Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse – summiting five 14,000 foot peaks in under 24 hours.
More than a few times these past 2 years my ambition has taken me to the foot of the Palisade Glacier. I’ve poked and prodded around smaller, satellite objectives that dwell in the same remote and wild part of the Sierra as this famous traverse. None of those efforts were 100% successful, but the possibilities that exist out there – the opportunities to test myself – kept calling me back despite my obvious shortcomings in those previous expeditions. I returned to the Palisade Crest this August with my good friend Simran McKenna hoping to finally earn the right to stand on one of California’s fifteen 14ers. Actually, we were aiming to stand on top of five of them, and to do it fast and light in a single push in one day. That sounds audacious even now as a write this, and that’s taking into account the fact that I know we were successful.
Palisade Crest Traverse includes Thunderbolt, Starlight, North Palisade, Polemonium and Sill peaks.
The Palisade Crest is home to six of California’s fifteen 14ers, counting Middle Palisade (which we we didn’t attempt on this trip). Thunderbolt, Starlight, North Palisade, Polemonium, and Sill all rise up from the same unbroken ridgeline above the Palisade Glacier (RIP). Although you can climb all five of these proud mountains individually, there is an unspoken elegance about the idea of a high traverse – connecting all five of them via an exposed climb across the cirque, never leaving the ridgeline proper. I’m a sucker for just that sort of thing and, fortunately for me, so is Sim. We kicked around the idea via email thread for a few weeks before committing to dates, and started training early this summer. Sim is a great partner in the mountains, and we’ve shared some great expeditions in the past. His climbing skill is vastly superior to mine, so I was thrilled to have
baited recruited him into leading all the scary stuff joining me for this trip. I trusted my fitness, but I wanted to make sure that I spent a ton of time pushing my climbing in the months coming up to this trip. The Palisade Crest is not the kind of place I want to “test the limits of my climbing” or “push my grade” – I respect the remoteness of this place and the seriousness of our undertaking. As August neared, I felt good about my progress on rock and my development of rope skills. On every one of my trips into the mountains, I recite a mantra: You don’t rise up to your hopes, you fall back to your training. If you’ve earned your way, you will be equal to the mountains on your day. If not, you’ll be turned away like an unwanted pest. There is no mercy rule up there, and no reprieve for those who don’t take the time to steady their head or grow long enough legs. I hoped we would be equal to the mountains when the time came.
After doing a TON of prep work and amassing a virtual treasure trove of beta from various trip reports, friends’ tales of their triumphs and failures, and a few blind calls to High Sierra guiding companies we committed to our plan of attack.
Pre-Trip Preparation – “The separation is in the preparation” ~Chris Cloyd
Quick aside: I feel as though not enough discussion is had about the leg work that goes into preparing these sorts of trips. I had no idea what it took when I first started my forays into the hills, and I wish I could impart that lesson to those looking to push their boundaries in the highlands. The separation is in the preparation – those who succeed tend to have earned their way in the weeks approaching the start of their trip, and those who fail tend to start their trips at such a disadvantage (preparation-wise) that their attempt never had a chance to begin with. I’m referring to more than just educating yourself about wilderness travel (not that that’s not critically important) – I’m trying to shed light on the work that goes into route planning, determining bailout options, spending hours poring over topo quads, writing and rewriting packing lists, dialoguing with your partners about the conditions they’re prepared to engage, and determining the level of risk that everyone is willing to accept well in advance. Realizing that there is dissonance between you and your partner’s views of the objective and the process while on the route is definitely not ideal and is completely avoidable. Use your words, and don’t be afraid to have discussions about every contingency before you find yourself in those situations up there. I try to remind myself to do this, constantly, because it requires a level of humility that still doesn’t come easily to me. I absolutely believe that it’s worth swallowing what pride I do have, and I strongly feel that a great many dire situations in the mountains could be avoided before they start. Rant over.
Sim and I decided to start from the South Lake trailhead out of Bishop, and to hike out past Bishop Pass to the lake below Isosceles peak to set a base camp. This is the closest body of water to the SW Chute route up Thunderbolt, and would provide a great launchpad for our attempt.
The forecast called for the famous “20-30% chance of afternoon thunderstorms”, which basically means “you’re probably hosed, but the odds of a dry day are good enough that you should take off work, drive all the way down here, and give it a shot. But you’re probably hosed.” I’d so much rather just see 50% chance of thunderstorms and stay at home, to fight the good fight another day. C’est la vie. With the forecast being what it was, we decided to set up camp Friday midday and have a look at Thunderbolt as a recon mission if the weather gods allowed it. We set up camp, eat a quick lunch, and set out with our daypacks around 1 PM. The skies looked clear, so we thought highly of our chances. It was our hope that a reconnaissance trip up Thunderbolt would afford us a clear view of the route and time to overcome any unexpected difficulties that existed, making our nighttime ascent the following day much safer and (hopefully) quicker. The SW Chute route up Thunderbolt begins as a sloppy wall of scree and broken talus, turns into an interesting system of 3rd class ledges, and finishes up a stable and exciting pitch of 4th/low 5th class climbing to the summit block. If you go, just accept that the first 1/3 of the route is going to suck, deal with it, and get rewarded with enjoyable climbing higher up. Our climb took about 2 hours from base camp to the summit block, where we chose to rest and enjoy the view for a minute before tackling the famously challenging final 20 feet of Thunderbolt. The views from the summit of Thunderbolt are impressive, and would have been absolute bliss if they didn’t afford us a glimpse of all of the climbing that would lie before us tomorrow morning. Not that the route isn’t gorgeous (it is), but as exciting as the prospects of a big, successful day out on that ridgeline were I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that our route looked something between intimidating and downright improbable from where I stood that day. I swallowed all of the apprehension I was harboring at that moment and resolved to bring my very best up to the climb the next day.
The Thunderbolt summit block has a enough beta on it and enough Youtube video tutorials that I had worked it up into this mythical, impossible puzzle. I found a website that detailed 3 or 4 ways to aid up it, like it was an overhanging featureless glass wall. Upon coming up to it, though, Sim and I both though it looked incredibly manageable. Super exposed from one side and surely worthy of its 5.9 rating, but not the impregnable fortress that we had anticipated. We carried a 25m rope and our harnesses up this far, so decided to at least try and protect the leader as best we could. We both tied in, divided the rope into 2 piles of small loops, and used a 1-2-3 coordinated teamwork toss to lasso the block right by the summit register (which hangs from a bolt at the absolute highest point, as it should). With the rope looped behind the block, Sim (who, as I mentioned earlier, I had convinced/volunteered to lead) would be protected on belay if he fell into the block or to the left. If he swung around to the right, our “belay” would do nothing at all other than rip me off the stance once Sim fell 25m below me. It’s not ideal, but it’s safer than him leading it from the ground up, I suppose. Sim agreed to try and fall only to his left, and began up. The trickiest part, it seemed to me, was getting onto the block itself. The moves were almost all friction, and the exposure was massive. Once up, however, a heel hook and a pseudo-mantle put you up on a gently sloping ledge up to the very top – that was it. I want no part of leading/soloing this block, but the moves seemed easy enough. With absolutely zero difficulty – I can’t stress that enough – Sim was up. I have more trouble deciding what to have for breakfast most days. After taking a couple of hero photos, Sim rappelled down to the stance and we switched roles. On toprope, I jumped onto the block, made the few committing moves, and ambled up to the highpoint. Even on toprope I struggled more than Sim did, but I’d like to think my form was respectable enough. What a fantastic place to stand! The sensations are only amplified by the fact that you can only sign the register while on the highest point of the summit block itself. In a hotly contested debate, the register moves from the very top (anchored to a bolt) to the base and back almost weekly it seems. I have no objection to people taking credit for climbing Thunderbolt if they make it to the summit block and stop there, so long as they’re honest about their exploits when discussing them. I do, however, feel as though you need to summit the block itself if you want to claim a CA 14er, as the summit block itself is 14,003 feet in elevation and, as such, the base of the summit block does not rise 14,000 feet above sea level. I suppose this is more of a personal issue than anything, but I agree with those who feel as though the rightful place of the register is on the top of the summit block itself.
It was now about 4 pm, and we figured we out to start down. As we descended our route, I recorded 10 or so GPS waypoints/breadcrumbs for us to follow on the way up in the dark in just a few hours. If we needed them, I thought they would provide some valuable assistance for our straining eyes and keep us on route. We descended without any issues and arrived back at camp around 5:30. We made dinner and laid out all of our gear for the next day’s climbing, packed our daypacks, filtered all the water we would need for the route (there’s no place to obtain water on the ridge, so you’re carrying anything/everything you need on your back for the route itself). We committed to bringing the 25m rope, a set of nuts (insert “I hope you each brought a set of nuts for that audacious of a climb!” jokes here), a couple of slings and biners, harnesses and belay devices, and climbing shoes to help us negotiate the harder sections of climbing we were sure to encounter. As prepared as we could be, we crawled into our sleeping bags around 8:30 PM and willed ourselves to sleep.
The beeping of Sim’s alarm roused us, from our “night-before-Christmas” pseudo-sleep, at exactly 2:30 AM. I spent a handful of seconds debating whether I slept at all or slept a ton or (hopefully) slept at least enough before I admitted that it didn’t matter. What is is, and I was going up there with whatever rest I had in my bones, and no more. In the week before our trip, Sim and I had agreed that our best plan of action, given the forecast, was to start by 3:30, be quick, and (again, hopefully) be at the summit of Mt. Sill by 12 noon. If any afternoon thunderstorms cropped up, we could easily descend Sill’s SW drainage to lower ground and safety at that time. If we were slower than anticipated, we had 2 bailouts prepared and detailed in our notes. Neither of us mind getting wet but we really mind lightning – it was imperative that we could get off the route quickly should a storm crop up. This plan was the safest one we could think of, so we both accepted the alpine start as a necessary inconvenience. We choked down a quick dry breakfast and shared a cup of coffee, slammed a liter of water each, and broke out of camp at 3:24 AM. Within 50 yards of our tent we both turned off our headlamps to admire the moonlight and the alpine landscape that we inhabited for the weekend. At almost the same moment we both noted that the near-full moon was unbelievable, and we could see almost as if it were day! I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. The uniformity of granite around us and lack of trees made the moon a powerful ally and made our headlamps utterly unnecessary. Although we both kept them on our heads for the ascent, off, we weren’t to need them for another second of our adventure. Recalling the good fortune the lunar calendar afforded us that night still stirs a gratitude in me.
Our recon of Thunderbolt’s SW Chute served us incredibly well and, even by moonlight, we cruised up our well-trod ascent route. We arrived at the notch below the summit at 5 AM, just over 90 minutes from leaving our campsite. Our plan involved enjoying the sunrise from the summit, so we climbed the last pitch or two of 4th/low 5th class climbing in the dark and stopped for a rest at the foot of the summit block as the sun’s earliest announcements greeted the eastern horizon. Sunrise from 14,000 feet is a unique treat, and one that we weren’t going to overlook. Sim and I each took about 3,426 pictures (all numbers approximate), of which less than 4 turned out. Fortunately for us we’re better mountaineers than photographers. We elected to count a high five of the summit block as our Thunderbolt summit for the day as we had surmounted the challenge less than 13 hours previous and welcomed the extra minutes in hand – we both knew how valuable they could be later in the morning. As the sun’s rays started to brighten the path ahead, we began our traverse to Starlight. Our second peak of the day lay before us!
The first bit of climbing as you head toward Starlight is mostly just ridgeline scrambling, nothing technical. The easy grade allowed me a few minutes to gaze down toward the remnants of the Palisade Glacier below us. It’s hard to adequately convey the contrast between the Dusy Basin and the Palisade Glacier zone in 2016. The Dusy Basin, to the west of the Crest, is verdant and inviting and full of wildlife – we even saw a bachelor party of deer bucks in velvet near our campsite. The Palisade Glacier is nothing more than a decaying snowfield now, and the glacial moraine is hundred and hundreds of meters from the foot of the current snow line. The couloirs that have held ice for millennia now only hold dry rock and, given the rate of rockfall we witnessed down those routes during our climb, that won’t last for long either. The classic ice climbs of the U Notch and V Notch are now nothing more than rockfall death traps clinging desperately to the last vestiges of glacial neve. The bergschrunds are at least 30 feet wide in most places, as if the mountains themselves have made peace with letting go of the glacier forever. It’s a very apathetic and unwelcoming place these days.
The climbing progressed further southeast until the ridge seemed to terminate at our feet. Our eyes led us to the north side of the crest, finding a fairly steep chimney. The chimney wasn’t that difficult, but downclimbing legitimate 5th class rock at 6 AM was enough to get my attention. I always feel a pang of recklessness when I climb past rap slings unroped in an alpine environment. The chimney petered out at a ledge, which led back toward the ridgeline proper via a couple of very exposed mid-5th class moves. Good holds made things comfortable enough, and we eventually gained easier slabs as we traversed further. Here we were astonished to run into another party, two guys who bivouacked just below the notch between Thunderbolt and Starlight and were on their first pitch of the day. Their heavy layers and heavier eyes gave away the reality of their cold night out at 13,500 feet, but they seemed excited to be moving (slowly) toward Thunderbolt’s summit. We wished them luck and continued on our way to Starlight.
Once taking position at the notch, we surveyed our route up the face to Starlight. Our beta showed the way, and we didn’t expect much more than 5.5 climbing. From where we stood this looked improbable, but we continued up. Sim and I had, at camp, discussed our thought process for the climb itself: climb as we could, make sure we could reverse any moves we made while soloing, and always take the time to make sound decisions as the options presented themselves. At my best, I try to assess risk before the trip, during the trip, and after I’m home. I strongly feel that the best thing about climbing is climbing tomorrow, and I absolutely believe that constant risk assessment is critical to making sure that climbing tomorrow is a thing. Soloing, especially up that high, is a calculated risk and not one I take lightly.
The climbing continued to yield fantastic rock and holds exactly where you needed them. The progress was uncanny: every time I came across an impasse, there was a single ledge or jug or platform offering salvation. A thousand small victories later the face was below us, and we were at the base of the famous “Milk Bottle”, Starlight’s iconic summit block:
From the north and west, the Milk Bottle looks unclimbable. It pierces the sky at 14,200 feet and is unmistakable from over a mile away. Upon further investigation, however, the SE side of the block is very climbable (so is the steeper side, but it’s much more difficult). Since Sim led Thunderbolt, I took on Starlight. I tied into our rope – again, we brought it this far – and scrambled up the block. One of my beta sources described it as “climbing up a giraffe’s back and then shimmying up it’s neck”, which is pretty accurate. The final mantle up isn’t hard, but I was acutely aware of the “I’m way out here and better not mess this up” feeling. After gaining the highpoint I clipped into the rappel sling and celebrated our 2nd peak of the day. I rappelled down and belayed Sim as he climbed the more technically difficult route up the Milk Bottle (what a showoff) with ease and celebrated on top for a minute. We both signed the register and ate a handful of trail mix, our first food since 3 AM.
Climbing toward North Palisade is complicated – this section is frequently discussed as the crux of the whole traverse due to the difficulty of routefinding. A minuscule distance separates the two peaks, but two gashes in the crest make the travel challenging. We carefully progressed along the route until we reached the first notch, finding a sheer drop of some 30 feet to a calved block dividing the two peaks. We both saw no downcliming options that appealed to us, and our friends had told us of a weird notch in this part of the traverse where a creative rappel allowed them further progress. To our right was a horn draped with 4 different slings and a bomber set of rap rings, and we realized that this was indeed that notch. The rappel was easy but unique: I lowered down until I was parallel with the calved block, suspended over thin air. Walking my feet up on the wall, I brought my body to a near-horizontal orientation and loaded up my legs. I jump-squatted off of the wall and swung my legs back under me just in time to catch the calved block under my feet. Once I got to a good stance I came off rappel and waited for Sim to join me. We pulled the rope down and packed it away, where it would stay for the remainder of our trip. We didn’t use the rope to protect a single pitch of the entire traverse (Thunderbolt and Starlight’s summit blocks excepted), but those 3 rappels were very appreciated. I would’ve felt comfortable downclimbing the Milk Bottle but negotiating that notch and coming down from Thunderbolt’s summit block were made much easier by our short rope, and I was more than happy to carry it around all day.
If I repeat the route in the future I may opt to simply solo the whole thing and do the research to find the downclimb route to negotiate that notch. Having climbed Thunderbolt’s summit block I wouldn’t feel pressured to climb it again, and I feel comfortable with the soloing the rest of the route. Adequate research and sharp climbing would allow one to leave the rope, harness, and climbing shoes at home. I was thrilled to have the rope for my first experience on this route, but Sim and I both only used climbing shoes for Thunderbolt’s summit block and I wouldn’t bring them up again.
Once we negotiated that tricky notch the way forward was illuminated, and we found ourselves on top of North Palisade shortly thereafter. We both remarked at how flowy the climbing was: it’s so unlikely to find such an aesthetic route with such sustained high-quality rock in an alpine environment, in my experience. The summit of North Palisade offered fantastic views, and the panorama was made even more impressive by our position in the traverse. We were on our 3rd of 5 summits for the day’s agenda and almost exactly in the middle of the ridge geographically. As we looked to the northeast Thunderbolt and Starlight stood proudly at our left shoulder and Polemonium and Sill beckoned from their lofty perches off of our right shoulder. We felt strong.
Descending toward the U Notch from North Palisade is a bit tricky, and involves one of two options: a 5.5 chimney downclimb or the 4th class “Clyde Variation”. Almost every account I read leading up to this trip describes finding the Clyde Variation as a wild goose chase, so we opted for the chimney. When we arrived at the top of the chimney and looked down, however, both of us felt as though it looked steeper and harder than anticipated, overhanging even. The sight of it was enough to convince us to at least explore a few minutes and look for something more 4th-classy, so we traversed to the SE and found what appeared to be a more manageable system of ledges. Onward! We followed our eyes through the circuitous maze and eventually found ourselves at a corner that involved a tight move around a short arete. I made the move first and almost ran into a gentleman climbing up from the U Notch – we’re both lucky we didn’t jump off of the route in surprise! He and his party were ascending roped from the LeConte Route, which intersects with the U Notch from the south. Neither Sim nor I wanted to downclimb through his party of 7 (!) so we moved down his ropeline to his second and asked if we might be able to rappel down to their belayer’s stance on their rope. The maneuver would save us time and not inconvenience them as much as a downclimb would and, fortunately for us, they accommodated our request. The route looked like it would go, certainly, but the quick rappel saved us some time and valuable mental energy. A final pitch of low 5th class crack downclimbing brought us to the U Notch and the base of our 4th target of the day, Polemonium Peak.
Polonium is technically just a subpeak of North Palisade, but the climbing up to its summit and its position above 14,000 feet make it a worthy objective. I personally found the climbing from U Notch to the summit of Polemonium to be some of the very best of the whole traverse. Interesting moves made progress incredibly enjoyable, and the view back down into the Dusy Basin is incredible:
Only about 15 minutes of climbing from U Notch gained us the summit, so we stopped for a bit and ate some food at the summit. The ridgeline to Sill was reputed to be easy 3rd class for the most part, and we welcomed the decrease in difficulty. Neither of us were particularly physically tired, but the strain of soloing in 5th class terrain for hours on end was starting to wear us down mentally. Some fuel and a short rest would do us wonders.
Following the ridge onward, we (of course) almost immediately encountered an airy traverse that definitely was not 3rd class. I led, and found the moves less appealing than much of what we had climbed so far. The 200+ feet of air below me didn’t necessarily make things more pleasant. True to form (I climb like a meathead) my frustration convinced me to pull 3 hard moves up and over a small roof to simply mantle out of the situation. Sim later communicated that this was the most unnerving part of the climb for him – not climbing that section, but watching me. He climbed through on a lower ledge that I didn’t notice (again, mental fatigue was real at this point) and made it look much easier. He’s a better climber than I am, surely, but his route was definitely a smarter way to go. If I go back to this route in the future, I think I’ll take Sim’s way:
After that self-imposed crux the rest of the ridge was as advertised: sustained 3rd class climbing on the very edge of the ridge all the way up to Sill’s expansive summit plateau. At 11:34, almost exactly 6 hours from when we left Thunderbolt’s summit, we had completed the traverse. Sim and I stood on top of Mount Sill and celebrated our accomplishment in style: we took off our shoes and ate about 2,000 calories worth of cheese and salami each while leafing through the summit register. If you want to argue that that’s not good style, that’s fine, but we’ll respectfully disagree with you.
With high spirits and full bellies we began the
long never-ending interminable endless slog over miles of talus fields back toward camp. At the first bit of snowmelt runoff we stopped to filter water (I had brought my Sawyer filter for this exact reason, and I couldn’t have been more excited about it) and each drank about 2 liters of ice-cold water. We did well to stay hydrated on the route, but spending 6 hours in the sun at 14,000 feet takes it out of you. The sun was relentless all day – not only did the thunderstorms never materialize, but we didn’t even get a few minutes of respite from a cloud the whole day out. I’ll never complain about sunny weather in the mountains, but a little shade would be nice next time, Mama Nature. A few hours, two mountain passes, and a lot of cursing the very existence of talus fields later we found ourselves back at camp. By now we were physically exhausted, too, but we were so content that it didn’t matter. We had climbed the Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse!
I highly recommend this route to anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing. The rock is fantastic, the views are unparalleled, and the opportunity to climb 1/3 of California’s 14,000 foot peaks in a single push is too good to miss. I’m very grateful for Sim’s company on this trip, and look forward to our next adventure in the mountains.
Onward and upward!