Thompson Peak marathon

After two hours of hiking still a long way to go

At 10,751 feet Thompson Peak is the highest mountain in the Sawtooths. I climbed it in the early eighties during my serious climbing days. My partner and I did it by a nonstandard route because in those days there were no guidebooks to the Sawtooths. We just looked at topo maps and then did our best route finding once we were on the mountain. We went up the north ridge from the Thompson/Williams saddle. It was easy fifth class but still a roped technical climb. Then last year I tried it again with Dave Thiel, a partner on a number of hikes since I have come back from Singapore. It didn't go well. I felt very badly about how I had done on that attempt. I was out of shape and overweight. I viewed that failure as unfinished business with Thompson Peak.

During our discussion on the drive home Dave told me about a book aimed at conditioning for "older men" (moi?). The book is Younger Next Year and I bought it and downloaded it to my Kindle as soon as I was home. I really liked the book. It didn't talk about dieting (which I always thought was dumb anyway). Most studies show that dieting has no long term weight loss effect. Itstead it emphasized exercise. Regular exercise. Like, every day. No doing a hike on Saturday or going out for a run on a nice Sunday afternoon and calling it good. Every day. No excuses. Serious exercise, no sissy fifteen minute workout. There was a lot of discussion of the physiology of why that was the best approach to both conditioning and weight loss. The book made a big impression on me and after the holidays, starting January 3, I began a serious conditioning program. My goal was to lose weight and be in shape for serious hiking and climbing in 2011. I worked very hard at it.

A brief rest stop at Dave's Lake

The program worked well. By exercising every day I felt better and naturally didn't eat as much. I actually eat more when I am sedentary and snacking is easy. By early summer I had lost over thirty five pounds and felt I was ready to do serious hiking. And I did do a lot of hiking this year. I made two hiking trips to the Southern Utah canyon country, one to the Washington Cascades, and several day hikes to the Sawtooths. I finished up with the two week trip to the Alps that Sandy and I made in September. These resulted in lots of blog posts, too many to provide links. Just look in the DogBlog11 index.

I was ready for another go at Thompson Peak. Right after we came home from the Alps, Sandy went back to Wisconsin for a long weekend to attend her sister's fiftieth birthday party. The forecast was for excellent weather for the weekend. It looked like it was time to go.

At the pond below the headwall - lots more snow than last year

Both of my previous climbs on Thompson Peak had been overnight trips. The approach to Thompson involves a four mile trail hike, then another two tough miles on a rough climber's track and some additional cross country travel to reach Dave's Lake at 9000 feet in the basin below Thompson's east face. That is where the real climbing starts. On previous trips I had backpacked and set up a camp in the basin to make for a shorter summit day. But it does mean hauling a heavy pack a long way and across some difficult ground. This time I was going to try to do it in a day. It made the logistics easier. Since Sandy was out of town I didn't have to drop Laney off to stay with someone else for the weekend. I figured that I should be able to do the climb in one day, just a Very Long Day. I packed up my hiking gear on Friday night. I arranged for someone to stop by Saturday afternoon to check on Laney. Since I was tired after a week at work I didn't have any trouble getting to bed early in the evening. I was planning on an early start. With shorter days in the fall I wanted to have every minute of daylight available for the climb.

The summit register box on Thompson Peak

I set my alarm for 4 am. That would be the first test of the day. Sometimes the hardest part of a climb for me is getting up in the middle of the night for an alpine start. There was no problem this time. I woke up on my own and was out of bed before the alarm even went off. I got ready and took care of Laney and was pulling out of the driveway at 4:35 am. The stars were out and it did indeed look like an excellent day to do a climb.

Leaving early had the advantage of avoiding traffic. I encountered very few cars during the my drive up to the mountains. Sometimes traffic can really slow you down between Boise and Stanley. The road has a lot of curves and it is easy to get stuck behind a slow driver for a long time. But no one else seemed to be out early this morning. I was anxious so I drove a little faster than I usually do. I got to the Redfish Lake backpacker's parking lot at 7:15 just as it was starting to get light.

The last few feet to the summit

I was surprised when I reached the trail head. Usually after Labor Day the Sawtooths are virtually empty. This time the parking lot was crowded. There had to be over twenty cars. That was a lot as most of them had to be people who had backpacked in the night before. There were three cars with people packing up to start on the trail. Very unusual for the Sawtooths. I changed into my boots, threw on my pack and was away quickly before any of the others in the parking lot started out.

It was a brisk morning. The temperature was probably about 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Since there wasn't any wind it wasn't cold at all once I started moving. I wore a tshirt, a long sleeve shirt and a GoreTex shell and was quite comfortable. I didn't want a lot of weight to carry later in the day when it warmed up. By 8:30 I had my jacket off and by 9:30 I had my long sleeve shirt off. The rest of the day was a tshirt day. A beautiful fall day for climbing a mountain. It even got hot for a while in the afternoon.

Indisputable proof for any doubters - you know who you are

The first two hours of the hike are along well maintained trails. I started out on the level Fishhook Creek Trail. Then at a junction I took the Marshall Lake trail which ascended to a ridge crest and then climbed along it towards Williams Peak. I didn't see anyone on the trail but at one point I heard a lot of crashing in the brush down the side of the ridge. After hearing it a couple of times I stopped and just watched and eventually spotted a deer about a hundred feet away. It was almost the same place that Dave and I had seen three deer on our trip the previous fall. I guess the deer like that spot. A little further along I heard voices off to the left. That puzzled me as there isn't a trail down there so there isn't any obvious spot to expect people to be. There are some off trail lakes that way so I figured that it must be some people who had backpacked in and were camped at those lakes. Not an obvious destination to me but Dave Thiel had hiked in and explored those lakes earlier this year. Later I found out that I was wrong but I'll get to that in good time.

My car is way back at Redfish Lake (larger of the two lakes)

After about two hours I reached the point where the trail turned sharply north to go to Marshall Lake. A climbers track turned off and headed into the basin below Thompson Peak. It is better than nothing but it is not easy hiking. It starts off with a very steep climb. Then it traverses a steep slope far into the basin. At one point it crosses a rock band that might make some hikers feel uncomfortable. Then a last steep climb takes it up to a meadow below Dave's Lake. (NOTE: the astute reader will have noticed how often the word "steep" appears when describing the climber's track.) The meadow was where we had camped on our attempt the year before. When I stopped for a minute to take some pictures in no time there were a couple of mosquitoes buzzing around me. That is very unusual. One of the best things about fall hiking is that the cold nights kill off all the bugs. They can be quite annoying in July and August in the Sawtooths. But this had been an unusual year and I hurried my pictures and started off again. Once I was moving the bugs were quickly left behind. They were around but not very fast in the cool fall weather.

Self portrait on the summit

I reached Dave's Lake and took a short rest. It had taken me three hours to get this far but I felt really good. The lake is at 9000 feet. I had climbed over 2500 feet to get there. I had 1750 feet to go. But the terrain above the lake is more challenging than a maintained trail or a climber's track. So there was still a lot of work to do.

As I approached Dave's Lake I had noticed another hiker heading upwards. Now as I climbed above the lake I could see him above me. I was taking my time since I had a long way to go but I was still gaining on him steadily. Eventually I overtook him and we stopped to chat for a few minutes. He was from Boise and was in to backpack for the weekend. He was hoping to climb Thompson but said that his knees were bothering him and really slowing him down. There had to be some explanation because it is a rare event when I overtake someone on the uphill. When we started up again I pulled ahead rapidly. By the time I reached the pond below the headwall he wasn't even visible behind me.

Mt. Carter from the summit of Thompson

I was at my highpoint from the year before. There was a small pond below a rocky headwall that led up to the saddle between Thompson Peak and Williams Peak. The best way to reach the saddle wasn't obvious. I tried going to the left. I gained over a hundred feet of elevation climbing up a rocky slope. There was a lot of snow for so late in the year. I had to cross about a hundred feet of snow to reach the base of the headwall where it looked like I could scramble up to the saddle. I thought it would be easy but the snow was hard packed which made it difficult to kick steps. Drat. I really needed an ice axe but hadn't expected to so late in the season. After about four steps across the snow I decided that this wasn't the best way to go. Not in a remote spot when I was climbing by myself. Time to go back down and try a different approach. There is nothing worse on a hike or climb than having to give up elevation that you worked hard to gain. But I had to turn around and go back to the pond.

Above Dave's Lake on the way down

Next I went up the right side. I hadn't picked it first because it was a steep scree slope, which is about as much fun as climbing up ball bearings. I just took it slowly. Eventually I saw a ledge cutting across the rock band and climbed onto it. It was an easy traverse over to the saddle although with some exposure. I just took it slowly and carefully.

After that the route winds all the way around the mountain while steadily gaining elevation. It circles 180 degrees to reach the Thompson Peak/Mickey's Spire saddle. From there I only had a few hundred feet to go. Above the saddle is the home stretch. Although from almost every angle the summit block of Thompson Peak is an imposing spire, from the saddle I could see a gully that provided access to the upper region of the peak. It was a steady slog up the gully. Finally I crested the summit ridge just a few feet north of the true summit. I could see down to Dave's Lake and see the entire way I had hiked up from Redfish Lake in the distance. The summit register was here. I read through the entries and added my own. I was surprised to see that there were quite a few ascents, two or three every week over the past two months. A lot of Sawtooth summits only get one or two ascents each year. I guess Thompson Peak draws a lot of traffic because it is the highest mountain in the range. One interesting item was that someone had left a cigar, still in the wrapper, and lighter in the register box. I wonder how long it will stay up there. After signing in I scrambled the last few feet to the true summit. Although it was quite easy the last bit felt quite airy and exposed. Then I snapped some pictures (to convince any cynics), ate a snack, enjoyed the view and started down.

Hard to believe that I had been way up there

It had taken me just over five hours to reach the summit of Thompson. I expected it to be about the same going down. Just as I left the summit I heard voices. I met two guys in the summit gully on their way up. They had been in the parking lot the same time that I had left. But they had left the trail too soon and had done a lot more cross country than I did. So even with my false start up the headwall I had beaten them to the top by almost an hour. They were impressed that I had reached the summit before they had. Wow. Not too many days in the mountains when I impress everyone with my speed.

It was just a long slog back to the car. It took me about five hours for a ten hour round trip. I was tired but not exhausted. I was pretty happy to have made the climb. It's a great route on a great summit. The season is just about over for this year but I am determined to be ready for next year. I will have all winter to pick out a big objective for next summer.