Thunder Mountain

I seem to be drawn back to Lake Reflection every year, one of my favorite lakes in the High Sierra. The lake sits in a bowl underneath the high peaks of the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. Cliffs tumble to near the water’s edge and beautiful glacier polished granite slabs line the shoreline. The lake has just enough pines and foliage to give it an  alpine charm that is not found at higher lakes devoid of vegetation. On the way to the wonderful Lake Reflection one passes by East Lake, another Sierra gem. On a calm morning the surrounding peaks reflect in the still waters creating a classic Sierra scene. It’s tough to beat the beauty of these two lakes and that’s the reason why I keep coming back. Full photo album here. The album and photos here are all iphone – maybe I’ll get to the photos from the dedicated camera someday! 

Fortunately, there are enough high peaks in the area that I’ve been able to climb something new each time I’ve visited Lake Reflection. Aside from another opportunity to photograph and enjoy the lakes, the objective this time was 13,550 ft Thunder Mountain, a spectacular peak at the north end of the highest section of the Great Western Divide including Milestone Mountain, Midway Mountain and Table Mountain. The mountain is particularly striking when viewed from the north and is one of the more remote peaks in the High Sierra. I’ve looked at the mountain from all different angles and it was somewhat surprising  to me that I hadn’t climbed it until now, but I’m glad I reserved this magnificent peak for a picturesque and crisp late summer day.

From Road’s End it would be over 19 miles each way to the summit of Thunder Mountain and nearly 9,500 feet of cumulative elevation gain (Strava route here). After 15 miles on trail to the outlet of Lake Reflection from Road’s End, it’s only about 4 miles from there to the summit, but it’s all off-trail and includes some navigation through steep granite slabs and a lot of slow going, arduous talus hopping. While the talus is difficult, the scenery continues to impress and more than compensates for the tediousness. The initial climb up from Lake Reflection reveals awesome views looking back at the lake and Deerhorn Mountain’s rugged north face. Farther up, the dramatic east face of Sky Pilot Peak dominates the view. Upon rounding a corner, one is treated to a fantastic series of rockbound lakes. Unlike Lake Reflection 2,000 feet below, these lakes have virtually no vegetation, but each posses beautiful clear waters with the pyramidal-shaped Thunder Mountain towering above. 

The standard route to climb Thunder Mountain from Lake Reflection ascends to Thunder Pass which is an absolute mess of loose rock, gravel and sand, followed by somewhat more solid class 2 terrain to the south summit and then some exposed class 3 traversing to the summit block on the north summit. In 2008, Bob Burd pioneered a new route up Thunder Mountain that would avoid the tedious climb up to Thunder Pass and deposit one at a notch between the south and middle summits. This notch includes a unique rock bridge/window. Bob’s “east face/east chute” route uses a right hand chute on the east face of the mountain to ascend above the initial cliffy headwall and utilizes some ledges to move into the central/main chute which goes all the way up to the notch. From the lakes beneath Thunder Mountain this route looks steep and improbable for class 3 but once on the route it’s surprisingly straightforward and goes at class 3. Kudos to Bob Burd for trying this route. As a first ascentionist I can understand why there would have been some uncertainty that the route would go as a scramble.  I also second Bob’s conclusion that this is a far superior ascent route versus the extremely tedious climb up to Thunder Pass. From the rock bridge some exposed class 3 scrambling brings one to the summit block which has a class 4 move using a chock stone in a crack. As expected, the summit views from Thunder Mountain are awesome and include everything from the Goddard Divide to the Palisades to Mountain Whitney. I particularly enjoyed the views to Cloud Canyon, the Whaleback and Glacier Ridge. On the way back I crossed over the rock bridge and traversed over the south summit which has nice unobstructed views to a lake south of Thunder Pass with Sierra Crest from Mount Williamson to Mount Whitney rising behind. The south summit also has a nice view looking back to the middle and north summits and the high peaks of the Great Western Divide. In particular, one can grasp just how big Table Mountain is – flattish at the top but surrounded by a myriad of complex cliffs and chutes on all sides. 

Coming down from Thunder Pass I tried to find some terrain that was conducive to plunge stepping and was successful for a couple hundred vertical before the terrain turned into loose rocks. Fortunately some remaining snow patches helped with some of the descent. The descent down to Lake Reflection in afternoon light was delightful and I soon found myself doing the familiar run down Bubbs Creek with evening light on Mount Bago, Bubbs Creek Wall and Charlotte Dome.  As darkness closed in on the canyon I was already dreaming up more reasons to come back Lake Reflection🙂

Full photo album (iphone) here.  I brought my dedicated camera and took a lot of photos with it as well but who knows when I will get to looking at those photos.        

Brewer and the Guards Loop

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 hereThe 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 Stanford and Kings-Kern Loop

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.