Kaweahs Leisure Week

29 Jul - 5 Aug 2002 - by Jim Ramaker

Bob Suzuki, Eddie Sudol, Vishal Jaiswal, and I set off on this eight-day trip on the morning of July 2, 2002. About a mile up the trail, Vishal complained of hip pain, and when we happened to lift his pack, it was easy to see why -- the thing must have weighed 80 pounds! (And Vishal is not a big guy.) We asked him what was in the pack ,and he was actually a bit light on warm clothes and sleeping gear, so he must have been carrying 40 to 50 pounds of food. After a break, we persuaded him to continue at a slower pace, but after another mile he decided to bail out from the trip, afraid that he might hold us up.

Bob, Eddie, and I continued on, stopping for lunch at Monarch Lake and then hiking up the soft, sandy trail to Glacier Pass (11,080). The north side of the pass had loose class-2 boulders and a moderately angled snowfield, nicely softened in the afternoon sun (in the morning, it may require an ice axe and crampons). As we passed Spring Lake in the late afternoon, the mosquitoes became apocalyptic, and we ran past the lake and started the climb up to Black Rock Pass (11,600).

Around 7, it became clear that because of our 10 a.m. start and heavy packs, we weren't going to make it over the pass to our planned camp at Big Five Lakes before dark, and would have to bivvy on the steep slope heading up to the pass. This looked like it would be uncomfortable, but just east of the trail, we managed to find three small flat areas big enough for sleeping bags, and a small creek coming down from a snowfield above. With the nicely sculptured unnamed peak above Spring Lake to the east catching the evening light, and the lights of the Central Valley cities spread out to the west, this was actually one of the nicest camps I've seen.

Sunday morning we hiked over Black Rock Pass and got down to the bear box at Big Five Lakes by mid-morning. Dropping our gear, Bob and I headed off to climb Lippincott Mountain (12,260), while Eddie, not feeling well, rested in camp. Bob and I hiked down the trail for about 1/2 mile, then turned left and cross-countried through the woods to Lake 10,295. From there we climbed up to the right of some downsloping slabs to Lake 11,000, a especially beautiful lake surrounded by smooth slabs and soft grassy gardens. We then headed up the southeast face more or less straight toward the summit, which is class-2 with some strenuous class-3 blocks near the top. (To avoid the class-3, head for a notch on the south ridge and follow the ridge to the top.) The summit was windless and unusually hot for 12,000 feet. We descended, took a long nap at Lake 11,000, and arrived back in camp at 6:30. After supper, we fell into an exhausted sleep, broken only by the quiet thumping of deer poking around our camp.

On Monday morning we split our small party, with Bob heading cross- country to the north to do Eisen (12,160), and Eddie and I hiking down the trail into Big Arroyo with Red Kaweah (13,720) as our goal. The plan was for Eddie and me to find a camp at timberline on the creek heading up to Red Kaweah, mark it with a red handkerchief, and reunite with Bob for supper.

At the bottom of Big Arroyo, Eddie and I stashed food for later in the week in the bearbox just south of the old cabin, then stopped to talk to a group of about a dozen college students, who were the only people we saw during the middle five days of this trip. Led by two rugged-looking instructors, they were from Prescott College in Arizona, and were taking a natural history class that consisted of about 10 consecutive week-long hikes in the Sierras. We were impressed, and despite the heat and bugs, they were all in good spirits. On their fourth day out, the young women in the group looked like they'd just taken showers and put on clean clothes (how do they do that?).

Eddie and I headed uphill through the woods with full packs -- an exhausting slope of steep, soft dirt, loose scree, boulders, and small cliffs. Around noon we stopped at the first flat spot we came to -- a balcony-like ledge near the creek with just enough room for three sleeping bags. Instead of using my handkerchief, we draped Eddie's orange groundsheet over a boulder facing downhill and continued up through an area of gorgeous meadows and slabs to a large rockbound lake at 11,800.

After a break, we tackled the seemingly endless 2000' scree slope on the northwest side of Red Kaweah -- not a climb you want to do more than once. At the top of the scree is a cliff, which you pass on the right to get to more scree and finally to the summit, where we arrived at 4:15. We had a spectacular view of the steep, "sinister" (Secor's term) Black Kaweah, the sharp pinnacles to the south of it, and the vast hinterlands around Picket Guard Peak to the east. After a long break, we hurried down the scree, stopped at the rockbound lake for water, and then continued down out of the realm of rock. At 7:15 our camp came into view and we were glad to see Bob there setting up his tent. He said he'd spotted the groundsheet from half a mile away. By 8 we were eating supper and trading tales or our respective climbs.

Tuesday was the big day of our trip -- Black Kaweah (13,765). We left camp at 7, crossed into the next basin to the north, then hiked up over easy alpine terrain to a lake at 11,800 near the bottom of the face. The route descriptions say to climb a short way up the rightmost of two large chutes, then traverse into the left-hand chute and follow it to the top. The chutes are not obvious until you study the face for awhile -- it's a bit like the north face of Mt. Ritter in that respect. At 9:30 we put on our crampons and climbed a frozen snow slope up into the right-hand chute, until we were about 20 vertical feet below the bottom of a black waterfall pitch (dry when we were there). We then traversed left -- the best traverse line goes behind a smooth vertical slab about 50' wide and 20' high, which is obvious from below the peak. After traversing, it's important to head up the buttress between the chutes for several hundred feet before entering the left hand chute. This buttress is loose class 2-3, while the lower part of the left-and chute is smooth and quite steep.

Once we got in it, the left-hand chute had five short vertical steps of hard class-3, with the rest of it class 2-3. All of it is very loose and requires constant care to avoid rockfall. About 3/4 of the way up is an area of water- polished white slabs -- the area where Bob had roped up on his previous visit. We avoided these slabs by climbing a gravel ramp up to the left, then continuing up the buttress left of the chute. After a hundred feet or so, we were able to traverse back into the chute on an exposed ledge with a couple of class-4 moves. We reached the headwall at the top of the chute at 11:30, then climbed a scree ramp up to the right. Above that, a bit of class-3 and we were up. Yippee! Despite the loose rock, I thought it was a really nice climb. By climbing carefully, you can avoid knocking anything down -- it's not like some peaks with glacial rubble where any footstep sends down a cascade. To me it was an ideal Sierra climb -- some steep snow, some tricky routefinding, and lots of hard class-3 rock with a touch of class-4. And the remote setting with all of that steep black rock around you is hard to beat.

We relaxed on top for well over an hour, reading the historic register and enjoying the views. A recent addition to the summit is an engraved metal plaque to someone named Bruce Jay Nelson. According to the Internet, he was a respected mountaineer and computer scientist, and died not in a climbing accident, but from an untimely heart attack at age 47.

The descent required care, with the five vertical steps seeming harder than on the way up. Led astray by a duck, we started traversing back into the right-hand chute too high, which is an easy mistake to make and will put you above the vertical waterfall pitch. Luckily, I soon realized we were off route and we retraced our steps, destroyed the duck, and found the correct, lower traverse line. Soon we were back on easy ground at the top of the snow slope.

We took a long break at the rockbound lake at 11,800 below the peak, then another one in a beautiful meadow down at 11,100. It was a happy evening in our scenic "balcony camp," with Bob breaking out the deluxe summer sausage to celebrate our success (don't laugh, the stuff tastes great in the mountains).

Wednesday we had a mellow day climbing Big Kaweah (13,802), the hump-like peak to the south that resembles a jumbo-sized Mt. Dana. We cross- countried to the south through an area of meadows with huge trees that looked like an urban park in Paris. Like the rest of the Kaweahs, this peak has lots of loose rock, but we managed to avoid all of it by climbing up solid class-2 boulders to the left of the gully heading up to the saddle northwest of the peak. We then traversed southeastward along the crest of the ridge to the peak. It was all solid class-2, with beautiful views from the ridge.

For the descent, we decided to drop directly down the southwest slope -- a big mistake. About 1000' down this slope is a shattered cliff with some awful loose shit, and that was followed by endless sidehilling on unstable talus. Finally we dropped another 500' and found some better terrain, with areas of meadows and slabs. We finally got back to our creek several hundred feet above our camp, but better too high than too low. This is a big mountainside, the kind of area where a GPS could help you get back to your camp efficiently. We had time to relax for over an hour before cooking supper and spending our third night in our beautiful balcony camp.

Thursday morning we bid farewell to the Kaweah Peaks Ridge, dropped back into Big Arroyo to pick up some food at the bearbox, and then headed north on the trail. Around 11 a.m. the trail broke out of the hot buggy forest and into a nice area of green meadows and expansive views. The long, jagged west ridge of Black Kaweah was impressive -- Secor rates it class-3 but you'd never guess that from looking up at it.

A couple of hours later we set up camp at Lake 10,400 in Nine Lakes Basin -- one of the real beauty spots of the Sierras. Over lunch, we discussed our schedule for the rest of the week -- Triple Divide Peak was still far to the north and required climbing over a high pass and then descending into the basin of Lion Lake in order to get to it. Bob finally came up with an inviting solution -- skip Triple Divide, climb Lion Rock this afternoon, hike about 15 miles south tomorrow to get into position for Needham, then climb it on Saturday morning, hike out, and drive home one day early.

From Lake 11,100' high in Nine Lakes Basin, we climbed clean granite slabs and blocks up onto the south ridge of Lion Rock, then started traversing the ridge north toward the peak. According to the guidebook, this ridge has "a move or two" of class-4. No way -- the ridge has several sharp pinnacles that looked like they'd require a pitch or two of roped climbing. Our rope was stashed miles away near the bearbox, so our plan was to continue up the ridge until it got hard, traverse off to the left (west) into the bowl southwest of Lion Rock, and then climb from there up onto its west ridge.

When we tried this, we ran into a hidden cliff band low on the left side of the ridge, so we eventually had to backtrack along the ridge almost to where we got on it and descend into the bowl from there. The bowl was tedious and ugly -- loose boulders covered by soft snow, and it was already 4 p.m. We soldiered grimly on, our spirits lifted by Bob's constant chatter, and climbed up a loose, exhausting gully on the south side of the west ridge.

From the crest of the ridge, Bob spotted a high, smooth dagger of rock to the north and became quite excited at the prospect of a short death pitch. "That can't be the top," I whined. "I'm too tired to go that far and it looks too hard." Pulling out my photocopied page from Secor, I was surprised to see that I was right. It said to "follow the southern of two west ridges to the summit." We were on that ridge, but continuing up it looked harder than class-3, so we descended slightly into the wide gully between the two west ridges, climbed up the gully, up a smooth class-3 slab at its head, and then up onto the ridge to the left. A few exposed class-3 moves and we were up.

It was 5 p.m., and as was our usual practice, we took a nice long break despite the late hour. The descent into the bowl and the climb back up onto the south ridge went well, and by 6:30 we were at a nice vista point atop the south ridge, which justified another long break. Bob then led down the slabs and down past three lakes to our camp a couple of miles to the south. We had a celebratory banquet of summer sausage, cheddar cheese, and beef stroganoff, and had a happy 4th of July despite the lack of fireworks.

Friday we had a leisurely breakfast and then retraced our steps from Wednesday back down Big Arroyo to the bearbox, where we collected the rest of our food and some climbing gear. We then headed back uphill almost to our Sunday night camp at Little Five Lakes, then headed off on the trail to the south over a ridge to Big Five Lakes and then over a second ridge and down into Lost Canyon. Once again the weather was unseasonably warm, and the bugs, especially when we arrived at the creek in Lost Canyon at 6 p.m., quite bad. We hurried up the trail for a few more miles, finally finding a large area of sand, boulders, and small pine trees that was free of bugs. Lost Canyon is beautiful, with a nicely sculptured cliff on its south wall.

Saturday morning we hiked up the trail toward Sawtooth Pass (11,600). The plan was to branch off to the left at some point and climb Needham, but we figured that the higher we got before dropping our packs, the less elevation we'd have to descend and then reclimb after doing the peak. Eventually we decided, let's be really efficient and climb it from the pass.

Around 9 a.m. we arrived at Columbine Lake (11,000) -- a striking lake set in a basin of sculptured rock below the sheer north face of Sawtooth Peak (12,343). That justified another long break. After chatting with the first people we'd seen in four days, we continued up to Sawtooth Pass, hid our packs, and started traversing south across the west face of Sawtooth Peak. This went okay for awhile, then got steeper and steeper, until we crossed a rib and encountered big air. That's okay, we thought, we'll just backtrack a little bit and descend. Nope -- the lower part of the face has a cliff band running across it. Somehow we'd overlooked the little sentence in Secor saying that the only way to get from Sawtooth Pass to Needham is to climb over the summit of Sawtooth Peak. So we grudgingly headed up class-3 rock toward the summit of Sawtooth, about 500' above us. We gradually worked our way over to the cliff-edge on the right, from where we had our first clear view of Needham.

All three of us had the same thought -- what a crud heap -- an uninspiring pile of boulders separated from us by a mile of up and down scree slogging. Unfortunately for Bob, Needham was the last peak in the entire Mineral King - Kaweah area that he hadn't yet climbed. We worked our way up the class-3 face along the cliff edge, with Bob searching for a way to descend and head over to Needham. He and Eddie found a couple of possible ways down to the snow about 50' below, but I pointed out that we were almost out of water, it was 1 in the afternoon, and the trip over to Needham and back, and the hike down to the car would each take 4 hours or more, blowing our plan to drive home that night. After a long negotiation, Bob agreed to give up on Needham, and we headed up the pleasant class-3 blocks to the summit of Sawtooth, where all of us had been before. We then descended back to Sawtooth Pass the correct way, climbing on nice large blocks and ledges just left of the ridge crest.

On the hike out, I was punished for tampering with Bob's plans, as my four-year old boots quite suddenly gave out, and ridges of leather that had been developing inside them started tearing up my toes. I hobbled down the rocky trail on the north side of Monarch Creek with bloody feet, and was very glad to see the car when we reached it at 5:30.

The Pizza Factory down in Three Rivers was hot, crowded, and noisy. But after eight days out, sitting a table with a pitcher of ice water and a large pizza still seemed like heaven. We arrived home before midnight, and enjoyed a wonderful day of rest on Sunday.

Steve Eckert adds:

>Led astray by a duck, we started traversing

That's why I kick down so many of them. They are often built by people who are off route... I like "leave no trace", and normally knock my own ducks down on the way out.

>plan was to continue up the ridge until it got hard, traverse off to the
>left (west) into the bowl southwest of Lion Rock, and then climb from
>there up onto its west ridge.

I did that once, mostly on snow - it seemed a lot easier than you describe, but crampons and snow chutes are often the way to get past little cliffs and bad talus. Basic class 2 except for the steep snowy parts.

>Postscript: the next time I saw Bob, almost the first words out of his
>mouth were, "Hey, are you interested in a trip to Needham next summer?"

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