August 27, 2020.
People love superlatives: the highest, the farthest, the steepest, etc. When it comes to mountains, the highest ones always get all the attention. At this point in my life, I’m not that concerned with bagging the peaks that everyone knows about. But Thompson Peak, the highpoint of the Sawtooths, caught my attention for a few reasons. One, it has a non-technical route to the top. Two, it is located close enough to the road that you coul do it in one long day or two easier days. Three, compared to other well-known highpoints, this did not seem to attract a ton of foot traffic. And, since we had the opportunity to get up there on a weekday, I knew I had to go for it.
For the sanity of both myself and my partner, we decided to split up the climb into two days. We were in the Sawtooths for our first time anyways, and thought it would be cool to spend a night in the high country. I don’t regret that decision one bit.
Day 1: to camp, the hard way
5 mi. | 2440′ | 3:30 hr.
Since we didn’t have much ground to cover, our day began with a late get-up, breakfast fried rice and time packing up gear for one more overnight. After lugging around a bear canister for four days, I was thrilled to carry only a hang bag and a few items to get me through the night.
We started hiking at a casual 10-something am. After signing in at the trailhead (so cute!) we began hiking on the trail towards our camp. According to my research, much of the distance we’d cover was on trail. I settled into a comfortable walking pace behind LeeAnn.
The trail led up to, then just below, a ridgeline that taunted us with partial views for a good portion of the hike. I eagerly anticipated the big reveal. Which one was Thompson, I wondered. Craggy peaks reached toward the sky ahead of us, but as I was unfamiliar with the area, I couldn’t tell which was which.
As the trail ducked into the forest I obsessively checked the GPS on my phone for the point where we’d need to leave the trail. LeeAnn suggested that we’d find a good climber’s trail to get to the basin below our peak; my experience with climber’s trails taught me never to expect a good one. So, I got more and more anxious as our supposed trail failed to appear.
“I think we should just leave the trail here,” I said. I wasn’t psyched about it, but we’d walked a half a mile past the alleged junction. So, we thrashed headfirst into the woods, climbing over downed trees, traversing steep, grassy slopes and grabbing on to shrubs to help stay upright. We advanced at an agonizingly slow pace as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter.
“This sucks, no wonder more people don’t do this one,” I thought.
Our hairy traverse led us to even steeper slopes above an unnamed puddle and the only way to go was up. I picked a route up a somewhat stable talus slope interspersed with flowers, shrubs, and one heinous patch of alder. I’d occasionally come across a small stretch of trail-like passage that would disappear almost as quickly as it began.
On the other side of the boulders, something magical happened. I hopped onto one of those aforementioned trails, and…it kept going. Yahoo! We continued along the climber’s trail, faint in places, across a flat meadow, to more rock piles and eventually the lake just below Thompson Peak. The rocks dropped steeply into the lake and much of the surrounding terrain was exposed, rugged, and decidedly *not* flat. With a little bit of searching, however, we found a great little spot to pitch our tent among a small cluster of trees. We made it.
I hung our food while LeeAnn set up the tent, then we went for a quick dip in the lake. A couple who had just come down from the mountain sat at the lakeside and we chatted a bit. The mountain looked awfully daunting from this side.
That evening, gray clouds passed overhead. We waited for the first sign of a thunderstorm, the security of our tent just steps away. But, the rain never came. Our tent site was solidly sheltered from the wind, and we enjoyed a fantastic time in high camp without another human in sight.
Day 2: the climb
4.3 mi. | 1970′ 5:30 hr.
In the morning, a hazy sunrise quickly gave way to calm, blue skies. A perfect summit day! LeeAnn made pancakes for breakfast and we hit the trail just after 7 am.
Our climber’s trail disappeared almost immediately, so I did my best to read the landscape to choose the best route. I knew we had to spiral all the way around the mountain to end up at a couloir on the south side. According to my conversation with the couple at the lake the day prior, we wouldn’t have to cross any snow on the route, so I avoided snow patches as we walked.
The route took us up and across several alpine benches replete with cascading snowmelt creeks, thick patches of green vegetation and slabs of rock. If you close your eyes and envision an alpine paradise, you’ll picture exactly where we were. I smiled from ear to ear.
Our first obstacle was a tall, yellow-gray rock slab that looked completely impassable from afar. But, as we approached, I found a weakness in the rock that offered up good hand holds and ledges. We put on our helmets and scurried up the slab. Next, we wove our way across a large, shaded bench system with some new obstacles to avoid: steep drops, icy ponds, flowing water, slick snowfields. It was like American Ninja Warrior, mountain series.
As we negotiated a path through these features, I remembered the other advice that couple had given me the day before: you’ll want to go high early, but stay low. We did just that, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gain that we’d need to downclimb later.
The next obstacle was one we’d conquered just a few days ago: a massive boulder field. All that we needed was patience and time. Most of this side of the mountain was shaded and breezy, so an extra layer helped, too. One foot after another, we plodded up and left to continue our spiral path towards Thompson’s south ridge.
I paused at the saddle, taking a moment to look at the new scenery that came into view from our high perch. The higher we climbed, the more peaks we saw. This was truly a mountain-lover’s destination.
Walking along the ridge, I envisioned the route ahead. It was never obvious until I got right to it. We found our couloir and scrambled up to the top; it was easier-going than the slab we surmounted earlier in the day.
At the top of the Sawtooths, we split a Kit Kat bar and read some of the many entries in the summit log. From the top, I pointed out an interesting lake that I wanted to check out on the way back down. I also wanted to tag an adjacent highpoint before returning to camp. So, we made a plan: LeeAnn would hike down to the lake, I’d go on my highpoint shenanigans and then join her at the lake.
We downclimbed to the saddle together, then went our separate ways. My goal was to traverse west, maintaining my elevation across the bouldery slope to the saddle near Mt. Carter. It was just over a quarter mile away. While Mt. Carter didn’t look all that interesting, I couldn’t get this close without tagging the top.
I shuffled across the boulders, making good time to the saddle. From that point, it was an easy walk up a broad ridge to the top. When I got there, tears began to well up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe the panoramic views. That subtle shift in perspective was everything; row after row after row of serrated ridges and peaks lay before me. Even in the haze, I felt a depth of perspective that I don’t get in the Cascades. We get basically one row of well-spaced volcanoes, with a smattering of rounded buttes all around. But there, from that summit, I felt incredibly small surrounded by hundreds of distinct, rocky spires. It was heaven.
While waiting for my InReach to send a check-in, I wandered around the large, open summit, making sure to look closely in all directions. Once I started down, I’d not see views like this for a very long time. I could have sat up there all day, but I knew LeeAnn would be waiting for me at the lake. I collected my things and began the descent.
Scree-skiing down from Carter, I aimed for the blue-green alpine lake that had grabbed my attention earlier that day. Sitting on a rock, writing in her journal, LeeAnn sat contently. I stopped to make a Del’s frozen lemonade with the glacier ice and my packet of dried lemon and sugar, something I had waited the entire trip to do.
Since the lake was off our original route, we charted a new course through the maze of obstacles between us and the rock slab.
We found the downclimb easily, then roughly retraced our steps back to camp. I made one wrong turn that brought us to the top of some cliffs near the lake, but otherwise it was pretty smooth sailing.
The hike out
4.8 mi | 15′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.
Back at camp, we leisurely began breaking down and packing back up for the walk to the car.
“Hey, did you see a group of four people up there?” Hmmm…someone got separated from their friends.
I must have done a double-take when I looked up, seeing an older lady wearing a sun hat and carrying a fanny pack; she did not seem like the mountaineering type. How the hell did she get up here, I thought? Was I being too judgmental?
“No,” we replied, and then got to thinking. If this lady made it to this location, there had got to be a decent climber’s trail that breaks off the main hiking route. I was determined to find it in order to avoid the horrible off-trail route we took the day before.
Lo and behold, I FOUND IT. As we began to descend among the boulders, I caught some faint whispers of a trail. It was clear for a short while, then got a little confused among the rock jumble, then clear again. We had a trail for the whole walk out! I wanted to laugh cry.
All was right in the world again. No more thinking. It was an easy hike out. Along the way, we stopped for several minutes to watch a little family of grouse sauntering across the trail. Unlike every other grouse I’d seen in my life, they didn’t fly off as soon as I came close. Instead, they stopped, watched us for a little bit, then carried on with their business. They were fun to observe up close like that!
The Sawtooths captured my imagination with their lonely trails, endless peaks and pristine lakes. I am already planning a trip back…