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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We followed slabs all the way into upper Brewer Creek, trying not to lose too much elevation as we crossed over to Sphinx Pass.
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.
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.
Another reason to dislike the view from the Pass – pyrocumulus clouds from the Rough Fire.
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.
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.
We found an upper lake that was teeming with fish and once again I regretted not bringing my fishing pole.
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.
The smoke sure made for a nice sunset, though!
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: