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TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

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TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby TehipiteTom » Wed Sep 05, 2012 4:02 pm

My planned route was a circumnavigation of Sphinx Crest: Road's End to Upper Sphinx Creek to Sphinx Lakes, over Sphinx Col to Big Brewer Lake, then over to the Avalanche Pass trail and out again. The design of the trip was driven by a single location...where I ended up spending about an hour. But more about that later.

Sunday morning I left at the cracko and got up to Kings Canyon a little after 11:30. At Moraine Campground I found my friends Lou and Tony and Tony's friend Davie, from Scotland; they were all leaving Tuesday for a 9-day trip over the Monarch Divide, and meanwhile hanging in the valley and fishing the South Fork Kings. I got my permit and spent the rest of the day at the campsite, drinking beer and swapping stories.

Next morning I was up a little after 5:00, and was on the trail at Road's End a little after 6:30. At the trailhead was a sign saying fire had closed the Woods Creek stretch of trail (from Paradise to the bridge); bummer for all those people getting Rae Lakes Loop permits yesterday.

Five minutes down the trail I reached into my shirt pocket and...no map. Back in the car. So I dropped my pack at the permit station and went back to the car for my maps. At about 6:50 I was on the trail again, this time for good.

I made good time on the first leg, getting to Sphinx Creek junction in just under 2 hours. Early start is key here: I was in nice cool shade until just after the Bubbs Creek switchbacks. Encouraged by the good start, I started up the Avalanche Pass trail toward Sphinx Creek.

Can I just say how much I hate this trail? (A lot, is how much, in case you were wondering.) You take a trail like the Copper Creek Trail (which is often unfairly maligned): you can plod up, and cruise down. Copper Creek Trail, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and sooner or later you'll get somewhere. The trail up Sphinx Creek, though, those rocky switchbacks, it's impossible to get into any kind of a decent rhythm going up or [SPOILER] down. I found that stretch really enervating, and my pace was maybe half what it had been on the first leg.

Then you get above the cut-into-the-rock switchbacks and you're on more or less normal trail, and you get into the switchbacks climbing away from Sphinx Creek. Which, you do a few switchbacks, right, and then you start to hear the side creek approaching--the side creek that you cross once you've reached the top of the switchbacks--and you're almost to the creek and then suddenly the trail doubles back. Another switchback. And then another and another and another and another, and they're really long switchbacks, and every single time the trail gets almost to the creek so you think maybe this time and then at the last moment your hopes are dashed. Around the upmteenth time this happened I just shouted "are you f***ing SERIOUS?" at the trail.

The trail did not respond.

I dragged myself into Upper Sphinx Creek a little after noon. There's one campsite right by the creek, a little upstream from the crossing, and another back in the woods west of the creek and north of the trail. I took this one. It's not a particularly attractive spot--lots of down trees everywhere--but after 3500' of climb I certainly didn't have the juice to go any further that day.

(If someone forced me to at gunpoint, I might admit that I could have been in better shape, and that I'm not as young as I used to be. But nobody's holding a gun to my head right now, so I'm not admitting that.)

So I spent the afternoon reading (War and Peace, which I last read more than a quarter century ago), with a couple of strolls out to the meadow to try to figure out the next day's route.

Around 8:00 pm, as I was taking another stroll, I ran into a hiker just arriving from below. We chatted briefly; he described a route that sounded like the Circle of Solitude, but with an eastern entry. It wasn't until after I had gone back to my site that I remembered someone here was doing a route like that; turns out the hiker was Schmalz.

Next morning I slept in until nearly 6:00 am, and didn't get on the trail until 7:10.

Above the trail, Sphinx Creek goes through a series of stepped hanging valleys. The first riser presents a particulary ugly prospect: the west side is one big talus slope, the east side is steep and rocky, and in between near the stream it's all rocky and willow-choked. I followed an intermittent trail remnant along the western edge of the meadow; at the head of the meadow, it appeared to point straight into that willow hell. Didn't look appealing, but it didn't look any less appealing than the alternatives, so I tried it.

Turns out there's a pretty clear way up a little west of the stream that isn't apparent when you're looking from a distance. (General tip for Sphinx Creek basin: if you find a trail remnant, follow it; it never steered me wrong.) Once up this it's slabs and open forest (with smokey views back toward the valley) for a little ways. I got a little above the second valley, thinking maybe I could keep traversing upslope, but that's more trouble than it's worth and I wound up dropping back to near creek level.

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The forest & undergrowth get thicker as you get further into the second valley, and there's a wet jungle-ish stretch just before the next climb. Best bet is to bypass as much of this as possible by staying on the right (west), then traverse up the slopes to the right to get to the next level. Then it's fairly easy slopes up to the first lake.

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The swampy area on the map looks like a nice green meadow but it is, in fact, swampy, so as tempting as a shortcut looks it's better to go around it on the west. That sets you up for a nice gentle climb up the slabs, meeting up with the creek again and crossing it somewhere around the 10000' contour.

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I got to the second lake and then ended up backtracking slightly; the shortest way is to veer northeast just before you reach the lake. That takes you into a nice valley that leads east and up above the lake (and above the cliffs on the east side). You get to a meadowy flat around 10160 or so; here you want to veer right (south) to the low-angle slabs at the far side of the meadow. These slabs take you all the way to Lake 10514.

I set up camp in a little whitebark-and-foxtail grove a north of the western end of the lake, looking out on the lower Sphinx Creek basin and over to the Monarch Divide. (There are some really magnificent foxtail pines at Sphinx Lakes.) Couple of marmots spent a while checking me out, coming in closer than marmots usually do. Marmots are at their most hilarious when they're trying to be all stealthy and invisible. One was watching me from a crack in a boulder about 5 feet away and I just stared straight back at it. You aren't fooling me, adorable rodent!

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But just in case, I hung my pack from a whitebark branch. Chewed packstraps are generally considered sub-optimal.

Later in the afternoon I took a walk over to Lake 10546. Right by the outlet there was a beautiful patch of Sierra Columbine.

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Later still, after dinner, I watched the peaks turn orange-pink in the alpenglow.

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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby TehipiteTom » Wed Sep 05, 2012 4:37 pm

Next morning there were some high clouds at dawn--pretty in pink, but suggestive of possible ugliness later on. I was packed up and on the trail around 6:30.

The first part was pretty clear, based on my recon the day before: head up to Lake 10546, cross the outlet stream, and keep going straight up the slopes to the southeast.

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After the initial climb I angled south while still gaining elevation, and I ended up around 11100' on the ridgelet north of Lake 10962.

From there it looked like a good ledge/ramp system would take me around to the next bench up without my having to drop any elevation. In practice it was a little more complicated than that, and I probably would have been better off coming out in the valley below Lake 10962 and following that up. But it did go, and I made my way up to the tarn at 11320+.

Here's where it got ugly. From the tarn up to the pass it's a whole lot of big-block talus, relieved only occasionally by bits of solid ground. Looking up to the pass I had one of those whose brilliant idea was this? moments, and I was briefly tempted to bag it and spend the rest of the trip in Sphinx basin. But I started up the long talus slog.

And along the way, in compensation for my toil, were the most gorgeous displays of Sierra Columbine I've ever seen. Lots of them. Amazing what a difference a flower can make in one's attitude.

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And I wound up making progress.

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I got to Sphinx Col around 10 am--nearly two hours on the talus alone. But I did make it.

I had heard that the south side was easier, but looking down I realized that's just compared to the big block talus on the north side. It's still steep--doable via a system of ramps and ledges, but you still had to step carefully. Not exactly slacking-off type terrain.

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I aimed for a little above the head of the tarn below the pass, then crossed the talus-choked gully leading down to the tarn. My original intention had been to climb Brewer, and a little past here would have been the place to start...but after the big talus slog, I just didn't have the juice for another 2000' of climbing--even without a pack. (The increasing cloud layer didn't exactly encourage me.) So instead I started an angled descent of the slopes to the southeast.

Here's where I sort of blew it. I should have wound up in the Brewer Creek drainage; instead, I ended up in the valley on the other side of point 11560+. (The descent seemed pretty straightforward, and I wasn't checking my map as often as I should have.) I realized my mistake when I was dropping from the valley down toward Big Brewer Lake and it started getting steeper than I liked. I found a way to angle south off the steep stuff and into the Brewer Creek valley, and then I was fine. Would have been easier if I hadn't made the mistake in the first place, though.

Once at lake level it's pretty straightforward. There's one place where you have to climb a bit to avoid cliffs, and then again near the outlet there's another bit you have to climb over, but nothing too major.

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I set up camp below the outlet and south of the outlet stream, at a site sheltered by whitebarks and equipped with perfect cooking rocks.

Over the course of the afternoon it contined to cloud over, the kind of overcast that looks more like a front than just an afternoon thundershower--like the kind of miserable weather that could last for days. So I set up the tent and battened down the hatches and prepared to hunker down when the rain started, and started thinking about exit strategies if it got ugly and stayed that way.

But as threatening as it kept looking, it also kept not raining. So I spent the afternoon outside my tent, reading and taking short strolls around the area.

By dinner time it was still overcast but still hadn't rained. I had been hoping for some good alpenglow on Brewer--I had heard it described as possibly the best spot for alpenglow in the Sierra, what with the unimpeded line-of-sight all the way down to the Central Valley--but as time wore on without a break in the clouds I got less and less hopeful. Between that and the prospect of bad weather, I was able to work myself into a pretty crappy mood. Finally, I figured there was no point hanging around in the cold any longer, and went into the tent to read.

Maybe 10 or 15 minutes later I happened to look up from the book to see my tent wall lit with an intense golden light. I grabbed my camera and leapt out of the tent barefoot and started snapping away like a madman. It. Was. Spectacular. I lingered until the last of the light was gone, soaking in the most amazing alpenglow I think I've ever seen. Goodbye, bad mood. That's how it goes sometimes.

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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby balzaccom » Wed Sep 05, 2012 5:11 pm

Great stuff! I share your "appreciation" for that trail. I also remember that as you approach Avalanche Pass from the north side, you seem to be on a perfect parabola...each step seems to be leading to the crest...but it just keeps going up, at a slightly less steep grade. Very frustrating.

Happily, it leads to some great country
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby The Other Tom » Wed Sep 05, 2012 5:20 pm

Thanks for posting. Really like the last photo. Always remember rule #1 :)
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby fourputt » Wed Sep 05, 2012 5:35 pm

Great report and fantastic pix (says Lou of the Morraine campground trio).

Davie taught us the difference between Speyside and Islay whisky, and I've since aquired a taste for peat-based beverages.
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby Shawn » Wed Sep 05, 2012 10:04 pm

Man that's a great TR. Call me demented, but I've become a bit fond of those endless granite steps after a few travels up and down them.
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby schmalz » Thu Sep 06, 2012 9:40 am

Great trip report so far, I assume there is more to come :)

I caught that amazing Alpenglow at Colby Lake and it was the highlight of my summer. An amazing sight for sure. I'll get around to putting together my trip report eventually. Reading yours reminded me of that great week.
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby Electra » Thu Sep 06, 2012 10:04 am

Love this area and the various loops and variations one can do in the general Brewer area. None easy, but all well worth it, frustrating trail switchbacks and all. There is a great wall in the area below Brewer to the NW for those who enjoy backcountry bouldering.

War and Peace is a worthy carry Tom!

Shawn, always good memories of our meeting out there.
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby SSSdave » Thu Sep 06, 2012 10:57 am

tt >>"By dinner time it was still overcast but still hadn't rained. I had been hoping for some good alpenglow on Brewer--I had heard it described as possibly the best spot for alpenglow in the Sierra, what with the unimpeded line-of-sight all the way down to the Central Valley--but as time wore on without a break in the clouds I got less and less hopeful. Between that and the prospect of bad weather, I was able to work myself into a pretty crappy mood. Finally, I figured there was no point hanging around in the cold any longer, and went into the tent to read.

Maybe 10 or 15 minutes later I happened to look up from the book to see my tent wall lit with an intense golden light. I grabbed my camera and leapt out of the tent barefoot and started snapping away like a madman. It. Was. Spectacular. I lingered until the last of the light was gone, soaking in the most amazing alpenglow I think I've ever seen. Goodbye, bad mood. That's how it goes sometimes."


Cloud underlit setting sunset light together with a clean dry cold atmosphere with little water vapour can produce most saturated orange reds alpenglow. During Sierra summer thunderstorm weather, main towering anvil thunderheads and cumulous often are over crest areas with a scattered thinner cloud deck gradually decreasesing off to the west until out in the valley where there may be no clouds at all. From Crest areas despite the Earth's curvature, one can still see line of sight to the top of Coast Range peaks far to the west. As the sun altitude lowers, up at crest areas, light may only be dim or with scattered warm light peaking through to a few high clouds above. However DO NOT GIVE UP! Because when the sun gets BELOW that white cloud deck, light is funneled along that surface instead of spreading out so when it reaches high peaks is more intense. The thunderstorms often clean the air and the dynamics of their winds brings in cold dry air behind them from the upper atmosphere. The final element is happenstance of clean dry air over the Central Valley. Because of moist cool marine air coming in from the Pacific, our atmosphere's to the west are more often than not hazy. Add to that pollutants and the result even when cloud underlit does occur, it is more likely to be muted. However it is worth the gamble to be set up and ready for those of us that spend considerable days in those mountains and are photographers, because one can expect the phenomenon to occur sometimes.

Otherwise like so many these days taking the short cut, one looking at muted warm light of raw images on their computer monitor are likely to <CTRL-U> jack up that Saturation slider to the limits of believability.
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby TehipiteTom » Thu Sep 06, 2012 12:55 pm

Thanks, all! Yes, there is one more installment, as soon as I get around to finishing it.

I also remember that as you approach Avalanche Pass from the north side, you seem to be on a perfect parabola...each step seems to be leading to the crest...but it just keeps going up, at a slightly less steep grade. Very frustrating.

Spoiler alert! ;)

Davie taught us the difference between Speyside and Islay whisky, and I've since aquired a taste for peat-based beverages.

Davie's a great guy--wish I could have spent more time. But I did really enjoy hanging with y'all that day.

War and Peace is a worthy carry Tom!

Heh...I had to make sure I didn't run out of reading material (always a consideration, especially on a solo trip). I was actually in the middle of Against the Day (Pynchon), but that was 8 oz. heavier than War & Peace, so I switched for this trip.
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby windknot » Thu Sep 06, 2012 1:10 pm

Thanks so much for taking the time to write up this highly entertaining report. Felt like I was right there with you. The pictures are great, and that alpenglow is of course amazing.
A few backcountry fishing pictures: http://wanderswithtrout.wordpress.com/
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Re: TR: Sphinx Crest Loop 7/16 - 7/20 2012

Postby SweetSierra » Thu Sep 06, 2012 3:21 pm

Thanks as well and echo that it was very entertaining. I liked your sense of humor and grinned at your description of the marmot and its desire to appear stealthy while standing in the clear light of day. So true! They can do whatever they want, cuties that they are. :nod: (Except eat my backpack.)
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