Lamont Loop with Spanish Needle and Sawtooth

1 Nov 1995 - by Steve Eckert

After being snowed out of the area (Smith and Crag) earlier this spring, I vowed to come back before the snow set in and finish the job. For me, "finish" meant climbing at least two peaks in each of the SPS's 24 regions of the Sierra Nevada. I've been climbing here on and off for 15 years, but realized that there were still places that I had not visited. The SPS Peaks List provided me with a way to find those places - and showed me that I had never set foot in 7 of the 24 regions!

So here I was, on the first of November with only one region left to visit. I wanted to climb more than one peak, to get a feel for the area, so I decided to do a loop including Lamont Peak, Spanish Needle, and Sawtooth Peak. The day before had seen lots of clouds and some gusty winds, but I slept without a tent just to tempt fate. I awoke to that soft silence you get when the clouds envelope you. There was not a noise to be heard, except a few wayward mosquitoes that had not yet been frozen (the trailhead is 5500 feet). With the cloud cover, it stayed pretty warm all night, but the fog was heavy enough that the trees were "raining" slightly. I packed an extra sweater, and headed up the trail.

My map of this area (Chimney Peak Recreation Area) does not show a road at all. The forest service map says it's a four wheel drive route, but I found the dirt connector (Canebrake Road) between Nine Mile Canyon Road (to Kennedy Meadow, the one near Little Lake off 395) and 178 (just west of Walker summit) was in great shape. No obstacles at all, except the usual washboards, and quite negotiable in my Honda.

In just over an hour, I had found my way to Lamont Peak in the fog. The trail is in great shape for the most part, but I lost it when I tried to keep going east to join the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I had no view of the supposedly spectacular pinnacles around Lamont, and was lucky to see over 50 yards. The altimeter and compass were out a lot as I studied the map and wondered where the trail was. For such a short climb, it's not done all that often. One PCS name that stood out was Peter Rosmarin (who was there on his 51st birthday - now everyone knows, Peter!).

Eventually, of course, the trail showed up again on the ridge I was following to the east. Quite nice, too. Just as wide as the PCT, but grown over with weeds and lack of use. Still heading east, I joined the PCT and headed for the base of Spanish Needle. This part of the PCT is quite unusual because there are large stands of oak trees - all of which were decked out in yellow fall colors. The fallen leaves carpeted the trail and provided a welcome relief from the sagebrush and mule ears that dominate this elevation range.

The REAL fun began where the PCT touches the divide at a large saddle! The cross country route to Spanish Needle is bare-knuckle, loose-and-steep, up- and-down, NASTY from this point! Then, as you near the peak, it becomes decomposed granite with big round cliffs and sand on top. The instructions in "Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side" (by J.C. Jenkins) are quite good, but remember they were written 20 years ago. The "saplings" have all grown up, thank you, and are now blocking the described route. It works, but between crawling under the trees and frictioning on fog-dampened lichen and sand, I was not having all that much fun. The clouds were starting to clear at this point, so at least I got some hazy views. This peak has only been climbed three times this year, so if you want a challenge and some solitude, this is the place for you. The third class is not really all that tough and only about 100 feet total vertical, but some places have almost nothing to hang onto.

Back on the PCT, it was now 11 am. I looked over at Sawtooth, and figured I really DID have time to do it. Of course, each of the three peaks was taller than the last and there were serious downhill stretches in between, but it was still early. Sawtooth is the tallest of the peaks I climbed on this day, at 7970 feet, so none of them are giants by normal Sierra standards. I followed the PCT to the next saddle on the crest, then headed straight up the ridge. There are a lot of tracks, and a lot of bushes, and you get to step on and over and under both. Easy boulders and a nice view reward the hot sandy climb.

The descent route from Sawtooth goes into a steep-walled little canyon that looks like it will dead-end at a waterfall. The guidebook, however, is quite right to recommend this beautiful class 2 canyon, which dumps you back onto the PCT. Above the canyon entrance, the use trail(s) go through steep sandy pinyon-covered slopes, which seem to be showing signs of erosion but which provide a 5000 feet/hour descent route with no knee damage to worry about.

Rather than following the PCT back to Canebrake Road, I cut cross-country to a ranch road and hoped to catch a ride back to my car. No luck. An hour of top-speed road walking got me back to clean clothes and extra food. After 6000 feet of gain/loss and just over 20 miles, I was ready to sit back and relax.

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