I’ve wanted to summit Mt Brewer ever since a backpacking trip to East Lake more than two years ago when I had my first good view of the peak. Since then, I’ve been enamored with the early history of exploration in the Sierra Nevada and especially enthralled by William Brewer’s account of the endeavor “Up and Down California in 1860-1864” (which also provides an incredible window into life in California during the Civil War). Although Josiah Whitney was the leader of the California survey, he rarely joined the team in the field, leaving most of the legwork to Brewer (3,101 miles on foot, to be precise). On top of its historic significance, Mt Brewer is supposed to command one of the best views in the Sierra Nevada owing to its setting on the Great Western Divide, some ten miles west of the main crest.
When I found that Rafee and Zach were also keen on climbing the peak this summer we made loose plans which eventually found me meeting up with Rafee in Road’s End on Labor Day weekend after a long day’s drive from Tuolumne (Zach being unable to join). There was an astounding number of people illegally camped on the side of CA-180 in Kings Canyon National Forest, tents sitting mere inches from the shoulder, but we managed to find a private pullout to (slightly-more-legally) sleep in.
We put together our packs for the morrow’s hike, a bit discouraged by the numerous mosquitoes haranguing us, and solidified our plans. Less than a mile from Mt Brewer in opposite directions sit the North and South Guards, each of which are also forbidding dayhikes and it would be a shame to climb Mt Brewer without visiting the obvious neighbors. We weren’t sure about how long the climb would take so we planned to make a decision when we were closer to the summits and knew how much time we had, but if nothing else, we’d summit Mt Brewer.
The hike starts along the Avalanche Pass Trail for about eight miles, gaining 3,500 ft before we’d strike off trail, and we wanted to time the hike so that we could turn our headlamps off before heading cross country. We eventually agreed on a 3AM start and headed to bed at 8 although I don’t think I fell asleep until after 11.
I woke up to the alarm at 2:35 and after checking that Rafee was up, headed to down the road to the Bubbs Creek Trailhead. Miraculously we were ready and hiking at 3:01! Perhaps our training from the ruthless and unforgiving starts of the Sierra Challenge paid off.
We hiked in the dark along the wide flat bottom of Kings Canyon for several miles before meeting the foot of Bubbs Creek Canyon and starting up the switchbacks at the face of the hanging valley. As we climbed, the moon started to rise and eerily lit the west face of Paradise Valley causing both of us to periodically imagine headlamps below us in our peripheral vision. By the time we gained the top of these switchbacks, the air started to become thick with wood smoke, an indication of the Bubbs Creek fire which according to a flyer posted at the ranger station was both small and contained.
Shortly we met with the Avalanche Pass trail and, crossing Bubbs Creek, started up alongside Sphinx Creek. There must be some small campsites on the south side of the bridge because we lost the trail almost immediately, but quickly found it again and started up the steep canyon wall in earnest.
The Avalanche Pass trail starts off with several sweeping switchbacks through oak, juniper, and chaparral, and in one open stretch we noticed the light of embers burning on the opposite side of the canyon, almost big enough to be a campfire, but very dim. We spotted another area burning and decided that it was too far up the canyon wall to be a campfire, and must be the remnants of the Bubbs Creek fire, whose smoke, thankfully, was lingering in the bottom of the valley leaving the air along our trail crisp and clean. I spent a minute trying to photograph the scene before deciding I wouldn’t have any success without a tripod.
As the trail makes it up the southern wall of Bubbs Creek canyon, it follows an incredibly steep route, with long stretches of very short switchbacks. Even in the dark, with just the few feet in front of me illumined, it was obvious that this trail was quite a feat of engineering and determination!
After about three miles of climbing the trail started to level off and as we crossed a medial moraine I found that I could see well enough without my headlamp. Rafee kept his on a while longer but by the time we crossed Sphinx Creek it was well into twilight. I filled my empty water bladder at the creek — I’d only started with 1.5 liters and I only bothered filling it with another 1.5 liters, knowing that there was lots of water along the route and preferring to save weight at the risk of needing to fill up more frequently. The creek was our cue to head off trail and our timing couldn’t have been better. From there, we’d follow the Sphinx Creek drainage up a series of eight glacial cirques to the headwaters of Sphinx Creek, eventually crossing Sphinx Col, the low point between the Sphinx and Brewer drainages, at a mere 12,000 feet before continuing on towards Mt Brewer.
As we traversed the base of the first cirque we found a use trail and thought that the way up might be easy going, but after climbing the moraine up and into the next cirque we were unable the trail again. Some trees appeared to have been emblazoned in the past to mark a trail, but they seemed random and we soon decided that it must just be our brains deceiving us out of some desperate hope that the going might be easy.
As we proceeded upward, the cirques became increasingly wet, first completely wooded, then spotted with wet meadows, then filled with marsh, and then, just as sun topped the east wall of the canyon around 8:30, we reached the Sphinx Lakes.
I wasn’t feeling great and was glad to finally have a chance to rest in the sun and have some food. We took a short break, soaking up warmth and sunlight from the sun which seemed a stranger after hiking in the cold and dark for nearly six hours.
We continued up another moraine and then another, and Rafee filled his water at this lake, as there was no vegetation visible above and we thought this might be the last of the lakes. A severe spur of the Sphinx Crest stood tall above this lake and Rafee and I commented that this peak, being beautiful, challenging, and probably never climbed, might make a good objective for the Sierra Challenge. We almost immediately hoped that this would never be the case — a climb of this summit from the east side would be insane even by Bob’s standards. Rafee suggested that there could be a west side edition of the Sierra Challenge.
We climbed yet another moraine and the mental fatigue of crossing a cirque, climbing 500 feet up the terminal moraine, only to find yet another cirque of near identical proportion and composition, started to wear on me. The talus was stable and reasonably sized, the route finding was simple, and I was in fine shape, but I started to dread the hike, knowing that no matter how much progress I made, I’d be met with yet another 500 foot climb. By the seventh cirque I instead started to take comfort in knowing that this was my life now. We’d climb one cirque, look ahead to find another just like the first, and look back to see the same view as before (was it imperceptibly more distant?); living in a lithograph Escher might have constructed were he more into glacial geology. And really, it was a beautiful setting and a beautiful day, so what right did I have to complain?
Eventually we found ourselves at Sphinx Col and for the first time in five hours were rewarded with something other than one more cirque to climb. Mt Brewer and the Great Western Divide extended southward before us.
The wind was fierce at the top of the col so we climbed a short bit back down the way we had come to find some shelter and had a bite to eat. It was nearly 11 and we still had another 1,500 feet to gain before the summit as well as a decent amount of cross country travel. On top of this, the cumulus had grown noticeably darker in the ten minutes we were atop the col, and we did not want to contend with a thunderstorm atop the Great Western Divide. With all of this in mind, we decided to climb Brewer before making any commitment to climbing either of the Guards.
From the col we descended most of the way towards a small lake before contouring around the western ridge of North Guard. The ridge was steep and full of loose boulders. At one point I managed to step on a rock which rolled, and I quickly stepped down off of the rock to stabilize myself, but the boulder rolled into my shin and combined with an unfortunately located patch of slippery grass I found myself on all fours. In catching myself I managed to cut my thumb badly enough that I decided to bandage it. My leg was bleeding too, but not badly enough to bother with.
Rounding the ridge, we were rewarded with our first unobstructed view of Mt Brewer. The polished granite of Brewer canyon rose broadly up towards the base of the peak, encircled by a pile of talus; the top half of the peak fluted with incredibly steep glacial scars, each joined by towering granite horns. I found the visage eerie, even evil, and had the feeling that it was glaring down at us with contempt. Rafee had a similar feeling, but neither of us could properly explain why.
We crossed the granite slabs forming the floor of brewer canyon and made our way up the talus on the north side of the peak, aiming for the northernmost flute. The climbing went surprisingly quick — despite its looming appearance the climb was only slightly more than 1,000 feet. We reached the polished granite of the upper mountain and continued up the northernmost flute along its western rib. Rafee went ahead of me here, staying along the center of the flute and at one point sending a cascade of rocks down below him. He shouted out to warn me, but I was not concerned as I had opted to climb directly up the rib, further right of him, which I found to be fun climbing. The rock here was not all stable, but it was more solid than in the flute and I didn’t have to worry about rockfall here. In fact, I was surprised to see that there was quite a variety in rock composition and even found a few large quartz crystals.
A rumble of thunder echoed off the mountains and I readied myself to convince Rafee that we shouldn’t turn around so close to the top — we could quickly gain the summit and then duck down off the ridge to relative safety. Rafee however was still above me, and though he was out of sight, I could hear by his movement that he either didn’t hear the thunder or didn’t care.
A few hundred feet below the summit I could hear that Rafee had climbed to the next flute over, and I followed his route. By the time I made it to this second flute, he had nearly gained the summit ridge. From where I stood it was unclear whether the summit was to the north or to the south and after I asked he reported back: north. I made it to the ridge and found that he was on a false summit twenty feet north of the summit.
Rafee pointed towards the rock above me and said that the summit was up there but he wasn’t sure he was comfortable climbing it (there are reports that indicate it to be a class 4 climb, with which he hadn’t much experience). Rather than join him, I saw a route above me and decided to climb directly to the summit. The summit block as well as the stone it rests on is fairly steep, but replete with great holds, and a fall might break an ankle or leg, but it hardly appeared fatal.
I climbed to the top and even found the summit to be big enough to stand on, throwing my hands up and shouting with joy and relief. Finally, after 15 miles, 9,500 feet, and nine and a half hours of hiking we’d come to the top!
After taking a few deep breaths and soaking in the feeling, I climbed down the way I’d come and made my way over to Rafee. Looking back at the summit block from his perch, I could see his hesitance — this view made the climb look much more difficult than it really was. From there, the visible side of the boulder appears near vertical when in fact I thought it was much tamer than the slabs on Candlelight Peak, which Rafee had found very easy. Rafee didn’t need much convincing and he made quick work of the summit.
Rafee rejoined me on the false summit where we perused the register. Unfortunately, it appears that the register was lost sometime in 2013 and along with it I’m sure, many historic summits. It was fun leafing through the thirty or so entries in the last five years and recognizing so many names from the Sierra Challenge!
Of particular note was an entry by Jim and JD in which JD wrote “3:20 pm – going to be a long night.” My mind turned to the remaining hike. After running the numbers, we had decided not to climb either of the Guards and we were still pretty sure we’d be returning in the dark — I did not envy them for summiting almost four hours later.
Another poignant entry simply read “I miss you Jennifer,” and I tried not to let my mind linger on it, and when Rafee came across it and asked “Who’s Jennifer?” I admitted that I didn’t want to think about the answer to that question. It was hard to ignore the idea that someone had climbed up here countless miles and feet from the nearest civilization and that Jennifer was the only person they could think to write of.
We hadn’t heard any thunder since the first rumble, but the clouds were continuing to build, and we knew we had a long hike ahead of us so after eating the other half of my sandwich and sharing a few summit cookies, we started down. Rather than trace the route back up, we decided to take the second flute all the way down into Brewer canyon. This route looked more direct and straightforward.
By the time we were crossing the slabs at the bottom of the canyon the wind had picked up and graupel started to fall. Rafee pointed out that we should be glad that it wasn’t raining because we had many miles of talus to cover which could quickly become slippery with some water.
The trip up sphinx col went quickly and we wasted no time starting back down the cross country route, with some urgency to both make it back to the trail before rain hit and make it back to the trailhead before dark. Rafee and I passed some time commiserating over the Steelers’ and Bills’ prospects for the upcoming NFL season, but the trip back down seemed as interminable as the climb.
As we neared the lower Sphinx Lakes, thunder started sounding more regularly and rain sprinkled down more consistently. We took a very steep and direct route down the last stretch of talus and I picked up speed to get to the first stretch of tree cover before the rain got heavy enough to merit stowing my camera.
Shortly after Rafee joined me in the trees the rain let up and the thunder became more sporadic. We made our way back down the final forested bowls to get back to the trail and I managed to lead us along quite a horrible route, dense with pine trees. Most of the annoyance came from pushing through the dense undergrowth of dead pine branches for twenty or thirty feet at a time. Occasionally we happened across dead and dry trees, reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, seemingly holding on to their last red needles only so that they could be dropped on our heads at the slightest touch. I kept offering to let Rafee lead the way, as I was pretty sure there was no worse route than that I was choosing, but he patiently insisted on following.
Eventually we made it back to the trail around 6:30, which was pretty impressive timing as far as I was concerned. If we wanted to, we could probably jog the rest of the way and make it back to the car before dark! Rafee wasn’t interested in jogging though, and after such a long day on the trail, I didn’t want to ditch him so close to home.
After one last snack break we were back on our feet and headed back down the steep Avalanche Pass trail where we were rewarded with a breathtaking sunset. We made it all the way back to Bubbs Creek and part of the way back down to Kings Canyon before it was dark enough to don our headlamps again.
Just as we made it to the base of Kings Canyon, we passed a couple of backpackers who seemed to be sharing one headlamp between the two of them. In passing I made comment that “We’re almost back!” This was meant as much for my own psyche as for theirs.
Despite only being two (very flat) miles from the trailhead, this was my third time returning to Roads End after a long day up Bubbs Creek and I knew that these were the two longest miles I’ve hiked in the entirety of the Sierra Nevada. Flat, unremarkable, and sandy, Rafee and I wondered aloud why the road couldn’t have ended here instead.
An eternity later we arrived at the trailhead and found our cars. Rafee packed up quickly and hit the road, planning on making it all the way back to the bay area that night. I do not miss those days. I headed back to the pullout I’d slept in the night before, had dinner and quick bath in the Kings before passing out.
Elevation Gain: 9,500 ft