Great Western Divide High Route

15 Aug 1985 - by John Bees

Part 1, Was There a High Route?

During the winter of 1984-5, after I had previously completed most of Roper's "Sierra High Route" from Yosemite to Kings Canyon, I wondered about the possibility of extending this cross-country route to the south of the original Yosemite to Kings Canyon route. During one of my previous trips to the Monarch Divide, I had noticed that across the South Fork of the Kings Canyon, the Great Western Divide rose over 8,500 feet from Roads End to Mt Brewer in about 8 miles. Was there a possible continuation of this "High Route" along the Great Western Divide and what was in this wild, isolated part of the Sierra?

With this question in mind I spent many hours that winter at the UNR library exploring maps, reading old Sierra Club bulletins, and old Sierra Club Climber's Guides to see what the possibilities were. Nowhere in any of the literature could I find a report of this route ever being done before. It appeared that at the head of Sphinx Creek basin there was a pass that went over to Mt Brewer and on to South Guard Lake to Cunningham Creek below Longley Pass. From that point south, the route looked a bit forbidding on the map but it appeared that I should be able to get at least that far down the divide without significant problems.

In mid August 1985, I left the Kings Canyon trailhead to begin my exploration. My first day went quite well as I climbed first up the Bubbs Creek trail and then up the Avalanche Pass trail. After lunch, I left the trail at the 8,600' elevation and ascended cross country to the twin Sphinx Lakes (10,500') at treeline for the first night's camp.

Early the next morning I ascended the basin to the pass at the head that I called "Sphinx Creek Pass"( 12,000') . I descended the south side of the pass and traversed the high basin above Big Brewer Lake to another 12,000' pass just southwest of Mt Brewer. Seizing the opportunity, I ascended the easy class 2 south slope to the summit of Mt Brewer (13,570'). The views from the summit were extensive across the Kings Canyon to the Monarch Divide and the Palisades; to Mt Williamson, Mt Russell and the Mt Whitney group on the Sierra Crest ; and to Table and Milestone mountains and the Kaweah group. I quickly descended the sand slopes on the south side of Mt Brewer and did a high snowy traverse above South Guard Lake (11,600') and continued down the drainage to a fine campsite at treeline along Cunningham Creek.

The next morning I climbed Longley Pass (12,400') and avoided the perennial snowfield on its northern end and descended through huge talus to lake 11,459'. After a quick lunch I first ascended an intermediate ridge (12,200') and then continued up the northern slope of the Kings-Kern Divide towards Thunder Pass. The steep final climb to the pass was initially on snow and several hundred below the pass the snow ended and the route continued on loose scree and mud to the high point (12,700') just east of Thunder Mountain (13,588'). The route down the south side of the pass was on talus and slabs to the lake 12,300' and down several hanging valleys to the main valley at 11,300' and then to the large three bay lake at 10,900' on the Kern River. I continued uphill beyond this lake and made my camp that night at a small lake to the east along the Kern river that had wonderful views of Mt Ericsson and Stanford.

The next morning, after a fine night's sleep and carrying only a daypack, I headed down the Kern River trail to Milestone Creek and ascended the drainage to the base of Milestone Mountain. My route took me up a rocky north side gully to the class 3 west ridge where I found an interesting route to the summit (13,641'). The views were extensive across the Kern to Mt Tyndall, Williamson, Russell and Whitney and to the north were Mt Ericsson and Mt Stanford. I returned to my camp by mid afternoon and spent a lazy afternoon and another wonderfully quiet night along the headwaters of the Kern river.

The next morning I ascended the barren alpine headwaters of the Kern to Harrison Pass (12,700') on the Kings-Kern divide. I quickly descended a steep and treacherous snow field, then scree on top of slabs and finally large talus to picturesque Golden Lake (10,700') with a great view up the cirque towards Lucy's Foot Pass and Ericsson Crags. Across the valley rose Thunder Mountain, South Guard, and Mount Brewer on the Great Western Divide where I had been earlier in the trip. I began the descent down through hundreds of avalanche downed trees to the trail below Lake Reflection and then descended the trail to East Lake where I took a short break before I continued down to the Bubbs Creek trail. An easy walk down the trail soon brought me to the sunny campsite along the Kings River at the Sphinx Creek trail junction. Early the next morning a short and pleasant hike down along the roaring South Fork of the Kings river soon brought me to the end of the trail at the Copper Creek trailhead.

So ended my six day exploration from Kings Canyon along the Great Western Divide to the Kern and back. During the trip I had seen no one from the time that I left the Sphinx Creek trail six days earlier. From what I had discovered so far the Great Western Divide High Route seemed to be an elegant and beautiful trip through the one of the most pristine parts of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park and was a logical continuation of Roper's "Sierra High Route". Next year (1986) I would see if I could complete the whole route from Kings Canyon to Mineral King.

Part 2, Does the High Route go through?

After having previously scouted out the feasibility of a complete traverse of the Great Western Divide High Route in 1985 it was now time for action. After numerous other trips throughout the Sierra earlier in the year it was now early September and prime time to do the trip.

My partner Carol Grenier and I left Mineral King early on a Saturday morning with eight days of food and quickly ascended the Sawtooth Pass trail to Monarch Lake. We got distracted and took the wrong route directly up the steep, sandy slope up to Sawtooth Pass (11,500'). After exhausting ourselves climbing up the pass we enjoyed the long and leisurely descent down the Lost Canyon trail to the lateral trail to Big Five Lakes. A moderate ascend soon brought us up and over the ridge to the lowest of the Big Five lakes at 9,800' where we spend a long restful first night.

Early the next morning we took the trail over to Little Five lakes and then down to Big Arroyo were we crossed the creek at the old patrol cabin site. We then picked up the High Sierra trail and ascended towards Kaweah Gap and Nine Lakes basin where we spend the second night along the creek draining the lakes north of Black Kaweah at an elevation of 11,000'.

The next morning we began the cross country part of our high route as we climbed out of the fog that had settled in the basin overnight and worked our way up first to lake 11,705' and then up the talus slope to a interesting ledge system to Pyra-Queen Col (aka Black Kaweah Pass, 12,800'). This pass is at the head of the beautiful inner sanctuary of the Kaweah Basin and has a dramatic view of nearby Black Kaweah and across the Kern canyon to the Sierra crest from Junction Peak to Mt Tyndall, Williamson, Russell, Whitney, and Langley. The descent from the pass was difficult as it passed through the largest talus field I had ever seen. It extended from just below the pass for two miles to the treeline at 11,000' where we found a fine camp along the creek with extensive views of both the Sierra crest and the Kaweahs and morning sun. Early the next morning we traversed to the north and up the drainage a bit and tried to find a feasible route across the Picket ridge. An easy climb up the south facing slope brought us to a notch at 11,900' between the Pickets and Picket Guard Peak. The north side was a bit steeper but quickly brought us to a scenic lake above the Kern-Kaweah river. A careful descent down the crack and ledge system of the massive granite slabs below the lake soon brought us to the Kern-Kaweah river valley. After lunch we tried to find the trail up to Colby Pass but we could only find occasional traces of it until we reached the pass at 12,000'. On the north side of the pass however the trail was much more obvious and we descended the spectacular basin to Colby Lake (10,595') where we found a campsite near the outlet. After four long, hard days on the trail we needed a rest day so I suggested that we climb Milestone Mountain the next day as a day trip and spend an extra night.

The next morning the trip up the basin between Milestone and Midway mountains to Midway Col (12,900' ) was the usual two miles of talus trudging but it quickly passed away until we reached the north ridge of Milestone Peak. We quickly climbed the north side of the peak by way of a rocky gully to reach the landmark peak of the Great Western Divide at 13,641'. This was my second ascent of the peak in a year. After a leisurely lunch, the descent back to our camp at Colby Lake went quickly and we enjoyed sitting in the afternoon sun after a dip in the creek.

Early the next morning we began the section of the trip that I was most concerned about. The previous year I had stopped before I had reached the steep rocky slope going up to "West Thunder Pass" and had serious concern about the difficulty of the route beyond. But as we started off that morning I didn't want to worry my partner so I kept my concerns to myself. We had too much to do that day and we needed to stay focused and relaxed. The moderate climbing traverse up to "Talus Lake Pass" (11,485') went quickly as did the traverse across upper Table Creek basin to West Thunder Pass (12,000'). The north side of the pass was quite steep and covered with large loose talus but after a few minutes of exploring we carefully worked our way down the slope and soon reached the top of a glacially undercut cliff above a rockbound lake. A few minutes of careful route finding down the cliff face brought us to the lake where we descended to outlet to a well deserved lunch along Cunningham Creek . After lunch we climbed above South Guard Lake on a steep snow field several hundred feet above the lake and traversed the talus bound basin above to "Brewer Creek Pass" (12,100') just to the southwest of Mt Brewer. After a moderate descent down the north side of the pass we traversed the basin and climbed several hundred feet to "Sphinx Creek Pass" (12,000') where we stopped and took a few extra minutes rest to ponder our day's accomplishments. We had done the four high passes that were the key to the "Great Western Divide High Route" in one day and we were now at the top of our last pass of the trip. We were both too tired to really enjoy it all since we still had to descend a mile of talus to the highest Sphinx Creek lakes at 11,000' . The descend went quickly and we soon enjoyed a long and restful night's sleep marred only by a wood rat stealing my spoon during the night . The final 6,000' descent into Kings Canyon, first on the cross-country leg to the Avalanche Pass trail at 8,600' and then down the rocky trail to the Bubbs Creek trail went quickly and uneventfully and despite our relaxed pace we arrived at the end of the trail at the Copper Creek trailhead in early afternoon.

In seven days we had completed our "Great Western Divide High Route" from Mineral King to Kings Canyon over eight passes along the most major sub -range of the Sierra Nevada. We had discovered a worthy grand finale to Roper's "High Route" that would continue the majestic cross-country excursion from Yosemite to Mineral King. We had accomplished everything that we had set out to do and along the way discovered and enjoyed had what I consider to be the most isolated and pristine section of the entire Sierra Nevada. It had been a wonderful and successful trip that I will remember for the rest of my life.

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