Sawtooth Peak North
(How not to descend Sawtooth)

23 Aug 2008 - by Jeff Cannon

This entry is added for the general edification of the hiking community in light of the lack of beta on the standard route up Sawtooth Peak. Many of the entries listed speak of climbing from the south or east. What would have been helpful to me pertains to the descent of this fine peak.

As for the climb, there is an old trail that contours up the north side of the Monarch Creek drainage, which will save considerable time for the day hiker. It was a very well built trail and is still in fairly good shape with only minor inconveniences from bushes and rock fall. To access this trail, look for an otherwise out of place trail sign pointing east toward Monarch Lakes. Since trail signs rarely occur except at junctions, this is the tip that if you pass the sign heading North you will be on the old trail. Another sign 50 yards or so up warns that this route is not maintained.

Whichever way you chose to access the trail up to Sawtooth Pass, it is best to realize that the official trail makes large switchbacks that extend much further North on the slope than you will naturally want to go. There are many routes down the scree slope that are really no fun at all to climb. They remind me of trying to climb the steep side of a sand dune.

Once the Pass is attained, the route to the summit is fairly straightforward. The main use trail will traverse more of less level with the top of the pass for about 1/4 mile before the climbing needs to start. Climbing too soon will lead to a maze of boulders and lots of class three work. By waiting until you are nearly even with Upper Monarch Lake in the basin below before turning upward, the bouldering is avoided until the summit is nearly reached.

The true summit block is more like a fin with nowhere to sit. There is a large flattish block on the southeast side which is perfect for soaking in the magnificent views of the whole southern half of the range including the Kaweah group and the Whitney region.

Now we come to the reason for this report. After retracing your steps to the west and reaching the point at which you MUST turn north and return to Sawtooth Pass, you WILL be sorely tempted to follow the many use trails of idiots like me who thought they would save time by descending directly to upper Monarch Lake. RESIST YOUR INNER LEMMING. This is a big mistake. Like me, you will be tired and think this is an 'appealing' alternative. The only thing you will be 'pealing' is your skin!

I relearned an old lesson on this trip, don't go down anything you haven't first gone up or heard about from someone who has! Where the scree is soft and easy to descend on the face of Sawtooth Pass, here it is crusty and rutted. As you descend, the cliff bands increase in size and regularity making it quite difficult to find a way through.

Just when I thought I had it made, I reached about a 10 foot cliff that seemed to have ample scree below it and a nice run out. After getting as low as possible before hopping down, I expected to harmlessly slide to a stop after my jump. Instead, my feet caught and I began cart wheeling down the slope coming to rest on the absolute brink of a 50 foot cliff! I was immediately reminded that God takes care of the dumb and the stupid. After thanking Him for His continued mercy, I dragged my wagon to the lake where it took a complete bath and triage routine to make myself presentable enough to hike back to the car without scaring the women and children in the region.

Finally, I heartily recommend this as an exhilarating day hike of about 12 miles. The 4500 feet of climbing (and descending) make it a great training hike and Sawtooth really does have some of the best views in all the southern Sierra. Just don't miss that turn!

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