It was really, really early when we met up at the Park & Ride. 4:45 am, on a Saturday. Google maps overestimated the driving time by almost half an hour, and we arrived at the Sunrise Mine trailhead around 6:30. The turnoff from the Mountain Loop Highway was well signed, but we missed it anyway; It’s a sharp right that camp up quickly after the sign and I didn’t see it in the dark. There was already a car at the TH, a couple that had driven up the night before. Thankfully they were already away by the time we rolled in with the high-beams on.
There was a thin cloud cover and the sky was just starting to lighten as we got our gear together and took last-minute trips to the outhouse. The trail starts off through the woods for about a half mile before breaking out into open slopes and heading up the valley towards Headlee Pass. During that initial wooded section there are two crossings over creeks feeding the Stillaguamish. The first, shortly after leaving the parking lot, is bridged with a flat cut log and bounces a bit as you walk across. It was slick with ice when we got there, but still manageable. There are some other options too including rock hopping or another downed tree depending on comfort levels.
The second crossing, just before leaving the trees, had some lashed-together logs forming a high bridge over the water. The footing looked less than ideal, and coupled with the coating of Ice we decided to avoid that, opting instead to cross on the large logs and rocks slightly downstream. The water levels were low enough to easily pick a way across without worrying about getting wet boots.
After leaving the trees the trail cut across a broad ridge and into the main trough leading up to the pass. At around 3000’ we started into snow but were still able to easily pick out the trail, which had been traveled by another party a day or two prior. Working our way up the valley the snow cover became thicker and where our path ahead grew faint there were cairns to mark the way. Traction wasn’t an issue, but while there was enough snow to mostly cover the rocks we were traveling through, there wasn’t enough to actually cement them in place and we had to take care to evaluate where we were placing our feet.
At the head of the valley the way to Headlee Pass shoots off to the West. It is a steep ascent but there are well graded switchbacks ascending most of the way. There was only one spot near the bottom that was a little loose and awkward to get past, I think mostly because of the unconsolidated snow hiding the obvious places to step. At the top of the pass we got our first views of Vesper as the clouds moved on and off of the peak, as well as some fantastic views back down the pass and valley we had just come through.
The tracks we had been following ended at the top of the pass, but the way forward was obvious; The trail dropped a little bit before cutting across and up a wide slope towards Vesper Creek. Before arriving at the creek we came to a patch of larger boulders and picked our way carefully over them, searching for the best footing hidden under the snow. At the creek we should have gone straight across to gain the ridge up to Vesper, but we took a wrong turn and stayed along the creek heading towards Vesper Lake for a couple hundred yards.
After noting our error we corrected and backtracked to get up onto the broad ridge leading to the summit. Much of Vesper Creek was frozen but we crossed over rocks, unsure of the thickness of the ice. Moving up the ridge was easy going for the most part. What looked from below like a wall of trees half way up actually had a distinct path through it. The trickiest section came near the top where there are large rock slabs. These were hidden under the snow and we had to backtrack a couple times when we reached an impasse of smooth, featureless rock and ice.
A couple hundred feet below the summit we finally wised up and got out our crampons. A couple ahead who had just passed us were stopped to do the same. It would have been a lot easier going if we’d put them on when we first encountered this rock, and looking back down the mountain we saw several other groups below doing just that. The crampons helped enormously, gripping the small irregularities in the slab and biting into the ice with ease.
As we got to the summit clouds began moving in, obscuring any sweeping panoramas we might get, but we enjoyed a brief rest nonetheless. As more parties began arriving we figured it was time to head back down. We passed another handful of groups as we left the summit, some with crampons, some with other traction (microspikes), and some clawing their way determinedly to the top with just an ice axe. One guy was high-daggering up the rock slab and doing it without gloves on, but didn’t seem to mind the cold.
We kept the crampons on until we got back to the lower, flat section of the ridge just before dropping back to Vesper Creek. As we got lower on the ridge it started to snow pretty ferociously and by the time we were back at Headless Pass there was significant accumulation. We worked our way back down the valley, taking care to pick out the trail which, by now, showed not even the faintest hint of footprints from all of the traffic earlier in the day. Moving into the trees the trail was easier to pick out, being sheltered from a majority of the snow, and we picked our way carefully across the two creek crossings back to the car where we were greeted with almost three inches of new snow.
It has stopped snowing by now, and brushing the car off was easy enough. The snow, at least by Cascade standards, was light and dry. The snowline ended about a mile from the trailhead as we drove back down to the Mountain Loop Highway, and home.
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