No Lament on a Spanish Sawtooth

19 Nov 2005 - by Jeff Dhungana

It is too bad a lot of Sierra peak-baggers cite the Southern Sierras as one of the last regions they visit. For me, it was no different. This weekend would be my introduction to the region, and a fine one at that.

Glenn Gookin and I drove on Friday night to the well marked Lamont Pk trailhead on Cannebrake Rd. The trailhead is accessible from either the south, taking a dirt road (Cannebrake Rd) that connects to the 178 about 9 miles west of Walker Pass; or from the north, going down Ninemile Canyon Rd from the 395 for about 11 miles and then heading south on Cannebrake road.

After waiting 15 minutes past the arranged meet-up time with two others, Glenn and I set off at 6:15am. It was dark, but the moon shone bright overhead. In the twilight, the silhouette of Lamont Peak and its pinnacles provided a great backdrop as the trail rose steadily upward. It isn't very far at all from the TH and could seemingly be done in an hour. The trail curved around the S-SE side of the peak and looked like it was headed off to join the PCT, so we decided to strike off cross country to what seemed to be the high point. We lost some time here and found that the high point we'd seen from the trail was just a pinnacle among a dozen or so. They all looked impressive, and after a little landform identification on the map, we scrambled to the true summit. The rock quality was great and we even encountered a few fun 3rd class moves. Lamont is by far, the easiest peak in the SPS list I can think of, and a perfect highway peak for those who just have two or three hours to go up and down the mountain.

After a few minutes of admiring the pinnacles on the ridge we'd just climbed, Glenn and I took off for the PCT and headed south. Our intended route was to follow the PCT until just below the saddle between Spanish Needle and N. Needle. The USGS map, however, shows the trail incorrectly because it never actually goes right below the saddle, instead heading W-SW along one of the ridges. After a few minutes of scratching our heads trying to make sense of the map, we decided to head up what looked to be some nasty looking slopes choked with brush and talus instead of going down further. Luckily, Glenn found a convenient rock gully that took us most of the way to the saddle. It is hard to tell which pinnacle is the high point after leaving the trail, so in retrospect, we should have probably decided on which pinnacle we'd climb first, and then head towards it. After scrambling over one of the pinnacles, we identified the true summit and the N summit and went for the former.

This proved to be a very bumpy ridge with plenty of up and down on the small rock towers the other option would be to get tangled in brush while straining one's feet in a tedious side-hill traverse. Nonetheless, the rock was now sustained 3rd class with one or two avoidable 4th class sections. At one point, while downclimbing a narrow chimney, Glenn couldn't squeeze through, and thus opted to toss his pack to the ledge 5 feet below. I waited at the top. He gently dropped his pack on the ledge below, but much to our surprise, it didn't stop, and rolled over the edge. The pack cascaded along about 80 vertical feet and our jaws dropped in fear would it drop all the way to the bottom of the canyon? Fortunately it stopped right at the saddle we would eventually go towards. Needless to say, I wasn't going to make the same mistake.

After retrieving Glenn's well bruised pack and exalting praises for Jansport, we scrambled to the saddle right before the true Needle. Glenn decided to go just to the right of it, up a steep gully that led more directly to the summit. When it rained, I surmise that it could be a gushing waterfall. Recognizing the friction slabs to the left (north) of the final saddle from previous write-ups, I opted to take this route instead, and secretly hoped to reach the summit before Glenn. He ended up taking a much easier and less circuitous route and reached the summit 10 minutes before me. For people who don't mind a short, easy 4th class move, I highly suggest foregoing the friction slab and taking the chimney/gully just south of the saddle instead. It is a lot easier than it looks. The gully leads straight up to the point where the step across to the final summit block is, instead of traversing all the way around the peak on the friction slab to get to the same spot. I didn't even recognize the step-across move until I was on the summit, ready to head off. It's an easy two foot wide boulder skip over 20 feet of exposure.

So far the weather had been nice and balmy. Visibility was excellent and we could point out peaks all the way to Langley and the Kaweahs to the north. We left the summit of Spanish Needle at noon and toiled through the ridge to hit the North Needle. It was very slow going here and took us a lot longer than anticipated, losing a lot of time routefinding to avoid being cliffed out. I decided to skip out on the North Needle after realizing that my hands didn't quite reached a critical move to do a full body pullup and a subsequent mantle to gain access to the upper aspect of the pinnacle. Glenn made the tough move look too easy and tagged the summit. I cursed myself for being a few inches shorter. I wondered how Lynn Hill would have fared on that move.

I decided to head around the N Needle, and didn't find much else that was easier. I scrambled up an exposed low 5th move which didn't seem tough from the bottom, but halfway up, I witnessed the holds slowly disappearing. At this point, even pausing to think was becoming strenuous on my hands and feet, so I summoned all my courage to make two moves in succession in marginal holds. What I found at the top of the section was a bit sobering. A worn sling around a rock that was ripped on the side the rope would have looped around! My optimism convinced me that it probably wasn't a rappel gone wrong and maybe a lightning strike, but it looked too much like the former. At any rate, I took the sling home with me, more for mountain memorabilia than cleaning up the crags.

The north slopes of the N Needle gave us easy access to the PCT. We hiked along for a few miles, and after it got too boring for our tastes, we started jogging. A few steps later, I heard a missed step behind me, followed by a blood-curdling yell. I turned back to find Glenn face down on the ground. He immediately got up and tried to limp it off, insisting that he had to put pressure on it. By the looks of it, he was in great pain, and I know I certainly couldn't have made such a graceful recovery. Obviously, we stopped jogging and took an easier pace on trail. Glenn decided to skip Sawtooth and hike back to the car, which wasn't an easy feat, considering he had about 8 miles of trail ahead of him on a twisted ankle. After assessing the situation, and concluding that the trail wouldn't pose much of a technical challenge to Glenn, I was off to Sawtooth.

The daylight now fading, I could see the shadow-line about halfway up the peak from the saddle at the PCT. I raced up, hoping to beat the sun-god, Helios to revel in the summit views. After losing my companion, even well-humored mythological references didn't seem to make the ascent any more exciting. Just easy forested slopes all the way to the top. Sure enough, the sun-god was no match for me, and I made the summit in an hour from the saddle, well before Helios dipped below the horizon. After signing in the third pre-1960's register for the day, I was done going up and had a lot of fun speeding down to meet the PCT. Sawtooth is another peak that can feasibly be done in 3-5 hours from the Chimney Creek Campground on Cannebrake Rd.

I put on my headlamp on the last mile on the PCT and then headed down the dirt road we'd driven down in the morning to meet up with Glenn. The original plan was to set up a car shuttle with another person who was supposed to meet us in the morning, but the plan aborted when he didn't show up, resulting in an extra 4 miles of road walking at the end of the day. Thankfully, Glenn made it all the way to the car and picked me up halfway down the road at 6pm. A quick drive to Ridgecrest, a questionable dinner (at La Fiesta Mexican restaurant on China Lk Bl) and beer made us forget all the brush, talus and swollen ankles we endured.

Glenn would display his immense fortitude again the next day by bagging Morris, Jenkins and Owens on an injured ankle. All in all, a great introduction to the Southern Sierra for me, and a highly recommended adventure for those seeking a combination of a moderately long dayhike, some fun scrambling and beautiful fall weather.

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