When I somewhat obliquely asked Bob about peaks out of Mineral King besides the Kaweahs, he mentioned that it was possible to traverse all 12 named peaks in the Mineral King area, and that a group had done it in something like 30 hours. However, that group seemed like they were probably amateurs; a trail-hardened dirt- and peak-bagger like Yours Truly should, Bob thought, be able to knock them off in 12-14 hours.
My experiments show that this was somewhat optimistic, and that the full traverse would take 16-17 hours: Hengst through White Chief adds 1 to 1.5 hours, and Empire less than an hour, to my 14h30 traverse of the remaining peaks. Then again, now that I know which 12 peaks count, I could save time by staying off the ridge in some places. However, I have no desire to go back for it, as all but 2-3 hours of the traverse is a cross-country trek through every imaginable form of talus and scree. Mineral King is beautiful, and the full traverse is a completely reasonable dayhike without any running, but it just isn’t that fun.
Day 1: Hengst, Eagle, White Chief
Since the weather was supposed to suck, I decided to start playing with the 12-peak traverse. Unlike on a trip to the Kaweahs, I could bail at almost any point and be back to the car within a couple of hours.
I diligently started by headlamp at 5:00 AM, heading up the White Chief trail and taking the forks for Eagle Lake. For some reason, I had chosen to approach Hengst by gaining the upper part of Miners Ridge, then traversing along the main spine before retracing my steps. The bridge is out just after the Sawtooth Pass parking lot, so I acted confused for a bit, then waded through the construction site to get to my trail. I was pleased to find that the maintained trails in this area are easy to follow, even by pathetic headlamp (I hadn’t changed the battery in mine yet).
I gratuitously third-classed what looked like a nice little fin at the head of the ridge, only to find that it was an insignificant lump from the other side. Hengst looked close from my lump, but it turns out that the actual summit is on the far end of a long, semi-forested summit plateau. I eventually found an ammo box containing both a register and a copy of a newspaper article about the amateurs — a group of local recent high school grads — who did the 30-hour traverse.
Eagle is a rocky promontory sticking off the main, rounded ridge. I was pleased to see some familiar names in the register, including Ron Hudson (he’s been everywhere!).
White Chief is a pathetic peak when viewed from the ridge, being just another of the round bumps, some named, others not. I looked around a couple of high points, but didn’t find the ammo box. It was only 8:30, but the storm looked bad enough that I should head down. By 9:00 I was being hailed on by a thunderstorm, though it soon let up. I still cruised the trail back, passing some kids from a spelunking course at a nearby college.
Reaching the trailhead again, it seemed like the storm might hold off for awhile, so I decided to check out Glacier Pass by day. Getting to the Kaweahs requires crossing it at night (both ways, this time of year), and I didn’t want to try that on an unfamiliar and unmaintained trail. The trail started off clear for being unmaintained, but the storm wasn’t done, and quickly swept over the area with another wave of rain and hail. I got greedy, and got thoroughly soaked for it.
Day 2: Falcon through Needham (14h30)
More specifically: Falcon, Vandever, Tulare, Florence, Rainbow, “Pseudo-Rainbow,” Mineral, Sawtooth, and Needham.
Despite a pretty good forecast, I thought I might give the weather another day to calm down by continuing the traverse from near where I left off. I got a more comfortable 6:00 AM start, requiring only 20-30 minutes’ headlamp time, and took the White Chief trail to its end, passing the mine and a deep cave along the way. I also passed two campsites, one with a man taking pictures of the frost on his tent, the other with loud frat-boys around a wood fire, which I think is illegal in this part of the park.
The frost had also accumulated on some of the talus, making for slow going to the low point on the ridge at the head of the canyon. The frost and slowness continued to the summit of Falcon Peak, where someone had drawn a falcon in the register. Falcon marked the beginning of direct sunlight — more warmth and less frost — but also of the hideously loose red talus that would plague me until near Florence.
Getting up Vandever is easy, but the other side is 1400 feet of loose talus to Farewell Gap. What looked like a person near the gap turned out to be several sacks filled with something that leaked blood, well-hidden from the trail. I chose not to examine them too closely.
I chose to go over point 11,783′, probably a mistake, then through the gap and across much side-hill talus to the low point of the ridge to Tulare. While it looks pretty impressive from the valley, the peak is little more than the end of a spur ridge. I noted some familiar names in the register — it’s an SPS peak — then moved on to Florence, finally reaching the end of the hateful red talus just before Florence’s white granite summit.
From there it was an easy sand descent to Franklin Pass, where I followed the trail to its first switchback, then took off up Langley-style sand and boulders to Rainbow Mountain. While the northwest side looks like a nice, fast boot ski, I found to my dismay that it cliffs out just before the bottom. While I found a 4th class way through, the better option would probably have been to either head over to the north ridge, or drop down the northeast side and walk around to Amphitheater Lake.
As I climbed the next peak on the ridge, fog flowed in from the west, flowing through the gaps in the ridge, and often covering the summits themselves. While the route-finding was relatively straightforward, this made it tough to choose a good line. I eventually reached the next highpoint, and found a register for “Pseudo-Rainbow,” so-called because it was evidently mislabeled on some map. It’s 60 feet higher than the actual Rainbow, so maybe they had a point.
Mineral Peak is another end-of-a-spur bump, though with a slightly more interesting climb to its summit. I tagged it, then returned to the main ridge, climbing yet more sand-and-boulders to reach Sawtooth. The rumored “spectacular view” was completely obscured by fog.
Needham looked like a painful slog, and I was feeling tired, but realizing there was little chance I would return this way, I decided to head over. While evidently Bob managed to find a class 3 traverse high on the ridge, I dropped well below to avoid the various pinnacles, then re-ascended yet more sand to the summit, a complex jumble of giant boulders. Looking west from the summit, I got some cool views of Sawtooth peeking out of the fog.
The return required re-climbing most of Sawtooth, then bumbling along its west face. With the sun setting and the fog as thick as ever, I decided not to head on to Empire, instead trying to find the trail down Sawtooth Pass. I ran across a maze of boot tracks in the sand, but no obvious trail, and eventually decided to just boot-ski to the valley and try to pick up the trail there. Fortunately I had traversed far enough to avoid any cliffs, and I emerged from the bottom of the fog just as dusk was falling, finally catching sight of the trail.
I put on my weak headlamp and followed the trail for awhile, then left it when it headed across Monarch Creek, rather than going straight down the valley. Had I looked at my map, I would have known that this is what it is supposed to do: it traverses to join the Crystal Lakes trail. However, I bumbled my way down the north side of the creek, catching bits of use trail here and there.
As things steepened and full darkness arrived, my increasing misery at being lost in the dark drove me to finally replace the batteries in my headlamp, and to look at my map. Wow! Being able to see a bit more, and knowing the trail situation, I realized my best bet was to pick up the Glacier Pass trail. Cutting straight toward the creek, I soon picked up some cairns, and eventually an identifiable trail. Relieved, I followed it to the main trail, then jogged it home.
Day 3: Empire
After the previous day’s 14h30 outing ending at 8:30 PM, I thought it perhaps wise to take an easy day before heading to the Kaweahs. I do not enjoy nighttime cross-country travel, especially over unfamiliar terrain, so I wanted to check out the route from here to Little Five Lakes, crossing Glacier and Hands-and-Knees Passes. To dayhike the Kaweahs, especially this late in the year, it is almost necessary to travel this route both ways in the dark. Since Empire happens to be right next to Glacier Pass, I could also finish off the local peaks.
I got a nice late 8:00 AM start, taking the now-familiar cutoff to Glacier Pass. The trail is quite clear as it arcs below some jagged cliffs, then all but disappears as it passes through marshes and slabs, then reappearing intermittently above. Such is the Glacier Pass trail, varying between faint, obvious, and nonexistent as it makes its way to a very sensible low-point in the ridge. I understand why NPS stopped maintaining the Sawtooth Pass trail: it’s unmaintainable, being nothing but a trench in 1000′ of kitty litter. But large sections of Glacier Pass require very little maintenance. It’s even several hundred feet lower than Sawtooth! I added a few ducks, doubting they would help me at night.
Nearing the pass, I saw numerous use trails across the kitty litter leading over from Sawtooth Pass, which could be used in a number of ways. The dynamited and heavily-built trail on the north side of the pass unfortunately drops one directly into a permanent snowfield, which is far too slick and treacherous to be crossed except in the afternoon. Backtracking a bit, I 3rd-classed my way into the moat, then followed it west around the end of the snow.
I regained the surprisingly-intact trail below the talus fan, and followed it to Spring Lake, where a nice log bridge and a faint use trail led me to the base of Hands-and-Knees Pass. Secor describes this as a “class 3, difficult cross-country” pass, but he must have some personal problem with it. Maybe he got lost there in the dark (whence springs my aversion to Lamarck Col). Though it looks awful from across the way, it is in fact class 2 over mostly-stable dirt, rocks, and vegetation. It also climbs nearly 1000′ less than his recommended alternative, Black Rock Pass.
From the pass, I traversed downward to the ridge between Big and Little Five Lakes Basins. In retrospect, I found it behooves one to stay high. The rest of the route to Little Five Lakes and the trail looked easy, so I took a long break here, then returned to Glacier Pass.
Empire is but a 30-minute talus slog to the west, made least painful by staying close to the ridge. Glancing through the newly-placed register, I saw that one person had climbed it from the Empire mine. I like mining junk, and descending in that direction was a straight shot to the Timber Gap trail, so I finished my fish and took off that way, staying left of a ridge for a little while before breaking right and down toward the mine. The descent was not the pleasant boot-ski I had hoped for, but was still efficient.
The mine was kind of a disappointment. Growing up with Colorado mining junk, I expected fancy metal contraptions and big clapboard buildings. Instead, there were a few pieces of rusty, twisted metal and a hole. Oh, well. It was still a fast way to get back to the trailhead, taking just over an hour to lose almost 4,000 feet.