Vandever Mountain, Cirque Cave, & White Chief Caves In Mineral King WTC Experience Trip

  • Updated: July 28, 2017
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 28th to 30th, 2017
Vandever Mountain (11,947')
Cirque Cave
White Chief Cave
Day 1: 4.5 miles, 1,900'
Day 2: 5.48 miles, 2,700'
Day 3: 2.85 miles, 0'

The first thing that always occurs to people when you mention Mineral King is the ever present threat the marmots pose to vehicles left at the trailhead.  So when I say we ended up with a vehicle dead in the water and having to be towed down you (and my Facebook feed) would probably assume marmot damage.  Aaaand you'd be wrong...

This trip was heading in specifically to climb Vandever Mountain which Kristen and I previously attempted in 2014 and failed when we couldn't find a route up the northern ridge.  This time we were planning to do the allegedly 3rd class (it's not) northwestern ridge and use the approach as an excuse to look at the White Chief Cave system.  I wasn't expecting too much there but it ended up being the highlight of the trip!

Of course one of the biggest issues with Mineral King (beyond the whole evil marmot thing) is how difficult it is to stay near the trailhead if you're just heading up there for a weekend backpack.  Most trips I lead get up there well after midnight and it seems most Thursday or Friday nights now the two campgrounds at the end of the road fill up.  There are no forest roads or other areas to bivy in and the few spots you can even pull off the road are marked private or day use only.  Also the trailheads lack any space outside the parking lot which themselves are dirt, not flat, and generally full of rocks which make them less than ideal even if you can sleep inside your vehicle.

We had people run up there early and hold a site but when I got there after 1 am the parking space they saved us had been taken leaving us to make due at one of the trailheads.  We ended up at the Eagle / Mosquito trailhead which is one of the flatter options but there's basically no space outside of where the cars park.  We had no choice but to sleep in the vehicle but hey, we were getting up early anyway.

I asked the ranger about the camping situation when I picked up the permit and she admitted it was an increasing problem but said they didn't currently have any plans to fix it.

Speaking of the ranger we were at the permit station waiting 30 minutes before they opened and so first in line to get our permit.  Mineral King is a bit different as they like to do LNT talks in front of entire groups instead of one on one with the trip leader.  The ranger who gave the talk gave a very engaging if slightly lengthy spiel.  The slightly less than pleasant ranger I had a run in with before was there also but fortunately we didn't have to deal with her.

Permit in hand we returned to the cars only to find out Garry's FJ Cruiser wouldn't start and one participant had forgotten their boots.  New day, new problems!

We managed to borrow some jumper cables and get Garry's car started while we decided that the person missing boots (and their carpool buddies) would drive down the mountain to Visalia, pick up some shoes, and then hike in to meet us at camp.  This also gave them a chance to grab a set of jumper cables in case Garry's battery died again after the trip.

That left us just having to deal with the dread marmot threat.

I've been to Mineral King a number of times and seen all manner of vehicular marmot defenses.

Some people wrap their cars with tarps which generally seems to me like it's not going to stop anything.  I've had people confirm that saying the marmots wormed their way inside the tarp, pooped, and chewed their way out.

Some people used to use chicken wire to try and block off the bottom of the car but as of 2018 the SEKI marmot site says "Wrapping vehicle in chicken wire is no longer advised, as marmots have learned to get around the wire"

And then there's the people who use the roll over and submit method leaving their hoods open hoping the furry overlords have mercy.

Personally I've never done any of this.  I've always the rangers and asked how active the marmots are at the trailhead.  Past July they usually say not at all and don't worry about it.  If they are still active I just follow their advice and leave vehicles in the lot across from the ranger station.

This time the ranger station lot was packed leaving us to use the next lot up the road.  Since this was a ways down the road from our trailhead we decided to have pity on our participants and run a car shuttle.  We dropped everyone but the drivers off at the end of the road, then drove back to the lot near the ranger station to drop off the remaining vehicles.  At which point Garry's vehicle died again just as he was turning into a parking space.  This was concerning but we decided we'd just leave it and deal with it after the trip. 

I drove the drivers back to the trailhead in the Jeep and then Kristen volunteered to drive it back and then jog the road.  No sooner had she driven off as I realized we didn't have the Sierra Club paperwork packet we're required to carry with us.


I had a hope she would notice it when she did a final sweep of the vehicle but she soon arrived back empty handed.  And had to run back to the vehicle and then back again to our trailhead.

That ordeal over we finally left the trailhead late and minus the three people who were running down the hill to get boots.  But we were off!

View from the trailhead looking up at Vandever with the snow patch on the right

Mineral King is always spectacular and I love the view looking up at Farwell Gap.  I do however always seem to forget just how vertical everything is out here.  All the trails climb sharply and they don't have many switchbacks so it's a butkicker right out of the gate.  Fortunately our folks were all troopers and set a good pace.

We took the trail up towards White Chief with the idea of camping near the old mine.  We'd been told by the ranger where to camp since they said there was only a single location up there that could handle a group our size.

We found the clump of trees she described just past the meadow  in the picture above but it took a little while to figure out what campsites she was talking about.  (If you have a smaller group there were a few decent ones off to the right towards the stream.)

We found enough sites scattered between the high flat spot above and the more wooded ones below.

There was a spring up above where we camped but we ended up heading down to the main stream whenever we needed water since it was a bit swampy.  The main stream was spectacularly clear and tasted great.

Our boot buying friends arrived just as we were getting ready for happy hour.  As expected they'd had to drive down to Visalia and back but on the plus side had enjoyed In and Out for lunch.

Happy hour was a pleasant affair with a nice view.  At least until it got closer to sundown and the mosquitos decided to join us in force.

We also had the most aggressively mellow deer I think I've ever seen.  You couldn't go out for a pee break without being trailed out and having awkward human / animal eye contact while you went about your business.

The next morning we were up pre dawn and left camp by 5:45 am.

The trail crossed a snow field not far above camp and then led up on the rocks on the west side of the canyon.

We passed several visible mine or cave entrances as we passed across the white rock.  It killed me not to explore them but we had a big climb ahead of us.

We had a trail for most of the approach but we did cross two consolidated snow fields.  Since the sun hadn't reached us yet these were a bit precarious and we had to take them really slow.

At the base of the red rock ridge was an area with numerous tent sites and a few open shafts.  We started up the rocks here following a series of ramps and ledges.  There isn't a route so much as anything will generally work.

We expected 3rd class from the description in Secor so we dutifully put on helmets in accordance with Sierra Club rules...

And promptly found it was mostly second class.

There was one section right before we reached the southern ridge leading to Vandever that got a little messy.  Still it wasn't really 3rd class so much as steep crappy 2nd that took time to get everyone past.

Once we were past that it was an easy stroll to the summit with spectacular views.  We made the top by about 10:45 am.

Garry got the award for most experienced participant on this one being 75 years young.

We had a small mishap on the way down where Garry lost his footing and gave us an excuse to practice some bandaging.  Being the general badass that he is he basically shrugged it off and continued on without comment.

Coming back we dropped a little lower on the ridge and then traversed across the crummy section instead of dropping straight down like we'd done before.  The general consensus was that this was a bit nicer than our previous route...

Emily indicating the previous route

Keep in mind we had a fair sized group so the more vertical route had more issues with rockfall for us.  Both options were basically loose crappy Sierra 2nd that you just have to pick your way across carefully.

After that the descent was straightforward and when we reached the base of the ridge we had a little time while we waited for part of the group that had come down further to the west.

We'd been looking at some evident caves near the top of one of the rocks and those turned out to be what looking like old living or storage quarters.  There were a few small rooms and a rock fireplace.

More interesting is what we found at the base.  We went down to refill on water and after a few minutes realized there was a cove opening on the other side of the snow bridge.

Getting around it was a challenge but after a few false starts a few of us crab walked under the melting snow to take a better look.

Deeper in it got a little more interesting requiring some light 3rd class and spanning moves.

Some of the group choose to stay behind while the rest of us explored a surprisingly extensive tunnel.

After following the stream a short distance the route turned to the right and we climbed up on a series of ledges.

According to what I've read elsewhere you can usually climb through the cave and out the other side.  However we ran into this a snow plug and had to backtrack.  When we walked around on the trail and found a drift of deep snow.

Garry had been here years ago and had an old map and description of the cave which he graciously let me scan.

Next we headed for one of the lower entrances we'd seen on the way up.  The one we picked was almost hidden by a snow drift.

Skipping the snow we just downclimbed the rock into the cave.

The entranceway was a tunnel that went down a good distance

Down the initial tunnel was a small room and then it continued down.

Past this construction we could hear running water.  At the bottom

We entered a large low ceiling room along which the stream was following.  It was exceedingly humid here.

The stream flowed through but here but disappeared into the rocks.

We spent some time exploring various side passages including a few that got a little tight.

This was the furthest point I was able to reach and it required some interesting chimney moves to get up this far.

Again Garry had some old notes:

After about an hour the group that had followed me down into the cave emerged slightly more soiled than when we went in.  Others had waited up top citing claustrophobia or just a more well developed common sense (or maybe they'd read Ted the Caver at some point)  They reported there were other smaller openings in the area.

As much as I would have loved to explore more it was getting late in the day and we had a few people who weren't feeling great.  So sadly we had to leave further cave explorations for another trip.  (And I'd totally come up here just for that and skip Vandever next time!)

Back in camp the mosquitoes were out in force leading to a slightly more mellow happy hour.

The next morning we were up and moving by 7 am.

After a hearty breakfast of course.

The hike down was all downhill and only about 3 miles. 

We were down to the trailhead by 8:30 am.  Which of course brought us back to the issue with Garry's car.

We'd left Garry's vehicle two days ago with what we thought was a dead battery and we had cables ready to jump it.  We shuttled the drivers back to the Tar Gap, jumped his car, and then drove back to the end of the road.

Where the vehicle promptly died.  And after we jumped it again it died again.  And as an added bonus this happened as we were blocking the road.

So that was a problem.  Also half the group had already left not realizing we had an issue and of course there's no cellphone coverage until you drive 90 minutes down the hill.

We managed to get the vehicle off the road and after some assistance from a ranger and someone who owns one of the cabins up there we decided it was likely the alternator hence why the vehicle would die whenever it revved down.  According to people who claimed to know more about cars than us that meant we needed a tow.

Talking it over we decided the best option was to consolidate and drive down the hill so we could a) get post trip mexican food and b) call AAA and see about a tow.  As it turned out this maybe wasn't the best move but hey, we were hungry!

So down the hill we went which is 90 minutes of endless curves many of them blind.  About half way I was sticking to my half of the 1.5 lane road when a white truck shot around the corner.  I swerved as far as I could and jammed on the breaks and somehow managed to miss them by what must have been inches.  It was so close I hardly believe we hadn't hit.

After that we made it down without incident and met everyone at our usual hangout at Cafe Mendoza in Three Rivers.

Now fed and in a slightly better mood we made a plan.  Garry talked to AAA while I called any independent tow company I could find in the area.  Initial results weren't very hopeful and we ended up sending everyone else home switching Garry's carpool folks to other vehicles.  I stayed since it was looking increasingly likely we'd need to run him back up to his vehicle to wait for a tow and I was driving by myself and headed for Sacramento afterwards anyway.

I found one place that could get up there that day but it was going to be over a thousand dollars.  AAA was less than helpful claiming it was a very busy day and after several rounds of broken promises and calls not returned we decided the best option was to drive him back up to Cold Springs Campground with a pile of quarters where he could use the payphone the next day to try again for a tow.

So up the road we went.  Again.

There was a storm building and I felt bad leaving Garry up there but he insisted he had everything he needed.  After another very long 90 minutes crawling back down that bloody road I drove up to Sacramento where I was going to spend the week working from my parents house before heading for Roads End and Goat Mountain the following weekend.

Garry had a tow truck up to Mineral King by 10 am Monday morning (completely covered by AAA Premier), was at the repair shop by 12:30 pm, and had a new alternator put in by 4:30 pm.  After hearing his experience (and hitting car issues after the Duck Lake Peak trip) I both bought a car jump starter box and upped my AAA to Premier.

Despite the struggles this was one of the more memorable trips of the season.  Vandever from this side really isn't third class route and I wouldn't be in a hurry to repeat it (vs nearby Florence Peak which is a much better climb) but I can't wait to get back and explore the cave system a bit more.

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