Thunderbolt Peak - 14009' - SE Chute Class 4
Starlight Peak - 14226 - Palisade Traverse Class 5.7 summit block
North Palisade - 14248' - West ridge class 5.5
We took the remainder of Wednesday and Thursday last week to drive to Bishop, interrupted with a night rest in northern CA near Lava Beds National Monument. We also met up with my friend Dan in Mammoth Lakes and was able to grab some conditions info from him. It turns out the Sierras still have a TON of snow! After much discussion about gears and what objectives we wanted to climb, we decided to approach via Bishop Pass to Thunderbolt Pass and start the traverse on Thunderbolt Peak rather than approaching via the Pallisade Glacier. This was mainly a decision made so I didn't have to carry my heavy mountaineering boots and crampons to climb one of the east side couloirs, as I didn't want to carry these heavy items on the rock traverse, which is known to have sustained class 4 and low 5th scrambling.
We drove up to the South Lake Trailhead as the afternoon turned to evening and parked at the overnight lot at an elevation of 9800 feet. The mosquitos to my surprise were worse than in Tatla Lake! Luckily Steven had some Deet in the truck so we were able to pack up our packs, carefully deciding what to ditch and what to bring. I decided to take just my lightweight leather boots and microspikes, and my rock shoes. We brought 4 UL cams, a few nuts, one 60m half rope, UL sleeping bag and pad, and one axe each. We also each had the UL Black Diamond Couloir harness. Things we didn't bring are a tent, and I left behind crampons and boots. Our plan was going to be to avoid all the steeper snow section in early morning (so we could travel it when it was soft), and to hike to Thunderbolt Pass which we hoped to reach by noon. From there we would then ascend the SW chute of Thunderbolt, tag the infamous summit block, then traverse to Starlight and tag its summit as well. We knew we were going to have a high bivy, but our bivy ended up being right next to the summit of Starlight Peak, at 14,200 feet in elevation! This was the highest bivy ever for Steven.
The hike from South Lake began after trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep in the truck after arriving the previous evening. At first light we saddled up and started hiking the nice trail towards Long Lake. As the sun rose, we were greeted with incredible views of the east face of Mount Goode (the other Goode!) which a couple of the guys I ran into at the parking lot the previous evening had been climbing on. We quickly made it to Long Lake, and onwards past the next set of lakes finally getting direct sunlight just before the final 400 foot ascent to Bishop Pass. The morning was quite chilly but as soon as the sun hit us we quickly began to roast!
We arrived at Bishop Pass about 9am and descended the trail about 200 feet on the other side then left the trail and cut left towards Thunderbolt Pass. The cross country hike initially was easy with a decent amount of dry ground to walk on amidst the snow, but the second half of the distance to the pass, we were forced onto snow most of the way, which by this oint had been in the sun awhile and was getting soft. Normally this would be a good thing, but the sun cups on the surface of the snow here in the Sierras are so big they are borderline Penitentes! This made walking on the snow MUCH more tedious than what I am used to in the Cascades...some of the "sun cups" were nearly 2 feet deep! At about 11:15 though, after 3 applications of sunscreen by this point we reached Thunderbolt Pass. We decided to leave half of the food we brought here, including most of the food requiring cooking here and we decided to cook our dinner at this point as we didn't know how much snow/water we would find on the ridge above.
I made some rice and Steven made a Mountain House and we enjoyed a nice break for about 45 minutes before starting the ascent up the SW chute of Thunderbolt Peak, which begins directly above Thunderbolt Pass. By noon we were starting up the 35-40 degree snow at the base of the chute. When dry this talus apron is miserably loose, so the snow here was welcoming although very hot. The heat combined with our packs slowed us down ascending the 1500 foot chute to the summit block, but we made reasonable time. We bypassed a big chockstone on a class 3 ledge to the right, then emerged on the wide upper half of the chute which was mostly dry. Rock was not too loose up here and by about 2:30pm we reached the base of the infamous summit rock of Thunderbolt. We came prepared with the knowledge with how to lasso the summit block and we both were able to climb up to the top without much incident. From the time we reached the base where we ditched our packs, it took us about 1 hour to both climb the summit block, and return to our packs just a few feet below.
The method I used to protect the summit block climb (which some people have solod, but with the moves going at exposed 5.9, I wasn't wanting to solo it), was to coil about 10 butterfly coils of the rope in each hand with the middle of the rope between. I then tossed both coils of rope above the summit point so the rope landed on the backside of the rock, then I pulled the extra slack up and flicked the rope up on both sides until it was placed in a solid location. I then anchored the left end using a cam, which left the right strand free to climb up on secured to the rope with the micro-traxion device I brought. I went first, and after topping out I made a single strand rappel on the strand I just climbed on, then Steven went, and once he topped out, I disconnected the anchor and he made a two strand rappel through the bolts on the top.
Steven and I then started the traverse towards Starlight since we still had quite a bit of daylight remaining. I wasn't too confident we would find a good bivy spot near Starlight but neither of us wanted to just stop as it was only 3:30pm or so, plus there was a steep section of snow we could see on Starlight that we didn't want to wait until the next morning when it would be bullet hard. We made two 25ish meter rappels down utilizing existing anchors on the west side of the ridge where the ridge dropped off which led us to the top of some clean class 3 slabs that we descended down to the first saddle between Thunderbolt and Starlight. The beta we had from here though wasn't completely clear though, as we then had to ascend up and over another prominent rib before we could continue the final ascent to Starlight Peak. We however simply began climbing class 4 on the ridgecrest but soon realized there was a second steep saddle separating us from Starlight. Since we had climbed too high we made a rappel anchor to reach an existing anchor we could see from the rib below us.
Two short raps later we were in a steep bowl directly below Starlight Peak where we could then head for the summit. Problem was there was some 55-60 degree snow covering part of the scramble, and I was forced to solo up this snow, kicking steps, and where it transitioned into the low 5th class chimney rock, the edge of the small snowfield was icy. I made a delicate move, where a fall would have been very bad, to transition myself onto a small ledge big enough for 1 foot, then continued to worm my way up the vertical chimney, which was vertical until I reached a sizable ledge about 50 feet below the summit block of Starlight. Steven asked for a belay so I tossed the rope down to him and he climbed up. From here, we had taken somewhat longer than we hoped due to routefinding issues, and we rushed up the last bits of class 3 and 4 terrain until we once again reached the ridgecrest directly south of the summit of Starlight. I found a spot that would work as a bivy here right on the ridge (although requiring a lot of doctoring) so we ditched packs here and proceeded to climb the summit block of Starlight in the evening sun. With rock shoes on, I made the 5.7 moves up maybe 20 feet or so on the south side of the block which were reasonable, but definitely a no fall zone as there was no pro. A good sling wrapped around the very top made for a great anchor for Steven to toprope. As the sun was setting, we doctored up our bivy spot and took some photos of the stunning location we found ourselves in. Mount Sill and the Pallisade Glacier were directly below us with the town of Bishop also in view right from our sleeping bags. To the west we had a grand view of the high Sierras. It was magical.
Neither of us got much sleep that night as we weren't able to get the bivy platform very flat (sharp rocks and no dirt). Unfortunately on the rocks, Steven's air pad popped and got a small rip. I had a foam pad but still wasn't very comfortable, plus with the elevation about 14,200 feet, slee wasn't going to come very easily anyways. It was also fairly chilly, but not as cold as I expected. When the sun rose, we immediately were able to get up and eat a quick breakfast. Wind had picked up as the sun rose though, which made the traverse to North Pallisade, on the west side of the ridge, cold in the morning! We were able to rappel using an existing anchor directly below the twin rocks right next to our bivy. Two 25 meter raps brought us to easier terrain which we then took to the first saddle between Starlight and North Pallisade. We passed by a few other bivy sites others have used at this saddle but we were glad we bivied on the ridge where the view was much nicer, and we awoke to direct sunlight. Here on the west side it was cold!
We then made an ascending traverse on the west side of the ridge following a weakness in the cliffs until we hit a prominent rib that bisected the traverse between Starlight and North Pallisade about halfway across. Once on this rib, we ascended it back to the main ridgecrest on very exposed class 4 terrain. We briefly had the sunshine again on the main ridge and crossed over and descended 10 feet down the east side to locate the rappel anchor for the step-across notch rappel. I made a 20 foot rappel and since I am so tall, I was able to stem across the chasm onto the ledge on the other side. Otherwise most people have to push themselves off the wall while rapping and stick the landing on the other side. I then was able to pull Steven across as he rappelled down. From this ledge, we had two options to finish the traverse to North Pallisade; right or left of the rock tower that lie directly above us. Steph in her beta went left and found bad, snow covered terrain with a lot of ups and downs. Others have indicated a nice 5.6 chimney crux to finish to the summit of North Pallisade if you head right from this notch. Considering the west side of the ridge was dry, we decided to don rock shoes, and go to the right. We roped up here as well, since we didn't really know what lie ahead due to an obstructed view and Steven led a traverse pitch across some beautiful low angled slabs. No pro needed, I followed, then made another short pitch up an ascending traverse on some steeper 5.4 slabs directly to the base of the final 5.6 chimney. Steven followed, then I led the 50 foot chimney which was the funnest climbing on the entire traverse, which ended a short walk from the summit. We were ecstatic to have completed the traerse!! We decided against continuing to Sill as we didn't want to slog the sun cupped snow for all that additional distance to get back to Thunderbolt Pass, so we opted to descend the standard route; the west chute of North Passisade.
Unfortunately I didn't get any good photos of the chimney crux as it was shady, cold, and windy and we wanted to do it fast. Dropping off the NW side of the summit of North Pallisade we quickly located the crux pitch with anchor at the top and made one rappel into the huge bowl above the west chute. From the summit, you cannot see this bowl, all you see is the steeper, narrower chute just to the north...you do NOT want to descend this chute you see from the summit. A short scramble south from the summit will allow the correct bowl and chute to become visible. Easy class 3 and some snow brought us to the ledge traverse which was narrow and exposed but only class 3. This took us to the continuation of the lower part of the gully, because there is some steeper terrain if you continue directly down without making the ledge traverse (some have called this ledge traverse the catwalk). The rest of the descent, and the long walk back to South Lake was somewhat miserable but quick.
Upon returning to South Lake, pizza in Bishop! A great trip in the books, and more peaks added to our lists! Check out my next TR for our quick jaunt up White Mountain the following morning.