Thompson from approach

Thompson Peak is the highpoint of the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho, a moderate hike and scramble starting near Redfish Lake. I had visited the area only briefly back in 2011, choosing to climb Regan Peak before moving on, disappointed by the limited terrain above treeline and annoyed by the mosquitoes. However the Sawtooths are popular among climbers for some good granite, their most notable feature being Elephants Perch, and they were a fairly convenient place to meet up with Michelle for a bit more climbing before she returned to California and I headed north. After finishing the Lost River 12ers, I drove up to Challis and west along the Salmon River, through a torrent of hail and rain. Fortunately it was clear by the time I reached Redfish Lake, there was ample free camping on a weeknight along the Salmon River, and for some reason the mosquitoes were not yet out for blood.

Heading up the use trail

The next morning we left some stuff to reserve our campsite, then drove back up to Redfish to find the appropriate parking lot and trail in the maze of roads and campgrounds. It was a late start, so I was somewhat concerned about the heat and potential for thunderstorms like the one through which I had driven the day before. Something similar had happened here, as evidenced by the drifts of pea-sized hail lying here and there, up to a few inches deep in some places. There is a bit of a trail maze, with many popular, tourist-choked trails branching out south and west north of the lake. The one we wanted, the Alpine Way, follows the crest of a steep slope that may be an ancient moraine. Where it turns north along the base of the peaks, an obvious use trail continues steeply to the large, unnamed lake between Williams and Thompson.

Crags above unnamed lake

Entering the cirque, I was struck by the rugged crags of Thompson’s east ridge, and another serrated ridge behind them. The Sawtooths are popular among climbers for their compact granite, but they seem to have complex geology, with several types of rock in close proximity. These ridges, while scenic, both appeared to be rotten and beneath the notice of real climbers. The large lake was still mostly frozen at only 9000 feet, and we transitioned to snow shortly above. One reason to start with this hike before doing any technical climbing was to figure out the location and condition of the snow. I was pleased to find that, while it began low enough to interfere with most climbing approaches, it was remarkably well-behaved, being supportive but soft enough to kick steps across low-angle slopes. We continued on a mix of snow and rock to a small unnamed lake, still finding bits of use trail, then crossed a snowfield to the rocky portion of the center of the headwall.

Climbing headwall

After a careful transition from snow to rock to avoid stepping in a moat, we picked our way up wet and sometimes mossy slabs, which would be easy when dry, but required a bit of route-finding in early-season conditions. At the top, instead of the expected drop on the other side, I found a wide valley filled with boulders and snowfields. The ridge directly to Thompson looked tricky, and the line on the map for the summer route circled around the peak, so I opted to follow that for awhile, looking for a convenient way to reach the higher saddle between Thompson and Mickey’s Spire. After experimenting with a loose talus slope on the left, we opted to put on crampons and climb the snowfield in the middle.

Nearing summit knob

The storms were fortunately holding off, but that meant the snow was softening, and when it became steep enough to feel precarious, I switched to the rock on the right. Michelle chose instead to front-point straight up a snow tongue, and while that worked for her, it looked awfully cold on the hands. Reunited, we picked our way up a mix of sometimes-loose boulders, turf, and small flowers toward the summit knob. While there looked to be several class 3-4 routes to the top, continuing to circle to the south revealed an easy class 2-3 way to the ridge between the various summit pinnacles. It was not clear to the eye which was highest, but fortunately I had a map.

Castle right of center

The summit itself had a benchmark labeled “goat,” and a wonderful old Mazamas metal register box. There used to be many similar boxes in the Sierra placed by the Sierra Club, but they were largely stolen or destroyed about ten years ago. Despite its being mid-afternoon, the weather remained cooperative, so we took some time to enjoy the summit. Being a pedantic peak-bagger, I scrambled over to the next block north, which was slightly higher than the one with the benchmark and register. To the east, the lake and crags nearby were particularly attractive in the afternoon light. Farther away across the Salmon River Valley lay the White Cloud Peaks, with Castle rising high above the rest. I made a mental note for later.

Many and varied peaks south

We retraced our steps, then decided to take the ridge straight back to head of the valley. This proved mostly less chossy, and probably a bit faster, with a few interesting scrambly sections. We downclimbed the rock, then did some boot-skiing on excellent snow to the small lake. Michelle had been surprisingly tentative on snow in the Tetons, but seemed to catch on quickly. She turned out to be one of those people who like to swim in alpine lakes, even when they are half frozen. I was convinced to wade out about knee deep, then thought better of it when I felt like my calves would soon stop functioning.

The snow was slushy enough that my feet were painfully cold by the time we reached dry ground, making me wish I had brought bread bags for my feet. Fortunately the air temperature was warm enough that they soon thawed once off the snow. We met a family up to camp and fish, as well as some mosquitoes, below the main lake, then followed the various trails back to the parking lot. The long days of the northern Rockies are forgiving of late starts, so we did not need our headlamps, but getting back late put us somewhat behind schedule for “real climbing” the next day. There were a couple more groups camped near our spot, but the holiday weekend crowds had not yet arrived. Unfortunately the first mosquitoes had, reminding me of why my previous Sawtooth visit was so brief.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *