Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse 2012

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Josh and Patrick set out to try and squeeze the Little Palisade Traverse in before the snows of winter. Including Polemonium Peak, this was to be Patrick's last California 14er, and it would be 5 new peaks for Josh!

It didn't seem feasible to complete the route in a day in October (at least without soloing more than we thought our abilities merited), with the second half of the route unknown and precise snow conditions hard to predict. Patrick's previous attempt had ended at U-notch, from where the party descended on a huge snowpack back to the palisade basin. PT's attempt a month afterwards had involved a bivy at U-notch and a descent the same way, now much sketchier. Thus, we planned to carry sleeping bags, mats, and a stove to bivy at U-notch.

It had snowed the week before, which we were hoping would provide enough to melt at our camps (neither of which would have water) but not enough to impede our progress much. This turned out to be true! In a couple of places, notably to the chimney leading to the top of Starlight, and the traverse across the N face of Polemonium, the snow was unavoidable and a bit sketchy, but we roped up for both of these sections and suffered nothing worse than some damp socks.

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We left Pasadena and drove to Bishop, where we spent some time looking around the gear exchange, and then headed to Wilson's East Side Sports, where Josh flirted with a pair of rock shoes. We began the charge up 168, but halfway Josh realized he'd forgotten his stove's fuel pump, so we returned to Wilson's East Side Sports as we depended on the stove for water on the ridge. We finally left South Lake at 2:30 pm, and after nailing the traverse across the Dusy basin, arrived at Thunderbolt Pass at 6:20, just as it was getting dark. We picked the right point to leave the trail, a little way after the sign for Bishop Pass, and then managed to traverse straight across and only climb at the boulder field under the pass. There are lots of little use trails, but the general idea is to not go too high or low, and to cover as much ground as possible on the easy, sandy areas, avoiding slabs and rubble.


We woke up at about 4:30, ate some breakfast, and left Thunderbolt pass at 5:01 am. Plodding up the SW chute was a lot of work with our packs, but we were very happy to find it mostly snow free. The last section where after the gully splits faces more north, though, so we did have to do a bit of post holing in our approach shoes there. It was still very low relative to usual levels, and we managed to wiggle our way underneath the chockstone at the top! It was about 7 am when we reached the notch between the lightning rod and thunderbolt. We scrambled up the class 4 ledges and soon arrived at the summit block, which we lassoed with a 2-man technique in about 5 attempts. With a prussik, a kleimheist, and some batmanning, Patrick aided one of the strands to the top. He signed the register, in a plastic box attached to the anchors, hauled the rope up, and got lowered. Josh then cleanly top-roped what to him was likely a simple VB.

We then headed down the ridge, took a right before the tower, descended some sandy ledges, and got into the '5.6' chimney, which is really nowhere near that hard, at least to descend. The crux of the downclimb is an ~8' squeeze chimney section. Patrick foolishly thought he could do this with his pack on and got stuck, but was able to get the pack up to Josh and then descend easily. After this, we took the obvious ledges to traverse to the class 3 slabs which lead to the top of the Underhill Couloirs.

From here we made good progress scrambling towards Starlight, enjoying the amazing exposure on the ridge. We reached a 10-15 foot vertical step, which we climbed but felt a bit nervous about not having a rope for. Afterwards the next obstacle is a gendarme which has a route around it to the left. On the previous attempt, we rappelled of the ridge to the right somewhere in this area, so though we could see the beginning of the catwalk, we didn't have much idea of how difficult the terrain was, so Josh roped up and led the way. It turned out to be easy, and soon we were at the start of the catwalk. We decided to give simul climbing a go here, as we expected an exposed step-across move. Patrick went first and found this to be great fun! There are a couple of airy moves as you traverse, but with abundant holds.

We built an anchor near the end of the catwalk, foolishly in a place where one had to stand on snow to belay, and Patrick belayed Josh across. Josh then made a nice lead up the cracks at the end of the catwalk and through a winding, snowy ~50m pitch up to just below the ridge. The lack of snow made getting to the milk bottle a little trickier than last time - Josh climbed high and Patrick chimneyed down. Patrick's rock shoes went on for the first time and he led the milk bottle, which seemed as solid as hoped! We hadn't really looked at the bolt on top last time, but that thing is scary! It's a single, flexing, spinning, rusty angle on a small (1/8") bolt. There are slings tied directly into the eye. We didn't like the idea of lowering off of this. Fortunately Patrick had a long piece of webbing which we looped around the pinnacle and clipped to the rope with a biner in the hopes of it being some kind of backup. Patrick lowered without incident and belayed Josh up. He didn't want to lower without the backup, so we left the webbing and a biner there (where I assume they'll be bootied by the next party).It seems reasonable that the bolt be replaced with one or even two modern ones (or chopped, as even that seems safer than the current situation).

We headed south a little way to a rap station and made two rappels down towards North Palisade. We scrambled the easiest-looking route, which heads up and to ridge on the right, which has some fun class 4. From here we proceeded up, through a little gap in the ridge, and to the narrow, windy gap which blocks the way to North Pal. Remembering the potential for the rope to get blown away and stuck down below, Patrick had Josh hold on to most of the rope, leaving enough to rappel (with a backup this time, which is a good idea here), chimney the gap, let out just enough slack, and leap for the block on the ledge. Patrick then stayed on the rope and climbed up to the anchor on the other side. He then pulled the end of the rope across from Josh, who followed on the rappel, letting out an epic Chris Sharma TSAAH!! as he pushed across the gap.

From here we scrambled up some easy slabs, as last time looked at the snowy East side of North Pal and didn't really see where the 4th class route was supposed to be, and headed to the west (and sunny!) side instead to try the 5.5 chimney. I led this and it was a ton of fun. I would recommend doing this, as it's fun climbing and you top out right at the summit! I belayed Josh up and watched the amazing sight of clouds forming all around me as wind whipped over the ridge. By the time we were leaving the summit we were in the clouds. We scrambled back towards U-notch and reached the anchor at the top of the chimney variation just before 6 pm, as it was getting dark. Along the way I managed to make a huge tear in my down jacket and watched in dismay as the wind ripped a cloud of feathers out!

Although it got stuck many times trying to throw it down, as it was a bit windy, the rope pulled cleanly and were at camp for the night! We bivied right below the chimney, which was fairly sheltered from the wind. Josh had the flatter, higher, windier spot, and I had a lower, calmer, but too-small-for-my-body spot. Josh melted some snow and even boiled some hot water nalgenes for us and we quickly dozed off. I was chilly a couple of time in my 0F bag, though things improved when I thought to remove my wet socks. Patrick had a bad headache, I presume from some combination of altitude and dehydration.


The morning was cold and we sluggishly packed up and left just after sunrise at 7. The rock was very cold as we scrambled the first 4th class chimney heading up Polemonium, and neither of us was too thrilled. We started the traverse across the face and encountered enough snow to stop and rope up. Josh led up and around the corner to a belay, and then what turned out to be a long second pitch all the way to the summit! This involved a tunnel, and Patrick did a poor job of getting himself and his pack through. This was somehow not the last time he'd get stuck - carrying a foam sleeping pad has its disadvantages! It was awesome to be on top, as we had spectacular views of clouds forming around all the peaks we could see, it was sunny, and this was Patrick's 15th and final California 14er!

We simul climbed down the knife-edge ridge and after a bit of recon found what we assume is the standard route, descending into a notch and then traversing on an easy ledge ( climbed on lead but which turned out to be very easy, if exposed). We celebrated getting to put the rope and rack away, and began our traverse towards Sill. We saw a lone hiker briskly climbing up the Polemonium glacier, and wondered where he or she had come from.

Scrambling Sill after dropping our packs was great fun, clambering over solid granite boulders. We admired the view from the top and watched as more clouds rolled in, and then quickly descended back to our packs.

We began the descent, walking down a couple of miles of rocky terrain, until we reached Potluck Pass. The way up did not seem obvious and we spent some time wandering around before finally noticing that the far right-hand side (not visible from our first view of the pass) seemed the gentlest. We eventually found a sandy use trail and a cairn marking a crack slanting to the right. The crack turned out to be class 3 (maybe class 4 due to exposure) and the rest of the way to the top of the pass was easy and well-marked class 2.

We decided to take the longer, easier way across the Palisade basin, which worked out very well. We avoided most of the rubble by descending easy terrain to the lake below Thunderbolt pass, then climbing a gulley, traversing a fairly short section of the boulder field, and arriving back at our camp at Thunderbolt pass, where we'd left our bear barrel and my hiking poles. It was about 4:45, and we set back out for Bishop pass. We arrived back at the pass just after 6 as it got dark, and managed to pick up the wrong trail for a while, but eventually located the proper way. We hiked back to South Lake in the dark and arrived at about 8:40. We had to settle for Denny's for dinner, but it tasted pretty great!