With my climbing partner bailing for an involuntary deep cleanse (i.e. probable stomach flu), I suddenly had some days to fill. While I am contemplating one or two big and semi-technical east side projects this season, I soon realized I was too burnt-out to try them. Perhaps a change of scenery would help. One frustrating drive through Yosemite later (dear LA-based Korean tourbus driver who ignores 25 miles of pullouts on a windy road: go die in a fire), I was on the west side, ready to try some less-technical sufferfests.
The first item of business was finishing off the northern end of the Great Western Divide, from South Guard north to Cross. Day-hiking the Guards and Brewer was reputed to be hard, but it’s not: Carl Heller and Ed Lane (!) traversed the three peaks in about 3 hours back in the 60s, the approach is straightforward and pleasant, and the first 6 miles of it, on a maintained trail, are easily done by headlamp. Continuing to Farquhar and Cross adds some trickiness, but also cuts off some distance.
After driving to Road’s End from my pester-free campsite in the National Forest, I hit the trail at 4:15. Traveling in a south-going valley in the western Sierra at this time of year, that means about two hours of headlamp, and four or more before sunrise. After some time on the “familiar” Bubbs Creek trail — I have only seen it at night — I turned off toward Avalanche Pass. While large sections use the hateful “boxes of sharp rubble” construction method, I could mostly walk on the edge of the boxes. As the trail rose above Sphinx Creek, I enjoyed an impressive view of the Sphinx silhouetted in the dawn.
I crossed the dribbling remnant of Sphinx Creek around 6:40, and left the maintained trail (which nearly disappears) to follow bits of use trail south along the creek. The valley is long, but very pleasant for cross-country travel, with flat wooded or lake-containing benches alternating with slab-and-boulder steps. I felt my first direct sunlight of the day near Sphinx Lakes, at 10,500′.
After switching to full daytime mode — sun-glasses, -hat, and -screen — I continued up the valley between Sphinx Crest and North Guard’s huge west ridge, past more lakes and an impressive spire, to the saddle with the Brewer Creek drainage. Here I finally got my first view of Mount Brewer’s unfamiliar west side, and some impressive cliffs on the ridge south of Brewer Creek. I lost a bit of the 7,000+ feet of elevation I had gained so far in crossing the basin, then regained them to reach an amazingly clear lake below South Guard.
I climbed South Guard the hard way, gaining the saddle with Brewer, then traversing along the endless-seeming ridge. Finally taking out my map, I learned that the summit is the point on the very southern end. Oops. Reaching the summit 6h45 from Road’s End, I saw Heller and Lane’s time for the traverse, giving me both an estimate of how long my day might be, and (inevitably) something to try to beat.
Returning to the saddle, I saved some time by following benches below the ridge to the west. While fast, this way was also loose, and I both scraped the backs of my legs when a large block decided to be elsewhere than where I was standing on it, and whacked my perma-bruised right ankle on a small talus plate. From the saddle, Brewer, so striking from the east, is just an easy boulder hop. I climbed several pillars on the top, including what I later learned was the summit block, but missed the register.
North Guard both looks like and is a more challenging climb. After descending loose junk to the saddle, I followed the main gully up its southwest side, then trended right rather than following the loose stuff to the ridge as Secor recommends. Things got 5th class on some fins near the top, but it worked, and I reached the summit faster than Lane and Heller. After climbing out on the proudly overhanging summit phallus, I sat down with a snack to consider my options.
The ridge to Farquhar was clearly too long and difficult, so I would have to drop down to one side or the other. Dropping east would both take me away from “home” and require downclimbing the supposedly-4th-class north ridge and northeast face and crossing the ridge north of Ouzel Creek. I decided to follow the west ridge and look for a way to drop down its north side. After descending a bit, though, I realized this would not be possible, and I would have to go around to the head of Sphinx Creek, then climb the standard route up Farquhar. Since I knew I would just give up and head home if I did this, I though for a few minutes, then returned to the summit to try the other side.
Improbably, the north ridge and east face downclimb was probably no harder than 4th class, but the exceptionally loose and rotten rock added a bit of danger. After traversing north, then east past one bump, I found more loose class 3-4 downclimbing into the drainage southeast of Farquhar. From there, Farquhar was a boring but easy walk and boulder hop; one short Ministry album later, I was on top.
After a bit of tricky route-finding getting past the first few ribs and gullies north, and after giving my ankle a final, extra-hard whack, I hobbled over to Cross, then dropped back to Sphinx Lakes. On easy ground once again, I felt a new burst of energy, running most of the trail and some of the easier cross-country to reach the car in 14h55 — no evening headlamp required.
One of the few cars left in the lot contained a woman (Isabella?) waiting for a friend running the Rae Lakes Loop. He had planned to take 10 hours — a very fast time, I think — and was already late by a couple of hours; exasperatingly, he apparently had no headlamp or garbage bag for a bivy, and there was no moon. Since there is no cell service at Road’s End, I gave her a ride in my nasty home-on-wheels to Cedar Grove, where there was also no service, and the normally-bad internet connection was down for the night. Having exhausted my “helpful” useless flailing options, I took her back to her car to sleep/worry. Hopefully the guy shiver-bivvied and made it out in the morning.
On being recognized
Since starting this weblog, and especially since doing the 14er record, I have expected and dreaded being recognized on the trail by people I don’t know. That finally happened the other day on Independence Peak, where I arrived to meet a man who had come up the standard route. I handed him the register after signing it and, when he saw my name, he immediately shook my hand, having read the weblog. Once my initial self-conscious awkwardness wore off, we had a long and pleasant summit conversation.
Of course, the number of humans who read this, climb mountains, and are not my parents is vanishingly small. Though she knew or knew of many active California ultra runners and peak-baggers, the woman I talked to at Road’s End, like most people I meet on the trail, didn’t know me from a hole in the ground.