Spanish Needle P900 SPS / ESS / PD
Sawtooth Peak P1K SPS / ESS / PD

Fri, Oct 22, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman

Sawtooth Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Until this weekend, I had done almost no climbing at all in the Southern Sierra. I had climbed Olancha Peak a few years earlier, and maybe 30 years earlier I had climbed Sentinel Peak while a Boy Scout at Camp Whitsett. But in the last 30 years I had never driven again on SR178 and had only a vague remembrance of Lake Isabella and the environ. Matthew and I had originally planned a weekend in Yosemite, but early snows, still unconsolidated, made that prospect seem painful at best, and our peaks likely unreachable. So we headed south to where we expected warmer temps and less snow, for efforts to climb a few SPS peaks in that region that had eluded Matthew earlier. Matthew was shooting for a goal of climbing half the SPS peak in a year which meant he needed 124 peaks. He had 114 under his belt, but was running out of reachable peaks now that the weather had turned.

It took us a little over 5 hours to reach Walker Pass, leaving San Jose just before 2a. It was quite dark and equally boring driving down I5, SR46, and US99 in turn. We stopped somewhere enroute for drinks and donuts, but the huge sugar intake failed to keep me from nodding off from time to time in that last hour before the sun started to break up the night. I was happy to let Matthew do the driving, and he admitted later that he was starting to get sleepy as well, but fortunately the new day helped revive him as we drove up SR178. The lake and towns along it were quiet, a few early commuters out for the haul into Bakersfield or elsewhere. Having been up here twice already earlier this year, Matthew was more familiar with the area and pointed out Pilot Knob and a few other peaks he had climbed in the area. We reached Walker Pass just before sunrise, continuing over to the east side of the range. Our destination was the Rodecker Flat TH for a climb of Spanish Needle and Sawtooth Peak. I had relinquished all planning and route choices to Matthew this weekend in an effort to help him with his SPS climbing goal. Matthew had already climbed Sawtooth earlier, but had been rebuffed on two earlier efforts at climbing Spanish Needle from the west side TH. What I didn't know until later was that Matthew had chosen the hardest of three possible THs today, and what we both didn't know was just how long it would take us to climb both of these peaks today.

It was just before 8a when we reached the parking area for the Rodecker Flat TH, a late start by our usual 6a standard, and with the change of seasons we would have far less daylight than I was used to on our summer outings. On the map the peak was not far away, less than four miles, and the math seemed pretty easy - about 3 hours up to Spanish Needle, 2 hours to Sawtooth, 2 hours to return, or about 7 hours total. With instructions and map UTMs furnished courtesy Steve Eckert and, we figured we had everything we needed and headed out. We followed the dirt road that winds its way up the north side of Sand Canyon. It took us some 15 minutes to realize the terrain in front of us did not match what was shown on our map and we had to admit we weren't quite sure where we were - it was one of our fastest TH-to-lost times ever. It seemed we must be some distance east of the right margin on Matthew's map, so we left the road (for reasons not altogether clear in retrospect) and followed the creekbed on the south side. At least it was easy travel through the sparse desert scrub, and within half a mile we came to the expected fork in the canyon shown on the map. Good - now we knew where we were at least!

We turned left at the fork, crossed to the west side of the creekbed and followed up the dirt road on that side that took us to Rodecker Flat. We picked out both Spanish Needle ahead of us, and Sawtooth Peak to our right, both on the skyline marking the Sierra crest. It was a novelty for me to hike amongst Joshua Trees, and we found Rodecker Flat to be teeming with hundreds of them. From Rodecker Flat we noted the saddle north of Spanish Needle, and headed west up the canyon towards it. The road turned into a trail which soon turned into a broken braid of use trails, which eventually turned to some mild (and some not-so-mild) bushwhacking as we hiked up the dry creekbed. We saw several possible chutes on Spanish Needle's north side, and without finding the definitive one described by Eckert (I was less interested in precise route-finding and more interested in getting out of the brushy gully), we headed up what looked to be the first one that could be climbed at class 3. It turned out I was a bit early in leading us up, and we soon found ourselves on slow and difficult class 3 as our chute ended below more difficult rock. There looked to be many, many options on this side of the peak, and quite a few with decently solid rock. But rather than taking the slower, less certain routes, we moved west (right) into the next main chute over and found what was probably the easiest way up - a class 2 boulder-talus chute running from the creekbed all the way up to the ridgeline 2,000ft up.

Once in the main chute, I continued up without stopping and soon lost Matthew behind me. It was a bit deceiving in that the ridgeline looked to be so close, yet above each rise the chute continued up higher still. What I'd hoped would be a three hour ascent was now looking more like 4 hours. When I finally did reach the ridge between Spanish and North Needles, I was surprised to find the southwest top of the ridge coated in wind-blown ice. This had both good and bad effects. On the one hand, it would provide the only source of water we would find all day and it proved a Godsend to my inadequate quart and half supply of water. On the other hand, it might make climbing to the summit a tricky exercise beyond the standard class 3 rating. It appeared that some moisture-laden clouds had blown over the crest in the subfreezing temperatures of the previous evening and once having made contact with the pine needles and rocks along the upper ridgeline, the moisture was crystalized out of the clouds and coated the obstacles on just one side. Contrary to usual patterns, there was absolutely no snow or ice on the north side of the peak, just the ice on these southwest facing surfaces.

I followed the ridgeline to the southeast, staying on the ridge where I could travel class 3 or less, moving cautiously over rime-coated rocks, and dropping down on the north side to get around a few of the tougher obstacles. I found the class 3 friction slab mentioned in the trip reports, crossing it without difficultly (thankfully no ice here), and made my way to the summit. The last hundred yards starting from the friction slab is an enjoyable class 3 obstacle course, and there were some icy slabs on the south side of the ridge that made for the crux today. The summit block is large and mostly flat atop, the final move an easy but airy step across from an adjacent block. It was 12p when I arrived for a 4 hour ascent time. I was already an hour off the expected schedule, but it didn't seem too important - there still seemed to be plenty of remaining daylight. It was a gorgeous day as I basked in the warmth of the autumn sun, a welcome change from the cool temps found in the shade on the north side. I could see the snows to the north on Olancha, Langley, and Whitney, the Mojave Desert to the east, more of the Southern Sierra to the south and west. Lake Isabella, some 25-30 miles away was faintly visible to the west. I had lots of time to wait for Matthew and perused the summit register I found in an ammo box. The earliest entry was from a group of 24 members of the SPS that climbed the peak in 1958. Another Sierra Club party from 1972 featured signatures from RJ Secor and Doug Mantle. We were the third or fourth party for 2004. After about 30 minutes I began to wonder about Matthew, and then I heard a voice calling. I walked over to where I could get a better view and saw Matthew on the ridge about 150 yards off. He was glad to hear I was on the summit, but didn't need any further directions. After another 15 minutes I went back again to look for Matthew and found him at the start of the friction slab. He was futilely looking for some sort of hand holds to help reduce his dependence on his shoes in making the crossing, and I mostly chuckled. "You're just going to have to trust your shoes and walk across," I called down. I think he knew this already, but sometimes verbalizing it helps get the body moving against the brain's wishes - and he was shortly walking across the slab. I led back up to the summit and Matthew's only other hesitation was at the step-across onto the summit block. I made some sort of joke about it before we got there to which we both laughed, but then upon actually seeing it he really did pause to consider it further. It was funny watching him, because one could see that he knew it was an easy step, but his body just stood there, failing to be convinced. I had time to take out my camera and capture his indecision along with a few more verbal barbs at his predicament. Eventually he jumped across and felt a bit of embarassment at having spent so much time in contemplating it.

It was 1p when Matthew reached the summit, and we stayed there another 30 minutes. The daylight was slowly ticking away on us. Matthew questioned whether we'd have enough time to reach Sawtooth, but I was enthusiastically for continuing with our original plan. Matthew may have been less interested in Sawtooth since he'd climbed it earlier in the year, but he didn't express it, and off we went. Our next goal was to reach the saddle north of North Needle where we'd pick up the Sierra Crest, and I figured it would take about an hour to cross the rugged north side of our ridge to reach it. I knew that this loose class 2-3 traverse would be slow going for Matthew, so after we downclimbed the ridge to the friction slab together, I went ahead intending to traverse the class 4 ridge to North Needle. This turned out to have the most challenging climbing of the day and I enjoyed the ups and downs over the varying rock terrain as I made my way across. I found rock cairns at the top of each bump along the way, and I dutifully knocked each down as I passed it. At the summit of North Needle I failed to find a register mentioned in Jenkins' book, but having picked up an empty PVC cylinder from Spanish Needle, I deposited it with a new register book among the summit rocks. Not having a pencil or pen with me, I had to leave it without a writing implement and without signing it myself. The north slope down from North Needle was very easy class 2 terrain, and I found my way down to the PCT and the saddle at 3:30p. It had taken twice as long as I'd expected - another hour miscalculated. Not finding Matthew, I set down my pack and walked over to the edge of the saddle leading down the east side and shouted for Matthew. To my surprise he answered right away and I spotted him not far below the saddle - turns out he was only 10 minutes behind me, so my extracuricular excursion had timed out nicely.

After a short break we hit the trail, Matthew now in front, and myself having to jog periodically to keep up. From eyeballing his map Matthew had guessed the distance from the saddle to Sawtooth to be about 3 miles, but the truth was closer to 5 miles. As you might have guessed, this means it took us a bit longer to reach Sawtooth than any of our estimates. It was over an hour on the PCT and then the rest of a second hour climbing the 1,800ft up Sawtooth's Southwest Ridge. It was 5:30p when we finally made it to the summit, and already it was growing colder as the sun drew closer to the horizon. There was no way we were going to get back before dark. Having forgotten his own, Matthew had asked earlier if I had a headlamp. Luckily I'd brought that and a small flashlight, so we didn't expect much trouble finishing in the dark. We signed into the summit register, with the earliest entry dating back to 1963. Hiking along the PCT, we had thought it might be easiest to descend from the summit via Sawtooth's Southeast Ridge until we could drop down the sandy slopes into Sand Canyon below. Now that we could see it closer from the summit, it looked to be an interesting, but slow going class 3 scramble along the rocky ridgeline. We had no beta on descending into Sand Canyon, but looking down the south slope it looked like we might be able to descend fairly directly to the canyon below, and without much discussion we both agreed to it. Just before heading down I gave Matthew my headlamp.

The slope is very steep - descending 3,000ft in less than a mile, almost a 40 degree slope. Most of the mountainside is a tangled mess of loose talus, dirt, oak trees and other shrubs that could grow on these water-challenged slopes. I was a short distance ahead of Matthew in the first couple hundred yards or so, descending a bit too recklessly to be safe. As I jumped down past a large rock, it began to slide off its unstable base in my direction. Fearful that the 50-lb rock would drop down onto one of my feet, I tried to redirect its motion with my hands. I skittishly hopped my feet out of the way, but in doing so I inadvertently let the thing roll over my hand as it went charging down the slope. I yelled out an expletive as I felt the sharp pain in the tip of the ring finger on my left hand. Fortunately I was wearing leather gloves which did a good deal to protect my flesh, but as I grabbed my throbbing finger I was hesitant to remove the glove to take a look for fear I would find it crushed and bloody. Eventually I worked up the nerve to remove the glove and was relieved to find the only damage was a bruise forming under the nail where the rock had weighed down on it. I might lose a nail, but there was no broken skin, no broken bone. As I put the glove back on I called to Matthew (who was waiting to hear what I'd done) that "I'll live," and continued down the slope (perhaps a little less recklessly).

I was soon out of sight and shouting distance to Matthew, hoping I might be able to get down to the canyon before the light failed. 2/3 of the way down the ravine I was following I came to a cliff where in wetter times a fifty foot waterfall would cascade. I climbed up and around to the east, back down another short distance before coming to a second cliff. Again I climbed up and around (this time to the west, which in hindsight would have been better for the first cliff as well), and somewhere around 6:30p I was on the easier slopes of the canyon bottom. Daylight had failed completely by now, but a half moon provided a sufficient amount of light to walk by providing the slope didn't get too dangerous or contain unseen obstacles. I paused here to rest and heard Matthew calling from above. He had reached the top of the first cliff. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but I turned on my flashlight and pointed it in his direction so he could see where I was. Above, I spotted his headlamp in return, and I waited some 10 minutes or so as I watched him climb up and around that first obstacle. After that the second one would be easy, so I turned to continue heading down the canyon.

It was a long walk back, and not without a few places of very nasty bushwhacking where I had to cross the streambed. For the most part it was pretty easy travel now that the slope had considerably eased. There were animal tracks through the sage (cow trails for the most part) that made it pretty easy even by moonlight, though I would lose these frequently before picking up a new one. I walked fairly slowly expecting Matthew to catch up to me once he had gotten down to the easier ground. I found an old dirt road and followed this back past the junction we'd turned left at in the morning, and then out to the TH, arriving at 9:25p. 13 1/2hrs for what I thought would be a 7hr outing - it was probably the worst underestimation I'd done all all year. The Southern Sierra was not to be taken lightly! Once back at the car I had to wait for Matthew outside since I didn't have a key. I was afraid I might start freezing once I stopped hiking, which is was the main reason I had hoped Matthew would catch up with me. There was a mild breeze blowing, but it with temps in the 50s it was decidedly chilly now. I curled up on the ground behind the car in an attempt to get out of the wind, but I found the breeze blowing under the car nearly as freely as if I was out in the open. It did not take long before I was shivering and my teeth chattering, and I marvelled at the engenuity of the body to make automatic efforts to stay warm. In my tired, cold, and almost hallucinatory state I imagined some dozens of times that I heard footsteps approaching the car from the direction of the TH. As I was about convinced that I would have to get up and start moving again, Matthew came strolling in at 10p. Salvation - a car heater never felt so good.

We drove back to US395 and on to Ridgecrest some 20 miles distance where we took a room in the Motel 6. We had dinner at one of the fast food joints still open that late (I can't recall which one - mustn't have been very memorable) and got to bed shortly before midnight. Over 22hrs on the go and we were pretty tired - it didn't look like we'd get an early start for Cartago the next day...


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