Thunderbolt Peak via North Couloir
5.9, Trad/Snow/Alpine, 1000′, Grade III
Sierra Nevada/ Inyo County, California
14,009 ft (4,270 m)
For me, the value of a climb is the sum of three inseparable elements, all equally important: aesthetics, history, and ethics. Together they form the whole basis of my concept of alpinism.
Thunderbolt Peak & The North Couloir
On August 12th, 2018 my friend Scott and I climbed Thunderbolt Peak via the North Couloir. Thunderbolt Peak is considered the hardest 14,000-foot peak or fourteener in California. None of the routes on this mountain is a walk up and even after taking the easiest route, one must climb its exposed summit block rated 5.9 (YDS). Thunderbolt Peak is also the northernmost fourteener in the Sierra Nevada and was the last fourteener to be climbed. The first ascent of Thunderbolt peak was made back in the golden age of Sierra Nevada exploration when on August 13th, 1931, the all-star team of Bestor Robinson, Lewis Clark, Glen Dawson, Jules Eichorn, Francis Farquhar, Robert Underhill and Norman Clyde climbed up what is now known as the left Underhill Couloir. It seems as though only Glen Dawson and Jules Eichorn actually summited based on Norman Clyde’s account in his book, Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada. As the group was waiting by the summit monolith a storm rolled in and only a fortuitous event averted a travesty and christened a mountain. Seconds after Eichorn descended the summit block, lightning hit it. Eichorn was unharmed and group descended several hundred feet down and found shelter under some rocks. In this way, the peak was named Thunderbolt Peak! Our ascent route, the North Couloir of Thunderbolt is rarely climbed. Out of the many trip reports online for the mountain, there are very few from this route. Most people who climb Thunderbolt peak either come in from the Bishop Pass side and ascend one of the Southwest Chutes or climb the Underhill Couloir off the Palisade glacier, so it was really fun to take the road less traveled!
Summit Register Controversy
There is a controversy over where the summit register should be placed. One side argues that it should be placed below the summit block where it can easily be accessed after the 3rd class (YDS) slog up the easiest route of the mountain, one of the Southwest Chutes. This will make sense, especially since 99.9% of the ascent has already been done. The purists out there argue that it should be placed on top of the summit block, raising the difficulty of actually reaching the summit to 5.9 (YDS). I personally like to, climb a route in its original style or better. If Glen Dawson and Jules Eichorn were able to make it to the top of the summit monolith in 1931 with all the innovations that have taken place in climbing gear, one should be able to make it to the top in 2018. If someone is unable to make it, perhaps this gives them something to work towards. Working to improve their physical strength or rope skills. Even though I hold this ethic for myself, I don’t belong to either camp and would care less if someone climbed or abstained from climbing the summit block after all as the great French climber, Lionel Terray put it we are all Conquistadors of the Useless!
The Climb without Summits
Even though Scott and I, successfully climbed Thunderbolt peak and descended back down safely we achieved only twenty percent of what we had set out to do. Our goal was to finish the Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse, misnamed the Palisade Traverse. We summited Thunderbolt Peak at 10 am which gave us another 9 hours of daylight to finish the job. This would have been enough time in our opinion. However, the weather gods had other plans! This was Scott’s fourth attempt and my second attempt on “The Traverse”. On his first attempt, Scott ran into a visiting climber from Colorado at the trailhead and decided to team up to tackle the challenge of the traverse. Their route of choice was the Underhill couloir leading up to Thunderbolt peak. On their approach, they bivouacked at Palisade lake at about 12,000 feet. Coming from sea level this was too fast on an ascent for Scott and he started suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). In this way, he had to call off the attempt and head back down the mountain. On his next attempt, Scott came with a friend via Bishop Pass and ascended one of the Southwest Chutes to get to Thunderbolt peak. The team successfully summited Thunderbolt and Starlight peak but by the time they got to Starlight peak, it was getting dark so they had to call it off and rappel the Underhill Couloir. Scott’s third attempt was in July 2018 with me. We had planned on ascending the Thunderbolt Peak via the North Couloir and then carrying on the traverse. On the approach, we set up camp by Sam Mack Lake at about 11,800 feet but once again this was too fast on an ascent for Scott and he succumbed to AMS so we had to turn back. Scott’s fourth and my second attempt on the Traverse was on this current trip and it seems like we will have to come back to take another shot at it.
A single set of Black Diamond Camelots C4s #.5 – #2
A single set of Black Diamond Stoppers
60 m Rope: Petzl Rad Line 6.0 mm
(same thickness as your cordelette)
2 Alpine draws
2 Double length draws
Now, this is what you call an alpine start!
Thunderbolt Peak with North Couloir (our route) in the middle and North East Couloir, a thin strand to the left of North Couloir. Picture by Scott on one of his solo reconnaissance missions
To prevent any chance of AMS due to a fast ascent Scott decided to leave San Diego a day early. He used the tried and tested acclimatize strategy of climb high, sleep low. He and hiked up all the way to 12,200 feet past Sam Mack Lake and did some route recon but descended back down to 10,600 feet to sleep. Next day I drove up to Glacier Lodge trailhead and after hiking a few hours met up with Scott at the camp. Here we rested, hydrated, ate and shared climbing stories. We slept pretty early in hopes of making an alpine start the next day. Surprisingly, we were able to make a REAL alpine start! We were both pretty stoked for the climb and the approach felt easy. This is until we got to the glacial boulder field. Crossing the boulder field was not as easy as we had thought and took longer than what we had planned for. We thought getting on the snow would be a respite, but unfortunately for us, the snow in the North Couloir was not in the best condition either. The bergshrund was as wide open as I had ever seen and required some delicate climbing on vertical ice and rotten snow (in aluminum crampons, used over approach shoes and one tool). The climbing here was a little sketchy but this section was short and we dispatched it and most of the snow pretty quickly. Running up the 3rd-4th class rock was much more fun and it led us to the ridge which culminated into the summit.
A little downclimbing put us into the chute that took us all the way up to the Thunderbolt summit block. After a few tries, I was able to lasso the summit monolith and climbed up the fun 5.9 section. The sky looked blue, there was hardly any wind and since it was only 10 am, we were very optimistic about our overall goal. We traversed towards Starlight Peak and rappelled down to the col that connected the two peaks. It is here we started hearing some thunder in the distance. As we were scrambling towards Starlight peak the thunder seemed to be getting closer and we could feel a light rain. The light rain soon turned into hail and this is when we stopped climbing and started looking for a sheltered spot. Thankfully we were able to find a nice little spot which though not perfect seemed good enough for the situation we were in. The hail and rain continued for an hour after which it turned into snow. We ate some hot ramen and waited for a break in the weather upon which we would start our descent. We had lost over two hours due to the weather and did not think we had enough time to complete the Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse.
Leading the sketchy bergschrund pitch which consisted of a vertical section of ice, rotten snow in aluminum crampons and one tool
Just loving the High Sierra
Scott by the Thunderbolt summit notch
Scott about to skateboard off the summit block!
Moving towards the Starlight Peak! Just before the f@#%&#$ weather hit!
What is it, the Rockies?
Under a rock to hide from the storm!
Bailing via the Underhill Couloir
After waiting for a few hours in our rock shelter and witnessing rain, hail and finally snow come down we decided to call it off and rappel the Underhill Couloir. The couloir provides a straight descent to the Palisade glacier but is full of loose rock, talus, and scree. It took us about 8 single rope rappels and some easy downclimbing to get all the way down to the glacier, after which we traversed the glacier and went through the gauntlet of moving boulders all the way to our camp just below Sam Mac Meadows.
Rappelling the Underhill Couloir during a High Sierra storm which brought rain, hail, and if you can believe it, snow!