I have a complex relationship with Vesper Peak, located off the Mountain Loop Highway in the North Cascades. I am repeatedly drawn back, but each time I go, I am astounded at how physically and mentally challenging it is. It’s been nearly two weeks since I last visited Vesper (July 19), and I’ve spent that time reflecting on the difficulty of the hike, and what it may mean for my hiking future. The Vesper Challenge carried on after doing the doing the peak to processing the impact to now, finally, trying to capturing the Complete Vesper Experience in words. I’ve attempted Vesper three times, summited twice, and at last I think I am done — at least with the peak. The lessons learned will stay with me, no question about it.
Stats on Vesper Peak
A quick digression: Sometimes, the reported length of a summit trail varies greatly, depending on which information you look at. Vesper is one of those. WTA (Washington Trails Association) calls it 8 miles round trip; AllTrails calls it 5.5 one way; Wikipedia calls it 10 roundtrip. Which to believe? Based on what I know about my sense of distance and hiking speed, I am going with Wikipedia’s 10 miles RT.
LOCATION— Off Mountain Loop Highway, 18 miles South of Darrington and 21 miles East of Granite Falls. TRAILHEAD — Sunrise Mine trail #707 DISTANCE — 10 miles (give or take) SUMMIT ELEVATION — 6214 feet ELEVATION GAIN — 4200 feet DIFFICULTY — Rated as Difficult
Previous Vesper Hikes
A current trip report would not make much sense without a mention of my two previous Vesper hikes…
First failed attempt, June 2015
On a cool summer day in mid-June of 2015, my son Kyle, his girlfriend Lauren and I made an attempt on Vesper. It was a low snow pack year, and the hike seemed doable even that early. Several things happened that day, however, such that we failed in our summit attempt:
First, we lost the trail soon after breaking out of the forest and brush — about a mile in. I have since learned that this is very common on this unmaintained trail. Before this first attempt, I didn’t put much stock in WTA trip reports, and I rarely, if ever, took the time to read them. Now, two years and a few attempts later, I have read dozens of trip reports for this hike. It’s amazing how many hikers report losing the trail in this same rocky section! What happens to others, happened to us, and Kyle, Lauren and I lost track of the trail going up the steep rocks. We got up high, then had to work our way back over to the trail on loose, unstable rocks. Lauren took a fall, which made us all nervous. Once we got back on trail, we kept going, up to Headlee Pass (4600 feet). Confident again once we were en route, we continued our summit quest.
However, our second problem occurred because we had not taken time to read the route description up to the summit. I take responsibility for this — I was designated “trip leader”. Instead of crossing Vesper Creek and heading up the rock face to the summit, Kyle, Lauren, and I innocently waltzed along the trail to beautiful Vesper Lake. Beyond the lake we could see something of a trail heading up to what we thought was Vesper Peak. We followed that “trail” as best we could, Kyle leading, but the going was hairy and challenging, sometimes in snow, and always steep and vague. Lauren and I didn’t like it much, and, while Kyle did his best to be the cheerleader, I could tell he was a bit nervous and unsure too. We finally topped out on a pass, with a grand view, and we could see people progressing upward to what we thought was the summit of Vesper.
Third, as we ate lunch, watched and evaluated, several things became clear. The day was cool, some clouds had come in, and it was quite windy. None of us were dressed warmly enough for the conditions. And the route the climbers were taking was steep and snowy, and looked treacherous. We only had lightweight hiking shoes and no traction devices. Kyle and I wanted to continue, despite our lack of preparedness. But Lauren, thankfully, was the voice of reason. She said she would not go, but would wait for us there if we wanted to proceed. I didn’t feel right about leaving her waiting on a cold and windy pass, and deep down, I knew she was right in her assessment. So we all turned back.
Later, Kyle and I looked carefully at the map, and learned that we were going for the wrong summit! The mountain we were actually attempting to climb was Mt. Sperry, Vesper’s next door neighbor. It’s much less popular, and is even more of a “climbers route” than Vesper. I am grateful to Lauren (and eventually common sense) that we turned back on that day. Vesper stayed on the brain, though, and I wanted to go back…
Second (successful) attempt, July 2015
Ready for conquest, Kyle and I returned to Vesper a month later. This time, Lauren bowed out, and instead Kyle’s buddy Jack came along. Many things went right on this trip — unfortunately, weather was not one.
This time, we learned from our previous mistakes. On the steep rock slope, we paid careful attention and followed hard to see cairns (rock piles) along the way to the more obvious route up to Headlee Pass. It was a struggle for me to keep up with mountain goats Kyle and Jack, but they were nice enough to wait for me at regular intervals. I noticed the challenge of the trail more this time around, as the faster pace combined on the loose rocks required constant vigilance. But I fed off Kyle and Jack’s youthful energy and enthusiasm, and we reached Headlee pass quickly. Beyond the pass, we did not make the same mistake in heading to the lake, but crossed Vesper Creek and headed up toward the summit.
The summit approach was a bit of a challenge, somewhat increased by our weather conditions of drizzle and fog. It wasn’t an ideal day for a summit bid, but I am not sure any of us cared. We were all on the same mission! The rock slabs were snow-free but steep, and I followed the boys as they picked their way up. Thankfully, I only had to focus on my footing, not route-finding — as long as I could see one of them, I just headed in that direction. I’d requested they keep me in sight, and, with the fog, that meant they couldn’t get too far ahead.
We made the summit, but, unfortunately, couldn’t see a thing from the top. It was cold, and this time I was prepared but Kyle wasn’t. He put on a shirt of mine to keep warm. He termed it “feminine green” in color, and his hefty arm and shoulder muscles nearly burst it’s stretchy seams! We stayed on top long enough to eat a quick lunch, then headed down as fast as we could. The entire hike down was just as hard as going up for me, with lots of loose rock and uneven footing. I tried to keep up, but constantly fell behind. Kyle and Jack were patient with me, and we all had a grand time, even though the weather was poor and the path challenging.
Back at the car, our spirits were high. We’d done it! None of us felt ready to call it a day. So we drove the several miles from the Sunrise Mine trailhead to the Lake 22 trailhead, and whipped out that hike too. The whole thing made for a 16-plus mile day with lots of elevation, and the whole adventure was fun and invigorating, despite the dreary weather. I felt good and strong throughout, even though I was bested by the boys. Together we’d bested Vesper, and pulled off a phenomenal hiking day, and I got to feed off the energy of two of my favorite hikers for a day.
But still I couldn’t rest on the Vesper desire. I desperately wanted to be on the summit with sunshine and a view, and so I went back…
Vesper Take 3 — July 19, 2017
Two weeks ago, I went alone to the family summer home at Lake Goodwin planning for a couple days of writing. Proximity to the Mountain Loop Highway and nice weather prompted me to say “WTF, I think I’ll take a hike!” for one of those days. I decided on a solo bid of Vesper, on what promised to be a sunny Wednesday. I was confident I would succeed, and drove to the trailhead in good spirits.
The way up
There was a road washout leading to the trailhead, but reports said it was easy to navigate around. It was doable enough, and I arrived at the trailhead at 11:30 am. I had an online class at 6:00 that night, and figured I’d have plenty of time to whip out Vesper and drive the 1.5 hours back to the lake in time for my class…ha!
From the get go and as I remembered, the Sunrise Mining trail required careful footing. At first it was roots, rocks, and careful stream crossings (four) for the first mile, until I broke out into the opening. Then I was into brush so dense and overgrown that at times I couldn’t see the trail. Always, the footing underneath was uneven and tricky and required that constant vigilance I remembered from before. I knew and expected this, but it still gave me pause and kept me going at a slow enough pace to keep from turning an ankle or twisting my knee. The unfolding views across the valley to Mt. Dickerman and up the valley towards Morningstar and my old friend Sperry kept me moving.
Once onto the rocks, I made sure to follow the cairns. The path was an often vague traverse and upward progression on small boulders and loose rocks. Sometimes the rocks held, and sometimes they did not. Since my last time here, I’d had knee replacement and bilateral foot and ankle surgeries. That brought my total to five knee and eight foot and ankle surgeries, and, frankly, I felt tentative and cautious as I worked my way across the boulder field. I had to keep a frustratingly slow pace, and anything resembling a hiking rhythm eluded me. I greatly missed my younger hiking companions, Kyle, Lauren, and Jack. I felt lonely on my vigil, despite encountering a handful of other hikers.
Headed up to Headlee pass, I encountered the first snow. Most times, the trail went around it with ease, but sometimes a bit of scrambling was required to skirt the snow fields. I was amazed that we had done this route in June and early July of 2015, since in the second half of July this year I encountered more snow than on either previous trip. Once at the top of Headlee Pass, the views start to really open up, and I felt rewarded for my efforts. Again, I was amazed that the trail never eased up, as the route continued across loose rock. Brave Penstemon bloomed right out of the rocks, and the beauty of that was inspiring.
Crossing swift Vesper creek was relatively easy. Very quickly I was into snow, and I stopped to put on traction devices. I enjoyed the views down to mostly snow-covered Vesper Lake, again reflecting on how different it was two years ago when it was snow-free.
Then “the trail” was in and out of snow all the way up. I followed foot prints, as at least four people I’d seen on the way down had been on the summit that day. Sometimes the route went up through tree gullys, slick with mud, and was barely discernible. I remembered this from the previous time, and knew I was on the correct route. The snow towards the top got alarmingly steep, and I looked at the multitude of glissade (“sliding on your butt”) paths right down the mountain. Clearly, people were just letting it fly once they were up, but I knew I would not do that. I felt cautious going up and knew I would need to be more careful coming down. The idea of losing control on snow freaked me out.
Carefully and meticulously I worked my way up. I could see a couple leaving just as I was approaching the summit, which meant I would be alone. Normally, I crave solitude on the trail, but this time, I was hoping for company to share the victory with. I arrived at the top at 2:30, three hours after I started. A slow pace for me, and I knew it was unlikely I would make it back in time for my class. I tried to relax with this reality, enjoying the truly spectacular summit views. I could see Mt. Sperry right in front of me, Mt. Pugh, Sloan Peak, and Mt. Baker to the north, Glacier Peak to the east, and Mt. Stuart, Mt. Daniel, and even a glimpse of Mt. Ranier to the south. Perhaps most spectacular was the sheer 1000 foot drop on the north side down to Cooper Lake below. I enjoyed circumferential views and took a few selfies, but I was nervous about going down the steep upper section of the snow. I wanted to get down before shade or cooling temps, and kept my summit time to thirty minutes.
The way down
As expected, going down the snow was more challenging than coming up. I stuck to my own foot prints as best I could, one at a time, using my poles for added braking. As mentioned, multiple glissade paths indicated others had simply slid down on their butts. They must have had ice axes or been more risk takers than me, or both. Not willing to risk a fall, I picked my way down like I came up, slowly and carefully, checking each step to make sure it would hold. Once off the steep stuff, I breathed a sigh of relief and took off my YakTrax.
But I still had to get down all the rocks that I came up, and it seemed to take forever. Slowly progressing down, I vacillated between frustration and amazement with the effort involved to secure each step. I could never relax and just cruise along. Literally, there was not one section of this trail that didn’t require precision with foot placement. Descending the endless rocks was tedious, and, even with extreme caution, I still tripped and slipped at least 15 times. I stopped counting at ten. This was not a reflection of fatigue or carelessness — it just happened. I had to remind myself to slow down with each slip, and this took a mental and physical toll. When I arrived back at the car 2.5 hours after leaving the summit, I felt completely drained. And late. I knew I wouldn’t make it back for my class in time, but I was relieved to at last be done.
Why was Take 3 SO DIFFICULT?
That night I was completely wiped out. I felt utterly mentally and physically drained. Not from the cardiovascular output, as I couldn’t go fast enough to get that. But from the constant vigilance required to manage the perpetually challenging footing. My right arthritic ankle hurt more during and after this trip than at any time since surgery, and I couldn’t walk without sharp pain. My replaced knee was fluid- filled and sore, although it mostly recovered after a day or so. But overall, that ten mile endeavor seemed, frankly, all my orthopedically challenged body could handle. I struggled to accept this, and my feeling of near-despair lingered. This hiking experience, instead of uplifting me, put me into a week-long funk! That doesn’t happen often, so I paid attention.
I kept asking myself, Does this experience mean that my hiking future can only be on established trails, that I can no longer go to places that are only accessible off the beaten path? I felt intensely conflicted even thinking about this, as there are still SO many hikes I want to do that are like Vesper, and the idea of having to give that up made me feel old, defeated, and on the way out. But I also don’t like to suffer, and there was a fair amount of suffering on this last Vesper excursion. How do I balance my strong desire to go with the reality of my current physical being?
As I grappled with these questions, I went back and looked at each of my three Vesper excursions. How could I take what I learned on each trip, successfully apply it to my current processing, and let those lessons serve as a guide for the future?
The Vesper Lessons
The most obvious lesson here is know the route and nuances of the trail. I have gotten much better at this, and, as mentioned, I have become a huge fan of WTA trip reports. Both errors, getting off trail and heading to the wrong summit, could have been avoided if we had paid more attention. The extra time and effort spent getting off trail and then back on is sometimes immense. Lauren’s fall and recovery not only cost us time, but also emotional energy. And going for the wrong summit actually prevented us from making it to the top of Vesper. As trip leader, I felt responsible and worried, and like our errors could have been avoided.
Second, it was great to have Lauren as a voice of reason. I have learned from that experience that I can say no, can turn around, and it can be OK. That was the first time I can remember NOT going for a summit, and I am thankful we did not. Lauren’s common sense eventually filtered into mine, such that I KNEW without question that we made the right choice. Since then, I have backed off on my need to always push on to the summit.
The lessons here are mostly all positive. Simply put, I felt less pain, discomfort, angst, and displeasure with the weather and trail since I was hiking with Kyle and Jack. I love to hike alone and do so often. But sometimes my head space gets more cluttered with negativity and what’s not going right when I’m alone. This trip, while not favorable in weather, was successful and fun despite conditions. Under those positive circumstances, going on and pushing the limits like we did, had a huge pay off. And it was great to share in it together.
Trip three taught me about time. I put pressure on myself by starting late, and trying to knock this one off too quickly. Once I realized the difficulty I was having, I could have slowed down, enjoyed my surroundings, and not felt so frustrated by slow progress. Had I done this, my whole trip might have gone differently. Racing the clock, trying to make the summit in a certain amount of time such that I could be back in time, affected my enjoyment.
In truth, so too did the terrain. There is nothing I can do to change that. But I can change my approach for the future, if I choose to go off the beaten path, I have to plan for, and accept psychologically, that it’s only going to happen slowly and carefully. When I encounter tricky terrain with a Kyle in my future, perhaps I can turn it on. But for now, I will be content with slowing down on trails that are less than straightforward.
However, I know now I won’t give up. That first week following Vesper, I thought that was it. That I would have to put my ambitions of other such endeavors to rest. Now, 12 days after the fact, I feel confident that I can slow down enough to have the enjoyment of such a hike take precedence over the discomfort involved with doing it.
Know if you go…
Vesper is very worthwhile if you are willing to pay attention to every step and take care with route finding. It’s not a trail for beginners, or those wanting to zone out. WTA calls it a step beyond…I would say it’s many steps beyond. Worth it? Yes, if you are physically in good shape, and don’t have an abundance of lower body ailments. And don’t do it on a tight time schedule. My six hours was as fast as I could go safely, and it would have been even nicer to have had more time to relax and enjoy the spectacular views once I reached the summit.
One more note: by the time this post gets up, snow will all but be a memory for most of this route. It’s melting quickly, and subsequent hikes I’ve taken have all been mostly snow-free. Yep, I’m still out there hiking! Stay tuned for more posts to come.