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Bagging Point Powell,
June 2003

John Muir Wilderness, CA


Looking out over half-frozen Sunset Lake towards the Thompson Glacier and Point Powell

Peakbagging in the Sierra. 

For the second weekend of the summer, we scored a coveted wilderness permit for the Sabrina Basin near Bishop.  Our plan was to camp at the bottom of the Thompson Glacier and climb the east summit of Mount Powell.  Perfect Sierra conditions made for a successful but tough trip.

The Peak

Mount Powell lies on the geographic boundary between the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park, about halfway between the more well-known landmarks of Mount Humphreys and the Palisades. Due to a series of cartographic errors, there exists considerable confusion regarding where the "real" Mount Powell is located. Generally, the moniker "Mount Powell" now refers collectively to the three distinct highpoints along the Sierra crest between Mount Thompson and Echo Col.  Because of the confusion, these three summits are now known colloquially after the peak's namesake, John Wesley Powell:

  • Point John -- 13,364' (the "real" Mt. Powell according to the USGS)

  • Point Wesley -- 13,356'

  • Point Powell -- 13,360'.


While Point Powell is not the highest of three summits (it is lower than Point John by a mere four feet), it is undeniably the most aesthetic of the three and a challenging climb.  Like many Sierra peaks, Point Powell appears completely inaccessible when approached from the east side of the crest.  Fortunately, a weakness does exist -- an 800' couloir splits the northeast side of the peak and leads to the easier west slope of the mountain.  This was our route.

The Approach

We started our approach hike from the dam at Lake Sabrina (9,128'), about 18 miles west of Bishop.  Unfortunately, parking at the trailhead is reserved for day hikers; overnight users are forced to park about 3/4 mile down the road.  You would think it would be the other way around, since overnighters have more crap to carry, but I don't make the rules.  There were four of us on this trip, and we had a spirited game of "odds or evens" to determine which two suckers would have to drop the car off and walk back to the trailhead.  After several rounds, Greg and I emerged victorious.  Mike and Griffin were dispatched to dump the car.

The hike first traverses the south shore of Lake Sabrina, with distant views up towards the peaks of the Evolution Region.  The king daddy of the Evolution peaks -- Mt. Darwin -- is not visible for the first few hours of the hike, blocked by other peaks.  However, we had fine views of Mount Haeckel, Mount Wallace, Picture Peak and the red-hued Paiute Crags.  The steep climbing begins towards the end of Lake Sabrina, where the trail angles upward to leave the main drainage and gain the hanging valley that holds Blue Lake .

After several rocky switchbacks, we arrived at beautiful Blue Lake and got our first view of Thompson Ridge, Mount Thompson and its glacier (2.3 miles, +1,200' from the trailhead).  From there, it was another 1.5 miles and 600 feet to Baboon Lakes.  The trail is very difficult to follow through here, and of course we promptly lost it.  What trail does exist ultimately fades out among the slabs below Baboon Lakes, resulting in a mild bushwack and routefinding challenge.

At Baboon Lakes (10,976') we had an even better view of the Thompson area, but Mount Powell was still hidden behind lower foreground peaks.  We navigated our way around the northeast side of Baboon Lakes (recommended), which involved some ups and downs, but not as bad as the other shore (which we took on the way out -- not recommended).  From the lake outlet, we began following the stream up valley towards our intended campsite at Sunset Lake.  (People who are not camping at Sunset Lake should not follow the drainage up to Sunset Lake.  Instead, they should angle right and cross through the obvious gap due north of Sunset Lake and contour above its northwest shore en route to the glacier).  We arrived at Sunset Lake (11,464') in one piece and promptly found a perfect campsite on some slabs above the northeast shore of the lake. 

Photos and report (continued)

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