Fri, Oct 24, 2008
The three of us arrived at Mineral King in separate vehicles at various times the night before. Tom had arrived shortly before sunset, his back tire rolling over a screw in the last two feet as he pulled into his parking space. Luckily he had time to change the spare before darkness set in, but would have to endure the stressful drive out on Mineral King Road on a wimpy spare. As I drove through Silver City and onto the Sawtooth TH around 11p, I spotted Matthew's car alongside the road. He'd arrived several hours earlier and was fast asleep. I pulled into a flat spot in the driveway of the private cabin at the TH, figuring I'd move to one of the regular, unlevel parking spots in the morning. I got about an hour and a half of delicious sleep in the back of the van before it was time to get up at 12:30a.
It was shortly after 1a before we got started. Unlike our previous outings here, there was no moon to help guide us, but we didn't expect that to be a problem since we'd been over the route a number of times already. Temperatures were a bit warmer than usual for this time of the year, in the high 30's. It would get to below freezing before sunrise, but no lower than the upper 20's. A very pleasant outing for late October. We took about an hour and 45 minutes to reach Glacier Pass via the old, abandoned trail, then headed down the NE side of the pass. We had laughed back at the TH when Tom had asked if we should pack axes or crampons, but came to find there were several inches of hard, lingering snow on this north-facing slope through which the old trail was cut. We gingerly stepped our way across hard snow patches, making steps if we could, avoiding the slickest points by dancing around them. Slow going, but we managed to safely get ourselves down the other side.
We had little trouble picking up the use trail to Spring Lake, skirting around its northern edge, then starting the climb up to Hands and Knees Pass to the east. We had some trouble finding the easiest route up, though we knew it to be on the right side. The others followed me up some slabby class 3 sections before Matthew announced he was docking me a few points for poor route-finding. The crowd was tough tonight. I managed to find the trail again (more accurately, one of several braids of the same use trail) before reaching the pass, but the others had stopped following me so directly by this time. I found a nice seat out of the slight, but cold breeze on the other side and admired the thin crescent moon to the east as I waited a few minutes for the others to show up.
We continued in darkness, traversing the next ridgeline to the NE before dropping down into the upper portion of Little Five Lakes. There was very little snow on this north-facing slope and we had no issues negotiating it. We picked up the trail coming over Black Rock Pass and followed it down toward the ranger station at Little Five Lakes. Giving Matthew the lead, Tom and I got a laugh at his expense as he first wandered off the maintained trail, and then once redirected back on the trail, he promptly started off down the wrong fork when we came to the trail junction. He didn't get far before realizing we weren't following him. "Am I going the wrong way? Where does this go to?" he asked. "The wrong way," I answered with a smirk. He gave up the lead in feigned disgust.
Heading down to the Big Arroyo, Matthew was depending on me to tell him where to leave the trail to head for Lippincott. I had descended the SE Face of Lippincott the previous year and taken this route back to Mineral King, and had a pretty good idea where the best place to leave the trail was. Or so I thought. After sending Matthew off into the woods, Tom and I continued down the trail. About a quarter mile later as we crossed a small creek and started up a modest incline, I realized I had sent him off too early, up the next canyon south of Lippincott. If he blindly followed it up he would end up at Mt. Eisen rather than Lippincott. He could still make it to the intended peak, but it would cost him several hours of unnecessary wandering about. I was feeling pretty bad about that for the rest of the day.
It began to grow light shortly after leaving Matthew, and by 6:45a Tom and I had reached the Big Arroyo. It was the coldest it had been the whole outing, so we didn't want to stay long here. We stashed some gear in the bear box at the trail junction, took a potty break, and filled up on some water while woofing down some energy food to keep us going. Going north past the historic log cabin, we picked up the trail heading east and followed it for half a mile or so before striking out cross-country up the steep slopes to the north.
Ugh. Ugh. For more than 2,000ft we struggled upwards in search of the unnamed lakes in the cirque between Black and Red Kaweahs. It took us two hours to find our way to the highest and largest of three lakes where we took our next break. We had finally reached the base of Red Kaweah some eight hours after starting out. I had been to this lake once before, years before when I had made my first attempt on Red Kaweah. It had been on a backpacking trip with poor weather due to a lingering tropical storm that had blown over Mexico from the Pacific. I had reached the lake as a slow drizzle had begun to fall, and did not have the courage (or lack of common sense, depending on one's opinion) to continue.
Black Kaweah's imposing SE Face dominated the view before us, but our route was well to the right, up a rather dismal slope of loose talus boulders. Another Ugh was pending. Matthew had warned us that the route was dangerously loose. I had taken this to mean steep and dangerous to anyone below. But as we came to find, it's far more dangerous to one's self than to anyone else. The slopes were not generally steep enough to cause much rockfall, but the whole mountain was a pile of loose boulders that shifted and rocked with almost every step. Even the large rocks had a greater tendency to movement than I had seen elsewhere. Tom was still dealing with a broken rib from falling on similar terrain only a month earlier. As a result he tended to be more cautious than I in traveling over the boulders. I got numerous scrapes and bruises for my carelessness, thankfully nothing worse than a little blood-letting.
Secor gives the impression from his route description that one simply follows a broad chute to its end, but once around the corner on the West Face it becomes more apparent that there are half a dozen chute options. Really, the West Face is a broad slope of the described crappy boulder and talus, with small aretes separating the slopes into smaller sections. The chute described by Secor goes up the right side of the West Face, but we ended up scrambling up other chutes more to the left. As I got ahead of Tom about halfway up, I lost him for a short while. He seemed to recognize the need to move right and did so lower down, while I continued up to the crest before realizing I'd drifted too far to the left. I began a series of traverses around the aretes or ribs dropping down from the crest, eventually connecting up with Tom who shouted out from below, "Oh, there you are!" I was about 100ft below the summit at this point with Tom about the same below me.
It was just after 11a when I finally pulled atop the highest point. It had taken 10hrs where I had expected it to take nine and secretly hoped to make it in eight. The secret hope was hardly realistic, I had to admit. Even Black Kaweah had been easier to climb. Technically a bit more difficult, but far better rock than the stuff we encountered today. Tom was less than ten minutes in joining me at the summit where we both took an extended, well-deserved break. There were two registers in the aluminum cylinder. The most recent had been placed in 1974 though not regularly used until around 1986. Matthew's entry showed he was the last visitor before us. The older register was a historic gem despite its beat-up and frayed appearance. It dated to 1936 with the first entry by May Pridham, the same lady for whom Pridham Minaret in the Ritter Range was named following her first ascent in 1938. There were entries from Jim Koontz, Andy Smatko, Carl Heller, and a host of others from the 1950's, and many more familiar names from the 1960's right up to the present. With Tom's help I photographed all the pages of the older register to allow me to study it more at my leisure back home. We added our own names to the original register on the back of the last available page before carefully restoring it to the container.
The Central Valley had its usual layer of haze, but the rest of the views around the Sierra were quite clear. We could even see the Inyo Mtns across Shepherd Pass to the northeast. We hung around the summit for nearly 45 minutes before starting our descent. We followed the route Tom had finished on, finding that it matched Secor's description and probably the most straightforward way off the mountain. We found the ramp described in the text, then followed the long chute down to where it blended in with the rest of the West Face. Though it looked obvious from above, the chute was impossible for me to make out from below.
It wasn't until about 1:30p, well past the unnamed lakes, that we finally reached easier ground without all the loose boulders. It took another hour after that to reach the Big Arroyo where we retrieved our cached gear after another short break. Now back on familiar ground with trails for much of the way back, it seemed more of a mental exercise to get us back up another 3,500ft of gain and back to the TH. I had brought a supply of candy bars to supplement my usual fare, having found a large Snickers bar amazingly effective when returning from Whaleback a month earlier. I downed one of these while still in the Big Arroyo and was happy to find it had a similar power of recovery for the aches that had been building up in my leg muscles. Tom kept telling me to go ahead and not wait for him, but I found he was able to keep up with me just fine almost all the way to Little Five Lakes. I continued snacking on peanut M&Ms along with the last of my chocolate milk that I'd carried with me.
Past Little Five Lakes Tom began to fall behind, and by the time I had scaled the headwall at the end of the valley Tom was about 30 minutes behind. He called out my name from the bottom of the headwall when I reached the top of it. I spotted him below and we waved to each other. It took another 20 minutes to complete the traverse to Hands and Knees Pass, the sun still about an hour above the horizon. It took 20 minutes to descend to Spring Lake and another 45 minutes to make my way back up to Glacier Pass where I arrived just before 6p. The sun had started to sink to the west and was splashing a brilliant gold color across the mountains as I started down the SW side of the pass. I managed to reach the trail below as sunset overtook me, and stumbled along perhaps half of the trail back to Mineral King before I needed to pull out my headlamp.
When I arrived at the TH around 7:15p I was surprised to find a light on in a car there. I was even more surprised to find it was Matthew, as we'd expected him to get back many hours earlier and be long gone by this time. Thinking my navigational error had cost him many hours, my first words to him were the beginning of a profuse apology, but he looked at me with a puzzling look, asking, "Why?" He then explained that he'd corrected the mistake easily enough when he'd reached the lake, and his delay was due to several long naps he had taken during the outing. He was currently lost in an inner debate as to whether to continue with his original plan to drive around to the East Side and then climbing Kern Point on Sunday. His motivation was seriously lacking. I had run into a similar problem after climbing Kern Peak with Tom a few weeks earlier. In the end he decided to leave it for another day, which effectively means another year since the first big storms were to be coming in the following weekend. Meanwhile, Tom reported having seen me from the top of Hands and Knees Pass, but slowed down significantly after that as darkness overtook the landscape. It would be 9p before he returned to his car, making for a 20hr+ outing - his longest to date. I think he may be sufficiently trained for next season to join me on some of the long, brutal ones I still have left on the SPS list. Misery certainly loves company.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Red Kaweah
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