Ski Mountaineering

Skiing Mt Brewer
May 24-27, 2002

Reiner Stenzel

Mt Brewer is a prominent peak in the Great Western Divide. It is a desired SPS emblem peak and, according to Paul Richins, one of the 50 classic ski mountaineering peaks in California. Thus, the trip was scheduled as a joint SMS-SPS trip. It was co-led with an expert ski mountaineer from the San Diego Chapter, Alvin Walter. Our participant was Chris Guelich. A small group was expected due to the technical nature of the trip and the high effort factor (30 mi rt, 9,000' gain). The trip went very well, we summitted and skied the northwest face of Mt Brewer. Here are the details:

On Friday, 5/24, 6 am, we met at Roads End, Hwy 180, in Kings Canyon NP. Since it was the first day of the permit season we had to wait for the ranger to receive our wilderness permit and got off to a somewhat late start. It was a warm spring day, no snow in sight, and people were wondering about our heavy packs with skis poking out. At the peak of the snowmelt season the Kings River was a wild torrent and we were glad to have solid bridges at the junction with Bubbs Creek. From there the workout started with many switchbacks along Bubbs Creek. Coming out of the 5,000' Kings Canyon we had a fine view of The Sphinx and distant peaks with snow. We crossed gushing Bubbs Creek on another good bridge and headed up the Sphinx Creek trail. It climbs steeply with many switchbacks blasted into a rock wall. Where the trail crosses Sphinx Creek and turns west toward Avalanche Pass we began our cross-country route toward the Sphinx Lakes. It involved bush whacking, stream crossings, struggling through avalanche debris, climbing through mixed rock and snow terrain, i.e., the usual XC fun. By 5 pm we had enough and made camp on dry ground in a forested area next to the creek below the lowest Sphinx Lke. It was pleasantly warm, a full moon lit up the night, and no bears took our food.

On Saturday, 5/25, at first sunlight, we continued our uphill battle which became easier as the snow patches grew and the forest thinned out. Above the lowest Sphinx Lke (9,700') the snow became continuous and we finally could ski. Ascending several snow covered slopes brought us to the main Sphinx Lakes which were still mostly frozen over (10,500'). Near the open inlets the trout were jumping. The Sphinx Lakes area is very scenic. It is surrounded to the west by the steep walls of the Sphinx Crest and to the east by the Great Western Divide. Vast untouched snow fields offer endless skiing opportunities. We proceeded south to Lke 10,962' where Chris requested to camp since his feet were badly hurting from the long hike in tight ski boots.

The campsite on dry rock next to the lake with trees was perfect but still too far from our goal, Mt Brewer. Alvin and I continued while Chris agreed to wait for our return the next day. We ascended 0.5 mi southwest to corniced Pass 12,000' (UTM 11365850E, 4063700N). From there one has a full view of Mt Brewer, North Guard and many peaks in the Great Western Divide. The lakes below in the Brewer Creek drainage were still frozen and the north facing slopes had excellent snow coverage. We enjoyed a few nice turns down the pass but stayed high and contoured around a ridge into the cirque between North Guard and Brewer.

At 5 pm we made camp in a flat spot at about 12,000' near rocks with running snow melt water (UTM 11366575E, 4063611N). It had become cloudy and windy and we were getting ready for a chilly night in my bivy and no tent for Alvin. Mt Brewer and North Guard were soon covered by descending clouds and it was not obvious whether we could make the peak next morning.

A nature call by midnight still showed the summits in a whiteout illuminated by a diffuse full moon. On Sunday, 5/26, 5 am, we got up to a clear sky, a nice surprise. The moisture in the air left everything rimed. After some hot food and drinks we packed our ski and climbing tools and cramponed up toward the saddle between Brewer and North Guard. There was an obvious chute on the northwest side of Brewer which was filled with snow. A major wet snow avalanche had run down the chute making it less than an ideal skiing terrain. We cramponed up the chute on mostly hard snow except near the top where I encountered hollow snow near rocks. Luckily I did not break through where the depth of the holes exceeded the length of the ski poles. After reaching the ridge it was a short traverse to the summit block. A cl 3 move got us to the peak register located in a crack of the summit boulder at 13,577'. It was a pleasure to sign in as the first party in 2002. We enjoyed the wonderful summit views in the morning sun. One could see from the White Mtns to the San Joaquin Valley, from Whitney to Goddard and identify many familiar peaks. Unexpectedly, Brewer's easier south face still had more snow coverage than the steeper northwest face. After a snack and taking many pictures it was time to descend by 10 am. The upper north facing chute was still without sun. It was breakable crust on a soft base, not exactly ideal for telemarking. But it was handled with jump turns, a few at a time at the elevation of 13,000'. In the middle of the chute parallel turns worked best and further down where the sun had softened the snow it was telemarking at its best. We left many tracks on the north side of Brewer which were visible for a long distance. Back at camp we packed, snacked, and then skinned up to Pass 12,000' which we reached by noon.

In the distance we spotted Chris and vice versa. Telemarking down the pass on soft spring snow was wonderful but still a workout with full packs. We regrouped with Chris, shared our adventures, and started our descent by 1:30 pm. Many fine turns were left on the slopes as we skied past the Sphinx Lakes to the snow line at 9,500'. Then we struggled carefully through rocks with breakable snow patches, through the forest where we got temporarily separated, crossed Sphinx Creek on slippery logs and finally reached the trail by 4 pm. Afternoon thunderstorms were brewing and we heard the rumble and had light rainfall. With the last energy we kept going down the steep Sphinx Creek trail to Bubbs Creek where there are fine campsites and a bear box. We washed up in the river, cooked, had a campfire, talked late into the night and slept under the stars and full moon.

On Monday, 5/27, we got up leisurely and hiked out by 8 am. It was sunny, beautiful spring weather, and a pleasant 4 mi hike down along the rivers. When returning from the high country of snow and rocks one appreciates the scent of the trees, the fresh green leaves, flowers and singing birds in the valleys. At Roads End we dropped our heavy gear, refreshed, chatted with visitors, and finally started our long drive home. We left with the feeling that it was a great end-of-the-season ski trip with good friends. My special thanks to Alvin for co-leading this trip.  

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