Mt. Brewer: A third of adventure, is still enough adventure

Much of the majesty of the Sierra Nevada lies in the fact that accounts of its exploration are well preserved and promoted. The mountains and their stories are intertwined in accessible books and a vibrant internet community. Daniel Arnold’s “Early Days in the Range of Light” is a fantastic contemporary introduction to this beautiful range. It’s first chapter follows William Brewer’s ascent of his namesake peak, and was my inspiration for a trip deep into the Sierra backcountry. The Mt. Brewer page on Summitpost is inviting too, historically complete and detailed. Finally the “Great Western Divide” page TODO(link) has a wealth of information about the North Guard - Mt. Brewer - South Guard link up.

I guess the ability to grossly underestimate the difficulty of routes is a common trait of new mountaineers, and I was no exception. In my original plan of the trip, 2 people who had never gone on an extended cross country trip before, expected to be able to finish the triple link up in a day. Our plan was to hike in via Sphinx Lakes on Day 1, climb the 3 peaks on Day 2, ending at Lake Reflection, and hike out on Day 3. Bob Burd describes his day trip! Fortunately sanity prevailed at Sphinx Lakes and at the end of Day 1 we decided that just Brewer would be enough. Looking back, memories of talus-strewn, steep Mt. Brewer and the dangerous approach to Longley Pass are sharply defined memories.

I had managed to get the last 2 permits for Independence Day weekend. We began from the Bay Area on Thursday afternoon, avoiding most of the long-weekend traffic by leaving at 2pm. After a quick stop at a Target in sweltering Los Banos, and a diversion to a Subway in Sanger to grab dinner, we were at the Hume Lake campground around 8pm. A few hours of cowboy camping later, our 3 day adventure began.

We started at 6:30am on day 1 and were at the permit station some time after 7 to pick up our permits. The ranger their mentioned that an off-duty ranger was probably in the Sphinx Lakes area, something to look forward to. We weren’t really expecting many people where we were going. Curiously, the trailhead has an old shoe cleaning machine. Apparently a few trails in the Sierra that tend to get muddy when it rains have these relics to clean up after.

The beginning the trail is a 4 lane sandy highway. About a mile in, it fixes itself to how a mountain trail should look. Soon you cross a bridge over the South fork of the Kings River and several bridges to cross Avalanche Creek. Even in this low snow year, everything was flowing fast and deep. In fact, all summer, I had not had a single Sierra trip where water was lacking.

The exertion finally kicks in as you start up the switchbacks and end up at a little over 6000 feet. Views of The Sphinx and Kings Canyon only get better as you go higher. You may even be able to sneak a glimpse into the Woods Creek drainage before you hook east. A fairly flat mile after that is the Sphinx Creek junction. It was now 10am, a perfect time and place for granola. This was all part of the various pre-JMT food experiments to see what we liked, and what worked. Granola, powdered milk, cashews, almonds, peanut M&Ms, flax seeds and chia seeds in a ziploc is a fantastic, high-calorie backcountry breakfast. Just add cold water and eat out of the bag. It is easy to hit 600-700 calories without feeling terrible.

Oh and we must’ve already seen at least 10 hikers starting or finishing the Rae Lakes loop. It’s good I’m not on that, would hate to have so much company.

Here we left the popular trails to head towards Avalanche Pass. After crossing the bridge, the trail climbs very quickly along sun baked rock for a thousand feet. At the Sphinx Creek crossing we left the trail and headed south cross country. Unfortunately we did not find any use trails on the western side of the creek and had to do plenty of route finding, bush whacking and talus hopping to find our way. The mosquitoes weren’t helping at all. Staying a little away from the creek keeps you on nicer terrain, but stray too far and you’ll be on the steeper side-walls of the canyon. This trip was starting to get serious! Eventually we reached the small lake just below the Sphinx Lakes and had a late lunch of flatbread and nutella (JMT shopping!). Then climb an easy talus pile along the west and south shores (heading east will lead to nicer slabs) to reach the Sphinx Lakes. The Sphinx Crest has followed you till now, but here it truly makes its splendour felt by rising to sharp peaks, bringing you into timberline country. Mt Farquhar, Cross mountain and the other lesser peaks west of the Great Western Divide obscure the peaks we wished to climb. We found a girl and a guy talking at the lower lake and Shreya chatted with them a bit (not the ranger :() for a bit while I filtered water. Turns out it wasn’t the ranger. Heard some voices across the lake, group of 3 ladies walking down the slabs. beta! They had just returned from climbing Farquhar as part of a scouting trip before attempting Brewer the next day. At least we wouldn’t be alone. Already this trip was a little more than I had asked for. Although we were tired (we’d have already climbed 5000 feet and 9mi), it was only 5pm, and we decided to go higher to the upper Sphinx Lake (10962) to camp. Oh by the way, yours truly had actually expected to reach the lake (~11345ft) just below Sphinx Col today. Bob Burd’s fault…

There are several nice dirt sites hidden among slabs on the eastern side of the lake outlet. Well protected from the wind, and with great views of the alpenglow on the Sphinx Crest. Since it was Shreya’s first time with her new Wild Oasis, she insisted on putting up both tents.

We broke camp at 6:30 and began the talus slog up to Sphinx Col. I love talus hopping, there is a dance like quality to it, nimbleness and balance will serve you better than caution. Shreya doesn’t believe in this though :) and the altitude wasn’t helping. We topped out at 12000ft around 8:30.

There is nothing more fascinating than going “over the top” at a pass – the thrill, the excitement, the mystery of what is beyond! You plod up and up, ever watching your step; over rough rocks, rolling and sliding; over loose, steep shale and sand. You are out of breath; you are weary; the blazing sun beats down upon you; you may say “What’s the use?” – when all at once you reach the top and get that grand expansive view and look over into a promised land, on to weird snow-fields, to silvery, flashing streams, down into azure lakes, up to ragged peaks, into the purest air and the bluest of blue skies. It is the call of the high country; the call of the Main Crest, the call toward heaven!

– James Hutchinson, from the 1923 annual issue of the Sierra Club Bulletin

That quote might have been made for Sphinx Col itself. Beyond meadows and the blue of sub-alpine lakes, the elusive Mt. Brewer was finally visible. North Guard is hidden by its own West ridge, while it’s South? ridge blocks the direct path to Brewer. We ate breakfast at the pass, and the three ladies caught up to us.

The eastern side of Sphinx Col is a delight – solid granite slabs lead down to a playground of meadows and glacially polished rock. Various small tarns of the Brewer Creek drainage dot the base of the ridge heading towards Brewer from Peak 12651 to its southwest. Head down, but do not descend all the way to the lake. The objective is to only descend enough that traversing across slabs will allow you to bypass North Guard’s ridge and the talus piles beneath it. Contour to the other side and pick a path towards the gully between North Guard and Brewer.

For all of Brewer’s magnificence from afar, it is a ugly talus pile of a mountain, especially the northwest and south slopes. So do make sure to avoid talus while reaching the ‘junction’ as you’ll have plenty of that later. The route up North Guard is obvious from the time you enter this bowl, but it is steep and sandy.

Here again, altitude was catching up with us quickly and we took our time heading up the slabs, arriving at the base of the talus slope at 10:20. (Perhaps this should have been a post-JMT trip when we’d be better acclimated.)

There really is no well defined path up Brewer, just follow the talus that looks easiest to you. Even in late season of a drought year, there were small snowfields on the lower slopes and much of the northwest slope up high were covered with snow too. Yellow alpine wildflowers abound amidst the talus, even upto 13000ft, and following them is usually easier, since they tend to grow in flattish, sandy platforms.

By this time, the 3 ladies, much better acclimated due to having spent an extra day at 10k feet, and carrying only daypacks, had passed us. They had chosen to stay more to the center of the NW slope, but that seemed to have more exposure, and we stayed closer to the North ridge. Soon Brewer’s North ridge and its buttresses start to rise steeply and the talus is replaced with sandy slopes. Staying closer to the ridge definitely helped as we had more solid handholds and intermittent rests while our feet had only tentative placements on sand. The ladies seemed to have realized this too, as they had moved up to above us. From approximately 12500ft there is maybe 150ft of this scary sand, after which class 2 and 3 moves up mostly solid granite offers a way up. From this point to perhaps 200ft below the summit the route is fairly easy, but exposed and meandering. Our first time with this sort of exposure, and with backpacks, was mentally stressful. Keep proceeding towards the summit, all the headwalls we encountered had weaknesses. You will occasionally notice a cairn from some earlier party. About 200ft from the summit, I went up left hoping to follow the N ridge to the top. As I reached the ridge, expecting a fairly wide area, I was greeted instead to a stunning drop down the north eastern face, and quickly backed off. Gulp. That was possibly the scariest 30 seconds of my life, and I wasn’t even actually close to the edge. Scrambled back and went up the right hand side. Just before the summit, there is a difficult class 4 move to overcome a huge block, then 10 more feet and you are at the large flat boulder that is about 20ft east of the summit block. We reached here at about 1:20. Shreya made it her life’s work to stay at the center of the block and not look down at the exposure on any side. I was brave enough to traverse to the summit block, but too chicken to make the exposed face climb onto the block to reach the summit register. We were too far from civilization to make mistakes. The Mt. Brewer trip really knocked the fear of exposure out of me, readying me for North Peak, Mt. Conness and other exciting adventures later.

We dawdled for a while on the flat block, eating, and looking at the panorama all around. North Guard rose imperiously behind us, hiding much of the Bubb’s Creek drainage. Clear skies meant that Goddard and Darwin were visible on the horizon. I’m sure the Palisades were too, but not having hiked the JMT yet, I wasn’t sure how they looked. In the east rose the Sierra main crest, and Mt. Whitney, about 30miles as the crow flies, was obvious. It would take us more than a month to reach there of course, but only due to the trappings of civilizaation.

In the south the Great Western Divide stretched out, and the Kaweahs took over the horizon. Below us, the first ascent presumed path was fairly obvious coming up the Cunningham Creek drainage. (I have found no sources that describe what exact path they took).

As we were getting ready to leave, the guy who we had seen at Sphinx Lake yesterday hurried up. Will was here after visiting North Guard! He passed me the summit register so I could put our names on it too. Thanks Will!

The southwest slopes are significantly easier, with large, fairly solid talus. My sleeping pad nearly knocked me off once, before I had the sense to put it on the top of my pack instead of the bottom. We encountered a group of 3 coming up the East Ridge route. We could have descended down the east ridge to East Lake, but it seems I hadn’t had enough adventure for the day. Maybe I thought the rest of the way would be easy. Wrong again.

Halfway down the mountain, the southwest slopes turn to deep sand which it is possible to ‘ski’ down. Stay towards the south ridge to avoid the steepest sections. The base is talus again to the two small lakes from which Brewer Creek originates. By this time we were thirsty and exhausted and the lakes were a welcome break from the constant exposure of the last 3 hours. We had lunch and then started up the easy ramp on the south side of the lakes. The stretch from here to Longley Pass is excellent slabs and boulders for the most part, with occasional meadow patches. Pick good routes and you can avoid elevation changes while skirting around Soth Guard. There are beautiful views of huge South Guard Lake about 500 feet below.

I’d highly recommend staying higher up South Guard’s flanks (we were at ~12100ft or so) to avoid the fairly dangerous final climb we did to reach Longley Pass’s saddle. Right on South Guard’s south-west ridge, when it seemed like Longley Pass was never going to be appear (when the GPS said it was less than half a mile), we were stuck with either climbing 30-40 degree scree slopes, or descending several hundred feet south and then climbing up Longley pass again. By this time it was also 6pm. We were 12 hours into the day, had about 2.5 hours of daylight and were nowhere close to our intended destination. Needless to say, tensions were running high. We elected for taking a risk up the sandy slopes. About 30ft of traversing on terrible sand with no good rocks to hold on to and the route improved drastically. Rounding the bend we could finally see the gentle climb up to Longley Pass. I powered up to the pass in sustained bursts of 100 steps.

Longley Pass’s easy looking approach on the western side is beguiling. A giant cornice blocks the actual pass all year. Fortunately, while I may have underestimated the route, I’m good with planning and this was a known obstacle. Head north of the cornice and footsteps from previous adventurers are obvious. Deep sand leads to a series of class 3 slides for 20ft. Make sure not to dump a ton of rubble on fellow climbers. Look right at the incredible cornice and proceed quickly down the sandy eastern slope to Lake 11800. From here slabs along the south-west shore lead to a descent to Lake 3496 (11480ft). Lake Reflection was still far away and we had only 30minutes of sunlight left, so we decided to go to the lower, smaller lakes around 11325ft and find a campsite. Contour around Lake 3496’s eastern tip, and then back west to a ramp system that leads to these lakes.

Apparently there is a way from Lake 3496 directly down to Lake Reflection. We were at the other lakes, and didn’t know if we would have to climb up again the next morning. With 10 minutes before it would go dark, I dropped the pack and ran ahead for a bit to spot a direct path. It seemed like there would be one a little ways down the drainage.

We camped at the lakes for the night, feeling like true explorers. We were at a remote lake, after climbing a remote mountain, in conditions that were a little too much for us. That only feels grand when you are back home, at that instant you are tired and stressed out. I botched up the pasta, we ate it anyway and forgot our troubles as we got in the sleeping bags. We were still behind schedule, at least 14mi of on-trail walking away from Road’s End, and another 2 miles of unknown terrain awaited us before we even reached Lake Reflection’s north terminus. Rather an extra day off from work than risk our necks in the dark.

In hindsight, the two lakes at beautiful, with Lake Reflection below and the Sun rising over the steep eastern flanks of East Creek. I would go back any day (well… if Bubb’s Creek wasn’t such a boring trail).

To head down from the small lakes, head east on slabs from Lake 11325 until the cliff north becomes noticeably gentler (maybe 200ft). Then head north, down some steep slabs to a ramp that descends. Stay east of the creek the whole time. Follow more slabs down to the meadow. From here to Lake Reflection is easy but exhausting talus. When we were there, creek levels were below the talus and we’d often hop on rocks in the creek itself. Pick the easiest way. When the creek’s ‘valley’ narrows and becomes steep, cross over to the north side of the creek and continue on. As you approach tree line, paths made by people will start emerging. Paths is too strong, more faint signs of human feet due to continuous stretches of soil or flat grass.

Tall trees, green grass and flowing water, that is the world we are comfortable in. As much as I love glacial lakes bounded by bare granite, we are but wanderers into the alpine.

Soon you approach the other creek (that starts from the small tarn north east of Lake 3496). Lake Reflection is finally within your grasp, but do not descend right to the lake yet. Preserve your elevation on the slabs on the little outcrop of land at the northwest corner of the lake. Here we finally encountered the first people we had seen since leaving Brewer’s summit, and we could not have been more relieved. They were camped at a really nice site on the. From here, follow slabs north east to the shore, and a well-cairned trail leads along the lake to the outlet. It started to drizzle just as we reached the outlet, but stopped soon. Ah mosquitoes!

Head east of the outlet and continue to follow cairns north until you hit an obvious trail. Follow the fairly adventurous trail to East Lake where there is a campsite, bear boxes and the other signs of civilized trails. We reached East Lake around 10:30.

From here the terrain greatly improves and there are people around, taking away some of the stress of the last 24 hours. Brewer and North Guard are prominent on the west up the Ouzel Creek valley as you skirt East Lake and I couldn’t believe I’d just climbed the former the day before. Distances can be decieving in the mountains. Here I went ahead on my own, needing some alone time and being able to move at my own pace.

I reached the East Creek crossing at noon, and took a short nap, waiting for Shreya. Just a few hundred feet ahead is the Bubb’s Creek trail junction. This trail sign says 12mi to Road’s End, but I believe it is wrong, since if you add up the signs facing the other way, or even the maps, it comes out to about 10.5mi. By this point I could only think about reaching the car. On good trail, and still having some energy, I took the bear canister, left Shreya to her own pace and pushed on to the Avalanche Pass junction. The Bubb’s Creek trail is overgrown, stays away from the creek and is singularly boring. That may have contributed to my fastest hike with a full pack ever. 2 hours for the 6 miles to the Avalanche Pass junction. If I ever go to the Rae Lakes again, I’d rather take the much more scenic approaches over Kearsarge and Glen passes from the east.

At the Avalanche Pass junction I allowed myself a 20min break and took my shoes off for the first time that day. The mosquitoes had continued to be a nuisance ever since Lake Reflection and they hadn’t given up yet, unfortunately stinking socks didn’t seem to dissuade them. From here it was familiar trail down switchbacks to Bailey Bridge. Here the trail becomes a highway again, but the trailhead never seems to arrive! Argh!

Finally at 4pm I reached my car and heaved a sigh of relief. I finished the burnt pasta from yesterday, it was delicious! After gorging on more snacks and changing I soaked my feet into the cold South Fork Kings. Ah… it felt so incredible to have clean feet. The cold numbed the fatigue and my mood was much improved. Hoping to get away from the mosquitoes, I stayed in the car and read.

2 hours later, Shreya arrived, totally spent and in a crummy mood. So we quietly put her stuff in the car and began the long drive home. We were low on fuel and I was concerned about the car would making the long climb up to the entrance station so we could coast down to the Valero about 20mi away. If we had been stranded that day, I might have just given up on this hiking business. Fortunately we made it. The scenery coming out of Road’s End was spectacular. We stopped at the first Chipotle we could find. It was only after a burrito bowl that our moods improved. Another 4 hours of driving and we finally reached home at 1am. Not my most relaxing long weekend, but in retrospect it was one of the best trips of my life.