The Central Gully of Mt. Thompson
by Alois Smrz
"If you are not hungry, you are carrying too much food.
If you are warm, you have too many clothes.
If you are not frightened, you have too much gear.
If you get up your climb, it was too easy anyway."
Early 90s BD Equipment Catalog.
Gerry Cox and I (Alois Smrz) visited the Mt. Gilbert/Mt. Thompson Alpine Cirque during early October, 1996 trip. Our intent was to climb Mt. Gilbert Ice Couloir and explore the glacier cirque for other possibilities. Unfortunately, Gerry fell ill with symptoms of the flu while we were hiking in, forcing us to totally change plans. R. J. Secor told Gerry, that the middle of the trio of ice gullies on the North face of Mt. Thompson, was to his knowledge unclimbed as of August 96 (it was not). Since return from the summit of Mt. Gilbert might require rappelling (it does not)and I did not want to carry a rope, I decided to take a look at the Thompson Central Gully. The only reason why it might have been unclimbed, is a band of rock about two thirds of the way up, completely closing the gully. From the bottom of the glacier, this rockband looks pretty improbable. If the rockband proved too difficult, I would downclimb the 700' of 50* ice back to the bergschrund, and give up the attempt.
On Sunday, October 5th, I started from the base of the Thompson Glacier at 06:00. Gerry went with me as far as the large bergschrund, where he stopped to take pictures of my ascent. I crossed the 'schrund at its extreme right hand side and climbed some forty feet of 80° glacier ice, to get into the gully. Once in the gully, 50° terrain goes for approximately five rope lengths to the rock band. The rockband is about twelve feet high, slightly overhanging boulder with friction slab at its left margin. A two inch crack at the left side of the boulder leads to easier ground. I first tried to get my ice tools into the crack to dry tool my way up, but the crack was too wide. Luckily, about a four inch thick and yard long patch of ice has formed on top of the boulder. With some effort (mostly mental), I managed to place a tool into this ice patch. I then connected several slings from the tool to my harness. Having some small sense of security, I pulled up over the bulge, placed the other tool as high as I could reach, and crampons scraping on the rock, pulled myself up the boulder. The moves are totally dependent on the amount of ice above you. If there is little or no ice, the moves might be about 5.7, maybe harder. With ice, there are four or five moves of somewhat awkward, low 5th class.
Above the rockband, the gully steepens a bit, but the ice improved dramatically. For 250' there was only soft elastic ice to climb. One swing of the tool would get the pick in. It took over two and half hours to climb the gully. I reached the summit plateau at 08:30.
One of the guidebooks describes a 4th class descent down the North Ridge of Thompson. I tried to downclimb the steep section of the ridge, only to find myself in a fresh snow covered, vertical terrain that I did not think I could downclimb. I went back to the summit plateau to contemplate alternatives. This descent just looked too dangerous. The other possibility was to downclimb the slopes and cliffs to the Treasure Lakes Valley. Unfortunately, the long slope toward the lakes ends in huge cliffs and from above, I could not find the way through them. Slowly I realized, that the only way down, was to downclimb one of the other gullies on Thompson's face. After carefully scouting all of them, I picked the "right hand" gully, first climbed by Bob Harrington in early 80’s (see Sierra Classics, page 156/157). The top one hundred feet are very steep at about 60°. It took all my courage to face the slope and slowly downclimb the gully. I could not afford to make a mistake. After a few hundred feet, the terrain eased to 50° and again became fun to climb. I arrived at the glacier at noon and met Gerry, who was, I'm sure totally disbelieving my sanity.
At the edge of the glacier, we sat down and talked about the climb. In technical terms the Central Gully is WI (for Water Ice) III, 1000', 50-55°, 5.5 or so. For a pair of climbers, with a small selection of ice and rock gear, it might represent a fun day in the mountains. Be careful, if you go up there alone. The terrain in these gullies (especially the downclimb) forced me into some of the better ice climbing I have done in the while. Even if this turns out NOT to be the first ascent, it will remain one of the climbs, I will never forget.
PS. I originally wrote this piece in 1996 for "Cliffnotes" the SCMA Newsletter and included it on SP in April 2005.
PPS. When the 2nd Edition of RJ Secor's "The High Sierra" came out, it was pointed out to me, that RJ named the Central Couloir after me. Being just a weekender who climbs for the love of the sport, I'm speechless to have my name on a piece of High Sierra landscape. Thanks, RJ.
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