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It was after 5p when I left San Jose on a Sunday evening and with only a modest amount of traffic it was a pleasant enough drive. It would get me to Mineral King around 10:45p and mark the earliest start yet for a trip to the Big Arroyo. There were about a dozen cars in the two lots, a respectable number, but I would see almost no one the entire outing out on the trail, not even a tent set up anywhere at Five Lakes, the Big Arroyo or Nine Lakes Basin. A waxing moon about three quarters full would be setting not long after 2a. This meant it would be helpful for the first two hour or so, until I got over Glacier Pass, but would then have just the stars and headlamp to see by. As usual, I took the old unmaintained trail that branches off the main Sawtooth Pass Trail in the first half hour, following this up to Glacier Pass which I reached about ten minuters before 1a. The moon had nicely illuminated the terrain on the southwest side of the pass, but going over the otherside was much darker as that side was cast in the moon's shadow. This was not a problem, having been over there so often before, and had no trouble finding the correct drop-in point (perhaps 30yds to the right of the low point) and making my way down to Spring lake over what remains of the old trail (quite a bit, actually). This and the rest of the journey to the Big Arroyo were done by headlamp, necessitated by the moon having set. As usual I picked what seemed like a poor choice up to Hands and Knees Pass, but from there my route-finding seemed to be spot on as I made my way on the traverse left after the pass and then down to the trail at Little Five Lakes.
It was nearly 5a by the time I reached the junction with the High Sierra Trail in the Big Arroyo. All was still quite dark. I turned left and headed northwest towards Nine Lakes Basin, plying the trail through the coldest part of the morning. It was extra cold due to the trapping of the cooler air that sinks to the bottom of the canyon, lying still along the creek channel. I could see my breath in thick clouds of water vapor illuminated by the headlamp. My hands were tucked into wool mittens which were also tucked into my pockets. Around 5:45a it was light enough to put away the headlamp, just as I was reaching the end of the heavy forest and the views were starting to open up. I left the trail at a small unnamed lake due east of Eagle Scout Peak, about a mile south of Kaweah Gap.
I was aiming for a low spot in Black Kaweah's West Ridge where it turns northward, what I hoped would be somewhat of a shortcut to the two peaks which would avoid a more circuitous tour of Nine Lakes Basin. It looked like it could be difficult judging from the close contours on the map of the slope leading up from the lake. Although as steep as advertise, it was much easier than could have been expected, with grassy slopes and firm footing for much it, instead of cliffs or loose talus. My extra clothing started to come off as I warmed up with the climb. Sunrise came shortly before I reached the saddle, lighting up Eagle Scout, Lippencott and other summits on the Great Western Divide. I was still steeped in shadows created by the Kaweah Ridge, but could now see Lawson and Kaweah Queen for the first time, more than eight hours after starting out. And still more than an hour to go.
At the saddle is a small, unnamed tarn, very still with only the slightest of breezes. A few minutes further east is a medium-sized lake and then a much larger one tucked between Black Kaweah's West Ridge and Kaweah Queen. The North Face of Black Kaweah was being illuminated on my right by the morning sun. I climbed higher onto the ridge leading up towards the two peaks, dissolving into a broad slope of not-so-fun boulders and scree. Behind me the Great Western Divide was lighting up more fully, particularly the stretch between Mt. Stewart and Lion Rock. From below it looks like Lawson Peak is further to the left, but this is a lower outcropping not faithfully depicted on the 7.5' topo map. Sticking with the coordinate shown on the GPS, I was able to make my way more or less directly to the summit. The last bit I thought a bit tougher than the class 2 rating shown in Secor's book, but at least it wasn't just more loose talus or shifting boulders. It was almost 8:30a, having taken some nine and a half hours to reach Lawson. I was feel a bit tired and still had another peak before starting back.
It was a little breezy and chilly at the summit so I grabbed the register and found a nook out of the wind on the sunny side of the peak. It was very nice there. The register book dated to 1997, left by a MacLeod/Lilley party. They noted that only a card from the notorious Purple Mountain Gang was found when they summited. The PMG has been blamed for missing and swapped registers in the time around the 1980s, though I've found no online references to the shadowy group in anything other than Sierra Club TRs and articles. But the group evidently existed, even if it was a one-person group - the card was still in the register box along with a number of other scraps. In 1998, a small film cannister was found containing far older entries, including notables such as Andy Smatko, AJ Reyman and others. It was a true gem of a find, hidden for many years and I was happy to see the finders left it in the ammo box for others to enjoy on the summit. The last person to sign the register before me was Ranger Laura, less than a week earlier. I had met her a few years ago when I passed by her Ranger Station on my way to Kern Point.
As with most peaks of this elevation, the views were sweeping and quite grand. One could see as far north as Ritter/Banner with a grand spread of the Sierra Crest from the Palisades to Langley. I particularly liked the scalloped ridgeline stretching east to Pickett Guard before dropping to the Kern Canyon. To the south, Kaweah Queen looked much further than the half mile I knew it to be. It was higher too, so I had more uphill. Luckily the saddle between the two wasn't very low, so I had that going for me. After I finished my very early lunch (most yummy at 13,000ft), I reshouldered my pack and started off Lawson's summit.
The traverse between the two peaks in not very difficult, providing one doesn't stay religiously to the ridge. Most of it can be followed at class 2, with the last several hundred feet near Kaweah Queen's summit decidedly more. It was too spicey for my liking, so I simply moved right off the ridge to find easier ground. It took me almost an hour to cover the distance between the two peaks, getting me to the highpoint of the day at 9:45a. Though only about 200ft higher, the extra height makes Lawson look like a minor peak to the north. The main Kaweah crest from Big Kaweah to Black Kaweah looms largely to the south. Koontz and Pyramidal Pinnacles are most impressive a short distance away in the middle of this ridgeline. The two are split by a deep chute on the northwest side that looks class 2-3 from the very bottom to the notch between the two pinnacles. Secor has nothing to say about approaches to either from this side, and I wondered if it had been ascended. Black Kaweah's North Face was similarly impressive, tougher-looking than the south side. There was only a single sheet of paper serving as a register, left by Matthew Hengst and Jen Blackie the previous year, both of whom I'd met during the Sierra Challenge, Jen just a few weeks earlier. I was 11hrs into my outing by this time and it was finally time to head back.
Instead of dropping down to unnamed Lake 11,682ft as one might do if descending from Pyra-Queen Col, I skirted high above the lake on a descending traverse back to the west ridge I had taken to ascend Lawson. The boulders around the lake looked tedious to a high degree, but the rock I found on my route was probably not much better, if at all. It was a loose affair that took much caution to avoid twisting an ankle or worse. I was relieved to finally be off that mess and onto the more solid ground around the saddle at the base of Black Kaweah's West Ridge. I took a slightly different route down from the saddle to the trail in the upper Big Arroyo, but in the end it was no better than the one I had used earlier in the morning. It was a delightful walk down the canyon with pleasant temperatures, bright blue skies and a bubbling creek to animate the scene. I met two backpackers at the main trail junction, the only folks I would see the whole day. We exchanged greetings in passing, but I didn't hang around for a conversation. I stopped near the creek crossing for a second lunch, this one fortified with a double shot of espresso I had left to chill in the creek hours earlier. I was counting on it to give me the needed energy for the last few thousand feet of ascent I had ahead of me before getting back to Glacier Pass.
As the day continued to warm on the way up to Little Five Lakes, I did something very rare for me - I took off my pant legs to hike in shorts. In fact I couldn't remember the last time I had done so and thought it worth taking a picture to commemorate it. It was 2p before I reached Little Five Lakes and the Big Five Lakes trail junction. I spent most of the next three hours retracing the route up to Hands and Knees Pass, down to Spring Lake and back up to Glacier Pass. By this time I was more than a little tired and my feet were not very happy with me. In protest, several of the smaller toes had developed blisters that would have me wincing and trying different stepping techniques to alleviate the sharp pains they produced. The nice part about having started so early in the night was that I got to return to Mineral King before the sun went down, a cheery prospect. I really don't like returning after sunset as it seems somewhat sad to me, like I missed an appointment or something. It was 6:20p when I finally finished up back in the parking lot. Though I had attempted some jogging down the trail, my feet and muscles again protested strongly to stop such nonsense.
A warm shower and change of clothes did wonders for my constitution, helping to comfort and revive me. I had another (easier) day planned in the Sierra, so I would not have to make the long drive back to San Jose. Instead I had dinner and a movie in the van while waiting for the sun to go down and the air to cool enough to allow me to sleep. I was planning to climb Dennison Mtn some distance to the south, about two hours drive from Mineral King, but since the TH for that is much lower (and would therefore be much warmer), I spent the night sleeping in the van at the TH for the Paradise Ridge Trail, not far from Mineral King. I had used this earlier in the summer and found it to be nicely off the road to avoid the noise from the occasional passing car. And better, the temperature at night would dip to around 60F, cool enough to sleep comfortably.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Lawson Peak - Kaweah Queen
This page last updated: Wed Oct 31 13:21:17 2012
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