Mount Thompson (Thomson), Alpine Lakes Wilderness
The man was shaving when I walked into the Union 76 to buy coffee at 4 am. Brushing a few hairs off of his shirt, he took my $2. When I came back at 9:30 PM to buy a 24 oz can of Steel Reserve, he was back on shift and needed to shave again. It was going to be a long day.
West Ridge - July 28, 2007
Jayson and I met Bill and Joel at the PCT trailhead at Snoqualmie Pass at 5:30 AM, none of us fully functioning and still speaking with that half-awake voice that seems to characterize the start of most of my climbs. I had climbed with Joel before, having been up South Early Winter Spire and The Tooth with him. I knew Jayson and Bill from the Mountaineers, but had not climbed with them before. Mount Thompson (above, left) via the West Ridge had been on my to-climb list for some time: Long approach, central in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and solid rock. But way long.
Fitness was not going to be a problem with this particular group. Indeed, if anyone was going to lag behind, it would be me. So, I gave myself the advantage of trail runners over their boots. The approach via the PCT blazed by, with Alaska Lake (above) marking the traverse of the Kendall Catwalk and nearing the end of our trail work. We pulled up after 2.5 hours at Ridge Lake to pick up some more water before hauling up and over Bumblebee Pass, which actually had a few bumblebees on top.
From the pass would could see our objective for the day, and even most of our route: The West Ridge is the left skyline of the peak. The route goes up the talus/scree field on the left to just left of the small dogtooth and then traverses over to the base of the ridge itself. Three pitches would get us across the lower slab, and a final one would gain the false summit. Scrambling would reach the true summit.
We dropped down into the basin below Thompson and found an excellent, well flowing water source where we could pick up water for the return trip. Most parties take two days for the climb and bivy in the basin itself. The camp would be very scenic, but would mean hauling overnight gear, in addition to climbing gear, for quite a long ways. We stashed gear that we would not need for the climb and set off for the scree and talus, which turned out to be quite manageable in trailrunners and more stable than it appeared. From the notch we had an excellent via of the Big Fatty.
A short bit of traversing on class 3 terrain led up to a cramped (for 4) platform where we set up an anchor for a belay. The others were climbing in mountaineering boots, but I needed every advantage I could get and swapped my runners for rock shoes for the rest of the climb. The route description we carried mentioned climbing up a chimney for a full pitch to a bushy tree. However, the bushy tree was about a half pitch above us, causing some confusion. Bill took the rack and the first lead up a slightly delicate ramp, with little in the way of protection, to a chimney, where protection was better, but the climbing dirtier.
Bill put me on belay and I headed up the route, finding the climbing easy and fun, but some loose rock in the chimney meant that the others had to wait until I cleared it in order to start climbing. I reached Bill and took the rack from him for the second pitch directly up the ridgeline. Looking down for the first time, it became clear that Thompson was going to be an exposed climb.
And what does exposure mean? It means that there is going to be a lot of air under your feet and all around you. It means that an unroped fall would have fatal consequences. It means that the climb will be scenic, stunning, and everything that people go into the alpine for. The second pitch ran up the ridge, zigzagging around a few obstacles, to an airy and scenic platform where I clipped some good looking tat slung around a large boulder for an anchor and brought Bill up. A stuck #1.5 tricam and a stuck Metolius curved hex helped with protection! The rack changed hands again for Bill to take the third pitch, which went very rapidly and I had to work to feed out enough rope for Bill to climb on. When Bill put me on and I started up, I realized why: There was little in the way of protection, but the climbing was fairly easy, though massively exposed, and had a long, low angle slab section. Bill had used up nearly all of our 60 meter rope to reach a set of trees almost at the end of the slab. In the below photo, Jayson is set up in the same trees in the center right, and Joel is beginning the slab section in center left.
I got the rack on last time, and led out across the remaining slab to the continuation of the west ridge, not putting any protection in along the way in an attempt to minimize rope drag, which looked like it could be a problem. I regained the ridge and headed up, zigzagging again, and generally heading to the right to gain the false summit. I stretched the rope as far as it would go, pulling tight against Bill on the other end, to get to some large boulders that could sling for an anchor. Bill came up and crossed the slab to the top of the false summit and joyous views.
We hung out on the false summit and waited for the other team to collect at the trees before moving off to the true summit. A beaten track in the rock dropped down to a gully, which fell for a several hundred feet on the other side. Bill built an anchor and I belayed him up a short stretch of easy rock, but with the exposure some protection was certainly necessary. Bill fixed the line and two minutes later I was standing on top in the blazing sunshine.
Thompson is the biggest thing in the area, which meant that 360 degree views were to be had. The Olympics peaked their heads over the clouds obscuring the Puget Sound area. The Big Fatty loomed.
The Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River lay at my feet, with massive Mount Garfield rising straight out of it. Bill headed over to the false summit to wait for the others while I regeared and lounged in the sun on the broad summit. It would make an excellent bivy site in settled weather, I thought. The others topped on the false summit, shown below, as I wolfed my summit treat, a King Size Snickers bar.
Even from the distance of the true summit, I could see the smiles on the others' faces as they came up to the true summit: Washington is a scenic state with a lot of excellent alpine climbs, but Thompson was definitely one of the best. Indeed, the best one I had done this season. Or any other.
We loitered on top for a half an hour before before sadly leaving. We still had to get off the mountain. We still had a long way to retreat out to the cars. We still had a 90 minute drive to get back to Tacoma, and it was already 3:15 in the afternoon. There was still sweat to be dropped, and I wanted a can of The 211 and, perhaps, to catch up on some needed sleep. The vastness of the interior of the Alpine Lakes had inspired ideas for future trips, for future seasons. On the main crest facing our descent route stood Overcoat, Summit Chief, Chimney Rock, the three Lemah, and Chikamin. In the distance proudly stood Mount Stuart, the center piece of the Alpine Lakes. These would have to wait for another year, for August would bring trials much further north.
From Lakewood, drive I-5 north to State Highway 18 and follow this to I-90. Head east on I-90 to exit 52 (marked as "West Summit") and get off the interstate. Make a left from the off ramp and drive a hundred feet or so to the entrance for the PCT trailhead. You'll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park legally, or something like the Golden Eagle Passport, which is what I have. Hike the PCT north for 7.1 miles to Ridge Lake, where you may want to pick up water for the rest of the climb if you are here in late season or there was a low snow year. Continue 0.5 miles north along the PCT, dropping a little in elevation. Spy a drainage gully on your left (pretty obvious), just before a sharp right turn in the trail. This is the way up to Bumblebee Pass and you'll find a climbers trail about 10 vertical feet up it. Hike up to Bumblebee pass and then down the other side into the basin below. There was plenty of flowing water here in July. Stash gear. Hike up the talus/scree slope below Thompson to the notch at the left of a prominent dogtooth, the second from the left. The slope is mostly stable and is best on the left. From the notch, scramble up and around (leftish is easy) a few obstacles and up to the base of a chimney. Set up your first belay here.
The first pitch moves up a slight ramp into the chimney and is a little heartpounding in boots, but easy enough in shoes (or if you're not leading!). The pitch runs up to a bushy tree, 30 meters above you and in sight. The second pitch is about 40 meters in length and dumps you at a very scenic, airy belay station with a big boulder you can sling. Note that if you have a 70 meter rope, you could probably run pitches 1 and 2 together, but rope drag will become an issue. Run the third pitch out for a full rope length across a big slab (minimal protection opportunities enroute) to a tree island where you can set up another anchor. Routefind carefully on pitch 4, generally trending right to bypass harder climbing. Rope drag can be a problem. Cross the remaining slab and regain the ridge crest. You can make the top, or near the top, of the false summit with a full 60 meter climb. Sling some boulders here. The true summit is class 3 (easy, but very exposed) scramble, and is very short. We set a handline here. To descend, follow a faint trail off the opposite end of the true summit, leading down (to the left) to a rap station at a nice tree. Rap down to a lower (1 rope easy) rap station. Re-thread your rope and rap down another short rope length. A 50 meter rope would be fine here. Scramble left to get a climbers trail. Be careful and downclimb the ledges, following a very distinct climbers path all the way back to the basin and your gear. This descent is the East Ridge scramble route.
Although it makes for a long day, the climb can be done in 1 day as the retreat out is along the PCT, a big superhighway trail. The climb is super exposed, very scenic, and the rock excellent. The climbing is mostly low-mid 5th class. The hardest moves are about 5.5-5.6 in nature. Trailrunners are fine for the approach and descent (carryover). You can climb the route in boots, but I was happy to have rock shoes. Protection is generally easy to come by and a rack composed of a set of nuts and some medium cams (we used BD 0.5,0.75, 1, 2 and #2, 2.5, 3, 3.5) will be fine. It is run out in a few spots, but the climbing there is pretty easy. Plenty of double runners will help. If you do overnight it, the basin below the peak is a good choice. Here are our times for a 1 day climb:
- Leave trailhead at 5:40 AM
- First climber leaves at 10:15 AM
- First team summits at 1:45 PM
- Begin descent at 3:15 PM
- Reach PCT at 5:15 PM
- Reach trailhead at 8 PM
You can cut off some mileage from the approach/retreat by taking the old Commonwealth Basin trail. This will save you about 1 mile each way, but you'll move slower than on the PCT. It isn't clear that the shortcut (or others that exist) actually save time or energy. On the way out, stay on the PCT so you don't get lost in your tiredness.