Saturday, July 9, 2011

Trip Report: Thunderbolt & Starlight Peak, July 2-4, 2011

Out of all the California 14ers, Thunderbolt Peak (14,003 ft) and Starlight Peak (14,200 ft) are among the most technically difficult. They are both rated class 5, specifically 5.9 and 5.6. Although most of the climbing itself is class 3/4, both summit blocks of these peaks require either technical climbing abilities or rigging a clever aid system (lassoing the summit). Thunderbolt's summit block is about 10-15 feet and Starlight's summit block is about 20 feet. In either case, you would not want to fall while attempting to summit. Both peaks lie within the Palisade Crest and are often completed as part of a traverse from Thunderbolt Peak to Mt. Sill.

This trip has been on my mind for quite some time as I had the permit for Bishop Pass reserved months in advance. Our intention was to complete the traverse from Thunderbolt to Sill, but we were only able to complete Thunderbolt and Starlight Peak. I can't really say anything went wrong. Although things definitely weren't going right in many instances (more on that later), but even if we did anything differently, I don't think we would have finished the traverse.
Mt. Gayley, Mt. Sill, and the Palisade Gliacer. This was taken somewhere between Thunderbolt and Starlight.
Mt. Gayley, Mt. Sill, and the Palisade Gliacer. This was taken somewhere between Thunderbolt and Starlight.
We had a climbing team of three: Me, Jacquelyn and Kevin. All of us are climbers with several years of experience sport climbing and some experience traditional climbing and we have all been on many climbing trips together before. The technical gear we brought with us included an ice axe, crampons, helmet, harness, 60m 9.7mm rope, medium sized stoppers/nuts, 4 alpine draws, locking carabiners, ATC belay device, many slings, and climbing shoes for the leader (me). We ended up using most of the gear, but we probably could have went without the stoppers.
Sorting and packing our gear at the parking lot.
Sorting and packing our gear at the parking lot.
Kevin, Me, and Jacquelyn at the Bishop Pass Trailhead.
Kevin, Me, and Jacquelyn at the Bishop Pass Trailhead.
We planned this trip to be a 3 day, 2 night trip. So our first day, we started at the Bishop Pass Trailhead by South Lake. There were a ton of mosquitoes at the trailhead during this time, but the mosquitoes eventually disappeared when we started hiking in the snow, which began around the Long Lake area. The hike to Bishop Pass is about 8 miles from the trailhead and was pretty straightforward on good trail. From there, it was about another 2 miles to Thunderbolt Pass.
Long Lake with the first patches of snow on the trail.
Long Lake with the first patches of snow on the trail.
Mt. Agassiz and Bishop Pass.
Mt. Agassiz and Bishop Pass.
Hiking toward Thunderbolt Pass.
Hiking toward Thunderbolt Pass.
Thunderbolt Pass becomes visible.
Thunderbolt Pass becomes visible.
The Palisade Basin was covered in snow and the lakes were mostly frozen, thus we did not camp in the basin as often suggested. Instead, we camped shortly after Thunderbolt Pass where we found some water drips (to refill our water) and dry flat rock. We found this to be more beneficial as it meant loosing less elevation and less hiking to do the next day. We made dinner and slept as soon as the sun went down.
This is what the Palisade Basin looked like when we arrived.
This is what the Palisade Basin looked like when we arrived.
Kevin's bivy spot.
Kevin's bivy spot.
Dinner and camp in the Palisade Basin.
Dinner and camp.
Normally, I would suggest getting an alpine start (between 3-5AM), but for whatever reason, we did not even start hiking until almost 9AM the next day. I guess we didn't feel rushed or we were confident we had enough time to complete the traverse since we had an extra night planned on the mountain. Whatever the reason was, 9AM wasn't too late condition-wise. The snow on Southwest Chute #1 was still icy and hard, which made hiking up it fairly easy. The sun didn't hit it until hours later.
Hiking up to Southwest Chute #1. Palisade Basin in the background.
Hiking up to Southwest Chute #1. Palisade Basin in the background.
At the entrance of Southwest Chute #1.
At the entrance of Southwest Chute #1.
The first crux came at about 13,000 feet, when the snow seemed to disappear and it became a 3rd class scramble up rocks and boulders. At this point, we all took off our crampons and put our ice axes away. This is where I first saw some rappel anchors and I can imagine that if the snow had completely melted, this crux would have been far steeper than what it was. It was basically a 10 foot boulder problem, which I would actually rate V0 given the conditions. It may be pretty difficult to down-climb this section if needed, hence the rappel anchors. From here to about 13,800 ft. was fairly straightforward and the hiking/climbing was mostly over rocks and talus. The last 100 feet or so involved some exposed 4th/5th class climbing and traversing to reach the base of the summit block. Once we reached the base, we all put on our harnesses and I put on my climbing shoes and we roped up to climb the 5.9 summit block of Thunderbolt Peak. I only found 2 or 3 positive hand holds (crimpers actually) on the climb and the rest were slopers, bad pinches, or microcrimps. It definitely wouldn't be easy if you haven't done much climbing before. Although Kevin was able to do it in his backpacking boots on top-rope.
At the first crux. Crampons off.
At the first crux. Crampons off.
This was at about 13,500 ft in the chute.
This was at about 13,500 ft.
Some exposed climbing/traversing at about 13,800 ft.
Some exposed climbing/traversing at about 13,800 ft.
At the summit of Thunderbolt Peak.
At the summit of Thunderbolt Peak.
We summited Thunderbolt at about 12:45PM. From there, we continued traversing the ridge through the path of least resistance, meaning, we went where there seemed to be less snow or where it seemed easier given the conditions. This was the north-east face of the ridge and it was probably a mistake taking this descent route as we ended up doing four 60m rope rappels, which became quite time consuming for a party of 3. After the rappels, the climb up to Starlight consisted of many unroped 4th and 5th class climbing, which was also probably a mistake as it just took us forever to reach the base of the summit. We realized later that there was certainly an easier path (3rd/4th class) that leads to the summit. It took us nearly 7 hours to finally reach the summit block from Thunderbolt. The sun was going down, which made everything around us look more magnificent than it already was. We certainly paid the price to enjoy this view by our epic descent in the dark.
This is what the traverse from Thunderbolt to Starlight looks like.
This is what the traverse from Thunderbolt to Starlight looks like.
One of the four rappels we made off Thunderbolt.
One of the four rappels we made.
Some exposed climbing going up Starlight.
Some exposed climbing.
I didn't find the climbing on Starlight Peak to be particular difficult, but getting onto the wall was a bit tricky. It required some lie backing moves, but once you get on the wall, it becomes much easier with plenty of hand hold options. Kevin also climbed this with his backpacking boots on top rope.
Me on the summit of Starlight.
Me on the summit of Starlight.
Kevin on the summit of Starlight.
Kevin on the summit of Starlight.
Jacquelyn on the summit of Starlight.
Jacquelyn on the summit of Starlight.
Sunset view from Starlight Peak.
Sunset view from Starlight.
After we had all summited the peak and signed the register, we quickly made our first rappel off the "Milk Bottle" into the first chute facing the south-west. Several other rappels followed with the diminishing light. After about our 4th rappel, I noticed that my rope became "core shot" and it looked pretty bad. How did this happen? It was nearly a brand new rope. Well, my only conclusion is that the rope rubbed against a sharp edge during a rappel and it eventually cut through the sheath and into the core. Whatever happened, we knew we shouldn't rappel using that end anymore. This required us to rappel off only one side of the rope. So we set up the rappel using a figure-eight on bight with a locking carabiner attached to the rappel-end of the rope. The end with the figure-eight on bight is the pull-end of the rope. The risk involved with this rappel setup is that the rope may become harder to retrieve, which is exactly what happened next.
No more sunlight.
No more sunlight.
As soon as we pulled the rope about 10 feet, it became stuck. In fact, we couldn't even pull it back from the other end. What to do? We considered climbing back up, but nobody really wanted to do that. It was completely dark at this point and we can only see as far as our headlamps can shine. There was snow, ice, and running water all over the place, which made it that much more difficult. We finally said, "screw it, let's just keep going and see what happens." So we left the rope there and continued on, hoping that there will be no more rappels needed. Unfortunately, there was one last rappel left, and it was about 50 feet or so. I'll leave the exact details out about how we got down, but it involved using 20 feet of 6mm cordage that we found, 30 feet of rope we cut from one end of our stuck rope, and another 20 feet of rope we cut from the other end of our stuck rope.
Our rappel off one side of the rope. This is where our rope got stuck.
Our rappel off one side of the rope. This is where our rope got stuck.
This is how we rappelled off one side of the rope. It's the same way you would rappel with a GriGri.
This is how we rappelled off one side of the rope. It's the same way you would rappel with a GriGri.
From the last rappel at about 13,500 ft, it was just descending on soft snow. Kevin glissaded down and Jacquelyn and I put on our crampons and hiked down. We finally returned to camp at 3:00AM, nearly 18 hours later, and just went to sleep. We didn't even make dinner.

The next morning, we woke up really late at around 10AM and finally packed up camp and headed back at 12:00PM. It took us about 5.5 hours to hike back. For the most part, the hike back was uneventful, except for Kevin making a pretty crazy glissade off Bishop Pass.
Packing up camp.
Packing up camp.
Just over Thunderbolt Pass on the way back.
Just over Thunderbolt Pass on the way back.
I guess I'll have to go back to bag North Palisade, Polemonium, and Mt. Sill. As I previously mentioned earlier in this post, even if we did anything differently, I don't think we would have completed the traverse. The reasons behind this (that I can think of) are:

1. A team of 3 isn't ideal. Everything takes much longer.
2. We are far too slow.
3. We suck at route-finding.

I'm not complaining though. It turned out to be an epic and really fun trip with great friends/partners. I'm not sure I would have done anything differently either.

More Photos

1 comment:

  1. What an epic trip this was!! You are so knowledgeable with all the climbing techniques especially that last repelling with a figure eight on a bite! We will be making an attempt to thunderbolt in exactly two weeks, Oct. 17. I'm curious about the 4 (60m) repelling, how do you retrieve your gears each time? Is the last person do that and how? Please advice and thank you for this awesome trip report!

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