Comb Spur P900

Fri, May 3, 2013

With: Matthew Holliman

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile

Spring was in full swing across the state, in fact it was looking like the start of summer in most places with the coastal ranges turning brown already and folks reporting low snow conditions in the Eastern Sierra. It seemed a good time to pay a visit to Kings Canyon. I had several places in mind including Comb Spur which is the highest point on the Monarch Divide west of Granite Pass. It also has more than 900ft of prominence, making it one of the more prominent peaks in the High Sierra I had yet to visit. At the last minute, I contacted Matthew without much hope of him joining me, only to find that he and his wife Nga were planning to be in Kings Canyon that same weekend. He decided to take an extra day off so he could join me for Friday's hike. We met up Thursday evening around 11:30p at the Deer Cove TH, just outside the park boundary. We would sleep here undisturbed until it was time to start the hike in the early morning hours.

We were ready to start at Roads End by 4:30a. A waning crescent moon had risen not long before above the Bubbs Creek drainage to the east. It would not provide sufficient light to see without a headlamp. Our route started up the Copper Creek Trail, one of the most difficult trails on the west side of the range, climbing more than 5,000ft in about 8 miles, before dropping into Granite Basin. Matthew hasn't gotten any slower whereas the same can't be said for me, and it was a tough effort trying to keep up with him in those early morning hours. Somewhere around 5:30a it was light enough to turn off the headlamp. We motored on, pausing now and then to take in the view of the Great Western Divide rising behind us to the south. The first rays of sun touched the summit of Mt. Francis Farquhar just after 6a.

The boots I was wearing were fairly new and poorly fitted. I had trouble with a heel blister almost from the start. I paused early on to attend to it with some additional padding, but it was not sufficient and I would suffer for it later. After putting the boot back on I found Matthew a short distance ahead taking a snack break. He was resting on a granite slab that had some Indian bedrock mortars. It was a nice view spot to relax and take in the views if you had some acorn grinding to do. As it wasn't yet acorn gathering season, we continued on. It was almost 7a before the sunshine filtered down to us through the trees. Not long after this we encountered the first patches of snow on the trail and it would remain patchy for a while before becoming more tedious with increasing coverage. We eventually gave up trying to follow the switchbacking trail as the sidehilling on the snow portions was harder than just heading directly uphill.

Somewhere before reaching the saddle with Mt. Hutchings, Matthew stopped for something without alerting me. As we don't spend that much time talking on the trail together, I had little idea how long he had not been following me when I reached the saddle. I whistled and called out his name a number of times but got no response. I wandered around looking for the trail, eventually finding it again some distance to the north along the broad saddle. I waited for five or ten minutes and began to think maybe he had gone to the summit of Hutchings. I had been there myself some years ago when I climbed Goat and Munger, but didn't know if Matthew had been there before. He had, I found later. It wasn't the first time Matthew and I had lost each other on a hike. It probably won't be the last. I was amused to think that this might be considered a big problem if I was on a hike with the Scouts. Getting separated is a big deal and one would be expected to make strong efforts to reunite before doing anything else. In our case, I figured we'd probably meet up at the summit if not before, and simply carried on with the hike.

I tried to follow the trail down from the saddle into Granite Basin, but lost it repeatedly due to the snow coverage. As far as I could tell, we were the first ones to hike this far on the trail this season, not suprising considering SR180 to Roads End had only been opened a week. I had originally planned to follow the trail another mile north before leaving the trail to head for Granite Lake and then climb Comb Spur from the northeast. Having a good view of the eastern approach I decided it would be faster to just drop down to Granite Creek and climb it from this side, which is pretty much what I did. Getting across the creek proved tricky. Portions of the shore were frozen, but not solidly. I made a few jumps across to some islands but balked at the larger jump that looked like it could end badly. I eventually found a better location upstream that involved two jumps that were non-trivial, but successful. From the creek it was 2,000ft over 1.5 miles of mostly snow to reach the top, taking two hours. For the most part the snow was consolidated, but there were places where it was too soft and I would punch through, sometimes up to my waist. This could be very frustrating. I looked for clues in the snow surface to help me avoid the places that looked like trouble. Generally, the smoothest surfaces proved to be most likely to cause post-holing. Early on I put on crampons to help with the steep slopes and gaiters to keep my foot from getting soaked, or at least to delay the inevitable. My heel blister only got worse with the crampons.

Comb Spur is a subsidiary ridge dropping south from the Monarch Divide, separating Granite Basin and the Granite Creek drainage to the east from the Lewis Creek drainage to the west. All during the climb up the east side I was surprised by just how much snow was in Granite Basin. The reports of the Sierra being in mid-summer conditions were highly exaggerated. When I reached the crest of Comb Spur and could see over to the west side, I found the conditions there much drier. For whatever reason, Granite Basin seemed to attract more snow and hold onto it longer. It was 10:30a by the time I reached the highpoint at some 11,700ft. It had taken 6hrs to climb what I had hoped would take 2/3 that time. The snow certainly caused some extra time to be taken, but the truth was that I too easily underestimated the hike. I had thought we could go from the highpoint on a five to six mile traverse around the drainage in a clockwise fashion, hitting all the other highpoints along the Monarch Divide between Comb Spur and Goat Crest. Looking at the route from my perch, I realized the folly in that plan, at least with the current conditions. I would have to be content with the one summit for the day.

The west side of the summit ridge was rocky and held less snow, but the summit itself was covered in an unknown amount of snow, too much to bother trying to dig out a register if there was one. After taking in the fine views (north to the Yosemite boundary, northeast to the Palisades, east to the Sierra crest around Kearsarge Pass, southeast to the Great Western Divide and south as far as the Kaweahs), I took some pictures, ate my lunch, and settled in for a nap while I waited for Matthew. I didn't expect to doze off, but the sunshine was warm as was I after putting on more clothing, and I did manage to sleep some. More than an hour later I got up and decided perhaps Matthew wasn't going to make it after all. Perhaps he had found the post-holing too aggravating and had turned around. I gathered my gear and started down from the summit via the same route, only to spy Matthew a short distance below when I was only a few minutes off the summit. I waited for him to hike up to me, then joined him for a return to the top.

Seemed he had not gone to Mt. Hutchings, but had followed my tracks nearly from the saddle. He had stopped to take a somewhat extended break, and once reaching the saddle had taken his time on the way to the summit. We hung around another 15 minutes or so until Matthew had had his fill, then started back down. Just below the upper portion of the East Ridge where it flattens some, we decided to drop northeast towards Granite Lake for the return. I was hoping the snow would be more consolidated on the less sunny slope, but that did not prove to be the case. It was simply too late in the day for any of the slopes, it would seem. We had a nice glissade down the wide open slope for perhaps 300ft, but it ended where the softening snow grew heavy and our butts weighted into the snow, bringing us to a halt. More annoying post-holing. Ugh! Ugh! There were curses, too. Matthew was happy to let me lead the way, finding all the hidden landmines that caused me to lurch awkwardly to one side when I fell into trap. More cursing resulted, but it did little to improve the situation. I decided going all the way down to Granite Lake was not going to offer any advantage and kept to a ridgeline that looked to be a shorter way back. I spied a snow-free slope off this ridge that had some fun class 3 downclimbing, the best bit of the whole hike. Once off this 500-foot slope there was more snow to wade through as well as the return creek crossing. The first half of the crossing went well enough, but the second half was a larger jump that Matthew disliked. We found him another place to cross further upstream that he managed without trouble. It probably wouldn't have made much difference if he's slipped in as both of us had wet feet by this time.

We continued east across some granite slabs, past some random ducks that I mostly knocked over, eventually finding the trail about where we expected to find it based on the GPS. We followed the trail on and off the snow for the next 40 minutes until we'd finally reached the saddle with Hutchings around 2:20p. We took a last view of Comb Spur behind us and said goodbye to Granite Basin as we headed down the Copper Creek Trail, more than 5,000ft to Kings Canyon below. We took a bit of a short cut through Upper Tent Meadow because the soft, grassy slopes were far more inviting to our knees than the trail, but for the most part we covered the eight mile descent on the trail itself. There is a fine view of the north end of the Great Western Divide during the descent, including the summits of Cross Mtn, Francis Farquhar, North Guard, Mt. Brewer, Sphinx Crest and Palmer Mtn. Aspen trees in the middle part of the descent were bright green with fresh, new leaves. Eventually the canyon floor comes into view though there's still a long way remaining. We did some jogging, but my legs were not up to it, and eventually Matthew got out of sight ahead of me. He arrived back at the TH around 4:30p, myself about 15 minutes later. I was knackered, to be sure.

Nga was at the TH when we returned. She had spent about 7hrs on the south side of Kings Canyon hunting for morel mushrooms, having succeeded in garnering her share of them during her hike. She invited me to join the two of them for dinner - thai curry that she had prepared ahead of time - which I readily accepted. It was a pleasant meal in the shade of the large pines at Roads End, where we spent more than an hour enjoying the fine weather. Near the end of our repast the breeze died down and some mosquitoes came out to bother us, enough to get us to call an end to the meal and some quick packing. Matthew and I had planned to do another hike the following day, but my heel blister was bad enough from the ill-fitting boots and wet snow conditions to make it impossible for me to do anything serious the next day. I decided to drive home instead, where I could lick my wound in the comfort of my own bed. I thought it would be no big deal to make the 5 hour drive, getting me home before 11p, but I was more tired than I had thought. I didn't make it very far down the road that evening...


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