Ascent of Thompson Peak
(Trinity Alps)

13 Sep 1998 - by Tony Cruz

How I lost my Ice Ax in the Trinity Alps

It took Laurent Lambert and I seven hours to get to Dennis Hiipakka's place in Weaverville. We started at 5 p.m. from Cupertino on Friday and suffered through rush hour traffic, which added two hours to the drive. On Highway 5, I locked the key in my van and broke a window as I tried to break into my own vehicle to retrieve it. We drove north to Redding and took Highway 299 west to Weaverville. Dennis' place was a short way up the road on Highway 3. We crashed at midnight.

Saturday morning Dennis brewed us some of his awful coffee. I Went to an automatic car wash and vacuumed most of the cracked glass in my van. Then we visited a new coffee shop in town and enjoyed a large breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon or sausage. It was inexpensive and the waitress undercharged us, explaining that she was not too good at math. I filled up my gas tank (reasonably priced) and we drove north on Highway 3 for several dozen miles. Dennis pointed out some of the mountains that he had climbed. We drove by the western edge of Trinity Lake, a huge reservoir. The entire area is sparsely populated and beautiful, full of pine trees and bushes loaded with raspberries. The only ugly things we saw were some trucks full of old growth lumber and streams that had been eroded by miners during the California Gold Rush.

We turned left on a road leading west toward the coast. I'm not sure which one it was, but it leads to a little village called Cecilville. On the road we saw a mature female deer with a young deer. About a mile before reaching Cecilville, we turned left onto a rough gravel road, taking it for six miles until we reached a barrier. Next to it was a kiosk and a few parked cars. By then it was already noon. We had driven for nearly three hours and yet we were only 25 or so air-miles from Weaverville! There were two other backpackers preparing to set off but we never saw them on the trail.

The road continued for a few hundred yards past a clear-cut area before the trail began. It was steep from the beginning. Just beyond a stream crossing there were many little plants with strange blue berries, not the kind you find in the store. In the first hour we zigzagged up switchbacks in a dense forest for a mile and a half and 1,500 vertical feet until we reached a spot called "Hunters Camp." Here were some flat spots, logs and fire rings. We took a well deserved break and continued, going down hill on steep trail for 1,100 feet, passing gigantic pine trees almost as big as Sequoias. After another mile we reached a trail junction. To the right was the trail to Hobo Gulch. To the left was the trail to Grizzly Lake via China Gulch. Taking the latter, we continued another half-mile on a more gradual descent to another stream crossing. Dennis said that the source of the stream was a nearby spring and that the water was potable, so we filled up our bottles without treating the water. The day was hot, not extremely so, but I would drink a gallon of water before it was over.

At this point, we were nearly half the way to our camp at Grizzly Lake. The trail led up gentle switchbacks to a rocky area next to Grizzly Creek. The vegetation was thick and hid the rushing creek but at one point we got an excellent view of a beautiful rocky cascade on a section of the creek. It was easy to imagine that I was on a section of the John Muir trail, deep in the Sierra Nevada. We passed a couple hiking out, the first people we had seen since the trailhead. I took a trail nap while Denis and Laurent continued. This easy section lasted about three miles and we gained another 1,500 feet. Late in the afternoon I hiked past beautiful Grizzly Meadows and some crystal clear pools formed by the creek. A couple of fishermen had set up camp next to one of these pools.

Beyond the last stand of tall pines at the far end of the meadow, the landscape changed dramatically. The vegetation diminished and I entered a rock-strewn area terminated by 800-foot cliffs. At the top of the cliffs emerged a perfect horsetail waterfall (like Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite but shorter). It crashed onto rocks and cascaded down, forming Grizzly Creek. I took the trail until it disappeared below a large snow patch. Then I followed some rock cairns up a steep goat slope, passing several fishermen on the way up. One told me that they had good luck that day. I lost my way and bushwhacked until I passed some trees and attained a boulder field. From there I traversed right, toward the waterfall, which was just a few meters from our planned camp.

Laurent pointed out where the trail was and I carefully followed him across the outlet stream of Grizzly Lake, just a few feet from the waterfall. We set up a bivy a few meters from the edge of the lake and near the edge of the cliff, on sandy rock slabs. There was enough light left to enjoy the panoramic view to the south: a stunning clear lake with many cascades flowing into it, a pseudo-glacier above the cascades and Thompson Peak, still two thousand feet above us. To the north we could see China Gulch, Grizzly creek and ridge after ridge of forested mountains. Many miles away there was a smoke cloud created by a wildfire. Dennis and I were out of dirty jokes that evening, but Laurent kept the tradition going by telling a Lewinski joke. I saw the most brilliant shooting star I've ever seen.

Sunday morning we woke up at dawn and started our climb at about 7:30 a.m. We decided to walk westward along the lake to a boulder field. There was no clear way beyond the steep boulders and forested spots above the lake to the easier slope below the ridge. We separated, Laurent taking the most direct route while Dennis and I struggled only to get to cliffs barring our way. I downclimbed the cliffs, making several difficult and exposed class 3 moves, while Dennis doubled back to find an easier way.

Eventually I got to the easier slope and crossed talus and snow fields. I followed a use trail up to a saddle on the ridge and took a long breather and had breakfast. I couldn't see the summit of Thompson, but otherwise the view was fantastic. To the east rose the magnificent bulk of Shasta, surprisingly snowy for this time of year. "Wedding Cake" and several other rugged nearby Alps were in view. There was absolutely no trace of civilization.even the trail had petered out. From the ridge I got a better view of the surprisingly large bergstrunds below the peak and a large crevasse in the middle of the glacier.

I walked along the ridge and met Laurent, who had already summitted. He said that I had about half an hour left and that he would wait for Dennis and me at the saddle. Soon after that, Dennis caught up with me and we labored up the ridge, which was full of boulders. Eventually we reached what I thought was the summit, which at 9,002 feet is the highest spot in the Trinity Alps. There were two false summits in the immediate vicinity and it took me a while to determine which was the highest spot. It was surprisingly difficult, class 3 with exposure. The highest rock had two round USGS markers and a metal spike; one of the false peaks also had USGS markers.

Getting off required a scary lunge from the peak. It took me forever to get back to the lake because I chose a different route down. I made a more direct descent to the lake, glissading for a couple of hundred feet and downclimbing a a steep gully, making good time. But a few hundred feet above the lake I traversed into a wooded section that was surprisingly steep, slippery and dangerous. It took another and a lot of bushwhacking to get back to the lake.

There I met Laurent, who had returned to camp four hours Before, at 1 p.m. Dennis had already begun the down climb to Grizzly Meadows because he wanted to make sure he got off the goat slope before dark. After a few hundred yards I lost Laurent and soon after lost the trail. Hiking half way between my route on the way up and the "trail" put me in a terrible spot right in the middle of some cliffs.

I was too tired and stubborn to turn around, so I carefully down climbed this section, which looks like class 5 from below but is actually exposed class 3 with maybe a little class 4. From time to time I removed my pack and tossed it below me. At one point, the pack took about a 200-foot fall after I tossed it. It landed in a good spot, but unbeknownst to me, my ice ax slipped out and that's where I lost it. For most of the trip it was tied onto the pack but at that moment it was merely hanging between my water bottle pocket and the main pack. Somewhat concerned, Laurent and Dennis waited for me on the snowfield below the goat slope. When my pack took the long fall, Dennis thought it was me at first. But I got down, sans ax but unscathed.

We managed to hike for another hour or so before dark. Dennis had left his light at home (on purpose!) so we managed with only two headlamps. At one point I suggested that Laurent hike ahead of us, since his pace was much faster. I said we'd meet him at the car. Unfortunately, my light went out 20 minutes later. Dennis and I were forced to bivy on the trail. It was after 9 p.m. and we were happy to have an excuse to stop. We hiked out at 10:30 a.m. Monday morning, catching up to Laurent, who had made it out at midnight. Dennis said that a little before the spring, he saw a mother bear and two cubs on the trail. Laurent, who had wanted to get to work on Monday, was cool, saying that it wouldn't not have been practical to drive home the night before.

Thompson Peak is as beautiful and more difficult than I expected, as was the approach hike, involving a 14 miles and about 5,500 feet of elevation gain. However it is not as hard as I made it sound in this report. It is class 2 from Grizzly Lake if you pick a good route, except for a couple of class 3 moves on the summit. Steve Eckert adds:

Three good reasons to keep the group together! If the fast people wind up waiting on the others, but unable to help them, the overall group speed is often SLOWER because of the split....

> After a few hundred yards I lost Laurent and soon after lost the trail ...
> Somewhat concerned, Laurent and Dennis waited for me on the snowfield 
> below the goat slope.  When my pack took the long fall, Dennis thought 
> it was me at first ... At one point I suggested that Laurent hike ahead 
> of us, since his pace was much faster.  I said we'd meet him at the car.  
> Unfortunately, my light went out 20 minutes later.  Dennis and I were 
> forced to bivy on the trail.

Tony Cruz adds:

I tend to agree with you Steve, sort of. Especially on climbs involving technical or exposed sections I definitely agree with keeping the group together for safety. However on long trail approaches I don't think it's needed if people have agreed to rendezvous points.

In defense of my faster friends, I will say that they stayed close enough that they kept me in view during the dangerous section down the goat slope. They tried to point out which way to go, but I made my own choice. I have no defense for being slow; I need to lose a few pounds.

Anyway Thompson Peak is a lot easier than I made it sound and I recommend it heartily to those who enjoy the Sierra.


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