Sawtooth Sojurn
(Northern Yosemite's Sawtooth Ridge)

31 Aug - 3 Sep 2002 - by Jim Ramaker

This "vacation trip" led by Steve Thaw circled northern Yosemite's Sawtooth Ridge and included Audrey Staton, Jack Bowers, Lasta Thomasovich, Skip Perry, and myself (Jim Ramaker). After meeting at the Bridgeport Ranger Station on the morning of Sat. Aug. 31, we had a leisurely breakfast at the excellent Hayes Street Cafe at the south end of Bridgeport, drove up to Twin Lakes, and hit the Barney Lakes trail about 9:30. We had lunch at Barney Lake, hiked up some switchbacks, and arrived at Crown Lake at 3:30. We camped in a flat sandy area at the foot of a cliff at the south end of the lake, then washed up in the shallow lake. After supper, Lasta, who's a yoga instructor, led the group in elaborate yoga stretches, which became a nightly routine on the trip and no doubt did great things for our leg muscles.

Sunday we hiked through beautiful forest and small meadows to Mule Pass (10,400), then dropped our packs and argued about which of the humps on the ridge to the right of us was the summit of Slide Mountain (11,084). We angled over to the middle hump (class 2), but then decided that the right (west) hump was higher, so descended a tiny bit and strolled across a sandy plateau and up easy boulders to the top. Back at Mule Pass after a two-hour round-trip, we continued along the trail through nice up-and- down terrain with interesting rock formations and small meadows and tarns. After lunch at a creek in the woods, we hiked gently uphill into the spectacular timberline valley south of the Sawtooth Ridge, with its jagged, two-mile long wall of beautiful orange- tinged granite on our left. A short cross-country jaunt to the southwest brought us to a beautiful camp at Finger Lakes (10,300) at 3:45.

Steve, Audrey, and Jack immediately dropped their packs and took off for nearby Finger Peak (11,498), while Lasta, Skip, and I debated whether we had enough time to do the peak before dark, then finally decided to give it a try also. From the lake, you can see a large hump left (east) of Finger Peak, then the east peak and central peak (which is the highest), with the west peak not visible from the lake. Steve, Audrey, and Jack went left of the eastern hump and traversed across its south side, but found tedious class 3-4 climbing across steep ribs.

Lasta wanted to angle far to the right toward the west peak, but Skip and I preferred a more direct approach, up the gully between the east and central peaks, which looked pretty easy except for a questionable section at the top. The gully went fine on slabs and boulders until we got near the top, and then what looked like a steep sandy ramp turned out to be hardscrabble morainal dirt embedded with loose rocks, with the rock walls around it of the "pull- apart" variety. Lasta took cover while Skip and I slowly clawed our way up this ugly section, then joined us at the saddle. From there we spotted Jack several hundred feet directly above our heads, climbing exposed blocks near the summit.

We traversed steep class-3 ribs across the south side of the central peak, then climbed up steepening class-3 slabs and cracks toward the top. Just below the top, we crept up a sloping class-4 ledge with big air on our right, then were relieved to see that the summit block 30' away was only class-3 and not class-4 as the guidebook had implied. The summit register container was unique -- an ancient rusted iron cylinder about two inches in diameter with the Sierra Club emblem on it, but the register itself was not that old.

I had feared an after-dark epic, but it was only 6 p.m., so we still had time to get down before dark if we hustled. The three of us quickly climbed down to join Steve, Audrey, and Jack, who were waiting for us at the saddle between the west and central peaks. For the descent, we scoped out the gully there, which we'd avoided on the way up because it had a snowfield at the top and we had no ice axes on this trip. The snowfield was hard dirty ice, 35-40 degrees, but there was a moat on its left side that looked possible, so we crept down that and then continued down on the dirty ice using the rock wall of the gully for handholds.

We then had to cross the gully, and luckily there were just enough rocks and gravel patches embedded in the ice to make this doable. A little more boulder hopping took us down to a lower-angled snowfield where we could glissade and then finally down onto the talus. From there, camp was surprisingly close, and we were back at 7:15. From the lake, the gully between the east and central peaks that Lasta, Skip, and I took seems to offer the easiest route, but instead of climbing the dirt ramp at the top right of the gully as we did, climb the loose boulders at the top left.

From our camp that evening, the alpenglow lighting up the Sawtooth Ridge was magnificent, with Blacksmith Peak, Cleaver Peak, the Sawblade, the Three Teeth, the Doodad, and the Dragtooth all beckoning the climber with many great routes, a few of them class-3 but most of them class-4 and 5.

On Monday, the group split into three, with Jack soloing the northwest face of Matterhorn (12,279), Audrey, Lasta, and Skip tackling the west ridge, and Steve and I heading for Dragtooth (12,160), directly across the valley from our camp. Jack ran into a short class-4 section on his route, while the rest of us enjoyed fun class 2-3 climbs on solid boulders on our respective peaks. From the summit of Dragtooth, Steve and I looked down its precipitous northeast face into Horse Creek Canyon, then spotted four tiny figures on top of Matterhorn about 1/2 mile away. We conversed back and forth, which works if you pause 3-4 seconds between each shouted word to let the echoes dissipate.

Steve and I were back in camp for lunch, and I had a first-ever experience on a climbing trip and spent the afternoon dozing, washing up in the lake, and taking a long walk around the upper end of our beautiful valley. Audrey, Jack, Lasta, and Skip descended Jack's class 3-4 route, then traversed over to Dragtooth, making four peaks in two days for them.

After the four Matterhorners got back to camp at 4 p.m., Jack treated us all to a lengthy and animated reading from "The Dharma Bums," Jack Kerouac's colorful story of his attempt on Matterhorn with two friends back in the 1950s. After that, we enjoyed a leisurely supper as the alpenglow painted the Sawtooth Ridge, then had another yoga lesson.

Tuesday, Audrey and I headed out, hiking up and over Burro and Matterhorn Passes as a strong wind came up. Interestingly, a permanent snowfield marked on the map between the passes was completely gone. Matterhorn Pass is not trivial with a full pack -- we climbed up to the south end of a 100' wide flat area at the top of the pass, then scrambled to the north end of the flat area. From there, we zig-zagged down ledges and slabs, including a smooth class-3 ramp with a bit of exposure. Once down in Spiller Canyon we were on familiar ground, and the powerful wind pushed us through the slot at Horse Creek Pass and down into the spectacularly rugged scenery of Horse Creek Canyon. The use trails in the canyon have changed slightly since my last visit, and the best way through the willow thicket halfway down is now right along the creek, and not up on the talus as before. Audrey and I reached the cars at 2 p.m.

Lasta and Skip followed in our footsteps later that day and camped near Horse Creek Pass. Meanwhile, Steve and Jack were climbing Blacksmith Peak (11,760). They went up to the left of the loose central gully and climbed a short class 4-5 section near the top unroped. Then they too hiked over Burro and Matterhorn Passes, and camped with Lasta and Skip. The winds blasted all day and increased in the evening, eventually exceeding 100 MPH over the peaks, according to Steve. At dawn Wednesday, some rain came in to add to the fun, and Audrey, Jack, Lasta, and Skip skipped breakfast and beat a hasty retreat down Horse Creek Canyon. Back in civilization, they rewarded themselves for an exciting trip with hot showers at the Twin Lakes campground and lunch at the Hayes Street Cafe.

Trivia note: Of the nine peaks mentioned in this report, all of them except Slide Mountain offer interesting and challenging routes on good rock, but only one of the nine (Matterhorn) is on the SPS list.

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