We had a recent report from Palmer Dyal indicating Glacier Pass (a cross country route from the Sawtooth Pass trail to Blackrock Pass) was blocked by icy snow that required crampons. Since I was the only one comfortable with a pack on ice, the others headed over Timber Gap while I went over Glacier Pass (waypoint GLACPS) to verify conditions. We planned to all come out over Glacier Pass if possible, picking up Needham on the way. Sure enough, there was a band of ice below the pass. A rock I threw on it clattered instead of digging in, so I put on crampons and felt relieved that Palmer had warned us. (A 50m rope would have reached across the narrowest spot, but this was smooth ice and completely uncrossable without crampons.)
John and Jason wheezed up to Blackrock Pass (waypoint BLKRCK) about an hour after I got there, having done over 1000' of extra gain and several miles to bypass the ice (for a total gain of over 6000'). We decided that chopping steps or working around in the deep moat would be preferable on the way out, backed up by my 80' static rope... and headed down the north side of Blackrock to find a campsite. No one had seen Larry et. al. since leaving the cars, and it was late enough that we figured they had bailed. (It turns out they stopped at Pinto Lake and climbed no peaks this weekend.)
From our 10800' campsite (waypoint L5CAMP), it was a dropping traverse around to the biggest of the Little Five Lakes. It's really "little ten lakes", since there is a topo map boundary down the middle and each map labels a different group of five! The forest and slabs here are stunning... with crunchy frozen mud and fall plant smells adding to the surreal morning light, we agreed the long pack in had been worth it!
Past trip reports cast doubt on Lippincott's second class rating, with experienced leaders indicating it is class 3 or 4 via the east ridge. Stay on the trail from Little Five as it begins to drop into Big Arroyo. Leave the trail just after crossing a shoulder, around 10400', and contour to the north shore of Lake 10295. Wonderful footing near the lakes inlet stream leads you to the higher lake at 10800, where you can head directly toward the peak on easy second class boulders and sand (the ESE face or bowl). Instead of using the 3rd class east ridge (rated 2nd by Secor) cross the south ridge onto the south face at the highest saddle (11800, waypoint SADDLE). This saddle does not show on the map, but is quite obvious when you are there... stay near the ridgeline and climb the south face to the peak if you want to keep it 2nd class. (We ascended directly to the peak, which requires a few third class moves.)
This was Jason's first Sierra Nevada peak! It's always a privilege to share the mountains with a newcomer, and especially THIS peak with its view of the Kaweahs, Alta/Table, and the east side of the Kern. Great climbing, great views, and great weather (not a cloud, no wind, no bugs). We spent too much time on the summit (over an hour) but it was just too nice to rush off.
I know we spent too much time because John dropped my indestructible mechanical pencil (ca. 1970, originally stolen from the Alaska Railroad when I worked there but carried to over 200 California peaks and three continental high points) down under the summit blocks, where it will remain for all time. If you're in the area with a heavy block and tackle, could you move a few of the summit boulders and retrieve it for me? I've grown attached in the last 20 years... and I promised John I'd never let him forget it!
Heading back to camp we realized there probably was not enough time to climb Eisen comfortably. John and Jason took a dip in the lake while I packed and headed for Blackrock Pass. I did the ugly traverse north to Eisen from there, not wanting to solo 3rd class from the more friendly east side approach. (If you are in the area, there is an undocumented 2nd class chute from the east side to Eisen's south ridge: ascend SW from the small lake at 11000' to the saddle just over 11600'. It's steep but there are no cliffs I could see from above.) The traverse is tedious and dangerous. The rocks are loose but not loose enough to kick into. The ridgeline goes 3rd class in places, and the traverse is sometimes blocked by buttresses that force you down into sand or up into tougher rock.
In any event, I got back to my pack right about dark completely exhausted from the surprisingly tough and steep traverse. John and Jason had already reached Cliff Creek, where they set up camp and left a candle lantern burning to show me where they were. That damn candle seemed to stay the same distance away as I plodded down the switchbacks, but eventually (about 830pm) I dropped my pack, gulped some hot chocolate, and crawled into my bivy bag feeling more wiped out than I had all summer... and it was only a 4800' day!
The next morning we agreed Needham was off the agenda, and headed for Glacier Pass. I shuttled all three packs up the ice with crampons while John and Jason wormed around the moat (where the ice had melted back from the rock). It was tough going, but easier than trying to chop steps... and easier than the Timber Gap trail they had hiked in on. Over Glacier Pass, we headed SW straight down the drainage without following the trail over to Monarch Lake. This route joins the old Sawtooth Pass trail (the one shown on the 15' topos) at about 9700' (waypoint GLACTJ), and in turn the old trail meets the new trail at the stream crossing around 8700' (waypoint TRAILJ). The old trail is in reasonable shape, is much shorter, and the lower end of it is now quite visible because a fire has burned off all the bad brush. (It is technically abandoned, but many prefer it to the graded-for-pack-mules trail on the other side of the drainage.)
Strangely enough, we met the other half of our group just before we got back on the trail! They had done a nice backpack loop through Big Five Lakes, and were coming down from Sawtooth Pass. We caught up on each other's trips as we walked back to the cars, and were home in time for dinner.
If anyone wants to climb Needham, via Sawtooth Peak or Amphitheater Lake, let me know! Craig Taylor and I have talked about doing it mid-week, but if it snows this weekend it will have to wait for next year. Might be a long day hike, more comfortable as a 1.5-day trip. I still need ham.
Download the Waypoint+ data below as a GPX file for your GPS.
Datum,North America 1983,GRS 80,0,-1.6E-7,0,0,0 RN,11 ,EISEN LIPPINCOTT RP,D,RANGER, 36.452663542,-118.6106462125,12/31/1989,00:00:00,MIN KING RANGER- RP,D,TRAILH, 36.453194619,-118.5972029809,12/31/1989,00:00:00,SAW TIMBER TRAIL RP,D,TRAILJ, 36.456118227,-118.5860128049,12/31/1989,00:00:00,OLDNEW TRAIL JCT RP,D,GLACTJ, 36.456327439,-118.5781861190,12/31/1989,00:00:00,GLACIER PASS JCT RP,D,BBMC01, 36.453924180,-118.5665667895,12/31/1989,00:00:00,MONARCH BEAR BOX RP,D,GLACPS, 36.464030744,-118.5674090032,12/31/1989,00:00:00,GLACIER PASS---- RP,D,BLKRCK, 36.485981942,-118.5520399455,12/31/1989,00:00:00,BLACKROCK PASS-- RP,D,L5CAMP, 36.491480471,-118.5432530288,12/31/1989,00:00:00,CAMP ABOVE L5 LK RP,D,LIPPIN, 36.521381737,-118.5629994515,12/31/1989,00:00:00,LIPPINCOTT MTN-- RP,D,SADDLE, 36.519536377,-118.5623557214,12/31/1989,00:00:00,LIPP S RDG SADDL RP,D,BBCC04, 36.492934228,-118.5360325221,12/31/1989,00:00:00,L5 LAKE BEAR BOX RP,D,EISEN , 36.498250366,-118.5684926156,12/31/1989,00:00:00,MOUNT EISEN-----