Black Kaweah 2010
|Date: September 16-18, 2010|
|Distance from Caltech: 5 1/2 hours|
|Rating: Class 3|
|Approach Distance: 10-15 miles|
This was my first real solo trip, I think, and definitely my first overnight solo. While it was a new and valuable experience to climb by myself, I don't think it's something I'll be repeating unless I have to - it's more fun to share the experience (hence this long TR) and is probably safer (though on this trip, going solo did at least practically eliminate the dangers of rockfall).
I finished work, packed up, and left Pasadena at 7. After more or less taking the correct route, I found the Mineral King road and made my way up. I remember the first time I took this road there were a lot of dirt sections, but by now most of it has been paved and the few remaining unpaved sections near the top are well-graded. My car with famously low clearance made it no problem. I arrived at the Sawtooth trailhead at about 1 and, exhausted, set up my sleeping bag next to the car and went to sleep.
At sunrise I was awoken to a sight feared by all trailhead sleepers: a bearded man in his 50s getting out of a big white truck. Amazingly, though, this was not a ranger but a local contractor who said he'd taken my picture in an effort to support a proposal for a trailhead campsite there (which I assume he'd be bidding for the construction of). A bit unnerving to be photographed sleeping by a stranger but hey at least I wasn't in trouble. I threw my stuff in the car while he was talking and drove back to the ranger station. The rangers arrived at 8 and were incredibly nice - when I sheepishly told them that my reservation for 6 was now just me they were only sympathetic. Later I would realize that I was the only person to go in on the Sawtooth trail that day, so thankfully I wasn't denying anyone else access.
I drove back to the trailhead and left at 9 am. I followed the trail for a bit, then took a left at an obvious use trail and headed up towards Glacier Pass. I think there are ways to stay on the trail longer than I did, but it was easy cross-country up the drainage. I talked to one guy coming down near the top, who would be the last person I'd see in a while - except for one fellow on Saturday (day 3) morning, I didn't see anyone on the Eastern side of the divide at all! I reached Glacier Pass at 11:35, took a short break, descended the 20-30 feet of easy (though rubble-strewn) class 3, crossed a little bit of remaining snow, and descended toward Spring Lake. I picked up a nice use trail on the way and followed it down. I reached the lake at 12:25, admiring the huge wall towering above the lake. I thought this might be the "Angel Wings" I'd read about in Secor, but despite its strong resemblance to three giant feathery wings, it wasn't. I climbed Cyclamen Pass slowly, probably not taking the best route and arriving at the top at 2:00. After crossing sand, dirt, plants, and mud, I scrambled the easy class 3 section at the top and had a view of the Big Five Lakes basin and, finally, Black Kaweah!
I traversed left toward the ridge separating the Big Five Lakes and Little Five Lakes basins. Along the way I managed to lose my footing on a very sandy scree slope and slid for a while before arresting with my trekking pole. I was uninjured save a few scrapes on my hand and nice hole in my pants and underwear, but it was enough to make me more respectful of loose sections! I continued to the Little Five Lakes Basin and descended to the Big Arroyo to camp for the night. I arrived at the old cabin at 4:50 to find an empty bear locker and nary a soul in sight. I made dinner, packed up for the next day, stashed my daypack in the locker, and was in my sleeping bag by sundown. I watched the last sun fade on the tip of Black Kaweah, more than 4000 feet above, peeking over the edge of the arroyo.
I got up at 5:45 to my alarm and found my sleeping bag covered in frost! I brushed most of it off, gathered my things, and was on the trail at 6:10. A few minutes later, I left the trail and headed up and left into the trees, hoping I was headed roughly in the direction of the bowl below Black Kaweah. Luckily I was, and after a couple of hours of slogging through trees, across rocks, and through a meadow, at 7:50 I arrived at the tarn below the peak. It was surprisingly cold there, and I had to put all my warm clothing back on. From the tarn I scrambled over increasingly steep and loose rocks and rubble to the bottom of the righthand chute on the Southwest Face. I found what I think is a fossilized plant in the rubble. Fortunately I was easily able to identify the two chutes and the black waterfall stain which marks the traverse from the righthand one to the left. The ramp leading to the lefthand chute was obvious - it was marked by a cairn and goes behind the highest of the large flakes between the chutes. There was as much loose rock and rubble as promised, and moving across a section of loose debris above a drop here was probably the most unnerving part of the whole climb. I continued across to the lefthand chute and climbed up its side for a while before moving into the center of the chute near the top of the white section. While the rubble persists throughout the entire chute, the loose, brittle holds are largely confined to this lower section - I managed to dislodge a flake the size of a manhole cover there and was glad I didn't have to worry about hitting anyone, or being hit. While there were certainly plenty of loose holds higher up, I wouldn't say many more than a typical Sierra climb.
I proceeded up the chute. The entire climb was class 3, albeit pretty sustained; I remember three potentially class 4 steeper, more exposed, smoother, whitish sections, each of which has a class 3 alternative. The first has an obvious, wide crack to the right and ledge above. The second has an even more obvious left-leaning ramp which leads to the route to the West Ridge (take the right fork here). The third follows another bifurcation in the chute. I chose the right fork, came to a steeper section, and instead climbed up a left-leaning ramp of very fractured rock which leads to a short ridge section and then back down into the chute. It wasn't immediately obvious this variation was going to lead anywhere but there were several cairns on the ridge section. At this point I climbed some easy slabs and another easy right-leaning ramp to the last couple of class 3 moves to the summit, where I arrived at 10:50.
The summit was truly a special place to be. The views are amazing, there was barely any wind in the midday sun, and the summit register is fascinating. It is indeed the original from the 1920s, nowhere near full yet, and features signatures from all kinds of Sierra legends. I added my name and spent a little over an hour on top admiring the views, reading the register, and taking pictures - I was glad I'd brought my second camera!
I started the descent at around noon. It was fairly straightforward, though I proceeded cautiously - I managed to retrace my steps, often turning to downclimb facing the mountain. I took a wrong turn near the bottom, attempting to move onto the traverse too soon and running into class 5 terrain, but realized my error and only lost 5-10 minutes. I scurried back across the traverse and was down! The talus was horrible at first, but soon enough I was back at the tarn, arriving at 2:35. It was so warm and sunny that I decided to go for a swim and spent a little over an hour there. I left at 3:40 and was back at camp at 4:50. I ate a leisurely dinner of quesadillas, discovering a bonus 11th tortilla in my 10-pack! (This is like a baker's dozen, but is known as "los diez del panadero") Considering my options for the next day and wanting to climb Sawtooth Peak, I decided to hike back up to the Little Five Lakes junction, where I'd noticed a bear locker. I hiked in gorgeous moonlight and set up camp at 8:40.
I was feeling sluggish, so I ignored my alarm and got out of camp at 8:40. I made my way to the Lost Canyon, following the up-and-down trail past Big Five Lakes. I then took a long time climbing the canyon and switchbacks to Columbine Lake, where I arrived at 1:00. After a short break, I continued up the extremely (some might say excessively) well-cairned route up to Sawtooth pass, dropping my pack there at 2:00 and heading for Sawtooth Peak. I was really running out of energy at this point, a victim of my own inability to eat enough while backpacking. I reached the summit at 3:30 and chatted with some nice folks from Visalia. I then exuberantly bounded down the slope, enjoying myself so much that I overshot the way back and had to make an agonizingly slow traverse across some sandy, sandy slopes. I arrived back at the pass at around 4:30, ate a bar, felt much better, and burned rubber back to the trailhead, even jogging before realizing I was getting a huge blister. I arrived back at the car at 6:20 and got back to Pasadena around midnight.