Stranded In The Southland

Monday, September 19, 2005

Sawtooth Peak

(Yeah, that pointy high point over there is Sawtooth Peak. Yeah, the highest one, that looks like a shark's tooth.)

After my successful trip up to Cirque Peak last month, I was looking for a new challenge, perhaps something a bit tougher. My SO, M., was going to be out of town for the weekend at a conference, and I was anxious to bag another Sierra peak.

The first trip I tried for, a reasonably strenuous hike up Mt. Morgan, was full. The second, a two-peak hike up Sawtooth Peak and Needham Mountain was not. This was going to be tough, but it'd bag two SPS peaks, and on an SPS-sponsored trip, too. That meant that I'd be half-way to membership in SPS (you have to get two of your peaks on SPS trips). Woo hoo! (Cue scary music here, as I missed the fact that the trip description had the word 'strenuous' in it three times.)

I stressed out a bit over getting to the trailhead at Mineral King, in Sequoia National Park, as on an earlier trip, a ranger had suggested that the road up to Mineral King was too much for my little Miata. I tried desperately to carpool up there with someone with little luck.

A quick call Thursday morning (the day I was to leave) brought the welcome news that the ranger up at Mineral King had seen lowered sports cars make it up that road, so I shouldn't sweat it. And then, almost out of the blue, I also found someone to carpool with. This involved some aggravating last-minute scrambling, but it was probably worth it. (A bit more scary music here.)

After a reasonably pleasant drive, we slept out at 6,900', and headed up to the trailhead. We hung out up there well past the 8:30AM meeting time, waiting for one last hiker. It was good to get to know everybody, and we had plenty of time, anyway. Or so I thought. (Duh-dum. Duh-dum.)

It turned out that everybody else on the hike had quite a few Sierra peaks under their belt, some pretty serious conditioning programs, and almost all of them had been doing SPS hikes for 10 or more years. (The music should be getting pretty loud, now.) I carefully ensured that my pack was as light as possible, leaving behind my cell phone and camera and book and anything else that seemed superfluous. It was gonna be tough, I could tell.

As you should have guessed by now, I was by far the slowest guy out there. This really bummed me out, although my fellow hikers were all very cool, and offered friendly suggestions and seemed to have no problem waiting an extra minute or two at several places on the backpack up to our campsite. I'd like to blame it on the altitude or something, but I was pretty much hiking at my usual pace.

We stayed at beautiful Monarch Lake, with views of rocky summits all around, and a beautiful cascade. The original plan was to make camp, then make a short day hike to explore the area, and settle in for the evening. This was changed to an ascent of Sawtooth Peak, with some scouting of the optimum route to Needham Mountain for the next day. With any luck, that'd make the next day's hiking that much easier, since we wouldn't have to summit both peaks.

On the way up to Sawtooth, I gradually started falling behind, losing my breath. Usually I'm somewhat better than that. But not that much better. These guys (all of them older than me, some of them considerably older than me) were just in better shape. Again, folks were very cool. I was the one getting hot under the collar.

We eventually made it to the summit (no thanks to me slowing things down), after some extended scrambling, and finally a bit of Class 3 climbing (nothing too hairy, and certainly nothing dangerous). I was delighted to sign my second Sierra Peak summit register, and amazed that I'd made it to the top.

I'd admired Sawtooth from a distance in July, during my carcamping trip to Sequoia, when I'd thought, "Man, what a hairy mountain. Wouldn't it be amazing to get up there some day? Nah, it'll never happen." And yet, there I was, and it wasn't really as tough as I'd imagined. Although it was fairly tough for me.

We went down the ridge to the west of the summit, over a few hairy Class 3 bits, and then down a pleasant scree-filled trail (well, it's pleasant to go down those little pebbly bits, but up, ouch!). By the time we made it down, it was nearly dark, and I was just happy to have finished the hike. I had a big old rip in the seat of my pants, my pack was all dusty, and I was just done in. But I made it! We probably climbed 4,500' that day, which ain't bad.

The next day, I decided to stay in camp, rather than take on Needham, which would be even tougher. I waved goodbye to the hikers, then settled in for a pleasant day of watching the beautiful lake, taking a few short hikes to check out the 2,000 year old Foxtail Pines nearby, and eating to my heart's content. I also chatted with a friendly backcountry ranger, and several folks who dayhiked Sawtooth. Okay, I felt a little puny for having such a tough time of it, but, dang, *I* thought it was tough!

Next time, I'll make sure I bring a book to tide the time over, but it really wasn't that bad at all -- I was delighted to be up that high, in such a beautiful place. Besides, since I'd carpooled up, it's not like I was gonna be able to just leave.

Despite the fact that they left at 7AM, the crew didn't make it back 'til nearly 6PM. It sounded like a rough day, in which they'd ascended to within 200' of the top of Sawtooth again, then downclimbed onto a ridge, then traversed over to Needham. Ugh. We hung out 'til sunset -- this was probably one of the most pleasant groups of folks I've been hiking with so far, with a couple of PhDs and several engineers, and a poor guy married to a woman finishing up a PhD in literature. We all had a certain amount in common.

Except for my lousy conditioning and experience. But they were all cool about it, and gave me all sorts of good suggestions. As much as I learned on my last backpack to the Sierras, I probably learned that much more on this trip. Yow, very cool.

We had a pleasant hike out the next morning (I kept up!), showered and lunched at Silver City (interestingly, they have no electricity, and just use propane to run everything, including lamps!). I had a pleasant carpool back, and settled in at home before dark.

All in all, a great trip, although it irked me no end to have slowed down the group. I'd checked with the leader about the pace before signing up, and he'd indicated it'd be slower than the usual SPS pace, and that my conditioning looked okay. But I should've realized that 'strenuous' showed up in the description several times, and been a bit smarter. It turned out that slower than SPS pace is still fast. Live and learn -- the other guys didn't seem to mind, especially since I skipped out on Needham, when it might've been more of an issue.

I think in future, I'm more likely to drive myself, since I can arrive at my leisure, leave at my leisure, and camp at the spot of my choice. It was nice to chat on the way up, but having complete control is probably better for my sense of well-being, even though I picked up some good ideas on the way back.

I also realized I really need to get on the ball with conditioning. So far, I've imagined that the best way to get to be a better hiker is to hike. I've only been getting out a couple times a week, though, many weeks, and that isn't enough to get me into better shape. I think I'm going to have to start going to the gym to use the stairsteppers to ensure that I really put myself under a load. Maybe I can do intervals or something to speed myself up.

Anyway, I learned a lot, bagged a peak I'd admired from afar, and finished up my WTC graduation requirement to go on two backpacks. Woo hoo! That's a good trip.