4 August 2018
Vesper Peak. What a trip. This one was quite the aberrant experience. It was also my first trip with the wonderful humans Armanda and Tom who would later be in the Forbidden West Ridge crew. We all met up at Armanda’s place and piled into Tom’s truck. A bit of a late start but that’s often how it goes with these things. We stopped in Granite Falls for some Mexican food and margaritas. Holly kept us entertained with her endless repetoir of car games. We arrived at the trailhead late that night. The oddity began here, as we noticed a search and rescue truck in the trailhead parking lot and police tape around an empty vehicle.
We were informed that a girl named Samantha (Sam) Sayers was missing on Vesper. She had been reported missing the day before and tomorrow, a large search and rescue effort was going to take place. We were given flyers with her picture and promised to keep our eyes out for anything that might inform the search party. Awful news to start the trip unfortunately. We were hopeful that the search would be successful. That night we hung out around the truck. Tom has a great set up. An expanding roof top tent and a platform bed in the back. He also schooled me on bringing camp carpets. These were great. I need to remember to grab a couple sections of old rug to throw on the ground when trailhead camping. We organized gear, shared some libations and watched a bumble bee friend stumble around like he was on peyote, intoxicated by the colored light emitted by Holly’s lamp.
The next morning we set out early. The trail began in the forest. It wandered over sections of damp roots and crossed a small river. Eventually, the trees relented and we found ourselves in a semi-alpine basin surrounded by beautiful cliff faces and thick alpine greenery. The trail continues up to the head of the basin and then takes a sharp right up a steep incline to a pass at the south end of Sperry Peak. It descends slightly as it traverses west across a large scree field and eventually to another small creek, the outlet of partially frozen, Lake Elan. The whole while we kept a sharp eye out for anything that suggested to Sam’s location. Even here on an established trail, there are so many variables and an expansive wilderness where someone could go missing with a wrong step.
The next section of trail steepened towards the snow field on the east face of Vesper Peak. The standard hiking route continues straight up to the summit. We angled northwest toward the ridge between Sperry and Vesper. Ice axe and crampons were best. Micro spikes were ok. There were a few slabby rocks, where the snow was gone for the season, that were uncomfortable to traverse above the exposure over the lake. A few careful steps later we reached the ridge and the class III terrace that would take us to the base of our routes. That’s when the choppers arrived. They flew low and slow. Their occupants scanning the rugged landscape for Sam. They took a few passes and eventually moved on to another zone.
We scrambled to the routes. Holly and I planned to climb the 5.8 true grit. Tom and Armanda, the 5.7 Ragged Edge. True Grit is the first and farther east. I did not go to the start of Ragged Edge. True Grit begins just to the left of a large block set out from the face in a small gully that angles right. Holly and I said goodbye to Tom and Armanda, put on our harnesses, racked up and started climbing. Holly led the first pitch. It was pretty easy climbing but we did get a little off track. The actual route goes over to the right on the first pitch and then cuts back left under the chimney which characterizes pitch two. Holly ended up belaying me to somewhere in the middle of pitch one and then made a few quick moves up the right anchor. Back on track.
Now it was my turn. The route is partially bolted. I had led a few sport pitches in Chamonix so this was a good transition to place a few pieces of gear, still with the security of a few bolts. There was the option to link pitches two and three. I set off and cruised through the chimney. By the top of pitch two I was feeling good so kept going into pitch three. This was some fun, moderately delicate face climbing that traversed from climbers left to right. The view starts to get exceptional at this point. Vesper’s north face is a smooth slab of solid rock that overlooks Copper Lake to the northwest. It was a mostly clear day with clouds slowly rolling through.
Pitch four is the best one. It’s a beautiful, 5.8 finger crack. Holly would lead this and potentially link pitch five up to the summit. She was solid all the way up the crack. It was a long pitch on its own. But in true Holly fashion, despite feeling the length, decided she was good to go and launched into the final pitch. The rock rolls over here and I soon lost sight of her on the way to the top. This was also when the choppers returned. They thundered through the valley. No longer way above our heads but at nearly eye level with me at the belay station. It’s this experience that solidified my resolve to always bring two-way radios on these alpine climbs. It is indispensable to have clear communication with your partner. It was impossible to hear Holly. The helicopter pilots continued their mission and I’m pretty sure spent some time watching us climb. Eventually relenting to Holly’s shouts that I was on belay.
The crack was techy and very fun. The upper pitch easy face climbing. It became apparent at this point that Holly had run low on gear. Particularly where I found a cam used as a quick draw. She did a great job of building a creative anchor on the top. I arrived to a big smile and a breathtaking view. Tom and Armanda were still a ways down so we settled in with grub and whiskey. A couple climbers ahead of our teammates arrived next and joined the celebration. We shared pictures we had taken of each other along the route and talked with the other hikers and search and rescue folk who came and went from the peak. Tom and Armanda joined us shortly thereafter with reports of some decent exposure over on the Ragged Edge. Maybe the easier climbing of the two but certainly the more aesthetic. I would like to go back to send it at some point. Perhaps in a combo trip with nearby Mile High Club.
It was a joyous moment juxtaposed against the unsuccessful search effort going on all around us. No one had seen Sam. Sadly, she would not be found. The helis shipped searchers back down off the mountain. We packed up and headed down to the trailhead. Holly and Armanda got some mandatory plunge step practice and Tom took a quick dip in the river just before we reached the lot. All in all a fun day of moderate climbing with an also moderate approach. The views from the top are all time and the route, a great transition from sport to trad climbing. We packed up and continued our journey. The plan was to reach Washington Pass that night but weariness took over and we ended up crashing in a parking lot somewhere in the North Cascades. Tom and Armanda climbed the Beckey Route that next day. Holly and I got skunked by a long line on the South Early Winter Spire Southwest Rib. Add it to the redemption list.