An old report on my partner's and my first Sierra peak together. We were very much alpine greenhorns at the time, so it was pretty exciting for us.
(BETA ALERT: There are numerous trip reports about this peak on the Web, but I’ve included a lot of detail on the summit block, at least as I saw it.)
Gene and I climbed Thunderbolt Peak July 26 via the Southwest Chute No. 1 on a perfect day in the Sierra Nevada.
Gene was my first climbing partner. We met through a mutual climbing instructor in North Carolina where I still live, and did our first leads and multipitch routes together before he took a teaching job in Boston. He's since relocated to the Bay Area -- lucky dog!
It was only our second time climbing together since he moved. On our first alpine trip in 1999, we’d been to the Palisade Basin where we backed off the West Face route on North Palisade, getting about three quarters of the way up before I called a turnaround due to time (one route-finding dead end, and too much time roped up after the first three pitches slowing us down). Had a somewhat adventurous decent with creepy rappels and scary downclimbing in the Putterman couloir – the guidebook says it’s loose, and that’s putting it mildly. Still it was better than trying to downclimb the slab we’d come up on the West Face route.
In retrospect, it might not have taken us that much longer to continue to the top and back down on the LeConte Route, but it being our first alpine venture, I erred on the side of caution. The decent ended up being a confidence builder since we negotiated a way down unfamiliar technical terrain in one piece. Silver linings for non-hardmen I suppose …
Anyway, for Thunderbolt we got a decidedly non-alpine start, leaving our camp at 9 a.m. Didn’t really matter since we were camped around 12,200 feet in the Palisade Basin, just a short way below Thunderbolt Pass, the route-finding proved to be very straightforward, and the way we went doesn’t demand much roped climbing, and indeed a lot of people seem to solo the whole thing.
We trudged up the talus and into the chute, encountering a couple of third-class steps but finding it mostly hard class two, until we reached the big chockstone. Jay, the third member of our group, accompanied us to that point before going back to hike in the basin.
Gene and I roped up for a pitch at that point. Instead of following the ledge on the right wall of the chute to the third class scramble into the next chute, I took a more direct fourth-class line up. I ran out some more rope and brought Gene up.
We unroped, had some water and continued, following guidebook advice to take the right-hand option whenever the chute forked. There’s a lot of slogging and very easy, unexposed scrambling up to the last right-hand turn before the notch between the north summit and the higher south summit.
This last right is almost a 90-degree turn. Looking straight ahead, it appears you’ll hit the crest, but if you go straight up there you end up on the wrong side of the north summit.
The climb from there to the notch is easy, but steeper than before. A fall would be not be good, and we tested holds carefully.
At the notch, we had a power bar and more water, stashed the packs and changed into rock shoes, since I had hopes of free-climbing the summit block, which at 5.8-5.9 would be my hardest lead outdoors. I’d been bouldering a lot, though, and some friendly Internet beta (thanks Brent) had indicated that the difficulties really amounted to a high-ball boulder problem.
The notch is a spectacular place, with a view of the entire Palisade Glacier and the North Fork of Big Pine Creek.
I knew there was a third-class runaround to reach the summit area, but as we had our rope and already had changed shoes, we decided to take the fourth-class pitch directly out of the notch. It protects well if you want it, is nicely exposed, and has a cool little move that provoked some thought (at least the way I went), where I had to rock over to the left to get out of the initial crack system.
I got up to where the third-class line comes up and took a right along a narrow ledge to the jumble of boulders beneath the unmistakable summit block. The route here says third class, but a fall from that final ledge would definitely suck eggs.
Gene came on up and we turned our attention to the summit block.
From where we were, the right-hand side is less than vertical but almost completely smooth. To the left, the block overhangs a bit toward the top, but at least has some features, even if they’re well-spaced and none-too positive. I chose the left-hand option.
I set an anchor. A fall here would take me past the belay onto a very nasty landing, but at least Gene wouldn’t come tumbling on top of me to add to the misery.
I climbed onto a boulder forming an almost perfect pyramid against the summit block, where I stood with the ball of my right foot on the apex and my hands against the block for balance.
I leaned left, brought my left hand to a tiny ledge about an inch or two wide and maybe a foot to foot and a half long at hip level (I’m 6’5”), and got my left foot onto the feature. I retreated to my original stance to gather my nerves. Hell, it probably made me more nervous. It seemed like I was on that spot for a while, but time slows down when I’m climbing.
Finally, I got my hand and foot re-established on the ledge, told Gene I was going for it and rocked over, thinking “quiet feet, quiet feet.” I committed to my left foot and just started pushing up, the wall right in my face. It seemed like nothing was happening, but I found myself standing upright with my hands just grazing the wall for balance. I reached up to my right, and my hand closed around the most delightful jug I’ve ever grabbed. I got my right foot high, brought my hips in, laid back full on the jug, and pushed with my right foot, grabbed the edge of the top with my left hand and pulled over onto the sloping summit.
I let out a shout and called to Gene, “I’m up.” Till then, the hardest move I’d done on lead was 5.7, and I was pumped to pull something that was at my limit. I know it ain’t much in the mountaineering scheme of things, but it was for me, and the landing, exposure and remoteness made it the best few feet of rock this soft-man had ever climbed.
I clipped a biner slung to the bolts and stood up for a look around before replacing the sling, stashing the old one on my harness, and adding another biner for the lower-off and Gene’s TR attempt.
Gene lowered me, and we switched places. He cruised the summit block and came back down. He declined my offer to leave the extra biner for the lowering, since with a new sling in place, he felt confident in coming down off the biner we found at the top.
We ate, drank and flipped through the summit register. My understanding had been that T-bolt had two registers, one at the base of the block and one on the block itself, but we found only the former.
There was a red sling around a boulder at the base of the summit block, but I wasn’t sure if our single 60-meter rope would reach the notch from there – in retrospect, I’m pretty sure it would have. We retraced our steps around the ledge back to the notch side of the summit area and down-climbed to where I’d passed the rappel sling earlier. I placed a fresh sling around this well-lodged flake and tossed the ropes.
As I outweigh Gene by about 40 pounds, I went first. As I reached a more vertical section, I saw plenty of rope splayed on the slope below the notch on the glacier side, so we weren’t in a direct line to the notch. It wasn’t too far off, though, to easily work over in the right direction while on rappel.
Gene came down, and the ropes pulled just fine. We re-booted and started down. Gene went first and I let him get to the bottom of the initial steep down-climb and around a corner before starting down myself.
Since even careful movement still sometimes released small scree slides, we kept plenty of space between us till we got to the third-class down-climb to the ledge back to the initial chute. I found the usual way this time, and we didn’t use the rope. We took a lot of care, since small stones and sand on the ledges made for tricky footing in places. It’s easy, but still not a good place to fall.
We cruised on down the chute, interrupted by my Chevy Chase-like pratfall into a snow moat when I stepped too close to the edge and it gave way. Unfortunately, I re-goofed arm tendons I’d damaged a couple of weeks earlier, and that put the kibosh on anything strenuous for several weeks. Got to watch those steps, especially when getting tired.
We puttered back into camp in plenty of time to kick back a while before another Sierra Nevada alpenglow extravaganza.