Route: Sawtooth Pass trail, then direct to summit.
Trailhead: Sawtooth Pass trailhead.
Distance: Roundtrip 11.8 miles.
Forescast: Cloudy early, clearing later. Highs from 50's - 40's.
Up 03:00 and left my place in Fresno at 04:00 for a three hour drive to Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. It was a beautiful crisp morning in the valley. Temperatures were in the low 30's. This would be my first climb with my new Camelbak pack (Alpine Explorer 100oz.)I got on the trail right about 07:10.
View from Groundhog Meadow
Just about one hour on the trail I came to my first rest break at Groundhog meadow (at least I think that is what it is called). Being very late fall there was not too much running water in the Monarch Creek. This is where the trail begins a series of switchbacks on the south side of the drainage. However, I opted to take the "unmaintained" trail, which steeply cuts across the north side of the drainage.
The "unmaintained trail"
This shot is looking back on the first section of the unmaintained trail back down to Groundhog meadow. The trail was pretty overgrown and boulders were plenty.
The summit comes into focus...
The "unmaintained trail" eventually degraded and I was left to cross country it. This took more energy that I had planned and slowed forward progress significantly. My goal was to rejoin the trail at the lower Monarch Lake, which is above the bench seen here in the picture.
Mineral Peak as seen from the "unmaintained trail"
The hard part (or what I thought was going to be the hard part)
Around 10:00 I eventually caught up with the Sawtooth pass trail slightly above the lower Monarch Lake. It was steep but I slogged away in the scree.
Sawtooth Pass trail working its way up the lower scree field.
This was no fun at all. With every step I would slid down and back a couple of inches. This was demanding but to top it off, towards the top it was hard to keep pointed in the right direction due to many "use" trails. Quit that people.
Glacier Pass & Empire Mountain
After about an hour and a half of slogging away on scree I arrived near Glacier Pass. Throughout the entire morning I had been watching the clouds. For the most part I thought they were lifting and it would turn out to be a sunny day. Around this time, I began to notice that the cloud ceiling was lowering.
A view across the high peaks of the Mineral King Valley. Seen here is Mineral Peak right over Farewell Gap with Vandever Mountain to the right.
Approaching the Pass
Around 12:00 I arrived at Sawtooth Pass 11,600'(5 hours after hitting the tailing head). I took my official lunch break and watched the weather. It was getting poorer by the minute. Although the summit was still visible from the pass, clouds were completely covering the leeward side.
Columbine Lake as seen from Sawtooth pass. I've been told that is a great backpackin' overnight. However, after just finishing the pass trail slog I had no plans of ever doing that with a 30lbs+ pack on.
It's a green light!
12:15. I make the decision to summit. I determined that my turn around time would be 14:00. In my internet research of the mountain prior to going I was able to figure out about 30 to 45 minutes of "Class 2 climbing with route finding" from the pass to summit. I foolishly planned to summit by 13:00 giving return to the pass 14:00.
...and the visibility drops
Well 45 minutes turns into 2 whole hours. "Class 2 climbing" would be no problem assuming one could see the Class 2 route up to the summit. The temperature dropped and so did the clouds. Mist everywhere (a snowflake here and there) and wind! My visibility dropped to about 20' in places. I made my way up boulder by boulder I would come across class 3 sections and have to backpedal a ways to find a route around. Exhaustion and altitude (now above 12,000') was not helping the program either.
At 14:00 (my turnaround time) I looked at this one very larger boulder only to find the there was no boulder higher than it. Summit! Made my way to a "flat" rock and I notice the ammo can (summit register). I had zero view! Like I said, the only way I knew I was on top was because I could not find anything in sight higher than me. It was now 14:10, exactly 7 hours and 4,543' of climbing later I was there. However, weather conditions were rapidly getting worse. I had to get off that mountain ASAP! I knew there was only one way to get out of that weather quickly and that was straight down! Skiing down the vertical scree field for 2,000' on the front face of Sawtooth is by far one of the craziest things I've ever done but most memorable as well.
Upper and Lower Monarch Lakes
Around the 11,000' mark I popped out of the clouds to my relief. To say that I "skied" down the scree fields all the way back to upper Monarch Lake is a lie. There were a couple of class 3 chutes that I had to chimney myself down as well as a couple of hold your breath moments. When I did pop out of the clouds and was able to locate my exact position I was a little off. The original plan off the mountain was the ridge between Upper Monarch Lake and Amphitheater Lake on the Kern River side. As it turns out I stayed really in the mid center of the peak but going straight down.
A Fall evening in Mineral King
I linked up the trail at Upper Monarch Lake about 16:00. This was long and painful 5 mile hike out all downhill which was fun on my knees. Of course this time I took the MAINTAIED trail after my morning mistake. This was a paved freeway compared to the morning route up. Passed through the usual deer heard grazing on the slopes on Timber Gap and arrived at my car at 19:00. 12 HOURS! Did the usual inspection of the car hood for Marmots, found none.
Back in 1987 I planned a 2 week backpacking trip with my new wife, starting at Mineral King and going up through Sawtooth Pass. Discovering I had a severe hernia 2 weeks before we left scuttled that plan, and I have never had a chance to see the Sawtooth area. It was great to have a look at it, even with the clouds!
Monarch Creek along with Sawtooth is great due to the its proximity to the trailhead at Mineral King. Not too many places where one can feel they are truely in the high sierra so close to their car (on the West side).
I just went up there yesterday; I can see it taking a long time finding your way with poor visibility! I backtracked a few times myself. Once you go a little off route, it is more class 3 than 2; boulders are huge when you get closer to the ridge.