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Mt. Tom is a massive mountain rising at the eastern edge of the Sierra just west of Bishop. One cannot drive past it on US395 without being wowed by its dominating presence and having the urge to stand on its summit. Actually climbing it is another matter, as even by its easiest route it requires over 6,000ft of elevation gain. When one reads what the guidebooks and trip reports have to say about Mt. Tom it becomes even less appealing, being described as a slog, a slag heap, or similar. Even Secor tosses in some bashing, describing one route with the descriptive, "Ugh!" and another with the even worse, "Ugh, ugh!" But to a peakbagger it is a destination that must be visited, and so it was with us.
We were camped about a mile from the Horton Lakes TH in a cozy site we'd occupied at 1a the same morning. We'd had a very long outing to Clarence King the night before and decided at the last minute (just before midnight actually) to climb Mt. Tom the following day. To not climb at all would have been to admit our "dayhike" of Clarence King took more than a day's effort, and Mt. Tom seemed like a bold enough effort to dispel that notion. To make it difficult to back out of the proposal in the morning when clearer thinking was restored, I felt it best to get most of the horrible drive through the Buttermilks done beforehand. In the morning it would seem a waste to have driven so far for nothing if we retreated. The sun was up at 7a or just before, and within minutes it had arroused me from a comfortable slumber. It was time to get up. Matthew immediately recognized the trap of having driven to the trailhead the night before, and could do nothing but agree the only choice we had now was to climb the thing. So we packed up our stuff, ate a quick breakfast, drove the bumpy last mile to the trailhead, and headed out at 8a.
It had been a little more than month since my last visit here for a climb of Basin Mtn and Four Gables, so I was well familiar with the 3+ mile trek from the TH to Horton Lake. The trail follows an old mining road up a gentle grade exposed to the daunting rays of the summer sun. There is no shade to speak of anywhere (that goes for the whole route to the very summit), so it is easy to see why it is shunned in the heat of summer. It was warm today in the sun, but fortunately not blazing. On our way to Horton Lake we had nice views of Four Gables, Basin Mtn, and the changing colors of the aspens lining Horton Creek below us. Above Horton Lake we had a broad view of the Horton Creek drainage reaching up to the Sierra crest between Mt. Humphreys and Four Gables. After many switchbacks and steady marching, we reached Hanging Valley west of the summit at 10:20a. Not so much a valley as a plateau, very little grows on the slopes at this elevation, looking over many square miles of talus, sand, and boulders. The summit still looked quite far away, but we were over the halfway point at least.
Hanging Valley holds some historical treasures (or capitalist scars, depending on your viewpoint) in the form of the abandoned mine roads and mine shafts. One branch of the road heads north to the Hanging Valley Mine. Several shafts were started in the hillside, but by the diminutive size of the tailings at their base it would seem that they proved worthless fairly quickly. The main road heads northeast at a nearly level grade to the Tungstar Mine located a little more than a mile at the road's terminus on the northwest slope of Mt. Tom. It was an enjoyable walk following this road in the cooler temperatures, and we noted small patches of the previous week's snow left in the shadier places along it. We had worried that we would have to watch our water supplies, but with the supplemental snow we periodically tossed in, it was never an issue.
As we neared the Tungstar Mine we noted the old wooded tram towers rising nearly 6,000ft from Pine Creek on the mountain's northwest side. There were numerous excavations around the Tungstar Mine, large volumes of rock having been removed, and at the mine site itself was much leftover machinery from its operations including several large diesel engines and the cable winch that was used to haul material up and down the tramway. An adjacent mineshaft was cluttered with refuse. It must have been a far better prospect than the Hanging Valley Mine as it was evident that much money was poured into developing the site at one time. We wondered if the ore that was extracted ever recouped the money invested. On the road to the mine we had come across two fully laden backpacks, undoubtedly left by others heading to the summit. Why they had carried them as far as they did was unclear - maybe traversing the mountain? I enticed Matthew to try on one of the packs for size, a sort of REI sampler at 12,000ft. I had this humorous image of the climbers finding this picture on the Internet some time later and being incensed that someone had shouldered their pack - not unlike finding a picture of a stranger modeling your underwear. At the mine we came across one of the two climbers on his way down, an elderly gentleman around 60 with a small dog the size of a football. He mentioned that he had climbed Mt. Tom from Pine Creek (an 8,000-foot climb) some 30 years earlier in his younger days. I marvelled that his dog was able to climb such a talus pile even though in principal I despise such dogs. This one was certainly a wonder, and the gentleman commented that it only required a lift every now and then to get over the biggest rocks. We parted company never revealing the impropriety of the pack episode earlier.
From the mine, we had only to complete the talus slog up the broad northwest chute to the summit. The other climber had mentioned it was a 2 hour climb, but we expected it to go much faster. We both were hoping to be able to summit at the 4hr mark, and we had just over an hour of that remaining. A use trail can be followed up for some distance, but after a few hundred feet its primary benefit is as a descent route owing to the sandy nature of it. Though there was a good deal of the slogfest we had heard advertised, we were both surprised to find some rather fun class 3 rock to be found if one looked for it. And look we did, zigzagging back and forth as necessary, searching for the most solid footing available. We eventually met up with the Southwest Ridge and followed this to the summit. We were seven minutes past our expected arrival time of noon, but we accepted our failure with stout hearts. As reward, we were treated to what has to be one of the finest views in all the Sierra. We could see south to Whitney and north to Mt Dana (even further north to the Sweetwater Range), with hundreds of square miles of the Sierra before us on three sides. It was quite stunning, really.
A very large ammo box served to hold the registers of which there were many, dating back some 12 years or so. Two soft lead plates, broken in recent years, were inscribed with the name of a summiteer in 1933. Other metal inscriptions that had been here years earlier were now missing. We signed in to one of the books, took a snack break, and enjoyed the views more fully (SE - S - SW - W - NW - N - NE - E - SE).
Heading back down I got well ahead of Matthew on the Northwest Slope, reckless scree descents being one of my specialties. When I returned to the mine I paused to remove the sand and pebbles from my boots. Someone peered at me from around a corner and disappeared again. When I had my shoes on and started back on the road I found three additional climbers taking a break but getting ready to head out again. I could see the smoulderings of a fire they had recently extinguished amongst the roadside debris. I wondered why they would bother to make a fire (never mind the legality of it), and I briefly recalled my own forays into pyromania as a pre-adolescent. Of course these were grown men in their 20's. One of them asked me somewhat awkwardly what the best route to the summit was. One would have guessed that they already knew, but maybe it was an attempt to draw my attention away from the fire. In any event, I mentioned the use trail around the corner and left them to continue their climb.
Back at the road junction I paused to look back for Matthew before heading down. There was no sign of him over the mile-stretch of road visible. Down I went. I had already planned what I was going to eat at the Whoa Nellie for dinner during the ascent (important things should be dealt with promptly), so my only remaining concern now was for how to get a good cleaning. Without the benefit of a motel and hot shower the previous night, I was feeling like I needed a good cleansing before dinner and the long drive home. I struck upon the idea of a swim in Horton Creek where the road crosses over along a wooden bridge. It was 3p when I got to the bridge, and it only took a few minutes to strip off my clothes and hop down into the creek under the bridge. The water was about two feet deep and very cold, but it was just the ticket I was looking for. I nearly shivered as I washed and splashed all the sweat and salt off me, and standing atop the bridge to dry off afterwards in the warm afternoon sun was a positive luxury. I kept an eye out for unsuspecting hikers who might amble along and find the sight of me less than a luxury, but fortunately I had the whole scene to myself. After I dried in the sun, I put my clothes on again and continued the last mile to the trailhead. It was 3:30p when I got to the car, and not a minute behind me was Matthew, reappearing at precisely the right time. Sometimes things just work out...
It was after 11p before we got home to the Bay Area, once again taking almost all of the maximum 3x24hrs one can take for a three day outing. The meal at the Whoa Nellie was as enjoyable as I had hoped, the drive home as long as I had feared. As an end of summer outing, it had been a great three days. Perhaps one more outing in October, then it would be time for the snows to fall once again...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Tom
This page last updated: Wed Mar 6 11:04:42 2013
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