Above the Sea of Clouds - Sawtooth, Vandever, and Florence

2-4 Sep 2000 - by Jim Ramaker

It felt strange to leave the Bay Area for a climbing trip under cloudy skies and light rain, with the forecast calling for a snowstorm in the mountains that night followed by wind and clouds for the next few days. But there comes a point when the planning and packing for a climbing trip take on a certain momentum, and it becomes easier to just go through with the departure instead of cancelling out. So the Friday evening of Labor Day weekend found six of us heading across the Central Valley to Mineral King: leader Bob Suzuki, Joan Marshall, Jeff West, Heather Kirby, Eddie Sudol, and your scribe Jim Ramaker. We got to the very nice Cold Springs campground at Mineral King at 10:30 p.m. and were surprised to find a couple of vacant sites on the holiday weekend and even more surprised to see stars overhead.

After a sound sleep, we ate breakfast at the picnic table on a cold clear morning and hiked up the trail toward Crystal Lake and our first objective, Sawtooth Peak (12,343). After a break at the lake, we cross- countried over the saddle to the north and then did a sporty traverse across sloping slabs covered with fresh snow, and then upward along the gentle, snow-covered south ridge to the summit.

One member of the party came down with severe altitude sickness and could barely walk, let alone climb, so we gave up on our second objective of the day, Needham Mtn. (12,520+). Instead we relaxed on the summit and marveled at the vistas of snow-dusted peaks and the amazing sea of thick roiling clouds obliterating the Central Valley out to the west. The cloud layer extended up to about 8000 feet and stayed around all weekend, but except for one brief period, skies overhead always remained clear. From the summit we had great views of the Kaweahs, the Whitney area, and more distant peaks such as Goddard and the Palisades.

At 3:30 p.m. we traversed slowly northwest toward Sawtooth Pass, then descended the unmaintained trail westward down Monarch Creek toward the cars. This trail is sketchy in the upper section and rocky and rough throughout, but it's a scenic and shorter alternative to the trails up to Monarch Lake and Crystal Lake. About 6 p.m., the sea of clouds finally rose up to the 9000-foot level and engulfed us, and in minutes the visibility went from 100 miles down to about 100 feet. But no wind and no threat of rain -- just thick quiet fog. It was almost 8 p.m. before we all assembled back in camp and fired up the stoves.

On Sunday, the plan was for a mini two-day backpack southward to get Vandever (11,947) and Florence (12,432). The most efficient way to do this is to camp on the trail just north of Farewell Gap. The ranger told us we wouldn't find any water or any flat camping spots in the upper reaches of Farewell Canyon, but we did -- a beautiful grassy bench next to a flowing side creek on the west side of the canyon about a mile north of Farewell Gap. After setting up camp and eating lunch, we continued up the trail to Farewell Gap. Farewell Canyon, with its vast meadowed hillsides, open stands of trees, and rounded metamorphic peaks, looks a great deal like Colorado, according to members of the party who've been there.

>From the Gap, we strolled up Vandever, an undistinguished scree hump that looks like Mt. Dana except a bit smaller. On her first PCS trip, Heather blew the group away by floating up the peak way ahead of everyone. She may be a bit of a sandbagger -- while it's true she'd never climbed in California before this trip, later in the weekend it came out that she's climbed in Alaska, gone to a climbing school in the Alaska Range, done lots of outdoor trips, and is one strong young woman.

Because we decided to do Vandever and Florence in two days instead of as a dayhike as some PCS stalwarts have done (that's you, Rich), we were able to relax on the summit for 1 1/2 hours. We lay down on the inviting scree and took nice long naps, or explored the tops of the steep, loose, dangerous gullies plunging down the west face.

Back in camp at 6 p.m., a cold wind came up and the sea of clouds rose up the Valley toward us, enveloping the trailhead and almost making it up to our camp at about 9700 feet. Bob had a queasy stomach and got so chilled from eating almost nothing all day that he was shivering inside his sleeping bag. Finally he was able to eat some hot soup and warm up.

Monday the objective was Florence, and this was the most interesting and beautiful of the three peaks. We quickly retraced our steps from Sunday up to Farewell Gap, then hiked down one switchback on the south side of the pass and began sidehilling across a loose scree slope toward Bullfrog Lakes. We were surprised to find no use trail here -- apparently most people drop down into the valley on the trail and reclimb the watercourse up to Bullfrog Lakes and Florence Peak. The sidehilling paid off -- in just 30 minutes we were at the lakes and wow, what a beautiful spot. Clean granite slabs and patches of grass surround the lake, with the inviting south face of Florence Peak rising above the far end of the lake.

After a break to get water and take photos in the clear morning light, we headed up slabs and easy talus toward the low point west of the summit. This was a mistake -- while the west ridge appears low-angle in profile, it consists of car and RV-sized blocks that create small dead-end cliffs and steep, awkward class-3 clefts. Bob powered straight up the ridge, but the rest of us eventually dropped a couple of hundred feet down and to the right, then worked our way up sandy class 2-3 chutes and ledges. We got back to the summit ridge about 300 feet west of the summit, then followed it to the top. The best way to climb the south face is to go past the left end of the cliff band near the bottom of the face, then wander up and right, avoiding various small cliffs and aiming about 300 feet left of the summit. If you wander around sufficiently, it's easy class 2-3 all the way.

We topped out at 11:30 and had even better views than the day before. Besides the giants of the southern and mid-Sierra, we could clearly see Ritter, Banner, Lyell, and the Clark range over 100 air miles to the north. As an experiment, we tried a more direct route back to camp, going across the south slope of the reddish scree hump just west of Florence (Peak 12,146), then dropping down into a strange scree bowl devoid of vegetation with a tiny tarn shown on the 7.5 minute map at 11,300 feet. From there we passed through a narrow snow-choked slot between two scree humps, emerged high on the southwest slopes of Farewell Canyon, and spotted our camp 1500 feet below. This route saved some distance and time compared to Farewell Gap and Bullfrog Lakes, but it did involve lots of slogging across sharp, shifting scree.

We got back to camp at 2, packed up, and hiked down to the cars very quickly in 1 1/2 hours. A delicious post-trip feast at the Pizza Factory in Three Rivers brought this trip to a close.

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