Picket Guard: Pretty good!

19-27 Aug 2003 - by Debbie Bulger

May every peak you climb be as good as Picket Guard: good solid granite, a great view, and a summit block that is airy enough to make you feel that you have accomplished something.

Half the fun is getting there. Picket Guard is off the beaten track. Richard Stover and I climbed this 12,302 foot peak on the fifth day of a nine-day backpack. On the way we discovered the secret haunts of Bighorn sheep, uncovered a botanical wonder, spent a night on a ledge, and relaxed in a natural hot spring.

Our route began at Mineral King crossing over Glacier Pass and Black Rock Pass to Little Five Lakes. From there we traveled east, then north on the Chagoopa Plateau crossing into the Kaweah Basin at "Kaweah Pass." After establishing a camp on Picket Creek we climbed Picket Guard then descended to the Kern-Kaweah River and eventually to the Kern River. From the Kern we returned to Mineral King via the Rattlesnake Creek drainage crossing over Franklin Pass.

On the first day we hiked up the Sawtooth Pass Trail, heading north before Sawtooth Pass to cross Glacier Pass. We had originally planned to hike all the way to Little Five Lakes that first day, but arrived at Spring Lake at 4 p.m. so camped there. Glacier Pass was not difficult, but we had to take off our heavy packs twice and hand them down on the easy third class descent. We each had about 14 pounds of food and an unwieldy bear can apiece. To save weight, we used only one sleeping bag opened flat over us with a couplet sheet zipped to the bottom. A mother blue grouse with three half-grown young cheered us on as we passed the lowest Monarch Lake.

The next morning we wasted about an hour contouring at the 10,000 foot level (as recommended in Secor) to the Black Rock Pass. It would have been quicker to drop into the drainage and climb up to the trail. The shallow switchbacks of Black Rock Pass are a grunt and seem to go on forever.

The Patrol Cabin at the junction of the Big Arroyo and High Sierra Trails is charming with hand-wrought iron door hinges. We found a lovely, hidden, level campsite at the third stream crossing along the High Sierra Trail. Quite an accomplishment on this sloped terrain at about 10,000 feet.

At the junction of the High Sierra Trail and the connector to Moraine Lake, we started due east cross county heading for Chagoopa Creek. This shortcut involved a bit of talus hopping, but I believe saved us time. On the way we discovered several "puzzle rocks" - rocks that had eroded from repeated freezing and thawing resulting in something that looked like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.

After we hit Chagoopa Creek, we walked north on the easy ridge east of the creek. The upper part of the Chagoopa Plateau is a real treat, dotted with foxtail pines. The hiking is easy and the ground bore evidence of sheep passage. By studying the map and the signs on the ground, we concluded that the sheep easily cross Red Spur and travel to and from the Green Triangle to the north protected by the sheer walls of the Kern Canyon. A secret sheep getaway.

We started over "Kaweah Pass" at 4:30 p.m. and reached the saddle by 6:30 p.m. Secor is not kidding when he indicates "loose rock!". You touch it; it moves. Big rocks and small. Given our heavy packs and the added complication of a steep rock band that was not on the topo, we ran out of time on what we had thought would be an easy descent. Just before dark we leveled out a sleeping ledge and collected water from a nearby trickle.

I guess it's not a bivouac if you have your backpack with you. We simply spread out our bag and spent a comfortable night. Instead of cooking, we snarfed down a bag of corn chips I had been saving for evening snacks.

Lying out under the stars, Richard pointed out various constellations, and we observed shooting stars before we fell asleep. It's always handy to have an astronomer with you when stuck on a ledge.

The next morning we disassembled our packs and lowered the awkward bear cans as best we could. Those suckers are slippery! They ought to be called Bear Can'ts, not Bear Cans. It took us three hours to finish the descent. Richard dubbed the pass "Pass Tense."

Finally in the Kaweah Basin. And what a discovery: Bristlecone pine trees! I had no idea there were any Bristlecones in the Sierra. This lovely basin has no trails into it, and is seldom visited. Yet even here in this remote place we found two balloons, one from San Luis Obispo. Now the trip was official. Our wonderful campsite was on the next-to-last lake on Picket Creek. (There are more than shown on the map.)

Climbing Picket Guard was a delight and quite easy. From the top we had spectacular views of Whitney, Williamson, the Kaweahs, Triple Divide Peak, and the Kern River Canyon. There was no summit register. I climbed the third class summit block and Richard happily photographed me from below.

How does one get from Picket Lakes to the Kern-Kaweah River? Very carefully. We chose the class 3 descent on the unnamed creek 1/2 mile to the southeast of Picket Creek. We ended up having to hand down our packs a few times, and once I dropped mine and watched in horror as it ker-thumped down the slope headed for the creek. Luckily, it stopped short of taking a bath. The descent was beautiful and a fun puzzle to solve. Thrashing through the willows at the bottom finally brought us to the Colby Pass Trail.

This section of the Colby Pass Trail seems little traveled and very poorly maintained. One steep section through a notch was completely washed out in places and without doubt the worst official trail I have ever traversed.

Richard hugged the huge juniper when he got to the top. Luckily, the rain started after we were through the notch and off the exposed section of the trail.

To my surprise, the plant community was much like eastside high desert with Mountain Mahogany, manzanita and sagebrush as we descended to the Kern River. And then, at Junction Meadow, the old growth forest began. Full of magnificent Jeffrey Pines and huge red and white fir trees. At times I felt like Little Red Riding Hood in Sondheim's metaphor for the complexities of life. I was heading "Into the Woods." Other times I felt as if I were in the Santa Cruz Mountains instead of the Sierra. Huge trees with an understory of ferns.

The next day, the rain paused briefly just as we arrived at Kern Hot Springs. Just enough time for a glorious soak and much needed wash (no soap). After we were dried and dressed, the rain began again. Perfect timing. As we set up camp that evening, the whole sky opened and a deluge let loose. Tent up just in time!

Signs of the impending autumn were all around. Lots of naked pine cobs discarded by Douglas squirrels collecting the pine nuts in their cheek pouches for winter storage. The bushes were heavy with berries: red and black currents, native blackberries, thimbleberries, elderberries, and manzanita bushes full of plump "little apples." The broad leaves of the corn lilies were riddled with lacy holes, and the asters were in full bloom.

From the Kern River we plodded up the Rattlesnake Creek Trail and returned to Mineral King in two days crossing over Franklin Pass. Our last evening was cold with the temperature dropping into the 30s.

Michael Gordon adds:

> I guess it's not a bivouac if you have your backpack with you.

No, it's a bivouac if a backpack is the *only* thing you have :)

> Finally in the Kaweah Basin. And what a discovery: Bristlecone pine trees! > I had no idea there were any Bristlecones in the Sierra.

I'm not so certain about this. The White Mtns. are described as the westernmost location supporting Bristlecones. Perhaps you saw Foxtails or Limber Pines that looked uncharacteristically like bristlecones?

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