Thunderbolt Peak

3 Aug 1997 - by John Bees (view roster page)

This was the last of the Sierra 14,000' peaks to be climbed and technically is the most difficult. For those that haven't heard the story of the first ascent and how Thunderbolt Peak got it's name, it goes something like this. In August 1931, the all star team of Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson, Glen Dawson, Frances Farquhar, and Lewis Clark ascended the Underhill Couloir and the south ridge of the peak to the summit block of Thunderbolt Peak. When faced with the exposed 5.9 move on the summit block they were forced to climb up on the shoulders of one of the team members to be able to get high enough up to squirm up to the top of the boulder. Shortly after this as the team was descending just below the summit, they were nearly struck by a bolt of lightning hitting the summit which is how "Thunderbolt Peak" got it's name.

The technical difficulty of the peak hasn't gotten any easier over the years but guide books and a bolt drilled into the top of the block has reduced some of the risk associated with the peak. With the technical difficulties in mind and a desire to avoid similar thunderstorm conditions, a private trip was assembled for July 25-26 to attempt the peak. David Harris was the leader and John Bees was the co-leader and was joined by Rich Leiker, Frank Dikken, and John Trcka. In anticipation of the potential dangers and difficulties the team was prepared for full battle with ice axes, crampons, helmets, climbing rack, rock shoes, prusiks, and harnesses. The team left the South Lake trailhead at 8 am and had a leisurely hike to Bishop Pass which was reached by 11 am. After a short break we descended cross country to Lake 11,393', just below Mt Winchell and Isoceles Peak, where we set up camp. After spending several hours attempting Isoceles Peak and not succeeding because of the difficulties we faced at the deep notch and tower between the east and west summits, we returned to camp for an early dinner. After dinner we made plans for an early start on Thunderbolt Peak. We agreed to get up at 4:45 am and leave camp by 5:30 am to give ourselves plenty of time to climb the peak before the afternoon thunder storms moved in. Although a 4:45 am wake up seemed too early, going to bed at 8 pm allowed us all a good night's sleep before the alarm woke us. After a quick breakfast we were off on schedule and headed around the lake, up gullies, and talus fields, and across frozen sun cupped snow fields to reach Thunderbolt Pass (12,400') in a little less than an hour. A short descending traverse to the east brought us to the mouth of Southwest Chute Number 1 which was our route. Our first view up the 1,600' high, shadow filled chute made us glad that we had brought our ice tools since the steep, frozen snow started just a short way up the chute.

Complicating the snow situation however, was that there had recently been a major rock slide down the chute, which had left most of the snow covered with loose rocks and scree made our footing somewhat tenuous. After several hundred feet of moderate snow climbing with crampons and ice axes, we reached a huge depression in the snow measuring about 10' by 20' that appeared to be formed by a large boulder bouncing down the steep snow chute. Thankful that we weren't there to witness this event, we struggled up the near vertical frozen headwall of the depression and soon reached the first major turning point which was a huge chock stone filling the narrow chute above from vertical wall to wall. At this point we exited the chute to the right and ascended a scree covered ledge reminiscent of the LeConte route on North Palisade. After a short climb along the ledge we ascended up moderate ice and scree covered slabs to the right hand chute above. As mentioned earlier there had been a major rockfall that had left this chute and the one below littered with loose rock and scree. Since it was still early in the morning and the chute was in the shadow, the snow was still frozen with scatted patches of ice between the loose talus and scree. By climbing in two separate, widely spaced groups and staying along the walls of the chute as much as possible, we avoided starting any significant rockfall but the cry of "rock" periodically broke the monotony of the climb.

By 10 am David and I reached the notch between the North summit called the Lightning Rod and the steep wall below Thunderbolt Peak. The view from the notch was breathtaking of the glacier 1,500' immediately below us and across the cirque to Starlight Peak, to Mt Sill, Mt Gayley and Temple Crag with the Big Pine Lakes far below. So far the weather was sunny and clear with no cloud build up yet. Within a short while the rest of the group reassembled at the notch and enjoyed the view while having a short snack. At this point we put on our rock shoes and harnesses and only carried cameras and the necessary climbing hardware to the summit. David led the 30' wall from the notch which we rated as 5.2 with an exposed move around a corner before reaching easier ground above. From there the route led up along an easy but exposed class 3 face with numerous handholds to the east side of summit block. Several large tilted slabs and boulders surround the 15' high summit boulder on the east and north sides and drops away sheer for hundreds of feet on the other sides. While waiting for the rest of the party to reassemble from the short belay below, I had time to evaluate the situation. The first choice was to do as the first ascent party had done and stand on the shoulders of someone leaning up against the rock and squirm your way up to the top. The second choice was to try and either lasso the top or to get the rope around the top to give the lead climber some protection. Third choice was to descend to the west side of the summit and try that route which was supposed to be easier. By this time the rest of the party had arrived and David decided to try to throw the rope around the summit while I held the other end. After a few tries the Ridgecrest cowboy succeeded and we set up a less than perfect belay around the top of the summit block. David was soon struggling to climb the smooth, bulging 5.9 face of the boulder. After several tense minutes with bits of advice from the peanut gallery, he grabbed the slings hanging from the summit bolt and we all breathed a sigh of relief. He quickly set up another sling and a carabiner and ran the rope through for a solid belay. All of the party soon followed with John Trcka finishing with a more difficult route up the left side of the boulder. David, not to be outdone, quickly followed John, to do the summit block twice. At 12 pm, after taking an hour to climb the summit, we began descending to the top of the belay above the 30' wall. The short belay went quickly and we were soon packing up our climbing gear and descending the chute. By this time the chute was in the sun and the talus was thawing from its earlier frozen condition which made the descent looser and more dangerous. We quickly descended the chute and traversed the ledge back to the main chute and the snow where we put our crampons back on. The snow descent went quickly and uneventfully until I reached the bottom of the snow chute to take off my crampons. I was just about finished packing them up when David reached me and I said, "Let's not waste time here, we're in the firing zone". Within a few seconds we heard "rock" and looked up to see a basketball sized rock careening down the slope above us. We quickly shot across the unstable talus slope to the chute wall where we safely watched the boulder fly by. The rest of the descent to Thunderbolt Pass went quickly and we were back at camp by 3 pm. After quickly breaking camp we ascended back to Bishop Pass under threatening thunderstorms and were back at our car by 6:30 pm. It had been a long and tiring 13 hour day but we all had successfully accomplished our goal of climbing Thunderbolt peak safely and on our first try.


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