Tue, Jul 9, 2019
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Sawtooth Mtn is the 5th highest and 10th most prominent summit in the Trinity Alps with the monarch of the range, Thompson Peak, only 3mi to the northwest. And yet, Sawtooth manages to stand tall on its own merits, visible from many parts of the Alps and overlooking some of the most spectacular parts of this vast Wilderness. The scrambling is more reminiscent of the High Sierra and some of the best available east of Interstate 5. Wayne Moss, author of The Trinity Alps Companion, says, If a person is going to climb just one peak in the Alps, Sawtooth is the one. I had visited Canyon Creek on several previous occasions, climbing Little Granite Peak and Mt. Hilton in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Sawtooth is not an easy dayhike, entailing some 20mi and almost 6,000ft of gain by the easiest route. Luckily, most of this is on pretty good trail. I would end up taking almost 12hrs for the effort, several hours longer than I had expected - a tough one, to be sure.
I had spent the night camped just below the TH at the Ripstein Campground along Canyon Creek. Normally I avoid campgrounds like the plague due to people, noise and campfire smoke. On a monday night there was only one other occupant in the whole place and he was pretty quiet, so I slept soundly to the white noise of the nearby rushing creek. I was up early and starting from the TH by 5:30a with sufficient light that I wouldn't need a headlamp. The first hour was spent buried in the heavy shade of the forest before views would begin to open up some time after sunrise. The sounds of the creek as it tumbles over various waterfalls and cascades are never far from the trail. It took a little over two hours to reach the junction with the Boulder Creek Lakes Trail, and by the third hour I had reached the lower of the two Canyon Creek Lakes. I made the mistake of going to the lower lake directly, missing the trail that continues to the upper lake. I strolled along close to the western shore of the lake until I found a solo backpacker at his camp who was able to direct me back to the trail. The trail is now in more open terrain through brush and some trees, arriving at the southeast shore of the upper lake where more campsites are located.
I followed ducks and more trail to the lakes outlet at the eastern end, finding the creek too wide to get across without taking off my boots. It was also fairly deep at the crossing point, halfway up my thighs, so I simply stripped off all my clothes below my waist, tossed them in my pack, hung my boots around my neck and waded across. Once re-clothed on the other side, I was happy to find that there is a multi-threaded use trail, well-ducked, leading north into the side canyon to L Lake. I had expected everything above this point to be cross-country, but the ducked route would save me some time and energy. It was almost 10a by the time I reached L Lake, with lots of snow filling the vast cirque above the lake on Sawtooth's NW Slopes. I had brought crampons and axe with me, but had forgotten to bring sunglasses and was worried about getting blinded by spending too much time on the snow. I decided to avoid the snow as much as possible by climbing along much of the NW Ridge. This turned out to be some pretty good scrambling on decent granite but it had me nervous for much of the time wondering if the difficulties would become too great and keep me from the summit. I spent almost an hour and a half in this effort, solid class 3 and then some for much of it, before reaching a saddle to the northwest of the lower northwest summit. I was only a quarter mile from the highpoint at this time, but it looked to continue with difficult scrambling. To my left I could see a way down to the snow on the NW Face and I decided to ditch the ridge scrambling. I gingerly descended some loose rock to the snow where I strapped on my crampons. Because the slope was quite steep, I had to face into the mountain and kick steps in the soft snow going down about 100ft before I could start traversing east across the slope towards the North Ridge. This went fairly smoothly, taking only about 20min. Once on the North Ridge, I took off the crampons and resumed scrambling, easier than the NW Ridge but still class 3. I reached the point where the two ridges connect at a middle summit between the NW and SE summits, then downclimbed a short distance to a notch towards the highpoint. At this point it looks to be difficult going along the ridge or around either side with significant drop offs. By climbing up a short distance on the ridge itself, one can then find the terrain eases with broken ledges on the right (southwest) side of the ridge. I dropped down 30-40ft on that side to make my way up to the highpoint at the end of the jagged ridge, about 30min after taking off the crampons, almost seven hours after I had started out - phew!
The register is housed in a green ammo can with almost 90 pages of entries dating to 1981. There were two film cannister registers, one dating to 1970, the other to 1980 by a Sierra Club party that included Bill Schuler (regular climbing pal of Andy Smatko). There was an even older glass jar that dated to 1955, but only a few of these pages were still readable. Mine was the first entry for the year, the last being Leor Pantalat in Nov, 2018, 5hrs via the Stuart Fork Bridge TH - an even longer route! Looking around, I found there to be a surprising amount of snow above 7,000ft. In the Sierra, most of the snow below 10,000ft has already melted, but they clearly get more snow in this wetter part of the state. If the peaks had been a couple thousand feet higher, there would probably be impressive glaciers in place of the tiny ones found in the shady recesses of Thompson and Caesar. Looking northwest, I thought it interesting that the slightly higher Thompson Peak looks a bit puny compared to the larger bulk of Caesar Peak. To the south and southwest stretches an impressive line of high peaks between Hilton and Thompson, a ridgeline that Leor had dayhiked in another impressive outing a few years back. I suspect if I visit these unnamed summits, it will not be as a dayhike - getting a bit old for that sort of thing.
I spent only about 20min at the summit before starting back down. The high clouds had become heavier overcast, not so great for pictures but boding well for snow travel without sunglasses. I returned back to the notch I'd gained on the North Ridge, switched to crampons and began an enjoyable 1,400-foot descent of the snowfield on the NW Slopes. This went considerably faster than the ascent and it took just over an hour to get from the summit back down to L Lake. It would take me another three and a quarter hours to retrace the 9mi+ back down Canyon Creek to the TH. I found several more parties out and about on the return, some at upper Canyon Creek Lake, others along the trail. The large parking lot at the TH had been half-full, and only seeing two parties during the ascent I had wondered where all the people had gone - evidently hiding in camps in the woods somewhere off the trail.
It would be after 5p before I got back to the TH. My plan had been to then drive back to Weaverville and around the Wilderness to Cecilville for a climb of Thompson Peak from the other direction the next day. What I hadn't realized was just how long of a drive this is, about 4hrs. It would probably be 11p before I got to bed, which seemed rather late since I was already pretty tired. I decided to save this for another trip and do something else between Weaverville and Redding the next day. It would be a very different sort of outing, but equally demanding...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Sawtooth Mountain
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