The forest may have been ablaze, but it was the fire within us that drove us to the heights. We camped Friday night at Atwell's Mill, alongside the Mineral King road. All night we inhaled wood smoke and listened to burning conifers fall over.
There had been six inches of snow the weekend before, so the superintendent believed there was enough moisture to contain a controlled burn. But the intervening week was a warm one, and when we gathered at the trailhead we opted to leave our snowshoes at the cars; the trail was dry. The hike to Vandever Peak was uneventful. The summit held a splendid view of Homer's Nose (which many of us had climbed in April '96) the valley of the Little Kern, and the southern end of the Great Western Divide. Although Saturday's hike was a long one - 15 miles and 4100 vertical feet - the excellent conditions allowed us to return to the trailhead with plenty of time to spare. Steve Eckert, Patrick Ibbetson, Dave McCracken, Charles Schafer, Suzanne Remien, and I climbed Saturday.
Saturday night, the fire below Atwell's Mill was even hotter. One tremendous, ancient Big Tree crashed down, shaking the ground like an earthquake. I wondered if a ranger would come by and order us to evacuate.
In the morning, with a crew change, we set out for Sawtooth Peak(N). Steve had backpacked on into the Little Kern, Pat went back home, and we were joined by Arun Mahajan and Mike DeLorenzo. We had originally intended to attempt Needham Mountain, but our Saturday team didn't finish with enough time left over to seriously consider a much bigger trip on Sunday. Maybe we'll come back and climb Needham as a two day backpack. Our climb was straightforward but long (12 miles and 4500 vertical feet). The summit views were a little less spectacular. To the west, we enjoyed watching helicopters bearing huge tanks dumping water on the fire. Some plumbing job! Mineral King Valley had filled with smoke, and we could see the brown haze even above 12000 feet. The vast southern rampart of the Great Western Divide confined the air pollution to the west, so we could still see the Whitney range to the east and the Kaweahs to the north. Arun found a business card stapled to the summit register. In giddy, hypoxic delight, he declared that our agreeable late season trip must be named after the advertised company. I never really understood why it was so apropos, but here is the trip title: All About Plumbing.