Mt. Brewer

26-28 Aug 2001 - by Mike Mcdermitt

This was a successful 3-day solo trip to climb Mt. Brewer (13,570') via its East Ridge. A detailed trip report and route descriptions follow, then a bear story.

Arrived at Onion Valley (9,200') Saturday evening via shuttle from Independence after unusual car problems (Wilder House B&B in Independence has friendly 24-hour shuttle w/ capacious 4WD truck though not cheap). Headed out towards Kearsarge Pass at a leisurely 8.30am on Sunday morning. The walk up to the pass was uneventful and I made it in 3 hours, just in time for lunch. Spent an hour at the pass (11,750') to help acclimatize; met many friendly and happy people stopping on their way out. My objective was in plain view; having brought along a pair of binoculars I scouted Mt. Brewer's east ridge and found what looked like a good place to gain the ridge, a 'ramp' on the ridge's north side near it's east end. The east end itself looked steep. Headed down the trail again at 12.30 under blazing sun and cloudless skies. Reached the trail intersection with the PCT, dropped down to Bubbs Creek, then continued along it down to Junction Meadow. Crossed a low Bubbs Creek in bare feet - a somewhat shaky endeavor even at this low level - reminding myself to bring sneakers next time. Took a half hour break. Made it up the East Creek trail and reached East Lake at 5.45pm.

The main campsite at the foot of East Lake (9334') by the bear box was taken by a large group, so I headed across the stream. I was stopped by the view south across East Lake and up the drainage to Mt. Genevra. Of the fancy lake-and-mountain views in the Sierra that I have seen and appreciate, such as South Lake and Lake Sabrina, this one is uniquely picturesque: surely the scene that Albert Bierstadt most regrets he didn't paint. After a few photos I tiptoed over logs across the stream then up and into the woods in a southeasterly direction, coming upon a small meadow by a stream where I stopped for the evening. The stream is the small unnamed stream north of Ouzel Creek. There was a clear view of the mountain and the east ridge in the evening light.

I had brought both Secor's east ridge route description and Scott Sullivan's write-up and discovered that night that although these write-ups are both called the east ridge route, they different. Per the terse Secor, one follows Ouzel Creek to a point where the east ridge can be gained (which would by apparent implication be from the south side). Sullivan followed between Ouzel and the unnamed stream then gained the ridge from the north side. I mainly followed Sullivan's route since it coincided with what I viewed from the binoculars. However there is a huge rock island between the two streams lower down, so it is unclear how one could follow between them, as he states. Somewhat complicating both route descriptions is the fact that Ouzel Creek has a substantial tributary ('north fork') which does not appear on any topo but which drains two small lakes shown on the topo which otherwise would seem to have no drainage; the possibility exists that prior travelers may have confused this tributary with Ouzel Creek or with the small unnamed stream.

I was off for the mountain at 7.30am the next morning, initially following the small unnamed stream, and picking up traces of a use path or animal path. At a certain point the stream, rather than continuing up a gully, cascades over rocks from the top of the right (north) side of the gully. I continued up the gully a short further ways until it became feasible to climb right and out of the gully. From there I headed east towards the peak, climbing upwards over slabby rocks, turf and pines. As did Sullivan, I encountered an occasional duck. After a ways I come to a small forested area with a vigorous stream not on the map, running south towards Ouzel Creek; I have discovered the 'north fork' of Ouzel Creek. I cross it and continue eastward and steadily upward. Eventually the ridge comes into view again, including its east end and the ramp I had previously espied. The east end does not look as steep as it had previously and I consider that Sullivan may have taken the east end (he say only that they 'hopped onto' the east ridge, without further specification) but I decide to stick with my plan. The ramp itself, all talus and perhaps 400' high, is a lot steeper than I had thought, not really a ramp just an oopening in the cliffs, but I stick with my plan and proceed. At the base of the ramp is a small hidden tarn fed with a still-moving trickle that I decide is good enough to allow me to refill (this at the end of a dry year). The final 100' to 200' turns out to be very steep but not difficult class 3 but then I am on the ridge and shortly thereafter come upon a duck. No, I'm not lost! Continuing up the broad ridge on easy class 1 footing, by now the elevation is approaching 12,000' and views to the south and north are opening up when I pause for breath. Approaching the shoulder where the east ridge meets Mt Brewer's south ridge, the class 2 picks up again and the terrain steepens. A few hundred feet higher and a short class 3 section is reached. As per Secor and Sullivan, when further upward progress is blocked, there is a ledge that takes one to the left (south) to a notch; passing through it I am on the south face. From there it is a class 2 scramble to the summit. The notch had a fabulous duck, two rocks which were obviously placed by human hand but which looked like they would fall over at any moment. I gained the summit at about 1.15pm and stayed about 45 minutes. Warm and not a cloud in the sky. My momentary dread at noticing the higher, class 3/4 spires immediately to the west was calmed by checking the peak register, placed by RJ Secor, who titled it "Mt. Brewer, 4136m" leaving no question that I was on the named summit since from the 7.5 topo it was clear I was on Pt. 4136m. Views to the north were dimmed by smoke from the fires. Even so, there was a terrific view. In particular it appeared that every single 14'er in the Sierra was visible, including Muir, Russell, Tyndall, each of the Palisade peaks, etc. Many happy register entries, including a nice one from Steve Eckert leading a PCS group in 1994; he wrote, obviously on the precipice of his famous multi-year dash for the List, "I can see nothing green, but everything seems alive".

Still feeling that Secor's 'east ridge route' was different than Sullivan's, for the return I decided to try what I thought Secor's route was/is. Thus, after returning through the notch and coming back onto the east ridge, I immediately headed down to the bowl at the head of Ouzel Creek. This bowl ends at the low point of Brewer's south ridge, but continues north a few hundred feet to the foot of what in effect is the southeast chute. One cannot go straight down the southeast chute, which seems to cliff out, so I walked out the east ridge a short ways, then turned south then west as I climbed down 200' - 300' over class 2 talus into the head of the bowl. From there a short walk south brought me to Ouzel Creek and I began walking back east downstream towards East Lake. Sullivan mentions the tedious talus after a short stretch of sand, coming down from Lilley Pass to Reflection Lake, well I am sure he was being modest. The Ouzel Creek route has no short stretch of sand and an incredible amount of talus, over a longer descent. At one point I coined the phrase 'death talus' after encountering a section with very large, flat-topped talus that would be great to walk and hop about on, except that it was covered with scree and sand, so that like those marbles in the cartoons one risked a terrible fall by walking on it (so I didn't). It turns out that Ouzel Creek runs underground for a stretch of perhaps a quarter mile or more. At times of heavy flow, the underground channel must be too small to accommodate all of the water, so then water also flows on top, leaving debris on the talus. In any event, following Ouzel Creek back to East Lake is tiresome and slow, with talus occasionally broken up by manzanita. Near the bottom I left the creek and returned to my original route. For the record, from Ouzel Creek there is absolutely no visible route onto the east ridge at any point, all the way up, until the very head of the creek, i.e., where I descended off the east shoulder. As such, approaching the east ridge from slightly to the north and gaining it from its north side at or near the east end of the ridge, is IMHO by far the better route both up and down, excepting in winter/spring if snow covers the talus, or if one is in a situation where exposure is to be avoided such as severe wind or electric storms. Furthermore, excepting those same situations, a party passing through Brewer Pass/Col headed west (or east), would have an easier time by taking the ridge not the creek and either passing through the notch or going down/up (or up/down) via the east shoulder. Although, the creek route when snow-covered probably makes a nice ski run.

I returned to camp at around 6pm. The next day I was walking by 6.15am, with a 3pm ride to catch at Onion Valley. Found a large log just downstream of the East Creek/ Bubbs Creek trail intersection and crossed Bubbs Creek dry. Made it back by 2.30pm uneventfully, with the last 5= miles from the pass covered in a blistering (literally) 90 minutes. The 3-day total was 12,000' gross gain and approx. 38 miles.

Bear Story

Although I thought I had taken the proper precautions, I did experience a bear incident the first night at East Lake. My canister was 50 feet away from where I slept and it had all my food and toiletries. My pack was open and about 20 feet away, next to it my zipped daypack. Just before 11pm I was awakened to the sound of a bear going through the pack. There is no food there, what's it doing????? The bear is easily scared away. Eventually I recall that I have a zippered gear pouch which detaches from my pack and in which among many 'essential' items - compass, gloves, hat, toilet paper, camera, etc. - is emergency food, e.g. extra food bars which have been left there for years. This being the first time I have used a bear canister their presence escaped me but not the bear. The next morning I found out that the bear was incredibly talented. Aforesaid gear bag had been zippered shut inside one of two main zipped compartments of my daypack. The bear had unzipped the proper compartment of the daypack, removed the gear bag and walked away (the zipper was untracked for a couple of inches at the end, but not at all damaged). After walking a couple of hundred feet, the bear perfectly unzipped the gear bag, dropped all of the contents in a small neat radius of about 3 feet then picked out the edibles and ate them. No damage to or marks on the gear bag nor any of the inedible contents, many highly crushable by an errant paw, save one bottle of sunscreen which was slightly punctured. I doubt that I could have done as well were I stuck in a bear suit.

Michael Gordon adds:

> Although I thought I had taken the proper precautions, I did
> experience a bear incident the first night at East Lake.

I hate to sound like a dick, Mike, but your oversight may be a contributing factor to the delinquency and/or death of said bear. When we have major problems with certain areas (like around Onion Valley/Kearsarge), it's not enough to "think" you've taken proper precautions.

My apology for sounding callous.

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