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TR: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Thu Sep 06, 2018 4:50 pm
by Flamingo
Hi Everyone,

Over the long weekend I completed a circuit up Sphinx Creek, over Sphinx Col, Longley Pass, and then returned via East Lake. Along the way I climbed Mount Brewer’s class 2 south face. The conditions were practically perfect. Recent smoke has cleared, and a light breeze kept me cool during the day. I saw no other humans for three days.

Scroll to the bottom for photos.

Route Overview:

Elevation Profile: approximately +12,000' over 32 miles

THURSDAY August 30, 2018: Up Sphinx Creek
I woke early and drove from Oakland to Kanawyers. I was lucky to score the last permit for Bubbs Creek trail. I briefly napped in the back of my Subaru, and started hiking at 3:30 pm. The switchbacks along Bubbs were brutally hot in the afternoon sun, and tiny black flies danced in my face and taunted me as I climbed.

It did not help that I was packing 7 pounds of peaches, plums, vegetables, and hard boiled eggs. This summer I've upgraded my backcountry diet to include more fresh foods, despite their extra weight. After several days of backpacking, it is a supreme feeling of luxury to taste a ripe plum at lunch, and to sauté fresh broccoli alongside my usual boring dinners.

I filtered water at Sphinx Creek junction, and chatted with two wilderness firefighters. Their crew was camped on the south side of the creek while they monitored the remains of the nearby fire. A single stag still burned, but otherwise the disaster was contained.

I waited creekside for the sun to dip; for Sphinx ridge to cast a cool shadow on Avalanche Pass Trail switchbacks, which normally bake in afternoon sun. Eventually evening arrived, and I sluggishly plodded up the granite stairs and rock walls. It was a relentless uphill climb. I felt tired from driving all morning, and my extra pack weight pulled me down.

The trail eventually leveled and returned to forest cover. I reached Avalanche Meadow at 8 pm, and found a tranquil forest campsite with modest fire pit and abundant downed trees. In the vestigial twilight I pitched my tent, gathered wood, and set alight a small fire. The temperature rapidly dropped and I was grateful for the flame. On my stove, I steamed bell peppers, tuna, and then boiled moroheiya noodles with red chili flakes and a splash of olive oil. It was delicious.

The wilderness solitude and reverent firelight produced in me inquietude for the cross-country route I planned ahead. Although I expected this journey would lead me through scenic regions of the Sierra I had never explored, I also knew the price of admission would be a great deal of exhaustion and even physical suffering in the coming days.

The flames dwindled to coals, and the Milky Way emerged in the moonless black sky. Oddly, the battery indicator on my headlamp blinked red, indicating low power. I had replaced the batteries before leaving home, so I was confused why they were drained so soon. I removed the batteries and then reassembled the lamp. The warning light again blinked red. In horror and disbelief, I watched my headlamp die, along with the fire, and I found myself sitting alone in darkness.

I considered my options. As a longtime Boy Scout in my youth, I was keenly aware that a flashlight is required gear—a Ten Essentials item. A broken headlamp is not a situation to take lightly (no pun intended). Many people would probably say it's foolish to embark on a multi-day wilderness trek without a headlamp. I thought, Perhaps I should abort the trip!? Another voice in my head rationalized the situation: if I woke early and finished my hiking early, I could have plenty daylight to pitch camp and prepare dinner. I thought to myself: I’m planning to climb Mount Brewer, and I’m sure that when William Brewer traveled through this landscape in 1864, he did so without a headlamp. If he can do it, I can too!

FRIDAY: Sphinx Col
Soft forest dawn and bird song woke me. It was a pleasant morning alongside Sphinx Creek. I packed my gear and enjoyed a juicy red plum and hardboiled egg for breakfast. I spread out Tom Harrison’s map and reviewed my route for the day. I planned to trek upstream, past Sphinx Lakes and over Sphinx Col. I had read extensively online about various routes along the creek, and I found disagreeing opinions about which side of the creek to follow.

I started by following the use trail on the west side of the creek. It was easy at first, but it soon disappeared into thick willow. I examined the talus pile to the west, and I was surprised to see a clear line up flat-topped rocks that required no scrambling. Ignoring all advice I read online, I abandoned the use trail and instead cut west through the talus. It was easy crossing, like climbing stairs, and this route led me to broad grassy slopes near the top of the first headwall.

I hiked towards the second headwall and entered a swampy forest. I chose a route that hugged the western canyon wall in order to avoid the worst of the swamp. This worked well until I was caught in annoying willow bushwack near the headwall itself. In retrospect, I think a better line would have been to cut back to the creek after passing the swamp, but before climbing the headwall itself.

As I approached the first Sphinx Lake, I found a solid use trail that led me around its western shore. I then climbed the third headwall, to Lake 2, on grassy terraces alongside the creek. I filtered water at Lake 2, and rested beside the shore. The profound quiet at this lake basin left an impression in me, and I felt excited to explore upstream. I continued my ascent on the eastern side of Lake 2, through clear forest and over rock slabs, up the fourth headwall to the Sphinx Lakes 3 and 4.

Vistas suddenly revealed themselves. Mount Farquhar and North Guard Peak loomed before me. I was flanked by steep ramparts of the Sphinx Crest stretching to alpine basins I had never seen. The scale of this landscape felt more vast than I imagined weeks ago when I was studying maps and guidebooks.

The third and fourth Sphinx Lakes are my favorites. Both lakes have great campsites and huge views. I was reluctant to leave. I found shade alongside the creek between the lakes. I was at treeline, after all, and shade would be a rare luxury for the next two days on my journey. I ate lunch: pita bread, sliced egg, apple, and two mandarins. The extra weight of carrying fresh produce was starting to pay delicious dividends.

My route was now obvious, and I climbed over granite slabs and grassy terraces to the fifth, sixth, and seventh Sphinx lakes. I climbed the infamous talus field north of Sphinx Col without any problems. Although it looks tedious in photos, I found the talus to be relatively easy with many flat rocks and a gentle low angle.

I crossed Sphinx Col at 3 pm, and was immediately impressed with the view of Mount Brewer’s northwest face. It’s a handsome peak, with fractal spires and gullies dripping down its sides. At this point I was exhausted. I lazily stumbled down to the meadows and pitched camp. I relaxed on my sleeping pad and watched the alpine sunset illuminate Brewer’s face — first golden, then pink, then purple, then dark.

SATURDAY: Mount Brewer and Longley Pass
My alarm startled me awake. The chill morning air stung my face, and ice frosted the grass outside. I slowly packed my gear and reluctantly started moving. My legs felt stiff from yesterday’s trek, and my lungs struggled to operate at full capacity in the cold.

I ascended Cinder Col on grassy slopes, still frozen in the shadow of Brewer’s morning silhouette. I stashed most of my gear at the tarns near 12,080’, and surveyed the route up Brewer’s southern face. The route combines sandy slopes with stable talus. I picked a line between both, bending northeast towards Brewer's southern ridgeline where talus meets sand and the walking is relatively easy. The canyon was silent as I climbed, except for the rhythmic grind and crunch of my shoes on scree. The altitude was affecting me, and I could feel blood pumping in my ears.

As I climbed higher, the views surprised me and I felt like the entire Sierra range was spread before me. It was thrilling to peer beyond the Kern-Kaweah Divide, to see Black Kaweah illuminated in the morning sun, and to see Mount Whitney’s dark silhouette loom on the southern horizon. I reached Brewer’s summit at 11am, or rather I reached the base of the class 3 summit block. Given that I was traveling solo, I decided the summit block was too dangerous for my tastes today. Multiple HST members have said that Brewer has the best view in the Sierras, and I’m likely to agree.

Years ago I read William Brewer’s “Up and Down California in 1860-1864”, documenting his travels while working for the first geological survey in California. Among those stories is Brewer’s attempt to find the highest peak in California. Along with Charles Hoffman, the Brewer party climbed Mount Silliman and spied a high peak in the distance (later named Mount Brewer) and incorrectly thought it was the highest point of the Sierra Crest. Much later, on their first ascent of Mount Brewer, they could see the true Sierra Crest rising in the distance and even taller peaks in the south, including a peak that would later be named Mount Whitney. I felt satisfied to sit on Mount Brewer’s summit and see that same historic vista and feel connected to those explorers from long ago.

I enjoyed lunch on the summit: fresh plums, pita bread, and roasted almonds. I took dozens of photographs. After a half hour of lounging, and aware of my long day ahead, I started my descent. It was thrilling to shoe-ski down the sand on Brewer's southern face. I took giant steps and leaped from sand pile to sand pile. My ascent had taken 2 hours, but I descended in less than 20 minutes.

I collected my stashed gear and continued to South Guard Lake. Although it's nearly impossible to get lost in this terrain, this part of my journey required a surprising amount of micro route-finding around small ridges that are too fine to appear on topo maps. After taking a relatively byzantine path, I reached the outlet of South Guard Lake. I took a break and filtered water. South Guard Lake floats in a dramatic cathedral basin framed by Mount Sheldon and South Guard Peak. There is fantastic camping near the lake’s outlet, and I was loathe to leave.

I continued towards Longley Pass, contouring to maintain elevation, until I reached the grassy slopes beneath the pass. The afternoon sun was oppressive, and I regretted my choice to climb the pass today. After a great deal of sweating and heavy breathing, I reached the top. I celebrated with the knowledge that the rest of my journey would be downhill.

The infamous snow cornice on Longley Pass had melted this season, but a large pile of snow nevertheless persisted in shadows. I carefully traversed north to avoid steep cliffs, and then shoe-skied down sandy slopes to the tarn below the pass. I sat near the otherworldy turquoise water and emptied sand from my shoes---it seemed like an impossible amount of sand---and then I continued towards the unnamed Lake 11,469’ (WL3496). I followed great advice from HST member RoguePhotonic to traverse high, and then descend to the small peninsula on its northern lakeshore.

I found a truly excellent campsite at Lake 11,469’, nestled among boulders with stunning views of Mount Jordan and the Kings-Kern Divide. In the lingering daylight, I pitched camp, completed chores, and prepared a delicious dinner of lentil beans, steamed broccoli, and fried purple onions. Eating this large meal conspired with my long day of trekking, and I felt utterly exhausted. I sprawled in my tent, unwilling to move anymore. I listened to a true crime podcast about the heist of Alfred Russel Wallace’s collection of Malayan bird species. A light breeze brushed the lake and drifted through my tent. I felt very relaxed, and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of water lapping the lakeshore. I awoke at twilight to see Mount Jordan illuminated by alpenglow, with Venus shining above in the indigo sky.

SUNDAY: Back to Kanawyers
I slept late, feeling no rush to go anywhere soon. I lazily packed my gear and then sat on the lakeshore eating a plum that was perfectly pack-ripened after three days in my bag.

I descended towards Lake Reflection, again following RoguePhotonic’s good route advice. Rather than descend from the outlet of Lake 11,469’, I traversed northeast past a trio of tarns, over a slight rise, and then found an obvious cut down grassy slopes and easy talus. The route-finding here was straightforward, although I did post-hole through shallow topsoil where the grass concealed talus. I think this gully route could easily twist ankles of careless hikers.

I turned northeast and started my traverse along Lake Reflection’s northern shore. I had read multiple trip reports warning against traversing too low and people finding themselves cliffed-out. The high line I chose worked relatively well. I followed granite terraces and tried to maintain altitude. Unfortunately, halfway along my traverse I found myself blocked by a cliff. I saw an obvious class 4 move that would allow passage. I was fairly certain I could execute the move, but I knew the consequences for failure would be broken bones, or worse. I backtracked and climbed higher. In retrospect, I think the best strategy for traversing Lake Reflection is to stay ruthlessly high, at 10,400’ or above, until you reach the gentle forested slopes near the the lake's outlet.

I expected to see people at Lake Reflection, but it was desolate. I briefly rested along the shore, feeling awe struck by the immensity of the Kern-Kaweah divide above me. Lake Reflection is a gem of the Sierra, and I made a note to return here soon. I crossed East Creek and found the use-trail downstream. After several days of cross-country trekking, this trail seemed luxurious. I felt energized, and I gleefully cruised along the trail as it plunged down the canyon and winded through the forest.

I reached East Lake at noon. The campsites on the south shore were empty. I explored the area, taking notes about which sites have the best views. I wandered along the shore, dropped my pack, kicked off my shoes, and waded into the water. The frigid lake felt fantastic on my inflamed feet, especially after so much talus walking earlier in the morning.

My original plan was to camp at East Lake, but I felt strong and the day was young. Roads End trailhead was approximately 14 miles away, all downhill, all on trail, and I estimated I could crush those miles in 5-6 hours. Sometimes it feels great to push my body, and today felt like a good day for pushing.

I continued downstream and encountered people for the first time in three days. A small group was camped on the north shore of East Lake, hidden in the trees. Further down, I passed multiple groups breathlessly plodding up the trail. At the Bubbs Creek crossing, I met two hikers removing boots and nervously preparing their water sandals for the ford. Hilariously, I found the crossing to be trivial; the water came to my knees. I didn’t even bother removing my shoes.

Later, I rested in the shade of a Jeffrey pine grove alongside Junction Meadow, and I ate the last piece of my fresh fruit: a giant fuzzy peach, probably weighing one pound. It tasted like heaven. I felt satisfied for carrying so much heavy fruit and vegetables on this trip. Despite the extra weight, the fresh produce seems to have kept my energy high.

I continued down the Bubbs Creek trail and fell into a hiking trance. I became a walking machine and the miles easily passed.

And then---abruptly---my reverie was interrupted by a bear encounter at close quarters. As I followed the trail around a large boulder, I practically walked into some sort of animal with its head turned away from me. I thought it was a horse. Its feathered hair was cinnamon with amber highlights, as if groomed by some high-end salon. But then I thought: this animal is too small for a horse; it must be a dog. . . And then he turned around and I was face to face with a black bear. He seemed close enough that we could kiss. We locked eyes for what seemed like a lifetime, but I'm sure it was only milliseconds. I could smell his bad breath and nappy odor. It was terrible. And then suddenly he leaped away, like a monkey, and bounded into the forest.

Later in the afternoon, I reached the metal footbridge across Woods Creek. A group of boys took turns climbing the bridge and leaping into the deep swimming hole. It looked fun. I dropped my pack and joined them. In the slow-moving creek, I floated on my back and watched the afternoon sun dance through the pine canopy. My body relaxed in the cold water, slowly turning circles in the current. A deep sense of accomplishment washed over me. Although this journey had been relatively short, it was more challenging than I expected and I was proud to finish.

I returned to Roads End trailhead at 5pm, and drove to Moraine Campground to spend the night. The campground was nearly full with families celebrating the holiday weekend, and I was lucky to find a site. I was exhausted. I collapsed on a pile of foam mattresses in the back of my Subaru and fell asleep.



Re: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Thu Sep 06, 2018 4:57 pm
by Flamingo
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Re: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Thu Sep 06, 2018 5:05 pm
by Flamingo
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Re: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Thu Sep 06, 2018 5:17 pm
by Flamingo

Re: TR: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Thu Sep 06, 2018 6:45 pm
by Hobbes
Lookin' good bro. I cannot believe the smoke has finally cleared, revealing what we're all looking for instead of that horrible brown haze. I'm going up for one last fishing trip around the back-end of Whitney in 2 weeks. Coincidentally, BlueWater is leading a small group (3) from Cottonwood to the summit the same weekend, so hopefully we'll have a back-country meet-up somewhere in the Crabtree/Miter region. Yea for fall (and spring).

Re: TR: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Fri Sep 07, 2018 10:00 am
by frozenintime

Re: TR: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Fri Sep 07, 2018 11:48 am
by levi
beautiful report, thank you! i wish my wife and had been able to hit brewer via the south slope back in early july but we were stymied by snow :) sounds like you had a wonderful trip, full of solitude! (also i wonder if that bear was the same one that we encountered east of junction meadow on the bubbs creek trail...)

Re: TR: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Fri Sep 07, 2018 4:04 pm
by alpinemike
Such a great area and awesome you got Brewer! I still need to get out there. I never have much interest in heading to Cedar Grove but the way to do it is over the weekend in the fall.

Re: TR: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Fri Sep 07, 2018 5:49 pm
by zbernstein
Wonderful trip report and pictures! 11469 is incredible indeed—awesome you got to camp there.

Re: TR: Mount Brewer and Beyond, Aug 30 - Sept 4, 2018

Posted: Mon Sep 10, 2018 2:52 pm
by windknot
Great report and photos! Impressive that you hauled in 7 pounds of fresh produce but it sounds like it was well worth it. I've been known to carry in a zucchini or two to add to my first night's meal, so perhaps I need to expand my thinking.