Thunderbolt - North Couloir

15-17 Jun 2006 - by Rick Booth

My first peak climb in the Sierras was Thunderbolt via the North Couloir Route many years ago with long time friend Bob Hartunian. I had also climbed Thunderbolt from the Dusy Basin side several years ago with Ron Karpel and a PCS group but I have always been happier going into the Palisades from the north or glacier side. This year I thought a repeat trip to Thunderbolt from the Palisade Glacier would be a fun project.

On Saturday, June 15, Linda Sun, Arun Mahajan, Bill Holt, and I headed up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek trail with the goal of getting to Sam Mack Meadow. Ron Karpel and Greg Johnson had started on Friday and were expected to be there when we arrived. Tom Kopley was hiking in separately and would arrive somewhat later. After about six hours we arrived at Sam Mack Meadow. It was completely blanketed with snow except for one small patch near the water. Not wanting to camp on snow we headed up hill on the snow covered Glacier Trail and found a mix of bivy sites here and there amongst the rocks and junipers about 100 feet in elevation above Sam Mack Meadow. Later, Tom Kopley, who was packing an I-Tent, set up on the one bare patch in Sam Mack Meadow. The weather was somewhat windy but clear.

Sunday morning we started out around 5:30 AM and headed up the right hand snow chute that comes into Sam Mack Meadow. This goes past the outlet from Sam Mack Lake, which was snowed in, and essentially continues straight on towards the North Couloir on Thunderbolt. We crossed the bergschrund on the far left and continued up the steep North Couloir in the soft snow. The couloir has a Y branch near the top and the directions from Secor indicate to stay to the left. Well, we ended up staying too far left and had to work our way back to the right on the top of the ridge to get to a notch or gap to the west of the North Summit or Lightning Rod on Thunderbolt. We would have been better off by just going straight up instead of trying to make a real left branch of the Y in the couloir. Anyway, once attaining the gap we dropped down 30 to 50 feet and worked our way around a rock rib. There is an expertly placed duck at the ramp around the rib that is visible from both sides of the rib. Once around the rib we headed up towards a huge chock stone. The chock stone was iced up underneath it so we couldn't get to the easy class 4 face that leads to the summit block area so we just headed straight up from there. This is also class 4 but somewhat steeper than the face on the other side of the chock stone. Once past this obstacle we all set up in the gap below the summit block. We threw a rope over the summit block and I climbed up and ran the rope through the new looking locking carabiner attached to the new looking slings running to the two kind of manky bolts on the summit block. We all climbed the block and took pictures and goofed off.

After a little over an hour we decided to head back to camp. We set two ropes for the rappel down to the base of the chock stone and then headed over to the top of the North Couloir and walked and glissaded down to the glacier. We were back to camp in about 11.5 hours round trip. The wind chased us back into our sleeping bags at an unnecessarily early hour but Tom had brought a bottle of wine and celebrated by bringing it up to the various bivy sites. The next morning we packed up and hiked out.

Final Notes:

This is a fun approach to climbing Thunderbolt and makes for an excellent early season ascent. Camping at Sam Mack Meadow is more than adequate and it is not necessary to move higher as we had thought might be needed. 11.5 hours round trip from the meadow for seven participants indicates the Sam Mack Meadow camping spot is fine and it affords the luxury of water without having to melt snow, although the camping itself might be slightly problematic. Thanks to Linda Sun, Tom Kopley, Greg Johnson, Arun Mahajan, Bill Holt and Ron Karpel for a great trip.

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