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I left San Jose in the evening after rush hour had subsided, enjoying a pleasant five hour drive to Mineral King. Arriving around 1a, I did something crazy that I haven't done in a long time - I went to sleep. If I'd been going to the Kaweahs I'd of course just started hiking, but this was a nice change of pace, actually starting and ending an outing in the daytime. I was awake, breakfasted and on my way by 6a. I had parked next to a truck that had marmot-proofed itself against attack, but neglected to make similar provisions myself. My understanding is that the marmots are an early season problem, but it probably doesn't matter - I doubt I'd spend the energy until I've been personally affected by marmot shenanigans.
As I started up the Sawtooth Pass Trail, I came across a grouse on the side of the trail that gave me "the eye" but didn't bother attacking. I didn't taunt him in return since I know these pesky buggers aren't afraid to turn on humans with a low flyby. There were several deer either napping or foraging on the hillsides along the trail as well. I crossed Monarch Creek and continued up (running across a second grouse) to the Crystal Lake junction. Rather than take either fork, I headed cross-county straight up the talus slopes towards the NW Ridge of Mineral Peak. This was a mistake in hindsight as the ridge was too fractured to make for a good scramble and the southwest side I traversed was more tedious than fun. A better option would have been to take the Cyrstal Lake Trail to the saddle on the Southwest Ridge and then follow that ridge up.
Shortly after 8a I reached the junction where the NW and SW ridges merge into the West Ridge. Here the route grows more interesting with some actual rock scrambling rather than acres of sliding talus. It took an hour to complete this ridge, bypassing a first difficulty on the right before running up against the more daunting face below the summit. This bigger difficulty I managed to get around by finding a class 3-4 route up the face to the right, up an airy series of steps along a crack leading to a break in the face and the easier slopes on the southeast side. The summit was only a few minutes above this point. At the top was a beefy ammo box but it held only a single sheet of paper left by a PCS group of eight in 2010. There were plenty of visitors since then, filling most of the page, the most recent only five days earlier.
The summit is centrally located in the Mineral King area, giving a good view of most of the surrounding peaks. Before leaving, I scouted a route to Peak 12,109ft, looking to avoid cliffs on its north side and unnecessary elevation loss. I descended the class 2 East Ridge to a saddle, then dropped a bit more on the south side of the ridge to begin an arcing traverse up and around Crystal Lake, moving through the cliff band above the east side of the lake. From there I regained the main ridge and followed the class 2 North Ridge to the summit. In all I spent an hour and twenty minutes traveling between Mineral Peak and Peak 12,109ft. This summit is some 500ft higher than Mineral Peak and is the highest summit on the crest between Sawtooth to the north and Florence to the south. This summit had a similar ammo box, but the notes inside were much older. There were four scroll-type strips of paper left by Barbara Lilley and party in 1976, the pages sufficing for entries over the next 24 years. A book-type register was left in 2000 and to date had twelve pages filled over the intervening twelve years. Sean O'Rourke was the last one to sign in almost a year earlier when he was doing a tour of all the summits surrounding Mineral King.
I next turned my attention to the southeast with Peak 12,100ft looming high in the distance. Most of the terrain up to this point was somewhat familiar even if I hadn't climbed the summits because I had been in or around the same terrain. But this next section heading east was new to me and the most enjoyable part of the day. The route did not look daunting, and in fact most of it turned out to be a pleasant exercise across granite slabs and talus, light forest and passing by beautiful, pristine lakes. There was a delightfully babbling stream with shooting stars and other wildflowers in relative abundance. The two and a half hour romp took me by unnamed Lake 10,569ft and its outlet followed by a high traverse to find the trail leading to Little Claire Lake. From there I ascended the SW Ridge of Peak 12,100ft, gaining more than 1,600ft in little over a mile of class 2. It was after 1:30p now, and I was reasonably tired, having earned a good rest.
I stayed at the summit for almost half an hour, soaking in the views. There is very fine view of the Kaweahs and the Chagoopa Plateau to the north, stretching across the deep, straight canyon cut by Soda Creek. Whitney and Langley were clearly distinguishable to the east along the stretch of the Sierra Crest visible across the Kern River chasm, with Olancha visible far to the southeast. There was no register or cairn found at the summit though I have no doubt it had been visited in the past. The likes of Smatko would not have left such a summit untouched. Before starting down, I had my well-deserved caffeine boost to help me on the return. I would need some extra energy for the last climb up and over Franklin Pass. The plan was pretty simple - descend the peak to the southeast and pick up the trail near Forester Lake and follow it up over the pass and back to down to Mineral King.
The descent of Peak 12,100ft turned out to be rather easy. The whole southeast side was made of easy slopes through open forest, very few downed trees, little brush, and acres of open, sandy descent. It took less than 30 minutes to find the trail north of Forester Lake. I continued cross-country for another third of a mile passing the lake to the north in order to shortcut the route and pick up the trail west of the lake. I found the trail as expected shortly before the junction with the Rattlesnake Creek Trail heading down to the Kern River. The sign indicated only 2.2 miles to the pass. Half a mile later I passed another junction for the trail to Shotgun Pass. I expect I'll be making another trip to use this trail to visit some other unnamed summits on either side of Shotgun Pass. It was 3p when I started up the steeper slopes above treeline towards Franklin Pass. I spotted two backpackers ahead of me 20 minutes later, making their way steadily to the top. Using them as incentive, I kept at it and passed them by about ten minutes later, arriving at the pass at 3:45p.
A broken stump was all that was left of the wooden sign that once graced the pass. Four persons were gathered to the north of the trail having a conversation. One of them was a female trail runner who had come up to the pass from Mineral King for a workout. The others were camped at Franklin Lakes on the west side of the pass and had come up for a short hike after setting up camp. I made a quick detour to climb to the highest point north of the pass, Peak 11,973ft. Sandwiched between Florence Peak and Rainbow Mtn, it has about 250ft of prominence but no register or anything else to give it more official status as a peak. I dropped down class 2-3 slopes to the west to intersect the Franklin Pass Trail on that side. I spotted the trail runner on her way down well ahead, but her pace was not all that quick and I thought it might be a fun game to try and catch up.
The trail down the west side of Franklin Pass makes a number of long switchbacks across steep, sandy slopes on the way down to Franklin Lakes. Where the trail jogged suddenly right for another long traverse, I simply left the trail and bombed down the easy slopes in the main drainage, dropping nearly 400ft before regaining the trail just above Franklin Lakes. This put the trail runner a short distance behind me, but it was the last I saw of her. I kept up a jog down the trail past the concrete dam that holds back the largest of the lakes and through some lush meadows that line Franklin Creek before it descends more precipitously to the Kaweah River. At around the 9,600-foot level I noted an unmarked trail junction that I paused to examine. The map showed the main trail continuing to contour around the northwest side of Tulare Peak into Farewell Canyon before descending to Mineral King. The other fork was not shown on the map, but appeared to descend more directly to Mineral King. I decided to take this trail down and found it worked out quite nicely. In fact it had evidence of past trail maintenance and construction, making me guess that it was probably the main trail up to Franklin Pass at some time in the past. It goes through some boggy areas which may have been the reason for abandoning its maintenance. Luckily in a dry year, the muddy sections were not difficult to get across as I continued jogging down.
I met back up with the main trail around 5:20p, following it down past confluence with Franklin Creek and into the lower reaches of Farewell Canyon. It's a very runnable trail for the most part and quite scenic as it makes its way down this very green valley. It was almost 6p by the time I reached the Farewell Gap TH and another ten minutes along the road before I returned to my van at the Sawtooth Pass TH. All done, it had made for a 12hr outing, one of the longer outing I'd done in a while. I felt pretty good, jogging much of the route down from Franklin Pass which led me to believe I had enough energy for a longer outing. I wasn't yet sure I was ready for the long hike to the Kaweahs, but my confidence was starting to return...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Peak 12,100ft
This page last updated: Thu Sep 11 14:33:12 2014
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