When one thinks of classic Sierra peaks, names like North Palisade and Black Kaweah come to mind. These classics all share several attributes in common: Beautiful from a distance, challenging by even their easiest routes, with spectacular views to be had from their summits.
By these measures, Devils Crags, a spectacular massif buried deep in the heart of the rugged Kings Canyon backcountry, rates as a true Sierra classic. The peak is a striking sight--and from some angles, especially if contemplating an ascent, a frightening one. Its easiest route is a sustained and at times phenomenally exposed class 4 knife edge. Summit views are sublime, with a stunning view of the Palisades and the surrounding backcountry.
Devils Crags actually consists of a fractured ridgeline with some 10-12 crags in all, currently numbered (from NW to SE) 1 through 11. Crag #1 is the highpoint and by far the most massive of the crags, and as an SPS Mountaineer's Peak
, the most frequently sought-after (frequently being a relative term) objective.
Devils Crags has a reputation for being a loose and dangerous climb, and indeed there have been at least two fatalities here. (This may not sound excessive, but keep in mind that the peak is climbed but once a year on average.) Despite this forbidding reputation, the rock on the NW Arete on Crag #1
is relatively sound if care is taken, and Secor's description of this is spot on: "This is a classic climb with much exposure."
Despite the abysmal approach to get there (more on that below), this is a spectacular climb that deserves more attention.
Devils Crags is located at the southern end of the Black Divide, in one of the most remote areas in the Sierra. Simply put, there is no easy way to get here. Even the shortest approach requires roughly 37mi, 10,000'+ gain (round trip).
The usual approach is out of South Lake. Follow the trail over Bishop Pass, through beautiful Dusy Basin, down into LeConte Canyon. Hike south along the Pacific Crest Trail for about three miles to Grouse Meadow. Find a suitable place to cross the Middle Fork of the Kings River near the southern end of the meadow, and head south/southwest up towards the 9,000' elevation above the meadow, climbing forested slopes and a broad, brush-free avalanche chute up to a small but distinct saddle. This initial ascent is steep, loose, and unpleasant, but staying too close to the creek can result in a miserable bushwhack, so it's probably better to err on the side of being too high rather than too low above the creek. From this saddle, contour around into the Rambaud Creek drainage, traversing below some cliffs but above the brush.
Continue traversing west (tedious sidehilling) until your path eventually intersects Rambaud Creek at around 9,800' elevation. Take a moment to think about how nice it would be to walk through some slabs and alpine meadows right about now. Then take another moment to reflect further upon the two miles of almost continuous talus, moraine, and scree you're looking at instead just to make it to Rambaud Pass (11,600'+, 0.6mi SE of Wheel Mtn.) The pass itself is best described as being like a cross between Wallace Col and University Pass, with a little bit of Russell-Carillon Col thrown in for good measure. Ugh.
Crag No. 1 (12,400ft+)
Ascents of Crag No. 1 almost invariably follow the NW Arete from Rambaud Pass; see the route page
for details. This is a superb climb that more than compensates for the long slog required to get to the peak.
The NE Face has been climbed a few times, but the old school class 4 rating is reportedly more like 5.6-5.7 according to some register entries. Early ascents, including the first ascent of the peak in 1913 by Charles Michael, tended to utilize the chutes on the southwest face of the peak, all of which are reachable by traversing to the saddle west of White Top (Peak 12,262') from Rambaud Pass and descending loose scree to the basin below. These chutes are rarely climbed these days--they look dangerously loose from above.
Crags No. 2-11 (12,280'+ to 11,440ft+)
Most of the remaining crags are rated in the class 3-4 range, although the usual caveats about backcountry class 4 ratings probably apply. In general, ascents via the southwest chutes (easily reachable from the basin west of Rambaud Pass) are class 3, while ascents from the northeast are typically class 4. Consult Secor's book for details. Many of these crags have probably seen only a handful of ascents.
If you've personally climbed any of these crags, please post an addition here and I'll incorporate the information.
Red Tape, Camping, Current Conditions, Etc.
The peak lies in the Kings Canyon National Park backcountry, and a wilderness permit is required for overnight visits. No permits are required for dayhikes. See the Eastern Sierra Logistical Center
for details about permits, current weather conditions, and local (Bishop area) supplies/lodging/dining.
Most parties seem to camp at the lakes at the head of Rambaud Creek.
When To Climb
The optimal climbing season is short, typically July through September. In heavy snow years, it may be even shorter.
"Named by J. N. LeConte sometime before 1903, since the name is in LeConte's list of peaks in the Sierra Nevada over 12,000 feet. (SCB
4, no. 4, June 1903: 285-91.)"
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
RJ Secor, The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails
- devotes several pages to the various crags, including a good route description of the NW Arete on Crag #1.
John Moynier and Claude Fiddler, Sierra Classics: 100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra
- describes the NW Arete on Devils Crag #1. The route is listed in both the first and second editions of the book.
Eric Blehm, The Last Season
- mostly the story of a Sequoia NP backcountry ranger, Randy Morgenson, who went missing a few years back, this also includes an account of Mark Hoffman's untimely death on Devils Crags No. 8.