The Gorge of Despair Rock Climbing
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For wild and rugged grandeur, the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada has no peer. A mighty panorama, beginning at the wandering streams, sweeping up the terrifying gorges past jagged spires, and culminating in towering granite peaks presents itself to the adventurer.
It is indeed an awe-inspiring sight to break out of the pine forest onto the rim of Tehipite Valley and gaze across at the opposite mountain wall, fantastically cut up into multiple flying turrets soaring in the blue haze. The great river, four thousand feet below, sends its dull roar echoing about the valley.
A Climber’s Guide to the Sierra, 1954.
The Gorge of Despair offers some of the finest back country rock climbing in California. The granite formations which flank the sides of this beautiful hanging canyon offer routes ranging in difficulty from 4th class to 5.12. The quality of the rock is superb and the setting is spectacular. Isolated by an arduous approach, climbers in The Gorge of Despair can enjoy a truly serene wilderness experience. At night, looking out across the Middle Fork of the Kings River and the wilderness beyond, not a single light or other trace of civilization can be seen.
The Gorge of Despair is a feature of the Monarch Divide; the high crest of ridges, summits and canyons separating the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River. Beginning at Yucca Point, where these two forks unite, the Monarch Divide rises steeply to the east between these rivers. This impressive crest, Junction Ridge, rises to the summit of Mount Harrington at 11,009 Ft. (a gain of app. 8,700 ft in about 9 miles.) From the pass just east of Mount Harrington, the Gorge of Despair descends steeply down the north side of the Monarch Divide, finally making a precipitous 3,000 Ft. drop into the canyon of the Middle Fork, directly across from Tehipite Dome. A hiker who has reached the Gorge of Despair is rewarded with awesome views looking down from above at this great formation which many say is the largest dome in the Sierra. I say "many" because some climbers will argue that Tehipite is traversed by a ledge system about halfway up, and they are defending their beloved El Capitan :-)
The approach begins along the main highway about 1 mile west of Cedar grove. For the first leg, either of two trails will take you to Frypan Meadow. I have only used the Lewis Creek Trail for this part of the trip. As an alternate, the Deer Cove Trail starts further west and also will get you to Frypan Meadow by way of Wildman Meadow. The topo map shows the Deer Cove trail to have steeper sections separated by more gradual stretches, while Lewis Creek appears to take a steadier grade. Either way, Frypan Meadow is about 4 miles, el. gain 3240 ft. From Frypan Meadow you must find the west branch of the trail, which goes up to Grizzly Lake, another 4 miles. The trail ends overlooking Grizzly Lake, with a fine view of the East Face of Mt Harrington.
Arrangements can be made with the Cedar Grove Pack Station (559-565-3464) to have gear carried by mule as far as the Grizzly Lakes overlook, the first 8 miles. From there you'll have to shoulder your loads for the carry over Harrington Pass.
Find your way cross country towards Mt Harrington. You will have to ascend a steep barrier of Talus, and when you are in front of the mountain head north up the obvious break of Harrington Pass. Between the barrier of talus and the pass there's a fine area to camp with plentiful running water. The pass leads to the upper entrance of the Gorge. When you cross the pass you are in about 10 miles and have gained about 6,200 ft. As you descend toward the Gorge of Despair you will pass some high tarns, and then go around the west side of Despair Lake, below the west face of Tenderfoot Peak.
The Kern River cuts a canyon straight south for 30 miles to pass below The Needles. To the north, separated from the sources of the Kern by Mt. Erikkson and the Kings Kern Divide, the three mighty forks of the Kings River drain a huge area of the Sierra Nevada west of the Palisades Crest. The Monarch Divide, marked here in red, rises steeply to the east from Yucca Point, the confluence of the south and middles forks.
The south and middles forks of the Kings River meet at Yucca Point, from where the Monarch Divide rises steeply past Wren Peak to Mt. Harrington.
As you head down into the Gorge from the crest north of this lake, you will see that the formations are lined up along the sides of the canyon, with the majority being along the right side and the The Fang and the huge Silver Turret on the left. If you are heading for the Silver Turret, descend to the east of the creek for a little ways, but cross it and contour around pretty high up for the best line. There is a world class camping spot directly beneath the main face of the Silver Turret, and I have always found water there as well. If you are heading for the Cobra and it's neighbors, stick to the right side. There is beautiful camping up high along the south face of the Cobra, but the water is all the way down in the creek. I camped with Guy Keesee at the base of the prow of the Cobra once, and when we got up in the morning there was a huge pile of bear scat right in front of the tent door.
Guy Keesee on the approach. The East Face of Mt. Harrington and Harrington Pass are ahead. Photo by Kris Solem, 1994.
The north ridge of Mt. Harrington is a fine class 3 route to a beautiful summit. A strong hiker could do this car to car in a day.
Harrington Pass features several small tarns. Mt. Agassiz, Winchell, and the Palisades crest are seen in the distance. Guy Keesee photo, 1992.
For permits in advance:
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Wilderness Reservations Office.
Three Rivers, CA 93271-9700
Phone: 559-565-3708 Fax: 559-565-3797
When to go / Where to camp
An excellent place to camp on the approach is found between Grizzly Lake and Harrington Pass, after you negotiate the barrier of talus. There is water here, an excellent tree for hanging food (perhaps a stash for the trip out?) and you are in a good position to cross the pass the next morning.
Once in the Gorge, there is a fine camping spot in front of the Silver Turret. I have always found water there as well. On the east side of the canyon there is a beautiful area up under the south face of the Cobra, but the reliable water is down in the creek (there are small water sources higher up on a wet year.)
The eastern side of the canyon presents a row of beautiful formations. From the top down they are Crystal, Cobra, El Commandante, El Corporale and Frustration Turrets. At the very bottom, perched over an airy 3,000 Ft. drop to the Middle Fork of the Kings River is Fascination Point.
Summit elevations for the major formations are:
Mt. Harrington: 11.009 Ft.
Tenderfoot Peak: 10,621 Ft.
Silver Turret: 9,913 Ft.
Crystal Turret: 9,520 Ft.
Cobra Turret: 9,040 Ft.
El Commandante Turret: 8,530 Ft.
El Corporale Turret: 8,400 Ft.
Frustration Turret: 7,280 Ft.
Fascination Point: 7,120 Ft.
Kristian Solem rapping off The Cobra; El Comandante, El Coporale and Tehipite Dome behind. Photo by Guy Keesee, 1992.
In 1972 Mike Cohen and Mort Hempel climbed the North Buttress of the Silver Turret at III, 5.8, A1, by far the longest and hardest route in the area at that time. Also in 1972, George Sessions, Mort Hempel and Steve Roper did a new route on El Commandante.
In 1973 Phil Warrender and Gary Valle made their first contributions to climbing in the Gorge with a new route on the west face of the Silver Turret, and another on the north face of the Cobra. Then in 1979 they returned and established the fabulous 5.9 route "Prow of Cobra", which follows a classic line up the entire length of this formation, from toe to summit.
In 1994 Kristian Solem and Guy Keesee introduced the 5.11 grade to the area with the first ascent of "From Afar" on the south face of the Cobra. Over the next few years Kris and Guy made two more trips into the Gorge as they struggled to climb an obvious line directly up the east face of the Silver Turret. On the second of these visits, with two 5.11+ pitches behind them, Guy suffered a serious knee injury. Work was halted on the route until 1996. It was then that Kris, Guy and Chelsea Griffie returned determined to finish the climb. When Kris led a clean ascent with Chelsea as second, the Gorge of Despair had it's first 5.12, the 9 pitch "Despairadoes".
During the 1980's Les Wilson, Chris Wilson, and Gus Benner descended the Gorge all the way down to Tehipite Valley, a remarkable canyoneering feat.
Midsummer weather patterns often include thunderstorms. Double ropes or two full ropes are a good idea in case you need to beat a speedy retreat due to weather.
The rappel route off the North Face of The Cobra requires 60m ropes or a long extention of 15 Ft. on the anchor to reach the hanging belay from where you make the second rap to the ground.
There are bears in the area. Other than leaving us a pile of crap for breakfast they never bothered us in camp or while we were there, but a stash of ropes and stuff we left behind when Guy got hurt was shredded when we returned.
I got sick on the water at the camp under the Silver Turret when I gave up on a slow water filter and drank what appeared to be perfect water unfiltered. Several weeks of moderate to annoying gastric distress followed.
I highly recommend bagging an ascent of Mt. Harrington on your way in or out. The classic north ridge route is some wild and airy "class 3", and leads to a fine summit.
Sequoia Kings Canyon Nat Park
Classic Climbing Routes at The Gorge of Despair
Days w Precip