Damon and I started up the Sunrise Mine trail (elev 2280) at nearly 1pm, on our way to Lake Elan and then to summit Sperry. Neither of us could think of a better way to spend the afternoon during the waning moments of fall weather in the mountains. And who could argue? The wind was absent and the temps were perfectly cool as we sauntered up through the forest for first half mile. There are a few creek crossings, two of which still require some semblance of balance, with the major one being at .56 miles (you are actually crossing south fork of the Stillaguamish River). After the crossing, when you traverse the steep meadow, the trail was rather slippery and damp from all the cool nights.
When we entered the upper Wirtz Basin (1.75mi, elev 3200), we were under crystal clear skies and a glaring sun for late October. We followed the cairns on an upward traverse across the lengthy talus field. The footing was surprisingly good through there. By the time we got to the head of the basin (2.75mi, elev 4300), we were more than toasty. By the time we arrived at Headlee Pass (3.2m, elev 4675), we were sweating.
I should note that the sign at the TH is INCORRECT. It is 3.2 miles to Headlee Pass and the elev is 4675. I’ve been there 4 or 5 times before and get nearly the same reading on my GPS. It is slightly under 3 miles only if you avoid the trail through the small forest in the upper basin and stay on the talus just below it, taking a straight rising traverse to the head of the basin. However, the travel is slower going this way.
We crossed the talus field on the south flank of Sperry without incident, though I feel we should have been wearing helmets for that quarter-mile stretch. We arrived at the lake outlet (3.55mi, elev 4861), with the tranquility of the stream relaxing us so much that we decided we’d grab a lunch break at the lake (another 2/10mi) to soak in more rays and enjoy the peacefulness of an alpine afternoon.
After feasting on a sandwiches, cookies, and brownies, we departed for the “toothpick” and the “lone tree,” which sit atop the saddle above the north end of the lake to the right of the low point. We ended up just going to the low point on the saddle (4.15mi, elev 5280). It was easy to pick up the boot path there and follow it right (east) toward Sperry. The boot path runs for another 1/4mi and ends at a talus field. It is at this point I think people get confused as to the easiest route to the top.
We headed straight for a white stripe in the middle of the talus field, which is visible from the end of the boot path. There are cairns that take you right to it if visibility is poor. After following the stripe, you can continue to use the cairns to lead you to an orange ribbon in a tree below a ten foot wall of granite boulders on top of which is a forest of small conifers. You will angle up and to the right on the boulders there (Do not get suckered into going left into the meadow unless you want to do some higher class scrambling). A boot path should be visible through the trees there. Stay on the main boot path that heads steeply through the trees and into an opening where you’ll come to an junction of boot paths. Stay to the right on the better one, and head across the slope. It appears that the trail disappears only 50 feet away, but just duck under the trees there, and turn left up the hill through a weird looking snag. A good boot path reappears on the other side of the snag. Follow this up the slope again with only minor brush shrouding the path and you will again come to a junction. Go left and up another 50 feet to what appears to be a dead end, but to your right, there will be some steep rocks and a short easy class 3 gully for maybe 30 feet. The exposure is minimal, but you can stay to the right (there is a faint boot path here as well) and climb over a small tree. From here, it’s easy class 2 scrambling for another 50 to 75 feet to the summit. The total distance was about 4.65 miles to the summit (elev 6062). Thus, this entire section from the white stripe is only a quarter mile or less.
On the way down, make sure you don’t get suckered into the trees near an orange ribbon just off the summit. It will get you back down to the talus field, but only after a series of tree belays and unpleasant footing.
Total time up: 3:45
Total elev gain = 4600ft
Total round trip distance = 9.2 miles