North Guard 2x P500 SPS / WSC / CS
South Guard 2x P500 SPS

Sat, Aug 1, 2009

With: Tom Becht
Rick Kent

North Guard
South Guard
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile
North Guard previously climbed Fri, Aug 27, 1999
South Guard previously climbed Fri, Aug 27, 1999

Oh, t'was going to be an extraordinary day, three brave peakbaggers out to do an impressive dayhike of North Guard, Mt. Brewer, and South Guard from Roads End in what would surely be a first. By now the Mt. Brewer dayhike had been done by at least half a dozen persons, several having managed both North Guard and Brewer in a day. Michael Graupe had done this most recently the previous year in 17hrs. Surely we could manage all three in something less than 20 hours!

I got to Grant Grove in the early evening, about an hour before dark and enough time to take a tour of the nearby General Grant Tree. I'm a sucker for big trees and hadn't visited this one in more than twenty years. I was happy to find it still standing and just as popular as ever with the park visitors. It was promising to be a warm evening and weekend, so rather than drive down to the Cedar Grove area for a place to sleep, I looked for one at the highest elevation I could find in the area. Cherry Gap, at 6,800ft is the road highpoint before dropping down into Kings Canyon. I drove a short distance west on a dirt road before finding a small turnout to park for the night. I had several trucks come rumbling through in the next few hours, but for the most part it was a pleasant enough spot off the main road with temperatures in the low 60s.

I was up by midnight and driving the remaining 25mi or so down to Kings Canyon and Roads End. I found Rick already there getting ready, Tom arriving a few minutes later. By 1a we were set to start out, the time chosen to allow daybreak to arrive just about the time we started the cross-country portion up Sphinx Creek. We hiked east a few miles to the Bailey Bridge, crossed a succession of four smaller bridges across Bubbs Creek, then started the switchbacks that lead out of the canyon. It took an hour and a half to reach the upper bridge and the start of the Sphinx Creek Trail. It was warm, warmer than we'd hoped, and Tom was a profusion of sweat. More of the camel species with miserly sweat glands, Rick and I found this very funny and got a good laugh out of it. Tom went along with the chuckles and jokes, but probably would have liked to push us off the bridge and into the water. Thankfully he's a lot nicer than that.

The Sphinx Creek Trail is long and steep with lots of short switchbacks in the lower half. Portions of the trail were blasted out of the granite cliffs on the east side of Sphinx Creek, an impressive engineering feat. Not so impressive was that the granite chunks that were blasted out were ground to sizes roughly between a golf ball and tennis ball and these were used to build the floor of the trail through the blast area. Few things more painful to walk on were devised and I was quickly reminded that I have never liked this trail (it also didn't help that Tom and I had been on the trail already once this season on an earlier trip to The Sphinx).

It was 4:10a when we reached the turnoff for our cross-country up Sphinx Creek. Rick found a place to cross the creek involving a fairly hefty leap, I followed, and Tom promptly slipped off the leaping point and drowned a boot in the chilly waters. Normally this would call for more jokes and laughing, but these were tempered by the sympathy we felt in having to hike in wet boots with so many hours still ahead. Tom seemed to take it in stride (he slipped in the creek that previous trip as well), pausing to remove his boot and wring out his sock, then we were on our way again.

We kept to the west side of the stream for most of the way, but we did not manage to do a great job of finding our way in the dark. We ended up crossing a number of sections of wet meadow and it was not long before my feet were nearly as wet at Tom's. Worse, it was much cooler now, a combination of the higher elevation and the cooling effect of the nearby stream, and my toes would be downright cold for the next few hours until the sun came up. I could not pause long before they would begin to bother me, and I was anxious to keep moving.

It was after 6:30a before we reached Sphinx Lakes, the sun not much earlier having risen on Sphinx Crest (if you're getting the impression that everything around the area is named "Sphinx" you'd be quite correct). The mosquitoes started up their usual harrassment and we climbed higher above the lakes onto drier ground to avoid them as best we could. We took a break when we reached a sufficiently dry enough locale.

Rick had been out in the lead for much of the nighttime hiking and early morning scrambling, but was starting to fade noticably. He downed his reserve energy drink in the hopes that it would revive him, but lack of sleep, acclimatization, or some other factor was having its effect on him. Above Sphinx Lakes I took over the lead, Tom picked up the middle position, and Rick hung on as the caboose, an unusual position for him. We took another short break higher up at Lake 10,962ft on the west side of Sphinx Col, finally making our way to the col around 8:15a.

I was feeling none of the laggardness of the other two and was eager to keep pushing on, so I did not allow for them to completely catch up before pressing on whenever I paused to wait. We dropped down near the tarn SE of Echo Col, then moved around a buttress and into the drainage between North Guard and Brewer. I started moving further and further ahead of the other two, eventually losing sight of them as I moved up the talus slopes on the southwest side of North Guard.

I reached the crest of the West Ridge just before 10a, the others somewhere far below as well as I could guess. To occupy some time I ignored the regular ducks and explored an alternative route on the north side of the West Ridge, a fun bit of class 3-4 that got me within about 100yds of the summit before I had to move to the south side of the ridge and join the regular route. It was 10:15p when I finally reached the summit block, an elongated block of granite sloping out over the vertical East Face at a 45 degree angle. On my first visit to the peak ten years earlier I had been afraid to trust my weight to the block, but knowing that others have done it countless times since then I had no trouble scurrying up to the high point on this visit. It took some doing, but I eventually figured out how to balance the camera on a nearby rock so that I could get a picture of myself atop it.

Just below the summit block, tucked under a rock was a small register protected only by a plastic bag. It contained the names of two parties, including Michael Graupe's solo dayhike from the previous July. Not three feet further down was the familiar ammo box with register entries going back to 1974. A note from the party that visited in Aug of 2008 mentioned the register was returned after a two year hiatus. No mention of where it had gone on vacation, but it was good to have it back again. Later I learned online that it had been removed in 2006 during a SAR mission along with the registers of several other peaks.

In perusing through the register entries I came across Tina Bowman's note from 2003, possibly making her the first to dayhike this peak. Matthew's visit came a year later, and since then it seems to have become fashionable as a side trip to the Mt. Brewer dayhike.

After spending some twenty minutes on the summit I was reasonably certain that we weren't going to be getting all three peaks in as we planned, our progress was just too slow. I didn't mind skipping Brewer since I had already dayhiked it seven years earlier, but South Guard was another matter. I didn't want to make a separate trip just for that somewhat bland summit. I decided to start down and look for the others to tell them my plans. I was only started five minutes before I came across first Tom and then Rick shortly behind him. They were looking slow and spent and not altogether like they were having much fun. Almost immediately they suggested I should go on without them, so I didn't have to 'fess up that that was exactly what I had planned to do.

I took a more direct route down from the summit, the same chute I had used on my first visit. The sandy ledges give way to a narrow class 3 crack & ramp system that dropped me down to the base of the peak. After getting off North Guard I was staring up Brewer's NW Slopes with only 1,000ft to the summit. It looked both tantalizingly close and incredibly tedious with sand/talus galore, and in the end I turned away. I would have loved to climb all three, but I didn't want to jeopardize my chances of reaching South Guard.

I traversed around the west and southwest side of Brewer over granite slabs and ledges and a healthy amount of boulders as well. It took half an hour to reach the two small, unnamed lakes between Brewer and South Guard, then another hour to the summit of South Guard. Though rated only class 2, I found the NW Slopes considerably harder due to lingering snow. Though I didn't have to cross any snow, the ground around these patches were saturated and somewhat dangerous in places where it would slide out unexpectedly. I caught myself a few times, realized the dangers, and began thinking I ought to find another way down.

The South Guard register is by far the best of the three peaks, dating back more than 40 years. The oldest entry in the first book was by Carl Heller in 1965. My own entry from 1999 was still there as were dozens of other familiar names. While I was at the summit taking a break and perusing the register, it occurred to me that I might take Tom's suggestion of returning via Longley Pass and East Lake. I had rejected the idea initially because I knew that route to be longer, but it suddenly seemed like a sound idea. I could avoid the wet slopes of the NW Face, avoid the tedious traverse over to Sphinx Col, and avoid the jarring ball-peen hike down the Sphinx Trail. Oh, and it would probably only take an hour to reach Lake Reflection and then all trail from there, right?

Sort of. The trip down Longley Pass was quick as expected, thanks to sandy slopes on the southeast side of South Guard and below the pass. But once down to the first unnamed lake below the pass things slowed down considerably and it took me two full hours to get to the trail on the east side of Lake Reflection. I recalled my last journey down this boulderfest after Thunder Mtn thinking at the time it would be my last visit. Something tells me I'll find yet another reason to be here again sometime in the future. I was happy to be off the boulders. Only five hours to go! Yeah.

At least I was on trail now and could relax some. Another reason to visit this side of the Great Western Divide was that I'd heard Ron Hudson was going to be with a group at East Lake to climb peaks in the area. I paused at the camp area at the south end of East Lake when I arrived there and inquired about Ron and party, but no one there knew of them. I found several scattered parties around the north end of the lake, but none that looked like Ron, and somehow I missed his party (which he told me later had been there that day as planned).

When I got to Junction Meadow another party of four had just finished the stream crossing. As I took my boots off to prepare to cross in the opposite direction, I watched as one of the four went about looking for a hiding place to put the four sticks they had used to help cross the creek. I found this a somewhat selfish manuever, as I've always thought the sticks were communal property to help hikers back and forth across the creek. He must have noticed my look because he came back with one of them and offered it to me. With my boots already in hand I declined and started across Bubbs Creek without it.

Somewhere between Junction Meadow and the start of the Sphinx Creek Trail I came upon another hiker stopped dead in his tracks with his back to me. Not wanting to startle him, I said, "Excuse me." from about ten feet away, but he jumped out of his boots anyway. The cause of his jitteriness was a good-sized rattlesnake coiled up on the side of the trail that had left him lost on how to proceed.

"I'm trying to figure out what my next course of action should be." he announced, clearly not yet having come to a decision.

I replied with a smile, "Take a picture?"

"I don't have a camera," he responded before noticing my smile and my hands on my own camera. "Oh, but feel free to take one yourself," he continued.

As I stepped forward to take a closeup of the creature, coiled but not threatening, it slithered off into the brush before I could snap the picture. I was going to suggest getting a stick to move the snake, but this seemed to solve the man's dilemma without hardly a bother. He thanked me for helping him out, and I bid him good evening. I passed the Sphinx Creek Trail bridge, dropped down into Kings Canyon, crossed over the Bailey Bridge and headed off on the last few miles to the trailhead. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a second rattler and this time I got a few good photographs. It was only a juvenile snake and couldn't get out of my way fast enough to suit his purpose.

When I got back to Roads End shortly before 8p I found that both Rick's and Tom's cars gone from the parking lot. Later I learned that I had missed them by about half an hour. They had reached North Guard's summit but headed back after that, too tired to try Brewer or South Guard. I rinsed myself off with a gallon of warm water I'd left in the van, toweled off, and headed for home. It would be after 1a before I got to San Jose, but I was well used to this routine by now. Soon it would be time for the Sierra Challenge to start and I was about as ready as I was going to be. This would be the last of the ultr-long hikes until September, most likely.

Darjia managed the first dayhike of these three peaks in early September of 2010 in 21hrs. She started at Roads End and went up Sphinx Creek, tagged North Guard, Brewer, South Guard, dropped down Longley Pass and returned via East Lake and Bubbs Creek, much the same as the route I took this day.

Anonymous comments on 08/24/09:
One time when I was about 13 I was backpacking up the Bubbs Creek trail and was about six inches from stepping on a good sized rattler before he let me know of his presence, between Junction Meadow and the Sphinx Creek crossing. I have never had the bejesus scared out of me more than that moment simply because it was completely unexpected at 7,500 elevation.
Anonymous comments on 08/24/09:
It's interesting that you came across rattlesnakes in this area. Of all of your trips up the Bubbs creek drainage, I don't recall you mentioning that you had seen any. The last time I was in the area (1954) the Bubbs creek/ creek Sphinx area was full of rattlers, probably more than any single area I've travelled in the Sierra.
Tom Becht comments on 08/24/09:
Way too generous in the story. Don't know what kind of koolaid Rick and I were drinking that morning, but it wasn't the good kind. Of course, 1AM hiking starts aren't the healthiest either...
Anonymous comments on 08/25/09:
Anonymous #2, I've head Tehipite Valley has a truly insane amount of rattlers. don't want to hike there without gaiters level of rattlers.
Anonymous comments on 08/27/09:
To anonymous #2: Could be that Bob moves to fast to see any of the critters, especially in the dark!
Anonymous comments on 09/01/09:
I spoke to someone on Aug. 3 at the north end of East Lake who had set out to do North Guard, Brewer and South Guard the previous day, and had ended up doing an unplanned bivy before returning to East Lake that morning. I'm now wondering if that was Ron Hudson ... if so I wish I had known then as I've sen his name around before.
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