Sawtooth Peak 2x P500 SPS / WSC / ESS
Needham Mountain P1K SPS / ESS

Sat, Sep 9, 2006

With: Matthew Holliman

Sawtooth Peak
Needham Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
Sawtooth Peak previously climbed Thu, Aug 24, 2000

I find the Mineral King area one of the most beautiful and enjoyable areas on the west side of the Sierra, but rarely pay it a visit, primarily because the drive is sooo long. Only 25mi from the main highway, but that twisting, turning Mineral King Rd adds over an hour to the normal 4hr drive. But it was time to pay a visit again, this time to attempt the epic Black Kaweah dayhike. That would be on the following day, after we'd made the long drive and had a warm-up day. We chose Sawtooth in order to do a pre-hike to Glacier Pass to see if there was any snow of significance to worry about on the other side. Matthew had been to both Sawtooth and Needham already, so he was considering this as a mercy hike - one that would require payback on some future outing of ours.

Going through Visalia on our drive in the wee hours of Friday morning, we were happy to see a drive-thru Starbucks had just opened at the junction of SR198 and US99. Unlike its cousin at SR120 & US99, it was not open 24hrs we came to find out. But since it opened at 5:30a and that was only ten minutes from the time we drove in, it made a convenient place to get gas first and then wait out the few remaining minutes. Caffeine is a very habit-forming drug. Just say no!

We arrived in Mineral King shortly before 7:30a and it wasn't until about 7:40a that we were ready to head out. The sun had risen some time before, but we were able to hike in the shade for more than an hour while the sun was still blocked from view behind the Great Western Divide to the east. We took the old, abandoned trail to Glacier Pass that starts about 30min past the TH. The Sawtooth Pass Trail has been regraded for stock and is a very frustrating meander up many switchbacks with extra miles, and we were happy to avoid this. The old trail is well defined as it follows up the north side of Monarch Creek, then sort of disappears as one approaches the upper meadow below Monarch Lake. We headed cross-country to the north up the drainage leading to Glacier Pass, arriving at 9:10a. The other side of the pass had banks of snow, but it looked like we could avoid it on the descent, saving us the trouble of carrying axe and crampons.

Heading to Sawtooth Pass, we had to climb the sandy trails (there are many to choose from) that we had so far avoided. Though it took only 30min to reach Sawtooth Pass, it seemed much longer. Ugh. From there we headed south along the west side of Sawtooth's crest, following more sandy trails and then up through the increasingly larger boulders until we arrived at the summit at 10:20a. It was a beautiful day with almost no wind, and we could have sat at the summit a long time. That's probably just what Matthew would have liked to do, since he had no interest in the slogfest to Needham. He suggested it might make our warm-up day too long but that was a weak argument, particularly since I had my heart set on Needham from the beginning. Looking to the east we debated as to which of several pinnacles was Needham Mtn, Matthew insisting it was another peak about a further mile east of the true Needham. I spent a good deal of time using several maps we carried to show how it could not possibly be that far, but I was only mildly successful at convincing him. "You've already climbed Needham," I insisted, "so how can you not be sure where the summit is?" His reponse was along the lines, "That was 200 peaks ago - how am I supposed to remember something that many peaks ago?" I think he was hoping I'd give up on Needham if I came to think it really was the further summit, but I would have gone there regardless of the distance and how long it took. Looking across the terrain that separarted Sawtooth from Needham, I could see how it could be a slog if one stayed far to the south side of the connecting ridge. Half joking, I promised Matthew I'd find a really great class 3 route to Needham to make it worth his while, and with that we set off.

My strategy was simply to stay as close to the ridge as we could without running into dropoffs or climbing unnecessary highpoints along the way. Once we reached the lowpoint along the ridge, we did manage to find some interesting class 3 and avoided almost all the sand that Matthew had climbed on his first visit. Matthew had to admit that it was a better climb than he'd remembered, but it still wasn't that great. My mistake was promising him "great" and only delivering "OK" class 3. Oh well - better than sand and loose talus. We reached the summit at 12:30p, longer than it seems it should have taken from Sawtooth, but at least we weren't heading off to Matthew's other summit, still a mile away to the southeast.

Not surprisingly, the summit register was older than that on Sawtooth and the peak was climbed far less often. Dating to 1966, there were many familiar names from the Sierra Club, as well as other acquaintances from more recent times. I commented to Matthew that it looked like I was the last peakbagger I knew to have climbed it.

Heading down for the return, there seemed no reason to have to reclimb Sawtooth on our way back. Instead, we took the easy sandy slopes down towards Amphitheater Lake to the southwest and planned to go over a low pass south of Sawtooth. It was also a direct line to Mineral Peak, which seemed an obvious nearby choice to climb on the way back. We stayed together down the class 3 summit blocks and then split up as I made swift progress down the sandy slopes. I stopped at a meadow near Amphitheater Lake in order to wait for Matthew. He was not soon in coming and no matter how much I scanned the slopes leading back to Needham, I could not make him out anywhere. How could I lose him on a sandy descent? After about fifteen minutes I began to wonder if he hadn't descended lower and made it to the lake without me knowing, so I made tracks to the lake to find out. No sign of Matthew anywhere. Finally after another five minutes of scouting, I spotted him crossing the meadow where I had first waited. Seems he had downclimbed into an awkward chimney and got himself stuck, he reported when he finally caught up to me.

We refreshed our water supplies at beautiful Amphitheater Lake, then headed up to the pass. The pass looked difficult from the lake, but we beat a path up there hoping it would look easier when we got to it. It was a bit easier, but still tough, as we just managed to make it up the steepest parts in the middle. A thin cheater rope hung down from above to testify that we weren't the only ones to have some difficulty with it. By slightly different routes we both made it past the crux and then made our way to the top. Class 3-4 was about as much as we could conclude by our consensus. Secor describes a class 3 pass between Amphitheater Lake and Crystal Lake, but that pass is a quarter mile south of where we came over, with an intermediate highpoint along the ridge between them.

In order to get to the saddle connecting to Mineral Peak it was necessary to traverse around the NW side of the intermediate highpoint described above. Though the terrain is fairly steep, we were able to connect some nice class 2 ledges with some easy class 3 scrambling to make it over to the saddle. While sitting at the pass waiting for matthew to join me, I had heard a female voice from somewhere, but had been unable to place the location. As we neared the saddle east of Mineral Peak I found the source - two backpackers that were taking a break on the adjoining ridge near the saddle. I struck up a conversation and found them a lively couple. They were as curious to see Matthew and I making our way over from the pass as I was to see them. They explained they had tried to go over the pass described by Secor to reach Amphitheater Lake but had been unable to make it past the final headwall. The pass was easily visible from where we stood, but of course it was impossible to tell for sure how difficult it was at a quarter mile distance. It didn't look too hard, but we all know the proof is in the pudding, or in actually walking up to it. Later I found that Secor describes the west side of that pass as class 2, so as J & J (all I recall of their names is that they both began with a "J") claimed, they weren't much for rock climbing. They were simply doing a little cross-country backpacking for a few days and really wanted to get over to the other side. Matthew and I described a route going up by our pass, but higher on the ridge to Sawtooth that they should be able to do at no more than class 2. Whether they were successful or soundly cursed us instead, we never found out.

It was almost 3p now, and our little warm-up was turning out to be a fairly decent day. When Matthew suggested we might want to reconsider climbing Mineral Peak given the lateness of the day, I had to agree with him. It certainly looked like a very interesting scramble and we were no more than 30min from the summit, but that extra hour it would take was going to come directly out of our sleep time. So we left it for another day (we would need more warm-up days in the future for some of the other long dayhikes we wanted to do from MK) and headed down to Crystal Lake. There we picked up a trail which took us down to the Sawtooth Pass Trail, where we got to experience first-hand the frustration of a trail with too many switchbacks that don't drop elevation fast enough. We'd had enough of it when we finally reached the TH at 4:30p. A 9hr outing was a bit more warm-up than planned, but I was happy to get two more SPS peaks dayhiked.

We returned to Silver City where we took our reserved cabin, a rustic but comfortable little two-room hut with kerosene lamps. We dined at the restaurant which was adequate, but inferior to the better food and service I recalled from my previous visit in 2000. Afterwards, Rick Kent joined us shortly before bedtime, making three for the long adventure to Black Kaweah the next day. With a planned 1:15a wake-up, we were in bed not long after sunset.


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