Black Kaweah in a day
(That which doesn't kill us makes us try something harder)

10 Sep 2006 - by Bob Burd (view roster page)

Among Sierra climbers, Black Kaweah has an almost mythical stature, one of the most coveted, yet least climbed peaks in the entire range. It rises starkly from the Kaweah Ridge, impressing visitors from all vantage points, with no easy way to reach the summit. The peak is fairly remote, far from any trailhead, and the dark volcanic rock is reputed to be dangerously loose. The summit register dates to 1924 and contains the signatures of dozens of reknowned Sierra climbers, including Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson, and Pete Starr. When the idea of dayhiking the peak was first brought to our attention several years ago, it was in an online discussion of "impossible" dayhikes. Even then I had considered nothing in California impossible to dayhike, but I was not yet physically prepared to give it a try. With a few hard ones like Clarence King and Mt. Goddard completed in the interim, it now seemed like we'd have a good chance of success. We were stronger and more confident in our climbing skills, and were eager to give it try.

Getting to the base of the mountain requires some bit of homework. The most straightforward route would take the High Sierra Trail out of Crescent Meadow and over Kaweah Gap - a lot of miles all on trail, one pass to cross. A shorter route can be found starting at Mineral King, but the best of all possible routes is not immediately obvious. Utilizing maintained trails, one could ascend over Sawtooth Pass, drop into Lost Canyon, and then work back up the Big Arroyo. A quicker route goes through Little Five Lakes, utilizing Glacier and Black Rock passes. An old trail across Glacier Pass to Spring Lake leaves only a short distance of cross-country travel. This was the route I had used when first visiting the Big Arroyo a number of years earlier. Two other adjustments to this route can be used to make it the quickest and easiest possible. One is to utilize Hands and Knees Pass. Secor refers to this as Cyclamen Lake Pass, and his route to it (over Sawtooth Pass) is not the easiest. As described by the ranger at Little Five Lakes who uses this regularly, it is best to go over Glacier Pass to Spring Lake, then climb to Hands and Knees directly from the lake. Lastly, the heavily switchbacked trail up from Mineral King can be mostly avoided by taking the old abandoned trail that ascends the north side of Monarch Creek. The trail is hard to follow after about 9,600ft, but the cross-country travel NE to Glacier Pass is easy to manage. All told, this route is about 26mi round trip, with about 11,000ft of elevation gain. Not an easy day by any measure, but certainly not in the "impossible" category either.

Matthew Holliman, Rick Kent, and I slept in one of the rustic cabins at Silver City the night before. Or at least the part of the night before 1a when the alarm went off. It was 2a before we had dressed, breakfasted, and driven the four miles to Mineral King trailhead. Headlamps ablaze, we started off up the steep trail. Headlamps weren't absolutely necessary as we had a 3/4 moon high overhead, and I found the going easier on my eyes to simply leave the headlamp off. There were few trees to shade the trail and the moon was sufficient for navigation. Matthew and I had hiked to Sawtooth and Needham peaks the day before as a warmup, a bit too much of a warmup it turns out, as that 9hr outing left our legs rather tired. We had managed to make it to Glacier Pass in an 1.5hrs that day (we wanted to scout the pass to see if snow would block the route), but felt much slower today. It wasn't that much slower in reality, as we made it to the pass at 3:40a, only ten minutes slower.

The moon dimly illuminated the Great Western Divide several miles to the northeast, and we could see much of the route down towards Spring Lake and even Hands and Knees Pass. Matthew had started down the pass first, but didn't make it more than about ten feet before he paused to consider the terrain more carefully. When we had looked at it the day before in daylight, it seemed a steep, but straightforward class 3 descent for about 40ft. Now it seemed a very loose class 3 and more than a bit awkward by headlamp to descend. Had we scouted it more carefully or I had used my memory to greater advantage, we might have found that this wasn't in fact the usual descent route. The old trail was blasted through the volcanic rock at a more gentle angle, starting from a point about 50ft from where we were. None of this occurred to me until we had made the spicy descent and reconvened ourselves in the boulder field below. I made sure to point out where I thought the trail went to the others so that they would have an easier time should we be separated and returning at night.

Continuing down, we picked up the old trail and followed it through meadows and slabs down a thousand feet to Spring Lake. We crossed the lake's outlet and followed the high ground between Spring Lake and a smaller one to the east, then ascended the righthand side of the west-facing slope heading up to Hands & Knees Pass. It was only a week earlier that we had decided to give this a try based on a recommendation from Morgan Brown who had travelled it a month earlier. It was a great piece of beta and we had no trouble negotiating the slope or the traverse across to the ridge dividing Big Five Lakes from Little Five Lakes. From there we dropped down into Little Five Lakes arriving at the lake outlet near the ranger station just before 6:30a. We stopped here for our first break after nearly 4.5hrs. It was just before daylight and the waters were calm as could be. It looked like another fine day in the Sierra was in store for us. After eating and filling up on water, we headed for the Big Arroyo.

The next three miles were all on maintained trail, allowing us to make good time for this next descent. The sun came up on Mts. Eisen, Lippincott, and the upper reaches of the Kaweah peaks. Black Kaweah, visible since we had crossed over into Little Five Lakes Basin, no longer looked so far away. But the closer we got, the further we descended in the Big Arroyo and the higher and more imposing Black Kaweah became. Finally reaching the river (an easy crossing this time of year), it was now 7:40a and we had more than 4,000ft of gain to Black Kaweah's summit. We took another break here, filled up on more water, checked the bear box for emergency rations (there were two REI bags full of food, but we'd have no reason to pilfer any of it) and scoped out the old log cabin that still stands in good condition.

Where we reached the junction with the trail heading to Kaweah Gap we left the trail and started cross-country up through the forest. It was steep going here and Matthew began to slow down a bit. Rick and I would wait periodically to get him in sight again, then continue up without giving him a rest in turn - no mercy for the slow on this outing. Matthew of course was well aware of this muling strategy and would simply stop for a short pause when he needed it, ignoring our silent pleas to speed it up. We climbed up through a high meadow and then further to the tarn southwest of the summit at the halfway point between the Big Arroyo and the summit. Here we took another break at our last location to procure water before heading for the summit. Waiting for the others to arrive, I had plenty of time to rest and eyeball the route ahead. Though cast in shadow, I could make out the two chutes on the SW Face, the Righthand Chute that starts the route, and then the main chute to the left that takes one to the summit. I wondered if the main chute couldn't be climbed directly from the bottom as I sat there and pondered Secor's words concerning the peak, " it deserves more attention." To me, that meant there are probably other routes worth looking at.

When we started off again we guessed we had about two more hours of climbing to the summit. It was a bit optimistic as the route is much longer than it appears to be from below. Ahead of the others, I followed a route over slabs, boulders, some snow and finally a tedious talus fan to the base of the main chute. A 10-foot chunk of cliff blocked easy access to the chute, but a 6-inch crack looked to offer a class 4 route up. While waiting for the others, I wandered to the left of the main chute to eye another possible route up that I had observed on the approach. The entry was a mean-looking chimney that might be class 4, and might actually connect with the broken ledge system I had traced out in my imagination from below. I would keep it as a backup to the main chute if that didn't go.

Before trying the main chute via the crack, I looked around to see if I couldn't find an easier ascent route. The alternatives looked more awkward, so I returned to attack the crack. A well-designed vertical crack on the lefthand wall made the ascent easier than it had appeared. It took a hand easily, and with a few nice chockstones wedged in the crack for footholds, it made for a straightforward ascent. Still, it would have to be classified as class 4 and was certainly not an easier alternative to the standard start in the Righthand Chute. I wasn't sure if the others knew I was not at the standard start as they followed in a similar fashion up the talus fan to where I was waiting. Yes, they knew it wasn't the regular start, but they decided to go and see what Bob was up to before dismissing it out of hand. Rick was next to reach the base of the chute, and I sat 15ft above him smiling as he made the same cursory checks for alternatives that I had before returning to the crack. After Rick came Matthew, but Matthew was not so certain that the crack was as straightforward as I was claiming. He pulled on one of the chockstones to find it a bit loose and bit unnerving. He seemed to be surprised by the looseness and I had to laugh thinking the whole route was likely to display this trait. For thirty seconds he appeard to struggle with the idea that we were possibly crazy to head up this way, or worse - just stupid. Overcoming this lack of confidence in our choice, he scrambled up out of the crack. "I hope you aren't intending us to go down this way as well," he offered.

We moved up the next 40ft or so over easy class 3 ledges which led to a second headwall just below the junction with the top of the ramp from the Righthand Chute. Again we pondered the various possibilities to get up the next 20ft, and each of us ended up taking a different variation, all class 4. We were greeted by the great cavernous main chute above, two cairns marking the transition point to the ramp from the Righthand Chute. At this point it became more evident that I had misjudged the length of the route from below - there was a lot more climbing ahead as the chute seemed to go on a great distance and disappear around a corner. In fact, another hour's worth. But oh, what an hour that was. What looked like a short scramble from below was a long, intricate bit of legwork. The route-finding was not hard - the chute is huge and wide and quite obvious in most places. The underlying rock was solid for the most part, the loose bits confined to pieces already sprinkled about the ledges and other places that could hold it. Very few holds at all were loose. The climbing was sustained and difficult class 3, and it is easy to see how others could judge it to be class 4. At one point where I could find no obvious way up the main chute I moved to the arete on the left side to climb a 20-foot section around the difficultly. Only after doing most of this bypass did I notice the cairns marking the route - others had evidently struggled with the same section. For about half of the route I kept Rick in sight below me, who in turn kept Matthew in sight behind him. I knocked down one baseball-sized rock in that time that zipped past Rick who shouted out "Rock!" below him. Later I would let Matthew know it was I, not Rick, responsible for that little surprise. After that I kept a closer watch on what I might knock down. Eventually I lost sight of the others and simply continued climbing to the end of the chute where it ended at the West Ridge. From there I pondered the steep finish up the West Ridge, but opted for the obvious right-leaning ramp to the south side of the summit. Then it was a short 15 feet or so up blocks and I was on the summit.

11:45a, or 9hr45min. I was elated, as one might expect. It hadn't been easy, but it hadn't been as hard as I had expected. Of course, we still had to get back. I took pictures of the surrounding views, a very picturesque perspective. One could see as far north as Mt. Goddard and the Palisades, a fine profile view of the Whitney area, and south to the Domelands and beyond. I briefly checked out the East Ridge route on the crest towards Red Kaweah, but found it frightful looking - how it could be only class 4 was beyond me. There was no way I was going to try that for an alternative descent today. I took a seat among the rocks, prepared to settle in for a good reading of the summit register. I was delighted to find it still intact, just as described. It had taken a little wear since the last photo I saw of it. The spine was weak and it sported a couple pieces of duct tape to hold it together, but the pages were as readable as ever. The first entries dated from 1924 by a California Alpine Club group, none of whose names I could recognize. But the other pages were filled with recognizeable names from Clyde/Farquhar in the 1920's to Eichorn/Dawson in the 1930's to Andy Smatko in the 1950's and a host of other names right on through the turn of this century. Doug Mantle looks to have the most ascents at six currently, followed by Norman Clyde with four. The most interesting entry is from Walter (Pete) Starr Jr, who climbed the peak in 1932, and lacking an instrument to write his name with, signed the register in blood which is still legible.

While I was perusing the register I heard Rick's voice and then spotted him a few hundred yards off on the West Ridge. He had left the main chute before its terminus and had climbed to the exposed West Ridge. From there he proceded to scramble up, over, and around all the obstacles along the ridge to reach the summit. He bypassed the last easy ramp in favor of continuing his journey along the ridge. When I called out to ask him why he was taking the hard way, his response was simply, "Just playing around."

Rick was about 20 minutes behind me in reaching the summit, Matthew another 30 minutes behind Rick. We got a picture of the three of us on the summit and all took turns photographing the pages of the register. Having found many registers missing from summits in the past few years, none of us held out much hope that the register would remain on the summit another 80 years though the book was but half full. Matthew smiled as he looked over the register in his turn, commenting, "This makes the whole day worthwhile."

We stayed atop the peak until 1p before starting our descent. Going down first, I found it impossible to avoid kicking rocks down below me. And though we had helmets, I was nervous about the rocks that would inevitably come down from the others. I would look at Rick above me and he'd pause, let me get through a narrow section, then I'd move to the side and start descending again. Mostly because I didn't have to worry about knocking down rocks as much as the others, I made faster time on the descent and soon lost sight of them. This made me feel safer since the rocks were no longer coming down and in fact I couldn't even hear them around the corner in the chute above me. When I reached the cairns marking the top of the ramp from the Righthand Chute I chose to turn right (west) and see if I couldn't find the alternate route I had been eyeing from below. It was a bit circuitous, but all of it went class 3 except for the steep chimney at the very bottom. Looking down it from above I was a bit hesitant, but I turned around to face the mountain and slowly made my way down, picking the safest holds I could find and making very deliberate moves to keep from doing anything in haste. Reaching the bottom of the chimney and the top of the talus fan, I was happy to be done with the technical part of the day. The rest would be an exercise in returning safely and hopefully without undue pain and suffering.

I scrambled down to the small snowfield above the tarn and turned to look for the others. I watched them reach the cairns and search about for the ramp down from the main chute. Apparently it wasn't obvious from above as I watched them take a few false turns which left them looking down cliffs, but eventually they backtracked and found the proper ramp and the Righthand Chute. I continued down without stopping again until I reached the tarn where I made myself more powdered drink. Rick and Matthew had just descended below the snow and were picking their way through the boulder field. This was the last I saw of them as I continued down to the Big Arroyo. From the lowpoint, I knew I had about 3,000ft of gain remaining, broken into three roughly equal pieces - the hike up to Little Five Lakes, then the climb up to Hands & Knees Pass, then the final climb up to Glacier Pass. Breaking the return into little goals helped make it more manageable in my head, and the time passed by quickly. I came across a couple of backpackers on their way down from Little Five Lakes, the only other persons I saw all day. I rinsed my face in the creeks and Lakes along the way, then soaked my hat in the water to keep my head cool for the warm temperatures encountered in the afternoon.

I made it up to Hands & Knees Pass by 6p and then to Glacier Pass an hour later. The sun had just set as I went over the last pass, and it grew dark quickly. I needed to pull out my headlamp as I reached the old trail near Monarch Creek, and plodded the last hour by it's beam of light. Without the moon I could see no further than the small patch illuminated by the lamp, giving me tunnel vision and making for a more difficult descent than the ascent had been in the morning by moonlight. My feet had begun to complain and hot spots to form on my toes and one heel. I ignored these signs of impending blisters as I knew the trail was coming to an end. I finally reached the trailhead at 8:45p, nearly 19hrs after starting out. Though one of my longest outings it was not the toughest, but certainly the most rewarding - the dayhike of Black Kaweah had been successful!

I returned in Matthew's car to Silver City, drank some gatorade and hard lemonade while devouring a sizeable portion of Sun Chips in the way of dinner. I had showered and been in bed more than two hours before the others arrived back at midnight. They were probably two hours behind me when darkness overtook them around Hands and Knees Pass, and with the extra amount of darkness were three hours behind before they returned to Mineral King. We slept well that night, not rising until after 8a the next morning.

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