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Today's outing was a relatively short hike to Empire Mountain, the highpoint of the ridgeline above Mineral King stretching between Timber Gap and Glacier Pass. I had noted the peak on almost a dozen occasions that I have gone over Glacier Pass, usually on my way to the Kaweah region for one long day hike or another. I repeatedly told myself I'd tag it on the way back from one of these ventures, but by the time I was coming back across Glacier Pass I was in no mood or condition to tack on another summit. Recognizing that this line of thinking was not working, I decided to make it the primary objective on a shorter hike out of Mineral King. I planned to also climb an unnamed summit to the west of Timber Gap as a way to keep it from being too easy. The weather cooperated nicely for the first time in three days and the outing turned out to be very enjoyable.
I started up from the Sawtooth TH, heading for Timber Gap. Less than a mile up is the trail junction. In a dozen times I've been up here I've always turned right for either Sawtooth or Glacier Pass, this time I got to go left and explore a section of trail I hadn't been on before. The trail almost immediately begins a short series of switchbacks, climbing more than 1,000ft above Mineral King before it makes a rising traverse to the left towards Timber Gap. Along the way one is treated to a view of the high summits south of Mineral King and a look towards the west in the direction of Peak 10,100ft that I planned to visit first. It took an hour to reach the gap where I left the trail and started up the ridgeline to the west. Very soon one is above the trees that congregate in Timber Gap (from above, the name seems obvious), scrambling among the volcanic talus that comprises most of the ridgeline. There are some veins of quartz and limestone to add some color to the ridge, but for the most part it is all volcanic rock. An old rusty fish tin served as reminder that this ridge has been scrambled along for years, first by the miners looking for fortunes in the area, later by recreational visitors.
It took most of the second hour to reach the highpoint which was marked by nothing in particular. Unnamed and with less than 600ft of prominence, it doesn't draw the attention of even your more dedicated peakbaggers. I'm pretty sure I'm on a short list of those who might consider this worthwhile. The views were decent, taking in the Great Western Divide to the east, the Tablelands across the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River to the north, the East Fork of the Kaweah River drainage and Paradise Peak to the west. And of course the high summits south of Mineral King from Vandever to Hengst. The return went somewhat faster, about 45 minutes to return to Timber Gap. Just before reaching the gap I was surprised to find two hikers starting up the same ridge I had just traversed. We exchanged casual greetings, enough to surmise they were European visitors.
Back at Timber Gap I immediately started up the east side, this proving to be a far more tedious task. There appears to be an unlimited supply of talus covering the ridge that I had to climb for more than 2,000ft to reach Empire Mtn. There were some pockets of widely spaced trees to break up the monotony, but overall this wasn't a great scramble. There was some better rock in the last 15 minutes or so, but most of the hour and three quarters that I spent on the climb was an exercise in climbing and traversing talus strewn slopes. Reaching almost 1,500ft higher than the first peak, the views along the way and at the summit were of course better. Especially fine was the view north across Cliff Creek to Mt. Eisen and Black Rock Pass. I could just make out the long switchbacks of the Black Rock Trail cutting across the talus slopes to the pass which was about 100ft higher than where I stood. To the east could be seen Glacier, Sawtooth and Hands and Knees passes, along with the third highest summit in the area (after Needham and Florence), Sawtooth Peak. Far in the distance could be seen the Sierra Crest, both Langley and Whitney easily discernable. A register found in an ammo box dated only to 2011. Of note was Sean O'Rourke's entry from 2012 when he finished on Empire as the last stop of his 12-peak day hiking tour that started on the south side of Mineral King at Hengst, completed over three days.
From the summit I spotted a group of four backpackers far below on their way up to Glacier Pass. I had originally thought I would continue to traverse the ridge to Glacier Pass and then descend the use trail back to Mineral King, but from the summit it appeared that a more direct descent off the SE side of Empire Mtn would be faster and more fun. Lots of loose scree and sand made the descent go quickly, dropping some 1,300ft in short order. I ended up behind the backpackers and so never met up with them, but I did run across a buck in the bush that had got caught between myself and the others and seemed confused as to what to do about it. The buck tried to hide some in the only bush found on these wide open talus slopes, eventually concluding I wasn't a threat and going about its business. Meanwhile, I picked up the use trail and followed it down to Monarch Creek and then another 45 minutes down to Mineral King and the TH I had started at. It was nearly 12:30p by this time, making for a nice 6hr outing, just about right after the long day I'd had previously. After a quick shower, I would easily get back to San Jose by dinnertime, ending a fun three days in the Mineral King area. Time now to get ready for Philmont, NM...
This page last updated: Wed Jan 29 21:27:47 2014
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