|Story||Photos / Slideshow||Maps: 1 2 3||Profiles: 1 2 3|
South Guard later climbed Sat, Aug 1, 2009|
Mt. Brewer later climbed Tue, Jul 30, 2002
North Guard later climbed Sat, Aug 1, 2009
I woke up on Friday morning around 7a. I was camped at 12,500 feet on the north side of Thunder Pass, where I had taken up residence after climbing Thunder Mtn the previous evening. While it had been rainy and stormy much of the previous afternoon and night, it was an absolutely gorgeous day this morning. With the clouds completely gone, it was also very cold, too cold for me to get my ass out of the sack, anyway. The sun was hidden behind the towering walls of the Kings-Kern Divide, so I waited until 8a before getting up. The sun had still not alighted on my bivy sack, but it was only about fifteen minutes away, and it was moving slowly but steadily my way. I got up, changed out of my sleeping sweats, and packed up camp. Although I didn't have much stuff to pack up, it took me nearly half an hour, as I had to stop every minute or so between tasks to warm my fingers. Once the sun hit me, things improved as the temperature rose rapidly.
My plans today were rather ambitious. I intended to climb South Guard, Mt. Brewer, and North Guard, a line of three relatively close peaks running in a south-north line. While I wouldn't have to drop down below 11,500 ft for any portion of it, I still had 4,000 ft of climbing to do with all the up and down between peaks. Mt. Brewer was the most important objective - after all, this whole trip had started with the idea of dayhiking Mt. Brewer. If need be I would pass on North Guard. South Guard was more or less on the way, so I figured I'd get at least two of the three before the day was out.
I headed down the cirque below Thunder Pass, retracing my steps from the previous day. The sun cups weren't ice hard, thanks to the rain yesterday and the little bit of sun they got this morning, but it wasn't soft enough to get good traction or kick steps in. Did I mention an ice axe would have been handy here? Playing it cautiously, I used as many of my steps from the previous day as I could find, and went on down rather slowly, flat- footing it from one sun cup to the next.
Once off the snow and back onto solid rock (ok, it's not solid - just a big pile of boulders, but it felt a lot safer than the hard snow), I moved quicker as I made my way down to the half-frozen lake at the base of Thunder's northeast face. I continued heading north at this point, which took me into new territory as I broke from the route I had followed up the day before. I had to climb 300 feet of boulders and rubble to get over the rounded knob that would take me into the next canyon, leading up to Longley Pass. Before descending, I took a few last photos of Thunder cirque (the patch of rock in the middle of the snowfield was where I camped) and Thunder Mtn itself. On my way down again, I was trying to avoid losing altitude by contouring around to my left as much as possible. Unfortunately, there are cliffs one runs right into if you contour too high, so I had to keep dropping down a bit until I could skirt under the cliffs. Still, I was able to save several hundred feet by not dropping directly down to Lake 3496m before heading up to Longley Pass.
I could see the pass rising up 500 feet from where I was, and South Guard another 700 feet on top of that. It was only 10:30a now, but I still had quite a ways to go to reach the first peak. About this time I saw the first persons I had seen since I left the trailhead a day and a half ago. Two gentlemen were climbing up towards the pass by the direct route from Lake 3496m, about 5 minutes ahead of me. They were making pretty good progress, but I slowly gained on them as I came around from their left side. As I got closer the boulders I had been climbing on ended, leaving me with a scree and sand slope that was much more difficult to climb (they had been climbing this stuff the whole time, which was probably why I was able to gain on them). Eventually one of them looked over and spotted me, and we gave each other the "I-guess-there's-enough-wilderness-here-to-share" wave. The two appeared to be in their early-to-mid 40s, and one of them was definitely a stronger climber than the other. Now that he had spotted me, the stronger climber no longer climbed side by side with his buddy, but would pull ahead 30 yards and then wait for him. Either his friend was slowing down, or the stronger climber felt a need to show me he was the Alpha of the two.
I caught up to the others about a hundred yards (diagonally, not vertically) from the pass, and we exchanged greetings and itineraries. We were both headed up to South Guard. They had climbed Mt. Brewer two days earlier, and were camped down at Lake Reflection. We discussed the exciting weather we had the day before, and they expressed surprise that I had camped alone up 12,500 feet in such conditions (it really didn't seem bad at all, tucked away in my sleeping bag). I left the two and continued heading up. They continued up to the saddle while I chose to climb on the class 3 rocks just to the right of the sandy main route. Not only was rock climbing quite enjoyable, but there was very little sand here, and I made much better progress than the others. Once above the pass, I made a beeline for the summit which was tucked back on the west side of the ridge, a bit further (and higher) than it had appeared to be earlier from below the pass.
It was 12p when I reached the summit. I still had lots of energy. The views, of course, were stunning. I could see Mt. Whitney and the surrounding peaks to the southeast, the whole of the Kings-Kern Divide stretching east to south, the Kaweahs far to the south, South Guard Lake to the west, Kings Canyon to the northwest, a whole bunch of peaks I'm not familiar with to the northeast, and Mt. Brewer a mile and a half distance directly north of me. I stayed at the summit long enough to have a snack, take some photos, and sign the register. I noted an entry from a month earlier on August 6 by someone who had been climbing with R.J. Secor, who apparently had turned back in favor of climbing Mt. Brewer. Why not both? Hmm - perhaps he's slowing down in his old age... :)
There is a minor peak just north of South Guard on the ridge to Mt. Brewer. I figured I would climb that on my way over to Brewer along the ridge. I descended the short distance to the saddle and then up the minor peak, about 1/4 mile distance. I never saw the other two hikers, even looking back now. But I had a good view of the South Guard behind me, and an even closer view of Mt. Brewer ahead of me to the north. The south side of Mt. Brewer is class 2, and from where I stood it looked like a really long boulder and scree slog. All I had to do now was get down to the basin between Mt. Brewer and the peak I was on. My first idea to follow the ridge was dashed soon after I started down. I had climbed a short 10 yards or so when a head-sized boulder was dislodged by my foot and went tumbling down hundreds of feet off the northeast face. "Rock!" I yelled weakly. I decided the rock was too loose in this area to descend safely, and besides, I couldn't yet see the whole route off the ridge, so it was quite possible I would get stuck further down. Not fun with a backpack! I looked around the northwest and west sides, but there seemed to be steep rocks and cliffs wherever I looked. I began to have a slight feeling of being trapped. It soon became clear that I would have to head back to the saddle between South Guard and the peak I was on, a somewhat discouraging prospect whenever I have to retrace my steps. It was 1p as I hiked back down from whence I'd come, having burned up an hour on this little side jaunt that I had thought was on my way.
I headed down the western side of the saddle just north of South Guard Peak. I was headed for Mt. Brewer, peak number two in today's bid for a hat trick. It was only a mile to get down and up to the top of Mt. Brewer, but I had to lose over a thousand feet of elevation in the process, which made it a bit discouraging as well as time-consuming. A more direct route to Mt. Brewer would be to follow the ridge that joins this line of peaks. From what I had seen of it earlier, this was class 4+ (rope recommended), so there was no way I could go that way and thus avoid dropping down into Brewer Canyon. As I descended, I traversed towards my right as much as possible in order to save as much altitude as possible. The route was class 2+ boulders and scree, and it took me some time to negotiate it. It was necessary to use extra caution on the descent in order to avoid slipping on the unusually loose boulders under my feet. And of course my traversing to the right kept driving me into the cliffs along this side, so I had to back track a number of times to get back to a place from where I could descend safely (it often seems to happen that my attempts to avoid losing altitude end up costing me more time and effort than if I had just gone down the obvious way and then back up).
An hour later I finally reached the low point in the canyon at around 12,200 ft. There was no grassy meadow or babbling brook here, just a down sloping boulder field meeting an upward sloping one, and some water trickling around and under the rocks. There was a remnant snowfield just upstream that apparently fed the trickle of water I found here. I located a place to refill my water bottles (about a quart and a half total) which had started to get uncomfortably low. I drank my fill, filled the bottles again, had a snack, and rested for a few minutes. I was a bit more tired now, and looking up at the south face I had to climb ahead of me was a bit daunting. It rose up 1,300 feet at a fairly consistent incline over half a mile, which makes for a 30 degree angle. Whew!
As I started up, I was very soon on a mix of sand and scree, slowing things considerably (as if going up doesn't already slow one considerably). I tried to avoid the sand at all costs by taking pains to step on any rock that looked solidly placed. A joy on the way down a peak, sand is frustrating at best on the way up. Two steps up, two steps down. Ok, it can't be as bad as that, but it sure feels like it! I would have to rest every minute. To focus my efforts, I would pick out a prominent boulder 50 yards or so ahead of me as my next objective, and climb until I reached it. Then I'd rest for 20-30 seconds, and repeat the procedure. It helped give my mind something to think about other than the sand slipping out from under my feet. Not the most intellectually stimulating approach, but it worked. Slowly I made my way up the face. As I pulled even with the top of South Guard behind me, I began to feel like I had regained my lost ground and my morale improved accordingly.
As I neared the summit, my energy reserves seemed to replenish (probably mostly due to the easing of the incline angle). There is a short ridge at the summit, running more or less north-south. Two high points confuse just where the summit is. The south summit looked tough to surmount, so I continued a short distance to the north summit where I found the summit register box, as good an indicator that I had found the summit as any I could imagine. Looking back to the south summit, I wasn't convinced I was on the higher ground. Perhaps the register had been placed here because it is easier to reach? In any event, I wasn't going to argue (with whom, anyway?), and I was content to claim Mt. Brewer as Sierra Peak #53 for me, and Emblem Peak #6. I soaked up the views while I rested and had some beef jerky. Not surprisingly, the views were quite similar to those I'd had on South Guard a few hours earlier. I could see all of the ridge joining Brewer to South Guard, and was reassured that I had not made a mistake by avoiding that route. Mt. Stanford rose like a pyramid to the east. It has been described (by Secor) as the "shyest" of the major peaks, but it stands out quite prominently from where I stood. Looking down to the east I could see Lake Reflection at the bottom of the canyon, encompassed by granite on all sides for miles around. To the west was Big Brewer Lake (sounds like a beer commercial) far down in the middle of Brewer Canyon. And to the north lay my first views of North Guard, the day's final objective, with Kings Canyon in the background behind it.
The newest register had been placed here just three weeks prior by R.J. Secor. It occurred to me that he (and other similar peak baggers extraordinaire) must carry blank registers with him on all his climbs in the event he finds a peak in need of fresh blank paper. The rest of us appreciate that very much, thank you. I'm also grateful to all those who leave pens or pencils up there, because I never think to carry one myself.
Looking ahead to North Guard, I had to repeat a similar "down and up" that I had done to get from South Guard to Mt. Brewer. Fortunately this time there was more down than up, but of course it was later in the day, and I was considerably more tired than when I had left South Guard a few hours ago. I wasn't sure whether I had enough left for North Guard, and it wouldn't be until I was off Brewer and back down in the canyon before I'd be able to assess my remaining reserves. With the old heave- ho, I dragged my butt up and started the descent down the northwest face of Brewer. Class 2-3 rubble - familiar stuff I'd seen quite a bit of today....
It was now 3:45p as I headed down. Along with South Guard, two of the day's three objectives had been climbed, and although I was getting pretty tired, I was happy with my success so far. Other than the early morning when I broke camp up in Thunder Cirque, the temperatures had been in the 60s and 70s all day, with only a bit of a breeze, and not a cloud in the sky. As I climbed down over the class 2-3 boulder fields, I had a sweeping view of North Guard just to the north of Mt. Brewer. Although not as high as Mt. Brewer or South Guard, it is described as a far better climb, technically. After the scree and sand slogs that comprised the first two ascents of the day, it didn't seem at this point that it would take much to rate a better climb. But the description had piqued my interest, and I was hoping that alone would be enough to overcome my weariness-generated apathy as I neared the base of Mt. Brewer's northwest face.
For the second time today, I was down in Brewer Canyon, this time to the northern fork that rises up to the saddle between North Guard and Mt. Brewer. The canyon branches about a half mile east of Big Brewer Lake, with the southern branch rising up to the saddle between Mt. Brewer and South Guard, where I had been a few hours earlier. Where I stood in the northern branch, the canyon opened to a wide, flat, and sandy area, which I noted would make a nice campsite should I decide to go no further. There was no water here at 12,400 ft, but I still had sufficient supplies that this wasn't a major concern for me at the moment. It was now the moment of decision as to whether I would climb North Guard or call it a day.
I took off my pack which I would not need for this last climb. It had all my camping gear that I'd been lugging with me since early in the morning. Although it weighed only 16 pounds, after a long day it seemed like much more. Without the pack, I felt much lighter on my feet, and this was enough to convince me I that had enough energy left for the last climb. While I was still pretty beat, I began to look forward to a nice class 3 climb on some solid rock for a change. I was in the canyon about 30 minutes, resting, taking a bathroom break, and packing up just the essentials to get me up and back: water, a jacket, gloves (in case it turned cold), a flashlight, and the camcorder (an essential, no?). I left my climbing shoes in my pack since a class 3 climb should hardly require them, and even if I did choose to wear them, my boots would be clumsy to carry since I had only a waist pack for my provisions.
Before heading off, I checked Secor's description of the route up the south side since it was very specific on choosing the proper route. Unfortunately, I could not identify the two gullies that were described to be on this face. In fact I found four gullies from which to choose. I tried to eliminate several of the choices, but try as I might I could not dismiss any of the four gullies before me as minor or inconsequential. Back and forth I went from my piece of paper to the mountain in front of me, but it was not at all obvious. The first gully (numbered from right to left) appeared to be unclimbable at the very bottom. The second gully appeared to have severe difficulties at the top. The third and forth gullies seemed the most reasonable, but once up on the west ridge to which they led there appeared to be difficult climbing along the ridge. Class 3, I figured - how hard could it be? So I chose gully #4 which had an option to move into gully #3 should I have a better idea of the difficulties on the ridge once I got higher and had a better look. So off I went.
The first third of the climb was over the usual rock and scree rubble field, of the by-now-usual class 2-3 variety that proved very taxing. Like my climb up Mt. Brewer earlier, I would climb for 40-50 yards or so before resting for half a minute. This time I didn't have my pack on, but I was more tired now, so the rate of progress appeared to be about the same. Once I reached the more solid rock portion of the climb, things became more interesting, and consequently more enjoyable. The angle steepened as I found myself on class 3 rock, but the handholds were plentiful and large, making for some fun climbing. Half way to the ridge above, I had a better view of the what I would encounter there, and it became more worrisome. There appeared to be a fearsome gendarme at the top between the fourth and third gullies. It was possible that it might be turned on its north side (that side was not exposed to me), but it seemed equally likely that it would be a cliff and I would find myself cut off from further progress towards the summit. I also had a better view of the upper portion of the third gully. It appeared to have cracks, blocks, and ledges that could take me to the ridge, so I exercised my option to the third gully and traversed the 50 yards to my right that took me into it.
I continued upward, tired but highly enjoying the climbing. The route grew steeper and my options fewer as I had to slow down some to pick and choose the most promising options. My hands were coming into continuous use not just for balance, but to pull myself up a series of cracks. Almost imperceptibly, the climbing changed from class 3 to class 4. I found I was doing hand and foot jams, and wishing I had my climbing shoes with me. I would stick the toe of my boot sideways into a crack, twist it to lock, raise myself up, and my boot would feel nearly as much pain as my toes (my boots were in pretty bad shape to start with, but this was putting more wear on them than any amount of walking could). While the traction on the granite was generally good, it wasn't nearly as great as the climbing shoes provide, so I had to be careful when relying solely on friction for a move. Practice over the last few months had apparently paid off quite well, for I found I was climbing on rock that I wouldn't have ventured on only a year earlier. Even better, I was truly enjoying the climbing with little fear. There must have been some fear, otherwise my adrenaline rush would not have been nearly so great.
As I approached the ridge, I could visualize the remaining route enough to be confident I would not find myself stranded below an impasse. That last 100 yards or so was pretty sustained class 4, so I became convinced I was not on the class 3 route. Perhaps it was in one of the first two gullies? Possibly Secor had not expected anyone to climb this far to the left and had thus not considered these other two gullies. Hmm. I would have to check this theory on the way down. Once on the ridge, I was less than 10 minutes to the top, and I found the climbing to be even more enjoyable. It was class 3 the rest of the way to the summit, with an enjoyable mix of climbing and route-finding, very much as advertised. There were some strategically placed cairns that helped keep me on route, and I shortly found my way to the summit. The actual high point is defined by a large needle shaped block that angles wildly out over the northeast face, dropping hundreds of feet straight down before angling off. It seemed as if one may upset the rock's balance by venturing up and out to it's furthest reach. Daring as I'd been already, I didn't have the nerve to climb more than halfway up this projection whose top was no larger than a breadbox. Caution seized the day on this final 8 feet of the peak.
North Guard drops off precipitously on the north and east faces. The ridge joining South Guard, Mt. Brewer, and North Guard could be seen continuing north to some lesser peaks, ending in Cross Mtn a few miles to the north. Far to the north and northeast are a whole host of peaks that I'm rather unfamiliar with other than to know Mt. Clarence King resides somewhere in the middle of them (on my list for next year). The east had views that were comparable to those I found on South Guard and Mt. Brewer (and so not repeated here), while the south offered a fine view of Mt. Brewer through some of North Guard's summit blocks. Surmounting the blocks offered an unobstructed view of Mt. Brewer, the finest I had had all day.
The register on North Guard did not have the fancy custom Sierra Club box found on Mt. Brewer and some of the other more prominent peaks, but rather an old army ammo box that in some ways seemed more authentic. The entries I found in the register were far fewer than the other two peaks, as one would expect due to its more difficult access and less prominent stature. But I had to agree with Secor that this was by far the better climb. I only stayed about 15 minutes at the summit as it was by now 6p and I had only about an hour and a half of daylight left. I hoped to get back to my pack and then hike down the canyon as far as I could until either the daylight or my legs gave out first. I headed down the west ridge by much the same route I had come up. There really weren't many options if one wanted to keep to class 3 climbing here. As I got to the top of the first gully, I noticed a number of footprints in the sand indicating a number of previous excursions up or down this gully. The route seemed straightforward, class 2 sand and scree for most of the way. The big "if" was what I would find at the bottom getting out of the gully. It did not look climbable when I had viewed it below from a distance. Did the footprints indicate that it was easier than it had looked? What were the consequences if I was wrong?
I decided the worst case scenario was that I would have to climb all the way back up and take a different route down if I found myself at the top of a cliff (actually, the REAL worst case scenario was that I would slip, fall, seriously injure myself, and die a slow, painful death by thirst or exposure while I lay there immobilized and unable to rescue myself - but that seemed much less likely to occur). I figured I had the energy to climb back up if necessary, and so decided it was worth the risk to see if I could find a way down gully #1. The whole top portion went very quickly as I skated down the sandiest portions I could find. Numerous footprints attested that I was still on a beaten path, and my expectations improved accordingly. Halfway down, and shortly before the gully ended, I found myself on class 3 rocks and continued on more cautiously. The footprints seemed to disappear altogether, even though there were some sandy portions still. Had this gully led others down previously, only to have to climb back up again? I began to entertain more doubts as the route finding became more difficult. I checked out every option imaginable, back tracking a number of times to look for a more promising lead. I found myself on increasingly narrower ledges as I reached the point that had seemed most difficult from below. A few slow, carefully orchestrated moves kept me descending in a number of places, but the route did not open up as I had hoped it might.
I finally reached a point that ended what I would consider class 3 climbing. I was on top of a ledge that had a 10-foot crack leading off to the next ledge below. While not likely fatal, a fall could result in serious injury (something like the REAL worst case scenario I had imagined earlier). The crack looked like it would take some good hand and fist jams, but it was wet with water trickling down and I had little idea how the water would affect the friction that would be needed to hold me in. Weighing my options (going back up seemed terribly painful at this point), I opted to make the crack go. I turned to face up the mountain, grabbed a few good handholds, and let my feet down over the ledge. I probed around with my toes until I found a constriction to jam my toes into, and twisted them into the painful, but secure locked position. I then reached down with my left hand, inserted it into the wet crack, creating as good a jam as I could. Methodically, I repeated the procedures and got myself to the bottom in a quick but well-controlled manner. And best of all, it felt really good!
Once past this point, the climbing became mostly class 3 ledges, and the options increased the further down I got. Soon after I was onto the boulder and scree debris field and my route to the bottom was assured. Looking back, it was still not obvious which route Secor had described as class 3. The second gully did not look any better than the others. It appeared to have a very difficult top section, even worse than I had seen elsewhere. I had also noted a few register entries that had found similar difficulties in finding a class 3 route. Did it exist? Probably. Could it use clarification? Definitely. In any event, I would highly recommend this climb to anyone with some rock climbing skills, as it was the most enjoyable climbing I had done all summer, even among those I had done with a rope.
It was 6:45p when I returned to my pack. I had left my poncho and tent out to dry (they were still wet from the day before), so I packed these things up and reshouldered my pack. The sun was about 20 minutes from setting, and I hoped to get as far down the canyon as possible before dark. I was pretty damned tired by this point, but not too tired to go downhill. I consulted the map to find the most direct, or rather the easiest, route back to the trailhead. If I followed Brewer Canyon down to the west, I would meet up with the Colby Pass Trail in about 3 miles. It was the most straightforward route, but it would require a roundabout climb back up to Avalanche Pass, before taking me down to Bubbs Creek and Kings Canyon. On the other hand, if I could find a pass over Sphinx Crest and into Sphinx Canyon to the north, I could avoid Avalanche Pass and travel downhill the remaining distance to the trailhead. There appeared to be a decent pass about 1/2 mile northeast of Big Brewer Lake that would fit the bill. And since it would take 6-7 miles off the return trip, I heartily decided to give it a shot.
Hiking down towards Big Brewer Lake was enjoyable hiking over large slabs of granite that gently angled for most of the decent. There were no loose boulder fields, and the grasses started to appear that besides from adding to the scenic diversity, aided in cementing the rocks together for firmer footing. I stopped briefly to refill my water bottles at the first sign of a stream starting (much lower chance of contracting Giardia than if I waited for the lakes lower down). The sun had set a few minutes earlier behind the Sphinx Crest, but behind me Mt. Brewer and the surrounding ridges still had plenty of strong light on them. Just above Big Brewer Lake, I turned right and headed up the short rise leading to the lake just below and southeast of the pass. It was only about 300 feet vertically, but it seemed much more so late in the day, tired as I was.
As I reached the lake at 7:30p, I had an excellent view of the pass and could see that it was doable from this side. The map suggested that the other side was less steep, so I was pretty confident at this point that I had found the shortcut back. The sun was fading fast, as the last rays of sunlight provided an orange glow on the ridge above Big Brewer Lake. To the east, I could just make out the top of Mt. Brewer as it, too, caught the last fading rays of the sun. I surveyed the lake for suitable campsites of which there were very few. Mostly the site suffered from lack of flat spots large enough to place a bivy sack. I managed to find one such spot along the lake shore, whose surface was covered with a wonderfully cushy grass matting. My sleeping pad had sprung a leak the night before, and it was only when I tried to repair it early in the morning that I had discovered the glue had dried up, probably years earlier. The grass would make a swell cushion for my rather tired body. It took all of about 15 minutes to set up camp and get ready to call it a day. Like the previous night, I wasn't very hungry and was more interested in warmth and sleep, so by 8p I found myself in bed.
I slept quite well that night, without the rain, hail, and thunderstorms from 24 hrs earlier. I was awakened sometime before midnight when the moon rose and shone brightly down on my face. In my sleepy stupor, I was amazed at how bright the moon was and how it was able to keep me quasi- awake for some time. The weather had been wonderful all day, and apparently had intentions of continuing to be so into the next day as well.
Like the previous two days, I had expected to get up earlier than I actually managed. 10 hours wasn't enough, and even after 11 hours, it took some doing to get me out at 7a. It probably wasn't the amount of sleep that regulated this as much as the cold temperatures of the early morning and lack of sun to help keep me warm once I abandoned the sleeping bag. It was cold again, and even with gloves on, my fingers could only manage a few minutes work before needing to be warmed up again. Once I had things packed up and started moving, my body was able to warm up sufficiently, even without the gracing presence of the sun. As I hiked around to the northwest end which leads up to the pass, the sun was just beginning to rise at the southern end of the lake.
I climbed up the pass on class 2-3 rock. The straightforward route would be all class 2, but I found myself playing on the more solid, but tougher class 3 rocks just to the right. This last few hundred feet up were the last uphill I would have for the day, as the top of the pass marked the start of a 7000 ft descent over 10+ miles. The sun was not shining yet at the pass as I went over. The other side, as expected, had a more gradual slope, but it was comprised almost entirely of large boulders, 4-6ft in diameter. While most of them are quite solidly placed, every 20th one or so was prone to slip if not weighted properly. Of the boulders that slip, 9 of 10 move only marginally, not enough to upset my balance or cause injury. It's that 1 boulder in 200 that might slip such as to twist or pinch a foot or ankle that keeps me on my toes. My eyes are glued to the boulders as I descend, always keeping an eye for where my next foot goes and where my handholds are should a boulder slip. I'm travelling about 2mi/hr through here, so it's important to keep a close eye on every rock in my vicinity.
After about 1/2 mile, the terrain improved as I approached Lake 10962. Some shrubs began to take root around here, marking the appearance of sand and soil that helped to consolidate the loose rocks. The boulders gave way to larger stretches of granite cap rock that made for easy walking for long stretches. I hung to the right side of the canyon on my way down, as that afforded the most direct descent possible. The sun was just beginning to be felt on the north side of the Sphinx Crest which was behind me and to my left. There were year-round snow patches (and possibly glaciers) that hung on the protected northern side of the crest, which looked to have some superb climbing in its own right on its unnamed pinnacles and gendarmes. I had been hiking for nearly an hour now, and had not felt the sun yet. It was looking to be a warm day, particularly as I descended further down, and I was no longer eager to have it shining down on me as I was plenty warm already.
As I approached the Sphinx Lakes, I aimed to cross between the two of them. There was now sufficient soil to support real trees that grew higher than my waist. A particularly large one can be seen in the foreground as I got a last view of the upper portion of the Sphinx Crest behind me. As I neared the lakes, I could see what appeared to be a use trail on the northwestern shore of the larger lake. This provided the prospect of having a trail the rest of the way back, which could make travelling considerably easier. Don't get me wrong - I love cross-country travel more than using a trail, but it was now nearly two days since I'd seen a trail, and I was beginning to appreciate their most basic attribute - making travel easier.
The use trail turned out to be more of a tease, as it petered out quickly in the denser forest just below Sphinx Lakes. The forest gave way to a steep boulder field, something I had thought I'd seen the last of. This rubble descended 500 feet to a small lake in the canyon where the forest began again in earnest. I kept looking for some sign of the use trail, but I got only fleeting suggestions of a it. Below this unnamed lake at 10,000 ft, there was another 500 ft boulder field (with larger sheets of granite cap rock in addition) to a larger unnamed lake at 9,500 ft. Down I went, each time thinking I'd seen the last of the boulders, only to be confronted with yet more. The vegetation grew lusher, and the trees taller, as the rocky terrain slowly yielded to the forest cover. At 9,000 ft I finally did see the last of the boulders, as I found myself in a surprisingly wet (for late August) meadow, probably the remains of another lake that once stood here. Progress was slowed as I fought my way through some thickets and over a whole rash of fallen trees. There were bits and pieces of a trail that I would find now and then, but none of them lasted long.
I was following Sphinx Creek down, expecting to find the Sphinx Creek Trail (or sometimes called Avalanche Pass Trail) crossing the creek somewhere in the next mile or so. If I missed the trail crossing and continued following the creek, I was afraid I'd find myself at the top of some cliffs from which I'd have to climb back up from. This gave me a good incentive to keep my eyes peeled for what should be an obvious trail crossing. I would keep checking and rechecking my map, to convince myself that I had not crossed the crucial point. At the end of a rather nasty hundred yards of bush whacking, I suddenly found myself at the muddy markings of the trail crossing. It was about 10a now, and it seemed I had only to follow the trail and keep heading downhill, and I would be back at the trailhead at noon. The views looking down towards Kings Canyon improved as the trail followed a flat contour for nearly a mile bringing me out to the ridge and away from the creek.
On the left side of the canyon, up beyond Avalanche Pass I could see The Sphinx, a rocky outcropping high on the top of the southern wall of Kings Canyon. A closeup reveals the two summits of this class 5 rock formation. I would have to make a return trip someday to do this one as a dayhike. The trail for the next several miles was seemingly blasted from the side of the mountain, here comprised mostly of granite. I have already railed about the golf ball-sized rocks that line the trail beds here, so I won't repeat that rant here. The trails are beautifully crafted, however, almost like artwork in the Wilderness. The views down into Kings Canyon and south above Bubbs Creek provided a grand backdrop to my decent.
At around 7,000 ft, on the steepest portion of the trail, I ran into four backpackers on their way up. They were the first persons I'd seen since I met hikers on the way up South Guard the day before. These guys were sweating profusely under the sun and their heavy loads, and two of them looked like they weren't going to get too far. Not a good predicament considering they had 3,000 ft more elevation to gain to reach their destination up at Avalanche Pass. We parted after a brief chat, and I continued my way down. At Bubbs Creek, I crossed the footbridge and headed left towards Kings Canyon. There were more hikers and backpackers that I ran into now, a sure sign that I was nearing the trailhead. A bit further down I ran into a gentleman on horseback leading two mules. The mules were loaded with 4 backpacks which I was told were being carried up to Vidette Meadow for some fellows who were following behind a ways on foot. I couldn't decide whether this was extremely lazy or extremely clever. While at first I leaned towards the former, the more I thought about, the smarter this seemed to me...
Ever since I had reached Bubbs Creek, I was travelling over trails that I had used three days earlier on my way in. But since I had traveled at night on the way in, I did not recognize the terrain at all over which I was crossing. I was somewhat disoriented when I reached the Kings River, thinking I had just reached Bubbs Creek. I was confused until after I had crossed the bridge I found there, and realized that I had unknowingly photographed the same bridge several days earlier. It was a flat two miles to walk the remaining distance to the parking lot. There were quite few people now along the trail, out enjoying a stroll on this scenic part of the trail, carrying fishing poles and picnic goodies (I was quickly regaining my appetite, I found). I was a little nervous I might run into a ranger along here who might ask me for my Wilderness Permit (which I didn't have). Fortunately, none did.
I reached the parking lot just before noon, and retrieved my cooler from the bear box. What I thought at first was a parking citation (I wasn't parked illegally as far as I knew, but I could have misjudged in my haste to leave on Wednesday night) turned out to be a note from Mark who was off on the ill- fated day hike attempt on Mt. Brewer. He was probably well above East Lake by now, but I wasn't going to be able to hang around for his return sometime later that evening. I'd have left a note on his car wishing him luck if I knew which one it was. My Suzuki Samurai with stickers all over it (not just on the bumpers) sticks out a bit more easily than other vehicles. On my way out, I stopped in Cedar Grove long enough to get a quart of chocolate milk, my usual thirst-quencher marking my return to civilization. And then the long drive back to San Jose and reminisces of a wonderful trip just completed....
For more information see these SummitPost pages: South Guard - Mt. Brewer - North Guard
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:05 2007
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