Vesper Peak
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Climbing is dangerous! Every year many climbers are broken, maimed, and killed. Don't be so foolish as to trust your life to what you see here. I'm not a guide and neither is this web site. If you don't know what you are doing or where you are going, please take a course or hire a guide!

Vesper Peak, North Face

August 27, 2000

We left Issaquah at 6:10 AM under mixed skies. Just in case of rain, we had enough gear to bail out to Leavenworth for some sport climbing. The drive to the trailhead was remarkably short, less than two hours. The road is in good shape, too. Even with a McDonald's stop, we were racking and packing at 8:00 AM. Cloud cover was complete and a thick mist was drifting in and out. We both wondered aloud about finding the correct approach notch and the route in the mist.

Another car full of fit-looking climbers arrived at the trailhead, so we quickly finished packing and took off down the trail at a good clip. The first 15 minutes of walking were either traversing or slightly descending. Soon enough, though, we crossed the first creek and began to gain elevation. The trail traversed around one basin and into another, then switched back and forth through a blackberry and fern thicket. Then over into another basin where we slowly began to leave the trees behind. Mysterious Headlee Pass revealed itself and we trudged up innumerable switchbacks to reach it. This is one place where I didn't mind switchbacks: The slope up to Headlee is quite steep. A nice sign at Headlee Pass indicated that we were at 4600'. Jens and I adjusted our altimeters down 200 feet and tried to see through the mist to get our bearings. The trail dropped a few vertical feet, and then began climbing again, through talus and scree. I was a little concerned that we were too high- on the scramble route up Sperry Peak. Soon enough though, we came to the stream emptying out of the frozen little lake (Elan? Headlee?) between Sperry and Vesper. The USGS wasn't even considerate enough to show it on the map. Maybe it should be called "Lake Rodney Dangerfield"

About this time the mist most graciously blew out enough for us to see the wrong pass above the lake. From that we were able to infer the location of the correct pass. Then we mistakenly crossed the creek anyway and started up the ridge to the left of the lake. Out of laziness, we made a 3rd class traverse down to the snowfield surrounding the lake rather than backtrack to easier ground.

The correct pass above Headlee Lake (taken on the way out in better visibility).

Then we spotted another party above us. I don't mind sharing a route with others, as long as they are behind me. "Shit", I said.

"Should we jet and pass them?" Jens wondered aloud.

"Yeah, let's rock and roll." This is where I discovered that a cup of coffee and a cherry-cheese danish is not enough to climb 2500' and a good pace and then try to catch another group at high speed. "Whew, Jens, I need to get some calories in me. I'm getting light headed."

Luckily for my state of consciousness, we realized that the group above us was coming down, not going up. It turned out that it was family with kids that had overnighted at the outlet of the lake. I slowed down and the world stopped spinning, and in just a few minutes we were at the pass. I did not bother to take a picture there, but here is what we saw:

An approximation of our view from the pass above the Vesper Glacier

"Can you see anything?"

"Some rocks, I think."

"Can you see the route?"

It was a silly question, really. The whole face was shrouded in the mist. Unless we could find some indication of previous human presence, it was going to be difficult to pick out the correct line on the broad north face.

We scrambled down steep rocks and dirt to a ledge about 150 below the pass. There we broke out the food, and also crampons and axes to cross the Vesper glacier. Jens took the lead as we bombed down the glacier. Underneath the first rock toe we began to traverse skier's left until we were clearly below the north face.

Jens searching for the route, and rock, in the mist.

"Where is the route?"

We climbed up to the rock and looked for something that Becky described as 4th class and Nelson as obvious and low 5th. There was lots of climbable rock, but it was mid-5th at least. The upper section of the north face is split by a dihedral into two distinct slabs. On the right it is 45-50 degrees with good features and some pro. On the left is an upper fifth fright-fest: a 60 degree plus slab that Becky describes as "5.8" and "needing a few more bolts". Until I read that, I'd never actually seen Becky describe anything as needing more bolts. And Becky 5.8? "We need to make sure we are far enough to the right!"

We decided to split up a bit- Jens headed left along the face and I descend to look to the right. After just a few minutes Jens called out that there was nothing to the left. Meanwhile, I had spotted an inviting rock ledge and was on a bee-line to check it out. Jens caught up. "This looks right to me."

"Do you see any footprints?"

"No, but lets see if the moat is passable. We can look for something on the ledge."

The moat crossing was easy, if steep, and then we were on the ledge looking at a piece of white plastic left behind by an earlier party. "Garbage. We must be in the right place."

My altimeter said 5300 feet. "I didn't think this was a 900 foot face, Jens."

"Me neither. I guess it is."

Above us was a steep 3rd/4th class scramble. We decided to harness and rack up on the ledge, then solo up a bit. While I shuffled around on the ledge something fell, and I turned around in time to see my binoculars bounce twice off the wall before plummeting into the gaping moat 100 feet below us. "Looks like I need a new pair of binoculars, Jens."

Loren at the base of the climb in improved visibility.

It was 12:20 PM when we started up the easy terrain, just to the right of a deep cleft in the face. After 150 feet or so we had to choose between climbing out right onto a moderate, but very exposed face or tackling the chimney at the heart of the cleft. After some discussion, we roped up, set a belay piece, and I headed out onto the face. The moves were not that difficult, low fifth, but the exposure was big, easily 300 feet down to the glacier and yawning moat. I was glad to have the security of a belay. And what joy to be climbing beautiful, solid, white granite in the Cascades! I climbed upward on variable terrain: Some slab moves, some edges, some brush pulling. There was not an overabundance of good cracks for gear. I used what I could find, being careful extend the pieces to minimize rope drag while simul-climbing. There is a lot of lichen and moss on the rock- evidence that this route is not climbed frequently. Then, suddenly, the fifth class climbing ended in a 2nd/3rd class heather benches. I couldn't see past them in the mist. I could see a lot of rock out to our right and became concerned that we were too far left.

I walked up to a scrub tree and threw my "web-o-lette" around it to belay Jens up to me. We'd climbed about 300 vertical feet on my lead. I unclipped the rope from the biner once he reached the benches and we began chattering about the route. "I'm afraid we're too far left", I called down.

"No, the slab is right there!"

I turned, and sure enough, the mists had parted for us once again to reveal the beautiful slab ending in the big dihedral just above us. "Right on!!!"

We discussed a route up to the slab as Jens joined me, then threw on Kiwi coils and walked up together. In ten minutes we were standing at the base of a spectacular low angle granite slab. The lack of anything remotely resembling a belay anchor was the only ugly part of the scene. It was Jens' lead, so I put him on belay and he took off. "Find something as soon as you can."

Jens in the eerie mist and light at the base of the slab.

While he climbed, I paid out the rope and thought about what I would do if he came skittering down the slab. Finally I found a small knob of rock that I thought might hold a fall if I threw the rope over it at just the right moment.

Jens in the mist at the dihedral. For me, the crux of the route was on the slab just below where the rope goes out of sight.

"There, that piece is bomber."

I was glad to hear that and was then able to relax and enjoy the scenery. Shortly, though, the rope came taut and I started up the slab. It was a true joy, such beautiful, consistent, solid rock. The crux of the 250' slab is where it joins the dihedral. There, we both were given pause by an innocuous looking, but very blank section. I muddled through, and just a few feet later Jens was on the ridge above.

"Loren, you're on belay!"

With the security of a top rope, I scooted up through the last hundred feet of the slab on good features about 50 feet from the dihedral. After a short walk, we were on the summit admiring the view, which was remarkably like the view from the pass above the glacier. I looked at my watch: 1:40 PM, 80 minutes on the 700 vertical foot route. Simul-climbing is so much faster than belayed climbing.

Goofy looking Loren at the summit. Slab on the left and the Vesper glacier far below.

We ate, drank, and sat around barefoot. Then the mist parted yet again (many thanks to the Random and Omnipotent Goddess of Northwest Weather) and we quickly got up to scope out the descent route. With good visibility, it looked very straightforward, no problem.

"Hey Jens, did you grab my web-o-lette down there?"


So my lost gear count for the day expanded to include the binoculars, one web-o-lette, and one locking MSR biner.

Our altimeters read 6000feet. The summit is 6200 feet. I suspect that Headlee Pass is, despite the lovely sign to the contrary, actually at 4800 feet. We signed the register and left the summit at 1:55 PM. We were able to make a bumpy glissade part way down, and then walked the trail back past the little lake. At Headlee Pass we met a couple on their way down.

"Did you make the summit?", they asked.

"Yeah. We climbed the north face."

"Oh. We stopped in the snow. How much farther is the summit?"

I turned to look. The top 100 feet of Vesper, the short, rocky section above the snow, was shrouded in mist. "About five minutes."

I kind of regretted saying it as soon as I saw the pained looks on their faces. I know that feeling well, from my two attempts on North Sister that failed 100' below the summit. Oh, well. Live and learn. We never even left the trailhead on my third attempt.

We made good time down the Headlee switchbacks and through the basin. Then into the next basin, then the next. Soon we were crossing the last stream. At 3:45 PM we were drinking Alaskan Amber at the car. Yum.

This is a great climb, with a reasonable approach. I'll go back and climb it again. Jens called it 5.3. I'd say there are a few mid-fifth moves, including the short, blank section on the slab. Go climb it and tell me what you think.


This page was last edited on Tuesday, August 30, 2005
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