Thunderbolt Peak is one of the hardest of the California fourteeners to climb. It was the last one to be climbed (August 1931). None of the routes are easy and the summit block - where the register is placed is rated - 5.8-5.9. Located on the main Palisade Crest, it is the northernmost fourteen thousander in the Sierra Nevada.
This is a pretty awesome peak, with a beautiful and difficult summit monolith. The views from the summit are incredible - towards North Palisade and Mount Sill on one side, towards Mount Winchell on the other, and toward Kings Canyon to the West.
The mountain got its name from the circumstances of the first ascent. A bolt of lightning hit the summit monolith just as Jules Eichorn was coming down from it. In an interview in 1989, when he was asked how close the thunder fell, he said "...just past my right ear". More details are provided in the history section below.
There are two basic approaches: by the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, or by South Lake. The latter is shorter and involves less elevation gain, as you start from 10,000f t. However, it contains a longer cross country portion skirting Mount Winchell, and that can get tricky if you drop too low in the talus below Thunderbolt Pass. Moreover, the South Lake approach gives you access to West side routes which are less technical and where the rock is much more loose.
For the first option, drive to Big Pine in Owens Valley and then drive to Glacier Lodge (elevation: 8,000 ft). Hike the North Fork of Big Pine Creek trail for approaches to North-East facing routes. Cross the Palisades glacier to approach the routes on Thunderbolt Peak.
Alternatively, drive to Bishop and then to South Lake (elevation: 10,000 ft); hike over Bishop Pass and start going dross country into Dusy Basin, skirting the West side of Mounts Agassiz and Winchell. Cross Thunderbolt Pass (12,000 ft) into the Palisade Basin. This is the approach for South-West facing routes. The cross-country portion of this approach can be pretty tricky - if one falls too low or stays too high, much tedious talus is encountered. On the upside, it's a beautiful hike, with great views of Dusy Basin, Isosceles Peak and Columbine Peak. The Palisades Basin is pristine, too. On the other hand the routes on this side are quite tedious and loose. The couloirs and granite on the other side are much better.
A note on campsites:
On the West side, there are nice campsites with water ponds just below Thunderbolt pass - you can't miss them. Flat sandy patches and large boulders to shelter you from the wind.
On the North Fork of Big Pine Creek side, you will find some campsites at the lake at the toe of the Palisade glacier, although not many. There are better sites on some shelves about an hour past Sam Mack Meadow, but the drawback is you are farther away from the Glacier, and water can be an issue there later in the season. Finally, there are campsites at the base of Mount Gayley, but then you are too far East for a comfortable approach to Thunderbolt. Better to stay as much to the West side of the glacier toe lake as you can, unless you plan to also climb Mount Sill.
Overnight wilderness permits are required at all times, and both both Bishop Pass and the North Fork of Big Pine Creek have use quotas in effect from May 1 to November 1. Permits can be obtained from the ranger stations in Lee Vining, Bishop or Lone Pine. If under quotas, make reservations is advance. More information can be found at the Inyo National Forest Visitor Center.
Fires are not allowed in the area.
Any time of year - but late May / early June is probably optimal. Note the recently extended quota season - May 1 to November 1.
Check www.395.com for current conditions, or call the Inyo National Forest Rangers at (760) 873-2400 for conditions. Daily report are available at the ranger station.
Another nice source for weather data is Howard Sheckter's webpage out of Mammoth Lakes.
There is a controversy concerning the summit register of Thunderbolt Peak. Traditionally, it was bolted to the top of the summit block. In the last couple of years, it seems the bolts were broken and the register now sits at the base of the monolith. There was an animated discussion of this on SP a while back - see here. Whatever the opinion on where the summit register should be, reaching the top of the monolith of Thunderbolt should be the criterion of a complete ascent. After all, the easiest way up the mountain (Southwest Chute #1) is otherwise largely a scree and talus slope - with a couple of class 3 moves. The summit block, on the other hand, well there's something more challenging...
Another issue is the obcene amount of webbing that people have attached to the summit over time. With that much webbing hanging from the summit bolt, it is possible to hand over hand your way to the top. The webbing is highly inelegant, and as it decays year by year it will become dangerous. My view is that there is no need for it, as there are better techniques to aid the summit block in case you are not into free climbing. These techniques are nicely described by snwburd here.
The first ascent party on August 13, 1931, included Bestor Robinson, Lewis F. Clark, Glen Dawson, Jules Eichorn, Francis Farquhar, Robert L. M. Underhill, and Norman Clyde. However, not all of them made it to the top of the summit monolith, due to an approaching storm. We are only certain for sure that Dawson and Eichorn made it, because Clyde confirmed that in his account.
It is best to let him speak. Here is an abstract from his book, Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada (a must read of Sierra history):
[the account starts at the top of the Underhill Couloir]
'At the upper end of this steep pitch, we were obliged either to swing around a buttress on an exposed face with a few rounded holds, or to traverse to a couloir some 50 yards to the left and ascend that. Two of the ropes swung around the buttress; the third availed itself of the traverse and the couloir. Several hundred feet of scrambling over great rocks then brought both parties to the jagged summit arete and, an additional few hundred feet along this, to the foot of the rounded monolith that forms the top of the peak. But the storm was almost upon us.
'Arriving at the base of the monolith, one member of the party leaned across a deep crevice at its base and braced himself against the rock, forming a courte echelle, enabling several in turn to mount upon his shoulders and then scramble, or rather crawl, depending almost entirely upon friction, to the summit.'
This is when the thunderstorm started, and while Eichorn was descending the summit monolith, lightning hit it, missing Eichorn by a fraction. The party made their way lower and sheltered in an alcove.
'As this was enough to protect us from any thunderbolt which might strike the summit and afford some shelter from the storm, we crowded together beneath it, a rather bedraggled-looking group. Within half an hour, the storm ceased for a time and we returned to the top of the mountain. The summit monolith was now too slippery to permit rubber soles to grip its rounded surface, and the other climbers were reluctantly obliged to forego its ascent.'
They then made their way down on the west side towards the Palisade glacier, having lost and retreived an ice axe:
'As I began to cut steps with the retrieved ice ax -- now broken in half -- a storm had loosened the rocks higher up on the mountain. It being obviously very hazardous to attempt to go down the chute, more especially so because the fog which now overhung the mountains concealed the flying rocks until they were almost abreast of us, we decided to try to find a way down the end of the rock promontory which we had been following.'
'Eventually, I reached a rock above the ice wall which drops into the bergschrund, over which a rope might safely be looped. Using the rope attached to my waist, together with another one which was passed down the line, I threw the doubled rope over the rock and let it down into the crevasse, whose bottom I could not see since the ice shelved for some distance before reaching the vertical or overhanging drop. I tossed rocks into the bergschrund which seemed to strike the bottom within a reasonable time. The doubled rope was somewhat over 50 feet in length.
'With the rope properly adjusted, I took off, going down the upper steeply shelving portion gradually so as to be able to cut a few steps to assist those following if I should safely get down into the crevasse, or myself, should I be obliged to come back. After going down about 30 feet, I came to the brink of the vertical ice wall. Fortunately, the bottom, apparently firm, was about 20 feet below. I therefore swung over the brink and glided down the rope to the bottom, which did prove to be firm. Luckily, too, the lower lip of the crevasse was at this point only 6 or 8 feet high. The floor was formed of material that had fallen into the crevasse. Only a few rods to one side, however, it dropped away indefinitely.
'A way having been prepared, the rest of the party came down the rope in rapid succession. All real danger past, it was rather amusing to watch one after another as they came over the top of the wall and shot down into the crevasse. After climbing out of the crevasse, we gathered up and coiled about 300 feet of rope and then sped down the glacier.'
In other words, a pretty adventurous FA.