Sawtooth Peak #2, Needham Mountain
By: Beth Epstein
Saturday morning eight of us assembled to pick up our permit at the Mineral King Ranger Station as it opened at 7 am. The ranger likes to see everyone together as a group for the bear and conservation tak which is very informative. The license numbers of cars to be left at the roadhead were noted so that rangers can be alerted in case vehicles are in the parking lot past the return date. Across the street from the ranger station was a spacious shed for storage of all food which isn't packed in. We were told not to leave any in the car because of the bears. This time of year the marmots pose no threat to car engines - they only eat radiator hoses, electrical wiring, etc when the snow melts and they come out of hibernation. The leaders of this trip were Patty Kline and Beth Epstein, and the participants were Dan Bovee, Kim Gimenez, Jason Lynch, Carlton McKinney, Suzanne Mulzer and Peter Veregge.
We drove the few minutes up the road to the Sawtooth Pass/Monarch Lakes roadhead at 7,800 feet. We took an easy pace for the 6 mile, 2600 foot gain to Lower Monarch Lake. There were two conveniently placed bear boxes set near many level campsites a few hundred yards from the lake. After setting up our tents and storing our food where only the mice could nibble, everyone set off for Sawtooth except Carlton, who already had the peak. We took the deteriorated trail toward Sawtooth Pass. It went through lots of sand and had many branches, many ducked, which makes it confusing. We worked our way southeast just below the Pass en route to the peak. Sawtooth is rated class two but has some easy third below the summit block. The views from the top of this 12,343 foot peak were great, and after much picture taking we descended to camp. The sandy uphill made a great run down. The statistics from Lower Monarch Lake were 2000 feet of gain and 4 miles round-trip.
Back in camp we quickly got ready for our community happy hour in the chilly evening air. There was an appetizer competition with prizes awarded. Jason got first place for his pita bread stuffed with tomato humus. Peter Veregge won second place for his freshly popped popcorn.
As our Sunday morning 7:00 am start time approached, our participant list began to thin with the prospect of a late drive home down Mineral King's winding road. Carlton, Kim, Jason and I began hiking at 7:30 and headed up the pleasant green gully toward Sawtooth Pass as we had the previous day, but as we were planning to traverse below Sawtooth on use trails, we began to cut southeast across through the sand where the prominent use trails began to ascend - a mistake, as everyone has said before; better to gain the ridge, or near it, at Sawtooth Pass where the footing is more solid. We eventually ended up that high anyway, and made our way below Sawtooth toward the south ridge.
If, like us, for some strange reason you decide to bypass Sawtooth on the way to Needham, you11 miss the scree descent from Sawtooth's summit down the southeast face to the Amphitheater Lake drainage. Instead, we used a break in the south ridge which Carlton spied about 200' above the saddle. There is a distinctly smooth, red, flat flake standing on end which marks a class 3 gully down, into which we traversed after entering slightly south of it through a keyhole. This deposits you atop the giant slabs a couple of hundred feet above the lake basin. We traversed these northeast and down toward Needham, then began the miserable sandy slog up the southwest face. There is a faint ridge which goes a little better than the rest for a few hundred feet from about the 11,200' level. We were on Needhams' 12,520 foot summit at 11:30.
We wanted to return to our camp at lower Monarch Lake via Upper Monarch Lake to avoid the gain and traverse of the morning (we also eliminated the possibility of criss-crossing the ridges in and out of the Crystal Lake basin, in part because it would necessitate crossing the steep snow lingering above upper Monarch), so we headed across the meadows to the south end of the saddle between Amphitheater and Monarch Lakes, where it looked like the wall might go third class. On closer inspection, the darkly prominent southernmost crack was too vertical, and the reddish ledges to the right looked a little thin, but there was a zigzag ledge and crack system slightly further right that looked possible. (It started vertical, moved right horizontally, and became vertical again, like a "Z" turned counterclockwise on its nose). In the last 25 feet or so the exposure increased, but everyone was game and climbed well to the notch. I was so giddy with relief when we had all topped the ridge that when Kim pointed out the well-trodden trail angling toward Upper Monarch just below us, I said, "But that goes UP!" Of course, gravity being what it is, it also took us down through sandy ledges to upper Monarch Lake, which we circled, picking up the trail to the lower lake on the northeast side of the dam, and arriving back at camp at 3:30. We packed up and took the main trail down, reaching the cars about 5:30.
This was an interesting time to be in the mountains -- snow banks lingering and melting, flowers blooming, summer and spring and fall all converging and edging each other aside.
Thanks to Patty and all the participants, who made it a fun trip.
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