-friendly log that spanned the Stillaguamish crossing for years bit the dust a year and the rocks are slippery.

After crossing the Stillaguamish we faced the next challenge; steep, brushy switchbacks in direct sun and the rocks under our feet were slick from morning dew. Thankfully, someone (WTA?) had brushed out this stretch of the trail so we could at least SEE the trail, an improvement over some of my visits in the past.

The trail continues to climb and enters shady old growth forest – here, there are many splendid Alaska cedars. This is a good spot for a break before tackling the next stretch. The trail then drops into Wirtz Basin, a conglomerate of talus, blueberry shrubs, mountain ash and shrubby evergreens.

You won’t see Headlee Pass until you are almost directly below it but you will get great views of Morningstar Peak at the head of the valley and Sperry Peak (right). This year the trail through Wirtz Basin was easier to follow than I anticipated.

The rocky trail contoured below Sperry Peak (gorgeous views!) toward the head of the valley. Blocky talus alternated with snippets of forest, a few old growth trees still stand, having survived countless avalanches and winter storms.

Headlee Pass comes into a view, a narrow gully lined by cliffs. It looks just about impossible to climb until you are actually on it; the danger here is rock fall, of course. We were careful on the switchbacks, staying close together just in case one of us kicked a rock loose. Once a rock is kicked loose, there’s no stopping it on such a steep grade. At Headlee Pass (2,600 feet) we took a well-needed rest.

The “trail” between Headlee Pass and Lake Elan (also called Vesper Lake) crosses a talus field below Sperry Peak. As Vesper Peak came into view it was inspiring enough for a second wind.

When we got to the lake we took another break (much needed, at least by most of us). After the break some of my friends decided to hang out at the lake; the rest of us continued to Vesper.

We crossed the outlet stream (an easy rock hop) and followed discernible trail through heather and evergreens, many of the stunted. The trail has been beaten so deep into the ground that it’s more like a ditch than trail.

The combination of heat and age caught up with me below the fabled granite slabs. I had to sit down and rest; the GU packets on which I rely were not quite enough to keep me going. Alan remarked that I looked “terrible” and advised me not to continue but after a rest I felt better and was able to carry on (Alan insisted on carrying my pack part of the way). I didn’t argue with him.

Once we were on the slabs (following cairns and relying upon memory) I felt much better and insisted on carrying my pack. A “third wind” kicked in and it was easy going on the sticky granite. Take the time to enjoy the view on the way – Lake Elan below (often with ice still afloat) and Sperry Peak rising above.

There’s more than one correct way to get to the summit – cairns mark the most obvious route but once you have attained the ridge, the rest of the route is easy. From the summit ridge there are views of Spada Lake and an endless sea of ridges and peaks.

From Vesper you can look down to jade-green Copper Lake, one of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in the North Cascades. Above Copper Lake Big Four Mountain rises – and beyond, more peaks and ridges.

There was no summit register; instead there were flying insects (not mosquitoes) and whatever they were, they were annoying (but not annoying enough to drive us away). We lingered as long as we dared, not wanting to hike out in the dark.

On our way down we met a couple that were backpacking and spending the night on the summit. Further down we met a group of four who were also heading up to Vesper for the night. We envied them getting to spend a night on Vesper but did not envy the gear they were packing.

Usually a hike down is easier than climbing; not so on this trail. Only about ¼ mile of the trail is a real “trail”; the rest a rugged route of rocks, talus, slippery roots and more rocks. Descending Headlee Pass was trickier than climbing it; we took our time, glad that no one else was coming down above us as we descended.

By the time we left Wirtz Basin (a lot of pika activity here!) we were losing daylight and were glad we had headlamps. When we got to the crossing of the Stillaguamish it was getting dark; here, we met a young man and his son heading back. The father had sprained his ankle and their plans to camp in the basin were scrapped.

It was probably about 7 or shortly thereafter when we emerged from the darkening forest (the father and son were just behind us). Our companions had been waiting for about 45 minutes – we were glad they didn’t wait for us at the lake.

We were tired, ravenous and overjoyed to find the Timberline Café still open in Granite Falls.

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