Day 5 of the Challenge started out at the Big Pine trailhead with only five of us – Bill, Evan, Tom S., Richard, and myself (Tom B.) Our goal today was the Thumb via Southfork Pass. As soon as we began, I knew that my body hadn’t recovered from the privilege of hiking with Bob’s fast team the day before. I declared my intention to turn-around at Brainard Lake. At Brainard, I changed my mind and promptly stated that I would turn-around at 11AM. Instead of following Bob’s direct route, we hiked up to Finger Lake. Bill, as the deputized leader, decided to lead the group via Secor’s described route to Southfork Pass. I decided instead to traverse back above Brainard and follow the direct path to the pass. After ascending a snowfield, the Thumb and the twin chutes of Southfork Pass came into view. The east chute was composed of rock and dirt on snow at bottom with a short steep snowfield at the top. The west chute was completely snow filled and looked the easier of the two. I also glanced up at the class 4 NW couloir first climbed by Norman Clyde, an approach clearly outside my skill level. A short hike on a snow flow and over a boulder moraine and I found myself at the foot of the pass. Looking west up to a notch to the Middle Palisade basin, I saw Bill, Evan, and Richard who had arrived almost simultaneously to the pass vicinity.
We all began to ascend the East Southfork pass about the same time, careful not to dislodge rocks on each other (I again chose to ignore my own 11AM deadline.) Bill, Evan, and I made it to the top while Richard stopped short of the snow due to a lack of crampons. After a brief break, we began traversing the ribs gaining altitude with each traverse. The directions stated “ascend a wide chute until it narrows and then traverse right to the next chute.” We had missed the part about “contouring around the south side” and continued climbing until we ran into an unsurpassable gap. After rereading the directions, the three of us dropped down below the ribs and found the correct chute. Never had I experienced a chute as loose as this one. We ascended very carefully, taking turns to ensure that we didn’t knock rocks on each other. In many places, we essentially pulled our way up using handholds on the walls of the chute (in Evan’s case, his trekking poles) where our feet had no purchase. We finally made it into the second chute that quickly branched into a number of options. We all chose different ascent routes to avoid dropping debris on each other. I was fortunate as my ascent route turned into a fun class 3 scramble. Within minutes, we found ourselves on the easy SE slope and 20 minutes later at 1:45PM, on the top of the Thumb. The views NW were exquisite with Middle Pal and Norman Clyde dominating the foreground and Sill and Polemonium looming in the background. Looking SE, we were treated to the sight of Birch, Bolton Brown, Prater, and Split. Below us, we could see the entire easy class 2 route up to the Thumb from Birch Lake.
After a group summit picture, we began our descent just before 2PM. We made quick work descending the chutes, again going one at a time to prevent injuries. We correctly contoured the south base and found ourselves back at the pass. To our surprise, we met a young couple at the top that had not only ascended the pass with backpacks, but also did it without crampons and ice ax! They had skirted the snow on loose rock successfully – quite an achievement. Ignoring their technique, we donned our equipment and began the steep descent down. I found the snow soft and manageable even though it was very steep. About 10 feet from the bottom of the snow, I relaxed thinking I was pretty much done and suddenly found myself falling. Caught by surprise, I didn’t have time to self-arrest and finally stopped myself among rocks and dirt about 30 feet from where I had been. Except for some scrapes and a slightly twisted ankle, I was fortunately in good condition (except maybe my ego.) The three of us joined Richard and Tom S. at the bottom of the pass, where they had been waiting for our return.
The five of us decided to descend directly to Brainard. We crossed the moraine boulder field, dropped onto the snow flow, and found ourselves back at the snowfield I had climbed that morning. The snow was perfect for glissading and we all blasted down the slope in exhilaration. Bill, Evan, and Tom S. demonstrated well-practiced self-arrest techniques to slow down at the bottom of the snowfield. After filling up with water, we dropped down to Brainard Lake. Here we picked up the trail and the group split up as each descended the 4.5 miles to the trailhead at their own pace. I arrived back at the trailhead at 6:45PM, over 12 hours after our 6AM start time.