Mt. Brewer P1K SPS / WSC

Tue, Jul 30, 2002
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Fri, Aug 27, 1999


Mt. Brewer is named for the most important figure of the Whitney Survey Party in the 1860's (yes, Whitney is more famous, but he wasn't even along for all the field work - that was headed up by William H. Brewer). Like Mt. Goddard to the north, it stands tall for miles around, and set apart from the high peaks of the Sierra Crest, the views from its summit are impressive. Though shy of being a California 14er, a climb from Roads End near Cedar Grove still involves over 8,500ft of gain, and nearly 30mi roundtrip.

The Mt. Brewer dayhike started out as somewhat of a joke several years ago when Mark Connell set out on a quest to climb Mt. Brewer one morning. Though the attempt was serious, the unbelievers he had camped with at Cedar Grove poked fun of him later online (all in good fun), convinced of it's impracticality. When I heard about it, the idea intrigued me a great deal. A made-to-order death march - what could be more fun? Some months later when the creek levels were lower (high water in Bubbs Creek had stopped Mark on the first attempt), I contacted Mark and got him interested in a second attempt. A few weeks before we were set to go, I found I had two additional days off and decided to plan a more extended trip into the region, including an ascent of Mt. Brewer. Mark couldn't take the additional time off, but went ahead with his second attempt at the dayhike. This time he got to over 12,000ft before realizing he'd gotten off-route and wasn't on Mt. Brewer's East Ridge as planned. After being out for 16hrs, Mark returned exhausted and swore off the dayhike attempt. Two years later I began to push for long dayhikes in the Sierra, notably attempting to climb 10 of the 15 Emblem peaks in the 2001 Sierra Emblem Challenge. While Mt. Brewer is one of the Emblem peaks, it was both inconvenient (since it has a west-side approach) and one of the toughest (5th hardest of the 15) to dayhike. Then in 2002 after a failed first attempt, I managed to dayhike Mt. Williamson which is the 4th hardest of the emblem peaks. With that success, my attention once again turned to Mt. Brewer. I felt I was finally fit enough to give it a try, and invited Mark to join me when I found a free weekend at the end of July. Mark declined, though he did join me for a very fine outing to Alta Peak which I used as an acclimatization climb the day before. I wasn't sure which of two routes was best for the attempt - either heading to East Lake and approaching from the east, or heading up Sphinx Creek and approaching from the west. Not convinced either was obviously easier, I decided to ascend from the east and descend to the west in a huge loop that would cover both routes. That would surely be more fun than simply returning the same way I came.

After Mark left me in the Wolverton parking lot following our hike to Alta Peak, I headed back out towards Cedar Grove. On the way I stopped at Grant Grove to see if I could find a room for the night, but was told everything was booked solid. I pleaded, and even begged a little. She admitted she had one room, but didn't want to give it to me. She said they had so many complaints about it that I'd be better off camping outside. She was so convincing in depicting this hovel as a huge mistake, that I stopped begging and thanked her for her time. I continued on to Cedar Grove where I found the grill open and serving tasty cheeseburgers. They probably weren't really that tasty, but after hiking all day, they sure seemed like it. After dinner I stood in line to get a hot shower, only to find it was coin-operated and I had no quarters on me. I went to the laundry room to use the change machine, and after I inserted my old, wrinkled bill in for the fifth time or so one of the laundry patrons took pity on me, informing me the machine was broken. Two strikes. Finally I got some quarters from the clerk in the store (I was really expecting him to tell to go use the change machine), and was able to enjoy the hot shower that by now I was desperately wanting. To further soothe my nerves, I bought a Hagen-Daaz ice cream bar at the store on my way out - now life was good. Heading towards Roads End, I looked for a suitable rogue camping site, but nothing seemed to fit the bill. Outside of Cedar Grove, it seemed the only place I could park overnight without drawing suspicion would be at Roads End where the majority of the backpackers leave their cars.

I couldn't sleep outside my car as it was too early and there were still people milling about and returning from afternoon dayhikes. Then I hit upon what seemed pure genius - sleeping inside the patio at the permit station. The patio had wooden shutters on the windows that could be closed to keep the light out, and who would be wandering into the building once the rangers had vacated it? I took my pad and sleeping bag and set them up in a corner of the wooden deck, and closed the door and all but one of the windows. Though it was only 7:30p and still very light out, it was fairly dark inside. It was several hours before I actually went to sleep, though just lying there was doing my body a world of good in letting it repair itself. I heard a number of parties returning from the trail as they passed by the building, and half expected them to come inside to sign the register or just look around. Sometime after I'd fallen asleep I was awakened by the sound of metal banging. It repeated several times, and I suspected there was a bear trying to see if it could get into one of the dozens of bear boxes located around the parking lot outside (I'd left my cooler and food locked in one of them). Around 11p a car pulled up outside and woke me again. I peered through the window, but could only see the headlights of a vehicle to go with the voices I heard mumbling. I suspected it was a ranger doing a patrol and hoped they'd drive away soon. Would they notice the closed windows and investigate? The voices grew closer and I realized they were coming inside. I tried to think hard for a good excuse that might help me avoid a fine - I had neglected this detail earlier.

Two figures came through the door, headlamps blazing. Almost immediately I realized they weren't rangers (rangers would have flashlights, not headlamps). At the same time the newcomers jumped a bit when they saw me lying there in the corner - maybe they thought I was a bear or something about to pounce them. They began to apologize, but I told them it was OK, it wasn't their fault and to please come in. They wanted to know what time the permit office opened, to which I directed them to the hours posted on the bulletin board. After they'd gotten the info they wanted, they left and I went back to sleep. The banging noises outside continued on and off through the night waking me often, but not really depriving me of much rest.

At 3:30a my alarm went off and I quickly got up, dressed, and packed up my stuff. Then I went out to the car to get myself some breakfast. What I found first surprised, then angered me. The doors of the bearbox which held my ice chest and food were wide open. Expecting the contents to be ransacked, I was thankful that everything was still intact. Inside the metal box were a number of additional food bags that had been deposited after I'd left my stuff at 7p. Parked next to my car was the same car that had wakened me earlier, and inside its two passengers were asleep. Evidently, they had cached their food and forgotten to close the doors - even though they were there right in front of them as they went to sleep. My first reaction was to toss all their food out into the parking lot where the bears could get what theses guys didn't seem too keen on protecting. My second reaction was to bang on their hood to have them wakened by a maniac screaming obscenities at them. After I calmed myself a bit, neither of these seemed viable alternatives, and could likely end in injury or threats to myself, or damage to my vehicle - after all I was about to leave for an all day hike, and leaving my car in the presence of two angered gentlemen wouldn't have boded well. So in the end I simply ate breakfast, locked up the box, and stowed my gear in my car. Why the bears didn't find this free meal is beyond me. I'm guessing I was either lucky or the bears aren't as smart as we're led to believe.

It was 4a when I headed out, and of course very dark. My headlamp worked ok, though I should have changed the batteries in it after the last outing - seems I never remember about checking it until I'm out on the trail again. I suppose one of these days the light will be so dim I'll smack my head on a tree branch or trip over a rock and land on my face - then I'll probably remember to change the batteries. I hiked up the trail, flat for the first several miles, crossed over the bridge, and headed up the Bubbs Creek Trail. I cruised up the switchbacks at the headwall that carries one to the upper canyon, where the gradient relents and is actually quite pleasant moving through a mix of forest and fern gardens. As it grew light outside around 5:30a, I switched the headlamp off and stuffed it in my pocket.

At 6a I was startled by a medium-sized bear crashing right to left across the trail, emerging and disappearing again in the aspen thickets. A few seconds later a small cub of about 50lbs or so waddled across the trail in pursuit of its mother. I tried to get my camera out of its case to take a shot, but before I could get it turned on the cub had disappeared as well. As I put the camera away, mother bear took off again, this time back to the right side of the trail before disappearing. I had my camera out and ready for the cub this time, but now all was silent. Hmm... I stood there for several minutes waiting for the bears to reunite on one side of the trail or the other, but nothing stirred. They say to never get between a bear and its cub, but that's what I'd have to do since they didn't seem interested in hanging together anymore. I cautiously walked up the trail, moving slowly, expecting to hear one or the other make a move. But all remained silent and I never heard from either of them again. And there I was holding my camera and not a single shot. It grew lighter outside and the sun began to reach the peaks on either side of the canyon, though I was still shaded down in the forest (and liking the fact that the sun wasn't beating on me yet).

I reached Junction Meadow at 8a where I found many flowers in bloom and the sun finally reached the trail. I easily crossed Bubbs Creek on a log a short distance west of where the trail crossed the stream. Previously I'd had to wade across, so the log crossing proved a bonus, and I didn't have to bother taking my shoes off, carrying them across, and putting them back on again. I was wearing sneakers for this hike, a change from my usual leather boots. I had recalled a dayhike to Mt. Ritter a few years earlier where I'd forgotten my boots and had to wear my tennis shoes instead. It worked out quite well, even with crampons attached to cross the SE Glacier. So for this trip I thought I'd see if the $12 sneakers could hold up to the beating, and see if my feet might not enjoy it a whole lot better as well. On the trail at least, they worked fine, and my feet and toes were quite happy.

As I climbed the trail out of Junction Meadow, I had a fine view of the sculpted, confusing rock features that make up Mt. Bago's South Face. There appears to be much fine granite there, and many, many possible climbing lines. I crossed a bridge over to the east side of East Creek, and enjoyed more shaded hiking as the sun was now blocked by West Vidette towering above the trail to the east. At 9a I reached East Lake, and started cross-country, heading west at the lake's outlet. Mt. Brewer and the East Ridge are clearly visible from the lake, and it looked like route-finding would be rather easy - how had Mark gotten lost on this route, I wondered. The topo shows two creeks entering East Lake from the west, and I headed up the second labelled Ouzel Creek on the map. This was easy, nice travelling under the forest canopy, climbing granite benches softened with layers of dirt, pine needles, and other vegetation. I stayed north of the creek at all times, mostly 40-80 yards distance as I looked for the easiest route up. The creek itself seemed lined with dense vegetation that looked like much bushwhacking if I ventured too close. I had made good time reaching East Lake, 13.5mi distance from the TH in 5hrs. I mistakenly began to think I was going to cruise up Brewer in only a few more hours seeing I had but three miles to go. That turned out to be quite wrong. As I climbed up further, the obvious East Ridge of Brewer was no longer as obvious as it had been back at East Lake. I had trouble making sense of the topo, and began to question that I was following the correct creek. I convinced myself that I was following the main one to the south, but there was a major branch heading north that wasn't at all indicated on the map. Further, the contours even on the 7.5min map just weren't accurate enough to determine my location. I climbed higher on the start of the ridge that I guessed (correctly) was the East Ridge. Once above treeline, the route became clearer and the views finer. From a higher vantage point, I could see that that northern branch from Ouzel Creek drained several lakes in that direction - the same lakes that the map showed drained into the creek parallel and north of Ouzel Creek. It was soon obvious that this area hadn't been mapped carefully by the USGS - it seems they got the location of the major features right (the lakes and ridges), but then guessed on the drainage and contours. The route I took to gain the East Ridge was fairly direct but involved some easy class 3 climbing. An easier (class 2) route would have been to follow the north-branching fork past the upper lakes, and then following the drainage upstream further where it led to the easier slopes on the NE side of the East Ridge.

It took over three hours for me to climb most of the East Ridge. It was a combination of granite ledges, large and medium size boulders, some talus. Not an exciting climb, but straightforward at least, class 2 as advertised. As I neared the top of the ridge where it joins the class 2 South Ridge, I noticed that the rock to the right steepens considerably. I could see the normal exit from the ridge, but decided to see if I could find a more elegant and direct route up the steeper face I found there. I climbed some exposed chimneys that were class 4-5, and traversed around onto the Northeast Face very near the top. Yikes! The drop-off was dramatic and nearly took my breath away. I tried two different routes to make progress, backing off the first and getting no more than a few steps up a slanting open book with a hand crack up the spine. It was probably 5.6 or so, and only about 15 feet long, but it was making me think hard and long due to the thousand or so feet my soon-to-be-lifeless body would tumble should I fall. The remoteness of the locale factored heavily, though that seems more of a psychological reason - I would have been equally dead if my body bounced a thousand feet down to the roadside. I balked and went back around the way I came, downclimbing the chimneys and returning to the easier portion of the East Ridge. I spent about half an hour in my little off-adventure, but I didn't consider it wasted time as it was pretty fun class 4-5 climbing while it lasted. Once onto the South Ridge, it was another 15 minute scramble over some large block to the summit, arriving at 1p.

Earlier in the day the sky had been a fine blue, but now all was a hazy gray. The McNally Fire that raged south of Sequoia had brought much smoke over the area, more than I've seen on any other outing in the Sierra. Rather than the sweeping, unobstructed views one usually gets from the summit, I could see little more than the nearest peaks. North and South Guard were hazy but recognizable, but little else could be discerned. I found my previous entry in the summit register from my visit three years earlier, and added a new one for today. I had a granola bar and some water, then headed down the Northwest Slope. This is an easy descent, one I had done before, and there is no tricky route-finding - just head down the broad chute and descend boulders turning to talus. The most tedious section is near the bottom where one can't reach the bottom soon enough. After a thousand feet or so I reached the bottom where I found the gently sloping, compact sand floors much more enjoyable to travel across. I had a nice view looking up to North Guard on the other side of the canyon, and wished I had the energy for the very fun climb to the summit. That will have to wait for the South Guard - Brewer - North Guard dayhike combo some other time. :) The sandy floor gave way to granite slopes and benches as I headed down the canyon towards Big Brewer Lake. Well before reaching the lake I began to contour around the north side of the canyon which brought me to the lake just southeast of Sphinx Col. Above the lake I had about 300ft of climbing to reach the col, and this went slowly due to my general state of exhaustion. As it was the last uphill of the day, I was able to accept it graciously without referencing expletives, which would have been of little benefit anyway.

I reached Sphinx Col at 3p, and took a last hazy look at Mt. Brewer before heading northwest down upper Sphinx Canyon. The land here is dramatic but desolate, sweeping cliffs and much rock, but only very sparse vegetation trying to survive amongst the boulder piles. The hike down to Lake 10962ft is three quarters of a mile of boulder hopping. It takes much concentration for exacting foot placements, and is consequently very tiring. As I neared the lake the vegetation increased to a degree, and I marvelled at the variety of wildflowers that took root in such feeble soil. Columbines, shooting stars, and others, I stopped several times to photograph them. Another mile and I came to Sphinx lakes, a pair of jewels lying side by side at 10,500ft, a fine camping locale that sees few visitors. I crossed between the two lakes and found a use trail on the northwest side of the eastern lake, but wasn't able to follow it long before losing it.

Below Sphinx Lakes I entered the tree line, and began a series of descents down steep headwalls followed by a lake or flat, marshy area. From my previous trip I thought there were 3 such undulations, but found there were five, and over two more miles before reaching the Avalanche Pass Trail. I carried a map I'd printed from TopoZone, but it covered only the area between East Lake and Sphinx Lakes. The rest I figured should be obvious, but I found my recollection of lower Sphinx Canyon to be worse than I'd hoped. It was 5p when I reached the trail, and another hour hiking down to Bubbs Creek. By now I was quite tired and wishing the trail would end, but I still had more than four miles to go. My feet began to complain, but I paid them little heed - I wasn't doing any hiking the following day, so a little trashing and some blisters were acceptable if I could get back a bit faster. The smoke continued to obscure the sky, and as the sun began to drop lower in the sky it turned from a honey yellow to orange, to a blood red color. Crossing the creek I was fascinated by the orange fire dancing on the water, a result of the smoke-obscured sun reflecting off the creek's surface. Of course the pictures didn't really do justice to the scene - they rarely do.

I returned, finally, to Roads End at 7:25p, 15hr25m after I'd left. I was surprised to find that though it had been a long and exhausting day, it hadn't felt at all like the death march I experienced on Williamson a few weeks earlier. Perhaps my body was getting used to the punishment and growing more fit, or possibly it had just given up on me when it realized I wasn't reacting appropriately to the pain signals being sent to my brain. After unloading my stuff into my car and grabbing a drink from the cooler, I took ten minutes to take a refreshing bath in the Kings River a short walk away, and change into some clean clothes. The water was cold but not freezing, and in fact was a much better experience than the hot shower had been the night before. Next time I think I'll skip the search for quarters and standing in line, and instead go for the quick dunk in the creek. My shoes held up remarkably well, looking little worse for the wear. They had done well on the boulder and talus fields, and treated my feet better than my boots have on such long hikes. Later I decided to use the same shoes for my Southern California Tour, as well as the 2002 Mountaineers Challenge, both of which they performed fine under varied conditions. Perhaps boots were unnecessary for Sierra dayhikes.

It was a long drive home, taking nearly five hours, and it was 12:30a in the morning before I arrived in San Jose and could crawl into bed. Fortunately the family was out of town until the following afternoon and I was able to sleep in for some much-deserved rest until well into the morning hours...

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