Wed, Jul 28, 2010
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I was at a Boy Scout meeting until 9p and had to wait patiently for it to end before I could start my trip. I had no rush really, since I wasn't planning on getting any sleep that night. I drove my wife home, changed, and was on my way as soon as I could manage. Luckily I had slept for a good three hours in the afternoon and would need that nap "reserve" to drive and hike through the night. The drive out of the Bay Area and across the Central Valley was a sheer delight with so little traffic in the late hours. The air was cool near the coast, warm across the Valley, and then cooled again as I drove higher into the mountains. SR180 was similarly devoid of traffic, almost zero in fact, and I would go long stretches without seeing another headlight. It was nearly 3a before I reached the parking lot at Roads End in Kings Canyon, and soon thereafter I started off.
I have done this hike out of Roads End so many times that I know all the bridges and most of the mileages along the way. I ticked off the short bridge at the start, the long Bailey Bridge at 2.1 miles, then four short bridges across Bubbs Creek, and then the longer bridge over Bubbs four miles later that marks the start of the Sphinx Creek Trail. Along the way, during the switchbacks out of Kings Canyon, I came across a scorpion sitting in the middle of the trail. It was the first time I'd ever seen one in the Sierra and only the second or third time I've seen one in the wild. For all this, he didn't do much and just sat there on the trail, all but dead. I had a scarier encounter shortly after crossing the last bridge when I spotted a pair of eyes beaming at me from a short distance off the trail. The eyes were low to the ground which made me first think of cougar and an instant shot of adrenalin. It turned out to be a deer resting on the ground, not much afraid, not running away like most of his brethren would have done. Perhaps he was just too tired. I could certainly understand that.
The nearly full moon had arisen hours ago and was high in the sky, but did not seem to help much with navigation due to trees, requiring me to use the headlamp for the first several hours. Not long after 5a the sky began to grow noticably lighter. I paused along the trail to take a long exposure photo of The Sphinx above me to the northwest. The headlamp came off and I continued up the trail as the sky grew steadily lighter. It was nearly 6a by the time I reached the trail crossing over Sphinx Creek. Time to head cross-country. It was forested, shady and cool in the early morning hour. Just as I was working my way across the creek near the start of this section I came across a fellow walking about his campsite. He seemed as surprised to see me as I him. We had only a very short conversation because as I paused to talk I was immediately swarmed with pesky mosquitoes. The other guy seemed equally discomforted (probably why he was walking around instead of standing) and understood my need to continue on.
The hike up Sphinx Creek is not one of my favorites. It involves boggy areas, some boulder fields, and lots of elevation gain as one rises from one hanging valley into the next, a series of four or more until one reaches Sphinx Lakes. There are some old blazes on the trees and a use trail in portions of it, but for the most part you are on your own to find a route. On top of all that, my boots were fairly soaked from the boggy sections in the early going and it would take some hours from them to dry out. My toes would get quite cold and the only part of me that was hoping for a little sun. At least the flowers were plentiful with a stunning variety, though the lighting was not conducive to capturing them properly.
By 7:30a I had reached the east end of Sphinx Lakes. Here at 10,500ft the forest gives way to granite fields of talus and slabs. The sun had risen an hour and a half earlier, but I was still in shade, happily so. The sun had brightly lit up Sphinx Crest to the west and was chasing the shadows down to the lakes as I went by them. As I moved closer to the Southwest Face of Francis Farquhar, now looming high in front of me, the peak would block the sun quite effectively until just before I reached the summit. Nice.
In his book, Secor describes climbing a chute from Sphinx Lakes to the notch on the Northwest Ridge, reporting it a "splendid climb." From the description one might think it should be obvious, but a close inspection of this side of the mountain shows almost half a dozen possible chutes all along the face. Most of them look to be about class 3 and the least interesting-looking one appears to be Secor's leftmost chute. That he was among the first ascent party for the route may have something to do with his promotion of it. I had already gone too far right along the face before I realized where Secor's chute was, but I picked out the next chute to the right of it as a nice-looking route. It seemed to offer less boulder and talus as well as a more direct route to the summit.
The hardest part of the chute was near the bottom where some route-finding was necessary to keep it class 3 while getting up the initial headwall. After that the scrambling was quite fine, sustained and very enjoyable in the cool, early morning air. In all I spent an hour in the chute finding my way to the top. The chute finishes just left of the very summit, but it was not initially obvious where the highpoint was as several points were vying for that honor. I ended up just south of the highpoint where the class 2 South Ridge just starts to turn class 3. To my surprise there was an SRC aluminum register box from 1990 bolted to the rock there, not so much near the summit though. The summit's name had just been approved by the BGN the year prior in 1989, so it looks like little time was wasted in commemorating it with a new register box. But I found no register inside, just an empty ZipLok bag. I left a makshift note on an empty toilet paper roll before heading north for the summit pinnacle.
The climbing to get to the summit was tricky, tough class 3, and may have been why the SRC register was placed in an easier-to-reach location. Others apparently thought this a lame move because a glass jar with the register book was located just west of the flake marking the highpoint. This flake made for an impressive summit block and it took me several tries to get a photo of me on it. It was one of the better ones in the Sierra, to be sure. The register dated to 1981, placed by a party including Greg Vernon and Carl Heller - how cool is that? There were other familiar names including MacLeod/Lilley in 1986, Don Palmer in 1990, RJ Secor and party in 2001. I had heard at one time there was the register placed by Francis' wife, but that was no longer to be found.
The views, as might be expected, were superb. North Guard of course dominates the view to the south, but one could see much further in that direction to both Mt. Whitney and the Kaweahs. To the east rose University Peak and the drainages on either side of East and West Vidette. Looking north one could see hundreds of peaks arrayed across miles of the High Country, as far as the Palisades on the horizon. There was also an unusual "aerial" view of Charlotte Dome in that direction.
Following my stay on the summit where I ate lunch and rested in the warm sun, I started north along the crest towards Cross Mtn. Once at the top of Secor's chute, the crest grows more jagged and difficult, and I found the easiest way to get across this section was to drop down in Secor's chute to the "Y" junction he describes, then up the left fork back to the crest. From there it becomes easier class 2 all the way to the summit of Cross which I reached around 11:15a. As described, this peak is really just a minor bump on the ridge, a pile of talus. It provides a good view looking north and a fine vantage point for Francis Farquhar to the south, but otherwise has little additional to offer. There was no register that I could find.
I initially started west off the summit along the ridgeline in that direction, thinking I would stay high and follow the northwest branch down from Cross Mtn. But it was somewhat tedious over large blocks and I grew tired of it quickly. So instead I looked to the southwest for easier ground, taking a route back towards Sphinx Lakes and then into the creek drainage. Travel down Sphinx Creek was easier in the early afternoon, the sun having dried the wet grasses and the mosquitoes taking a break during the day (some of them were more persistent and came after me anyway). I did a better job of finding the use trail down the west side of the creek and stopped to take photographs of the flowers now nicely displayed in the sunshine.
It was 1:20p before I returned to the trail for the long descent down to Kings Canyon. The campsite I had met the backpacker at earlier was now deserted, but I came across others on their way up. I found a group of three about a mile down the trail, resting and cooking lunch on the trail. They looked to have had a very hard ascent so far and were eager to know how far it was to Sphinx Creek. They described a plan to hike to Sphinx Lakes and then return to Roads End the next day. They had somehow lost a day in getting started and had no more time for the backcountry. I did nothing to dissuade them from their plan, but it seemed they would likely be hiking until dark to reach Sphinx Lakes and then have to get up in the morning to start their return. Didn't sound like a whole lot of fun to me.
I was back at the Bubbs Creek bridge just past 2:30p, more overnight visitors and some day hikers found here. There were fine views of Kings Canyon as I descended the trail, warm but not too hot - for a descent, anyway. Down in the canyon, shortly after crossing back over the Kings River on the Bailey Bridge, I came across a 2-foot gopher snake on the trail. I used a stick to pick him up, letting him go again after I had gotten a few pictures. I returned to the TH at Roads End just before 4p, making for a good 13hr outing.
The time had been just about ideal, allowing me to enjoy the whole trip without the oh-I-wish-this-were-over feeling from some of the longest hikes. I made the five hour drive home without incident or hassle, getting home well before the family was off to bed. A very fine outing, overall.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Farquhar
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