My last time on Mount Brewer was nearly five years ago and I’ve been thinking about a return to this prominent summit. Set apart from the main crest of the Sierra Nevada along the northern end of the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer’s lofty perch at 13,570 ft offers an astounding view that was very memorable and I was eager to return. In 2010 the route to Brewer’s summit was a fairly uninteresting as an out-and-back via the Sphinx Lakes region and the Avalanche Gulch Trail. It was in September and there were still snow patches as 2010 was the last above average year of snowfall in the High Sierra. This year there was virtually no snow to be found anywhere. In 2010 there was also a fire in Kings Canyon; the Sheep Fire. There would also be a fire in 2015, the Rough Fire, which was still in its nascent stages at the time of this trip but would later become a much larger and more unpredictable fire, ultimately becoming one of the largest fires in the Southern Sierra Nevada history. This year’s visit to Mount Brewer would include linking up a few additional summits along the northern end of the Great Western Divide – North Guard, South Guard and Sky Pilot Peak – tying it together with an aesthetic loop including Lake Reflection, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. North Guard was particularly intriguing to me with its sharp, rugged profile and reputation for fun scrambling. The loop came in around 36 miles with over 12,000 ft of elevation gain. Strava GPS route here. The day started out along the familiar sandy path from Road’s End and up the switchbacks to the Avalanche Pass Trail. The ascent is quite steep at first with several sections of rock steps, but overall an efficient trail to get into the high country fast. I left the trail where it crosses the creek and headed up cross country through open woodland and granite slabs to the Sphinx Lakes, which are nice but nothing special my opinion. Beyond the Sphinx Lakes is a section of talus up to a pass but it seemed easier than 2010 or maybe I’ve just gotten used to efficiently moving on talus. Around the corner Mount Brewer finally makes an appearance, but I first curved north toward North Guard. The class 3 route up North Guard requires careful attention to route finding to keep it class 3. The route starts with steepening slabs and then short cross-over into a hanging sandy gully with more slabs up to the west ridge of North Guard. The final stretch of climbing along the West Ridge is classic Sierra scrambling with solid blocky rocks. The actual summit is a large overhanging rock. The north face of North Guard is a sheer drop to the Sphinx Lakes basin. I found the view from North Guard to be just as good as Mount Brewer with excellent clarity on this day. I particularly enjoyed the view to Charlotte Dome and Bubbs Creek Wall. I retraced my route up North Guard and then traversed to Mount Brewer which is largely a class 2 scramble up its north slopes. I was soon atop Brewer enjoying the 360 panorama once more. To connect Brewer with South Guard one must descend the south slopes of Brewer which start off with cumbersome talus but finishes with a fun stretch of plunge stepping in loose gravel. From the basin between South Guard and Brewer I took a ramp and class 3 face up to South Guard’s ridge and after a ridge walk I ultimately reached the summit, which is rather nondescript and only slightly taller than surrounding rock outcroppings along the ridge. From South Guard down to Longley Pass is a quick trip thanks to more plunge stepping but I wasn’t done with summits yet. Sky Pilot Peak is located immediately south of Longley Pass and while it’s not a high mountain compared to its neighbors, it has an exceptionally rugged profile when viewed from the east, especially from the Lake Reflection region. As I’ve been to the area many times, Sky Pilot’s striking east face has always been of interest. The peak’s apt name is attributed to the many Sky Pilot flowers growing on its summit ridge. Indeed, I found copious Sky Pilots, perhaps more than anywhere I’ve seen in the Sierra. Sky Pilot Peak is largely a class 2 scramble until one reaches a notch in the ridge, which requires a class 3 downclimb before resuming the final climb to the summit. I couldn’t find a summit register on Sky Pilot Peak manifesting that this is an infrequently climbed point, but I definitely hope to return in the future since the view looking down toward Lake Reflection is extraordinary. Some cumulus was building overhead creating some dappling on the terrain and lakes beneath the east face which only served to enhance the magic of this special view. After a long stay on Sky Pilot I returned to Longley Pass and then began the somewhat arduous and long descent to Lake Reflection. I did a pretty good job navigating until I got to the shores of Lake Reflection where I got turned around by steep slabs at a couple spots but finally made it to the outlet of the lake where I took a long break and enjoyed the view. Despite the added mileage of descending to Lake Reflection I wouldn’t want to do this link-up as an out-and-back – the scenery around Lake Reflection is that good! From Lake Reflection it was all trail down to East Lake with views of Mount Bago in early evening and then a trail run on the Bubbs Creek Trail back to Road’s End to complete the aesthetic loop.
Mount Ericsson and Mount Genevra are two points along the rugged and immensely scenic Kings-Kern Divide which is a high barrier between the Kern River watershed and the Kings River watershed, two of the three important watersheds in the Southern High Sierra (the other being the Kaweah River). The point separating these three watersheds is aptly-named Triple Divide Peak along the Great Western Divide, which I visited last year. The Kings-Kern divide also serves to connect the Sierra Crest with the Great Western Divide and marks the border between Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. Foerster Pass, the highest point along the Pacific Crest Trail at over 13,000 feet, is the only trail that crosses the Kings-Kern Divide, although there are a number of other cross country passes of varying difficulty. I have spent quite a bit of time in this area. In 2009 I did an aesthetic loop crossing through Milly’s Foot Pass to visit Upper Kern Basin and Lake Reflection for the first time. Last year, I climbed Mount Stanford, the highest point on the Kings-Kern Divide via Harrison Pass. On this trip I gained the divide via a little known route from Lake Reflection and then climbed Mount Ericsson. I then traversed the upper reaches of Kern Basin to Mount Genevra and descended Milly’s Foot Pass back to Lake Reflection, a jewel of the High Sierra. The route also included passage by lovely East Lake. GPS route here.While numerous cross country passes cross the Kings-Kern Divide, perhaps the second easiest route over the divide (after the Foerster Pass trail) is not a pass at all but a little known route over a high shoulder east of Lake Reflection, an unnamed point I like to call “Reflection Point”. This route takes an efficient class 2 avalanche chute all the way up and over the divide, lacking the unstable talus, scree and sand of the nearby passes, including Harrison Pass, Lucy’s Foot Pass, and Milly’s Foot Pass. More importantly, the Reflection Point route affords astounding views of Lake Reflection the Great Western Divide for its entire length. Mount Brewer and the Guards rise sharply above Lake Reflection with granite virtually everything in sight. A high shoulder marks the top of the chute where the climber is steps away from Reflection Point and a marvelous view that is better than most named summits. The south side of the pass is an easy descent into Kern Basin on gravel and meadows. The key to the Reflection Point route is finding the correct chute since more difficult terrain lies nearby and technical terrain is not much further. Once in the chute, the terrain is mostly slabs all the way up (make sure to stay in the central wide chute) and goes as class 2 the entire way. On this day I used this route to access Mount Ericsson, centrally located on the Kings-Kern Divide with an excellent 360 degree view including the entire Sierra crest from the Palisades to Mount Whitney and the Great Western Divide from North Guard to Milestone Mountain. Once at the top of the route, it’s an easy stroll down to the top of Lucy’s Foot Pass with stunning views of the jagged Ericsson Crags.
At Lucy’s Foot Pass, you’re at the base of Mount Ericsson which goes as a class 2 talus slog with a little bit of class 3 at the top. Mount Ericsson’s central location affords an amazing view of the entire southern Sierra. Ericsson’s most distinctive feature is its serpentine south ridge with numerous rocky ribs extending deep into Kern Basin. Of the sea of peaks surrounding Mount Ericsson, the closest and easiest is Mount Genevra across the upper reaches of Kern Basin. Mount Genevra also happens to be above Milly’s Foot Pass which provides passage through the Kings-Kern Divide back to Lake Reflection. Milly’s Foot Pass includes a sketchy 3rd class chute at the top where one must be cautious of kitty litter over the rocks, especially while descending. The remainder of the descent from Milly’s to Lake Reflection involves plenty of arduous talus, but there are some pretty alpine tarns midway down the descent. While Mount Genevra is much lower than Ericsson, its position provides very nice views to the Mount Whitney region and the Great Western Divide. My favorite angle was down the East Creek drainage including Mount Bago towering above East Lake. Perhaps the most endearing location on this route is Lake Reflection, one of the greatest gems in the Sierra. While I have visited Lake Reflection twice before, this was my first time for early morning light to see the exquisite reflections for which this lake is named. The early morning reflections did not disappoint and some new snow lining the cliffs of Mount Genevra and Mount Jordan only added to the tremendous setting. East Lake, located a couple miles before Lake Reflection, is also an excellent destination with beautiful views and reflections. It’s about 11 miles to Junction Meadow along the Bubbs Creek Trail. At the meadows, turn right onto the East Lake Trail which shortly crosses Bubbs Creek (can be hazardous in early season) and then begins and ascent to East Lake, reaching East Lake about 13.5 miles from Road’s End. After East Lake the trail becomes faint in spots manifesting the lack of visitation to this region, but the idea is to generally follow the watercourse upstream and in a couple miles the outlet of Lake Reflection is reached. At first glance, Lake Reflection might seem small, but this is only the outlet bay. A few meters away lies a log jam and views of the expansive alpine lake. GPS route here.
Despite an exceptionally dry winter with a meager snowpack there was still substantial snow on northern aspects above 10,000 feet in the first weekend of June. For my first weekend in the High Sierra in 2014 I decided to go for some exceptional viewpoint peaks that would be virtually snow-free and thus preclude carrying ice axe and/or microspikes for the long approach out of Road’s End in Kings Canyon. Joey Cassidy and Michael Jimenez joined me for this memorable run on a picturesque late spring day. The objectives were Mount Bago and Mount Rixford, both in the area near Kearsarge Pass but west of the Sierra Crest. Both peaks are much more easily accessed via Onion Valley on the eastside, but I’ve come to enjoy the run up the relatively lush environs of the glacier-carved Bubbs Creek canyon and the incredibly scenic section above Vidette Meadows.
One would not expect such a marvelous view from Bago’s statistics – only 11,870 ft in elevation with a straightforward scramble on its north and east side – but the panorama is truly astounding. Perched above Bago’s precipitous cliffs that tumble nearly 4,000 ft vertically to Junction Meadows, one gazes over to the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide, one of the most rugged sections of the High Sierra. The highlight is the view of East Creek canyon to East Lake and Lake Reflection with towering, jagged summits surrounding the canyon like an amphitheater. I spent a full hour on the summit of Bago relishing the stellar vista with Joey and Michael. After Bago I crossed the basin to climb the south slopes of Mount Rixford. The sandy and loose slopes were rather unaesthetic for an ascent, but the views more than compensated. From Rixford’s south slopes, Bullfrog Lake is ideally nestled with an awesome background of the Kearsarge Pinnacles, East Viddette, Deerhorn Mountain and West Vidette. The views grow wider as one ascends up Rixford, providing inspiration in what is otherwise a slog. Upon reaching the summit of Rixford I was treated to a great view to the north and west, including the Rae Lakes region, Painted Lady and Mount Clarence King. After another extended stay on the summit, I cruised down the now friendly sandy slopes and made a short diversion to the shores of Bullfrog Lake with its classic view of East Vidette and Deerhorn Mountain. Below are some annotated panoramas from the summits of Mount Bago and Rixford. The GPS route is here.
Mount Stanford is a very attractive mountain located on the Kings-Kern Divide straddling Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. At 13,973 ft, it’s just shy of fourteen thousand feet so it doesn’t draw the attention comparable to Sierra fourteeners, but it’s just as impressive of a mountain in terms of stature, difficulty to surmount, and commanding views. The peak is extremely remote with long approaches via either the eastside utilizing Kearsarge Pass or University Pass or the westside from Road’s End in Kings Canyon. In fact, the westside of the peak harbors one of the most remote drainages in the High Sierra with rarely seen views of the Ericsson Crags and the west face of Stanford. As far as trail visibility, Mount Stanford is only prominent from a small stretch of the John Muir Trail from Forester Pass down to Center Basin. Via the southwest slopes originating in Upper Kern Basin, most of the elevation gain to climb Mount Stanford is fairly easy, but the summit itself is located along a narrow and precipitous ridgeline to the north of Gregory’s Monument. Strava route here.
Gregory’s marks the end of the easy scrambling and while it’s only 30 feet lower in altitude than Mount Stanford, Gregory’s is more like a point along the ridge instead of a true summit. The scramble between Gregory’s Monument and Stanford features an improbable ledge/ramp that allows Stanford to be climbed without technical gear from Gregory’s Monument (otherwise the cliffs are sheer). However, care must be taken due to immense exposure and some loose rock along the traverse and scramble. For my summit of Stanford, I decided to approach via Road’s End and make a loop including East Lake, Harrison Pass, Upper Kern Basin, Milly’s Foot Pass and gorgeous Lake Reflection. While my route entailed more miles and elevation gain to climb Stanford than the eastside approaches (or even if I chose to do it as an out-and-back), I’m certain it was the more aesthetic and scenic route.
Along the way to Stanford I walked beneath the towering spires of the Ericsson Crags and passed by several high elevation tarns. Travel up the drainage to Harrison Pass was better than I expected and I managed to skirt most of the scary sketchy loose gravel on the steep slope heading up the final chute to Harrison Pass. Above Harrison Pass, I started to feel the altitude a bit having come directly from sea level and the cumulative effects of exertion to reach this point. It took a few minutes to negotiate the scramble portion and figure out the route, but I was soon atop Stanford enjoying the stunning panoramic views including the Kaweah Range, the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer and the Sierra Crest. After departing Stanford, I headed down into Kern Basin and traversed around the shoulder of Mount Ericsson’s south ridge heading for Milly’s Foot Pass. I had been to Milly’s in 2009 and it was just as sketchy as I remembered it with kitty litter over the rock. I felt more safe climbing more difficult but solid rock on the side of the chute than descending down the chute itself. Fortunatley, this portion is only 100 feet or so and I was soon on gravel and talus slopes heading down toward breathtaking Lake Reflection, one of the finest alpine lakes in all of the Sierra. This heavenly lake features crystal clear waters and dramatic views of Mount Genevra and Mount Jordan, seemingly rising straight up from the pristine shores. I enjoyed a snack and rest at Lake Reflection and then continued back to East Lake, completing the lollipop loop of the Kings-Kern Divide. I met up with Erica just below East Lake and we enjoyed stellar evening light on Mount Bago as we descended toward Junction Meadow. The final 10 miles of trail back to Road’s End were enjoyable with net downhill and beautiful evening light. Next time I hope to climb Mount Ericsson and Mount Genevra. Overall, the route entailed nearly 38 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain. Strava route here.