The proximity of these five 14ers, the solid granite, and the amazing views make this a worthy undertaking for any alpine ridge traverse aficionado.
Per Croft, the first ascent of Thunderbolt to North Palisade was made in June of 1934 by Norman Clyde, David Brower, and Hervey Voge. This was followed by Ken Davis and Jack Riegelhuth in August 1938, who traversed from Mount Winchelll to North Palisade in 13 hours. According to Porcella and Burns, the first known Thunderbolt to Sill traverse was completed by John Ohrenschall and John Mathias in 1958 over two days. This same pair made the first ascent of the V-notch two day later.
The traditional way is to do this from Thunderbolt to Sill, but having done both directions I like Sill to Thunderbolt better. It has more technical climbing than the opposite direction if you start on the Swiss Arete and it makes the most sense if you start/end at Glacier Lodge.
To Shuttle or Not to Shuttle
The traverse may be approached from either the South Lake or Glacier Lodge trailheads. One option is set up a car shuttle starting at South Lake and ending at Glacier Lodge. The advantage is that you can haul ass up Bishop Pass, which is a relatively easy trail, and you don’t have to circumnavigate the ridge to the SW to get back to your car. The disadvantage is that you have to deal with the shuttle logistics on the way there and back. It’s ~53 miles between Bishop Pass and Glacier Lodge.
I have now done the whole traverse car-to-car from the Bishop Pass trailhead and Sill to Starlight (downclimbing Underhill Couloir) car-to-car from Glacier Lodge. The latter is by far the most direct way and is my preferred option over shuttling. If you're feeling extra perky you can start on Temple Crag and continue on to Galey, then Sill to T-bolt (highly recommended).
From South Lake
Google maps. See External Links & References for alternate driving directions/maps. From the trailhead follow the well-maintained trail to the crest of Bishop Pass (8 miles). The lake near the crest is a good place to top off your water. From the Pass leave the trail and head SW along the base of the Palisade Crest. SW Chute #1 starts just after Thunderbolt Pass.
From Glacier Lodge
Google maps. See External Links & References for alternate driving directions/maps. Note that at Glacier Lodge you have to park in the overnight backpackers’ lot (0.7 miles away from the TH) or pay $5 at the Lodge store unless you expect to daytrip. From the trailhead take the dirt road. At 0.25 miles you will reach the S Fork/N Fork junction. Continue on the N Fork trail past Third Lake to Sam Mack Meadow (~1 mile past the lake). This marks the start of the Thunderbolt eastern access routes (~8 miles) noted above. Top off your water in the stream if needed.
Thunderbolt Peak (14,003 ft)
The most popular route up Thunderbolt, as described by Romain, Matthew, and Bob B, is the SW Chute #1 (Class 3 + 5.8 summit block), which is accessed via the S Lake trailhead. From Glacier Lodge the easiest route is the N Couloir (Class 4 + 5.8 summit block), as detailed by kovarpa. Alternatively, as noted by Misha the NW Ridge (5.5, 5.8 summit block), which begins at the saddle between Mount Winchell and Thunderbolt will increase your ridge travel quotient. Other ascent options are summarized by Dave K here.
Starlight Peak (14,200 ft)
The traverse from Thunderbolt to Starlight goes at Class 4, as accurately described by bearbnz.
North Palisade (14,242 ft)
The traverse from Starlight is also rated Class 4, as summarized by Steve Larson. We stayed on the NW side of the ridge and encountered a wide gap with an overhanging boulder problem with some major exposure. The first time we rapped across the gap using existing rap slings. I went back to find a way to solo this section. There are several options for downclimbing into the notch on the SE side of the ridge (thanks to lavaka for the suggestion). I went down an exposed flake system on the SE side of the ridge. From the notch you can either climb a lie back (maybe one or two committing moves to reach a bomber foothold) or climb up a ramp on a mini version of Starlight to reach the ledge.
Polemonium Peak (14,080 ft)
Follow a reverse of the instructions (from Romain and Steve Larson) found here for the North Palisade Chimney route (5.2) from the summit to the U-notch. I have both rapped and downclimbed the chimney. The downclimb is easier than it appears from above. From the U-notch excellent instructions are detailed here (Class 4) by Bob B.
Mount Sill (14,153 ft)
Reverse the route description found here (thanks to guilty) for the West Ridge (Class 4-5).
Descent options are dictated by the location of your vehicle. If you are parked at S Lake, the easiest (in terms of technical difficulty) route it to drop off the SW side of Sill (Class 2-3) and follow the base of the (long) ridge back to Bishop Pass. If Glacier Lodge is your destination take either the L-shaped couloir or Glacier Notch routes. For the former, descend the W Ridge of Sill to the L-shaped couloir. From the colouir head down to Palisade Glacier, aiming for the right side of the glacial tarn. Having crampons (and an ice axe) will help if conditions are icy. From here head onto the benches. You will find use trails heading NW toward Sam Mack Lake. From Sam Mack Meadow cross the bridge and catch the N Fork of the Big Pine Creek Trail. For the latter drop down to the saddle between Sill and Galey (Glacier Notch) and skirt the W side of the NW ridge of Galey, joining up the the L-shaped couloir descent route on the benches above the tarn.
Opportunity to fill up at the stream in Sam Mack Meadow or the lake near the top of Bishop Pass.
Gear to Consider
If you are relatively fast, both on the trail and on technical terrain, you can probably day trip this. This means you should be comfortable soloing most, if not all of the route. Good camping is found around Sam Mack Meadow, on the benches below Palisade Glacier and in Palisade Basin. Note that water in the Palisade Glacier tarn can be extremely silty so consider bringing something to screen out the grit if you don’t want to trash your pricey water filter or drink treated sludge. A (reservable) backcountry permit is required from Inyo NF as you will be in the John Muir Wilderness.
Steve Eckert’s driving instructions to Big Pine/Glacier Lodge and South Lake
Croft, Peter. 2002. The Good, the Great, and the Awesome: The Top 40 High Sierra Rock Climbs. Maximus Press.
Porcella, Stephen F and Cameron M. Burns. 1998. Climbing California’s Fourteeners. The Mountaineers Press.