Picket Guard Peak SPS

Sun, Sep 13, 2009

With: Rick Kent

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile

If you know where Picket Guard is you probably qualify as a Sierra peak junkie. It may be the most remote peak on the SPS list, and one of the more obscure ones. Located in the heart of Sequoia NP, it's pretty darn far from just about anywhere.

Matthew first attempted to dayhike this peak out of Crescent Meadow, going over Kaweah Gap and Pants Pass, something like 54mi. He turned back before reaching the peak when he realized it would take him more than 24hrs. He was successful on a second attempt in 2007, this time going from Whitney Portal over Trail Crest, a grueling 52mi and 17,000ft of gain that took 23.5hrs. Ugh.

Another route possibility is from Mineral King, using the Glacier Pass/Hands & Knees Pass combo that we've used to dayhike the SPS peaks in the Kaweah massive. Reaching Picket Guard would be a lot tougher, going around the main Kaweah Ridge through Nine Lake Basin and Pants Pass. The stats for this route is roughly 36-38mi, with about 13-14k of gain and lots of cross-country. This is the one Rick and I settled on in the weeks leading up to the effort.

When I pulled into the Mineral King parking lot at 8:30p Rick was already there, trying to get some sleep with little success. We talked briefly before I crawled into the back of the van for a few hours' rest, apparently with more success than Rick managed. We were up at 11:30p and ready to go shortly before midnight. It was a fine, starry, windless night with cool temperatures ideal for hiking. We would have no weather to blame if plans went afoul.

After a few miles on the Sawtooth Pass Trail, we left it just before the crossing of Mineral Creek and followed the old trail that stays on the north side of the creek. This trail was damaged repeatedly by rockfall and eventually abandoned, but is still quite serviceable. Along the way we found a small rubber boa on the trail and paused to pick it up and photograph it. It was too cold for the snake to have much energy and it was very slow and lethargic.

There are several side use trails that lead up the drainage SW of Glacier Pass, the best one seems to be one to the far left that just reaches to the edge of the trees on that side before traversing over to the center of the drainage. Some ducks helped us find the route in the dark and by 1:45p we had reached Glacier Pass. Or thought we did. We peered over the north side to see mostly cliffs (which we had mistakenly descended on a previous trip), then found the correct notch a short distance higher up. A waning crescent moon was hanging low over the silhouette of Hands & Knees Pass to the east. It wasn't bright enough to navigate by, but the additional light helped take the edge off the darkness and allow us to view our surroundings in the soft dimness of its illumination.

Over the north side we went, snow-free for the first time in half a dozen crossings, and along the old trail down to Spring Lake. We kept to the right side on our way up to Hands & Knees Pass to avoid the cliffs in the middle section and reached the second pass just after 3a. We did the traverse to the next ridge to the northeast, then dropped down into Little Five Lakes around 4:10a. I cached a Gatorade Bottle at the bear box found at the trail junction, then we continued down to the Big Arroyo. Rick cached more food and drink at the bear box there. It was cold at the bottom of the broad canyon and Rick put on another layer as we paused for a short fuel break. A thin layer of ice adhered to the top of the metal box, letting us know the temperature was near freezing. A tent was set up a dozen yards from the bear box and we wondered that the occupant could sleep as we opened the noisy latches. It was 5:20a and still quite dark.

Past the old log cabin we went to the trail junction with the High Sierra Trail. We turned west and headed up the Big Arroyo towards Kaweah Gap. Where the trail crosses the creek Rick paused to refill his water bottle. It finally began to grow light around 6a and by the time we reached our cross-country turnoff near Kaweah Gap it was 6:30a. Our route via Mineral King had saved us less than an hour's time over the route from Crescent Meadow and Kaweah Gap that Matthew had used. We would have to do better on the remaining cross-country portion to avoid the same ill-fated result. We paused again at the first lake we encountered in Nine Lake Basin. I cached a second quart of Gatorade in the rocks here. We had no trouble spotting Pants Pass (nice pic in Secor's book) from our position to the west. It didn't look very pretty, with acres of steep talus pouring down from the 12,000-foot pass. Across the basin, bright sunshine had just alighted on the Great Western Divide's Mt. Stewart as daybreak began. A fine morning, indeed.

As much as possible, we climbed on class 3 rock to the left of the chute leading up to the pass to avoid the tedious talus. Despite a great deal of loose detritus on all the ledges it was much better than trying to swim up the talus fan. At one point where I had to cross a 20-foot section of steep sand/talus, I unleashed a slow rockslide that continued for a full minute before settling down. Rick and I could only watch and laugh while waiting for the dust cloud to clear and continue upwards.

It was 8a when we reached the pass and we seemed to be making good time. We could see Picket Guard at the end of a long ridgeline extending east from Lawson Peak, and it didn't seem more than a couple hours away. Of course it would be longer than that but I wanted to be optimistic. I didn't know how long it had taken Matthew to reach this point, but somewhere past here he ran out of time. He said he had tried to traverse high on the south side of the canyon below us, trying to avoid dropping down to the river bottom and losing all that elevation. The boulder fields that he found along the way had done him in, he reported. We could see several possibilities before us for a high traverse. The highest seemed to drop no more than 600-700ft, at least intitially, but this looked rocky and undulating. A mid-elevation option dropping 1000ft looked to be flatter and grassier, and much better than the full drop of almost 2,000ft down to the Kern-Kaweah River. It was this middle option that we decided on, despite Matthew's warning against falling into this potential trap. The full drop to the bottom looked too painful.

The east side of Pants Pass is much steeper, but not as long as the west side. We were discussing whether to go down one at a time or both together, but Rick found a class 3 route down the steepest part while I slipped and slid down the center of the chute, knocking down whatever rocks my feet stumbled against. After about 80 feet the slope eased to a boulder/talus field and we moved left to the edge of the widening chute where we could use a semi-solid rock wall on one side to steady ourselves for descending further. The rock seemed more stable there as well, like that was the more traveled route, the talus packed a bit more stably. We followed this down for about 500ft, then another 300ft on a traversing tack over boulders to the grassy plateau we had spotted from above.

Of course the mid-level traverse was not as flat as it had appeared from above and we began an undulating course up a ramp, then down a small cliff to a good-sized lake, then more up followed by more down. Half way to our peak we began to realize it was further than it had looked and we began to doubt the choice of route, but by this time we were committed. After passing over the shoulder of a subsidiary ridge, we traversed into the large amphitheater northwest of the summit. The sun was directly overhead Picket Guard and shadowing much of rock faces before us, but we were able to pick out several lines of ascent up to the main ridgeline. We paused in the bottom of the cirque for a break to rest up now that we'd reached the base of our mountain. Two hours had passed since reaching Pants Pass and we still had another 1,000ft of climbing ahead. The location of our rest break had the feeling of extreme remoteness, a little backwater eddy in the Sierra that few ever visit. I was glad I wasn't alone to help take the edge off this feeling of isolation, beautiful as the location may be.

While we snacked we picked out a class 3 line up to the ridgline west of the lower west summit, which we summarily followed once we had packed things up. Rick was feeling tired and a bit weak by this point and began to think he was not going to be able to get back in 24hrs. He said he would have to take his time getting up the steep face and urged me to continue at my own pace. The climbing was not difficult, but loose material on the ledges demanded caution. It took nearly 45 minutes to climb to the ridge, then another quarter hour to follow the ridgeline eastward towards the summit. Staying on the south side of the ridge made for a class 2 traverse compared to the class 3 rating Secor gives for the West Ridge.

It was 11a when I reached the summit, and to my surprise Rick was only six minutes behind. He had a hard time believing I hadn't been there for 20 minutes or more. We'd made decent time (though it was three, not two hours from Pants Pass) and it looked like we ought to get back in 20-21hrs, judging from past climbs. Tunemah for example had taken 11.5hrs to reach the summit and made for a 20.5hr day. The register we found dated back to 1963, one of the older ones you can still find on an SPS peak. I had been looking forward to my lunch of PB & J and a can of Pringles I'd squirreled away in my pack. I shared these with Rick and we enjoyed our break taking in the swell views around us. It was not the expansive view gotten from most summits, as Picket Guard is 1,000ft or more lower than most of the surrounding peaks. We were walled in by the main Kaweah ridge to the south and west, the Great Western Divide to the northwest and north, and the main Sierra crest with Mt. Whitney rising prominently to the east.

Across the Kaweah-Kern River to the northeast rose Kern Point, another SPS peak I have yet to climb. Only two miles away, it seemed almost within reach - except for the 2,500ft drop to the river between the two peaks. It would have been nice to be able to do both of these together, but there was no way to do so within the 24hr limit, nor within our physical abilities at the moment. It would take all we could muster just to get back to the trailhead. We stayed about half an hour at the summit before packing up to leave.

Rather than descend the same route, we dropped down a broad, steep chute on the North Face that looked to be a fast boot ski, but turned out to be a not-so-fast watch-out-for-loose-rock affair that took about 45 minutes to descend. We then managed a variation on the traverse back to Pants Pass that wasn't any better than our outbound route in the end. Rick stopped below Pants Pass to take an extended break. He was wearing down further by this time and seemed convinced he wasn't going to be able to get back in under 24hrs. He appeared to already be planning his unplanned bivy. Again he told me to go on without him.

Leaving him, I went up and over Pants Pass and back down to Nine Lake Basin. The descent from the pass was a cruddy effort, bringing tons of sand and talus down with me in the process. Some of the avalanches flowed like wet cement, taking minutes to subside and kicking up great clouds of dust. The route I chose was not as optimal as we'd done on the way up and I wasted some time dropping down to the east end of the largest lake in the basin. I was feeling pretty good about having Pants Pass behind me (it's not as bad as University Pass, but it has little to recommend it). I picked up my Gatorade cache I'd left near the lower lake and continued south down Nine Lakes Basin in search of the High Sierra Trail. I saw a backpacking couple cross my path 100 yards ahead of me, heading in the direction of Kaweah Gap to the west. Other voices caught my attention as I spotted more backpackers up at the pass, possibly waiting for these other two.

Not long after I got back on the HST and started down the Big Arroyo, Rick appeared behind me, smiling and feeling pretty chipper. He was more confident and reported doing much better than he expected in getting over the pass after his break. It was an impressive recovery. Together we continued down for another hour until we reached the bear box near the log cabin. Most of the contents of the box had been cleared out as the overnighters had packed up and left in our absence. All that was left was Rick's energy drink and his small pouch of food. "Hey, some a**hole took my Gatorade!" I protested immediately, indignant that someone would take off with my property. "Did you leave one here too? I thought you left it at the box at Little Five Lakes," Rick offered questioningly. "Oh yeah..." I replied, "...but they're still an a**hole."

We paused for another break here, Rick quaffing his energy drink and myself making good use of a Starbucks Double Shot. Mmmm ... caffeine boost. It seemed to help a lot. Rick dropped behind again as we headed back up to Little Five Lakes and Hands & Knees Pass. It took a bit over an hour to reach Little Five Lakes where I retrieved the Gatorade that hadn't been taken by the a**hole back in the Big Arroyo. A few groups of backpackers were shuffling around preparing dinner and settling in for the night. It wasn't yet 5:30p, but the sun was about to set behind the Great Western Divide and it was growing chilly.

I mentally broke up the remaining distance to Hands & Knees Pass into three 20 minute sections to make it more manageable. The first was the remaining distance on the Blackrock Pass Trail, second was the climb to the shoulder above the Little Five Lakes drainage, then the traverse to the pass. I saw a coyote on the second leg as I was reaching the base of the shoulder. It must have seen me too, because it made a beeline for the top of the shoulder to reach the adjoining drainage. I watched it move swiftly up the hill and wished I had its ease of motion and speed. I felt like a plodding turtle in comparison.

As I reached the shoulder I noticed low clouds starting to blow in over the divide, enveloping the peaks and obscuring Hands & Knees Pass. I wasn't too worried about getting lost in the fog since we were able to navigate the route in the dark several times now, but the additional chill that the fog would bring was unwelcome. Fortunately these clouds seemed to be only a temporary development, for by the time I'd reached the pass and dropped half way down to Spring Lake they had all but dissipated.

I did a poor job of finding my way down the west side of the pass and went rather slowly. By the time I reached the bottom I was utterly fatigued and feeling lousy. I absentmindedly left my gloves on a rock when I stopped to take sand out of my boots and had to go back a hundred yards to retrieve them. I spotted Rick already 2/3 of the way down from Hands & Knees Pass, not fifteen minutes behind me. He was not going to be benighted this time.

Over to the west side of Spring Lake I went and began the long climb back up to Glacier Pass, one last thousand feet of gain remaining. I was growing nauseous, the Gatorade tasting bland and unappetizing now, and my pace seemed to slow to a crawl. I had to stop eating the beef jerky I'd been nibbling since Little Five Lakes as it began to taste awful and the excessive chewing annoying. I made a conscience effort to breathe more heavily and tried to keep a steady pace, albeit quite slow. It was growing colder and I stopped to put on a fleece and balaclava, and a headlamp as well. I began to wonder if I would have to stop to vomit. Would I feel better afterwards, or worse? I looked around for Rick's headlamp, but all was dark. It was 7:30p now and I'd been on the move for almost 20hrs. I wanted to lie down somewhere warm. If only I could reach the pass...

I lost the trail leading up to Glacier Pass and though I zigzagged back and forth trying to regain it, I found nothing but boulders to scramble over. Where was the trail? I could just make out the skyline above and where I *thought* Glacier Pass was, but the trail seemed to have disappeared. I had to stop for a potty break, the third one today - a record number. Who poops three times in one day? My body was trying to purge anything it didn't need, it would seem. As I was putting my pants back on Rick's headlamp appeared below. It took only a few minutes for him to catch up to me as I resumed the upward struggle. "Any idea where the trail is?" I asked in greeting as he approached. "Somewhere just above us," he replied. With the help of his GPS, we found the trail not far ahead and dragged our tired bodies to the pass around 8:15p.

The relief was almost instant. It was easy to stumble downhill, even if you still had almost two hours remaining. My psyche and body were suddenly happy again. Or at least not feeling miserable. In the same way it feels good when you stop beating your head against a wall, I suppose. We had almost no luck finding the trail down the west side of the pass, but the cross-country is not difficult and we managed well enough. Rick would reference his GPS for the missing trail regularly, but it did no good. The GPS data is unreliable on the exact locations of these old, abandoned trails. As we neared Monarch Creek we had some trouble finding the trail we knew had to be there, eventually finding it lower down by the creek than we had remembered. The lights of the Central Valley glowed orange and yellow in the distance, down the canyon, beckoning us back to civilization. We had one last hour of beating our feet to a pulp on the rocky, avalanched trail. Rick swore that he hated this trail, but I was more resigned - I was just glad to not have to use the infernal Sawtooth Pass Trail with its rediculous switchbacks and heaps of dusty sand. Where we intersected this same trail lower down we had a last series of dusty switchbacks before pulling into the parking lot at Mineral King.

It was just after 10p and we were both feeling much better than we had at our low points some hours before. We were tired, but elated. The toughest nut had been cracked and I had just completed my longest day ever, just over 22hrs. The rest should be all downhill from this point. And as we'd just found out, our bodies really prefer downhill. Rick decided to sleep in his car at the trailhead that night while I made the long, caffeine-fueled drive back to San Jose. I didn't get home until after 3a, but I was glad to be done with the driving. Max was already planning to take the kids to school in the morning, so I could look forward to a nice, long sleep well into the next morning...

It still isn't clear that Picket Guard is the hardest SPS peak to dayhike. Matthew believes, and with good reason, that it may be faster to approach it via Shepherd Pass, a route he used to reach Kern Point. This might be 20-21hrs, making it on par with Tunemah Peak and Finger Peak which took 20.5hrs and 21hrs, respectively. But surely Picket Guard is one of the top three hardest to reach.


Submit online text corrections or comments about the story.

Matthew comments on 09/16/09:
Sorry for the confusion about "staying high" in the Kern-Kaweah Canyon--I picked the absolute highest route to minimise the amount of elevation loss, figuring the boulders would be better than they looked. The mid-elevation route that you apparently took (the grassier option) was what I had in mind for the traverse.

Glad it worked out. I'm really tempted to head back out to this one via Shepherd Pass just to see how much quicker it is that way.
Loyal Anderson comments on 05/05/11:
I really enjoyed your story on Picket Guard. In 1968 my Dad took 9 boys and a friend of ours from our church and we hiked from Whitney Portal to Cedar Grove. We went up the Kern Kaweah River and camped near the river and probably within 4 miles of Picket Guard. Even after over 40 years I remember that area as being extremely remote and untraveled-we were the first people up the river in 3-4 years. It's hard for me to fathom anyone being able to go in there and climb Picket Guard and return in one day given the extreme remoteness and long distances and ups and downs. What a feat!!
More of Bob's Trip Reports

For more information see these SummitPost pages: Picket Guard Peak

This page last updated: Thu May 5 08:33:22 2011
For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: snwbord@hotmail.com