High Loop around Mt. Brewer

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cgundersen
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High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by cgundersen » Wed Jun 27, 2018 12:06 pm

Hi folks,
I'll append photos at the end of this lengthy discourse:

Living in the mayhem that is Los Angeles, the Sierra offers solitude on a grand scale. This is particularly true in June, when most backpackers are prepping their gear and waiting for the snow to melt. Being a WI boy, I love the white stuff and the cooler temperatures that tend to dominate in June. An added bonus is that one can usually beat the insect bloom. Two destinations were on the radar for my wife and me: Lyell Fork of the Merced (out of Agnew Meadows) or the Lake Reflection area via Kearsarge Pass (KP). Given lingering uncertainty about the status of the Devil’s Postpile road, we chose KP, and drove up to Lone Pine on June 13th. For reasons we could not quite fathom, the air quality (high particulates) in the Owens Valley was poor, but we were hopeful that the situation would improve up higher. Here’s how we fared:
We hit the road to Onion Valley before the sun came up and picked up a PCT hiker who was re-supplying in Independence. Carsten looked like someone who could clock 20 miles on trail before lunch without batting an eyelash. But, we made him promise to slow down a bit through the next sections of the Sierra. Good luck there…..Anyway, there were 18 vehicles in the hiker parking lot and two souls already ascending the trail ahead of us, so we expected a peaceful trek to KP. Wrong! It appears that Kearsarge has become a major re-supply route for PCTers, and given the word that there was heavy snow over Muir Pass, lots of through-hikers were bailing at Kearsarge. More than 50 folk were heading out as we headed in. The contrast between our labored efforts (carrying packs with 11 days worth of food) and these nimble kids was ridiculous. Still, KP is one of those wonderfully easy and familiar trails, and we had planned to camp shy of Bullfrog Lake, so it was not as if we were in a race.
Night 1 was spent with spectacular, long-range views of Mt.Brewer and “his” neighbors, but the particulate pollution we’d noticed the day before was still sullying the distant panorama. Fortunately, this situation changed by the morning of day 2 and we had crystal skies as we headed for Vidette canyon. Again, we encountered a steady trickle of PCTers and a couple folk doing the Rae Lakes loop, but not nearly the volume of hikers of day 1. Crossing Bubbs Creek turned out to be easier than expected, and fortunately the bugs were not too onerous as we ascended toward the first large lake in Vidette canyon. On previous trips through Vidette, we’d noticed that the lower, large lake had some nice campsites, whereas the upper lakes were less favorable. So, even though the bugs were at “low-nuisance” level, we quit hiking when we found a nice spot to park. If evening #1 was peaceful, evening #2 took it to another level. We were definitely a long way away from LA mayhem! And, the beginning of wildflower season added splashes of color to the hillsides.
Our goal on day 3 was to reach the moderately high lake on the western ridge of Vidette. It looked like a relatively easy climb on the map, but turned out to be more exhausting than expected. Nevertheless, we found a decent spot to park for the night and then turned our attention to the possibility that we might be able to get over the western ridge of Vidette into the East Lake-Lake Reflection basin. It did not take long to dismiss that fantasy. Thus, day 4 was going to be a punishing slog up to and over Deerhorn pass. The good news is that atmospheric conditions of the last few days had shifted, and the particulates that had been blunting the clarity of long-range views had moved elsewhere. Thus, by the time we reached the Deerhorn ridge, the views in both directions were sensational. Just sensational!
The semi-enclosed bowl formed by Deerhorn, Stanford, Gregory’s Monument, Ericsson and the crags is one of the Sierra’s gifts. Since I was last there, someone had cleaned out a nice tent spot in the shadow of a huge boulder that sits ~100 ft from the uppermost, small lake. It’s a superb campsite. And, the alpenglow on Stanford is as good as it gets in the mountains…… similar to the shows that develop on Mt. Brewer. We wound up spending 2 nights in that basin. But, one caveat: the snow filling Harrison pass looks like it will last through mid-July, and even then, Harrison is not an easy access route. Ditto for Ericsson col/pass. And, although old maps show a trail running down from this basin to connect with the trail between Reflection and East Lakes, I can assure you that only tiny remnants of that trail persist. Thus, we spent appreciably more time descending from this basin than expected. Yes, the flowers were becoming increasingly profuse, but navigation was more challenging.
As we descended toward Lake Reflection, the bug count increased as elevation decreased. During a DEET-application stop, we decided that it might be worth aiming for the little lakes below Milly’s foot pass (instead of continuing deeper into bug zone). However, because my one experience with Milly’s (30 years ago), scared the living daylights out of me, there was only one condition that would lead us to forge on: evidence that Milly’s might have enough snow to make a snow climb possible (rather than the slick, gravel-granite combo I’d encountered before). Sadly, the closer we got to Milly’s the clearer it became that there was no snow. And, after a long debate, we decided to track back to Lake Reflection and camp if there was enough breeze for the bug levels to remain tolerable.
To keep things succinct, we made the wrong decision. Mosquitoes own Lake Reflection. In fact, they own the entire hillside heading up to Longley pass. I think we made it up to an elevation about 1,800 ft above Lake Reflection and still had swarms of bugs pestering us. It was not pretty. Well, the flowers were amazing and the alpenglow was stunning, but we were so exhausted and had donated so much blood that it was hard to appreciate the surroundings. I have never been so thankful for the mosquito netting of our little REI tent!
We got going early the next morning and managed to avoid the worst of the bugs, but by the time we reached the lake below Longley pass, we were too indecisive to figure out how to proceed. Longley had a huge snow buttress with an imposing cornice. It might “go”, it might not. Another possibility was to head toward Thunder pass, but we were too drained to want to face the huge talus fields that precede that route. But, if the high routes were not an option, we’d have to re-trace our steps through bug hell. Hmmmmm? Since the bugs were tolerable, and there are good tent spots near the lake below Longley, we decided to rest up and figure out what to do the next morning.
Longley won the coin toss. We could not face going back into the heart-of-bug-darkness (yes, they literally darkened the sky). We could not face Thunder pass. And, a helicopter rescue seemed unlikely, because we do not carry a satellite phone (or a rescue beacon). The skinny explanation is that the 2 routes that looked vaguely plausible from below were “no-goes”. However, the catwalk below the snow buttress extended all the way over to a spot where the snow was not much taller than I am, and the cornice was minimal. I spent a couple hours cutting steps into the snow and pretty soon, we were dancing astride Longley. From there, it’s a relatively easy stroll to South Guard Lake, and we enjoyed a glorious evening of bug-free conditions and shimmering light on the adjacent peaks.
Once again, the route from South Guard over to Sphinx Lakes does not look too daunting on the topo maps, but with icy snowfields complicating matters, we did not reach the ridge into Sphinx basin till very late afternoon. When I’d last transited this area (autumn, 30 years ago), I’d remembered the route being a bit convoluted, but nothing too insidious (Rogue posted a nice description of this area in the HST off-trail passes section). And, except for one fluke accident, we’d have been fine. I have an ancient (external frame) pack that has aluminum supports for the hip belt. I was descending the uppermost snowfield into Sphinx basin when I slipped on an icy patch and the pack frame caught a chunk of my right bicep. Yes, bicep. It gouged out a silver-dollar chunk of flesh and left some nice red spots on the snow. Fortunately, no major vessels were affected, and a bandana made a nice tourniquet. Liberal ministrations of Neosporin continue to this moment.
The other sobering observation in the upper reaches of Sphinx basin was that as we were getting ready to pitch our tent, my wife pointed to an odd mound. It was fresh poop. At least, a kilo. Bear poop at ~12,000 ft. Wow! Glad we carry those bearikades!
The desultory final note is that I’d expected the descent to the Avalanche Pass trail to be a bit of a schlep, but it turned out to be far worse. It is among the most challenging bushwhacks I’ve ever done in the Sierra (and that includes climbing UP to Gardiner Lakes from Mist Falls). My recollections from 30 years ago were clearly off the mark, so we either chose the worst possible route, or conditions have deteriorated over time. It was a very sobering experience. And, an aching arm and level 4-5 bugs did not help. And, it was hotter than hades. Caveat emptor!
To say the least, we were fried by the time we got back to our car in Onion Valley. This trip had some amazing highlights, but it also shattered the illusion that June trips are cool, bug-free adventures in the pristine wilderness. Maybe, it’s time to plan May trips?
KP1.jpg
up deerhorn.jpg
DH.jpg
ericsson1.jpg
harrison alpenglow.jpg
to longley.jpg
LP1.jpg
longley.jpg
view from LP1.jpg
southguard.jpg
To avoid too many MB, I'll add a few more photos in a follow-up post.
Cameron
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Stanley Otter
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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by Stanley Otter » Wed Jun 27, 2018 6:17 pm

Cameron,
Thanks -- that's a very nice trip report. I love the "engineering" photo -- sets the scale very nicely. Did you bring/use traction and/or ice axe/whippet pole? I am headed out next week from your Wisconsin homeland (no longer the realm of snow it once was, at least in the southern half) to similar altitudes and conditions in Yosemite. Plus now the Lions Fire is part of my challenge -- do you think maybe the haze you observed could have been due to it? Seems far, but who knows? Hope your arm heals quickly.
Dennis
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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by cgundersen » Thu Jun 28, 2018 8:17 am

Hi Dennis,
We wear heavy (La Sportiva) boots that provide great snow traction, so we do not carry any other gear for snow. We could see smoke tendrils from the fire on the last couple days of our trip, but I think it was other crud sullying the skies before that. From my experience, you may want to re-think your route if the areas you're targeting are in the smoke plume. It is definitely NOT fun getting caught downwind of a big fire!
Cameron

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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by robertseeburger » Fri Jun 29, 2018 6:56 am

Great shots..
I had thought that on Longley Pass, when the cornice is bad, you can ascend the rocks to the right with it all class 2 except for one short class 3 pitch. Did you look at this and find it not ok? I have never been..but it is on my list and this is what I was considering.

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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by cgundersen » Fri Jun 29, 2018 8:48 am

Hi Robert,
Yes, on my only prior hop over Longley, the northern extreme was the way to go. But, when we were there last week, abundant snow was stacked above those rocks and it looked like a good ice climb. We were not in ice-climb mode! I'll be curious to hear how Levi, who is headed in that direction right now, fares. I'm pretty sure the steps I carved should render it passable for all but those with bad vertigo. Cameron
Last edited by cgundersen on Sat Jun 30, 2018 11:25 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by sekihiker » Fri Jun 29, 2018 10:17 am

Wow! That Longley cornice was impressive.

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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by maiathebee » Wed Jul 04, 2018 10:46 am

That Longley cornice! It was there (though not as bad) as late as August in 2016. I met a family with two kids (8 and 10 years old) who had come over it. O_o
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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by Ashery » Tue Jul 10, 2018 10:22 am

maiathebee wrote:That Longley cornice! It was there (though not as bad) as late as August in 2016. I met a family with two kids (8 and 10 years old) who had come over it. O_o
Popular place; I was there in late July '16, hah.

Here's a view from the top on July 23, 2016, looking towards the northern end of the cornice. I ended up turning around since I lacked both the equipment and skills to negotiate the cornice itself, as well as not feeling comfortable navigating around it.
P7230481s.jpg
Addressing cgundersen this time: I'm surprised you had so many issues coming down Sphinx Creek. I don't exactly recall it being trivially easy when I went up it back in '16, but I can only recall one bit of significant bushwhacking, and even at the time I quickly realized it was the result of poor micro-navigation. There might have been some other light bushwhacking when crossing the creek at various points, but nothing major enough to stick in my memory.
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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by cgundersen » Mon Jul 16, 2018 1:08 pm

Hi Ashery,
After starting a separate thread regarding the Sphinx Lakes route, I was left to conclude that we simply chose the wrong route option at every possible point. Like you, even though it was a long time ago, I had no substantive recollections of the route being anything but your usual creekside schlep. My wife was hardly impressed with my protestations and plans to do thorough research before following me into any similar terrain. my bad.
CG

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Re: High Loop around Mt. Brewer

Post by maverick » Mon Jul 16, 2018 1:13 pm

My wife was hardly impressed with my protestations and plans to do thorough research before following me into any similar terrain. my bad.
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I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

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