Sierra Challenge 7: Thunderbolt

What could possibly go wrong?

While most others climbed Round Mountain — what an uninspiring name! — Adam and I headed for Thunderbolt — much more inspiring! — the westernmost Palisades 14er. Our plan was to get up the summit block by hook or by crook, then decide whether we wanted to continue the traverse. For Adam, it was a chance to climb a challenging SPS peak. For me, it was unfinished business: when I did the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse 3 years ago, I skipped Thunderbolt’s summit block, having failed to either aid or solo it. We brought gear for both options: a 20m dynamic rope, my rock shoes, harnesses, and Adam’s belay device.

We got ourselves moving from South Lake at 5:20, early by this year’s standards, and enjoyed a moonlit hike past South Lake and up toward Bishop Pass. Though the pass is melting out quickly, the stepstones through the upper marshy section are still submerged. The trail is almost entirely snow-free to the pass, however, and we made good time.

The traverse to Thunderbolt Pass still featured patchy snow, still rock-hard the morning, but we easily avoided the steep parts. Dropping down and then traversing high on meadows and slabs, we avoided almost all of the hellish talus farther down on the pass. The few snow patches we crossed were sun-cupped enough not to cause problems. The view into Palisade Basin from the pass showed it still annoyingly full of patchy snow, but much greener and grayer than it was on my visit to Columbine.

Southwest Chute #1 still contained two large snowfields, but it was not too hard to either dodge them to one side, or step across on rockfall that had frozen to their surfaces. Still, it was not an overly pleasant climb. Even in the best conditions, the chute is a pile of loose talus between vertical walls, with slabs poking through intermittently. Now, some of the talus was covered with snow, and most of the slabs with dirt. Conditions were more normal above the exit ledge from the chute — loose dirt and scree, but no snow.

Reaching the steep section near the ridge, I did the same thing as last time, clambering up class 3-4 rock, squirming under the summit block, and grunting up an awkward crack to its left. Just like last time, it felt “wrong,” but worked. On the way, I found perhaps the most pathetic “summit” register ever, a record of people stymied below this side of the block, rolled into an empty Gatorade can left in a corner. I also found a new-looking cordelette left by some unfortunates, a nice piece of booty. I waited around near the summit for a few minutes, and was surprised to see Adam emerge from the other side. He had apparently found the “right” way to the summit by passing a chockstone near the ridge, then climbing easier rock on the north or northwest side. Oh, well.

Looking at the summit block, I immediately knew that I did not want to lead or solo it, so we began putting together our wacky aid setup. The first problem was to loop the rope around the southwest side of the summit. After several unsuccessful throws by myself, Adam managed one that, with some whipping of one end of the rope, lassoed the summit. Next, we tied a series of overhand bights in the north end of the rope for hand-over-hand climbing. We then pulled the bighted end high enough to have knots reaching near the summit, and secured the other end of the rope to a boulder to the west, using my newly-bootied cordelette.

Adam prudently allowed me to be the first to try this contraption. After clipping a harness into one of the lower bights in case my hands slipped, I stepped across a gap from a flake to the north, pulled on knots, and walked my way to the summit with much panting. Though there was little chance of serious injury, the process was surprisingly intimidating. After briefly enjoying the summit, I reversed the process nearly flawlessly: stepping back from the summit block, I got my weight at the wrong angle and flopped against the summit block, draining my adrenaline reserves.

Adam psyched himself up for the hand-over-hand climb, but perhaps after seeing my demonstration, was less enthused about the descent. He chose instead to undo the aid contraption and rappel off the bolts. This was fine by me, since it set up a toprope, and I wanted to use the rock shoes I had toted around all day. Much to my surprise and pleasure, I top-roped it without slips or falls.

The west side of the summit block is actually not that hard once you know the moves:

  1. From the flake below the block, post onto your left arm on the large edge, steadying yourself with left foot and right hand.
  2. Match your right foot to your left hand, and slowly stand up on the ledge. Grab the nice hold on the edge to your right and above your head.
  3. Step on the smaller hold just above the foot ledge with your right foot, and grab the top edge of the block with both hands.
  4. Put your left foot high in the groove to your right, lieback to gain some height, and get your right foot on the hold you used in step 2.
  5. Mantle over onto the top face, get your left foot situated, and you’re pretty much done.

I would not be comfortable leading it without rock shoes, and downclimbing might be tricky, but I would probably be comfortable leading it now. I also don’t think it’s really 5.9, but maybe 5.7X, since (other than the first move) the holds are positive, but it is impossible to protect, and a fall would probably break something.

Feeling pretty good about ourselves, we downclimbed from the summit (harvesting more booty), struggled down the chute, and rock-hopped across the pass. I lost Adam somewhere between Thunderbolt and Bishop passes, and after waiting around for a few minutes on the mosquito-infested benches, left him to his own devices to make a beeline for Taco Bell.

I was shaken from my hiking trance only by an unheard-of example of backcountry bad-assery:

Canoe badasses


Four of them were carrying kayaks over Bishop Pass to Leconte Canyon, to paddle from there to the west-side end of Kings Canyon.


This trip may have almost paid for itself in booty:


2 responses to “Sierra Challenge 7: Thunderbolt

  1. Bob Burd says:

    You may be the only one I know who considers finding a bite valve as booty. :-)

    1. drdirtbag says:

      They charge an arm and a leg for those things. I’ll wash it — with soap! — before biting it. Even I have my limits, though: I left a handkerchief right where I found it on Lone Pine.

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