Sun, Aug 6, 2006
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We had another large crowd for Day 3 of the Sierra Challenge. The more reasonable 6a start time coupled with an easier peak goes a long way to help attendance. Not that Mt. Powell is a trivial peak by any stretch. Lying on the Sierra Crest about eight miles from the Lake Sabrina TH, it was the last of the named peaks between Bishop Pass and Piute Pass that I had yet to climb. It is a very beautiful area, one I enjoy coming back to year after year - fortunately there are a number of additional peaks on the west side of the crest that will keep me busy for a number of years yet.
There was some confusion at the start where I had to return to the car with Mark Thomas to stow a piece of equipment, and when I hit the trail a few minutes later I was the last to start, but many thought I was out in front. Not realizing this, those in front had increased their pace in an effort to catch up to ghosts racing along the trail ahead of them. I surprised Evan and a few others when I came up behind them sometime later - "Hey, I thought you were in front of me!" We took the trail up to Blue Lake, making the scenic landmark above Lake Sabrina in just over an hour. Another 40 minutes brought us to Baboon Lakes, and by then only Rick was still hiking with me. We found others on our way cross-country towards Sunset Lake including Glenn, Steve, and Matthew. We spotted Mark several hundred yards ahead of us, already starting to climb the rib towards the Thomson-Powell Glacier while we were just above Sunset Lake.
The rib is a fortuitous feature that splits a huge, loose moraine in two, making a nearly 1,000-foot ascent a pleasant class 3 scramble instead of a horrible class 2 slog. Once atop this rib we were happy to see that late season snow allowed us to reach the glacier without the quarter mile of huge boulder scrambling we found when we came this way a few years ago. Mark seemed to have boundless energy, and kept a steady distance ahead of us.
At the glacier by 9:15a, we donned crampons and headed for the NE Couloir, the quickest, though not the easiest ascent route. In normal years there would probably be a some ice and lots of loose rock in the upper reaches of the couloir by now, but it looked to have good snow nearly to the top. With Mark leading the way, five of us followed in his footsteps first up the easier lower slopes, then up the narrow upper chute where the slope reaches something like 45 degrees. Once at the plateau, it was a short distance north to the summit of Point Powell, which Mark and I reached together at 10a. Fifteen minutes later we had six at the summit, hardly more than four hours from the trailhead - a highly successful effort that went like clockwork without mishap.
Michael Graupe had been one of the last to climb the peak, and like Mt. Florence, he left a "Hi Bob" note, knowing we would be up here soon after. After a short break, we took about 20 minutes to make the easy traverse southwest across the plateau to Point Wesley. We signed another register, then began the unknown part of the day. We had almost no beta on the traverse to Mt. Powell, or Point John as Secor would prefer. It is a jumble of broken ridgeline with half a dozen gendarmes and what looks like a lot of crappy rock. A couple of visitors to the summits on either end of the traverse had offered that it looked to be class 4, but we hadn't come across any trip reports of someone actually climbing it. All six of us walked the short distance north to where the traverse begins. It certainly looked intimidating. The initial bit drops down a loose sand/talus chute for about 50 feet before one could get around to the north side of a gendarme blocking the ridge. The chute drops out into air on the steep, glacier-cut north side of the ridge and the trick looked to be keeping ones self from sliding out of control. Further, we couldn't see around the gendarme to see if the possible route around did in fact lead to somewhere. I went down first, kicking scads of rocks and sand noisily down before me, clutching at loose holds on the edge of the chute that came out as often as not. I didn't make it look very pretty, but I finally got onto more solid rock. The others stood their ground above, waiting to see what the pronouncement would be when I got a look around the corner. "Looks OK to me," was my verdict, but they were unimpressed. They wanted something more reassuring. Matthew was the only one that started down without hesitating, four of them still wrestling with the prospects of what we might find on the unknown. "Are you going to leave us?" someone shouted down. "Not before we get to Pt. John," I returned. Still not reassuring enough. Once out of the loose section, Matthew joined me and Glenn started down. Mark, Steve, and Rick all stayed in place. I tried more cajoling and ridicule to no avail, and as Glenn finished the loose section the others had made up their minds to return. "We're going to tell you it was the greatest scrambling we've ever found," I yelled back, and with that it was just the three of us. Not really trusting me, Glenn and Matthew made a quick pact to stay together no matter what Bob does. I couldn't really blame them.
What I had initially described as "OK" past the loose section was really quite good, and we enjoyed some fine scrambling, mostly downwards, as we made our way towards the low point along the ridge. To our mutual surprise and great pleasure, the climbing only grew better and better. There was no loose crap after that first 50 feet of what turned out to be the crux. The closer we got to Pt. John the better the rock became, and we never had to divert from the ridge by more than 10-15 feet off either side. The final climb of several hundred feet was on some very fine granite that was the best part of the entire traverse. We arrived at the summit of Pt. John an hour after Pt. Wesley, about half the time I had thought it could take. We were all quite elated with the success of the traverse and the quality of the scrambling. The register we found at the summit was only six years old, placed by Steve Eckert on a Sierra Club "exploratory climb" in 2000.
Our descent route was the snowfield on the NW Slope. Getting to it required downclimbng part of the West Ridge to a notch from which we could most easily reach the snow. Because of its exposure away from the sun, we found the snow firm and unsuitable for glissading, but the angle wasn't as steep as I had expected, maybe 30 degrees. I had my crampons on first and started down before the others, facing out from the mountain. The 30 degree slope was fairly consistent for 1,000ft before I reached a lower bowl where it relented. Looking back, Glenn and Matthew were still near the top, making their way slowly down. It was the last I saw of them before reaching the TH. I jogged down the remaining snow to a place where it steepened and necked a few hundred feet above Echo Lake. I left the snow, moved onto the slabs and short cliffs east of Echo Lake, ran into a few dead ends trying to get around the lake, and finally made it to the lake's outlet at 12:50p.
I was pretty much out of water by this time so I stopped to retank before continuing on. I hiked down through boulders and alpine meadows, passing Moonlight, Sailor, and Topsy Turvey Lakes, whimsically named by adventurers of old. I saw no one until shortly before Dingleberry Lake where suddenly I found dozens of folks set up in tent cities around the area south of the lake. I'm not sure exactly what the draw is that makes the people density so high here, but it was similar to what I've found in other years at the same location. It took another hour and half to complete the circuit back to Blue Lake and then down to the TH at Lake Sabrina, finishing up at 3:40p. Rick, Mark, and Steve were all resting there, having arrived just ten minutes ahead of me. Naturally I told them about the truly great scrambling they had missed out on, but they seemed to trust me very little, remembering I had told them ahead of time that I would talk it up no matter what we had found. They would have to wait to hear it from the others before they realized they had missed a good opportunity. Unlike the previous two days, I was feeling pretty good at the end, not exhausted and sorely in need of sleep. Still, I was happy to be off the trail and to head back to town. A cold one and dinner started sounding pretty good. Matthew and Glenn returned by 4:15p, not far behind the caravan of cars that headed back to Bishop ahead of them. Aside from the first group of six, five others made it to the summit of Point Powell making it easily the most successful day of the 2006 Challenge.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Point Powell - Point Wesley - Mt. Powell
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