Mt Thompson and Mt Powell

10 Jun 2000 - by Jim Ramaker

Mt. Thompson (13,494) and Mt. Powell (13,354) are located on the Sierra crest roughly 10 miles southeast of Mt. Humphreys and 10 miles northwest of the Palisades. The morning of Saturday, June 10th found our seven-person team slogging up the trail from Lake Sabrina to attempt them. Co-led by Bob Suzuki and Ron Karpel, the team included Joe Budman, Steve Eckert, Arun Mahajan, Linda Roman, and your scribe Jim Ramaker. After a few snow-free miles, we lost the trail in snow at around 10,500 feet above Blue Lake, then continued up to our camp at Sunset Lake at 11,500. Despite the mild temperatures, snow conditions were excellent, with good footsteps and no postholing. Sunset Lake was surrounded by deep snow and still frozen over, but we found a wonderful camp in some snow-free ledges on the northwest side of the lake, with even a tiny creek next to it for water. The lake is in a spectacular cirque surrounded on three sides by mountain walls -- a great camp.

After a short break to snack and pack daypacks, we headed south up the long snow slopes toward Mt. Thompson. Instead of the southwest slope "dog route" (Steve's term), we were headed for the class-3 northwest face. The "chute" described in Secor is actually a long ramp that slants up and left on the left side of the face, heading for the low point on the ridge between Thompson and the unnamed peak to the northeast. We found the ramp kind of ugly -- about 10 feet wide and therefore not really exposed, but slanting to the outside, covered with rubble and soft snow, and with a death fall at the outer margin.

By the time we reached the low point on Thompson's northeast ridge, it was almost 5 p.m. and we had the hardest climbing still ahead of us. From the low point, the ridge extends 1000 feet to the summit and rises about 400 feet. It threw an assortment of challenges at us -- big blocks, loose rubble, some steep snow, a bit of ice, and a couple of 30-foot cliffs that seemed to block the way. But Bob and Steve navigated flawlessly through the maze, switching from one side of the ridge to the other as conditions dictated, finding a highly enjoyable class-3 route, and never once hitting a dead end that forced us to backtrack.

Right at 6 p.m. we climbed up a short vertical step and beheld a wonderful sight -- a 200-foot wide expanse of flat gravel with a 20-foot high boulder pile in the middle of it -- the summit. Like many of the peaks in the area, Thompson has a strangely wide, flat summit plateau. A recent SPS/SMS trip had reported the register missing, so Ron had brought one up and we made the first entry. Weather was clear and mild, and we had wonderful view of surrounding peaks and canyons, plus local giants such as Humphreys, Darwin, Goddard, and the Palisades.

None of us wanted to descend back down the ridge and ramp. Luckily, Steve had climbed the peak via the class-2 route in May (don't ask), so he quickly led us down that way. The rub was that it involved descending almost 1000 feet to the southwest, then reclimbing about 500 feet to the Thompson-Powell saddle. For several of us, this was the first hard trip of the year, and for awhile we suffered mightily for our winter of sloth.

At last, at about 7 p.m., the saddle was ours and we could descend. Some of us found the first 30 feet off the saddle awkward -- icy and over 40 degrees steep, but after that it was easy glissading and plunge stepping all the way to camp, where we arrived about 8 p.m. A hard- earned rest and dinner hour ensued, complete with highly offensive jokes about blondes, nuns, rabbis, and so on. Most of us slept out without tents, and admired the Milky Way for a few minutes before slipping into dreamland.

Far too soon, the call "6 a.m.!!!" emanated from Bob's sleeping bag, and we slowly got stirring on a cold but sparkling alpine morning. By the time we got rolling at 7:30 it was quite warm, with one thin layer of clothing more than enough when moving. We donned crampons and headed southwest past the spectacular northeast face of Mt. Powell, toward the wide snow couloir just to the left of it. Crossing the Thompson-Powell glacier, we reached the bottom of the couloir about 10. The couloir was fun -- the angle was 35-40 degrees and snow conditions were ideal, with boots sinking in a couple of inches but no more. By 10:30 we were on the summit, or I should say "a summit." As many of you know, the summit of Mt. Powell has wandered greatly over the years. In simplified form, and based on much research by Mark Adrian and Richard Carey, here's an attempt to clarify the confusion:

Mt. Powell has three summits that form a wide, shallow "V" on the map, with each leg of the "V" about 1500 feet long. From west to east, the three points have been informally designated Point John, Point Wesley, and Point Powell (after the first white explorer of the Grand Canyon).

Points Wesley and Powell are joined by a nearly flat plateau, but Points John and Wesley are connected by a gnarly ridge for which no beta seems to be available.

After resting on Point Powell, we strolled across the plateau to Point Wesley and rested some more. As usual, Bob impressed us with his ability to combine skilled climbing with deep slothfulness, invariably finding a comfortable chaise-lounge shaped rock on which to nap and issue an occasional pungent comment with closed eyes.

The original trip plan had been to climb all three summits of Powell, but even on Saturday evening, we realized this was not going to be doable if we wanted to also hike out and drive home on Sunday. What we could see of the ridge over to Point John looked like loose and ugly class-3, but there was a dropoff into the low point of the ridge that we couldn't see. It could be nothing or it could be a 50-foot cliff. Judging by the fractured nature of the rock, we guessed that the dropoff is probably class-3 also. We did see an entry in the register on Point Powell proudly claiming the first-ever solo ascent of all three peaks in one day, followed incidentally by the scrawled comment "Do you think we fucking care???"

Around noon we headed down, back across the plateau and down the couloir. Steve has upgraded his glissading gear this year, exchanging his tarp for a stiff plastic roll-up children's sled (where does he find this stuff?). His velocity and range are greatly increased, with no apparent degradation in the legendary Eckert glissading control. He launched from the top of the couloir, threaded down though some rocks, and screamed down 1000 feet in about a minute. The rest of us downclimbed with ice axes for a few hundred feet, down to where the couloir widened out and offered an unobstructed runout, and then launched downhill on our butts.

By 1 we were back in camp, where it was so warm that shorts and t-shirts were comfortable. The hike down took about four hours. We took a slightly better route on the cross-country section, passing to the east of the easternmost Baboon Lake, before picking up the trail near where it ends at Donkey Lake. By 7 p.m. we were feasting in the Bishop Sizzler, celebrating our success on another "kick-ass" PCS trip.

Steve Eckert adds:

I climbed "the dog route on Thompson" in 1997. It was "the real Powell" that I did in May 2000.

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