On day 6 we continued our cross-country travel over Cinder Col, through Brewer Basin, and over Sphinx Pass. It was probably both the most challenging and most enjoyable day of the trip. It is the most remote I have ever felt in the Sierra. After leaving the crowds at East Lake we had been getting deeper and deeper into the backcountry, and we had reached the point where we didn’t see or hear another soul for days.

Trip Report

Picking our way along the eastern shore of South Guard Lake seemed to take forever. Not because the terrain was particularly difficult – rather I kept stopping for pictures. At one moment, remote sierra basins may seem cold and desolate, and beautiful and welcoming the next.

South Guard Lake and Mt Brewer
South Guard Lake and Mt Brewer

A small amount of green seemed to guide us along the right path, leading us northeast away from South Guard Lake to the next level of the basin.

Looking back on South Guard Lake and the way we have come from
Looking back on South Guard Lake and the way we have come from

At the top of the green slope there are options for getting over to Cinder Col. Sooz had suggested dropping down towards the small unnamed lake just above South Guard Lake and catching one of the chutes that would take us straight up to the lakes next to Cinder Col. I didn’t want to drop down, and it looked like we could contour around and catch one of the chutes up higher.

View of the small lake and chutes from above
View of the small lake and chutes from above

I think we did enough wiggling over ridges along my contour route that it would have been just as efficient to take the easy route down to the lake and the base of the chutes. But, we ended up dropping into the eastern chute near its top, helpfully marked by this giant boulder.

Boulder marking the way and Mt Brewer
Boulder marking the way and Mt Brewer

The chute spit us out on the east end of the two small lakes by Cinder Col. We made our way along the south shore of the first lake.

Approaching Cinder Col via the south shore of the east lake
Approaching Cinder Col via the south shore of the east lake

We crossed the connector between the two lakes to approach Cinder Col from the north side of the western lake. From our vantage it looked like we would have been walled out if we followed the south shore, but from the Col it looked better.

And via the north shore of the western lake. Cinder col is the dip ahead.
And via the north shore of the western lake. Cinder col is the dip ahead.

Cinder Col was beautiful, one of my favorite places of the trip. Water flowed out of the lakes along smooth slabs, and Brewer Basin was a green and welcoming view below.

Brewer Basin and the smoke from the Rough Fire as seen from the descent of Cinder Col
Brewer Basin and the smoke from the Rough Fire as seen from the descent of Cinder Col

We followed slabs all the way into upper Brewer Creek, trying not to lose too much elevation as we crossed over to Sphinx Pass.

Looking back on Cinder Col from our crossing of Brewer Creek
Looking back on Cinder Col from our crossing of Brewer Creek

My sense of scale was a bit off here, and the pass looked much farther than it actually was. Before we knew it we were at the small unnamed lake below the pass, trying to pick out the best route. I had read that this side (southeast) of Sphinx Pass was easy, and that the other side was where we would encounter a difficult boulder field. Still, I had a hard time finding anything ‘easy’ above me.

Sphinx Pass, southeast side
Sphinx Pass, southeast side

This was one of those passes where the route just kind of naturally flows as you climb. Before I knew it I was at the pass, no problem! But I didn’t like what I saw on the other side.

An annoying, interminable boulder field. Oof. I’ll spare you the details (and the swearing), but just be prepared to spend a lot of time picking your way through giant boulders. At least I saw several pika and heard bighorn sheep on the cliffs above.

Sphinx Pass boulder field (looking back at the pass after some descent)
Sphinx Pass boulder field (looking back at the pass after some descent)

Another reason to dislike the view from the Pass – pyrocumulus clouds from the Rough Fire.

Rough Fire as viewed from Sphinx Pass  descent
Rough Fire as viewed from Sphinx Pass descent

I was very grateful to finally reach the largest upper Sphinx Lake and set up camp as the sun went down. It was a long, rough day but incredibly rewarding to get to experience such remote terrain! Plus, we found what might be the best campsite ever.

Camp at Sphinx Lakes
Camp at Sphinx Lakes

The next morning we set off to dayhike Mt Francis Farquhar and the Sphinx Lakes basin.

Unfortunately, Sooz wasn’t feeling well and we were both a bit exhausted from the previous two days, so we decided to wander and soak up the views instead.

Turnaround point below Farquhar
Turnaround point below Farquhar

We found an upper lake that was teeming with fish and once again I regretted not bringing my fishing pole.

Sphinx Lakes
Sphinx Lakes

It turns out that it wasn’t such a bad thing we skipped the peak – clouds grew and parked themselves right over the summit for a few hours in the afternoon. Smoke from the Rough Fire also decided to blow in and it was really aggravating me again. I popped another Benadryl and napped while the storms and smoke blew through.

Storms growing over Sphinx Pass as I dozed off
Storms growing over Sphinx Pass as I dozed off

The smoke sure made for a nice sunset, though!

View towards Bubbs Creek and the Rough Fire from camp
View towards Bubbs Creek and the Rough Fire from camp

Gear Tips

I usually don’t have blister problems, but sliding around in the boulders led to some hot spots on the side of my feet. Before this trip I had read a tip about using Leukotape to cover and protect hot spots and blisters. Leukotape is a thin sports tape with no stretch and a strong adhesive. I had a roll for taping my knee when I was working with a physical therapist for some patella issues and dug it out when I was packing for this trip. I took a few pieces and wrapped them around a clean lollipop stick and put it in my medical kit (like I do with duct tape). After my foot had rubbed on some rock and developed hot spots I added the tape and it stayed put for DAYS. It worked better than any moleskin, duct tape, or bandaid solution I had tried in the past. Try it out! The hardest part was peeling it off my skin days later.

Map and GPS Track

Upper Cunningham Creek to Sphinx Lakes:

Wandering Sphinx Lakes:

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