Vesper Peak – October 2015

Somehow I hadn’t really heard much about this hike until my friend, and fellow 2014 PCT hiker, Angelina mentioned it to me the day before we hiked it. It was amazing! The views were incredible! North Cascades, peaks everywhere, rock formations, glaciers, alpine lakes, etc, etc. The hike was demanding. Over 4000 feet of elevation gain in 4.5 miles was fairly steep and there was a “scramble” (according to WTA).

a
Wirtz Basin

Friday. October 16, 2015. Hike: Vesper Peak (via Headlee Pass and Vesper Lake). Distance: 9 miles, roundtrip. Elevation gain: 4100 feet. Highest point: 6214 feet.

I meet Angelina in northern Seattle and we carpool to the North Cascades. The drive was relatively short for the North Cascades – under 2 hours, more like 1 1/2 hours. At the trailhead we max and relax before hitting the trail. Angelina boils water and we drink hot chocolate. We snack on cookies and crackers. Then we hit the trail. We chat and catch up on our hike to the summit.

Headlee Pass
Headlee Pass

Rather than regurgitate the WTA trail description, here it is:

Lake Elan
Lake Elan

“The way begins in second growth forest and almost immediately begins hopping streams, first by way of a log bridge, then over a helpful tree root that conveniently grew across a creek, and finally by whatever means available over the south fork of the Stillaguamish River. “River” here usually means “tame trickle,” but in times of heavy runoff, it can pose a serious obstacle. Improvised log bridges are strung up and washed away on a semi-annual basis. Check conditions; proceed accordingly. (Here there’s a sketchy log bridge over the river – bent in half and threatening to crack. Yet we make it across no problem)

Angelina on the granite slab scramble
Angelina on the granite slab scramble

Beyond the Stillaguamish, the trail starts living up to its mining heritage, switchbacking steeply over a rocky hillside below the convergence of three different valleys. Through dense vegetation, it winds towards the middle of the three, Wirtz Basin. Cue the mountain scenery. (A huge glacial basin here is incredibly picturesque.) At the head of the basin, sun filters over the sawtooth ridge of Morningstar Peak. On the right, the lower flanks of Sperry Peak form a sheer wall. Pikas bark their warnings from talus slopes on both sides. (And yes, we hear the adorable pika squeak/bark from within the boulder field/talus slopes.)

There are no words for the North Cascades
There are no words for the North Cascades

Save for the odd switchback in the trees, the trail heads more or less straight towards Morningstar and looks as if it might even dead-end below it. (It’s at this point that Angelina tells me why our friend, Lee, couldn’t join us on the hike. Her friend died. Yesterday. They had been camping and at the firetower lookout at Mt Pilchuck when the friend wandered off at dark to explore the next day’s climb – and never came back. Too dangerous to explore at night, they found his body the next morning. He’d fallen and died. So. Terrible. My thoughts are with you, Lee.)

Summit shot
Summit shot

A hairpin turn to the right begins a series of ever tightening zigs and zags between the walls of a steep, narrow couloir. Watch for other hikers above — the footing is loose, and rockfall is a real risk. (Here it felt like climbing a Sierra pass on the PCT. Steep, tight switchbacks. Kind of like Forrester Pass, only way less frightening)

Not sure what I was trying to do here
Not sure what I was trying to do here

The vertiginous climb peters out in a deep notch in the ridge, marked by a dead tree and an old weathered sign declaring: Headlee Pass 4,600 feet. Scratch the surface here and you strike a rich vein of history. “Headlee” refers to the family of two of the three prospectors who established the Sunrise Mine claim in 1897. One of them, lawyer Thomas E. Headlee, would go on to be an early mayor of Everett, a city which would in turn play a decisive role in the disposition of the Sunrise Mine. (I had no idea about the history while we were hiking)

More absurd views
More absurd views

The trail now drops a short way through trees on the other side of the pass before heading in a straight line across open talus fields. (Loose footing here) In a third of a mile, it meets the headwaters of Vesper Creek. The trail follows the right bank of the creek, around a bend, and up a short rise before arriving at the lake. (Incredible!)

Glacier Peak out there
Glacier Peak out there

Vesper may be a relatively young lake. Older maps show it as a glacier, and it sometimes doesn’t fully melt out until well into summer (if at all). (Say what??). That may also be why there’s still some debate about its name. Though most know it as “Vesper,” it is also often called “Lake Elan.”

It is practically encircled by a wall of rock, like an amphitheater, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. In one direction, admire the smooth granite of Vesper Peak and its wisp of a summit. In the other, crane your neck looking straight up at Sperry (named for yet another prospector, Dick Sperry). Look over the mouth of the lake to rows of peaks in the interior Cascades.

The hike to the summit of Vesper Peak cross the creek and follow the existing trails up the southeast slope of Vesper Peak. There are cairns to follow for a nice scramble up to the summit.”

(And that ends the WTA trail description)

Angelina and I ate foods at the top. There were 4 other women at the top. Amazing to see so many badass women out hiking this mountain. We climb down. Slower on the descent. Emergency bathroom run into the woods. Retrace our steps. Back to the trailhead. Back to the city.

Fellow summit-ers
Fellow summit-ers
More people soaking in the incredible views
More people soaking in the incredible views
Lake Elan on the descent
Lake Elan on the descent
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