Palmer Mountain P1K

Thu, Jul 12, 2012
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No matter how many times I travel up the Sphinx Creek Trail out of Kings Canyon, I never seem to run out of peaks to climb along the route. This is mildly important because the Sphinx Creek Trail is one of my least favorites in the park due to the construction technique that inexplicably uses golfball-sized pieces of granite to line the trail where it cuts through a granite slab on its way out of the deep canyon. These cause so much discomfort on descent that one finds it easier to walk on the awkward, outer blocks that hold these small chunks of evil in place. Palmer Mtn lies at the very apex of this trail, overlooking Avalanche Pass, rising over 11,000ft. With over 1,200ft of prominence, it was the most prominent named summit in SEKI that I had yet to climb. I left San Jose at twilight on a Wednesday evening with a plan to climb both Palmer Mtn and nearby Sphinx Crest in a quick door-to-door outing of less than 24hrs. I had napped sufficiently in the afternoon to make the all-night drive and hike, similar to dozens of such hikes I'd done over the past few years. A bit too overconfident in treating this as routine, I somehow managed to forget how to drive to Roads End in Kings Canyon, a trailhead I've used many a time. I was less than 10 miles from Bakersfield speeding south on US99 before I realized that I'd overshot Fresno and SR180 by more than a hundred miles. This was very discouraging, turning a 4.5hr drive into a full seven hours - I could have reached Lone Pine in the same time. I ended up at Roads End for a 4a start instead of the planned 2a one - oh well, looking for a positive spin, at least I'd save some battery life in my headlamp.

It was already starting to grow light out when I went over the Bubbs Creek Bridge about 4 miles from the TH. Up to this point I'd gained 1,000ft but that was only the prelude to 4,000ft of gain to Avalanche Pass plus another 1,200ft of icing to the summit of Palmer. It hurt my legs just to think about it. I saw no one camping near the bridge on either side as is often the case, and without further ado I started up the first switchback on my way out of the canyon. I was growing ever so tired now that the sun was getting ready to come up. I found my energy and motivation flagging and I briefly considered that maybe it wouldn't be so bad to turn back. Really I just wanted to rest, not quit, as I found myself wandering some off the trail. This is not a good trail to wander on, with big air off some of the edges down towards Sphinx Creek. At one point I sat down and closed my eyes for five or ten minutes. I must have dozed off some because I felt better after getting up and starting off again.

Hours later, sometime around 8:30a, I could finally see Palmer Mtn through the trees as I neared the pass. The sky was overcast and the weather report was calling for a 30% chance of thundershowers. It had been in excess of 105F in the Central Valley during the day and not cooled off very much overnight (85F in Bakersfield at 1a). I was lucky enough that I didn't start any later and was able to hike in reasonable temperatures all morning. Now that I was at 10,000ft it was decent enough, but a lack of wind made things a bit muggy. Worse, the calm air was an elixir to the mosquito horde that came out to harrass me well before the sun had come up. Now that it was overcast they didn't let up in the daytime and I was already on my second dousing with DEET.

There are no real difficulties with the climb of Palmer Mtn. It appears this large pile of rocks can be climbed from just about any direction. I went up the path of least resistance on the east side which meant trying not to have to lift my legs up more than the height of my knee. The north end of the Great Western Divide, including North Guard, Francis Farquhar and Cross Mtn are visible behind me as I scrambled up. Sphinx Crest is looking too far away to bother with today as I lose my motivation to tackle it even before I finish with Palmer. I reached the summit not long before 9:30a after nearly 5 1/2 hours. The summit is crowned with a small communications tower, a second one a short distance away to the west at a lower location. It was impossible to rest at the summit which I found crawling and swarming with a million flying insects that had chosen Palmer Mtn for their orgy of aerial love-making. They landed, crawled and otherwise occupied any available space to make new acquaintances in the hopes of quick reproductive success, and to them I seemed as good a surface as the rocks or the steel antenna towers. I looked around for a summit register while I spat out the unfortunate ones that had blundered into my mouth, but finding none I took refuge a short distance below the summit where I was able to take a break in peace.

It was really too bad that the day wasn't clearer because the summit offers a fine view of the SEKI area from the Goddard Divide and Palisades Crest to the north, the Sierra Crest to the east, the Great Western Divide and the Kaweahs to the southeast. To the south is the broad drainage of Roaring River and Sugarloaf Creek framed by the high summits of the Tablelands in the background. There are no good views down into Kings Canyon itself, but the broad sweep of the Monarch Divide rises majestically above the north side of the canyon. In the foreground is the diminuitive Avalanche Peak, a mile and a half away and another 1,000ft lower. How it got a name is a bit of surprise as it isn't very prominent from anywhere except a small segment of Kings Canyon. This was another named summit I have yet to visit, but again today would not be the day. I can already see another two trips in the future to Avalanche Pass...

For the most part the return was uneventful. I took a slightly different descent route off the summit just to see if it indeed could be climbed from any side. The chance of thunderstorms never materialized though the clouds thickened some as the day progressed. I jogged down portions of the trail where possible (primarily above the Sphinx Creek crossing) and got back to the Bubbs Creek bridge by noon. A pair of backpackers were here, the first park visitors I'd seen since I arrived in the middle of the night. There were plenty more down at the larger bridge over the Kings River half an hour later. By 1:10p I had reached Roads End where three rangers were busy amusing each other in conversation. I would easily get home before sunset and ended spending more time driving than I did hiking (luckily I remembered how to drive back to San Jose without unneeded detours). I enjoyed that the trails were in good shape without mud or snow to deal with (unlike our recent trip to OR/WA), but the mosquitoes were more than my liking - one of the things one deals with when hiking the Sierra in June and July.

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