The Last Fourteener: A Triple Assault of Thunderbolt Peak

7 Sep 1997 - by Tony Cruz

Thunderbolt Peak was the last fourteener to be climbed in the Sierra. Back in the old days it was remote and inaccessible. But today a strong climber can day hike it from South Lake. It is difficult as far as California fourteeners go, with no approach easier than class 4 and a smooth, exposed summit block that is no easier than 5.7.

Early one summer in the late '80s I made my first attempt. Joe Stephens and I backpacked up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek to our favorite campsite well over 12,000 feet, on the lateral moraine splitting the two lobes of the Palisade Glacier. This glacier is small by Alaskan standards but forms a spectacular amphitheater from which one can view the highest, most sublime ridge in the range. From left to right there is a panoramic view of Gailey, Sill, Polemonium, North Pal, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Winchell, and Aggasiz.

We postholed up the steep, deep snow of the North Couloir, occasionally clinging over precipices with our points. At the crest we found the terrain too icy and retreated. One of my deep dark secrets is that I left my harness at camp that morning! I was so embarrassed I never told Joe about it. Years later as he reminisced about that trip, Joe casually remarked that an avalanche would not have surprised him. Hearing that, I swallowed hard and suppressed a reaction. I have a healthy fear of heights but don't worry about falling. But I dread the possibility of an avalanche whenever I'm on a snowy mountain. Nothing could be worse than to slowly suffocate while pinned under ice.

I dreamed of going back to conquer T-bolt, but after winning the main prize - the adjacent and even higher and more difficult summit, North Palisade -- T-bolt went on the back burner for several years. I was not skilled enough to safely lead it and other Sierra giants occupied my attention for many seasons.

My second attempt was not until September 1996. This time we approached the "back" side of the mountain after hiking from South Lake over Bishop Pass. My partner and I ignored the clear recommendation of Secor to climb the FIRST couloir after Thunderbolt Pass. We hiked right by it and tried the THIRD couloir instead. This terrible chute is actually one of the hardest routes to Starlite Peak, the impressive minor summit of North Pal. After three roped pitches we gave up. My partner was hit on the thigh by a rock that I accidentally dislodged as he rapped down a waterfall. Perhaps my worst waking moment was waiting for that rock to hit him, as I knew it would. Fortunately we were able to apply first aid and he got out safely. I'll never forget watching him shortly before we exited the chute. In his weakened state he gingerly traversed a narrow ledge above a precipice as I wondered what I would tell his wife if he fell. Until then it had been a wonderful year in which I succeeded on every summit attempt without mishap, but this trip demanded a sober reassessment. I didn't climb anymore in 1996 and thought of giving up the sport.

But as usual my obsession with fourteeners returned in September 1997 and I organized my third attempt. Joe Stephens, Pat Ibbetson and I left South Lake at 9:30 a.m. almost a year to the day from my previous trip. To the uninitiated, this lake seems like nature's paradise but in reality it is a man-made reservoir. The trail is easy and scenic. On one switchback there is thin dead tree that is positioned such that it appears to hold up an impossibly enormous boulder. We hiked by the beautiful Treasure Lakes. Just before we got to the switchbacks leading to Bishop pass, Joe and I decided to take a nap. While we snoozed, Pat made a start toward a nondescript mountain called Goode Peak. He decided not to go that far and aimed for "No Good" Peak instead. Eventually he settled for an insignificant bump that he christened "Ain't No Good."

While Pat wasted energy bagging his worthless peak, Joe and I hiked up to the pass and about a mile south to the largest lake in Dusy Basin. We stretched out on a rocky bench next to the lake and relaxed in the afternoon sun. When Pat arrived we had dinner and set camp a little further from the lake.

At around 6:30 a.m. the next morning we started our climb on a beautiful sunny day. We meandered past a maze of boulders up to Thunderbolt pass, about half a mile away. We took a short rest and a snack and tackled the loose first chute, careful not to knock rocks onto each other. After a few hundred feet we came to a spot blocked by a huge boulder. I had heard from another climber that one can actually crawl underneath it and proceed up the chute. Instead we did a traverse on some particularly loose and dangerous rocks onto a narrow shelf. From there Joe lead a class 4 climb of about 80 feet or so. I belayed him from below and he belayed us from above.

We continued for a few hundred feet until we neared the crest. There were two more steep sections requiring a rope that Joe led. The second one was filled with snow. He said that without snow it was easy class 4 but it seemed more difficult to me. Pat was amazed that the route was so difficult and I think he was scared but he climbed quickly and competently. At the crest we enjoyed a great view of the glacier and the surrounding peaks, which were freshly dusted with snow. Starlite peak towered above us to the west, blocking out the summit of North Palisade. From here it was difficult to tell which of the many pinnacles was our summit was. But Joe, who had already climbed the peak several times, had no trouble remembering the way. He traversed a narrow exposed ledge about 20 feet long and protected us with the rope as we followed him onto some rocks just north of the summit block.

Joe used the single 9 mm rope to do the "magic rope trick." I cannot remember exactly how he did it but he fastened one end of the rope onto a rock and lassoed the register (which was bolted inches away from the summit). There was enough rope left over that one strand served as a belay line and another as the climbing line. I asked Joe to draw this amazing arrangement, which made it seem like we were using multiple ropes, so that I could more accurately describe it in this report, but he declined.

I took out a bag containing a pair of jumars and slings from my backpack and carelessly laid it on the rocks below me. I think Pat kicked the bag, which fell and wedged itself below our feet in a not very accessible spot. That was bad enough, but worse the mouth of the bag was open and pointing down! Not without difficulty we managed to retrieve the bag and its contents.

Joe attached jumars and slings to the rope. The slings were used with prussick knots to hold our feet. This arrangement allowed Joe to jumar up the smooth summit block for about 15 feet, where he removed the register. After belaying him down and signing the register, took a shot at the summit block, which seemed impossible. But I was encouraged with my first few lunges as I discovered that I was not really climbing; I was "cheating" with the jumars and slings. I bolted the register back onto the block and reached up to touch the highest crystal of granite. Pat immortalized my triumph with a photo of my derriere as I reached the top. This and a more dignified pose by Joe Stephens can be seen on the PCS website.

We did two long rappels back to the chute. We had to instruct Pat on the rappelling technique but he mastered it immediately. We carefully downclimbed the chute one at a time while the others took cover to avoid being injured by rocks that tumbled from our feet no matter how carefully we descended. When we got to the vicinity of the boulder. Joe set a sling on a flake and prepared to rappel from it. I was afraid the flake might break so I installed a stopper in a crack to serve as a second anchor. We continued our slow descent and Joe blasted ahead of us as we approached Thunderbolt Pass. He returned to camp at nightfall.

Virtually every descent that Pat and I make together turns into an epic. This one was no exception. It was already dark shortly after we left the pass behind us. It took us hours to find our way back to camp as we stumbled about the rocks, which had been transformed from an easy class 2 stroll to an endless class 3 maze. We could not find a direct way down in the dark and had to retrace our footsteps over a dozen times. Pat's flashlight didn't work and he was sick and needed to stop several times to vomit. I was eager to get back to camp and didn't allow Pat to rest long or often, but he did not complain. When I thought we still had a few hundred feet to descend, I was pleasantly surprised that we had reached the edge of the lake. We turned right and walked north for a few hundred yards and flopped into camp. Early the next day Joe and I hiked out while Pat slept in my tent.

Since this peak involved my closest brush with disaster, I think it is appropriate to end my report with a passage from Ed Whymper's book "My Scrambles Amongst the Alps." Whymper eventually succeeded in making the first ascent of the Matterhorn after several attempts. But tragically, some of his partners died in a fall during the descent. He ends his book with the following admonishment to mountaineers:

        "There have been joys too great to be described in words, and
        there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell;
        and with these in mind I say, Climb if you will, but remember
        that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that
        a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.
        Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning
        think what may be the end."

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