Mount Tom is just like Cathedral Peak, but different

12-13 May 2002 - by Aaron Schuman

Mount Tom is just like Cathedral Peak. Both mountains stand out in front of their range, enormously visible from the highway, beckoning. Both mountains reward the climber by showing themselves easily and often, giving a lifetime of reminders of a happy moment on the summit.

There are other, more subtle differences. Cathedral Peak is a stiletto of stone aimed at the heart of heaven. Mount Tom is massive and round.

We set out to climb Mount Tom and its neighbor, Basin Mountain, on the weekend of May 12 and 13, 2002. Bob Suzuki was our leader. Jim Ramaker, Alex Sapozhnikov and I completed the team.

Bob accomplished the drive from Bishop to the trailhead in his 4WD Nissan Pathfinder, as Jim read directions from RJ Secor's guidebook. I might attempt this drive in an ordinary passenger vehicle, for all but the last mile of the worsening dirt road. The return drive turned out to be tricky, as side roads that looked insignificant from the east appeared more pronounced from the west. Future drivers should snap waypoints at the junctions.

The driveable part of the road ends at a locked gate (8300 ft), but the old mining road continues for many miles and thousands of vertical feet. It may be a crummy road, but it is excessive as a hiking trail. If we had chosen, we could have hiked four abreast up to our campsite at lower Horton Lake (10200 ft).

We equipped ourselves for a day hike across mixed snow and rock, then headed south and upslope from Horton Lake, toward Basin Mountain. We crossed a steep region that Bob and Alex climbed on slabs, and that Jim and I climbed in a snow chute. We consumed a lot of time and energy surmounting this wall. We stashed gear on top and continued over lower angle scree. We could have made life easier for ourselves by staying on scree to the right of a rib, but instead we stayed near the rib, on its left, and worked harder scrambling up blocks. By the time we reached the skyline, it was already 6:00 p.m. Alex and I were pooped, and we were past our turn-around time. We had ascended a false summit. The true summit was another 200 yards, down to a notch and up a summit pyramid. Jim and Bob completed the climb by themselves. We all retreated to Horton Lake together, arriving at around 10:00. Some of my trip-mates were too spent to eat, which is an unhealthy way to finish a day.

Sunday we walked up the switchbacks of a branch road to another mine on the slopes of Mount Tom. We stashed our ice axes when we reached the plateau, a choice we would later regret. We clambered over talus that continually increased in size, until near the summit area, the scrambling became quite interesting and enjoyable. At 12:30, we were all on the summit of Mount Tom.

We could see an alternate route down to the plateau, one which would have featured a thousand foot glissade down a snow chute. Unfortunately, our ice axes were down at the plateau, so we couldn't take the elevator down. Instead, we picked our way down a sandy slope. Alex found the footing unsteady. I was grateful to have taken a waypoint where we left our gear. We were one quarter turn around the mountain, and features looked different.

When we recovered our gear, we were near a second long snow chute, that ran 1500 feet all the way down to the trail. After some excellent instruction from Bob, Alex made the first big glissade of his mountaineering career. From the bottom of the chute, we hopped back up the trail a short distance to our camp, arriving at 5:00 p.m. We reassembled our packs and hiked back down the trail, returning to Bob's car just before 8:00.

We were so late that we debated driving part way and finding a motel room, but we didn't want to face Monday morning rush hour traffic all the way from the San Joaquin Valley to the Silicon Valley. Bob did a heroic night drive, and we arrived at the Fremont Park'n'Ride at 3:00 a.m.

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