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It seems I have been to the Mineral King TH more than any other trailhead on the west side of the Sierra. Most of the visits have been for very long day hikes to the Kaweah Region while chasing after one SPS peak or another. There are some lesser summits in the area that qualify for the CA 13er list I'm currently chasing, but I didn't think I had that many more long hikes left in me as I grow older. So I was open to the idea of backpacking, a bit shocking to my fellow enthusiasts. That so many were willing and able to join me was a surprise to me. Sean O'Rourke was coming in from the East Side, while the rest of us would come in from Mineral King. Michael Graupe would start at 5am in order to climb Mt. Eisen on the way to the Big Arroyo. Matthew and I would start after the permit office opened at 8a. Tom Becht would join us all in the Big Arroyo the following day. It was a grand reunion that we had planned. Weather would prove to be the undoing of it, but we had high hopes at the start.
Matthew joined me at the ranger station well before it opened so we could be there in case they opened early. They didn't, so we had plenty of time to organize our packs, eat breakfast and watch the trees grow. The elderly female ranger who finally put out the Open sign at the appointed hour was helpful enough. We got our permit without the long lectures on bear procedures, how deep to bury poop and where to disperse dish water that I recall from the past. Perhaps we were successful in giving the impression we'd done this before. Her only concern was that she didn't think we were being realistic in planning to get to the Big Arroyo for the first night. We didn't tell her we planned to tag a few summits along the way as that might have delayed us further. Permit in hand, we zipped up to the TH parking and were soon on our way just before 8:30a.
We chose the usual route to reach Glacier Pass, utilizing the old trail that contours above the north side of Monarch Creek. The backpacks were brutal and we both complained more than usual. All I could keep thinking was, "this better be worth it." My pack of course was much too heavy. I was carrying food for six nights in the backcountry, a chair I would barely use, reading material that would stay in the pack and other non-essentials that I kept adding because they weigh "only a little bit more." It was probably about 45-50 lbs, but I never actually weighed it - I was afraid what I might discover and preferred to live in denial. Once I had actually carried it a few hundred yards I knew it was a mistake, but of course by then it was too late. We reached Glacier Pass in about 2.5hrs which seemed incredibly slow, but in reality only 30-45 minutes slower than day hiking pace. Here we dropped our packs and got our our day packs for a side climb to Peak 11,900ft. Without the heavy packs, going uphill over broken talus and boulders for once seemed easy.
Peak 11,900ft lies just north of Sawtooth Pass, the highpoint between that and Glacier Pass. At only 280ft of prominence it doesn't even qualify as a peak by most standards, and it doesn't get a mention in Secor's book. It wasn't really clear why Matthew agreed to join me as he would normally eschew such a lowly objective. Perhaps he was just happy to take his pack off for a short while like me, or perhaps he was just being sociable. In any event, we spent about 25 minutes hiking the short distance up the sandy, rock-strewn slopes to the summit. There were actually several class 2-3 summits vying for the high point and we paid a visit to both the north and south versions to be sure. A non-exhaustive search at both sites turned up no register, to no great surprise. The summit is just a short distance from Sawtooth Pass itself and probably sees a number of visitors. The views were surprisingly fine, helped by exceptional air quality. We could see to Kaweah Ridge prominently to the north, Mt. Whitney in the distance to its right. Columbine Lake lies below Sawtooth Pass to the east with Needham Mtn towering above. Sawtooth is the dominant peak to the southeast, with Florence, Vandever and a host of peaks surrounding the Mineral King area to the south. The descent back down to Glacier Pass went quickly thanks to the sandy slopes that dominate the southwest side of the peak.
We followed the use trail down the northeast side of Glacier Pass to Spring Lake, then cross-country down the drainage to the north to reach the Black Rock Pass Trail. The hardest part of this was the short but steep climb from the lowpoint up to the first switchback of the trail we were to join. More hard work, more cussing, only this time Matthew was well ahead of me and didn't get the opportunity to console me. For whatever reason, the trail was very popular this afternoon. From a distance we saw a pack train nearing the top of the trail and once we were on it we passed by half a dozen other backpackers. One of them asked if I was with the guy ahead who was "flying up the trail." Yes, I was, but emphasized I was just trying to keep up. It was tiring work chasing him up several thousand feet worth of switchbacks.
It was 1:45p by the time I hauled up to Black Rock Pass. Matthew was sitting on a rock, pack off, enjoying a snack. He had arrived only ten minutes earlier, but it seemed far longer. After a taking off my own pack we once again got out the day packs for the trip to our second summit, Peak 12,172ft, half a mile north of the pass. The ridgeline itself was too fractured and difficult to follow directly, so we contoured around the west side of the ridge. Just as we were starting out Matthew spotted Michael crossing the talus slopes in our direction. Michael was just returning from Mt. Eisen. We went out to greet him and try to get him to join us to the unnamed summit, but he had no interest in it. We hadn't seen his pack because he'd hidden it somewhere around the pass to keep it from delinquents. By ourselves, Matthew and I continued around the west side of the Great Western Divide, sometimes on the crest itself, traveling over terribly annoying talus and boulders until a broken chute presented itself. This was a happy find, because up to this point the highpoint had looked unclimbable without a rope and skills. The peak was not without some enjoyment, having a short section of class 2-3 scrambling for the last 100ft or so. It was 2:45p before we had reached the top.
Once again we found two summits and again we scrambled up both. No register at this summit, either. Peak 12,172ft has more than 500ft of prominence which gave us some hope for register worthiness, but alas, it was not so. The view of Kaweah Ridge is outstanding as is the view east to the Five Lakes area, the Kern River drainage and the Sierra crest beyond. Less than a mile to the northwest is the slightly higher Mt. Eisen, the SPS peak that Michael had just returned from. Having done both, Matthew and I agreed the unnamed summit was the better scramble (which mostly is just a testament to how crappy the climb of Eisen is). We returned to the pass via much the same route, reshouldered our packs and headed down to Little Five Lakes.
Several of the folks we had passed earlier on the other side of Black Rock Pass were now milling about the northwest end of the lake as we passed by. Our destination was still more than an hour away so we wasted little time in continuing past the main junction and down towards the Big Arroyo. The Kaweahs loomed large in the distance, now not all that far away. The various summits took on greater definition as we got closer, their approaches looking no less difficult. We expected some challenging days ahead. It was well after 5p when we crossed the bridge over Big Arroyo, arriving at the campsite a few minutes later.
As expected, Sean and Michael were there ahead of us and had already set up house. It was chilly, and seeing them bundled up made me feel cold even before I had time to cool down. I began to think I may have brought too little in the way of warm clothing. A fleece in rain jacket might not be enough. Between us, we had nary a tent - three bivy sacks, with Sean using just a sleeping bag over a tarp big enough to wrap himself in if it rains. Michael started heating dinner soon after our arrival. As promised, he'd brought a nice collection of sliced brisket, enough for all of us. I had my fill and frankly was too tired to cook anything myself. Sean took the leftover juices to mix with his more mundane offerings of beans and rice as a way to supplement his dinner. There were others camped at Big Arroyo as well, a pair of backpackers in a tent nearby, as well as the pack train we had seen earlier. The packers were set up downstream a ways to the east while the mules were some distance upstream to the west. We tried not to think about the water quality too much as we took it directly out of the Big Arroyo.
Originally Laura Molnar was going to join us, but was unable to get the time off. Much as we feared, the four of us were unable to entertain ourselves in Laura's absence and we ended up going to bed almost before the sun went down. We could have built a fire, but no one wanted to get smokey and as Sean commented, "they do a poor job of warming you anyway." We weren't all that much fun, it was obvious. I was the last to bed after taking a cold shower which the others thought was a bit crazy. Probably true, but I don't like going to bed without rinsing off. With the day over and time to reflect, I couldn't say it had been a superb outing. Far too much effort was expended getting all this gear some eight or nine miles out here - I was really hoping the next few days would prove it to be worth it...
This page last updated: Mon Oct 14 10:34:29 2013
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