By popular agreement, the Southwest Face on Black Kaweah is the peak's "standard" route. From a topo, or from a distance, the Southwest Face looks impossibly steep for a "class 3" route. And truth be told, it doesn't feel
like a third class route at times, when you're stemming your way down a chimney with death fall potential. This is not a casual walk-up with a couple scrambly moves; it's steep, sustained route which demands confidence in both rock climbing and route finding. However, the bulk of the route really is sustained third class, and the harder stuff is more the exception than the rule.
Most climbers will access the Southwest Face via Mineral King and Big Arroyo. A logical starting point (one long day from Mineral King) is the old Big Arroyo Patrol Cabin (abandoned). A number of approach options are available:
- Sawtooth Pass: Can go all the way down Lost Canyon to Big Arroyo, or as Secor recommends, go north on the Big Five Lakes Trail before dropping into Big Arroyo via Little Five Lakes Basin.
- Black Rock Pass: Ascend Glacier Pass, then go cross-country from Spring Lake to meet the Black Rock Pass Trail, which drops into Little Five Lakes Basin.
- Hands-and-Knees (Cyclamen Lake) Pass: In the author's opinion, the easiest and most direct. From Spring Lake, go directly over this (easy) class 3 pass, then contour to the northeast to the obvious notch that drops into Little Five Lakes Basin.
From the Patrol Cabin, follow the path of least resistance up the eastern slope of Big Arroyo, aiming northeast (you cannot see BK at this point). You are aiming for the cirque which holds Lake 11550'. Contour above the lake to save energy. From the two small tarns at 11800', ascend a shallow talus chute to the base of the route. This is the "Right-hand Chute" described by Secor. At the top of this chute, notice a black water mark about 40' above your head. This is the "black waterfall" described by Secor.
View of approach, up to the crossover between right-hand and left-hand chutes
Black Waterfall, as viewed from top of Right-hand Chute
View of crossover from Right-hand Chute to Left-hand Chute
Final 600 feet to the summit
From the "black waterfall", traverse left and up. You'll almost immediately encounter a loose section of steep class 4ish terrain. Soon, you'll come to Secor's "Left-hand Chute", a deeply-gouged, weathered bowling alley. Follow the path of least resistance uphill. It is somewhat recommended to mark the crossover point for the descent.
You'll encounter many small route-finding challenges along the way. I'll leave those to the individual climber. However, I will describe two fairly significant challenges specifically.
- At ~ 12600', the chute will bifurcate into two. Stay right, even though the path to the summit looks impossibly steep. You can see the summit, but the route looks steep. The left chute is actually where the West Ridge route joins the Southwest Face route.
- At ~13100', you can see the summit clearly, but the chute becomes very steep, technical, and quite exposed. You can find a slightly easier (but still loose, exposed, and somewhat technical) path to the left, traversing out onto a spur. From here, the summit is yours!
Helmet! The author received a 20 lb. climber-dislodged rock to the head. The Southwest Face route actually has fairly good rock. In other words, if you test your holds, you will probably not lose handholds or footholds. Talus already on the ground is the bigger problem.
No water on route during late summer. The tarns at 11800' are a convenient fill point.
Rope not recommended. The many quasi-technical sections are scattered all over the route. Unless you want to rappel the entire route, it's a better idea just to downclimb.
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