Wed, Aug 13, 2003
Michael, Matthew, and I arrived at the Lake Sabrina TH half an hour ealier than the 6a start we had planned. Since no one else was scheduled to join us, we headed out at 5:30a. It was a little different experience, allowing us about 30 minutes of hiking time before the sun would rise. The moon was glowing brightly over the Sierra Crest and we watched day break from above Lake Sabrina. Right at 6a the sun rose just as the moon was setting, ushering in another gorgeous day in the Sierra. We reached Blue Lake in an hour, and Baboon Lakes after two. We had lost the trail on our way to Baboon Lakes, but found the cross-country travel relatively easy. As we passed by Baboon Lakes we photographed a variety of flowers growing in the lush surroundings, including fireweed, wandering daisies, and fields of lupines. Secor had some great advice to take a bench up to the right (west) of Sunset Lake which we followed, avoiding some bothersome, boulder-hopping via the more obvious route directly to Sunset Lake. Above Sunset Lake we stared south at Mt. Thomson and Powell, and more immediately at the 1000ft of steep moraine that cascaded down from the Thompson-Powell glacier above. It looked to be a messy climb. Fortunately there is a rocky buttress that runs right up the middle of the moraine. We aimed for this as we made our way along a level bench high above Sunset Lake. The bench was grassy and the rock flooring compacted for easy travel. There was some boulder-hopping required to reach the base of the rocky buttress, about a hundred yards or so. Once on the buttress we found the climbing delightful. While it looked difficult from a distance, once we were on it it was never harder than class 3, and really an enjoyable climb.
Following the buttress, we came upon a quarter mile boulder field that needed to be crossed before we could reach the glacier. Ugh! Ugh! The boulders were monstrously huge, some were a bit scary when they moved, and it made for slow progress. We could tell we were getting close to the glacier when we could see pockets of ice below in the cracks, and these soon grew to envelope the boulders and fix them in the old glacial ice. The glacier we found in deteriorating condition. Global warming seemed to be doing a number on the glacier and it is disappearing quickly. Looking ahead we could see that the steepest portions of the route to the Powell-Thompson Col were free of snow and ice. It hardly seemed worthwhile to put on the crampons, but the upper hundred yards or so would have been tricky without. We cramponed up about 200 yards to the bottom of the Powell-Thompson Col, where we found what Secor describes as "disagreeably loose rock." Michael launched a boulder two feet in diameter down upon the glacier as he led the way. Much dust and residual rockfall ensued, but no one was in the path. Matthew was still on the glacier lower down, and I was climbing off to the right. I thought I had chosen a clever, solid rock route up along the edge of Point Powell, but it turned out to be dangerously loose with large chunks coming out in my hands. I wasn't liking it a bit and wished I was behind Michael dodging his projectiles instead. After climbing about 50 yards of this stuff I was finally able to exit left onto the regular route up the loose rubble. At least I wouldn't be falling 30-40 feet if a rock slipped out from under me.
It was a relief to finally reach the col, where Michael and I took a break and waited for Matthew to catch up. around. While waiting there we heard disconcerting rockfall to the south, with sharp rapports and soft hissing noises, the result of broken congolmerates sliding down steep slopes. After some time we found the source of the rockfall on a far wall. Black stains on the face indicated water seepage, and this was the likely reason for the regular rockfall. Luckily we weren't going to be going anywhere near the fall zone. Once Matthew caught up we let him take a break too before we all continued on.
Looking south down the other side, we saw nothing but loose rock all around. It was a bad omen, but we optimistically hoped it would get better after dropping down and starting the traverse. The route from the col to Thompson's summit is one of the worst we'd ever seen. Not dangerous, just the longest, most tedious "climb" any of us had ever seen or could have even imagined. Secor says to drop down about 200ft, traverse east along the base of cliffs, then find the SW Chute up to Thompson's summit plateau. Simple enough, but not very accurate. In reality one should drop about 400ft, traverse half a mile to the east well below the cliffs, then look for the SW Chute. After dropping down more than the suggested 200ft, we traversed east as advised and aimed for the chute in front of us (not the SW Chute as we found out later). The traverse was steep and loose sidehilling and we were tired of it after the first five minutes. When we reached the chute we were aiming for, we found it narrow, steep, and enclosed by cliffish aretes on two sides. It quickly turned out to be more than class 3, primarily due to the looseness of the rock. We soon realized it took us not to the plateau, but to the West Ridge. This seemed OK at the time because we knew the West Ridge was also rated class 3. That turned out to be as questionable a rating as the class 3 East Ridge we'd encountered on Mt. Gabb a few days earlier. Once we reached the West Ridge it became apparent there was no way it could be class 3. Not even class 4. Climbing ahead first out of the chute to a notch, I peered over the north side of the West Ridge to see if the class 3 route could be on that side. I saw nothing but cliffs with huge dropoffs. Maybe the route follows along the ridge? I struggled to get around a gendarme hanging my ass out on a 75 degree granite block 25 feet above the notch. Michael suggested I use better judgement, and besides, there was no way he and Matthew were going to follow me. We gave up on the West Ridge. We went back down the chute a short ways until we could cross the buttress on the east side into the next chute which turned out to be the correct one. We struggled up the loose chute to the plateau. Others have described this as a thoroughly unenjoyable part of the climb. We agreed.
At the top of the chute was a large cairn, presumeably to help parties find their way back to the correct chute. From there it was a long slog across the plateau to the summit rocks visible about a quarter mile away. We were all pretty tired by this time, trudging in a line spread out over a long distance. I found my way to the summit first, Michael a few minutes later. When Matthew arrived he looked up at us from the north side of the rocks and asked if that was the way to the summit. I nodded affirmatively though the easier side I had taken was around on the east side. Matthew climbed up the steep summit blocks on that side and then realized he'd been tricked. "Hey, I thought you said that was the way up?" he protested. "It is," I replied, "but you didn't ask if it was the easiest way up." Michael and I had a cheap laugh at Matthew's expense. It must have been the altitude getting to us.
We took in the swell views in all directions (NW - NE - E - SE - S - SW - W - WNW). I noted the steep dropoffs on the north side of Thompson, some of the famous snow/ice couloirs, and the Thompson Glacier below. At the summit we found the summit register dating back only to 2000. The older ones are all gone. Not only was this a terrible climb, it was a popular one, too. The register was placed by the PCS with a list of many recognizable Sierra clubbers. In another entry we found we were definitely not the first to dayhike this bad boy. Bob Sumner did it in 2001 from South Lake. We began to think that was probably a better approach than Lake Sabrina. We were the third or fourth party up this year.
It had taken 6hr20min to the summit. That was considerably longer than it had taken to reach Gabb, and much longer than we had expected to take. This was a long dayhike. Heading back down was quite a bit easier, but the traverse was as tedious as on the way out. I suggested we could still make the summit of Powell, costing us another hour perhaps. The others were less than enthusiastic, Michael outright scoffing. He suggested it would be far better to return in late spring and climb the Northeast Couloir when it is snow-filled. It was icy when we looked at it earlier today, but the route did look far more elegant than the slog around to the Southeast Chute. Michael pulled out ahead of us on the traverse, and we were soon strung out in a long line again, myself in the middle. When I turned the corner to climb back up to the col, I stopped to note the route over to the SE Chute of Powell and the sandy ledge leading to it. Michael was out of earshot for a conference to consider it (maybe on purpose?), and my heart wasn't in it to go it alone. Some other time. At least it was clear to us that Powell is an easier climb than Thompson.
Michael and I left Matthew at the col and powered our way back the way we'd come. When we got to Baboon Lakes we took a different route around the east and south side in search of a use trail. No trail, but we one of the most incredible wildflower displays we'd seen anywhere, covering acres of wet, marshy ground around the lakes. We took many photos, but none of them seemed to convey the beauty of this incredible flower garden that surrounded us. It was a nice diversion and gave us a breather, too. Not far past the upper Baboon Lake we picked up a use trail that we had missed on the way up. It took us very nicely down to Blue Lake where we found the regular trail and noted how we missed seeing the use trail on the way up by meer yards. Cruising down the trail below Blue Lake, we'd forgotten just how much elevation gain we'd done in the morning. We passed two guys with backpacks in their early twenties powering their way up towards Blue Lake. Ten minutes later we came by one of the girlfriends looking very tired, asking how far to Blue Lake. She wasn't happy with our response, and was clearly hoping it was "just around the corner." Another ten minutes and we came across the second girlfriend sitting aside the trail, also looking spent, but angrier than the first. She asked the same question and again showed disappointment at the response. After she was out of earshot we commented to each other that those boys were in trouble that night, and were probably on their last backpacking trip with those girls.
We returned to the trailhead at 5p for an 11 1/2 hour day, not the easy outing we'd expected beforehand. We drove back to Big Pine and got a room there. Matthew was back less than an hour behind us, faster than he'd gone the previous two days. To sum up all our feelings for that day, Matthew commented that he planned to go about getting himself elected president of the SPS, then he would see that Mt. Thompson was removed from the list.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Thompson
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