Kaweah traverse: Big to Black (19h05)

Big Kaweah (r) to Black Kaweah (l) from Little Five Lakes

Bounded by the Kern River and Big Arroyo, the Kaweahs form a distinct, rugged ridge in the middle of the southern Sierra. A traverse includes three officially- and six unofficially-named summits, from south to north: Mount Kaweah (a.k.a. Big Kaweah), “Gray Kaweah,” “Bilko Pinnacle,” “Squaretop,” “Michael’s Pinnacle,” Red Kaweah, “Koontz Pinnacle,” “Pyramidal Pinnacle,” and Black Kaweah. I completed the traverse as a day-hike out of Mineral King, taking 7 hours from the first to the last summit, and just over 19 hours car-to-car. The ridge is mostly class 2-3, with numerous class 4 sections and two short 5.2-5.4 pitches between Red Kaweah and Koontz Pinnacle. As expected in the Kaweahs, there is much loose rock, but the rock quality is mostly good in the crux sections.

This was the link-up I wanted most when I drove over to the western Sierra. As expected, it was much harder than my outings to Whaleback and Brewer., as well as my long outing last season, though the last took more time, making it perhaps the hardest single day I have done. The scrambling along the Kaweah ridge, with its suddenly-changing and often poor rock quality, and sometimes tricky route-finding, requires constant focus. So does the approach: while there is some mindless trail time near Mineral King and between Little Five Lakes and the Big Arroyo, much of the approach is cross-country. For a big Kaweah day, most of the cross-country must be done at night in both directions.

I woke to my alarm at 2:00 AM and rolled into the front seat to start my day. After trying on both of my pairs of shoes, I chose the duct-taped Crossleathers over the Quantums, since they are slightly larger and, though more worn, seem to be dying more slowly. I started up the trail at 2:25, passing the usual Mineral King glowing eyes (a herd of deer hangs around the area). Though there was no moon, the night was thankfully clear, so I could orient myself by starry skylines and Visalia’s glow to the west.

I turned off on the semi-signed Glacier Pass trail (a sign at the junction points to Sawtooth Pass in the other direction, and another 50 yards up the trail warns that it is unmaintained), and pushed through brush that seems to have encroached a bit more on the trail than last year. Having traveled several abandoned trails recently, my dark thoughts turned to how I am living at the end of an era. The glaciers are dying; streams are drying up earlier with the lighter snowpack; trails are being neglected outside core tourist routes (JMT, HST, Whitney) and those profitable to pack companies.

As expected, I lost the Glacier Pass trail partway up, so it took me a few minutes to find the other side of the pass, but the crossing was easier without the snowfield on the other side; I even found part of an old sign. Hands-and-Knees Pass actually lived up to its name at night. I could see my goal on the skyline, but spent some unpleasant time pulling on rocks, grass, and bushes as I made my way up loose, steep terrain to the pass. There is a bit of a use trail in places, but I did not find it at night.

Shortly after finding the Black Rock Pass trail above Little Five Lakes, it became light enough to stow my headlamp. I filled up on water at the pond past the trail junction — unlike last year, the stream is dry — then hiked and jogged down to the Big Arroyo trail junction, where I passed a camp with lots of gear hung out to dry. Moving quickly south along the High Sierra Trail, I passed three men carrying climbing helmets, and was surprised to hear that they were climbing Squaretop, an obscure goal.

Leaving them behind, I admired Needham’s east side as the trail gradually climbed to the Chagoopa Plateau. I had left my map in the car, and was not sure whether I would be able to see Big Kaweah from where I should leave the trail, so I eventually just chose a convenient place and headed straight east. The terrain leveled out in an open, boulder-strewn forest, and I was pleased to find myself almost directly east of Big Kaweah’s summit. I chose a decent-looking chute through the broken cliff band near the base of its west slope, and had no problem with the long climb up mostly-stable boulders. Either Big Kaweah’s sheer bulk or the curvature of the face makes this climb look much shorter than it is.

I reached the summit 6h45 from Mineral King, the same time that it took me to reach Black Kaweah last year. Though it is just a pile of rubble, Big Kaweah has an impressive view of the Whitney-Corcoran-Langley needled ridge to the east, and… nothing to the south, as it lies at the southern end of the high Sierra. I signed the register, then continued the boulder-hop to Gray Kaweah, the high point at the southern end of the jagged part of the ridge.

The boulder-hopping ended suddenly between Gray Kaweah and the first pinnacle to its north, marking the start of the day’s standard terrain: a sometimes-jagged relatively stable crest, rotten gullies and ribs often allowing a class 3 bypass to the west, and scary-steep terrain to the east occasionally providing a useful path. Though the named features between Gray and Red Kaweahs are obvious from the east or west, they are an indistinct mass of pinnacles and fins from the ridge itself. I found no registers between Gray Kaweah and Michael’s Pinnacle, and several of the unnamed pinnacles had summit cairns. Having a GPS or high-resolution topo would make this section less confusing, though not much easier, since the best route goes over many of the pillars.

I tagged the first and third pinnacles north of Gray Kaweah, then lost track of where I was, climbing basically every pinnacle that wasn’t obviously dominated by a higher neighbor. Looking back at the ridge from the hike out, I realized that I had climbed several of the highpoints on the long ridge south of Michael’s Pinnacle. Squaretop, which looks like an obvious mesa, is actually two connected pillars, with the southern one slightly higher, separated by a gully consisting of solid, reddish rock; I climbed both. I had brought Secor’s route descriptions for the ridge, but even if I knew where I was, they would have been useless, as they often are for routes he did not climb himself.

Reaching Michael’s Pinnacle (named for the ubiquitous Charles Michael, who climbed many difficult Sierra peaks in the 1910s), I at last found a film canister with a register, which told me where I was. I knew nothing about the ridge between here and Red Kaweah, but it was short, and no harder than what I had climbed so far. I summited Red Kaweah at 1:25 PM, 11 hours from the trailhead and 4h15 from Big Kaweah. My plan had been to descend the standard scree gully on Red Kaweah, then reascend another gully between Koontz and Pyramidal Pinnacles to finish off the traverse. However, the long ridge to Koontz Pinnacle looked like it would go; I knew nothing about it, but following it would be both more efficient and more sporting.

The first part of the ridge went easily, with surprisingly good rock, moderate climbing, and ample opportunities for escape to the west. The best path stayed either directly on the ridge or just below to the west. As the ridge leveled off near the summit, however, I found several deep, vertical cuts in the ridge. This was the crux of the day. Getting into the second-to-last gap required some low 5th-class downclimbing on bad rock to the west.

The final gap was the deepest, reached by some 4th or low 5th class downclimbing on the east side. I tried heading straight up the final headwall to the summit ridge, but found a few moves that felt harder than I wanted to try (maybe 5.7-5.8), especially in worn-out running shoes. I thought I might be screwed, forced to retreat to a westward gully and bail, then too tired to continue with my original plan. However, I found an unlikely upward-sloping ledge system on the east side of the ridge that deposited me near the summit, and went at no harder than 5.2-5.4. Though it may not have saved me time, going this way definitely cheered me up.

The standard route to the gap between Koontz and Pyramidal Pinnacles looks nightmarishly loose and steep, but is no harder than some other of the other 4th class climbing on the ridge. Dropping down the gully a bit, I turned right onto the broad scree-covered ledge leading around Pyramidal Pinnacle’s west side, not even trying to find a way up its sheer-looking south side. From its northwest side, the climb to the summit is obvious and not hard.

The only remaining unknown was Black Kaweah’s east ridge, which I knew was class 4. I mostly stayed to the right (northeast) of the ridge, since the rock there was more solid, though I dodged one of the larger pinnacles via a step-around to a broad, sloping red ledge on the other side. The crux of this section seemed to be on one of the final pinnacles before Black Kaweah’s southeast face, where a leftward ledge made the climbing mostly 3rd class. This route is slightly harder than the standard west garbage chute, but much more fun.

I reached the summit at 4:12, about 7 hours from Big Kaweah, and finally relaxed. While I knew there would be more headlamp time, the rest of the route was familiar, and I hoped to at least cross Hands-and-Knees Pass before dark. Jogging the connecting trail near the Little Five Lakes junction, I heard voices, and took out my headphones to investigate. It turned out to be the party of three I had met in the morning, just returning to camp from Squaretop. They asked how my day had gone and, when I told them, asked if I knew Bob Burd. It turns out that they knew me as well, probably through the Sierra Challenge.

I almost made it over Hands-and-Knees headlamp-free, but had to turn it on partway down the south side. From there, it was a slow, painful slog over Glacier Pass and down to the car, where I set my dead, reeking shoes on the hood and passed out.


I used more-or-less “race”-level types and amounts of food: 9 packs of Pop-tarts (3600 cal), 2 caffeinated Clif bars (480 cal), and a few handfuls of salted nuts (400 cal?). While this averages only 235 cal/hr out of a maximum of 300+, I spent significant time at sub-maximal effort, either hiking at night or dealing with technical terrain.


According to SummitPost, the first Kaweah traverse was by Fiddler, Selters, and Whitmore in 1997, going from Black to Second Kaweah. Being climbers, they skipped the final boulder-hop to Mount Kaweah, and evidently found a harder line along the crest, rating their route VI 5.9. Being a peak-bagger, I included Mount Kaweah, and took an easier line between peaks. My biggest deviation from a “true traverse” was going up and down Pyramidal Pinnacle’s west side, rather than climbing it from the south or southeast.

10 responses to “Kaweah traverse: Big to Black (19h05)

  1. Bob Burd says:

    I had fun catching up on your September adventures, some really great outings. For whatever reason, I like the West Side stories over the East Side, maybe because they’re more remote and less traveled routes.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      A few other reasons come to mind. First, the western Sierra are newer to me and therefore more exciting, which may come across in my writing. Second, the west-side outings were stuff I have been wanting to do, while the east-side ones, other than Clarence King, were more like “stuff to do.” Finally, I have reason to believe that you just enjoy watching me suffer.

  2. Dara Malin says:

    That is some mighty fine peak bagging right there. Reminds me when I went for Black and Red kaweah in one push and went a little bit over 24 hours, it was one of my most ambitious dayhike attempts. Ah well, guess women are just slower. The best option to knock these long link ups is to simply trail run when you can. That must have been one hell of a hard day for you and I can’t believe you had a good 4 hours to spare. Damn you.

  3. Dara Malin says:

    “However, the long ridge to Koontz Pinnacle looked like it would go; I knew nothing about it, but following it would be both more efficient and more sporting.”

    Awesome!!! One of my most favorite Sierra sights has been that view of Koontz-Pyramidal-Black from red kaweah, I need to get my greedy little hands on those pinnacles!! Can’t believe you nabbed this whole traverse, this is one I have been salivating big time over.

    ps. that “east side ledge” looks a bit scary.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Well, the ledge *was* the crux, and falling would have been bad. It was fairly suspenseful whether or not it would go, since it would have been a long backtrack before I could bail to the west.

      Regarding trail running, one of the things that makes this particular link-up hard is that there aren’t many easy, flat-to-downhill running opportunities. Knowing the route over Glacier and Hands-and-Knees passes is probably the biggest time-saver. There’s just no getting around the fact that this is a really hard day.

  4. Dara Malin says:

    haven’t you kicked enough ass by now? you can stop now haha

    1. drdirtbag says:

      An unkicked ass really chaps mine ;-). That said, this season is winding down for me now.

  5. Matthew Holliman says:

    Awe inspiring. Some of your recent accomplishments are mind boggling.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Thank you, sir! It has been fun to push the limits in my own small way before someone like Kilian Jornet shows up in the Sierra and does things that are completely out of my league.

      This season is just about over for me; hopefully I’ll see you around at the Sierra Obscura Challenge or something.

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