TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

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kylekuzma
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TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by kylekuzma » Wed Mar 03, 2021 12:56 pm

I highly recommend reading the report on my blog as it includes pictures and videos that add to the essence of what I want my readers to get out of my TRs. You can view the report here: https://medium.com/travel-yung/the-brew ... 27da84f652

Should you just want the text, feel free to read below:
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In March of 2020 I began reading “Up and Down California”, which is William Brewer’s journal from his time as the 2nd-in-Command of the California Geological Survey of 1862. I was drawn to the book so I could learn more about pre-Civil War California, but as I learned more about the Sierra’s history, I learned about the significance of the survey’s exploration of the range. I plunged into it during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic and although it’s quite long, it’s a fascinating and an easy read if you’re into history. His comments and tone about the people and politics (it’s an academic touring a brand new state in the immediate run-up to the Civil War) are fascinating, and it’s full of small nuggets of information that any California-native will find interesting (including an entry about the flood of 1862 which covered the entire Sacremento Valley in water for months). I figured I would celebrate finishing the book that summer by summiting the mountain that bears his name in Kings Canyon NP, Mt. Brewer, which he called in his journal “The Cone”.

I went about this hike with one of my best friends (and a rookie backpacker), Alex Cascante, who had been asking me to take him into the backcountry for a while at this point. As always, I’m nervous taking beginners on trips that require off-trail hiking, but Alex did everything I had asked of him regarding training and although our route was off-trail, it had no Class 3 moves which made him comfortable. Furthermore, we took an extra day to do it so we could slow it down a little bit, giving us flexibility.

Our hike followed the standard route that most people take to Brewer: Start at Roads End taking the Avalanche Pass trail → leave the trail at Sphinx Creek towards Sphinx Lakes → Big Brewer Lake to enjoy a zero day → Summit Brewer and then to Lake Reflection via Longley Pass → rejoin the trail and rumble down Bubbs Creek back to Roads End.

Day 1: Roads End to Lower Sphinx Lake:
I’ve written before that any way you slice it, climbing out of the mouth of the Kings River at Zumwalt Meadows (aka climbing out of the Canyon of the Kings River) is going to be a rather miserable experience. However, climbing the Avalanche Pass trail from Roads End to Sphinx Lakes in one day is something else. This was definitely a day to forget, illustrated by Alex finishing the final climb to Sphinx Lake and not speaking for almost five minutes.
With the Covid-19 protocol making it so that you didn’t have to waste any time in the morning getting your permit, Alex and I were on the trail relatively early — about 9:15am. We started the trip like (almost) every other person who starts a trip out of this area: trudging through the deep sand of Zumwalt Meadow for two miles, sun blazing with little shade. You don’t get much appreciation for this part until you see it from up high, but i enjoy the warm up. We made decent time to the first set of switchbacks that lead you to the awesome view of the valley from up high (I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favorite views in the park), and pushed on to the start of the Avalanche Pass Trail, where again we started to switchback. This is where the real fun started. From that point at about 10:40am until 6pm, we would essentially never stop climbing. We were slow on the switchbacks given our heavy packs, the full exposure to the sun, and the fact that we had not acclimated at all to the altitude. After about 2.5 hours (1pm-ish), we were gassed and needed a break so we stopped for lunch at the creek that you cross before Sphinx Creek.

After lunch, we continued to the junction with Sphinx Creek and started to follow it. Up to this point, the trail is beautiful in spots and shows impressive engineering, but once you start hiking up Sphinx Creek and leave the trail, all bets are off. The climbing to this point was definitely hard, but for the rest of the day it would seem relentless. Off trail, non-stop sun, boulder climbing, etc. Most notable was that it seemed to never end with many, many false summits. To be completely honest, I don’t remember much from the next 4 hours mainly because i was focused on route finding and making sure that Alex didn’t either pass-out or turn around. Nonetheless, on the bright side, we had perfect weather, almost no bugs, and the bushwacking really wasn’t too bad outside of a few rough patches.

I feel like I kept telling Alex that it was just at the top of the next summit (bc i probably believed that myself in my altitude-drunk state), yet finally after almost 8 hours of climbing, we made it to the first of the Sphinx Lakes. Alex was a few minutes behind me, but once he got to the top, he was too tired to even be happy (i’m chuckling while i write this now, but believe me, i was in a similar place when i had first arrived). He sat on a rock and caught his breath (and wits) for about 5–10 min before he was finally able to speak. We setup camp, made dinner, and ate while we sat with out feet in and out of the lake. And then, as if the mountains themselves knew we were in need of a pick-me-up, we were blessed with one of those sunsets you only get in the Sierra. The alpenglow started to shine and reflect off the environment and make the world around us go through every color of the rainbow. The soreness and exhaustion melted away, and i was just happy that i could be in such a special place and share such an epic moment with one of my best friends.

Day 2: Lower Sphinx Lake to Big Brewer Lake:
We were thrilled to know that this day was going to be spent mostly hanging out lakeside on the shores of Big Brewer Lake which we knew wasn’t that far away. However, we also knew that between us and the lake was Sphinx Col. This would be Alex’s first off-trail pass, so i knew we were in for some slogging. Thankfully though, the trail isn’t crazy steep and the boulders are large enough that rarely did any move or cause any concern. I had read plenty of trip reports about the hike up Sphinx Col and was actually quite excited about it. We enjoyed the easy walk through the grass and around the many Sphinx Lakes and it wasn’t long before the col was in sight. Route wise, it was pretty obvious how to get from our campsite to the col so we didn’t really do much thinking on the approach. We started boulder hopping up the well-documented west/north side of the col and took our time by taking plenty of breathers. I thought our pace was decent and we made it to the top of the pass by 10:15am after about an hour of good climbing. I gave Alex a hug, congratulating him on what will be the first of many cross-country passes we would do over the course of our lives, and soaked in the view that laid before us.

It is immediately clear that Brewer Basin is special: First, it is remote and hard to get to — the solitude is palpable — likely because it is protected on 3 sides by massive, intimidating 12,000 foot walls and spires. Secondly, you always get a fantastic view of Mt. Brewer which is an absolutely beautiful peak up close. It has chutes and spires leading to the summit that make it look as though part of the mountain had melted upwards. And lastly, Big Brewer Lake and the outlet that turns into Brewer Creek is absolutely rich. It is everything you love about the Sierra around 11,000 feet: gurgling creeks, grey peaks behind you, brown boulders juxtaposing agains the green grass, and plenty of ponds and waterfalls to wash off in.

We slowed our pace to a stroll, in awe of the land that we had completely to ourselves. We walked along the shore which has an easy to follow use-trail, and went towards the outlet as apparently, according to the trip reports i had read, that was where we should camp. More interested in getting in the water than finding camp, we ended up just putting our packs down under a tree and figured we would get to setting up later as the lake was just too nice to ignore any further.

Now, in preparing for the hike, i knew that we would have a full day at the lake. And given that you can never tempt Alex and I with a good time, we decided it would be a good idea to schlep a 2.5 pound inner tube 50 miles through the mountains so that we could float around in some of the most beautiful water on earth. What an epic decision: for the rest of the day, Alex an I rotated between lounging in the middle of the lake, reading, playing cards, having a few drinks, and fully taking in our absolutely epic surroundings. What a special afternoon…definitely one of the best i’ve ever had.

Eventually, sunset started to approach and it was at this point that we would learn why in his book, Phil Arnot made a point in his chapter about Brewer Basin to note that the area has incredibly special alpenglow. The reason for this isn’t very complicated: 1) the basin itself is surrounded by rather tall, westward and north-west facing peaks/faces and 2) the Roaring River area to the west and beyond is relatively low and thus the sun and afterglow linger on the tall peaks a bit longer than normal. This provides all of the ingredients for an absolutely astounding light show, which is what we got for almost two hours. I don’t know if I’ve written this before, but alpenglow may be one of my favorite parts of hiking in the Sierra (when people ask me how i pass time in the mountains, i exclaim, “chase light!”), as the good ones are deeply spiritual moments for me. Each and every time I get to see the environment change from yellow to orange to red and to purple, i am blown away by the beauty and am forced into deep gratitude: simply thankful for my body and my senses that allow me to experience such beautiful moments. This evening was no different so I’ll let the videos do the talking.

Day 3: Big Brewer Lake to the tarn just under Longley Pass
Both Alex and I were well-rested and very excited to reach Brewer’s summit, especially since we had been staring at it for almost 24 hours. We got ready rather slowly and started late, around 9am. It was fairly obvious where to go given the environment, so off we were up the slope that leads to the tarns (12,080') sitting just below the west face.

We snacked, zooted up on caffeine, and cached our gear at these tarns before making our way up the boulder pile that composes the west-face. Safe to say that Alex and I had a damn HOOT climbing to the summit. The moves are never more than Class 3, there isn’t much exposure that makes you feel in danger, and it straddles the line between boring and complicated perfectly to keep you interested. We made it to the summit (13,576') — or rather the block just below the summit — in a little over an hour and exalted with joy. This was my first bagged-peak since i had summited Whitney two years prior and it was great to be on top of a mountain once again. Most importantly, Mt. Brewer offers incredible views. It is off the Sierra Crest with no peaks to obstruct your vision, so you get a perfect view of the spine of the range for miles and miles (including Whitney and it’s gang of peaks). Continuing our gaze, we had views of the Kaweahs, and even Goddard and the Palisades group, well over 20 miles away.

It was at this point that i was taken over by a moment of reflection about William Brewer and his climb up here with Charles Hoffman and Clarence King some 140+ years ago. Thinking that they had just climbed the highest peak in the Sierra, it was here — appreciating the same view that Alex and I were were currently indulging in — that they saw the actual Sierra Crest with groups of peaks much higher than the one they were on. From here history tells us that Clarence King, inspired by seeing the higher peaks, pleaded with his boss to allow him to venture into the wilderness to try and tackle the distant peaks. I can only hope to experience the inspiration that compelled Clarence King to venture into the total unknown just out of curiosity, but sitting there was again one of those special moments comprised of unparalleled beauty, mystique, and delightfulness that deliver happiness and gratitude in a way only the Sierra can.

After taking a ton of photos and videos, we decided to head down the south face which is essentially a massive sand hill. Alex decided it was a good idea to sand-ski down. I kept the video trained on his body, hoping that he would begin a ~400 foot summersault upon tripping yielding possibly the best video of all time, but unfortunately (and fortunately), the fall never occurred.

Back at the tarns with our stuff, we rested our feet over lunch and pondered the rest of the day. It was just before 2pm and we had plenty of daylight, but no idea where we wanted to end up. We weren’t sure if we wanted to spend the night at South Guard Lake and tackle Longley Pass in the morning, or if we wanted to get over the pass today making for an easier tomorrow. We decided on the later which would become a questionable decision solely because of the route-finding issues we would face for the next ~4 hours.

As other reports have stated, it’s nearly impossible to get lost in this region given the multiple bearings and landmarks around you, but Alex and I some-how found a way. At first we just got caught up in micro-terrain. The map doesn’t tell you but there are a ton gullies and ravines that you need to climb up and down to make any real progress. Then we made the mistake of thinking the one of the saddles next to South Guard was Longley Pass, when it really wasn’t. Then, after realizing our mistake, we corrected our course and thought it would be a good idea to boulder hop along the face of South Guard in an effort to not lose elevation. This was was definitely not a good idea and probably cost us a half-hour and a bunch of ankle-stress. To compound on what was already an annoying phase of our journey, i was completely unaware of the total and complete pain-in-the-ass the Cunningham Creek side of Longley Pass is. The insanely steep slog up the deep sand — two steps forward, one step back — make it so that Alex and I were taking maybe 7 or 8 steps at a time before needing a breather. We toiled up this god damn pass for what legitimately felt like an eternity, making it to the top just before 6pm. I can’t remember the last time i was that tired, and concluded that aside from my disaster-hike up to Lion Lake in Sequoia, this was the most torturous thing I had ever endeavored in the Sierra. Our only respite was that the rest of the trip was entirely down-hill.

We were so tired that we didn’t even take the time to inspect the proper way down the famous snow-cornice of Longley Pass. I simply decided that i would inch down before sliding on my ass for a dangerous distance, catching myself at the bottom. It worked and i didn’t injure myself, but i wouldn’t recommend it. Alex and I sand-skied down to the first tarn and immediately set up camp. I ate dinner, took a quick towel bath, and crawled into my sleeping bag at what I believe was 7:30pm…well before it was dark.

Day 4: The tarn just under Longley Pass to Lake Reflection
I awoke after a good night sleep in a significantly better mood than the previous evening. Alex and I spent the morning laughing about yesterday’s slog and were excited about getting to spend another zero day lake-side at one of the most beautiful areas in the range: Lake Reflection. Tucked right into the Great Western Divide, Lake Reflection is another perfect example of a cirque bowl: an amphitheater like basin with large sheer walls surrounding it at the head of a glacial valley. When seen from above, it appears to perfectly sit at the bottom, and offers incredible views of the steep faces and peaks surrounding it.

The hike down to Lake Reflection isn’t too difficult and Secor’s book gives a decently straightforward idea of where you need to go. Alex and I entered the chute that acts as the use-trail down and after about 45 minutes to an hour of a rather uneventful descent (aside from Alex’s almost-disaster where he tripped, fell forward, and almost went face first into the rocks), we entered our final approach where the route is lit up with cairns.
This day was filled with some truly spectacular views. Starting with the descent down from Longley Pass, to picking our lunch spot on the shore of Lake Reflection, to the eventual traverse of Lake Reflection’s shore and finding our campsite on the south-west corner. I will allow the photos to do the talking and allow this section to be more of a photo journal than a written journal.

Day 5: Lake Reflection to Roads End
Like many other people who, after four nights in the back-country crave a hot meal, Alex and I burned the hike from Lake Reflection back to the car. After hiking cross-country for 3.5 days, being on a trail was a luxury and we were finally able to brainlessly hike and enjoy the views around us. Given our borderline insane desire for In-N-Out, Alex and i made incredible time hiking almost 14 miles in just over 4 hours. Although it’s incredibly crowded, I love the hike down down Bubbs Creek as it's genuinely gorgeous Sierra terrain.








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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by Wandering Daisy » Wed Mar 03, 2021 2:49 pm

Thanks for the great trip report. I just put up some sunset photos from Big Brewer Lake; see the Photography sub-forum, Sierra Inspirational Photothon. I think I went up the opposite side of Sphinx Creek than you did - not as much talus but more bushwhacking. I also went over Longley Pass after coming up Cunningham Creek and do not remember much steep sand. Good to know what to expect if coming from South Guard Lake.

If I were to do the loop you did, given what I know, I would do it the opposite direction so the start is easier. A similar trip is on my agenda for this year.

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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by wildhiker » Wed Mar 03, 2021 5:38 pm

This brings back memories. After also reading "Up and Down California" in the early 70s, I decided that I really needed to summit Mt. Brewer because Brewer's description of their exploration was so exciting. Isn't it amazing that Brewer's book has been in print for about 150 years? My wife and I did basically the same hike as you, but in the opposite (clockwise) direction, in September of 1975. We took much more time than you - 7 days total - and had a great time. I don't remember any of the cross-country being difficult, but then, I was only 23! The view from the top of Brewer is impressive and we spent more than an hour on top in stable clear weather.
-Phil

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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by balzaccom » Wed Mar 03, 2021 10:22 pm

Great report. Now I'm off to check out the photos. But this was a really fun read. Thanks for posting it.
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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by Mike M. » Thu Mar 04, 2021 12:13 am

Excellent trip report and a fun read. That inner tube was a good idea. Did you by any chance float out on the lake with your camera in hand? It would have provided some great perspectives.

I climbed solo up the same slope as you did in early August 1985, approaching via Brewer Creek. Awesome views from the summit. I camped at one of the tarns at the base of Mt. Brewer, in the Brewer Creek drainage, then exited via Elizabeth Pass.
1985.047sony.jpg
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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by balzaccom » Thu Mar 04, 2021 7:44 am

Love the ball cap, Mike!
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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by sekihiker » Thu Mar 04, 2021 8:49 am

I made a similar trip thirty years ago, but in the clockwise direction. I applied for an out and back trip via East Lake. The trailhead ranger talked me into making it a loop and returning via Sphinx Lakes. I've never regretted taking his advice and have revisited Sphinx Lakes and the country around Mt Brewer many times. For a trip report, see: http://www.sierrahiker.com/MtBrewer/index.htm

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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by Shawn » Thu Mar 04, 2021 9:53 am

Great report and amazing photos. Those are some of my favorite areas in the Sierra (which were originally inspired years ago by sekihiker's trip report).

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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by kylekuzma » Thu Mar 04, 2021 9:56 am

Wandering Daisy wrote:
Wed Mar 03, 2021 2:49 pm
Thanks for the great trip report. I just put up some sunset photos from Big Brewer Lake; see the Photography sub-forum, Sierra Inspirational Photothon.
Amazing. Big Brewer Lake sunsets are just incredible. I really couldnt believe it

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Re: TR: The Mt. Brewer Loop - August 2020

Post by kylekuzma » Thu Mar 04, 2021 9:58 am

Mike M. wrote:
Thu Mar 04, 2021 12:13 am
Excellent trip report and a fun read. That inner tube was a good idea. Did you by any chance float out on the lake with your camera in hand? It would have provided some great perspectives.

I climbed solo up the same slope as you did in early August 1985, approaching via Brewer Creek. Awesome views from the summit. I camped at one of the tarns at the base of Mt. Brewer, in the Brewer Creek drainage, then exited via Elizabeth Pass.

1985.047sony.jpg
I didnt but that is such a good idea for next time.

And exiting via Elizabeth Pass sounds like a really fun point to point. Hadnt thought of that

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