Soft and Fresh in the Mountains
(Thunderbolt Peak)

16-18 Sep 2005 - by Peter Maxwell

Ahh - what images does that conjure up? A ripe peach plucked from an orchard in the foothills? A lovely down comforter in the mountain cabin on a romantic getaway? For us it was Sandy Sans commenting while examining slings that had been left behind by previous parties to see if they looked to be damaged by UV exposure and age. This was during the climb of Thunderbolt over September 16-18. Our party consisted of John and Chris Kerr, Kelly Maas, Sandy Sans, Scott Kreider and Peter Maxwell (scribe and trip organizer).

We'd left the Bay Area in pairs, but by an amazing stroke of coincidence, after spending the night at Deadman Summit, Sandy and I met up with Kelly and Scott's car before we even got back to 395, and not 5 minutes later John and Chris overtook us, after their night at Camp 9. Even though it hadn't been planned we all ended up at Schat's Bakkery (that's not a typo - they spell it with two k's) for breakfast.

Unlike in mid summer, at this time of year there was plenty of parking at the South Lake trailhead, where we started hiking at the leisurely hour of 10:30am. The air was quite cool and there was a wind, which stayed with us for two days, and caused us to seek wind shelter for lunch at Bishop Pass. Our campsite was at the western end of the eastern-most large lake in Dusy Basin, where we arrived around 3:30, giving us plenty of time to relax in the sun, which didn't leave the site until after 6:30 pm. With the wind and 39 degrees, we didn't waste much time getting into bed. Gusts of wind flapped my bivy sac all night, but at least kept the temperature close to freezing (28) and prevented frost from forming.

Next morning the wake up call was 5:30 and we departed only 1 minute behind schedule, at 6:31. This was sufficiently remarkable that John thought I should be due some award. Chris elected to not climb with us but rather hike down to Le Conte Canyon, so the 5 of us trudged our way up the talus to Thunderbolt Pass, where we arrived around 8 am. Compared to some other reports, our climb up the chute (Secor's Southwest Chute #1) was uneventful. The only snow to speak of was just before the famous ledge on the right, needed to bypass the chockstone filling the chute. The snow was easily avoided at the side and the ledge system, although somewhat exposed, posed no problems to anyone. We looked around carefully to identify where to descend on the way down since going too far would involve considerably more difficult and exposed downclimbing.

The chute was in the shade, it was cold, and a wind was blowing up from the bottom. Rest stops were very short because the chill set in almost immediately. We arrived at the notch between Lightning Rod and Thunderbolt at 10am, with a vicious wind blowing over the crest and a temperature of 28 degrees. It was pure luxury to get into the sun and find shelter from the wind. This enabled an appreciation of the spectacular view, so often written about.

Although the climbing was not difficult, we figured a rope would be prudent for the short pitch above the notch, so Sandy climbed up and belayed the rest of us up. When I first saw the next short section to the summit block I thought it looked rather airy and wondered if we'd need a belay there as well, but it wasn't bad at all. It was definitely airy, but easy, with good foot holds and bullet proof hand holds.

The next challenge was the famous summit block. Several attempts were made at lassooing it before one was successful. Scott then put on rock shoes and did a brilliant job of climbing to the top to set up slings for a top rope for the rest of us. There were slings there already, but Sandy was quick to point out that they'd been there for an unknown period of time and possibly deteriorated and hardened under the UV. Justifiably he wanted new slings, ones that were "soft and fresh", which became the standard question of any of the many other slings we found in the vicinity.

Since only one person can climb up at a time, Kelly was kind enough to share his rock shoes with me. Despite everyone else's success in summitting, the block looked unclimbable to me, but although I'd brought prussic loops with me, I had a crack at it. Even though I cheated and pulled on the rope on two occasions, it was a great sense of achievement to actually climb up, rather than prussic.

We rappeled down the section to the notch, where we arrived around 2pm, having taken 4 hours to climb 100 feet! That's 25 feet/hour. To our delight the chute was now in the sun so the descent was much more pleasant than the ascent. Although it hadn't seemed so obvious on the way up, the chute was full of loose rocks, and we had to be extremely careful not to dislodge anything. As a result the descent was slow and tedious, but we did a good job and avoided any major rockfall. Nonetheless, helmets are a good idea in this chute.

The pass was reached around 3:45, where we paused for a snack and a stretch out in the sun. Sometime after 4pm we got motivated to get going and arrived back at camp at 5:15. By this time the wind had dropped, the sun was warm, and a well-earned rest was enjoyed by all.

With the lack of wind the temperature plummetted overnight. By 10 pm ice crystals were on the outside of my bivvy sac and by morning it was either 22 or 23 degrees, depending on whose thermometer you believe. Sandy refused to believe either saying it couldn't possibly be that cold, but the shower of ice when Scott shook out his bivvy sac told a different story.

The hike out in calm conditions was very pleasant. The unfortunate event was that John and Chris discovered their car had a flat tire. The good news was that they carried a full size spare tire, not the emergency tire found as standard equipment. Although people had talked of having lunch together it didn't work out and we went our separate ways. Sandy and I partook of the steak caesar salad at the Mobil station on 120/395, always a great place to eat if you can wait that long.


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