Kaweah Range Peak Cleanout: 6 Days & 9 Peaks Ending In A Fall

  • Updated: August 20, 2011
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

August 20th to 27th, 2011
Mount Kaweah (13,802')
Second Kaweah (13,661')
Black Kaweah (13,680')
Red Kaweah (13,720')
Lawson Peak (13,120')
Kaweah Queen (13,382')
Mount Stewart (12,200')
Lion Rock 12,360')

This trip was planned as a 9 day clean-out of the Kaweah range area deep in the Sierra. It effectively ended on day 6 when I took a bad fall and had to be helicoptered out.

This will just cover the rather excellent climbing trip leading up to that event.

For the story of the fall itself click here.

For the more on the long term effects and eventual knee surgery click here for the recovery diary

Back when I first started becoming aware of the Sierra Club Sierra Peaks Section list of peaks two mountains quickly stood out as being reputedly difficult and scary.  The first was Devil's Crag which Jen and I climbed the weekend before this trip and found to be exposed but solid and all around spectacular. The second was Black Kaweah famous for being deep in and according  to at least one climber I chatted with on the way out of Le Conte "so loose that it was like climbing a library.”  He said he'd turned back short of the summit twice.

Black Kaweah also has the distinction of being rather deep requiring a longer trip to bag. So while Jen and I banged out Devils Crag over a long haul three day weekend the plan that eventually came about for Kaweah involved a 9 day mega peak bag.

Oh and I’d decided to name the WTC group I was launching Kaweah which made me want to get out there even more.

Update 2015

This has also been a climb with long reaching effects after a fall I took on day 6.  While I survived with relatively minor injuries and got back to climbing I've been walking with pain in my right knee pretty much all the time severely limiting certain activities.  It eventually worsened to the point where I decided it was time for surgery.

Day 1:  In, In, In We Go

It was a rather long road from wanting to do this trip to finally getting some people to commit to go with me.

In the end I ended up with Jen Blackie, Amin Faraday, and James Barlow for the entire trip with Keith Christenson tagging along for the first 4 days to grab Mt and Black Kaweah. 

Our plan was to clean out the peaks in the Kaweah area including the named non-SPS list bumps and finish with somewhere north of 9 peaks.  Granted being out there for 9 days there was a greater than slight chance weather or other factors would impact us at some point but it did give us some flexibility.

Due to my usual flight back to Orange County from Boise running late Jen and I weren’t able to leave until after 9 pm which had us arriving at a full Atwell Campground in Mineral King a bit before 2.  Fortunately we stumbled across James Barlow’s car and were able to sleep in his site for a few hours.

We were up and out for the 8 am opening of the rangers’ office to pick up our permit.  Surprisingly there was only one other party there.  This was a striking difference from a few weeks previous when there’d been a line out the door.  Apparently smoke from the fire on the other side of Farwell Gap was impacting air quality and had scared most folks off.

We were headed far enough in that it hopefully wouldn’t bother us.

Permit in hand we went to the Sawtooth trailhead and packed up.  In addition to my usual load and a full bear can I was carrying a rope bag filled with extra food.  Granted most of it was dehydrated meals but the overall load was probably the heaviest I’d carried this season.

The hike in was going to be over 10 miles and 5k+ gain 

Glacier Pass was the first big obstacle but we had clear weather and a decent trail.

Looking over the top we could see our second pass of the day, Black Rock, on the other side of a depressingly large canyon followed by the Kaweahs off in the distance.

There was still a bit of snow on the far side.

We passed a beautiful little spot at Spring Lake while traversing the canyon and talked about possibly spending the last night there since we guessed it didn't get a lot of traffic.

We shortcutted cross country to reach the trail coming up the canyon which was a little rough.  Once on the trail it was just a slog with our heavy packs to get up and over.

Finally we could see the area we’d be spending the next week in.  We’d be descending through Five Lakes Basin to Big Arroyo where we’d stash a big chunk of our food in the backcountry  bear box and spend the first night.  We’d then set out for a three day excursion to the shelf below Red, Black, and Mt Kaweah.

While climbing Black Rock Pass a deer had wandered up and tailed us to the top where he proceeded to inspect us at length.  He was noticeably skinny and had his mouth hanging open in an odd manner.  We all thought he wasn't acting like a normal deer and decided to hurry down before we ended up with mad deer disease.

Amin had also tweaked his knee at this point and was debating leaving the trip.  He'd actually try to leave a few times but I convinced him to stick it out.

From here it was all downhill until we could finally get rid of all this extra weight at Big Arroyo.

The lakes along the way were pretty but the mosquitoes were atrocious.  I did my best to avoid any stops despite everyone being tired as I was getting eaten alive the moment I wasn’t moving.  Everyone was dragging a bit at this point.

At long last we pulled into Big Arroyo right around dark.  After asking some rather dickish campers where the box was (they told us it was full because there were 15 of them and they got there first) we found the box and with a little encouragement dumped in everything except for 4 days worth of food (basically what could fit in our bear cans.)

All the sites close to the box were taken but as the crowd was rather loud anyway and we found a decent camp a ways off in the trees.  Everyone set up, ate, and went to bed quickly.

Day Two:  Repositioning Camp, Mt Kaweah, and Second Kaweah

When the sun came up we could finally get a look at where exactly we’d made camp.  We'd found sites clearly used by others before but it was close enough to a rather stagnant water source we all wanted to be gone before it warmed up enough for the mosquitoes to emerge for the day.  Fortunately for the moment it was cold enough we had some relief while we got our morning tasks done.

This is the patrol cabin at Big Arroyo.  Both times we came through it was buttoned up tight.

Leaving Big Arroyo we had an uphill climb along the HST which was a nice chance to stretch my legs under a noticeably lighter load.

Once up on the shelf below the Kaweahs we dropped our camping gear and bear cans and started the slog up to Mt Kaweah.

We’d heard the registers up here had been trashed and sure enough we found an obviously newly placed paint can with a few scraps of paper.  I dropped an SPS book and we pushed on to the next goal after taking the requisite pictures.

The next bump over is labeled Second Kaweah on the map.  James, Jen, and myself decided we all wanted to tag it and strolled over while the other two descended back to the gear we’d dropped.

From here there’s a series of crags down a ridge that looked somewhere between precarious and unclimbable.  I was tempted to go for the nearest one but we still had a ways to go before camp and a full day ahead of us tomorrow.  

Jen and I decided to come back for them another trip and headed down.

The shelf actually had quite a few nice campsites with plenty of water available.  Sadly we weren’t high enough to get away from the mosquitoes.

We found a camp below Red Kaweah and settled in for the night.  With the mosquito hordes outside I took my meal inside the tent rather than be social.

I even had pity on the tentless blond for a short time

Day Three:  Black Kaweah

Keith was only with us through Tuesday so we prioritized the other high value peak Black Kaweah.  While Mt Kaweah was the SPS emblem this one was a SPS mountaineers peak and the dominant peak in the area.

As I mentioned before it had a reputation for being so loose that it was like “climbing a library”

We had a nice view of it right from camp.

The route involved traversing along the shelf we were camping on to a southern drainage and climbing the southwest face.

I wasn’t feeling well that morning but wasn’t about to miss this climb.

The approach was the usual mix of snow and loose rock.

This is the start of the actual route up the peak.  

The route had some third class and a lot of second class.  The rock we were climbing wasn’t loose so much as every ledge and flat bit had a large amount of loose rock sitting on it.  

We took it slow and called out any pieces we kicked off.

We made steady progress and soon popped out near the top.

There used to be a very old register up at the top of Black Kaweah.  Instead we found ripped pieces of paper and this sheet decrying the destruction.

No sign of the old register canister even except for these bits.

We'd been warned the register was destroyed and I had a new book along but no can.  We did the best we could to rig a temporary container and made a note to let the group headed up here in a few weeks know to bring something more permanent.

I've seen pictures since that actually blame me and Sierra Club for pulling the register.  For the record I'm not really a fan of ever pulling registers and the destruction happened before we got there.  Teach me not to put a longer explanation in the book...

And now to get down.  The weather was looking somewhat questionable and we didn’t particularly want to be on the rocks during a rainstorm.

We backtracked down the same route and it was largely uneventful.

The weather held and we made it back to camp with daylight to spare.  Keith had to get to work in a few days and so left at this point to head for Big Arroyo and hike out the following day.  Amin had busted his pants already and Keith was such a standup guy he left his behind as a loaner,  True camaraderie in the mountains.

The rest of us ate a well deserved meal and turned in early again.

Day Four:  Red Kaweah And Reposition

Red Kaweah was located between Mt Kaweah and Black Kaweah.  It was named for the striking red color of the rock but the climb isn’t near as nice as black at least not by this route.

Black is to the left, red to the right.

We had some great views of Black on the way up the drainage.

Then the climb itself.  Lots of large and only somewhat loose boulders that were more annoying than anything else.

This one actually had a canister up top.  I was tempted to relocate it to Black but we had other plans.

I attempted to do a kung fu summit picture…

The descent was straightforward.

As we exited the drainage back on to the shelf we could hear voices.  Eventually we identified some climbers trying a direct route up the face of Red.  They were just getting off the snow and seemed to be struggling a bit and spreading out across different chutes.  Hopefully it went well for them.

We dropped back to camp and packed everything up.  Instead of returning to the HST along the shelf we decided to try and drop down the slope below directly.

It worked though a few of the looser sections were a bit of a pain with full packs.  But soon enough we popped back on to the HST and moseyed back to Big Arroyo.

Here we hit a bit of a snag.  We’d left the majority of our food in the bear box intending to refill our cans and head off for another few days.  Jen’s was missing.

She kept insisting one of us was playing a joke on her but sure enough it was gone.  It had been in a black stuff sack with her name on it so I can only assume it was someone who made a mistake and didn’t realize it until they were already down the trail but that’s still a crummy mistake to make.

We had enough spare food between us to share with Jen so we restocked, returned the remainder of the food back to the box, and continued up the trail towards 9 Lake Basin.

A mile or two up there was a rather pleasant stream crossing that gave us the chance to strip off our boots and soak our feet.

And other bits.

Looking down from the Kaweahs I'd seen the basin was somewhat less forested than the terrain we'd been in so my general plan was to leave the trail and climb until we ran out of trees.  Not far past the crossing most of the trees were already rather stunted and lacking.

I wanted to get away from the HST and that proved to be a challenge.

Eventually I took us  back across the streams to a clump of trees where we found some rather nice spots to pitch out tents and settle down for the next few days.

Day Five:  Lawson, Queen Kaweah, and Stewart

There was one more bump out there with a Kaweah name and I wanted it.

Kaweah Queen was an awkwardly placed bump that could only be accessed by going waaaaaaay out of our way but due to the fact it had been given a name for some reason.  James and Amin declined but Jen was up for a long crappy slog.

So we woke up at first light and set off across the basin.

We ran in to patches of hard snow and way more loose boulders than we would have liked.

In fact the majority of the climb was just loose crap.

First stop was Lawson Peak, another minor bump that did look rather prominent from inside the basin.  We took a short break then headed along the ridge for Queen.

Periodically we dropped down off the ridge but the rock was so loose every step was a pain.  There's no good way, just get it done

On Queen we found a small register with unreadable scraps of paper. 

We had a different view of the Kaweahs from here.  Black is the prominent peak on the right while Red is the one to the left of the major snow notch.

And now we had to retrace our steps.

Despite the nasty loose slopes we were making decent time and decided to head for a third peak.  We had two logical options.

Lion looked awesome and allegedly had a few 4th class moved to climb from this side.

Stewart was a bit closer to camp and was the peak James and Amin had been thinking about climbing while we were off chasing Queen and Lawson.

We decided to do Stewart and try to get everyone to do Lion the following day.

Stewart is part of the ridgeline that includes Lion, Eagle Scout, and Lippincott.  Instead of the loose mess of the Kaweahs the rock was refreshingly solid.

Jen and I had fun climbing up a prominent ramp from the basin.   

Kaweahs are in the back to the left, we’re camped at the clump of trees above and to the right of the lake.

Along the way we ran into James and Amin headed down.  They told us what to expect up top and headed down for a bath in the lake and an early night.

Jen and I topped out and spent a good amount of time sitting on the somewhat awkward summit block.

Stewart sees a lot of climbers coming in from several directions.

We could look back at Queen and Lawson to the left of Black.

As remote as we were the big annoyance was the air traffic up above.  The register made reference to the loud and excessive over flights by military jets.  It literally seemed to be every 15-30 minutes.

We eventually decided to head down hoping to make the lake before dark for a quick bath.

Instead of going down the ramp we took coming up we swung to the south and took some rather nice slab ramps back to the basin.

We made the lake while it was still in the sun and took a quick dip in the lake.  We’d been wearing the same clothes for several days so they benefited from the wash as much as we did.

The moment I got out I was swarmed by mosquito's.

Jen was all for staying longer but I got us moving on account of being eaten alive.

We got back to camp as the guys were eating dinner.  They’d taken a bit more time to swim and had made it back well ahead of us.

Other than dinner the main entertainment was Jen trying to repair her boot which had split open.  I gave her some cord and she did her best to stitch the leather back together but never did get it to hold up.  Jen being Jen she just delt with it for the rest of the trip.

I slept well after another good long day.

Day Six:  Lion, Triple Divide, and The Fall

After James and Amin took it easy the day before our entire group was once again ready to head out for some real fun.

Lion was located at the northern end of 9 Lakes Basin and Secor claimed climbing via the southern ridge involved class 3 with two 4th class moves.  After days of loose crappy talus this sounded perfect!

The approach across the basin went quickly and we scooted around lake 10,725 on the west side over some slick consolidated snow.

Then we headed up slope and gained the ridge.

The ridge was mostly 2nd class with some 3rd class bits thrown in here but good scrambling.  We did come across two short bits of 4th class, one requiring a traverse across a face with decent holds then a small jump over a gap immediately after.

This was actually Amin’s first time doing 4th class.  Trial by fire.

Everyone took it slow and we made it across without incident.  

Separate from the actual peak was a small pinnacle that had looked rather significant from below.  We decided to call it Little Lion and climb it just for grins.

Lion itself is in the background.

After a short break we scrambled back down and continued to the summit where we found another well visited register.

And of course we struck a pose…

Jen and I were feeling relatively energetic and starting eying Triple Divide Peak another canyon over while the other two were thinking of heading back to camp and taking it easy.

Coming down from the peak was a little tricky but solid.

Once we were all down Jen and I set off for our peak while Amin headed back towards camp and James decided to grab a few of the nearby unnamed pinnacles.

Our route involved dropping 800 ft then climbing 600 or so to Copper Mine Pass.  From there it was about half a mile and a thousand feet up what turned out to be a beautiful 3rd class ridge.

The climb up the western ridge of Triple Divide was one of the nicer scrambles of the trip.  Good solid rock and an interesting route (basically staying right on the ridge worked about 95% of the time) made for a good time.

Up top we found another well visited register though most people seemed to climb the peak from the west or north instead of from Lion.

As much fun as we had coming up neither of us were looking forward to backtracking and crossing the canyon again.  We started eyeing the ridge to the south which would turn the climb into a nice loop and after consulting Secor (who claimed the nasty looking pinnacles we could see 1/3 of the way down were passable) we set off.

The ridge was indeed passable but not near as pleasant as the western ridge.  We had to drop down the eastern side fairly often and ended up on yet more loose terrain.

There were some interesting 3rd+ class sections we had to down climb along the way.

Soon we were looking down in to Nine Lakes Basin.  We both figured the hard part was over and we’d be in camp in another hour or two.

The descent turned out to be a little more challenging than it appeared from above.  We found footprints and figured James had come down this way after doing his unnamed pinnacles but soon found ourselves on a large slab with every apparent descent route cliffing out.

After exhausting all options it appeared we were going to have to climb back up a few hundred feet and traverse further north along the ridge before we could descend.

As we started up I noticed a ramp leading down towards the rock field below.  This looked promising but Jen didn’t want to down climb it only to find we needed to come back up.  I decided to try it.

Aaaand that’s where things went wrong.  

Continued here.

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