Saturday, August 6, 2011

Getting lost enroute to Mt. Thomson

As the first week of August drew to a close, several of my work colleagues and I started talking about doing some sort of climbing activity on the weekend. I suggested a scramble up the east ridge of Mount Thomson, as I have been meaning to climb it ever since I had seen it's distinctive bell shape while skiing in the backcountry around Snoqualmie Pass. Everyone was on board, so at 6:30am on Saturday morning Bing, Kate, Jake and I all met at Jeff's apartment on Capitol Hill where we piled into Bing's car and headed east for Snoqualmie Pass. Here we are unloading and suiting up.

Mount Thomson is a 4th class scramble so we had brought a rope along in case we wanted to rappel any part of the route, and we were also vaguely aware that there might be snow along the way so we had ice axes. That is, everyone had ice axes except Kate because the memo to bring ice axes had gone out at 11pm on Friday night and it turns out that only the gentlemen in the party were all still packing at midnight. So, we headed out along the Pacific Crest Trail. Now, if anyone has ever hiked or done climbing approaches with me, you may be aware that I love shortcuts. For this approach, I had read about not one, but two great shortcuts that were possible. The first involved splitting off from the PCT after a few hundred feet and re-joining it to cut out a big loop, and the second involved exiting the PCT at the next switch back for a short bushwhack to cut out an even longer section of switch backs.

So, as I somehow found myself leading the charge as we set off along the PCT, we took the first short cut. I had never been on these trails in the summer despite having skied in the area several times last winter, and it turns out that I missed the section of trail that would have put us back on the PCT and we somehow found ourselves on the flanks of Red Mountain. At this point we were pretty sure it was the wrong way but we persisted anyway, heading past a lake at the base of the west face of Red Mountain (seen below) and taking, you guessed it, another shortcut up a talus slope to re-join this trail as it headed toward Lundin Peak, in the opposite direction of where we wanted to head.

As we continued it became clear that we were not going to re-join our intended route, with the point being driven home by a sign that we encountered where the trail petered out on the ridge:

Yikes! Definitely not on track. After a short detour down a snowy slope that proved much too steep to descend in running shoes, we regrouped on the ridge and considered our options. Here is Jeff looking skeptical as I try to convince him that we are still on track to make the summit of Mount Thomson.

So, we turned around decided to cut our losses and re-trace our path to hopefully pick up the second short cut that we should have taken. Here are Kate, Bing, and myself heading back down the talus slope and back across Red Mountain.

We picked up the trail that we had come in on again, and continued down the ridge. I felt that we should try to cut across the slope to try and pick up the second short cut, and after tentatively hinting at this for a while (still smarting from the blow of my last few shortcuts having failed), the others eventually acquiesced and we left the trail and set off through the woods. After some mild bushwhacking we encountered an avalanche slope that I recognized from skiing, with lots of snapped trees from a really big slide that must have come down in the spring:

All those obliterated pine trees sure smelled good! We re-entered the bushes and continued our cross country foray, eventually emerging into an open valley below the PCT that we needed to intersect. Jake and I were ahead, and it was fun to look back and try to pick out the others as they fought their way through the bushes.

Good work everyone! People were being pretty good sports about following me on these off trail excursions, and I kept thanking my lucky stars that my wife Roanne was not along on this trip as my head would have been served to me on a platter several times by this point if she had been. After a quick lunch break on a large boulder we continued up this drainage, now reasonably sure that we were on track for the second short cut that we were supposed to have taken. After some more cross country travel and a short scramble up beside a water fall we emerged into a snowy basin with a clear route up to the PCT. Here are a few members of the party in the basin. You might think that Bing is leaning over in an act of recovery from the exertion; in actual fact he is trying to recover from being nailed in the groin by a snowball courtesy of Jake, who is looking all too pleased on the left side of the picture.

After a short break we continued up the snow slope towards a talus slope that we were sure would finally lead us to the PCT:

Here we go! The talus slope proved quite friendly, and it was fun scrambling over the larger boulders. Here is Bing leading the charge, despite his talk of being hopelessly out of shape from having spent the last month touring factories in China:

After some more brush-battling when the talus slope petered out we ran into more snow covered slopes, and then after a short steep section we finally stepped onto the PCT. Great success! By this point we were about 6 hours into our adventure, and an aging hiker who passed by as we were regrouping on the trail told us that it had taken him just 4 hours on the PCT. Stinker! Oh well, you never know unless you try. We continued along the trail, passing the "Kendall Catwalk" which was nice to see since it was new for all of us. Here is Jake leading it out as we depart the Kendall Catwalk, continuing along the PCT in our quest for Mount Thomson.

The dirt of the trail soon gave way to snow slopes, and we continued on our way without a real firm idea that we were headed in the right direction. Here are the troops still in high spirits, making their way along the snow slopes:

I needed to be back in the city by 6 or 7pm that evening since Roanne's parents were coming in to town, and since by this point it was after 1pm we were all aware that our chances of summiting the elusive Mount Thomson were dwindling. Luckily the snow slopes continued to prove amusing, here is Bing putting his snowboard skills to good use carving some turns on a downhill:

Eventually we reached a nice frozen body of water in the form of Ridge Lake, and given our now imminent failure with respect to Mount Thomson we all declared Ridge Lake a worthy substitute and decided to call that our objective for the day. We took a short nap by the lake and then posed for a picture before turning around and heading back:

Good times! For the way back we all agreed that it would be best to take the PCT the whole way (though on the inside I still felt we could have nailed those shortcuts on the second time around), so off we went. The trail passed very close to Kendall Peak which we decided was worth a short scramble to make up for our lack of scrambling due to not having reached Mount Thomson, so we set off on a jaunt along the north ridge, and though we stopped short of the final summit it was a good exercise, especially since the sun had now emerged from the clouds. Here are the troops heading up the ridge:

And finally, stopped at our high point on the summit ridge, shortly before an extended exercise in throwing rocks at a cornice to try and make it release (unsuccessful, but revealing that Jeff might have been a world class shot putter).

From here we headed back down the trail, and after a short delay to help out two female hikers who were convinced that a whistling bird needed rescuing, we jogged back down the trail to the car and headed back to Seattle. All told it was a great adventure, and needless to say we (or maybe just me) we will be back to show those short cuts who's boss.

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