Mon, Aug 13, 2012
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Thompson Ridge is a long, rocky ridgeline running north from the summit of Mt. Thompson to Table Mtn and forming the divide between the Lake Sabrina and South Lake drainages. Along the undulating ridge are two 13ers, one informally named Ski Mountaineers, the other unnamed, both I had yet to visit. So I put them on the agenda for day 4 of the Sierra Challenge, giving each of them 1/2 point. To complete the Challenge, participants would have to visit both summits. With a very short approach of less than five miles and the least elevation gain on this year's list, it was expected to be an easy day. And so it was. The easy days tend to draw the biggest crowds and this was no exception - we had two dozen folks for the 6a start at South Lake, the biggest crowd ever for a non-weekend.
As usual, the crew started off together, slowly stringing itself out over the next hour as the faster participants forged ahead of those going at a slower pace. There was not much trail work today, only about an hour's worth. At the first trail junction we turned right toward Treasure Lakes and followed it around until the trail turned more southward. Sean was particularly adamnant this morning about where we should leave the trail, having recently been in the area and remembering the route he had used at that time. I didn't think the point to leave the trail was at all critical, judging from the map, but I admit I hadn't been in the area to know if there were hidden cliffs or tricky route-finding. Most of the others seemed to have similar beliefs as my own so we sort of shrugged Sean off, letting him go where he liked, and continued on the trail a bit more before starting the cross-country. For the most part is was pretty easy, over very open terrain, much of it granite slabs dotted with trees (though not all chose the easiest way). The large group fairly disintegrated at this point, breaking up into much smaller groups of twos and threes.
It was a delightful, trailless area north of the Sierra crest, with a dozen small lakes and a few streams supporting some lush alpine meadows in stark contrast to the great deal of rock that is found here. I found myself traveling along with Jonathan and his nephew Andrew who was nearly as strong as Jonathan. We lost Jonathan along the way (more accurately, I let him get well ahead and failed to follow in his footsteps), Andrew and I scrambling together across the edge of the morraine found on the north side of Mts. Gilbert and Thompson. It was not the best of routes as the morraine was characterized by an interminable amount of rocks and boulders as most morraines are. There were no comforting green meadows here, just acre upon acre of rock. When we rounded a corner and could see Ski Mountaineers Peak for the first time, it was not so much awe-inspiring as talus-dreading. Laura would later taunt me that there's a reason they include "Ski" in the name - it's a much better peak to climb in the springtime than in midsummer. Jonathan rejoined Andrew and I in the morraine, wondering what had become of us, and the three of us spent much of the next hour climbing our peak from the SE side.
Sean and Jen had already come and gone by the time the three of us reached the summit at 9a. The weather this morning was quite fine and we spent some time enjoying the views and taking a break while we waited for others to join us. Tom was the first to arrive about ten minutes later, Ron and Michael another ten minutes behind Tom. Jonathan and Andrew had started off to the next peak before we had Adam and Pat join us. We took a photo with six at the summit before we started off ourselves. Probably half of the group had started up the other peak first, and there were others further behind us, so the next few hours would see the smaller groups crossing paths with each other back and forth across the region. I had read that the ridgeline between the two summits, about a half mile apart, was class 3, but it was quickly obvious that is was more difficult than this, more like class 5 (on the otherhand, two participants headed south along the ridge to the summit of Mt. Thompson and reported it class 3, as advertised). Not even Sean tried to follow the ridge directly. The easiest route appears to be around the east side of the ridge, the trick being to find the first place to drop down through the northside cliffs on Ski Mountaineer's East Ridge. Jonathan and Andrew managed to find a way down through the rock and then a dicey descent down the steep snow found lower down. None of us carried axe or crampons and it was still pretty early for the sun to have softened the snow much, but somehow they made it work (Sean and Jen did similarly, earlier) while the rest of us shook our heads and continued further east along the ridge to look for an easier way. Michael and Pat followed me down to a saddle of sorts, and then down a sandy chute that narrowed to a blocky class 3 rock and ice ramp that we used to avoid the snow as long as possible. There was much rubble below this, then a traverse towards the second peak featuring yet more rubble, a crossing of a small stream (where Pat refilled), and finally starting up to the second peak. Sand and talus characterized the lower two thirds of the South Slope, the upper third more interesting boulders that were far less tedious. There were at least four climbers ahead of us through these boulders, including Phil, Jeff and my brother Jim.
It was nearly 11a by the time we reached the second peak at 13,000ft, located at the south end of a high plateau that held several other bonus peaks towards the north. Though it looked intimidating, this second peak proved no harder than class 2 and had a similar set of views to Ski Mountaineers. Tom and Adam had soon joined Pat, Michael and myself, getting eight of us to the summit about the same time. We found Andrew and Jonathan there ahead of us, relaxing and enjoying the break before taking off soon thereafter. I didn't stay long at the summit either, eager to visit the higher-looking summit further north with a reported class 5.6 summit block that looked most interesting. Adam, Tom Andrew and Phil all decided to join me. There was little elevation loss between the two and it was very easy to traverse between them, taking less than 15 minutes. The summit block was another matter.
We took off our packs and walked around the various facets of this tough-looking block about 16 feet in height. A subsidiary block made it easy to get one's hand within two feet of the summit, but then it gets hard. A finger crack is the only means to pull oneself up the final distance and it was not so easy. The best climber among us was Tom and he did a good job of showing us the technique to get it done. I asked Adam to spot me while I made the second effort, managing it with some grunting and small moments of panic and quickly getting back down since I was afraid of the reverse moves as well. As with most things, it looked harder than it was and seemed less of a big deal afterwards. Adam went third, taking even more time than myself, with several false starts before hauling himself up to join Tom who was still at the summit. Andrew climbed up third while Phil watched us from the side, smiling and saying he would be just fine without the summit block. I took a picture of the three at the top before they all descended, in turn.
There were two other bonus peaks in the area, but only Tom had any interest in them (he was still in the running for the Polka Dot Jersey with Sean). Tom headed northwest to Peak 12,960ft while the others backtracked to the Challenge peak to return off the South Slope we had come up. I suggested we might just drop off the East Face of Peak 13,000ft, but the intial part looked steep and difficult and I had no takers. So while they headed back I poked around on the East Face and found a way down without too much trouble - it was actually a fun bit of scrambling, the best I found on the day. On my own now, I dropped down to a small creek before starting up to an adjoining ridgeline, aiming for a low saddle with about 200ft of elevation gain. The east side of the saddle led down much more elevation, dropping to a larger creek and yet more elevation loss. It was a very enjoyable cross-country jaunt that had no major difficulties once I had gotten off the summit of Peak 13,000ft and I enjoyed the solitude wandering by myself for most of an hour. My route turned out to be a much straighter return to the trail and faster too, as the others would be surprised I had gotten ahead of them.
I was only a few minutes from returning to the trail when I spotted a couple of dayhikers coming up the slope towards me. They turned out to be friends of Laura, coming up to pay her a visit and bring her some treats. Back on the trail I caught up with Pat and the two of us spent about half an hour running our way back to the trailhead. Further behind, but not by much, Jonathan caught up with us only minutes from the end by jogging even faster. It was 1:20p when the three of us pulled in to the South Lake TH. We found Sean and Jen there, having already been back for half an hour. Others started trickling in within five minutes of our return and would continue to do so over the next several hours. We set up shop under the open tailgate of my van, Sean enjoying one of his favorites, a burrito made with a can of mixed vegetables. Laura provided a nice selection of beers when she and Chris returned around 1:45p (she did not run into her friends in the backcountry as we had). The weather for most of the day had been quite nice, but like on the previous two days, clouds began gathering around noon and were threatening by 2p. The first drops started falling by 2:30p and quickly put a halt to our outdoor party. We would have to take it back to Bishop in order to stay dry. And like on the previous two days, those that were out on the trail in the late afternoon would have to put up with some rain...
The topo map shows three sub-peaks all with a closed 13,000-foot contour at the location of the second peak of the day. This isn't accurate. There are only two peaks that are near equal in height, the northern one with the 5.6 summit block being higher by 12-16ft.
Jersey Strategy: Michael lost another five minutes' time on me for the Yellow Jersey, increasing my lead to 50 minutes. Sean and Tom both climbed the same peaks on the day, keeping them tied with a total of eight peaks in four days. Jonathan continued to dominate the Green (over 50yrs) Jersey and would face no real threat unless he took a day off or got injured. Kevin maintained his lead in the White Jersey (under 25yrs) by climbing Trapezoid today with JD.
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