Powell and Thompson

27-29 May 2000 - by Reiner Stenzel

This outing was a joint SPS and SMS trip which included peak climbing and ski mountaineering. We had a great turnout of 14+1 participants, climbed both peaks, skied our hearts out, and enjoyed three days of sunshine in the beautiful Sierra Nevada. "We" means Mark Goebel, Bahram Manahedgi, Jim DeRose, Russ Haswell, Randy Lamm, Maciek Malish, Richard Geist, John A. DiGiacomo, Doug O'Neil, Craig Connally, Susan Connally (private trip), Michael McDermitt from the Bay area, Terry Flood from the San Diego area, and Ruth von Rotz von Truckee. We met on Sat, 5/27, 6 am, at Sabrina Lake, arranged our common gear, shuttled our packs from the remote hikers parking lot to the trailhead, signed our lives away on all the restricted trip forms, and left by 7:30 am. Of course, it started with hiking, since the snow line was much higher than Lake Sabrina (9,128'). To the fishermen we must have looked pretty weird walking in big plastic boots and heavy packs with skis up the trail on a summer-like day.

After an easy mile on the trail, we crossed a gushing stream by balancing carefully over slippery logs and submerged rocks without falling into Bishop Crk. Patchy snow started near Blue Lake (10,400'), and past Donkey Lke (10,600') the trail vanished under the snow and it was time to ski or to posthole. By noon we reached the Baboon Lks (10,976') where we took a long lunch break. The large group had become spread out but we had radios to keep in contact. The Baboon Lakes were partially open and I could not resist to try out my fishing gear. Two trout later we had a long discussion about our planned basecamp at Sunset Lke (11,464'). The vote was for staying at the sheltered and scenic Baboon Lakes instead of a barren, frozen, high-altitude lake. Since this was further from our peaks we agreed on an Alpine start next day. So we had a long afternoon free for skiing the local slopes and reviewing some mountaineering skills.

Mark held a practice session for the proper use of ice axe and crampons, I set up snow anchors with skis, everyone tied into the rope and was belayed. Later we climbed on the ridge between Sunset and Baboon and carved many pretty turns into the soft spring snow. By 5 pm we regrouped at the community snow kitchen for dinner. Brook and rainbow trout were fried in butter, together with onions, potatoes, tomatoes and a twist of lemon, a real delight. We dined and talked in our tight, but cozy kitchen until it got dark. Spring time is such a delight, no mosquitoes, no bears to worry about.

On Sun, 5/29, the alarm bell was ringing at 4:30 am. For a large group it usually takes a bit longer to get ready, thus by 6 am we were all on our way. We cramponed up the creek drainage to Sunset Lke, carrying our skis on light day packs. Early in the morning, the lake was frozen solid and we could safely walk across it. After another ascent up a long moraine we were on the Thompson-Powell Glacier and had a clear view of our route. There are two obvious choices to climb Pt Powell: A steep chute leading directly to the plateau and summit, and the gentler Thompson-Powell col (right side of two cols) which leads to the Southwest side of Powell from where one can ascend the plateau via easier chutes. I took 9 participants up the chute while Mark took 5 over the col. My plan was to continue from Powell to Thompson while Mark planned to climb Powell only.

We left our skis close to the col where we would return from Thompson. In retrospect we should have carried our skis up the chute since there was more snow on the South facing slopes of Powell and Thompson than we had expected. Climbing the snow filled chute in the morning presented no problem of rockfall or sliding. But it was a good workout, especially for the first person kicking the steps by front pointing. We switched leads and when Maciek had his turn it became very quiet in the chute. On the plateau we enjoyed a great view of the endless range of snow covered Sierra peaks. Since Mark's group was still way below the plateau, we proceeded and summitted Point Powell (13,360') by about 9 am. [It is well known that the SPS peak is not the same as Mt. Powell (13,364') on the Darwin topo map, see Echo #43, 1999]. It was a pleasure to sign the SPS peak register as the first group in 2000, particularly in a half-filled booklet from 1964! We called Mark by radio and later rendezvoused with his group as they came up the Southwest slopes where we would descend.

Since we had no skis the next best fun was a long glissade down to Lake 12,120'. After our numb rear ends had recovered we began the ascent of Thompson via a steep snow filled chute between 12,400' and the plateau at 13,200'. On the second peak climb, the pace began to slow down, perhaps because energetic Russ was not leading. He had come down with food poisoning and waited for our return. But Jim was in top shape and helped blazing the trail. Mark spotted us from the summit of Powell and radioed that our group moving up the chute looked like flies on a window. But it was more crawling than flying. Finally, by 1 pm, the first were on the top of the cl.3 summit block of Thompson (13,494'). A cold wind was blowing but the view on the cloudless day was superb. From Goddard to Darwin to North Pal, every major peak was in clear sight. A minor disappointment was that the peak register, a cast metal box with bottom lid, was empty. So we left a sheet with our names and a pen, took some pictures, snacked and returned. We descended a slightly different route, i.e., a snow-free chute filled with quartz, interesting green and black rocks, one of which now sits on my desk. After barely avoiding some rock releases we returned to the snow and plunge stepped or glissaded down, then traversed and climbed back up into the Thompson-Powell col. The exercise of climbing two SPS peaks began to wear us out, even 200 hp Bahram fell behind. But the best was still to come:

After exchanging ice axe and crampons for skis and poles it was a delight to telemark/parallel down the col and glacier, leaving many pretty tracks behind. At 3 pm the spring snow was getting pretty soft and the tracks were occasionally interrupted by holes. Conditions were just right for fat skis. Ski-less Terry continued his workout downhill. He wisely chose a detour around Sunset Lake since crossing a narrow snow bridge near the open shores was possible on skis but not on foot. More turns brought us back to basecamp at the Baboon Lakes where we regrouped with the Powell climbers. We were all satisfied with a fine day of ski mountaineering. Thanks to our early start it was only 4 pm and we could now enjoy a long relaxed afternoon. Some rested, some took an icy bath, I pulled out three trout for dinner. We all gathered for dinner in the snow kitchen which came with a source of fresh water: Apparently, we were so close to the lake that digging into the snow produced a nice waterhole. [i.e., the snow kitchen was unknowningly built over the snow-covered lake, and digging a small hole in the floor created our plumbing -Ed.] After sunset it became breezy and cool and we retired to bed by 9 pm, just after a beautiful moonrise over the Thompson Ridge. In the night gusts of wind shook trees and tents.

On Monday, Memorial Day, we got up leisurely at 7 am, ate breakfast and packed in the sunshine, and hiked/skied out by 9:30 am. Skiing down with full packs through trees and bushes is another backcountry experience which a lift ticket cannot provide. The fun ended near Donkey Lake where we rediscovered the trail and marched out like normal hikers. At Blue Lake we regrouped for lunch, and at the South Fork of Bishop Creek we had another interesting stream crossing. It's interesting to see the variety of approaches in a big group: Some did a ballerina dance on tele boots over slippery logs, others walked barefoot through the icy water, some did not care and plowed through the gushing creek with full gear, but luckily nobody fell in. By 1:30 pm we were all back at the cars, signed out and ready to hit the Muleday traffic. It seems that everyone was satisfied with the successful peak climbing and skiing in beautiful weather and mountains. The leaders were especially pleased that the large group had no accidents/incidents. Shows that we had a wonderful group of fine ski mountaineers. Thanks, Mark, for helping to lead such an enjoyable outing. And thanks to Craig for the stats of the trip from his map program: 18.2 mi, 7,430', rt.

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