It Begins . . .Between 2003 and 2005 I was extremely active in mountaineering in California. As I progressed quickly in my fitness and technical expertise, I was also making steady progress at climbing all of California’s 14’ers. That was, until I tried to climb Thunderbolt Peak and Starlight Peak.
Attempt #1: Early WinterSeptember 30 - October 1, 2005
I stemmed hard against the chimney to take the weight off my hands. Trying my hardest to fight the pain, I shoved my hands into the warmth of my jacket as another wave of spindrift blew up the Palisade Glacier and into my face. Soon the snow crystals passed and the pain in my hands had subsided enough for me to continue working at setting and clipping into my latest piece of pro. This was my first pitch of technical climbing in snowy conditions and it was more than I had bargained for. The awkwardness of boots and a pack weren’t so bad, but I was beginning to discover how poorly suited my hands are to climbing in the cold, even with gloves on.
Ultimately our group persevered that day, but unfortunately for me, we did not summit Thunderbolt Peak, my main objective for the weekend. I had come to the Palisades with Joel Wilson and some other friends, and we had managed to make the approach to Thunderbolt Pass and set up our camp early enough that we decided to go for a summit that day. I was tempted to do Thunderbolt then, but as the others were more interested in North Palisade, I had relented and we pressed on to do that peak first. Thunderbolt would wait until tomorrow, and with the short approach, we even entertained the idea of linking it with Starlight and then descending back to the valley.
North Palisade worked out surprisingly well despite the early winter conditions and the fact that our rope was too short to climb the regular pitches of the Chimney variation with, much less to rappel. Some creative group climbing techniques and good luck on following the class 4 Clyde Variation for our descent made the peak straightforward, and we made it back to Thunderbolt Pass just past sunset and primed for Thunderbolt the next day.
The next day we left camp just before sunrise and made short work of the Southwest Chute #1 route. Apart from a slick and exposed ledge traverse that I absolutely hated (I vowed to never repeat the route due to this section), the route was mostly a non-eventful slog, and by early morning we were within 200 ft of the summit.
The chute was mostly dry lower down, but as we neared the top, suddenly the rocks were covered with snow. Underneath about 4-6 inches of fresh powder were slick slabs, and the snow cover persisted all the way to the top. Things didn’t look good, but we decided to push on anyways and see what we could do. At least we could rope up and pitch out the top of the route.
As we ascended the chute, the winds gradually increased until about 30-40 mph at our high point, reducing the temperature to about 15 degrees with the wind chill. We had brought clothing for Fall conditions, but not for these temperatures! Looking at the ridgeline above, the clouds ripped over the crest at such speeds that I estimated that the winds were blowing around 60 mph over it. After my experience on the Grand Teton, I had learned to be afraid of wind as an objective hazard in the mountains, and seeing this I decided to turn the group around.
I could tell from the pain and numbness in my hands that I couldn’t lead the pitches necessary to climb through today, and even if we could reach the ridge, who knew if we could even climb in the wind, much less lasso the summit block.
With the summit block in site, we turned around and made short work of the descent and hike out. I was a little disappointed, but I figured I should get to the summit next time.
Attempt #2: The Problem with Reaching Camp Too EarlyJuly 14-15, 2006
For my second attempt at Thunderbolt Peak, I went up with Vladimir Sofiyev, a much stronger technical climber who was my equal in speed and fitness in hiking and scrambling. We chose to do the climb in the middle of summer during good weather, but for variety sake, we decided to climb the North Couloir via the North Fork of Big Pine instead of the easier Southwest Chute #1 via Bishop Pass. Still, we expected the North Couloir to be an easy and straightforward snow climb.
Because of the mild conditions, Vlad and I packed very little to make it easy to go ultra-light. Once again I had entertained notions of linking Thunderbolt with Starlight, and maybe even doing the Palisade Traverse. By going light, we could carry camp up and over with us, and if we had to bivi, we would bivi in comfort. I brought down clothing and long underwear instead of a sleeping bag, a bivi sack instead of a tent, and planned to use the climbing rope and backpack in place of a ground pad. My pack weighed only 30 lbs for a 3-day trad climb, including the rope.
Vlad and I made such good time blasting up the trail that we passed many dayhikers. We were quite surprised with ourselves when we made it to our high camp on the moraine of the Thunderbolt Glacier by only 1-2pm. With so much daylight left, what was one to do? Well, Secor’s guidebook mentioned a II 5.2 climb on the NE Face of Mt. Agassiz. Why not knock that off this afternoon as a warm up to our main objective?
Vlad and I made camp, then took off to do this impromptu bonus climb. In the July afternoon, the snow was so soft and gloppy, we left our crampons at camp and just brought along the rock gear and ice axes. Although the approach took longer than expected, by 3pm we were ascending the Y-Couloir on Agassiz. Suddenly Vlad took off up some easy ledges to the left, but I knew we were still too low to be exiting the couloir.
“Vlad! This is the wrong way! We need to climb in the Couloir Higher!” I yelled.
“I’m taking a short cut!” Vlad shouted back, barely pausing in his scramble away from the couloir. Because Vlad was carrying the rope, and because I would probably want to rope up before Vlad, I needed to catch up to him before he started soloing through terrain where I’d want a rope. So in lieu of being more forceful in calling Vlad back, I forewent my judgment and gave into this hurried decision and climbed after Vlad.
The ledges were only class 2, but they were covered in sand and scree, with few handholds, and no opportunities for pro as we climbed deeper into the steep NE face of Mt. Agassiz. Eventually I caught up to Vlad, and by then I really wanted the rope, at least for simul-climbing. By now it was apparent that we were not on route, and so we started climbing up in hopes of still intersecting the route. And thus began my most dangerous experience with rockfall on a climb.
I couldn’t avoid climbing in Vlad’s fall line, and there was so much loose rock on the ledges that Vlad couldn’t avoid sending down a regular barrage of rocks. I quickly learned that whenever Vlad started moving, I should scramble up the next slab as fast as possible to the next little headwall, and dig in there to brace myself for the next barrage of rocks. First I’d grab the rock low and close together so that I could protect my hands with my torso. Then I’d lay my helmet against the rock, face down, to protect my face. Then I’d arch my back to make my pack close up the gap between my helmet and pack like an armadillo to protect my neck. If I did this fast enough, I could be set and braced before the next barrage of rocks came down. Still, gravel would fill into my clothes and climbing shoes, and an occasional rock would ricochet off the walls and smack my side.
Gradually the terrain eased, but the sun was low in the sky. By the time we reached the technical cruxes of the route it was completely dark. The first one was a 5.8 offwidth. The second one was as well, but as I was transitioning to a mantel to my left, I felt the pressure ease up on my fist jam - the rock was falling! At first the thought occurred to me to push the rock back into place, but then I realized that the rock probably weighed more than I did, so I quickly climbed up and left onto the mantel as the detached flake, which in the dark we could not see as such, broke off and tumbled down the mountain.
Soon we reached an impasse with overhanging rock, so we followed a rock ledge to our right, through a notch, and downclimbed to another ledge that lead to a 5.2 arête with fun, solid rock. We summitted around midnight.
The descent should have been as straightforward class 3 downclimb, but the nights were cold enough that the snow that had been soft sludge during the day had frozen into a hard, slick surface at night. In order to climb around the snow, we had to stay closer to the ridge crest, which made most of the climbing class 4-5, which in the dark was slow and tedious.
Somewhere during the long downclimb I tore off the nipple to my camelback, so I couldn’t drink any more water. We dragged ourselves into camp just past sunrise, exhausted and dehydrated. It was past our planned start time for the climb of Thunderbolt, so there was no way the climb was going to happen now. This attempt failed before we had even really started!
Attempt #3: So Much for RedundancyMarch 28-30, 2007
This year I decided to attempt to climb Thunderbolt again, this time with my friend Mark Strahan. Despite my earlier failures, I was still set on trying to make the climb different, and Mark had talked me into attempting an early season attempt on the peak during my Spring Break. As in the previous attempt, we would climb the peak via the North Fork of Big Pine.
The days before our attempt the Sierra had been hit by a series of cold storms, but our plan seemed to be working out well to head in just as the weather was clearing. Though the clouds over the mountains looked cold and ominous at our start, they gradually cleared as we headed in, though not without the occasional snow flurry that passed through. Though I had been in the Sierra in the winter, this time it was really COLD! My thermometer was reading 4o F in the sunshine.
For our first night we made camp just beyond Third Lake. As the sun set and temperatures plummeted, we got out our stoves to melt water. I got out my WindPro Canister stove to start melting water, and immediately had problems. Though the flame burned reliably, it was a whisper of what it should have been despite maxing out the fuel flow. This was my first time using a canister stove in such cold temperatures, and I had made a few mistakes that contributed to this failure, such as packing fuel canisters towards the edge of my pack rather than deep inside, allowing them to get cold on the approach.
Mark Strahan, not trusting a canister stove in the cold, brought an expedition grade white gas stove (I think it was the XGK?). It roared to life without a problem, but after about 30 seconds the flame suddenly cut out. This happened again and again. Though it was a new stove, Strahan insisted that he tested it without incident at home.
We both kept working on our stoves to melt water, and after going through most of the fuel we had brought for the trip, we almost had enough water for the next day’s climbing.
Attempt #4: Cold Feet about BiviingSeptember 5-7, 2009
Deflated morale for the climb and an extended internship in New York City kept me out of the mountains the following year, but in 2009 I came back in high hopes. This time I was with two proficient rock climbers, Jonathan Bye, and Henry Steinberg. I chose to do the climb in early September in hopes of having warmer weather and avoiding early season snow. Also, to make the outing more interesting, I had hoped that by this time the North Couloir could make for a fun moderate ice climb – challenging but not too hard or slow for jeopardizing our ascent. Pictures on the SP forum indicated that the chute had avalanched a few weeks earlier, scouring the chute down to the solid bed of alpine ice beneath the neve. Golden.
This time the plan, similar to my plan with Vlad, was to travel light so that we could carry our camp up and over with us. That way we could camp right at the base of the route and not need to retrieve our camp, and if we were slower than expected, we could have the option of a comfortable bivi on the ridge. We made it to the glacier early in the day, but resisting temptations to climb anything else in the area, we scoured out some bivi sites on the glacial moraine and rested for the next day. Henry even got on some valuable study time for his Law studies.
Once the others had arrived I led the bergschrund, which was by far my most tenuous lead climb to date. I had to chop a lot of ice off to get to good ice for my tools and screws, which took a lot of energy. As I began pumping out I almost backed off, but at the encouragement of my friends, I pulled it together, relaxed, and chopped out steps large enough to stand in while taking the strain off of my calves.
Hacking through the endless crappy water ice to get to something solid
After an hour of intense lead climbing, I surmounted the ‘schrund. With only two 16cm and one 22cm screw left, I ran out the easy ice above on one screw, then chose to traverse on the mix of ice and neve towards the rock in hopes that the 4th class route there could make up for lost time. I set the remaining two screws in less than ideal neve/ice and traversed very carefully the last fifty feet to the edge and built a rock anchor.
On top rope Henry and Jonathan made it up fast, which was commendable since this was their first time climbing technical ice. As Henry was the strongest climber on rock, at this point we all roped up to simul-climb and Henry led the way up the rocks and then over to the notch at the top of the left fork of the North Couloir.
At last! I could see the summit block. We appeared to be nearly level with the base of it, and it looked to be just a short class 3 traverse away before the final pitch to the top. Finally! Despite all of the unexpected setbacks today, we would make it!
“Mark, it’s getting late and I don’t think we can get down before dark,” Henry said.
“Well,” I replied, “we planned a possible bivi on the ridge, so let’s climb as far as we can, and then bivi. There should be plenty of good spots along here to do so.”
“I don’t know man. We need to be out of here tomorrow to make it back in time,” Johnathan said.
“Guys, we came all this way. We should at least summit Thunderbolt and then rappel down the Underhill Couloir. We could even do that in the dark tonight. Besides, that is almost as easy as reversing the North Couloir in these conditions.”
Henry and Jonathan were not convinced of this plan. They both admitted that they had never bivvied in the mountains or downclimbed in the dark before and were getting uncomfortable at the idea. They were ready to go home.
“Let’s go down the Southwest Chute #1. It’s only class 3, so it should be safe and easy to do in the dark,” Jonathan said.
“That takes us into another drainage," I countered. "Even though that way is easier to go down, tomorrow we’ll have to hike out over Bishop Pass, hitchhike back to the valley, and then back up to Glacier Lodge to get our car. That would be a lot longer and harder than just climbing a bit further along the ridge, and finishing the descent via Underhill Couloir tomorrow if we don’t make it before dark.”
My reasoning failed to dissuade my friends, so I was outvoted. The plan was to scramble down into the Southwest Chute #1, just above my high point from my first attempt, and then downclimb the route, mostly in the dark, and sleep at Thunderbolt Pass. We would deal with the problem that made for us tomorrow.
I had vowed I wouldn’t do this route again, and frankly I felt much worse about descending the ledge I hated in the dark than downclimbing something harder and more solid. I agreed to this bail plan, but only if we rappelled past the ledge if I could find good anchors to do so. So that’s what we did. With Thunderbolt in sight, we scrambled just below the north side of the summit block, down the chute in the dark, found a rappel, and made camp just after midnight.
Jonathan had plenty of energy after this long day, so he made the Herculean effort of hiking very quickly back to the South Lake trailhead at first light in the morning. For some reason, my leather boots had blistered my feet extremely badly, and by the time I had managed to limp across Dusy Basin and back to the trailhead, Henry and I didn’t have to wait long for Jonathan to arrive with the car. By this point I was pretty demoralized about climbing Thunderbolt, and despite doing a lot of other mountaineering climbs, I didn’t see myself attempting it again anytime soon unless I had a good reason.
Attempt #5: The Drive ByJune 19-21, 2010
A year later I had the perfect reason to motivate me to attempt the peak again. I had been corresponding on and off with Steph Abegg over the previous year about photography and book publishing projects. This year I was ready for Liberty Ridge, and on a whim I invited Steph along on the climb as she was local to Seattle and it would be a good excuse to meet her.
Not only Steph she really eager to team up for Liberty Ridge, but I also found out she was interested in doing the Palisade Traverse this summer.
Considering her history of success ascents of traverses in the Cascades, I jokingly said that perhaps having her along as a good luck charm could help break the string of bad luck I was having on Thunderbolt. Plus, it provided a good excuse to climb more with Steph (who, by the way, put up an excellent trip report on our climb). Since this traverse would finish off the last of the two 14ers for me to climb, with Starlight coming last (as I had wanted it, as it seemed like the best summit block), it seemed nice in a poetic way to finish off one major chapter in my climbing history while perhaps opening up another by forging what looked to be a unique climbing partnership.
We had made decent time on good neve in the North Couloir, it was still early in the day, and at last, here we were! We were at the base of the summit block! It was much more intimidating in person. As I scrambled over to touch the summit block and consider how to lasso the thing, Steph got out the summit register and signed it.
“O.K. Mark, we have to go”
“What?! It’s still early.”
“It took us longer than expected to get here and we still have a long ways to go on the traverse. I feel like we’re here late for finishing the traverse before dark, and I really don’t want to be up here in the dark.”
This declaration felt like someone pounded a steak through my heart. I couldn’t just pass this by so casually. Not after so much effort put into a streak of attempts plagued by bad luck. It wouldn’t count for me unless I summitted the summit block. I refused Steph’s invitation to sign the register, and pleaded for just 10 minutes to sling the summit. I at least had to try.
Steph was nice enough to let me throw away 45 minutes of our time trying to lasso the summit rather than 10 minutes. The rope kept popping off the top, and the best we could get was for it to catch around a bolt pin. In desperation, I at least wanted to test the rope anchored in this position to convince myself that it wouldn’t go. Steph voiced her concern of me even attempting to weight the rope on the pin, so I backed off on this futile attempt.
Frankly, in light of my experience actually summitting the peak later on, I think Steph called my bluff about 20 seconds before I’d have given in. So we moved on, and had a great day summitting Starlight and doing most of the traverse before bailing down the U-Notch as it got dark. Though leading the Starlight summit block was great, and though we had a great climb together, I hadn’t summitted Thunderbolt and Steph didn’t get to complete the traverse. We both would have to come back for a second attempt. For some reason, I felt as if the outing was far less satisfying for both of us than other climbs with other partners where we weren’t 100% successful.
Attempt #6: The Never-Ending ClimbJuly 17-19, 2010
Normally my return period for a “Thunderbolt Peak event” was about once a year, but only a month later I was driving back with a new accomplice, Vitaliy. Between the frustration of being so close on my last attempt, and the disappointment of Steph bailing on our Liberty Ridge climb to do it a week earlier with someone else, I felt a renewed vigor to use the weekend that was originally set aside for Liberty Ridge for another attempt at Thunderbolt Peak. This time, though I was tempted to play it safe and do the North Couloir, the idea of returning was easier by choosing to do a new route that would give me a good experience for my first full alpine trad lead climb – the III 5.5 Northwest Ridge. We could make a nice loop with our camp by descending the Underhill Couloir.
The plan was to do the approach fast, camping high on the Palisade Glacial moraine where I had with Steph. Vitaliy and I would climb something easy and short on the approach day, and then do something else moderate but not too risky the second day. This should leave us broken in and well acclimatized for climbing Thunderbolt on the third day. Also, by at least climbing some other new peaks in the area, there would be less pressure on this outing for me.
Although the weather forecast called for the ending of thunderstorms that week the day before, with a clear weekend, we got drenched on the approach from several downbursts of rain and lightning. In light of the continued rain and lightning once we reached Sam Mack meadows, we chose to camp low and lie low our first night.
The next day we moved camp 1,000 ft higher to the 12,400 ft location on the north Palisade Glacier moraine. The spot was one I had found with Steph and it was worth coming back to. We made short work of the traverse over to Mt. Robinson. Today’s agenda started with scrambling up the peak via it’s West Ridge, which was reported to have difficult routefinding that would easily make the 3rd class route class 4-5. It was a great scramble, and we managed to keep the route at about 3rd class to low 4th class. However, by the time we reached the summit, I could see thunderheads building to the West.
In light of the unforecasted deteriorating weather, I called off our plans to next climb the NE Face of Mt. Agassiz and instead scramble up Aperture Peak and some of the others in the area. That way we could easily turn around if the weather continued to worsen.
Just as we made it back to the saddle it started to rain lightly and we could hear lightning in the distance. Not wanting to take any chances, we aborted the rest of our climbing plans for the day and rushed back to camp.
We made it there by 2 pm, and by then the thunderstorm cells had passed and there was only blue sky to be seen. There were no more clouds to the west and the weather was good for the rest of the day, though at this point we had no choice but to sit around and rest. It appeared the mountain gods had gotten in their good laugh for the day, as this short cell aborted our plans, and that of several other groups in the area attempting North Palisade and Thunderbolt Peak.
Would our luck be better the next day?
Not taking any chances with the weather, I wanted to be beginning the first pitch at first light, so we broke camp early and made it to the Winchell Col just after sunrise. The first two pitches were steep, but solid and fun. The next few were broken and pretty moderate, so we made excellent time ascending the ridge. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.
Things started going wrong at the rappel into the main notch. First, reaching the rappel was much more exposed and took much longer to do than expected. The terrain after that got harder, and though the more intimidating sections fell together easily, the increased loose rock and increasingly difficult routefinding made us slower and slower. Some clouds quickly brewed up and dropped a little rain, but luckily nothing came of it.
I was still wondering what Misha meant by “tremendous exposure” in his route description as we neared the top of the ridge. So far none of the route had been all that exposed. Just past the unnamed summit, the ridge turned into a knife edge. It dropped of vertically to the east, and the west dropped off nearly as steep. Though it was slightly more broken, the steps were composed of loose rocks, most of which stuck out in a way that made the terrain harder than 5.5.
I spent considerable time looking for ways through this impasse before finally sucking it up and traversing right along the narrow and exposed ridge crest. A rope would only do so much good, so I had to climb carefully. At some locations, there were large loose blocks piled on the ridge that required some delicate scrambling. The most noteworthy section was a gap spanned by a block as large as me that vibrated when I stomped on it. Not wanting to trust it, I made a long, tenuous reach across the gap and was barely able to reach and grab the other horn. I stepped across, threaded through some other splits in the ridge, and eventually found the passage.
The sun was beginning to set now, and at this time, I was just focused on trying to get to the top of the North Couloir before dark. Things didn’t look promising for summitting Thunderbolt. Vitaliy and I made it to the top of the North Couloir just after dark. To my pleasant surprise, Vitaliy turned out to be as crazy as I was. When I pointed out the warm nights and good weather, and that we were well suited to have a reasonably comfortable bivvy at the top of the couloir, Vitaliy was fully onboard. We would sleep here and summit tomorrow!
Vitaliy and I were famished. Although the night out was comfortable enough, our calorie and water deficiency was taking a toll. With each attempt to throw the rope over the summit, I felt weaker and weaker. The exposure of my perch was also leaving me feeling unnerved too, and I was eager to get off of the tall flake. My morale weakened. Although we still had a half hour left to sling the summit before continuing on to get down as planned, I was ready to throw in the towel early in frustration.
Luckily for me, Vitaliy meant what he said in that he doesn’t give up easily, and that he considered himself a good luck charm on trips. Though my bad luck seemed to be winning overall, we were at the summit with plenty of time, and the weather today was perfect. We tried a lot of ideas, and just as I was about to give up, Vitaliy suggested one last way to try throwing the rope, which worked surprisingly well. There was a tense moment with each throw as the rope almost seemed to sail true, before bouncing and rolling off. At last, as we tossed the rope and held our breath, the rope finally landed cleanly around the summit block – and stayed!
I quickly set up the anchors and then spent another good getting over my nervousness in climbing the rope. The more I got on the thing, the more I could see how nasty a fall would be even with a belay and the more easily I could imagine how things could go wrong. It didn’t help that the rope was slung a little low, but what could you do?
As in the famous SP photo, I did the “Bob Burd” stem across to the summit block, and half-aided on the rope, while using my left hand and foot to pull on and step around the crest to fight the tendency of the rope to pull me to the right across the summit block. Soon I was high enough that I left my attachment to the rope as a backup and scrambled the rest of the way to the top.
[img:640908:aligncenter:medium:Finally at the summit! ]