The Sphinx

Sat, May 23, 2009

With: Tom Becht

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

With three days off to go hiking and having spent little time in preparation, I was scrambling the few days before trying to line up partners if possible as well as an agenda. Ideas ranged from Nevada desert peaks to the Sweetwater Range to the San Bernardino Mtns to the Sierra. Tom and I were able to settle on The Sphinx as the primary objective, and we would work other outings in the area around it.

The Sphinx is a prominent feature on the south side of Kings Canyon, more than 4,000ft above the canyon floor. Anyone who has hiked out of Roads End is sure to notice the monolith hanging over the valley, just above where Bubbs Creek drops down into the Kings River. I had passed by the feature almost a dozen times over the years and always commented that I'd have to climb it someday. The difficulties were somewhat murky. Secor had it rated as 5.2 in his second edition, but he had never climbed it. In 2001 he was with a party that set out to scale The Sphinx, commenting beforehand:

"What is known about the route on The Sphinx is lies, rumors, hearsay, and speculation."

In the third edition published at a later date, the rating was increased to 5.6. Tom and I had read the available TRs and planned to come prepared with two ropes, one 50m, one 30m, plus harnesses and assorted gear. The Sphinx has two summits. The higher southern summit is just a scramble, though the SummitPost description listed it as class 4. Between the higher summit and the lower "prow" is a notch that others have used a rope to descend to and ascend from. That's where we'd use the longer rope. The prow can be climbed around the west or east side, but the west side is supposed to be easier and only 20ft worth. That's where we'd use the short rope.

We both spent the night in our cars just outside the park west of Cedar Grove. No bears or rangers or other disturbances bothered us during the night. We were up at 5a, drove to Roads End, and were ready to start in the early morning before 5:30a. No need for headlamps at this hour in late spring. Hiking out the two miles to the Bailey Bridge, the Kings River was thundering with Spring runoff, far louder than my previous visit in the fall. Part of the trail past the Bailey Bridge was awash with the overflow, but it was not difficult to find logs and rocks to help us get across the swollen Bubbs Creek. Above us, The Sphinx was just catching the first rays of the new day, and while we climbed the switchbacks heading up Bubbs Creek we paused to photograph it often. I was also looking for some sort of miraculous shortcut scramble leading more directly up through the cliffs, but nothing came of it. A more direct route would cut off more than half the ten mile distance our roundabout route would take us.

We crossed the bridge over Bubbs Creek marking the start of the Sphinx Creek Trail, then began the long ascent up thousands of feet into the Sphinx Creek drainage. Though the trail is an impressive engineering feat, blasted out of the sides of granite walls in places, my feet were less impressed. The carefully constructed, rock-lined steps are filled with the blast debris - golf ball to baseball sized chunks that are just awful to walk on. The pain they induced would be much more noticeable on the return than on our ascent.

About a mile up Sphinx Creek we left the trail to see if we could cross the creek and take another shortcut up the steep east-facing slopes to the Sphinx. The route up the chutes looks readily doable and would have had us at the Sphinx in an hour, but getting across the creek turned out to be the crux. It was rushing hard and steep and the few places where it narrowed looked like a frightful jump from one wet rock to another. Trying to wade across wasn't really feasible as we'd have likely been swept up with the fast moving water back down to Kings Canyon, possibly not all in one piece. After five minutes or so of looking for a way over, I had to give up. Tom did not look all that disappointed, having thought the idea pretty foolish to begin with. Though he was patient enough to let me try without being heckled. For a late summer visit to The Sphinx, I'm convinced this would be the way to go.

We returned to the trail and slogged our way up to the Sphinx Creek crossing where the gradient relaxed as the trail wandered through the shady forest. The creek was washing over the trail at the crossing point and I looked around for a way over. I found a log and got across before Tom had had a chance to catch up. It was not the easiest crossing, so I took off my pack and got out the camera to capture the action. As Tom showed up on his side of the creek and saw me standing there with a smile on my face, he frowned and muttered something like, "Uh oh..." Log crossings aren't one of Tom's strong points. He asked me where I had crossed, and when I pointed to the log there was more frowning. As if to prove the point, he slipped on the very first rock at the creek's edge and immediately had a foot in the water up to his knee. I hadn't even had time to snap the photo. He recovered nicely, avoiding a full soaking, and was soon across the log. It had been worth a good laugh. He sat down to take off his boot and wring out his sock. He would have to wring it out a second time a few minutes later when the soak had absorbed more water from the boot.

We continued up the trail without further mishap. We crossed a couple more inconsequential streams before leaving the trail to head up to Pt. 9,712ft, just south of The Sphinx. Steep slopes make it impractical to bypass this unnamed highpoint on the east or west, so like other parties we went over the top and then dropped some 500ft towards The Sphinx. The broad north ridgeline descending down is wooded, making it difficult to see the rock formation ahead. Pausing here and there to get our bearings, we espied it through the trees and continued down to its base on the south side.

It was just after 10a when we emerged from the woods, finally reaching our quarry. While Tom stopped to switch into rock shoes, I continued on, scrambling to the higher south summit in only a few minutes. I did not find anything I would consider class 4, and only a short stretch of easy class 3. The summit was a fine vantage point, with great views looking into Kings Canyon, Paradise Valley, and the Bubbs Creek drainage towards the north. Behind us towards the south were some high peaks of the Western Divide, Sphinx Crest, and Palmer Mtn, still plenty of snow on them. Tom was another 15 minutes in joining me.

From atop our perch we had a good look at the lower, more technical prow off to the north. About 80-100ft below and between the two highpoints was the notch we must first descend to. It didn't look all that bad and we wondered if we'd brought the extra rope for naught. Tom went down first so I could take some pictures, after which I started to follow. When I reached the licheny slabs it dawned on me that it wasn't so easy after all. Tom made his way cautiously down, but without rock shoes I hesitated and eventually decided against trying to solo it. I got out the long rope from the bottom of my pack and tossed it down towards the notch after first wrapping it a few times around the prominent horn described by others in the TRs. Tom was already at the notch before I started the rap.

The 50m rope was insufficient for the standard rap on two strings. Had I realized this earlier, I would have tied off at one end and rapped on a single strand. It wasn't too big a deal in the end. Only the first 40ft or so were at all difficult. Where the rope ended I paused to let the two ends run through my belay device, I tied them together, then held on with one hand while I jumped a short distance to a ledge below. I then let the rope go and traversed along the ledge to where Tom was waiting at the notch. In hindsight, we would have been better off with another pair of rock shoes and forgoing the extra rope.

It was 11a before we were ready to finish off the prow. Tom started off around the west side to what has been described as a ledge or ramp, but was really just a broken jumble of rock that allowed one to walk around, up, and over the obstacles without falling off the precipice a short distance away. We explored several options before ending up at the far end of where we could traverse. Tom started up a broken dihedral, finding difficulties for a short, 10-foot section. He had almost made it up solo. Tom took the rope from around his neck, tied in to one end, looped it through a cam he placed above him, then tossed the rest of the rope to me so I could belay him. I was not secured to any anchor, but I was on a decent stance and would likely be able to hold any mishap on this short section lacking any severe exposure. This would be Tom's first lead on trad gear.

He did a fine job of it. He tried going straight up, but found no handholds. Then he tried moving right out of the dihedral, but couldn't quite reach the flake with good holds. I gave a bit of encouragement and pointed out a foothold he hadn't seen behind his left knee, and with this extra hold he was able to lift his body up enough to reach the flake. And that was all it took as he quickly pulled himself up to a good seat. Looking around, it appeared the summit was an easy scramble away. He set a quick anchor and belayed me up a few minutes later. I got briefly stuck at the same place before repeating his moves to get me to his stance. Hah! The hard work was done. And we agreed that the newer 5.6 rating was fair.

While Tom untangled himself from the anchor and coiled the rope, I scrambled the remaining thirty feet to the summit of the prow. Tom was a few minutes in following, and we were both elated. We took pictures, rested on the comfortably sloping summit block, and perused the register that was tucked under some rocks formed into a small cairn. The register had been placed by Gordon MacLeod and party in 1974 and did not contain many entries, particularly in more recent years, suggesting it has fallen into obscurity. In fact there was only one other party since Secor/Tidball's party visited in 2001, and ours was the first entry in six years.

Even while we relaxed on the prow, I was working on getting Tom to agree to join me for Palmer Mountain afterwards. I don't think he appreciates my being a pest that way. But he did agree to at least "take a look" since we had to head up over the higher Pt. 9,712ft on our way back to the trail. Frankly I wasn't sure I'd have the energy myself, but I felt it only fair to let him know what I was thinking rather than spring it on him at the last minute while heading back.

We reversed off the prow via the same route, rapping the short pitch, collecting the rope, and heading back to the notch. I was able to use the longer rope we'd left in place as a handrail to get me back up the slab portion on the way out of the notch. Tom followed without using the rope, helping to show we could have done without the longer rope if I'd brought a pair of rock shoes instead.

After changing back to his hiking boots, we climbed the 500ft up to the higher point, then started along the wooded ridgeline towards Palmer Mtn and Avalanche Pass. The snow coverage was greater and travel on the snow unavoidable as we neared Avalanche Pass, the soft afternoon snow doing nothing to encourage us. It looked like we'd have two choices on Palmer. The NE side could be climbed entirely on snow, fairly steep and probably fairly soft, too. The SE side looked like it had considerably less snow but was one 1,600-foot slope of boulder upon boulder. Ugh. Neither looked too enticing, and at the end of several minutes deliberation we decided to head back instead.

We spent the next two and half hours descending the Sphinx Creek and Bubbs Creek Trails. The first allowed camping is four miles from Roads End where the Sphinx Creek trail starts at the bridge over Bubbs Creek. From that point on down we passed by a number of parties, some backpackers, but mostly just those out for a day hike. The Bailey Bridge seemed to be a popular destination, as folks milled about, watching the rushing waters charging underneath. It was 5:30p before we found our way back to Roads End, and we were happy we didn't spend the additional 2-3hrs on Palmer Mtn.

After refreshing ourselves with a few Mikes from the cooler, we drove back outside the park where we found a place to use our Sun Shower partly hidden off the road, then had dinner at the Grizzly Falls picnic area. Clean and fed, we drove the next hour back out of Kings Canyon and on to Lodgepole where we took up residence in the back or our vehicles for the night in the campground parking lot. It had been a full day and didn't take either of us long to fall asleep after we'd bedded down at 9p...

Continued...


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