Damien and I were excited to get back to uneven, unpredictable terrain inherit to mountaineering after 2 weeks on the PCT. With cool temps and no rain in the forecast after a week of precipitation and even some snow at higher elevations, we opted to go for the Ragged Edge (5.7) of Vesper and the NW Face/ N Ridge (class 4) of Morning Star. We had attempted to climb the Ragged Edge last year, but ended up having to bail due to the massive, unexpected line at the route. A new guidebook featuring the route had just been published which gained the area popularity it had never seen before. We hoped that all the hype calmed down after a year, but just in case we arrived at the TH at first light.

The trail to Headless Pass is notoriously rugged and very unlike the smooth trail of the PCT. The rocky, uneven terrain woke up the muscles I hadn’t used since climbing in California a month ago. We saw only 2 other parties as we journeyed up at ascending valley and both were headed to Mile High Club, an alpine sport route up a spire near Morning Star. Damien and I made impressively quick work of gaining the top of Headlee Pass, known very well for it steep, endless and short switch-backs up a narrow gully. Then we traversed across the scree and talus covered trail to the outlet creek of Vesper Lake.

Damien and I took a few moments to set up camp. On the way up to the pass we came across a couple going for the scramble route of Vesper, but still no technical climbers. After stowing our overnight gear in our tent (and repairing a pole!) we donned our harnesses and continued up the scramble trail through the lower benches and trees to the upper rock and slabs. Once on the rock, and some snow, we began the familiar traverse right around the mountain toward the notch that allowed access to the North Face of Vesper and the three technical routes. Upon rounding the corner, we received our first glimpse of the North Face with snow!

Damien and I expected a snow patch or two, but certainly nothing to this degree. The face itself was pretty clean, but the slippery heather ledges that access the routes, we covered with about 3 inches of fresh, white fluff. From our vantage point we could see that parts of the Ragged Edge definitely had some snow in the cracks and blocks. We traversed a bit further right to gain a better view of the route. Maybe we could work around it and somehow make due? We were aching to get back to roped rock climbing! However, with a better view of the route, we could see that most of it was caked with snow and probably there were lots of wet sections as well. But just maybe?…. we kept going back and forth, discussing our tolerance level for route spiciness. There was descent chance we would epic somehow, especially since there was no practical way to bail off the route. It would also be the stoutest 5.7 we had ever climbed in the backcountry.  Not to mention that the class 3 heather ledges were sketch already when they were dry. Snow covered heather would make things well, um, interesting. Still, we floundered back and forth. The urge to climb was so great that we couldn’t tear ourselves away. That is, we couldn’t tear ourselves away until a mini avalanche cascaded down the rock face. That made our decision black and white. I sure we would have ultimately backed off the route regardless, but seeing the avalanche made the decision process move much more swiftly!

We didn’t want to go up the standard class 2 scramble route up the south side. We had done that last year as an alternative and we really wanted to do something more technical. We decided to head directly up the West Ridge from the notch. This turned out to be a fun class 3/4 scramble on solid, enjoyable slabs and even some knobs reminiscent if Tuloumne Meadows! It should be noted that in many cases we purposefully chose to climb class 4 terrain. Most of the route had class 3 alternatives throughout.

We reached the summit of Vesper rather quickly and joined the throngs that had come up the South Side. It was early afternoon, so we lingered on the summit enjoying the expansive views and talking to the scramblers. Unexpectedly, we all noticed 2 helicopters flying below us nearby. This quickly got everyone’s attention and we peered over the summit block to observe. Was this SAR? It didn’t appear to be since the choppers were blue and white, not yellow. However, the one closest to us was flying as though searching for a place to land. What was going on? Finally, after a few attempts, the first helicopter touched down on the slabs on the shoulder of Big Four Mountain. About 5 people popped out and, to our astonishment, they began taking selfies and other pictures with their phones. Heli-camping? This gave us all a good laugh. The most expensive way to see the mountains on the Mountain Loop Highway indeed! Meanwhile, the 2nd chopper landed on the sandy shores of Copper Lake. Through my camera viewfinder I could see 2 people run out with what appeared to be environmental surveying gear. No selfies for them.

Damien and I descended the South side of Vesper. There were several inches of snow in places, but it didn’t cause any issues on the descent. Back at camp, we set up our sleeping bag as thick mist rolled into the basin socking us in under a white blanket of clouds. I’ve missed these brisk, autumn evenings! We filtered water from a small stream several yards further up the benches to avoid descending to the lake or outlet creek. By 6:30pm we were cuddled up in our sleeping bag. Sunset was only a half hour away. The seasons are changing!

The thick clouds lifted overnight revealing a sparkling array of stars. When morning arrived the cold, clear air felt uniquely bitter to us after a sweltering summer, but we appreciated it vastly. Our objective that day was to climb Morning Star Peak. This summit has a reputation for being a rather unpleasant climb with loose, rotten rock and bushwhacking. However, I read a report that claimed that this was only so of the standard East Route. The beta claimed that the NW Face/ N Ridge route was a fun, fast and easy class 3 scramble with about 50′ of class 4 on the summit block. This sounded like a good deal to us, especially since we were carrying a rope anyway for the exposed class 4 section.

Damien and I broke camp and descended Headlee Pass. From the final switch-back we traversed right over the talus field beneath Morning Star, following carins for the Mile High Club. The talus was not the best I have been on, but not the worst either. At least not yet! The carins led into a band of trees. On the other side of this band of foliage we left the Mile High Club approach route and headed straight up the NW Face. The going was relatively straightforward as we followed the wide gully system. The talus stability did diminish as we got higher and we took care to not climb parallel to one another. At about 4800 feet the gully curved right above a large clump of low trees and brush. We stashed our overnight gear here before moving on.

We followed a few carins over a small gully/drainage just beyond the trees and then once again, started to climb straight up. The already faltering talus and unstable, steep scree began to be replaced by heather steps and mossy, steep angled rock. We checked the beta to make sure we were on route as this terrain seemed rather sketch, but found we were right on track. Warily, we continued to follow the gully. Travel was tedious and calculated as we tried to step only on the small specks of dry rock between the thick, moist moss and insecure foliage. The angle grew sheer enough in sections that I am relatively certain it was class 4 and not 3. In addition, the run out became increasingly horrendous. An error here would be detrimental, if not fatal.

At 5900 feet, we reached a point where the run-out was so horrific and the moss so copious over the ever steepening rock that we decided it was time to turn around. In fact, we probably should have bailed earlier. Now we faced a new dilemma. How could we descend safely? The beta mentioned that it was possible to ascend to the summit block via brush. Could we go down that way? There was brush and trees on the edge of gully. However, when we ventured into the trees to explore we found them to be exceedingly dense and the ground to be nearly vertical dirt. Additionally, in the dense thicket we couldn’t see very far into the terrain. After a quick discussion, we concluded that the safest way down was, in fact, the way we had come. Although the terrain was sketch, it was familiar to us and we just had to reverse it. Naturally, we would have to move very slow and with caution to avert danger. We also knew there was a group of trees just above one of the worst sections we had scaled. I had seen a sling there. A rappel station.

It seemed to take an eternity, but we gradually and purposefully reversed route to the trees. First, we examined the brush directly beside the descent ledge we were standing on. However, the best tree there was much too narrow to be ideal. Unfortunately, this meant we would have to descend about 6 more feet to the thicker, overhanging tree situated in a area that felt much like a hanging belay anchor. With cedar branches in our face, and standing on slippery, high angle dirt we added two new strands of webbing and rap ring to the existing single point anchor. I cannot express how relieved I was rappel this final cruxy section. Normally, rappels are not my first choice, but in this case I was simply ecstatic!

Following the single rope (60m) rappel, we continued to double back toward our stashed gear. We celebrated as the terrain gradually grew more forgiving. Of course, route still pretty much sucked, but that was all relative compared to what we had experienced above. Damien and I finally returned to the trail 8 hours after we had departed. So much for a quick and easy climb!

The weekend was certainly not what we intended. Sometimes those kinds of weekends result to the best adventures. Climbing is not always about summiting. Sometimes it is about problem solving and the ability to be flexible as conditions changes. After all, the alpine is not a place of predictability!


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