Sawtooth Peak P500 SPS / WSC / ESS

Aug 24, 2000
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3 4
later climbed Sep 9, 2006

This was going to be my first visit to the Mineral King area. It's quite a ways from the San Jose area, so not usually on my list of Sierra destinations. My friend Michael was planning a trans-Sierra trip starting at Mineral King and ending at Whitney Portal. I planned to join Michael for the first three days into the Kaweah region, where we planned to climb Black Kaweah, and possibly Red Kaweah. We considered Black Kaweah the crown jewel of the area, as it is rarely climbed, is rumored to have the original register at the summit, and provides some exciting class 3 climbing, and so it became our primary objective. If no other peaks were climbed save Black Kaweah, it would be a great success.

We left San Jose Wednesday around noon, hoping to get to Mineral King in time for dinner at the restaurant there. As we got in the car, I found that Michael had already eaten lunch and was expecting that I had as well. He offered to stop so I could get something, but I declined, figuring I could get something to eat later. We stopped in Gilroy for gas, and I took the opportunity to get something to drink and one of my favorites, ice cream. Yum. That seemed to tide me over as we drove across the Central Valley.

We passed through Fresno, and I began to think about food again. As we drove through Visalia to get on CA198 towards Sequoia NP, I asked Michael if he knew the restaurant at Mineral King would be open. He seemed pretty sure it would be, but admitted he hadn't checked. The prospect of not having lunch or dinner seemed unwise, as we planned some pretty strenuous hiking early the following morning. As we drove through some of the smaller towns outside Visalia I kept imagining our last meals passing us by... At Lemoncove I pointed out the Subway shop conveniently located in the Shell gas station. At this point Michael was getting tired of my fixation, and politely remarked that he had heard good things about the food at Mineral King and really wanted to eat there, and would I kindly just relax. Fair enough, so I didn't say another word.

The road to Mineral King off CA198 is about 25 miles long. We had originally thought (or hoped) that it would take us about 5 hours to get to Mineral King, but we had already been driving for that long and had just turned off CA198. Having never driven this road before, we were to find out that it is one of the worst roads in the state if one is actually trying to get somewhere. The road is extremely narrow almost the entire distance. It is windy as hell, and there are few places that can safely handle two cars driving in opposite directions. Consequently, one has to drive incredibly alert to look for oncoming traffic. It was impossible to average even 25 mph on the road, and Michael got plenty of practice shifting between first, second, and third gears. We stopped only to wave to the attendant at the park entrance and flash our pass. Hers seemed a very lonely assignment, sitting in a tiny booth in the middle of the road for hours, and no one else to talk to except the dozen or so cars that pass by here during her shift. And the scenery at the particular spot isn't anything to get too excited about either. I wondered if she knew what she was getting into when she accepted that job...

On we drove. Michael pointed out a few Sequoias which I quickly claimed to be cedars. We debated several more trees as we rounded each turn, until soon we were in what was undeniably a large redwood grove. Wow, didn't even know they were this far south. I conceded the tree identity issues as we drove through what we later found was the Atwell Grove. There was a mill here in the previous century, and it became clearer why this silly road existed in the first place (there were also many mineral claims that turned up practically nothing, thus the name of the town that used to be at the end of the road). Somewhere in the middle of the grove the pavement gave way to a graded dirt road, reducing our speed further. The closer we got to the end of the road, the slower we had to drive -- made me wonder if this wasn't one of those mathematical puzzles where you travel a finite distance in an infinite amount of time (look up Zeno's Paradox if you care for details). We finally reached the Silver City Resort, a sleepy little rental cabin resort, home of the famous Silver City Restaurant. As we pulled up, things looked rather quiet. Someone was inside, but the door was locked when I tried it. A sign outside showed the restaurant closed at 2p Sun-Thur. Fridays and Saturdays it was open until 8p. The store attached to the restaurant closed at 5p, so we were out of luck. This was unfortunate, and very sad. Our imaginations made the food we weren't going to get taste even better as we resigned ourselves to backpacking food for our dinner meal.

After leaving the restaurant, we drove up to the campground to see if we could procure a site. We knew the number of sites were limited, but didn't think we were going to have any trouble on a Wednesday night. It turned out to be tougher than we thought, as it took two passes through the parking loops to locate the last remaining campsite, tucked at the very eastern end of the site. It was a tiny spot with little level ground, but it did have a picnic bench and a place to park the car, so we called it home for the night. We set up our bivy sacks and put some water on for dinner. Michael chose some sort of spicy chili dinner packet from among his week's supply of meals, and we added some dry salami to eat to improve the flavor. It passed for a meal, but I had very muched hoped for a high-fat meal before the next day's tough march. Just after sunset I took a stroll along the trail that heads towards the trailhead parking lot at the end of the Mineral King road. It was a wonderful time of day, things were very quiet, the air cool, and I had the trail to myself. I followed it up about 1/2 mile before I had to turn back since I hadn't brought a flashlight with me. We went to bed shortly after I returned, sometime around 8:30p.

We arose at 6:30a the next morning. After packing our bags and bivies, breakfast was the next item on the agenda. I had originally hoped to be still bloated from the Silver City restaurant, and had not planned a big breakfast for the morning. Michael had lots of food with him as he was planning a weeklong outing, and generously offered me some of his breakfast staples. Not wanting to put Michael in a short psoition later in the week, I declined, opting instead for a few granola bars I had handy. In restrospect it would have been better if I told Michael the real reason for declining rather than merely stating I wasn't that hungry. Truth be told, I could have eaten quite a bit, and in the end Michael had way more food than he needed anyway. Oh well.

We visited the friendly ranger and the permit office where we picked up a few Wilderness permits. One for Michael's weeklong adventure, one for me returning after two nights. We got much of the usual advice about bears and protecting our food. Michael was carrying a bear can, and the nights I was to join him there were bear boxes at the campsites, so we were pretty confident we'd be able to retain our food for our own enjoyment rather than that of those pesky bears. It took quite a bit of time in the office as we listened to more info about pooping and cleaning and other good wilderness practices, all of which we patiently listened to as if for the first time. A pleasant experience for the most part. They have lots of interesting artifacts on display from Mineral King's early history, so we perused the various items while waiting for things to get filled out and such.

Afterwards, we drove up to the trailhead parking lot, took a starting photo, and then headed out on the trail at 8:30a. Not an early start, but at least the air had warmed a bit, and I wouldn't have to worry about being cold. Of course that turned out to be a silly worry, as the trail goes up quite steeply right out of the chute, and it would be quite difficult to not warm up almost immediately. Thankfully, the trail stayed in the shade for much of the way up, and we were able to keep a bit cooler for at least the first hour. During that time, it became quite evident that the 25lb difference between our two packs was going to seriously hamper Michael's efforts to keep up. I hadn't offered to carry any of his stuff for him because I had plans to climb Sawtooth Peak today, and figured I would need the energy for this additional effort which Michael was going to forgo. Besides, Michael was going to be schlepping this load across the entire range, so he'd have to get used to it in any event. :) We passed a sign on a side branch that read "Trail not Maintained" which we gave little thought to. Turns out that is the marker for the old trail that provides a shortcut to Glacier and Sawtooth Passes. We continued on the main trail which crosses Monarch Creek (as you can see, not much water late in August) to the south side, and meanders its way up towards Monarch Lakes.

In that first hour my pace would get me ahead of Michael some distance, after which I would wait on a rock or log for him to catch up. I wasn't very good at hiding my impatience, and when I finally decided I'd take off ahead, all I got out was "Hey, Michael..." before he quickly replied, "Yeah, why don't you go ahead and I'll catch up with you later in the day?" He reads me quite well. We planned to hike into the Big Arroyo, some many miles distance, so Michael planned to continue hiking over Glacier Pass without waiting for me to return from Sawtooth Peak. I would then follow and hopefully catch up before he got beyond Little Five Lakes. I rested briefly at Monarch Lakes to have a snack and enjoy the view. The sun was out brightly now, but the 10,000 ft elevation kept things from warming uncomfortably. There were thin clouds sliding in from the southeast, an unusual direction to get weather from. A portent of a change in the weather? There were several campers hanging around the lower of the two lakes, and several backpackers wandering about looking for good camp spots. A popular campsite I presumed, welcomed after nearly 3,000 ft of climbing from the parking lot. I was amused by the permanent potty that was erected nearby. A short little wooden fence around it provides some measure of privacy, and the little moon painted on the side completes the picture.

I was soon on my way north following the braided trail that climbs through this sandy part of the mountainside. It is a lot of work with a pack on as there is a great deal of sand that needs to be climbed (it turns out if you stick to the left or west side, you can climb on interesting class 2-3 rock and avoid almost all of the sandy part - wish I'd known this on the way up). I passed several groups of backpackers as I made my way up this tedious slope, alternately walking twenty or thirty steps, then resting. It was warm, but not hot as a patchy sky kept the sun from beating down except intermittently. Almost 800 feet higher, I neared the rise leading over towards Glacier Pass. The map shows the trail neatly curving over towards Glacier Pass before heading up to Sawtooth Pass further to the east. This is true, but it's hardly the only trail, and several lead more directly (through lots of sand) to Sawtooth Pass.

I planned to leave my pack at Glacier Pass and then head up towards Sawtooth Peak. When I got to where I thought the pass was, I found that I had overshot it by a hundred yards to the right and was 100 feet above the pass. Close. I didn't feel like hiking down to the pass to leave my pack there (where Michael was more sure to find it), so I found the most prominent rock where I was and placed my pack on the top such that it would be visible from any point between here and the saddle. I was sure my bright red pack would be easily visible. It also occurred to me that it would be easily available to marmots and squirrels, should they happen upon it before my return, but there seemed little I could do about that. I took only some water, a granola bar, and a camera with me.

It was 12p when I reached Glacier Pass, and another 15 minutes brought me to Sawtooth Pass, half a mile and 400 feet higher. Without the pack I made great progress, even in the sandy conditions that prevailed. This was my first view over the Great Western Divide, Columbine Lake with the Pacific Crest in the background. It is another mile and maybe 700 feet of elevation from Sawtooth Pass to the summit, so I figured I would get there in about 30 minutes or so. In fact, it took me an hour and a quarter. The ridge from the pass to the summit is composed of a jumble of very large rocks, and it is not practical to follow it directly. The left side drops off steeply towards Columbine Lake, but the right side, facing Monarch Lakes, is more accessible class 2. Sometime after leaving Sawtooth Pass I began to feel the effects of the altitude, having risen above 12,000 feet much too quickly for good acclimatization (it had been about 20 hrs since I was at sea level). I had a slight headache, I was very tired suddenly, and on top of that the climbing wasn't very good. The sand continues nearly to the summit, there are too many cairns that do no real good (there's no main trail that heads to the summit; like the route to the pass, there are lots of alternatives, all of which fade away at various points), and there's just too much darn traversing to get around to the west side of the peak. Near the top, the climbing seemed much more like class 3, as I scrambled up and down some huge blocks to find the high point.

At 1:30p I finally reached the summit. I found the register in an ammo box (I particularly like these for holding registers, although you can see I'm not so good at self-portraits), and signed in. I was the first to summit that day, but there were many, many entries already this year. The register went back only a few years, but was already quite full, a testament to the number of people that climb this peak each year. Undoubtedly its popularity is closely linked to its proximity to Sawtooth Pass, itself heavily used. The views were gorgeous, stretching north to the Kaweahs, east to Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Crest, south to Mt. Florence and a host of peaks beyond which I am wholly unfamiliar with. Amphitheater Lake was below me to the southwest, and to the west the forested slopes of the Sierra could be seen down to the Central Valley. It was now very apparent that there was some sort of weather system moving in from the southeast. It looked much more threatening from that direction, and there was almost no blue sky left anywhere. I looked over at Needham Mtn which I had hoped I might also be able to climb. It is less than two miles due east, but there was a great gap (about 600 feet) that one had to climb down before climbing back up to Needham, even higher than Sawtooth. It would have to wait for anther day, quite possibly never, I remember thinking at the time. I still had a lot of walking to do today, and particularly I had to get over Black Rock Pass. Ugh.

I headed down, making pretty good time on the sandy slopes (the sand now became my very good friend), and reached Glacier Pass at 2:15p. Looking around for my pack, I was surprised that it was not easily visible. Would someone have taken it? No, not likely. Certainly a marmot couldn't have dragged it away, but it might have knocked it off the rock. I looked around and located the exact location where I had left my pack. No pack, and no sign of it nearby. Hmmm. Worst case scenarios went through my head. I couldn't stay out overnight certainly, and I could pretty easily walk back to the trailhead. But I didn't have a key to Michael's car, and I had left my wallet inside. So I'd have no money to buy food or lodging. No, I simply had to find my pack. Then I happened to glance the 100 yards down to the pass proper, and saw a little red dot sitting on a rock down there. My pack! Michael must have carried it down there. How nice! But why? Perhaps he thought I didn't know the correct route (there are cliffs on the north side of Glacier Pass, and it is wise to cross right at the low point in the saddle).

I wandered down to my pack and found a note nearby on an large sheet of paper held down with a rock. Michael had reached the pass at 12:45p, and had continued on (as I expected he would) to Black Rock Pass. Later, he explained that when he had gotten to the pass, he didn't find my pack as he had expected to. Leaving his own pack, he wandering about, finally spotted it up the ridge a ways, and for whatever reason he went up to check it out, and decided while he was there he might as well carry it down for me. What a nice pal! I was an hour and a half behind Michael at this point and it seemed it would take some doing to catch up with him. But there was still a long way to go to get to the Big Arroyo, and I might still catch up before reaching it (that extra 25lbs was sure to slow him down). I looked north towards Black Rock Pass, trying to make out the route. It is a stunning sight, as the canyon between the two passes drops down over 1300 feet. Then I made out a very thin line zigzagging its way up the barren hillside two miles away. Holy smokes! I have to climb that? "Disheartening" would be putting it mildly. I was pretty tired as it was, and imagined that Michael was having an even tougher time with his enormous pack. I figured there was about a 50-50 chance that Michael would continue up over Black Rock Pass, and began to expect that I might find him settling into camp somewhere in the canyon below. There was only one way I was going to find out, so off I went.

Immediately on the north side of the pass it is quite steep, but fortunately there is the remnnants of an old trail that help get one through the toughest part easily enough (class 2). There are several places where evidence of dynamite was used to form the trail, so it seemed at one time this was a bit more than just a use trail. Shortly after leaving the summit and negotiating the cliffs, I lost the trail among the boulders further down. This was hardly a problem, however, as the route was now wide open, and I could choose pretty much any path down to the high alpine meadow above Spring Lake. Walking along the meadow, soft, thick tufts of grass under my feet, I had a wonderful view of the Great Western Divide in front of me. Combined with the loss of altitude, my energy was revived and I was having a wonderful time again. At the end of the meadow I found the use trail again, which brought me down some 500 feet to Spring Lake. A small sign at the mouth indicating "No Fires" was the only other evidence (besides the trail) of human impact in an otherwise pristine alpine lake. The trail ends abruptly just past the mouth as the grass and dirt gave way to the jumbled boulders of a moraine that led down the canyon. Over these boulders I went, losing another 200 feet in elevation before I crossed the creek and began to traverse up and left towards where I expected the trail over Black Rock Pass to be (I could no longer see it from below).

The rock on Black Rock is volcanic in nature, and the white granite bolders gave way to darker colored slates. Back up at 10,000 feet, I managed to find the trail (it would have been nearly impossible to miss, as it winds it way across the entire hillside here), and began the slow trudge up to the pass. Over 1600 feet of climbing, ugh. Very quickly I was tired again. The switchbacks are quite long here, maybe a quarter mile in length. I set a goal of walking the length of the switchback before finding a suitable place to rest for a few minutes. I then repeated this with the next leg. God, this was tiring. Halfway up, I came across two lovely ladies on their way down from the pass. This was a rather pleasant surprise, as I hadn't seen anybody for about three hours now, and these two were a pleasant eyeful that made me want to pause for conversation. Their first words were, "Are you Aaron?" When I replied to the negative, they responded, "Oh, then you must be Bob."

Evidently, Michael had gotten to them already. But who was Aaron? Turns out, Aaron is the partner of another backpacker who got separated from his friend several days earlier. Tough luck, that. I hardly blame it on inexperience or incompetence, since I know how easy it is to get separated in the wilderness on the smallest of misunderstandings. We chatted only a minute or so, as I ran out of interesting things to say (I was hot and sweaty and tired, or at least that's the excuse I'm going with). I was glad that they didn't give me the false encouragement that the pass was near, as I knew I had only climbed half the distance. Off they went, looking a little too perky as they headed downhill, while I resumed the upward climb at a considerably slower pace.

It was 4:45p when I reached Black Rock Pass. Again, expansive views to the east, and my first good views of the Kaweah Ridge. This time I entertained no thoughts of a side trip to climb to the top of the nearby peak. I found another note from Michael here, indicating that he had arrived here at 4p. So I had caught up 45 minutes on him, but was still another 45 minutes behind. I rested, had a snack, and took a few pictures. It was a little breezy and cooler now that the day was getting on, so I didn't stay long. I put on my light jacket and then headed down the eastern side of the pass. This side was even more desolate than the one I had just come up. Not a blade of grass stood out of the rocky hillside. It was fortunate that a trail cut through the jumble of mostly loose, small-sized boulders that constituted the slope. On the positive side, it was downhill from this point. It took me 45 minutes to wind down the two miles to Little Five Lakes. From across one of the lakes, Michael spotted me and waved a cheery hello. Without waiting for a response, he announced this was the end of the trail for the day. We were only about three and a half miles from the Big Arroyo area, so this wasn't bad at all. I was glad that we had gotten this far. I relayed to Michael my half-expectations that he might have stopped short of Black Rock Pass.

I pulled into camp and was relieved to take the weight off my shoulders. Michael had changed his clothes and washed up some, having been at camp some 30 minutes or so already. There was only one other backpacker in the large area, the fellow (I forgot his name) who had lost his buddy several days earlier. He'd been camped here the last two nights hoping Aaron would show up, but no such luck. There is a backcountry ranger named Rob stationed at Little Five Lakes, and he had been out most of the day seeing if he could locate or get some info on the missing camper. Later that afternoon Rob came back to camp with news that Aaron had very likely been sighted going over Kaweah Gap the day before. Rob surmised that he had missed the sign at Big Arroyo pointing towards Little Five Lakes, and had mistakenly continued up the other direction. Bummer. Aaron's friend spent the night at Little Five Lakes before heading out the next morning over Black Rock to see if he could find his friend at Mineral King. Since his trip was being cut short, he donated a good quantity of backpacking food to Rob who was most happy to take whatever was offered, particularly things like chocolate bars. As Rob explained, they do a helicopter lift in the beginning of the season to bring in Rob's supplies for the summer, but some items get thin towards the September timeframe. Sweets are in particular demand. I guess it's hard to imagine beforehand just how many chocolate bars one could consume in a summer, and they probably don't seem like a high priority item in the planning stages at the beginning of summer. This might be useful to know for future trips. For instance, it seems likely that a few Hersheys with Almonds might have a decent chance of getting you out of jam when you are caught deep in the Wilderness without a valid fishing permit.

Meanwhile, Michael and I had a nice dinner (I forget what, but it was pretty filling, which was the important thing), and discussed plans for Friday. We had originally planned to climb Black Kaweah but Michael decided he wanted a rest day. No sense beating himself silly when he's going to be out for the entire week. The weather became more threatening, but held off, for how long was impossible to predict. I decided that I would leave early to go to Big Arroyo in the morning and then climb Red Kaweah so that the two of us could climb Black Kaweah on Saturday. There was little daylight left after dinner, barely enough to set up bivies and get our food items to the bear box.

I was up at 6a the next morning, after nearly 10 hours of rest. I hadn't slept very comfortably, as my left shoulder was sore (it had been bothering me for some weeks now, the cause unknown), and I kept rolling from side to side throughout the night in an effort to get more comfortable. But the number of hours' rest made up for the lack of quality sleep, and besides, I was excited to get to do some more serious scrambling in the Kaweahs today. I was off by 7a, shortly after Michael had risen, giving me hardly enough time to say goodbye. We planned to meet again sometime in the afternoon at Big Arroyo when I came back off the mountain.

The sky was solidly overcast, and the clouds began to touch the tops of the peaks on the Kaweah Ridge. This did not bode well for climbing. I hurried down the trail out of Little Five Lakes, now and then getting a good view of the Kaweahs to the northeast. Far to the east it looked like rain had started to fall, as the Pacific Crest was nearly obscurred from view. Soon I noticed clouds skirting Black Kaweah, and then Red Kaweah, and for the rest of the hike down the canyon to Big Arroyo, the peaks were alternately in and out of the clouds. I reached Big Arroyo at 8:15a, and after checking out the cabin there (it has a lock on it now, and closed to the public), I stashed my stuff, pack and all, in the bear box. I took only a few items: my light jacket, rain poncho, gloves, hat, camera, and a few granola bars, all of which fit in a couple of fanny packs. I hiked the quarter mile north to the High Sierra Trail, and then headed southeast along the trail.

There is no obvious exit point to start the cross-country portion to the upper reaches of the canyon walls. The walls on this side have a more or less uniform grade which was steep class 2 climbing. The only options really are whether to stay more on the rock (in the avalanche fields) or more under the trees. I found the trees either sandy, loose dirt, or shrubby, so I opted for the rocks most of the time. The hillside is steepest in the beginning, and then gradually tapers off after climbing the first 800 feet. This gives the illusion that one is very close to cresting the rise, and accordingly I kept motivating myself that it must flatten out "just beyond that tall tree up there." Well, I hadn't studied a map too thoroughly or I would have realized that I still had another 1,400 feet after I had already climbed 800 feet. I knew it was roughly 4,000 feet from Big Arroyo to the summit of either Black or Red Kaweah, but it didn't really hit me just how much climbing that would be in a relatively short amount of time. All the while I was huffing it up the hillside (thankful I no longer had a pack on), I kept a close watch on the developing weather. It was definitely raining to the east now, as I could see the rain clearly, even though it was some five miles distance. I began to have little hope that it would hold out long enough to get me to the summit and down again.

I finally crested the rise that brought me into the little cirque south of Black and Red Kaweahs. The going was tougher, over a rocky moraine now, leftovers from a bygone glacier. Lake 11795 is nestled in a low spot in the cirque, an extremely barren locale. There is nothing but rock for a mile in any direction. Camping would be possible, but not pleasant, as the only flat surfaces are those of a few large rocks. Beyond the lake, the mountain rises steeply again, although nothing harder than class 2 for another quarter mile or so to a higher cirque between to the two peaks. After that, I expected to start finding the class 3 routes that would take me up the west side of Red Kaweah. Both peaks look impressive and imposing from this vantage point. I was staring up some rather steep cliff faces that rise over 1,000 feet in a hurry. The tops of both were now obscured by the clouds moving across the divide, presenting a none-too-friendly appearance. Shortly before I reached the lake at 11a, the first raindrops started to fall. I immediately got out the rain poncho (I was already wearing my jacket as it was getting colder with the increase in altitude) and gloves. I pondered my options. I might continue if it doesn't rain much, but the slick rocks would likely make the class 3 route that much harder. If I summited, it was possible that harder rains could make it very difficult to get back off the rock. This didn't seem like a pleasant predicament to find myself in, and being alone it didn't seem a very wise one either. I waited around the lake for about 20 minutes to see if the weather would change for the better. I had a snack to while the time, layed about, but eventually the inactivity caught up with me and I began to get a bit cold. It continued to drizzle, just a bit, as though it couldn't make up its mind if it wanted to stop or get on with the show. I finally decided to head back down. The mountain would wait for another day.

Although I was disappointed (I had a mile and 1,800 feet to go), I was happier once I made a decision. It was easy going getting back down to the High Sierra Trail, and by 1p I was back at Big Arroyo. As I passed the cabin and the bear box, I guessed that Michael was a little further south by the camp areas. I quietly removed my fanny packs and left them on the bear box, and went in search of Michael, intending some fun at his expense. My friend Eric had explained to me the American Indian tradition of "counting coo" on one's enemy. While it certainly earned one points to return with the scalp of a hated tribe member, greater honor was bestowed among some tribes on warriors who could sneak up on an opponent, touch them, and return, without bringing any physical harm. But what a scare. So, in my stealthiest manner, I went about hunting for Michael's whereabouts. I found him sitting quietly on a rock by the stream, engrossed in reading a book. I had to move very, very, slowly as I came up behind him, as the forest floor is littered with leaves and twigs that snap and crackle all too easily. I had to stiffle my own laughter within about 10 feet of him as I imagined him jumping in the creek at the coming fright. At about 5 feet, Michael suddenly took his eyes off his book and began to turn his head around. I don't know if he heard me or was just exercising his neck, but I realised he was going to spot me in a fraction of a second. That would probably make him jump, but I decided to try to maximize the fright potential by growling rather loudly like a bear just before I thought he was going to make eye contact.


As expected, Michael jumped at my presence. But although he bounced back a few inches, he didn't make any exclamations of fright. He was completely silent. Then, upon regaining his composure, he remarked, "Thanks, that was the most fun I've had all day." He went on to explain that he was really quite bored sitting there in the intermittent rain, and had wanted to write me a note saying he'd gone on down the High Sierra Trail in search of the hot springs he knew were 10 miles off. It was hardly the relaxing rest day he'd envisioned. While he'd hoped to lie about on a rock soaking in some warm and sleep-inducing rays, he instead had this drizzle coming down on him and he was constantly worrying about being driven into an uncomfortable bivy sack for the remainder of the day. Sometime during my absence he had decided he would never again take a bivy sack on a weeklong venture in the Wilderness. After catching up our day's activities, we held a short pow-wow to discuss our plans. Our itinerary had us staying in Big Arroyo Friday and Saturday nights, but we discussed the wisdom of this plan. I was concerned that it would be difficult for me to hike out Sunday to Mineral King and then make the drive back to San Jose (to be at work Monday morning). And knowing now the difficultly in climbing 4,000 feet at altitude, I wasn't sure I'd be able to hike back up to Little Five Lakes at the end of the day on Saturday. Neither of us were interested in hanging around if the weather continued to be miserable and wet. We quickly came to the decision to call it quits. I would head back to Mineral King, Michael would continue on to the hot springs down by the Kern, where at least he could stay warm if it continued to rain. We would climb Black Kaweah another time.

We got out the stove and had a last hot meal together, which turned out to have a warming and cheery influence on us amongst the drearly weather. As we were putting things away it began to rain again, this time harder, and I was forced to get out the rain poncho again. I told Michael I might stop for the night at Little Five Lakes or possibly continue over Black Rock Pass if the weather improved. The rain made our parting all the more hasty, but I first gave Michael the pick of what food I was carrying, and offered to take back some of his extra food. He gave me a few pouches of his supplies, including a very nasty looking salami that did not look like it had long to live for the world. We had opened it several days ago when we had that first dinner together, but not being the very "dry" style, it had not kept well for the last several nights. I think Michael was afraid that in a few more days he might start having nightmares about salami rising from the dead, and decided he would sleep sounder if he had only the bears to worry about at night. Although I was afraid too, I took it, but I must admit I abandoned it to the Wilderness only 5 minutes after I left Michael. I just couldn't stand the thought of carrying the thing around for another day or so. My only regret is that my wanton disregard for the "pack it in, pack it out" mantra may have cost some poor squirrel or bear some abdominal discomfort if it happened upon it before the insects could properly put it out of its misery.

It was 1:40p when I left Michael, heading across the stream and up the switchbacks towards Little Five Lakes. After about 15 minutes the rain let up and I was soon able to remove my jacket as my body warmed up on the hill. Now and then I glanced back over my shoulder down the canyon, to check on the weather. It looked much worse in the direction Michael was headed. I was glad I was not joining him. Although it was not raining where I was, my pants (thin hiking style) were pretty thoroughly wet from brushing against the dripping plants that lined the trail. Once I was above the steep section of the canyon, the forest cover was more effective at blocking out the undergrowth, and my pants were able to dry out. At 3:10p I reached Little Five Lakes, but as I was feeling pretty good now, I decided to continue on without stopping. Large billowy clouds rose all around, most spectacularly over the Great Western Divide. Not three miles to the east, I could see the rain coming down, but it held off ahead of me. I was beginning to feel I was in a race to stay ahead of the approaching rain.

The climb up to Black Rock Pass is much easier on the eastern side, and it took only 50 minutes to reach the Pass. The weather looked decidedly better far out to the west. Unfortunately, this was not the direction from whence it was coming. It was only 4p, and it seemed that I would quite handily be able to make it up to Spring Lake to camp for the evening. I began to entertain thoughts of getting over Glacier Pass as well, and made some mental calculations to see if I could reach the Pass before sunset. It seemed possible, but I didn't know if I have enough energy left to make that final climb up to the pass. I went quickly down the switchbacks on the west side of Black Rock Pass, and cut off the trail at the very last switchback, opting to go down a loose boulder field in order to save losing more elevation if I followed the trail as I had on the way up the day before. It probably saved less than 100 feet, but provided an interesting diversion all the same. At the bottom, I crossed over the creek and began the climb up the large boulder field leading to Spring Lake.

It was 5p when I reached the lake. Good time, but I was getting tired and the pack was starting to dig into my shoulders. Again I weighed my options. The sun was likely to go down shortly after 7:15p. This gave me over two hours of daylight to reach Glacier Pass, as I didn't want to be climbing this side of the pass after dark. The question was, then, could I reach the pass by 7p? I wasn't sure, but I knew there was a nice bench halfway up with both water and spongy soft places to sleep for the night. This allowed me to continue on without having to commit just yet to getting over the pass today. Certainly the further I hiked, the easier it would be tomorrow. Now, of course, it would be a pretty easy day tomorrow, so I began to entertain the idea of climbing Empire Mtn the following day. This peak is about a mile west of Glacier Pass, easily visible from Mineral King.

It took 45 minutes to reach the grassy bench, but I didn't stay long. I filled my water bottles in the little stream so that I would have enough water to camp through the night at the top of the pass. That would make it an easy jaunt over to the peak in the morning before I headed down. It was very hard climbing now, as I became more exhausted. I took twenty or thirty steps before resting for a short bit and continued on. My pack was becoming most uncomfortable as I played with the strap adjustments, first tightening, then loosening in an effort to make it more comfortable. In reality, all I was doing was giving myself something to do to take my mind off my sore shoulders. It was 6:30p when I reached the pass. The sun had just gone behind Empire Mtn, but I had another hour or so of daylight. Very, very briefly I considered camping at the pass. It was cold, and a breeze was picking up. Far down below I caught a glimpse of Mineral King and thoughts of civilization went through my head. Although the rain continued to hold off, there was no telling when it might change its mind. It would certainly be better if I didn't have to hike out in the rain in the morning. And with such thinking the peak lost out, and I headed on down after a snack and brief rest.

I began to envision a juicy burger and fries that might be had at the Silver City Restaurant. What time did they close? Was it 7:30p or 8p? Could I possibly make it in time? The more I thought about it, the faster my legs began to move me, as just the possibility of such a meal revitalized my sore muscles. Combine that with the fact that it was all downhill from here, and I was feeling pretty good. I followed the class 2-3 rocks down towards Monarch Lakes (this is how I found the alternate to the sandy slog I took on the way up), which added some interesting rock climbing sections over narrow ledges and short chutes and downclimbs. A few hundred yards before Monarch Lakes, I noticed a use trail heading down to the right. This might be the shortcut Michael had mentioned. I decided to give it a whirl, as it seemed I was going to come up short if I took the longer, regular trail.

At first, the trail was quite good and easy to follow, but after half a mile I lost it in the lower flat section where the creek meandered and split few times before plunging down the next steeper part. Losing the trail, I wasn't worried about getting lost or stuck as there were few cliffs that would halt progress. But the going was slower without the trail, and the real danger was that I might not make it out to the trailhead in time. I spotted another backpacker several hundred yards ahead, lower down. Perhaps he had found the trail? As I made my way towards him, I too, found the trail again, and once more began to make good progress. I caught up to the guy in about 15 minutes and nearly scared the daylight (what was left of it) out of him. He was wearing a walkman and had not heard me coming, and as I passed by he gave a start. He too, was on this trail for the first time, so neither of us was able to offer the other any real assurance as to the trail conditions and passability further down. Not long after passing him, the trail became more defined as it cut a path across the north side of the canyon. It was obvious that it had been well-maintained at one time, as the rock work traversing across this steep half mile section must have taken considerable effort. In several places rock slides had come down across the trail, most likely the cause for its eventual abandonment. I tried jogging some to speed my progress, as I was now worried I wouldn't make it out by 7:30p. But I couldn't keep it up for any considerable time and it took much more out of me than it was worth. I placed all my hopes now on the restaurant being open until 8p. Down, down I went, eventually merging with the regular trail with another mile and half left to the trailhead.

It was 7:45p when I pulled my (now) sorry ass off the trail. About 30 miles and 12,500 feet of elevation gain in 2 days - I was beat. With only 15 minutes left, I took no time to toss the pack in the trunk, start the car, and head off. I pulled up to the front with of the establishment with but three minutes to spare. Thank goodness it was only a short distance down the road. There was one other party sitting for dinner, the rest of the evening's patrons having left already. When I asked if dinner was still being served, the hostess shouted back to the kitchen to ask if the grills had been cleaned yet. I was ever so glad to hear that there was still time for one more. Ahhhh...... I sat at a large table by myself and quickly scanned the menu. Bacon Burger. Yum. Fries. Yumm. Rootbeer float. Yummm. And it tasted about as good as the 1000 calories it comprised. This was much better than eating freeze-dried whatever or a couple of granola bars out in the cold on some hard rock. The one problem with backpacking food is that it generally lacks fat. It's easy enough to load up on carbos and sugar, but after a really long hike, nothing quite recharges the body like a healthy dose of grease. The restaurant is pretty low frills, but given the location, excellent. Lots of interesting photos from a bygone era decorate the walls, providing amusement and education while one dines.

Afterwards, I drove Michael's Saturn out the 25 miles on that god-awful one lane road. It turned out to be a bit easier to drive at night since the lights of oncoming cars gave a few seconds more warning before appearing suddenly around a sharp bend in the road. I didn't make it all the way back to San Jose, but I did make it far enough towards civilization (somewhere past Fresno) to find a cheap motel to crash for the night. It was a toss up as to which was more relaxing - the hot shower or the comfy bed (with real pillows, not just some clothes in a stuff sack). Either one alone would have easily been worth the $28 price I paid for the room...

[Michael did make it across the Sierra, actually exiting two days earlier than he had planned. The weekend we were together was the start of an unusual weather front that lasted for the entire week, bringing rain not only to the Sierra, but to San Jose, Los Angeles, and other parts of California that usually see no rain during August. Michael climbed Mt. Whitney before he exited via Whitney Portal, then came back a few days later to climb it again with a group of friends that came to join him for the following weekend (and provide his ride home).]

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