Vandever Mountain P1K SPS / ESS
Falcon Peak
White Chief Peak ESS
Eagle Crest ESS

Mon, Sep 11, 2006

With: Matthew Holliman

Vandever Mountain
Falcon Peak
Eagle Crest
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


Vandever is a fairly tame peak about five miles south of the Mineral King trailheads. It is easily reached from Farewell Gap, a class 2 talus climb to the west of the pass, often done as a dayhike. It probably would have made a good warm-up hike, but today we were in need of a warm-down the day after our long outing to Black Kaweah. Rick had gone home earlier in the morning, leaving Matthew and I to ourselves. We had breakfasted leisurely at the Silver City Restaurant before driving the four miles up the road to the trailhead. Matthew had read that Vandever's NW Ridge was class 3, so we planned to use that route instead of the standard approach from Farewell Gap. We had some trouble discerning the trailheads from the private driveways, but with the help of a ranger soon had it figured out. We parked the car under the broad shade of some large pines near the bridge over the Kaweah River, and set out at 10a.

We followed the trail on the west side of the river (more of a creek this time of year) as it climbed out of the main canyon and up towards the White Chief mine below White Chief Peak. The area was picturesque, prompting Matthew to comment that it was the prettiest area of Mineral King that he'd seen yet. Though it was September, a good rain year had allowed the flowers to bloom well into the end of summer, even as the grasses were turning brown.

After a little more than an hour the trail ended at a fork in the stream. The right fork featured a 20-foot waterfall that must be impressive during high water conditions. We followed the dry left fork up the creekbed through dark volcanic rock which became white quartz. The quartz was an unexpected find (though I suppose that its location directly under White Chief Peak should have been a clue), and it made for interesting rock formations to explore. We heard water ahead which was strange, since no water came down the creek channel. Exploring further, we found a cave in the quartzite hillside and went in to explore. As I put my headlamp on, I turned to Matthew and commented, "What was that you were saying about not needing a headlamp today?"

It wasn't much of a cave. It went down about 20 feet and though we could hear the water rushing below, we couldn't get down to it. The cave appeared to have been formed by collapsing blocks of the overlying rock, probably the result of being worn away from below by the water. After we exited the cave we scrambled further up the creekbed where we found the sinkhole where the creek drops into a crack in the hillside. Here we realized this was the same water that both created the cave and came out further below at the fork where it went over the waterfall. All very interesting, and it would be easy to see how such unusual rock would attract the mining characters back in the day.

After our little exploration in the creek we climbed out of it and started up the NW Ridge. Mostly the ridge is one long pile of talus, to tell the truth, and it's hard to imagine how it might have qualified for class 3. But we found that by trying really hard, zigzagging from one rocky section to another, we could find class 3 rock that wasn't too crummy. Not great, not bad, just mediocre. Probably better than the standard approach from Farewell Gap. We did spend a good deal of time eyeing the very long and far more complex North Ridge of Vandever on our way up. It looked class 5 from our perspective as the ridge had many difficult-looking gendarmes along its length. The west side of the ridge was frightfully cliffed and would not provide ways to get around the difficulties. The east side might provide workarounds, but we wouldn't be able to judge that until we were around the other side. The N. Ridge would make an interesting future project.

The NW Ridge ended on the SW Ridge, and we followed the latter for the last few hundred talus-strewn feet to the summit of Vandever where we arrived at 1p. Looking around, we could see that Florence Peak to the east was easily the highest point around, but we had some fine views from our vantage all the same. West to White Chief, Hengst, Homers Nose and the hazy Central Valley, north to Mineral King and the Kaweahs, east to Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Crest, and south into the Southern Sierra with the tips of the Transverse Range just visible through the haze in that direction.

Looking southwest I pointed out an unnamed peak to Matthew that I suggested was a likely candidate for a Smatko "first recorded ascent." We'd been joking about the number of such barely prominent bumps Smatko had laid such claims on back in the 1970s. I wanted to go over that way to find out, but Matthew gave it only passing consideration before deciding he'd rather go back via Farewell Pass. We mutually decided while on the summit to forgo climbing the next day which neither of us were too excited about, so since this was the last hurrah for the trip I decided to go back via the unnamed peak and White Chief peak along a semicircular route around to the west. As we left the summit going our separate ways, I estimated to Matthew that I ought to be back around 4p.

It was very easy getting over to the unnamed peak following the connecting ridge, taking only about 20 minutes. I was surprised to find a register on the summit, and more surprised to find it went back to 1955. The peak was unofficially called "Falcon Peak," and the Sierra Club had spent some time back then trying to get the name officially adopted by the BGN (they were unsuccessful it would seem). There were some other interesting tidbits in the register which I soaked up while I sat around the summit.

The next stop was to make my way over to White Chief. From below it looked like a real peak, from above it seemed pretty bland. From the summit of Vandever it looked like the shortest of all the points around it. Hengst Peak in particular looked higher than White Chief by hundreds of feet, though the map claimed otherwise. It had White Chief higher than Hengst by 13 feet. It seemed impossible, though we conceded it might be an optical illusion. Sitting on Falcon, it still seemed Hengst was far higher. A very strange puzzle indeed.

The West Ridge off Falcon was a tedious class 2 boulder scramble and took a good deal of time. Climbing up to the plateau south of White Chief was more of the same - not so fun. At least it became easy travelling once I reached the plateau, and here I had a good view of Vandever, Falcon, White Chief, and Hengst. Hengst still looked higher, but not as much as it had before. North of White Chief was an unnamed peak that was certainly higher than White Chief, so I thought I had my first proof that the USGS got the elevation of White Chief wrong. But not so, as a closer look at the map showed the unnamed peak was measured 26ft higher than White Chief. It must have been somewhere around this point that I started wondering why an error on the map would consume my attention as much as it did. Must be those fine anal-retentive qualities I concluded.

I arrived at White Chief at 3p and found the peak decidedly non-exciting. It looks much better from below than it does from above. I looked around for a register, but found none, so I continued on to the unnamed peak to the northwest. Hengst no longer looked so high, but still higher than White Chief - this was probably because Hengst was to the west where the surrounding peaks drop much lower behind it, giving it the impression of greater height. I figured I'd just get back around 4p if I continued along the ridge, but I would have no time to visit Hengst on this outing. The unnamed peak had some class 3 in places along the Southwest Ridge that was as good as any I had found all day. Making my way to its summit 20 minutes after White Chief, I found a register with the unofficial name given as Eagle Crest. It dated to 1979, placed by Gordon MacLeod and Barbara Lilley. A second register was added in 2001 with most recent entries recorded there, but since there was plenty of space in the original notepad I chose to add my entry to the original instead.

I headed down the North Ridge of Eagle Crest, dropping steeply down towards Eagle Creek. For half a mile I scrambled down a mix of easy slopes and sharp edges, all covered with the broken shards of volcanic talus. It was a fun bit of scrambling but I was running up against my 4p time limit. I had hoped unrealistically that the ridge would be a simple descent, but it ate up all kinds of time and it was soon clear I'd never make it back by 4p. After about half a mile along the ridge, I came across a small notch that was too difficult to descend directly. I probably could have dropped off the ridge a short way and climbed around it, but it looked like a lot of tough going ahead, and in the interest of getting back sooner, I dropped down the east side of the ridge (no easy task either, it turned out), and then to the trail along Eagle Creek.

The trail travels through forest and meadow as it follows the creek until the creek abruptly disappears into what's marked on the map as the Eagle Sinkhole. In times of high water the sinkhold cannot take the whole flow from the creek so there is a bypass streambed that was completely dry at this time. It was very strange following the gurgles and noise of the stream and having it end so abruptly. The map further shows a spring further downhill along the trail, but I found no evidence of water reemerging through the whole remaining length of the trail (though obviously it comes back out somewhere since I crossed the creek again once on the main trail). I jogged the last few miles back to the trailhead where I found Matthew reading a book just before 5p. After I apologized for being late we headed back to Silver City where we got a shower and packed up our stuff. We still had another night paid for in our cabin but we had decided we were done for this trip, and instead returned to San Jose.

Shawn Dienhart comments on 10/18/06:
I was up at White Chief early in the summer (2006). After a couple of "yawns" I moved on. After reading your fine TR, I'm kicking myself for not making the time to visit the "unamed" peaks which obviously had a little more character and summit registers. Thanks for the fine read.
John, Carson City, NV. comments on 11/18/06:
Thanks Bob. Been many years since I ran the hill in MK. All your trip descriptions are very welcome, I feel as if I was able to go home for a while. MK, is the most special place in the world.
John Metz.
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