[I am referring to the Thunderbolt-Starlight-North Palisade-Polemonium-Sill traverse. The (full) Palisade Traverse is much longer and has only been done by a handful of climbers; Misha says Michael Reardon did it in a day, quite a feat, since even Peter Croft hasn't done that]
After reading various trip reports, I wasn't sure what to expect of the traverse. Scott's trip report made it sound like an expedition, while the speed climbers Josh
and Jack viewed it much more casually.
Unlike Scotty, Josh and Jack, I decided to ascend the North Couloir. Another option I considered was the 5.5 NW ridge from Winchell Col, but it sounded a bit harder and I wanted the odds in my favor since this was my first solo climb and first trip to the Palisades. Because of the couloir, I wore heavy mountaineering boots and took ice axe and crampons. Later that day, I met another climber who had come via the NW ridge, and he said it wasn't that bad. According to Peter Croft, he will be more admired at parties than I, but so be it.
In addition to ice axe and crampons, I carried a bail-biner, 20 feet of 6 mm cord, light jacket, food, 3 liters water, helmet and an old pair of climbing shoes, which I never ended up using.
Saturday night I left LA and drove into Glacier Lodge, arriving around 1 AM Sunday morning, then slept for a bit and left around 4:15 AM. The approach is longer than I expected, and I spent a lot of energy. Tennis shoes would have sped this up. My feet blistered quickly since I seem to be incapable of buying boots that fit. I applied climbing tape, but this came off quickly once I started to sweat. The approach and descent were agony due to the blisters, and when I returned to the car that night my entire right heel was one large blister. The next day back in town was painful.
The approach trail to Sam Mack Meadow took longer than I had hoped for, while only gaining about 2,000' of elevation. I passed two climbers who had biked the beginning part of it (their conclusion: helpful, but not really worth it). One of them was worried for me, and told me he'd read a trip report about the traverse that said the climbers had downclimbed 5.7 and 5.9 and had been really shaken up and said they'd never do it again unless they had a deathwish. Not encouraging. It also helped solidify my decision to ascend the North Couloir instead of the technical ridge.
ThunderboltI followed the well-marked climbing trail to the moraine at the base of the Palisade glacier. The boulder fields here are not pleasant, since the boulders are not well established. Went over to the North Couloir and couldn't find a way past the bergshrund except on the far right. I had to climb 100' of loose 3rd class rock; this was the least enjoyable part of the day, other than the blisters. Got back to the snow and cramponed up. The angle is pleasant - 35 degrees says one guidebook - and it was straightforward to the ridge, though the altitude had caught up to me here. Scrambled along the ridge for a bit, then to the top of Thunderbolt at 10:30 AM. It had taken quite a while, much slower than Josh and Jack, but I was pleased enough.
The summits of Thunderbolt and Starlight have wildly exposed summit blocks that are just fantastic. I'd read about them and seen pictures and was quite nervous about what I'd find. Croft's book shows a picture of him gingerly climbing the 5.9 East face of Thunderbolt's summit block, and it looks very slabby and difficult. When I got there, the face turned out to have plenty of nice holds, and though it was exciting, I climbed it in hiking boots without too much difficulty. The landing is bad, though. I used the fixed slings to lower myself (it would have been possible to use the slings to ascend, though there's no guarantee the slings will stay there).
StarlightTraversing to Starlight was 4th class or so, and like the rest of the traverse, there were sections I had to go slowly on, but the majority of it is very fun scrambling over big blocks. It took about 30 minutes to traverse. After a very awkward move, I straddled the steep base of the summit block, then easily made the "delicate mantle" via a heel hook. Though this problem is rated 5.4, it was trickier to do in boots than the 5.9 on Thunderbolt. My boots edge well -- as well as climbing shoes perhaps -- which worked on Thunderbolt. Starlight requires a bit more smearing. To get down, there was a short sling, so I looped my 6 mm cord through it and lowered part-way until I ran out of cord. I managed to get down the rest of the way via an ungainly hop.
North PalisadeStarlight and N. Palisade are quite close, but there is a difficult notch you have to cross. It took 30 minutes total, about 20 of them dealing with the notch. It's hard to explain why it is difficult, but I think the other trip reports also mentioned having minor difficulties here. There are rappel slings, but my cord was too short, and I had briefly tried to downclimb it but chickened out, due to the nasty fall and difficulty. At the rap slings, if you look the other way, you see a thin chimney. I used the cord to drop my pack, then chimneyed down to it. From here, descend just a little bit more until you can easily get across the gap. From there to the summit was reasonable.
PolemoniumIn their trip reports, Josh and Jack both mention downclimbing a 5.2 section to the U-Notch (this is what Secor's guidebook calls the 5.4 Chimney variation). I might have tried this also, except that this is the only place Croft's book mentions rappelling. Since Croft can free-solo harder routes than I can top-rope, I decided against downclimbing it. Secor also calls the upper-pitch "especially strenuous". But after reading the other trip reports, it doesn't sound bad. Maybe Croft recommends the rappel simply because it's steep and long, and hence a rappel is straight-forward and quicker than downclimbing? I don't know.
So instead of the chimney, I tried the Clyde Variation. I don't know if I was on route, but it worked. You descend the gully for a while, cross over the ridge at any appropriate-looking spot, then ascend the U-notch gully for a little bit. It took about 20 minutes, most of it on the route-finding. From the notch to Polemonium was easier than I anticipated (on North Palisade, it looks steep and intimidating). Take 4th class ledges to the E. ridge, then "5th class" moves to the top. I thought the last section was 4th class, but I was also about 5 or 10 feet to the side of the actual ridge. The ridge section is fun, but short. It took 10 minutes from the U-notch to the summit.
SillClimbing Sill is an uneventful scramble, but took a while. I reached it at about 3 PM, 4 hours 30 minutes after Thunderbolt. Not great, not bad. I was pleased about avoiding using my climbing shoes and avoiding any rappels. A lighter pack would have been nice.
The descent from Sill to the Palisade Glacier is not that fun. The first bit, just after you leave the ridge, is very loose 3rd or 4th class. The snow on the lower part of the mountain and on the glacier is too hard to glissade and also had really funky sun-cup like formations, though you could descend it (which I did, preferring it to rock when I had the choice). It took a lot longer to get down from the glacier to the trail than I anticipated. And the trail out takes forever, though it is a gorgeous area, especially Sam Mack Meadow.
I made it back to the car at 7:30 PM, dashing my hopes of a 24 hours apartment-to-apartment round trip time. I ate at the spaghetti-and-steak restaurant in Big Pine, which is a pleasant place, but has terrible food, watered-down coke, and charges $17 for a spaghetti meal.
Final thoughtsI had been worried about the traverse because it is so committing. Once on Thunderbolt, there is no easy way down back into the same basin. The only decent descent route is on Sill, so you better make the traverse. You can rap some of the gullies, but you of course need a rope [it's also true there are some 4th class gullies that you can downclimb, but they don't seem appealing either]. Without a partner or rope, I was worried that I'd come across a difficult section that I didn't want to solo and be forced to either risk it or to retreat, both bad options. Luckily, this didn't come up for me. The difficulty is very subjective, based on the route taken and the climber.
Comments on speed climbing this section as a part of the CA's 14er speed record:
I hope this traverse itself doesn't become a speed-climbing objective, because trying to save seconds or minutes could be fatal on this kind of terrain. However, as part of a longer speed record where only days and hours are important, it's a fine and unavoidable traverse that can be done quickly and without much gear. My route up the N. Couloir certainly required crampons, so take another route and leave the crampons at home.
Jack's strategy (if I understand it correctly) of starting at South Lake (with shorter approach, no?) instead of Glacier Lodge, and then carrying over to do more mountains, seems brilliant. And you can gain the Thunderbolt-Starlight notch easier, without glacier troubles and without crampons. The traverse to Middle Palisade sounds unpleasant, and I won't be caught attempting that unless it is for a speed record.
It's also worth noting different records for different levels of support. Jack's option requried a car to pick him up. And having someone else drive is a huge difference, in my opinion. The hardest part of my climb was the drive back home. I don't want to take away from the significance of Jack's record at all, but I'd also like to applaud Josh's 100% solo effort.
And personally, I'd like to see an emphasis on the Sierra 14er speed record, not the CA speed record. Shasta is in the Cascades, and it's a long drive; driving fast shouldn't be a necessary skill for speed climbing. Why include it? The boundary between California and Oregon is just an artificial line drawn up in the 19th century. As for White Mtn., I can take it or leave it. I've never been there, but I hear you follow a road to the top. But it's not as far as Shasta, hence my ambivalence.
Hopefully I'll practice what I preach and next year at this time there will be a trip report about my Sierra 14er speed-ascent attempt.