The goal was to establish camp at Crystal Lake and climb Mineral Peak on day 1. On day 2, head for the class 3 saddle between Crystal Lake and Amphitheatre Lake and climb Sawtooth and Needham, then pack out the same way we came in. Crystal Lake at 10,800' elevation is a higher place to camp than Monarch (10,400') and it avoids the sandy slog from Sawtooth Pass or from Upper Monarch up to Sawtooth ridge.
The Mineral King Ranger Station opens at 7am on Saturdays which is convenient since you have to pick up the permit in person, even with a reservation. We left from the Sawtooth Pass trailhead, which is 1/2 mile beyond the ranger station and 1/2 mile before the end of the road. After about 2 miles of uphill hiking, we kept right on the trail to Crystal Lake. It took 3.5 hours to get from the trailhead to Crystal Lake. We set up camp at some established campsites just below the tiny dam. Later on, we found a spur trail just before the dam, which switchbacks around a hump and leads to nice flat spots between Crystal Lake and an unnamed small lake. This would be a less windy and prettier place to camp and camping there would shave 10 min of hiking on summit day. Next time
For Mineral Peak, we walked around the South side of Crystal Lake (that was before we tried the said spur trail), then used a prominent rock/grass ramp leading to the saddle on the east ridge of Mineral Peak. From the saddle we followed the ridge, first on van sized boulders, then smaller boulders to the foot of the peak. From there, it is a very satisfying mostly class 2 scramble on solid rock to the summit. Total climbing time from camp was 1 hour 10 min. We signed the register and rewarded ourselves with a one hour break on top. On the return, we did not quite go all the way to the saddle but came down a talus slope leading to the small unnamed lake. Then we took the shortcut trail down, which starts on the West side of that lake.
On day 2, we left at a dark and windy 6:05am. Following the spur trail initially, we then took the same ramp as the day before and caught an easy grade trail through the sand leading to the Class 3 Crystal/Amphitheatre Pass. From there, we headed North below the ridge, picking a route through very large boulders and high angle slabs while dropping about 300'as we turned North East toward Needham. From the North edge of the grassy area, we headed for what looked like cliffs below the first saddle West of Needham. These cliffs are actually easy scrambling and they offer a nice alternative to the otherwise very sandy slopes. We did have to cross a sandy band which wore everyone out but enabled us to follow rock (rather than sand) from there all the way to the saddle. The climb to Needham was mixed sand/boulder with some moderate class 3 for the summit block. John actually braved the gusty wind and briefly stood on the summit. We spent about 30 min on the summit.
The traverse over to Sawtooth was accomplished by dropping to about 11,500' in order to clear the cliffs from the ridge. At one point in the traverse, we faced a small ridge perpendicular to our direction of travel but we found a nice sand/rock ramp which allowed us to cross the ridge easily. Once below Sawtooth, we headed through the easy boulders just below the East skyline. Unfortunately the best approach to the summit block is from the south ridge, so everyone but John had to downclimb about 40' and go around to the South in order to reach the summit. John found a way through some kind of cave under the summit block but this required very awkward moves beyond the rating of this trip. The summit block is easy class 3 and we spent about 30 min up there.
The initial plan for the way down was to follow Sawtooth's South ridge back to our original saddle. This ridge is class 2 if you go as far as the saddle between Monarch and Amphitheatre but we determined it was at least class 4 beyond that point. Instead, we came down hugging the bottom of the ridge on the Amphitheatre side (the East side.) This worked well. We found some easy gullies in between the high angle slabs that brought us to the saddle. This brought us about 1/3 miles North and below our initial Class 3 saddle, which was negotiated the same way as in the morning.
Back at camp, we packed in 30 min and headed about 4 miles and 3000' down. We reached the cars at 6:40pm. Everyone was pretty worn out by the 12.5 hour day but happy we had safely reached all our objectives for this trip. We had a cohesive group and every member held their own in spite of the long day.
I would definitely recommend doing this trip as an overnight versus trying the whole thing in one day hike; not only because of the length of the trip but also because sleeping in altitude helps prevent potential problems with altitude sickness.
Dee Booth assiduously recorded all our times during the trip and I combined her notes with data from TOPO:
Day 1 Trailhead to Crystal lake (trail): 3.8 miles, +3300' 3H30min.
Crystal Lake to Mineral Peak: 0.6 miles, + 700', 1H10min
Day 2 Crystal Lake to Needham Mountain via Crystal/Amphitheatre pass: 1.8 mi, +2000' 3H35min.
Needham Mountain to Sawtooth: 1mi, +1000' -1100' 2H20min
Sawtooth to Crystal Lake: 1.4 mi, + 300' 1800' , 2H30min
Crystal Lake to Trailhead (trail): 3.8 mi, +300' -3300' , 2H25min
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