Northwest Ridge

Page Type
California, United States, North America
Route Type:
Technical Rock Climb, possible Ice Climb
Time Required:
Most of a day
III, 5.5 (5.8-5.9 to climb the summit block)

Route Quality: 2 Votes

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Northwest Ridge
Created On: Aug 17, 2004
Last Edited On: Aug 14, 2007


In order to gain the NW ridge of Thunderbolt Peak, you would need to first climb to Winchell Col (between Winchell and Thunderbolt). Winchell Col can be ascended from the east (Sam Mack Meadow) or west (Dusy Basin) sides. The west side would be easier since it does not involve snow / glacier travel, at least later in the season. If you come from the east side, you may have to negotiate the bergschrund.
Winchell Col consists of two notches separated by a rock formation called "Dolphin Fin". From the west side, it is easier to climb the higher notch located closer to Thunderbolt Peak so you don't have to go over "Dolphin Fin" on the way to the summit.
Since the west side approach is easier, it will be described in more detail. After starting at the South Lake trailhead, go over Bishop Pass (6 miles, 2K' gain). Instead of dropping down into Dusy Basin, traverse the talus slope on the west side of Mt. Agassiz, past Agassiz Col and Mt. Winchell. Once you get to below Winchell Col, climb up into the right-hand notch. For the easiest going (Class 3-4), stay on ledges and large blocks on the left side of the notch. Instead of going to the lowest part of the notch, you can start traversing right towards Thunderbolt Peak and gain the NW ridge.

Route Description

The NW ridge of Thunderbolt is a classic route and arguably one the better route on this mountain. The rock quality here is excellent, the climbing is sustained, and the exposure is tremendous! Even though this route looks straight-forward and short from below, don't let it fool you. It is pretty long and may take several hours to complete from Winchell Col, especially if you decide to rope up. This route is a great start for the popular Thunderbolt to Sill traverse.

Once you are on the ridge above Winchell Col, negotiate a 5th class headwall and continue up, staying as close to the ridge proper as possible. Here climbing will be anywhere from 3rd to mid-5th class for hundreds of feet. Approximately 2/3 of the way up the ridge, you will come across a drop off. You can either downclimb it (Class 5+) or rappel. There are existing rappel slings but you may want to bring your own just in case. One rappel will bring you back onto easier climbing. Continue to follow the ridge over blocks and headwalls until you get to below the north summit (Lightning Rod). Here you can either climb Lightning Rod (Class 5-5.8), or go around it on the right side towards the main summit.
Depending on how you choose to scale the main summit block, you may want to go around it on the left (East, 5.9) or right (West, 5.8) sides.

Descent: You can take any of the easier routes down (i.e. Southwest Chutes #1 and #2, West Face, Underhill Couloir), continue traversing to Startlight Peak or go back the way you came.

Essential Gear

Light alpine rope for the rappel, several slings for the rap station, small alpine rack if needed to protect Class 4-5 sections. However, I'd strongly recommend to solo this route if possible.

Miscellaneous Info

If you have information about this route that doesn't pertain to any of the other sections, please add it here.

Additions and CorrectionsPost an Addition or Correction

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PellucidWombat - Jul 24, 2010 6:32 pm - Voted 9/10

Additional Info for Route Page

Approach from North Fork of Big Pine

If you camp on the north lateral moraine of the Palisade Glacier, the approach takes about 1-1.5 hrs to the notch. When I climbed it, and when looking at later seasons photos of the area, I don't think there is any danger of a bergschrund blocking passage to the notch. It is an easy and short snow climb and class 3 scramble from the Thunderbolt Glacier to the notch.

Roped Travel and the Cruxes

Though there are some difficult and/or exposed parts of the ridge where one might want to rope up, much of the ridge is perfectly fine to solo or simul-climb. The pitch-by-pitch personal preference refers to my annotated photo.

Pitch 1: 5.5 - Belay (if free-solo first half (cl. 3), pitch 1&2 can be combined, which is advised)

Pitch 2: 5.5 - Belay

Pitch 3: Simul-climbing

Pitch 4: Simul-climbing

Pitch 5: Simul-climbing

Pitch 6: Simul-climbing

Pitch 7: Free solo

Pitch 8: 5.4? - Belay

Pitch 9: 5.4? - Belay

Pitch 10: Free solo

Pitch 11: Simul-climbing

Pitch 12: Simul-climbing

Pitch 13: Simul-climbing

Pitch 14: Simul-climbing

Pitch 15: Simul-climbing

Pitch 16: Free solo

Pitch 17: 5.5 - Belay

Pitch 18: Simul-climbing

Pitch 19: Simul-climbing

Pitch 20: Simul-climbing

Pitch 21: Simul-climbing

Pitch 22: Simul-climbing

Pitch 23: Solo to top of north couloir. Simul-climbing is good from here to summit.

In general, it is better to stay closer to the ridge crest, as the rock is more solid and a route usually presents itself along the crest.

First Notch and Rappel

First, the rappel is not off of the high point before the notch, so don't climb to it unless you don't mind backtracking. Instead, once you are about 60 ft from the top, look for ledges to traverse left. These take you to an exposed slab with a notch at the end, low and left of the highpoint. Climb over to this and the rappel station is just behind the notch.

The rappel station is very exposed and there is no room for standing, only smearing. Due to limited space for belaying and setting up a rappel, I had Vitaly wait at the other side of the notch, though he was attached to the rappel anchor.

If you want to bail on the route, this is probably the easiest place to do so. After rappelling into the notch, it looks reasonable to downclimb the couloir back to the Thunderbolt Glacier.

Second Notch

You probably don't climb to the high point. Instead, once on easier terrain above the first notch, keep to the left and look for a good ledge system to the left of the ridge that cuts over just below the notch. We did variation A, which is not ideal because of all of the downclimbing and backtracking. Variation B is more direct, but I chose not to take this line staying more on the crest because of the knife-edged nature of it and the stacked rocks that you'd be forced to pull on. It still might be the best line if the rocks are more solid than they look.

Unnamed Peak

Just before the upper ridge traverse, there is a high point that is worth checking out.

Upper Ridge Traverse

The upper part of the ridge where it stops ascending is one of the cruxes of the route. The ridge becomes knife-edge and becomes very exposed. In general, climb right along the spine of the ridge and around or through the cracked gendarmes. Occasionally you can drop down to the left (east) side of the ridge a short ways, until eventually you can see a ledge system that can be used the rest of the way to the end of the route, though not without some slight ups and downs. Don't descend too far from the ridge as the rocks become much looser the lower you go.

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