Mount Francis Farquhar, The Sphinx
By: Larry Tidball
Bill Oliver and I had planned to lead these interesting looking, but unlisted peaks. We had discussed this some years ago when we lead North and South Guard and Brewer, and had passed below unlisted summits. Unfortunately Bill had a last minute work obligation and could not make the trip. Fortunately another E rated leader had signed up, and R.J. Secor agreed to act as the second leader.
The Sphinx is a prominent rock outcropping high on the south rim of Kings Canyon where Bubbs Creek joins the South Fork of the Kings. This formation is visable from the parking lot at "roads end". We met there at 6:30 Friday morning for the hike up Bubbs Creek and the Sphinx Creek drainage. A self-issue permit was obtained at the kiosk. Participants included included Will McWhinney, Erik Siering, Craig Connally, and Greg Vernon. On meeting Greg in the parking lot, he informed us that he had climbed The Sphinx many years earlier. Although he had no clear recollections of the route, he thought it would go smoothly enough that we could climb the peak the same day we hiked in. With this encouragement we began our hike up Bubbs Creek, in sweltering heat and humidity for so early on an autumn morning. Along the way numerous view of The Sphinx are available from different angles as the trail switch-backs up through the trees. No matter what view we had, we hoped the route was on an easier, hidden side.
In planning the trip, the leaders had reviewed guidebooks by, Vogue, Smatko, Roper and Secor. Bill had also found one trip report on a climbing archive. All reports seemed to have different routes, or different descriptions of the same route. Nothing was clear, and we had come prepared with 2 ropes and a sierra sized rack. As RJ said: "what is known about the route on The Sphinx is lies, rumors, hearsay, and speculation." The original plan for the trip was to pack in Friday, climb Saturday and Sunday, and also pack out Sunday. With Greg's vague recollections that it was not too bad, we now hoped to climb The Sphinx the first day to make Sunday easier.
After a brief pause at the Bubbs Creek, Avalanche Pass trail junction, we headed up the trail above Sphinx Creek. We made camp on the West side of Sphinx creek where the Avalanche Pass trail departs the creek. After quickly establishing camp we donned daypacks and carrying the ropes, continued up the Avalanche Pass trail to a point just South of point 9721'. From here Greg left us to go climb Palmer Mountain, and the rest of us headed North bypassing point 9721'. From here we followed the ridge 600' downwards to the first rocky dome of the higher Sphinx summit. From this summit we could see down into the notch separating us from the "nose" of The Sphinx. From here we could see the register cairn on top of the overhanging summit rocks.
Previous descriptions were fairly uniform about the approach down to the notch being on smooth lichen covered slabs. Since a slip looked like it would deposit you at the junction of Bubbs creek and the Kings River 4000' feet below we decided to rappel into the notch. I went first on a double rope rappel and found that 120' of rope we just enough reach the notch. Part way down, I rigged a sling to give a directional anchor to keep everyone on a direct line to the notch. Otherwise you could end up "hanging out" some distance away from where you wanted to go. Since the lichen covered slabs did not look all that appealing to lead up in mountain boots, we decided to leave one rope behind to safeguard our return.
While the others were descending I looked at our options. The East face of the peak (to the right) looked moderately angled, with some vegetation. But getting onto this would require descending the gully and climbing up to reach the broken terrain. I was worried that if we went this way, the climb to return to the notch could be difficult, as it looked somewhat overhanging. However, from the notch a ledge lead around the corner of the West face. Upon exploring this I found that it went easily (3rd class). Erik decided to wait back at the higher summit. So now RJ, Will, Craig and I followed this 3~d class ledge out onto the vertical North Face of the peak. At the end of the ledge an 8' step was climbed using a crack. This took us to a platform, from which there was no easy exit. One option with 2 cracks on a face lead up to a horizontal ledge, but the overhang above did not offer handholds. To the far end of the platform, a small vertical crack led up to a hole beneath an overhanging block. With a shoulder stand assist to get started, I climbed up the hole to find that it was too small to fit through. While I hung out there, I placed a small stopper, and decided to go down for a rest before trying the overhang above the hole.
Back down at the platform, Will offered to give the overhang a try. With the use of RJ's shoulder and the security of the upper piece of protection, Will was able to pull up on the big holds at the lip of the overhang and "mantle" onto the top of the block. Will then set an upper anchor, and belayed each of us up this 15-20' difficulty. We guess the moves might be in the 5.5-5.6 range. From Will's belay point it was a short easy 3rd class scramble up the final ridge to the to the overhanging summit. A glass jar held a spiral notebook placed by Gordon MacLeod in 1974. Only a handful of climbers had signed in since then.
With the short autumn days and clouds gathering we did not spend very long on the summit. We rappelled down the difficult pitch to the ledge, and walked back to the notch. From here Erik was able to give an upper belay. Each of us trailed the second rope so it could be pulled back down to the notch for the next person. A quick hike back over the wooded summit of 9721' and down the trail got us back to camp just at dusk. Greg was back sooner, and had a campfire going to welcome us. Happy hour and dinner around the campfire followed.
Stats:(about 5,300' of gain, 11 miles.)
Saturday we were up and off by 7:00 AM to head for Mt. Francis Farquhar. We (mostly) followed a use trail on the West side of Sphinx Creek to a small lake just below the big Sphinx Lakes. From here slabs to the left side of the drainage are easier than the talus to the right. Since Greg and RJ planned on staying in to climb "the guards" they dropped their packs at the nice campsite at the lower end of the upper lake. From here the very attractive summit of Farquhar is visible. A large notch breaks the Northwest Ridge just below the summit. A smaller notch splits that actual summit. We headed towards the South ridge, by crossing the outlet of the upper lake and heading directly up the slopes of the small ridge leading to lake 11,010. From here several chutes appeared to lead to the ridge south of the summit. We weren't close enough to tell if they would "go". However, an easier looking ramp was visible leader to a lower notch a little further south. We headed up easy talus to this ramp and up to the notch. From here good talus on the SE slopes leads to the summit area.
At the end of the talus slope is a false summit separated from the true summit by a small notch. This lower summit has a register box from the Sierra Register Committee with a book containing a brief biography of Francis Farquhar, and sign-ins from family members. Since this register was placed in 1990 only a few people have climbed to this point. Since it was past lunchtime, we had a bit to eat before we heading over to the summit spire. (This is not a summit you can eat lunch on!) A drop to the East side and slightly lower than the notch lead to an 3rd class climb up and around to reach the register set amongst the rock as the base of the summit monolith. We took turns reaching up and touching the summit. The register had been placed by Greg (complete with NAWS, China Lake stickers) 22 years prior. Even fewer parties had signed in at this summit than had climbed the lower more accessible one.
After enjoying the great view, we retraced our steps to the lakes were we said goodbye to RJ and Greg. Since the reminder of the trip was "I" rated I could have Will and Erik assist on the hike out. We returned back to camp and had another campfire. Round trip from our camp 9 miles, 4200' of gain. Sunday we hiked our and had a leisurely drive home.
Farquhar would make a great addition to the list. It enjoys stunning views to the North, East, West, and Southwest. The view directly south is blocked by the North face of North Guard. This is an enjoyable climb. We had a great trip in fantastic fall weather, and enjoyed the solitude of the mountains that occurs in October.
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