25 June 2011
On June 25, 2011, Luca and I decided to climb The Sphinx, a gorgeous rock formation proudly guarding the entrance to Kings Canyon from Roads End. As you hike up the Bubbs Creek trail, its nearly impossible not to notice the towering beauty and its two summits. The higher of the two lies to the north and is accessible via a class 2+ scramble, but the more striking is the southern summit. Secor originally rated the climb up the southern summit as 5.4, but after he climbed it in 2001 he changed the rating to 5.6.
So, armed with Bob Burd's trip report, a rope, a handful of slings, and a few pieces of pro, we headed out of the city on Friday night. Battling the usual Bay Area traffic, we decided to set up camp about an hour from the trailhead at Roads End (the end of Highway 180). We woke up early and drove into the canyon just as the sun began to peak over the horizon, washing everything in a peaceful, golden glow. We were astonished by how high and fast the river to the side of the road was flowing, and excitement started to stir as we willed our sleepiness away. The trailhead was quiet in the early morning, perhaps only disturbed by the never-resting crash of the rapids in the nearby river. We emerged from the car and silently packed our bags and laced up our boots.
As we started down the trail, Luca immediately begins a well-rehearsed rant about the Roads End trail. Why couldn't they pave the road 3 extra miles, he asks? The trail is flat and wide, and it would make most epic day hikes more reasonable. But before he could get too worked up, we faced our first obstacle of the day: a nasty river crossing. It turns out, this would be the first of many for the day. The snow pack had been so high this past winter (200%), that the rivers were overflowing and difficult to cross. We found a series of jammed logs, and I held my breath as I tried to keep from slipping into the icy water.
We picked up our pace on the other side, taking advantage of the long stretch of flat trail. Before long, we ran into a solo day hiker, who had stopped in his tracks and was looking at something off to the side of the trail. As we approached, I caught a glimpse of a young bear scampering off into the bushes. I tried to pull out my camera to snap a picture, but Luca urged me to keep walking so as to minimize the chance of an encounter.
Making our way up the Bubbs Creek Trail, we marveled at the engineering and resources required to blast step after step into the rocky cliffs of the canyon. Several thousand feet later, the trail leveled out again and we encountered an even bigger river to cross. I soon learned the beauty of waterproof boots, as crossing this one was trickier and required stepping on submerged logs and rocks. The far side of the river was more densely forested, and the trail became quite faint, with intermittent patches of snow along the way. The Sphinx was out of view, hiding somewhere behind the large hill in front of us. Fortunately, we were able to follow the track on Luca's GPS, and an hour or two later we were scrambling to the top of the northern summit. From there we had a beautiful, if not intimidating, view of the southern summit.
We ate a quick snack, switched to rock shoes, and gathered our wits as we scouted a route down to the notch between the two summits. Luca set up a rappel, but I found the down-climb to be fairly straight forward and met him at the notch. We coiled the rope and worked our way up a series of class 3 ledges until we found ourselves about 20 feet from the summit. At that point, it was a little unclear which way to go. On the left was a large, slightly overhanging crack from which a thorny bush was happily growing. On the right was a slabby, broken dihedral that looked fairly reasonable to climb. Luca set up an anchor at the base and started working his way up.
This route proved to be much more difficult than it looked, and he wasn't able to make it more than 8 feet up before taking a small fall. With a stoic look, he took a deep breath and tried again, this time placing a cam high above his head before proceeding. I was getting more nervous as he started to struggle in the same spot. I tightened the slack on the rope, and I could hear him cursing under his breath. He slipped again, and the cam came down with him. Fortunately he had also wrapped a sling around a flake, which prevented him from falling all the way down to the ledge. At this point I urged him to come down, suggesting that perhaps the other option would be easier. He readily agreed, and down-climbed back to where I was standing.
We were both a bit spooked, but Luca isn't one to give up so easily. Before I knew it, he was already halfway up the crack at the end of the ledge. The bush proved to be fairly annoying, but he was able to work around it. He found a stuck cam, and we wondered whose it could be. Within a couple of minutes he was out of site, and was moving very quickly towards the summit. As I waited (rather impatiently) for him to build an anchor, I gazed out to the valleys below and took in the incredible view. After what seemed like forever, I heard him shout "On belay!" and started the short climb to the top. I found it to be incredibly awkward, but somehow I pulled myself up and Luca greeted me at the summit with a triumphant high-five.
We eagerly opened the register and were surprised to find that the last entry was from Bob Burd and Tom Becht in 2008. In fact, Secor's signature from 2001 was on the same page, with only one party between him and Mr Burd!
We signed the register, snapped a few pics, and then agreed that we should head back. The hike and climb had taken significantly longer than expected, and we didn't want to find ourselves on sketchy terrain in the dark. We rappelled down, scrambled back up to the northern summit, and packed away the climbing gear.
It was late in the afternoon, and we faced a thousand-foot climb back up the hill before we could begin our true descent to the car. At this point, we had both run out of water and were desperately thirsty. Luca was really struggling, but eventually we made it up and over, and we quickly found ourselves at the banks of a creek flowing with deliciously cold water. We filled our camelbaks and continued along the trail. At around 9pm we reached the flat part of the trail, just as dusk rolled in. We donned our headlights and worked our way back to the car. Every part of my body ached, but it didn't matter; we had climbed The Sphinx.