I've only climbed a dozen high Sierra Peaks in the last 3 years, but for me, in spite of the snowfall, thunder, and high winds, this trip was the icing on the cake.
I didn't get out of Laguna Hills until noon, but made the 257 miles to Three Rivers in time for an early dinner overlooking the Kaweah River. They say to allow an hour to get up the 25 miles of narrow winding road to Mineral King, but according to the trip computer on my Mini Cooper, I averaged only 22 mph up the hill. The upper campground had plenty of sites left on this late season Thursday night. I wasn't expecting my brother, Fritz, to arrive from San Diego until 11, but he rolled in about 9:30, having bypassed most of the LA traffic and getting through the Grapevine without serious delays.
The Ranger station didn't open until 8:10, but fortunately I didn't have to listen to a reading of the list of rules that came with the permit. Fritz was still packing for a while at the Sawtooth Pass trailhead (7820'). I had time to weigh my pack and decided that, at 18 pounds, I had room for a second sleeping pad and second pair of thermal underpants – good decision! After finally hitting the trail and losing sight of the cars, we saw no one else until we got to camp.
I had downloaded RJ Secor's kaweah.tpo map file from the TOPO! website, and used it as a guide to get to camp and then the base of Mt. Kaweah. Soon, just before the 1st stream crossing, we hung a left and found the "TRAIL NOT MAINTAINED" sign marking the start of the old trail along Monarch Creek. At first it seemed a bit overgrown and overrun with sliding sand and gravel, but soon it cleared up. It was a wide, glaciated alpine canyon, much more interesting than the forested main trail. If the weather was warmer, the shade of the forest might have been preferable, but it got colder as noon approached. We went all the way to the "<-- SAWTOOTH PASS" sign by the lower Monarch lake, having missed a minor shortcut to the left, to rejoin the main trail.
The rest of the hike to Glacier pass (11120') was a cold, cloudy, sandy slog, with the beginning of pellet snowfall. The view from the pass showed the beautiful Spring Lake / Cliff Creek drainage, and the no-nonsense switchbacks leading up toward Blackrock pass. It was a welcome sight even though partially obscured by clouds. The trail down the east side seemed hardly worthy of the class 3 rating, except maybe for one 4 ft. step. Picking our way across 40 feet of not-quite-soft-enough snow provided the only feeling of need for caution. The trek across meadows and brooks with tons of granite scenery was delightful. The "WOOD FIRES PROHIBITED GAS STOVES ONLY" at Spring Lake seemed obnoxious, but it couldn't detract too much from the cascading waters from Columbine and Cyclamen lakes, and the massive cliff on the north face of peak 11,480'+.
Heading for the next pass, we heard thunder off to the south a couple of times. We tanked up on water at the low point (9800') before finding a use trail to connect to the Blackrock trail. Further up the trail thunder came from the north before the snow started pelting us in earnest, forcing the ponchos to come out. As we left the last trees before the pass, thunder boomed from directly overhead, prompting us to backtrack to a safer feeling place in the forest. I had depressing thoughts of planning an alternate trip without the emblem peak. But after almost half an hour with no more thunder, and finally a slackening precipitation rate, we took off and made the last 1200' of gain in 50 minutes before stopping to catch our breath at Blackrock Pass (11680'+). There were hints that a fine view was to be had here on a clear day. It was cold and breezy going down to Little Five Lakes, but not snowy or electric.
We made camp near the bear box at the trail junction. Fritz seemed to get his tent up in no time, but I was sluggish after at least 5180' of gain not enough sunshine. We commiserated with two other campers about the day's snow and cold. I managed to get some pictures of the magnificent Kaweah ridge in the red rays of sunset, over the next lake downstream. We were both too tired to eat much of our dry food, but we didn't starve. Crawling into my summer bag, wearing 3 layers on my legs, feet, and head, and 4 upper body layers, including a down jacket and hood, I was soon quite toasty. The air was dry enough to keep away any condensation in my tiny, zipped up tent. I slept well enough.
The sleep was so welcome, we didn't get up until almost 7 on Saturday. Not a cloud in the sky. I had hopes of doing the class 1 Big Kaweah in time to allow taking class 2 Second Kaweah, second.
Left camp (10480') about 8:30, down to Big Arroyo (9500'). Views of the Kaweah Ridge with Black Kaweah, Red Kaweah, and the pinnacles are very impressive. Big Arroyo looked lush with its forest and meadows, below us. We saw the old cabin, locked up, but missed the bear box. Joining the High Sierra Trail, My TOPO map showed 6 stream crossings before the high point of the trail (10600'), while my Garmin GPS omitted the last one. I want to tank up at the 5th stream, but was easily talked out of it, since it was a very wet year. Bad choice! When we got to what looked on the map like the last water before the summit, it was not very appetizing. We wasted at least half an hour before filling up with good tasting, but not entirely clear water. Boulder hopping up the dry creek drainage of the Mt Kaweah / Second Kaweah saddle, we found some ponds that looked nice, but stagnant. Then we decided it would be easier to go east and climb a thinly forested ridge before slogging up the sandy southeast slope of Kaweah. We found some very nice water along the way, and replaced the more questionable liquid we had worked so hard to get.
The skies were still very clear as we started the real climb, but the wind was increasing greatly as we reached more exposed slopes. The wind was cold, and annoying, and it occasionally blew us off balance. When we reached a little saddle in the east ridge, clouds were boiling over the Eisen-Lippincot ridge to the west, but the beautiful view of the eastern sierra ridge, with its fourteeners and high thirteeners showed no sign of clouds like they did on Friday. From there it was a big boulder hop, class 2, all the way up the last 1200' of elevation. False summits sought to fool us, but we could gauge our progress by the angle from us to Second Kaweah and Red Kaweah. Finally we were looking over Second K to Red K, but even from Big's summit, 13802', Red gave the illusion of being higher than us as it pierced the sky.
The view of the eastern Sierra ridge from Russell to Langley was most impressive. Williamson, Cirque, Olancha, and Kern really stood out. I would have meditated here quite a while, and tried to pick out the most distant summits that I might have recognized up towards Baxter, Split, the Palisades and beyond, but wind and clouds prevented me from enjoying such subtle pleasures. The view down the north face to a frozen lake was breathtaking, but the wind was blowing in that direction and it bothered me to be near the edge. A nice "California Alpine Club" register box was attached to a boulder, but hanging on by only one screw, and it was loosening, too. There were three registers inside. An old, deteriorating spiral notebook was full and I didn't expose it to the wind any longer. A small register placed in '94 and a larger one placed in '95 both had plenty of room left in them. The last prior entry was Aug. 26, 15 days earlier. We were up there at least 30 minutes around 3PM.
No time for Second Kaweah. We went straight down, south-west, a little ways and worked our way south-east to the broad sandy chute we ascended earlier, where we knew a thousand feet of plunge stepping in the sand was to be had. We then went south to the trail, joining it at a stream crossing (10430'?) east of the trail's high point. There was less boulder hopping and more meadows and forest than on the route we ascended from the trail's high point. We tried to zip along in the remaining daylight, but it wasn't until the sun disappeared behind the peaks to the west when I felt refreshed enough to think I would be able to get back to camp and hike out the next day without major discomfort. It was 8:30 when we arrived at our camp. It was about a 5500' gain and 18 mile day, without seeing anyone else. I slept very soundly that night.
Sunday we were up at 6:50, feeling fine, and hiking towards Big 5 lakes at 8:22. A beautiful mountain of sculpted granite south of Big 5 Lakes deserved a name better than 11880'+. Down to lake 9830’ for a snack and a drink of lake water. 500’ up, then down to the trail junction in Lost Canyon at 9580'. There were 3 Bear Boxes there.
Upper Lost Canyon was flanked by Needham Mountain on the south and a huge, steep granite face on the north, with views of Mt. Langley and Army Pass down the U-shaped canyon. It was so beautiful, I was glad we came back on this alternate route.
There was a fair amount of left-over snow, and signs of avalanche and recent trail clearing just before the 600' climb to Columbine Lake. For the first time in 52 hours we began to see other people hiking on the trail, having only seen 4 other people camped at Little 5. The trail around Columbine was marked by huge ducks (cairns) and it even had a little class 3'ish move where it crossed the outlet - not suitable for horses! We started having a few clouds, but overall it was the best weather of the 3 days.
Once over Sawtooth pass, 11730', it was a quick downhill romp through the sand to Monarch lakes, and then a wide steady downhill trail that was easier on the legs than the old Monarch Creek trail would have been. Hitting the cars before 5:30, it had been about 15 miles, 2900' of gain and 5500' of loss in 8 hours - definitely our easiest day and well worth the extra distance compared to our route on the way in. After dinner at Sizzler in Visalia, we went our separate ways. It was pushing midnight when I got home to Fullerton.