The NW Ridge of Hawksbeak Peak, while a long hike from any of several trailheads, is a classic Sierra ridge scramble and a very worthwhile objective. Offering 800 vertical feet of solid granite, challenging route-finding, heady exposure, and stunning views, this route is worthy of the effort. While it appears that one may find a way to keep the difficulty level to class 3, climbers should be prepared to encounter exposed class 4 or 5 terrain while on route.
Three approaches are described well on the main page, and a fourth reasonable approach can be made from Leavitt Lake, requiring one to drive a 5-mile 4WD road to reach the trailhead. Having hiked all four at some point, I can vouch that all are beautiful and offer splendid hiking, and each has its various pros and cons. All four approaches are also obscenely long and will require a very full day. Choose one to your liking.
I will editorialize here somewhat to call particular attention to the Buckeye Canyon approach, as it is perhaps the most suitable mountain bike approach trail in the Eastern Sierra: long, flat, with many varied and interesting trail features. While this approach is not recommended as a biking destination in itself, a moderately skilled rider can shave hours off the roundtrip time by taking a bike several miles to the wilderness boundary. Hazards to be encountered include occasional tire-grabbing sand on the fire road section closer to the trailhead, a wide creek crossing (possibly requiring one to carry the bike across a narrow log), and a fairly large wet meadow with several mud jumps. Once through the meadow, the remainder of the trail to the wilderness boundary consists of very enjoyable technical single-track, with one very rocky section that must be walked. The trail is easy to lose when crossing a few areas of scrub brush; if you end up bushwhacking, you’ve lost the trail. The pleasure of cycling is further magnified when you realize just what a slog this section of trail would be if on foot. The trail is overgrown in places from underuse, so wear pants to avoid thrashing your shins. Beyond the wilderness boundary, the foot trail climbs into "The Roughs", a tremendously scenic, wooded gorge winding beneath granite cliffs. Very nice.
From any approach, strive to reach the outlet of Kirkwood Lake, nestled directly beneath the north face of Hawksbeak Peak. From the outlet, attain the small notch immediately west of the lake by climbing the small talus heap directly above the outlet and making a short class 4 downclimb into the notch. From the notch, climb a steep corner for about 40-50 feet to easier ground on the ridge crest. This corner is intimidating class 4 with perhaps one solid but exposed mid-5th move, the first crux of the route.
Alternatively, it’s possible one may avoid this crux by slogging the scree slope from the lakeshore and negotiating steep ledges to reach the ridge crest up and left of the notch. It appears one may find a class 3 route here.
Once on the ridge proper, stay directly on the ridge as much as possible, keeping left to avoid occasional class 5 sections. The rock on the lower half of the route consists of solid granite blocks, offering extremely enjoyable class 3 ridge scrambling. Peer over the western precipice from time to time for stunning views down and across the sheer west face
. About halfway up the ridge, one will crest a small tower that ends abruptly in a narrow chasm
(this chasm is clearly visible from Kirkwood Lake). Downclimb class 4 rock to the left to reach the base of the chasm.
At this point, the character of the route and the quality of the rock change substantially. From the base of the chasm, the ridge crest itself presents a vertical impasse
of at least 100 feet, requiring one to traverse to the left onto the north face to keep the difficulties at a reasonable level. Continue your traverse left until you spot an upward line to your liking. Generally, the further left one traverses onto the face, the easier appears the line of ascent back to the ridge crest above, from low/mid 5th back to class 3. The rock on the north face is generally more grainy and a little crumbly. Due caution is required here, as small nubbins may scrape off under body weight, and all lines have bad fall exposure.
One back on the ridge crest, resume the enjoyable class 3 scramble
to the summit. The broad, sandy SE slope offers rapid and easy descent back to one’s chosen return route.
Due to the long approach and relatively short difficulties, one may choose to climb the route without protection; such a climber should be comfortable and confident climbing exposed 4th and 5th class terrain, or be prepared for more circuitous route-finding. Sticky approach shoes or climbing shoes recommended. A short rope and light rack should be sufficient to protect the difficulties on route.