ApproachFrom highway 395 in Bishop, California, take W. Line Street west for 10-12 miles or so, and then follow obvious signage to turn left toward South Lake, which is only a few more miles. You’ll know you’re approaching South Lake when you see lots of cars, fishermen, a boat dock, more people, and ultimately, a bathroom and parking area at the very end of the road. If you’re lucky, or get there early, you should be able to find adequate overnight parking right at the trailhead at South Lake; otherwise, be prepared to park down the road aways and then hoof it back up to the trailhead.
From the obvious trailhead (approx. 9800 ft.) at the end of the road, follow the well-worn trail south for 5-6 miles to Bishop Pass. This portion of the approach is scenic, with outstanding views of Cloudripper, Hurd Peak, Mt. Goode, Picture Puzzle, and later, Mt. Agassiz, not to mention the gorgeous lakes you’ll pass, but despite it’s charm, this section seems unreasonably sloggy on the return. Nevertheless, hoof on. The trip up to the pass is easy and goes quickly.
From Bishop Pass (approx. 12,000 ft), leave the trail and head south cross-country across Dusy Basin toward Thunderbolt Pass, which is your next objective. Staying high in Dusy Basin, passing directly below Mt. Agassiz and Mt. Winchell, despite an awful lot of talus, seems to be the fastest, and preferred, way to cross the basin to the pass, which will soon become obvious in the distance. It’s only about a mile across Dusy Basin, but it’ll take a while. Assuming you stay high in the basin, you’ll likely want to fill up your water at the lake directly below Mt. Agassiz’ western slope, as other water sources in Dusy Basin are lower (and out of the way).
Upon reaching Thunderbolt Pass (approx. 12,200 ft), the obvious pass directly below the west face of Thunderbolt Peak, look for one of many very nice (and scenic) bivy/camp spots at the pass. The views from the pass of the Palisades above you, and of Dusy and Palisade Basins around you, are impressive. Water is available a few hundred feet away below you in Palisade Basin.
Looking to the next peak south of Thunderbolt Peak from the pass, which is Starlight Peak, you can easily make out the Milk Bottle, the mountain’s uber-aesthetic summit block.
Route DescriptionFrom Thunderbolt Pass, drop down slightly into Palisade Basin and traverse south to the base of Starlight Peak’s northwest chute. I’d recommend studying pictures of the various chutes on this side of the Palisades to make sure you get the right one, but I’ll also make an attempt to describe the correct chute:
From Thunderbolt Pass, the first chute to the south is southwest chute #1 on Thunderbolt Peak. Immediately south of this chute, you will notice two more minor chutes and a second prominent one, Thunderbolt’s southwest chute #2 (this leads directly to the saddle between Thunderbolt and Starlight), and then a third prominent chute with a headwall just inside its mouth. Above this 3rd prominent chute, you may notice a large, pyramidal headwall – this is the right chute. Head up.
Immediately upon entering the northwest chute, you will come to a sort of headwall. I’ve read that it is 4th class, but it seemed to be no more than enjoyable and easy 3rd class. Head up the headwall (100+ ft), picking any line you feel comfortable with, and once on the gentler terrain directly above it, aim for a prominent subsidiary chute heading up and to the right and ultimately to a notch above you. It’s pretty obvious when you’re there. The chute leading to the notch is primarily class 2, with a touch of class 3 slabby stuff directly below the notch.
Once at the notch, which drops impressively down into Starlight Chute on the other side, traverse easterly along a kind of catwalk into the upper portion of Starlight Chute. The traverse is exposed and the catwalk is narrow, but the going is easy and fun. At the end of the catwalk, you will find yourself at the base of a 60-foot waterfall.
Continue up the chute, bypassing the waterfall by climbing about 80-100 feet of class 3-4 rock to the right. Again, pick a line that you feel comfortable with. The bottom portion of the bypass is in the class 3 range, while the upper portion consisted primarily of class 4 terrain. Although I’ve read of, and spoken to, parties roping up for this section, the rock was clean, the scrambling easy, and ropes were not necessary. Do what makes you feel comfortable.
Once past the waterfall obstacle, continue up the chute for another 500 vertical feet or so until the chute ends abruptly at cliffs directly below a notch. From here, you must head up and to the left (north), with many variations possible, over class 4 (and 5, if you want it/are not careful) terrain to the summit ridge and the Milk Bottle. Again, it seems that many (or most) parties rope up for this section of steep terrain, but it didn’t seem necessary. The rock is reasonably good and the climbing is easy (a relative term, I know).
When this obstacle is overcome, work your way to the base of the Milk Bottle, which is not hard to find.
The 20-foot tall Milk Bottle is most easily climbed (5.5-5.6, I suppose) on its southern side. The top boasts a rusty bolt, and frequently, a couple of biners and slings. If someone can’t solo the Bottle and secure the rope for the others in your party, lasso the block and/or do something creative – there are many options available.
To descend, retrace your steps, down-climbing or rappelling the harder sections as necessary.
Roundtrip estimates are perhaps 14-15 miles with 4500-4800 feet of gain. This route is certainly dayhike-able, but considering the cross-country slog across Dusy Basin and the nature of the terrain going up the chute and the Milk Bottle itself, an overnighter would seem far preferable to most.
Essential GearCrampons/ice axe for seasonal snow on the approach, at the mouth of the northwest chute, and for occasional snow patches in the chute itself.
Rope/gear/etc for those uncomfortable on class 4. Considering the exposure on the Milk Bottle, most will not want to solo it.
I had read accounts and spoken to people who described the route-finding as challenging. I found it to be straightforward. As always, arm yourself beforehand to minimize surprises.
I was told of a past rockfall death in Starlight Chute. Generally-speaking, the Palisades are loose. Plan on being extra vigilant, and wear a helmet.
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