The thought occurred to me as I packed for yet another Memorial Day weekend in Kings Canyon: "Maybe we'll climb The Sphinx this year!" I'd had this thought before. This time, I wasn't nearly as enthusiastic. After all, I'd had knee surgery only six months before; the serious auto-graft kind of knee surgery. And there were tons of snow up there to boot. Probably not the year to try this climb, but I threw the rope in anyway, and added a few pieces of pro and five draws. "That ought to be enough to vanquish any silly 5.2 pitches," I thought. I neglected to throw in an ice-ax, however. I just wasn't taking this very seriously.
On Saturday, everyone but a small group of Stork people did the traditional, usually kind of boring hike up to Paradise Valley. It wasn't boring this year. The South Fork of the Kings was a raging torrent, making Mist Falls a wall of water. Water was everywhere, making small waterfalls on the sides of canyons that I had never seen before. Little did I know that this was to be the driest part of the day! We didn't make it very far beyond the "lower" Paradise Valley before reaching a bog, and that was enough to turn the group around. After lunch almost everybody headed down for Happy Hour. I managed to convince a few people to have a short adventure, and there was still beer left when we finally got back.
I was feeling my oats that evening. The hike down the hill, supplemented by a little ibuprofen, had left no residual soreness in my revamped knee joint, and had actually felt fairly pleasant. Discussion of various destinations for the following day flowed about me, and soon I heard that the Bubbler was hoping to climb some mountain called Palmer, a snowy walk-up whose main attraction was an elevation in excess of 11,000 feet. When the Stoic heard this, he assured the Bubbler that I had been planning to climb the Sphinx. Oops, I thought, this is getting serious. Soon, it sounded like there was a group of four of us headed for the Sphinx tomorrow. Thus I fell victim to my own passing fancy. Our beneficent organizers, the Two C's, announced that they were going to lead a hike up towards Avalanche Pass tomorrow morning. The die was cast; we were all going up that creek; maybe my little group would come to its senses and start paddling back down before it was too late. But I knew I was in trouble.
The next morning we got a late start -- the four of us were even later than the main group of hiker-types. But we soon caught up, and it was pleasant to have company on the lengthy switch backs up Bubb's and then Sphinx Creek. At about 7400' feet, we took an early lunch break, and showing a complete absence of common sense, or even decency for that matter, started up the snowy canyon wall towards the Sphinx. I had originally suggested that we cross over the creek a bit lower and work our way up on the rock slabs and dirt in-between the snow patches. So up we went. I was immediately impressed by how the snow was nicely consolidated. The climbing was actually pleasant! (The Bubbler had graciously loaned me an ice ax.) So, while B and S crossed over onto the dirt, I continued up the snow. Our fourth compatriot, Mark (I don't yet know him well enough to assign a stage name) stuck with me briefly, then decided to cross over to join the other two. I was convinced that the Sphinx was basically right at the top of my snow field, so I thought I'd just climb straight on up in the snow. Well, I was wrong. About 400' feet from the top of my now rather steep hill, I got a view of the Sphinx off to my right and slightly below me. Damn! Unfortunately, at that point the snow was rather soft, and careful route-finding was necessary to avoid a painful amount of post-holing. I had no choice but to continue to the ridge top. I finished up as fast as I could, that is, slightly in excess of a banana slug's pace. I then quickly descended 500' to the base of the Sphinx's southern peak, and jogged (sort of) to the top to meet my friends who were now well rested and a little impatient after their 40-minute wait. I was more than a bit embarrassed!
The Stoic had scouted the start of the down climb to the notch between the two summits. He indicated that a rap would be necessary. I agreed, and quickly spotted a lovely rock horn that was God's gift to rappellers. We dropped down the half rope length into the notch and considered our options. I don't quite know how it happened but somehow we decided that we needed to go down the East side of the notch. Why didn't we look West?
So we rigged another rap. I went first and decided that we could easily climb down to what appeared to be the start of the climb by kicking steps into an unlikely looking fang of snow that protruded up the gully we needed to descend. I kicked happily on down, only slightly perturbed by the lengthy drop off below the base of our snow fang. I reassured myself that I could probably throw myself into the moat between the snow and rock if things looked dire. Probably. Mountain climbing is no fun if there's no exposure, anyway.
Everyone made it down to our stance safely, and I plugged in a bombproof anchor. The Stoic flaked out the rope, and up I went. The climbing was fun, probably not harder than 5.4 initially. I soon came to the ledge that I thought had been mentioned in the route description. I followed it to its end, an end that offered a nice view, lovely exposure, a stirring breeze, but was, nonetheless, a dead end. I backtracked, informed the crew of my findings, and proceeded up a likely looking corner. Pleasant and stimulating 5.6 stemming and crack climbing ensued, leading to spacious blocks on the summit ridge. The Sphinx was ours!
Well, not quite. I brought up the Stoic, but we now had the amusing problem of getting the rope back down to the other two, a problem compounded by two intervening tree-like plants and swirling winds. But, with several mis-tries and much shouted information regarding wind speed and direction, the rope was twice slung down the 130' pitch, and first the B and then Mark came on up. The Bubbler talked almost non-stop during the entire pitch, discussing his lack of sufficient experience at technical rock, recounting previous experiences at rock climbing, and so forth, and so on, and so forth, and so on. Everyone found the 5.6 crux to be a somewhat thought provoking effort when executed in mountain boots, but no one slipped.
The view from the summit was pleasant but certainly not outstanding. This summit, the "nose" of the Sphinx, is actually the lower of the two. It looks better from below than it does from on top. A typical rock-climber's destination, I guess.
After the requisite summit photos and register signing ceremonies, our little group descended. By now, of course, we had discerned with keen hindsight the easy way up and proceeded to follow this route back down to the notch. To save time, I hoped, I set a very short rappel down a 20' drop off that would have been the only technical part of the ascent if we had been a bit more observant earlier. A few interesting fourth class moves then brought us back to the notch.
I eyed the low-angle but lichenous slabs that led up from the notch with deep suspicion. I asked the Stoic, who was carrying the rope, if he thought he could just "climb on up." "Sure," he replied casually. "Well," thought I, "I'm just being silly, then; just climb on up yourself." So I started on up. Naturally, halfway up, I discovered that: a) mountain boots don't smear very well, b) lichen smears all too well, and c) there was a small bulge in my way. I didn't like it, but what can you do? I smeared my stiff boot soles, tried not to smear the lichen, and pulled on over the bulge. A few moves later I was back at that incredible rock horn. The rope was tossed up from below, of course, for the Stoic had repented on his earlier judgement about the ease of the lichenous slabs. I quickly brought the others up. We all were back on the South summit by 7 PM.
The descent down the snow field was just a joy. Conditions were perfect for just madly dashing down the hill. The Bubbler was ecstatic. He pulled out a plastic bag, sat down, and went whooping down the hill; his altimeter registered a maximum descent rate of 6000 ft/hour. Even for me, the descent was great fun. The soft snow cushioned every foot fall, even at a running pace. My more conservative style, however, didn't exceed a mere 4600 ft/hour, but needless to say, we all got down to the trail in one helluva hurry.
Now, all that remained was the semi-infinite sequence of switch backs back down to the King's Canyon, and, once again, the two flat miles out to Road's End. We hurried. There was beer at the end of the tunnel and we knew it. The rocky switch backs on the Avalanche Pass trail fell behind us as Mark took a spill; we were all getting tired. But the going was easier now on the gentler forest dirt of the Bubb's Creek switch backs. The light was failing as we crossed the many bridges over Bubb's Creek, including a recent impromptu affair over the last flow. Flashlights were unlimbered and we continued.
Somehow, I ended up hiking the last two miles together with the Bubbler; the other two a few hundred yards behind. He talked continuously, and this time I was grateful for the distraction. My feet were screaming for relief. My right knee and groin were sore. My body just wasn't conditioned to this kind of workout yet. I would pay for this tomorrow, but right now I just wanted to finish. But the usually horrible trail through the King's Canyon was remarkably kind tonight; the ground was firm and air was sweet and not dusty. Through the fading glow of the day, I saw the rift of Copper Creek grow steadily larger as we approached. Gently carried by the flow of the Bubbler's words, we came to Road's End. Just another peak climb, just another day in the wild.