Black Kaweah

16-Jul-27 (Sierra Club Bulletin)

By: Norman Clyde


Of the numerous picturesque groups of peaks in the Sierra Nevada, probably none is more striking than the Kaweahs, which project eastward toward the Kern River from a point about midway along the Great Western Divide. They are a remnant of a range that preceded the present Sierra Nevada. Several of the higher peaks approach 14,000 feet in elevation. The most spectacularly rugged and the most challenging from a climbing standpoint is the most westerly of the group - the Black Kaweah.

I have climbed all the group a number of times and have always tried to make an ascent of the Black Kaweah when I happened to pass that way. On one of these occasions I left the Sierra Club camp in the [Little] Five Lakes basin a few miles to the south, accompanied by several companions [the above-mentioned ladies]. At first our way led down a steep trail through a scattering of whitebark pine. but soon there appeared the tall spires of red fir with their rich purple-red bark, its still more spire-like cousin, the silver fir, and the wide-branched mountain pine, akin to the sugar pine. Flowers also seemed to be unusually abundant. Along streamlets that gushed from springs and went leaping down rock slopes, the red-flowered bryanthus, the white ledum or Labrador-tea, and the blue lupin grew in profusion. On granite ledges and coign-like niches appeared the magenta flowers of the pride of the Sierra, most beautiful of the mountain penstemons, whose glow impart a touch of vivid color to many a stretch of sober gray granite in the Hudsonian zone.

We followed a zigzag trail to the bottom of the Big Arroyo, crossed the stream and slowly made our way up the opposite slope. As we approached the north rim of the gorge, foxtail pine became abundant. The scattered lines of their rich red boles springing from the rock-strewn terrain and upholding their storm-torn boughs against the background of the rugged mass of the Black Kaweah formed a scene so striking as to be long remembered.

On a rocky point overlooking a stream that tumbled down its channel we made camp, kindling our fire underneath a foxtail pine and clearing places amid thickly strewn granite boulders to bivouac. As night approached, the level rays of the setting sun streamed through the scattered ranks of foxtail pines, causing their reddish boles to glow still richer hues. Gradually lifting, they gilded the dark summit of the Black Kaweah towering above us some distance to the north. Gray twilight slowly crept over the hushed solitude of the mountains until the moon, appearing above the main crest of the Sierra, flooded with silver light both the Kaweahs and the long serrated line of the Great Western Divide. We retired early and were astir shortly after dawn on the following morning [7/16/27].

Breakfast disposed of as expeditiously as possible, we swung on our rucksacks and began to pick our way over stretches of glaciated rock and morainal debris toward a cirque to our left. Presently we were confronted by a tier of cliffs running at right angles below a large couloir up which our route lay. A ledge runs obliquely up the face of the cliff to the lower end of the couloir, but although I had followed the route previously, I had forgotten the location of the ledge. With a little reconnoitering, however, I succeeded in finding it and we had little difficulty in filing upward along it to the foot of the couloir.

This chute cuts deeply into the face of the Black Kaweah and continues all the way up to its headwall a few hundred feet below the summit. The mountain is composed for the most part of dark metamorphic rock which is somewhat friable. As it contains same magnesium, particularly in the rock joints, the exposed surfaces are smooth and when wet have a sort of soapy slipperiness. The floor of the couloir was pretty well covered with loose rock debris and the angle so steep that a climber was obliged to move cautiously in order to avoid dislodging rocks, which would go ricocheting down the chute, usually starting others, perhaps precipitating a small rock slide and endangering those below. (On the last climb I had made of the Black Kaweah [7/18/22], we were caught in an almost blinding snowstorm near the summit. We came down the couloir to the accompaniment of cracking thunder, and flashing lightning; presently, water from melting snow began to pour into the couloir, flowing down it, threatening to start a rock slide. Neither hit by lightning, although it struck a pinnacle perilously near us, nor caught in a rock slide in the deep couloir, we emerged safely from the lower end of the chute.)

After following the floor of the couloir for some distance, we abandoned it and began to scale a precipitous wall to the left. This eventually brought us to a jagged arete that in some places dropped away in a cliff hundreds of feet in depth. We were then a few hundred feet below and within plain view of the summit. When a short distance below it, we cut across to the right to a point only a few feet below the latter. There we encountered an obstacle in the form of a large rock so insecurely poised that a mere touch might send it crashing down the mountainside. After picking my way delicately around it, I gave it a slight shove. Away it went, ricocheting wildly down a steep chute followed by a troop of smaller rocks clattering along in its wake. This was a case of what I sometimes dub "house cleaning.' The insecurely poised rock out of the way, the remnants of the party came along without encountering any hazard.

A very short escalade directly upward then brought us to the top of mountain, a narrow point of ice- shattered rock only a few yards in diameter and 13,751 feet above the sea. It commands a panorama of amazing extent.... In contrast to our experience an the Black Kaweah when we were caught in a terrific storm shortly after leaving the summit, on this ascent the weather could scarcely have been more delightful. The sky was cloudless, the sunshine warm, the atmosphere of wonderful clarity. For an hour or more we lingered on the narrow summit, leisurely eating luncheon and surveying the immense panorama of mountain, valley, and desert outspread in a radius of a hundred miles or more in every direction from our lofty vantage point.

We then began to retrace our way down the steep headwall of the couloir, along the narrow knife edge, and thence down to the lower and deeper portion of the almost gorge-like couloir, in the latter picking our way carefully among the loose and often insecurely poised rock debris and sometimes across treacherously smooth and perhaps slippery surfaces. The afternoon sun shone bright into the couloir. As we carefully made our way downward we noticed numerous clusters of the exquisitely beautiful white and pink Sierra primrose in the clefts of the frost-shattered rocks. Now and then we heard the sweetly plaintive calls of the rosy finch, bird par excellence of the high peaks of the Sierra. Seldom does one ascend any of its lofty summits without encountering at least several of them feeding and flitting about on the very summits.

Eventually we debouched from the lower end of the couloir and filed down the narrow ledge to the talus slope at the base of the mountain and thence across several miles of somewhat broken terrain to our camp among the foxtail pines, looking down into the deep, glacier-cut gorge of the Big Arroyo. Our ascent and descent of the Black Kaweah, one of the finest peaks of the Sierra, had been one of unalloyed pleasure. [Following her name in the register, Ms. Carter added: "Wonderful day and a dandy climb!"]

Unknown to Clyde, and unknown to the young man's sister and the other High Trippers, Garth Winslow, a Stanford undergrad, also set out very early on the 16th - fired with the goal of summitting the Black Kaweah. He silently departed the encampment at Little Five Lakes at 3 am, choosing to disregard explicit warnings from Bill Colby "against solitary climbing, and particularly against attempts on the Blade Kaweah except by the most experienced mountaineers. "

After a belated report of his absence, followed by a intensive search, the youth's still body was found on a ledge below the long ridge that arcs between the Black and the Red Kaweahs. The prime search party included Clyde, Bill Horsfall and Ernest Dawson, Glen's father.

"This splendid young man was a sacrifice to the eagerness and ambition of youth, unfortunately not yet seasoned with experience or the willingness to follow the leader's explicit instructions and warnings. The rock face selected for his climb was wholly unscalable. ... Garth was a splendid young American of the finest type. Throughout the ordeal his sister was heroic and unflinching, and won our deepest admiration as well as our profound sympathy.' [SCB, 1928]


SPS Archives Index | Sierra Peaks Section