(Moynier Couloir)

1 Oct 2000 - by Michael Gordon

Alois Smrz and I climbed the North Couloir (or Moynier Couloir) of Mt. Thompson on October 1, 2000 in superb conditions. This gully is the furthest right of the four on the north face of Thompson. It is almost entirely hidden from view until you reach the Thompson ridge via the moraine.

This is a serious mixed climb. We soloed the first four or so pitches on beautiful, hard firn and ice. From here, the couloir pinches down to ten to fifteen feet width on steep, hard, glassy water ice. We roped up here, and Alois took the first pitch of ice. After two screws and a stopper, he began putting in a belay anchor but made the critical mistake of removing his wrist from one of his ice tool leashes. I heard brief profanity and saw his tool start falling. Amazingly, the tool hooked the hanger or biner on his last ice screw and stayed. However, it was not to stay long. Unable to lower to it or downclimb to it, I would have to try and recover it following the pitch. The moment he took up the slack in the rope for me to follow, off the tool went. It bounced and bounded down the narrow couloir. Reaching me, I watched it career by at a high rate of speed throwing sparks as it struck rocks in the middle of the gully. In no time it was gone from my site due to my belay position at the wall. Alois was able to watch it continue a long way. We would have to deal with it.

I followed the pitch, collected the gear from Alois, and led the second and last pitch of water ice. Reaching the large crux chockstone, I looked under - considering the 'tunneling' advice from John Moynier himself - only to find tunneling impossible. Evidently, more rocks have dammed up behind the main chockstone making passage by tunneling available only to midgets and small children. We would have to bail from the ice and climb rock. I put a two-screw belay here: the couloir at this point (the chockstone) is barely two or three feet wide of brilliantly hard water ice, and probably sixty-five or seventy degrees.

Alois would have to follow my lead with a single ice tool. No problem despite the angle. He reached me, we swapped gear and off he went on exposed but moderate fifth class moves, exiting the couloir to the left. A pitch and a half later we were on the summit plateau, greeted by warmth and sun after spending a few hours in the shade and cold of the icy couloir (it really wasn't that cold as long as you were moving). There is some ice coating the rock after the chockstone.

Twenty minutes or so later we were at the summit proper, observing the minor number of entries since its placement by PCS'ers in July. I suspect Thompson (based on number of register entries) doesn't see too many ascents, given there is no real easy way up it - especially from the north.

From here we had to consider the descent. Let me immediately state that unless you enjoy death-fall potential on a knife edge of horribly loose rock and scree, the Thompson Ridge descent - as defined by the Sierra Classics guide - is NOT Class 3. At least NOT the first two pitches off the summit to the first notch. Sierra Classics makes the descent sound trivial. It is a sandbag. Alois could not consider a downclimb of the Harrington Couloir on Thompson (which he'd done before) due to the loss of his second ice tool, so we agreed to descend the North Ridge. High-end or crazed climbers solo the whole North Couloir and the North Ridge descent; Boy, I'd like to see their balls.

Looking off the extreme end of the summit plateau does not engender one with marvelous feelings. There is approximately 1/4 mile of knife edge to reach what appeared (on the approach) to be a class two talus and scree gully. We agreed that we would belay the dangerous downclimbing, placing pro where necessary. I would end up 'leading' all the roped downclimbing. Two pitches off the summit took us to the first notch where we could see steeply down to the glacier. Alois felt like it would go. I told him that during our approach that morning, I had scanned the wall on Thompson Ridge, and the only thing that looked truly descendable was the scree gully - still a 1/4 mile away from us after the knife-edge, gendarmed ridge. We had to keep moving however as it was 1:00pm. We had no idea what was in store for us (you can say that again).

Thinking that we could descend this questionable gully faster than belaying across the ridge, we began descending it despite my uneasy feelings about it. Two pitches of belayed downclimbing brought us to our first rappel of about 80 feet. Fortunately, someone had been here before, and we found two fixed slings which we equalized, then rapped on. A short amount of unroped descent on scree brought us to another rap - another full length at 80 or more feet. Not sure how to get down this one, at the last moment, my eye caught a single, large green sling (new) on the largest boulder in the center of the rubble filled gully.

My feelings of unease continued seeing how far the glacier appeared and how shitty most of the terrain was. Another two pitches of unroped downclimbing on rock and scree brought us to another rappel. This rappel was fixed on a horn and backed up by a chockstone with the chopped end of another party's rope and two carabiners. Apparently somebody else felt like they were having enough of an epic to start cutting their rope to get the hell out of there. We took the two biners (in case we'd need them OR booty: turned out to be booty). After this rap, we were able to see steeply down the remainder of steep, scree-covered slab. It didn't look good, and we were starting to feel f***ed. At this point, the initial five or six pitches of gully open to cliff, punctuated by shallow ribs to our left; one after another. Four of five gulleys over we could see the scree descent chute, but getting there might be difficult or impossible, given our limited amount of gear. Alois scouted from the top of the rib to our left and found easier terrain down the next gully, so we decided to take it. I led off belayed again, and before committing to this cliff-bottomed gully, decided to scramble to the top of the next rib. Slight elation hit me as I found easy scree with very little downclimbing. I brought Alois over, and once again re-racked and headed off. Safety was our modus operandi. Even though we could have unroped, any fall had fatal or injurious complications, so we stayed roped. Dehydration, malnutrition, and fatigue was tiring us - mistakes could be easily made.

Two more pitches of belayed downclimbing opened to even greater views. Our gully hooked to the right, and rounding a corner of the rib, I could see easy, scree-covered ledges and slabs that led to the high end of the Thompson Glacier. I was overwhelmed with relief. No bivy would happen on this God-forsaken cliff.

At the last belay, as I brought Alois to me, I was able to scan the North Couloir. I was sure I saw his ice tool, but recovering it was not likely to happen. Alois reached me and we unroped. A few minutes of travel brought us to the glacier's edge. Alois and I hugged. We toughed out an unknown, horrible descent, and we did it safely and without leaving any gear.

We put crampons back on and headed across the glacier toward the runout zone of the North Couloir to scan for his ice tool - to no avail. It would not be found. I was sure that was his axe I saw, but we couldn't consider the time or energy to recover it. We still had to reach camp, pack up, and pack out.

As we walked away from the Thompson Ridge and the Couloir, I looked back at the cliff/wall: a sight I will likely not forget. There is a distinct, vertical band of color separation between dark and light on the cliff. This is what we descended - about one thousand feet of it. It damn near looks improbable - at least without leaving gear and lots of slings - of which we did neither. It had taken us three hours maximum to climb the couloir, yet about five hours to get down. Perhaps we made a judgment error by descending this wall, but we did it without harm or a forced bivy.

We reached our camp at sunset, packed up, hiked and scrambled out in total darkness - reaching the parking lot at 930pm. We still had the drive home to LA in front of us. We were not to enjoy the beer in the cooler.

I finally put my head to pillow in Long Beach at 330am - just two hours before the work wakeup. Lapsing into unconsciousness also put to sleep my toughest-ever day in the Sierra.


1. This is the first time I think I've recognized obvious inaccuracies in a 7.5 minute USGS map. The Thompson Ridge is portrayed as a broad, easy looking ridge. Prominent gendarmes, knife-edges, and towers are NOT portrayed. Beware. Perhaps I've never had to look at a map so critically, but the inaccuracy of this map is more than obvious.

2. Approaching the North Couloir: from the lowest of the lakes in the Gilbert Basin, travel west across slabs at the toe (north) of the Gilbert Glacier moraine. Stay on the slabs until you are forced to the lateral moraine of the Thompson glacier. Stay on top of this six-foot wide (on top) lateral moraine all the way to wherever you choose to jump off for the couloir. It's similar to walking on an elevated, slightly angled sidewalk. This is my second time on the Thompson moraine/debris, and this way is a cruise compared to anything else. Fighting fading daylight, it took us only thirty minutes from the start of this moraine back to our camp at the lake.

3. Find the axe, get a reward: The axe is FKW Stubai, with tubular adze. The adze is taped up with climbers tape to deaden the sound. It is purple in color, 50 cm about 15 years old with SIMOND (?) "TRACK UP" sling. The pick is Stubai FKW 150 (he believes) which is precursor to present day banana picks. Alois will pay $40 as a reward if found. It is my belief that it is about sixty feet above the bergschrund on the right side, resting on a minor debris ledge in the snow/ice. This is only a guess based on what I saw from a distance.

4. Beware of the Sierra Classics guide. Someone who has not put in many days or years on technical routes in the Sierra can get lulled into false security with some of Fiddler & Moynier's vague descriptions. Especially their Thompson Ridge descent description.

5. Gear: We had six screws, a handful of medium and large stoppers, about four or five medium hexes, one #1 Camalot (red), and a requisite number of slings and Kong Helium and Kong Ultralight wire biners. This is an abbreviated rack, but for a competent party it is a perfect amount. We used every piece at least once.

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