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July 11-12, 2015
Mt. Brewer is a large triangular-shaped mountain close to the northern end of the Great Western Divide. For the longest time in the 1800s, it was thought to be the highest mountain in the Sierra, until an 1864 survey party climbed it and saw to their amazement several higher peaks to the east. Even from the east, the mountain looks like a giant dominant arrow piercing the sky. Its impressive shape is visible from over 50 miles of the Sierra Crest.
We planned to tag Brewer via the standard class 2 East Ridge route, accessing it from the Eastern Sierra through Kearsarge Pass (see map). We would start at Onion Valley, taking the Kearsarge Pass Trail 8.6 miles over the pass and down to Bubbs Creek, branch west on another trail for 2.5 miles paralleling Bubbs Creek to Junction Meadow, cross Bubbs Creek, then take a south-branching trail 2 miles to East Lake. East Lake marked the base of the route, and we planned to set up camp there.
Our group of 7 planned to start hiking up the Kearsarge Pass Trail at 5am. Craig, Jeff, and I had slept in a pullout just before the trailhead and overslept, waking up at 5:30am to see the distant headlamps of Mark, Jodie, John, and Dagmar already heading up the trail. After quickly gathering up all our stuff, we raced to the trailhead and began heading up the trail, eventually catching the others right at Kearsarge Pass.
sunrise on University Peak
view of Brewer from Kearsarge Pass
It was a pleasant and cool July morning as we continued down the west side of the pass and towards Bubbs Creek. Some storms from the previous day had left a dusting of snow above 11,000 ft, making the high peaks look nicely sugarcoated.
Bullfrog Lake and nearby tarns
We reached the Bubbs Creek crossing to find the river roaring from snowmelt, and bushwhacked a few hundred feet downstream where three of us managed to cross safely. The others went back to the trail crossing and later said it wasn't as bad as it looked. At the downstream crossing, the fast moving water was up to my knees at times, and I had to strain heavily against it to keep from being knocked over. After taking a break to put our shoes back on, we continued up the trail to East Lake.
Mt. Brewer seen from Bubbs Creek
crossing Bubbs Creek
view of Mt. Gould
Upon reaching East Lake, we took the first available camping spot at the outlet of the lake. It easily accommodated all of us, and it even contained a large bear box. As we were setting up camp, I realized that I had forgotten the poles to my tent, and the forecast called for rain later that day. I later ended up tenting with Jeff since he had a two person tent.
sign at East Lake
From camp, the first order of business was to cross the outlet of East Lake. The only way to cross it without getting wet in some swampy marsh was to cross on a series of slippery logs. Once on the other side of the outlet, we paralleled the west side of East Lake, crossing a prominent creek before arriving at Ouzel Creek, which we began following upstream. After paralleling the creek for around 20 minutes, Dagmar, John, Jeff, and I decided to head a few hundred feet north onto the eastern toe of the East Ridge, and begin following it west towards Brewer. Once we were on the East Ridge, the routefinding would be straightforward. The bottom 1.5 miles of the East Ridge were characterized by a series of steep ledges interspersed with gradual forested slopes. Somewhere down to the south, we could hear the occasional voices from the other half of our group which was still following Ouzel Creek upwards.
crossing the East Lake outlet
starting up Brewer's East Ridge
The weather had changed dramatically between the time we had left the lake and the time we accessed the start of the East Ridge. The sky had changed from blue with fluffy clouds to a monochrome gray. The summit of Brewer was already immersed in the flat bottoms of cumulus clouds. I guessed we weren't gonna get any summit views today.
Up and up we went. Somewhere around 11,000 ft, we had climbed into the clouds which seemed to be lowering. Jeff and I briefly stopped as we heard Craig's voice behind us and waited for him to catch up. Craig said that John wasn't too far behind and Jodie and Mark had decided to turn around. Dagmar was somewhere up ahead in the thick clouds.
With still over 1,000 ft of ascent and worsening weather, the three of us only stopped briefly before continuing up into the darkening clouds, which soon became so thick that visibility was around 20ft at times. Light flurries of snow began falling from time to time. Eventually the east ridge intersected the Great Western Divide crest at a notch just south of the summit. This intersection was easy to miss with the low visibility, and we noted that it was marked with a few cairns. After climbing up and over two false summits, we arrived on the main summit to find Dagmar waiting for us there.
intersecting the Great Western Divide crest
We remained at the summit for roughly 45 minutes, eating snacks and taking turns on the fun class 3-4 summit block located a short distance west of the register. During this time, the sun would periodically break through the clouds, giving us momentary lapses of improved visibility. During one of these lapses, I was able to snap a photo of Jeff on the summit block, amazed at the incredible lighting. Even though we got no panoramic summit views, the views we did see were a different form of spectacular, and were probably not seen very often.
views from the summit area
the summit block
on the summit block
Craig and Dagmar with summit block & Jeff in background
As the clouds began shuffling back in, the four of us began descending hastily. As we descended below the second false summit, we ran into John plodding steadily up towards the summit. Craig gave him some brief directions to the summit, and the four of us resumed descending. John often soloed mountains like this is the Sierra so none of us thought of waiting for him to descend back to us. He was very capable to getting up and down the summit by himself.
Back at the notch, visibility was back down to 20 ft. Craig had spotted the cairns, and we were soon back on the east ridge. Snow began falling more heavily, which eventually turned to rain below 12,000 ft. Down, down, down through the clouds we went. Every part of the ridge looked the same. A few loud rumbles of thunder sounded from the north. At around 10,000 ft, we finally broke through the bottoms of the clouds and gained a view of East Lake. At this point the rain had stopped and it was beginning to get dark, so we quickened the descent.
views during descent
Instead of going back down to Ouzel Creek as we had done on the ascent, we remained on the broad ridge to the north, finding it very pleasant with its open slabs. Closer to the lake, the terrain became forested and covered with ferns still wet from the rain. We emerged at the shores of East Lake sopping wet below the knees, crossed the logs at the outlet, and made it back to camp just before it got dark enough to pull out the headlamps.
Back at camp, we met back up with Mark and Jodie who were getting ready to have dinner. Upon mentioning that John was still up on the mountain, Mark instantly became worried, and said that something was probably up if he wasn't back at camp within two hours. And sure enough, he wasn't. We had finished eating dinner and were converged near the outlet of the lake, peering up in an attempt to catch a glimpse of John's headlamp. Mark walked around to the other side of the lake where he would be able to get a better view. Nothing. After a while of this milling around the lake, we retreated back to camp knowing there was nothing we could do until sunrise. The temperature had dropped into the 20s, everything was still wet from the rain, and we could not see the peak due to cloud cover. We would just have to hope that he would somehow stumble into camp in the middle of the night.
The next morning, I awoke to hear shuffling and rummaging sounds coming from the bear box, and at first thought it was a bear, but it turned out to be Mark. He had woken up early to find no John, and had proceeded to go through John's stuff to see that he had not brought his headlamp or GPS with him to the peak. Since John only seemed to navigate by GPS and didn't appear to use maps, he would have to navigate back under pure memory, which was difficult to do with 20ft of visibility. The good thing was that now, all the clouds had cleared, and the top of Brewer could be seen lit with morning sunlight. Four of us decided to walk around to the southern side of the lake and alert the ranger who was camped there, since he probably had a radio.
We arrived at the ranger's tent to see that he had just woken up. Upon hearing our situation, he quickly came out of the tent and contacted SAR on his radio. He asked a series of questions regarding John's description and our itinerary, and mentioned that they were getting ready to fire up the chopper. He recommended that four climbers in our group retrace our route from the previous day and conduct a "hasty search" of the area, and the remaining two to stay back at camp in case John were to arrive back at camp. We walked back to camp to inform the others of the plan.
Back at camp, we packed quickly and prepared to head back up the mountain. Craig, Jeff, Dagmar and I were the ones planning on heading back up. Mark and Jodie were staying back at camp, with Mark keeping a close watch on the ledges above camp. Jodie had been awake earlier but was now fast asleep and oblivious to whatever was going on outside her tent.
Less than a few hundred feet from camp, we were stymied just by the log crossing. The logs had a thin sheet of ice glazed over them, and were way too slippery. We doubled back and ended up going around the east, south, and west sides of the lake in order to access the previous day's turnoff at Ouzel Creek. Up we went, following the previous day's route up the east ridge, constantly scanning around for humanoid figures, and periodically calling out. This went on for over an hour until we were not far below treeline and could see most of the remaining route up ahead. At this point we stopped and took a long scan of the terrain, wondering why the helicopter hadn't shown up yet. There was no point continuing onward. If john was somewhere up ahead, the chances of finding him were slim to none in that infinite boulder field. After remaining there for over 30 minutes, we began descending back to camp, hoping that the reason there was no helicopter was due to John showing up at camp and the ranger calling off the search.
view of Mt. Bago in the morning
But that was not the case. We stumbled back to camp as Mark hurried over to us, just to see his worried face. By now, the ranger had relocated his camp to our site, and we broke the bad news and details of our hasty search. He informed us that the all sides of Brewer were "under quarantine" which meant that a few rangers were to surround the mountain in case he were to stumble down the wrong side. How a few rangers could effectively quarantine an area the size of over 12 square miles, I did not know, but it must be better than nothing. He said that the helicopter was doing another rescue mission nearby, and would fly to Brewer shortly after. We then took roughly an hour to answer some questions over the radio with SAR regarding more descriptions of John and itinerary details. Since Craig had a GPS track of the route, SAR advised us to get out of the mountains ASAP and send them the track. They also recommended that we call them as soon as we were back in town.
At around 12:15pm the six of us were all packed up and departing East Lake. The hike out seemed to take longer than expected due to our anticipation of what was happening up on that mountain. As we hiked up the trail along Bubbs Creek, we could hear the helicopter briefly making its way towards Brewer, then disappearing out of sight. We caught sight of it one more time just below Kearsarge Pass, then headed down the other side, out of view.
re-crossing Bubbs Creek
We got back to the trailhead without any problems, and headed straight down to Independence where Craig called the number the ranger had given us. We were relieved to find out that John had been found. The helicopter had spotted him descending to camp under his own power, having arrived back at camp a few hours after the rest of us had left. Due to the time had had arrived back at camp, he wasn't making it back to his car until Monday.
Later, we found out that due to the lack of visibility and navigation, John had walked right past the notch which led onto the east ridge on his descent. He had continued down the south side of Brewer. The terrain was similar to the east ridge, and John thought he was going the right way until he had already descended several thousand feet to the southwest. With approaching darkness and no visibility, he spent a long, cold night curled under a rock. The next morning under clear skies, he was able to recognize his position and descend back to camp.
Final Stats (does not include extra distance on the second day)
12,500 ft gain/loss
Onion Valley Trailhead