Thunder Mtn

25 Aug 1999 - by David Ress

As part of a week-long tour of the Upper Kern Basin, three of us climbed Thunder Mtn.. While much of the approach was very nice, and the final bit of 4th class quite excellent, the climb of the SE face was a rather abyssmally loose exercise in class-3 climbing that pretty much cancels out the "classic" climb assignment for this mountain. Read on for details.


There were three of us: the Cat, der Bergkrabbler, and myself, the newly rechristened Lame Ape. ("Paraplegic" is too strong a term to denote my orthopedic limitations, and I don't want to offend those with more serious disabilities.) We began our sojourn by way of Shepherd Pass, taking two days to reach the headwaters of Tyndall Creek. Part of the Shepherd Pass trail has been recently rebuilt, and the previously heinous climb from Symmes Creek to the Symmes-Shepherd saddle is now, well, almost pleasant, featuring a total of 54 moderately graded switchbacks. The new route, however, has added about 1.5 miles to the trail distance. There was no water between Symmes Creek and Mahogany Flat. We camped at Anvil Camp, which is now much cleaner and more pleasant than it was a decade ago. Fire rings have been removed, and the campsites are no longer so "beaten out" as was previously the case. The final part of the trail over Shepherd Pass itself is in bad repair, with many small rockslides covering portions of the trail. After descending the west side of the pass, we camped at a lake by the junction of the Tyndall Creek and Lake South America trails. We took one more easy day to reach a medium-size lake (elev. about 11000'), located at the mouth of the canyon leading to Thunder Pass, and this was followed by a rest day that featured a pleasant solid-rock scramble to the top of nearby crag. The next day we would attempt Thunder Mtn..

The Climb

The approach up the canyon is very lovely, perhaps the best part of the climb. On the previous two days, we had experienced cloudy weather, apparently from a weak southern disturbance, but now the skies were clear with a cold, invigorating breeze. The terrain up to the highest lake below Thunder Pass is mostly a very pleasant mixture of tundra and slabs, and a small amount of stable talus. At that highest lake, the terrain becomes completely talus, and a good look at Thunder Mtn. was finally at hand.

I was surprised! This supposedly "classic" climb looked like a pile of fractured rubbish. I shook my head and denied the obvious -- perhaps the rock was more stable than it looked. Surely Moynier and Fiddler wouldn't have included it as a classic for nothing! Their instructions for reaching the S. summit tower were not explicit: climb the SE face or E ridge. Ascending the E ridge looked silly: the jagged structure looked so tenuous as to collapse upon receiving a good kick. So, I decided to aim for one of the ugly chutes or rock ribs near the E ridge.

The SE face was precisely as ugly to climb as it had appeared from below. Stable talus below the face gave way to broken and unstable rock ribs that drained quantities of small, loose debris into adjacent gullies. The ascent was an unpleasant alternation of delicately climbing the unstable rock ribs, and "swimming" through the steep loose gullies. My compatriots were significantly dismayed by this effort. The Cat puffed herself up a bit and began growling about the tedium of this pileish ascent. Der Bergkrabbler, who was completely new to this kind of blatant intimacy with dangerous alpine garbage, was basically just scared out of his wits. "This is too tough for me" he moaned. I thought to myself: "nonsense, this is just too ugly for anyone with sense!" But, being a sado-masochist, I did my best to encourage them onwards, and eventually the horrible rock gave way to the south summit tower.

I had to break out the rope to get der Bergkrabbler up the final bit of 3rd class. The rock adjacent to the tower was so fractured as to make it difficult to set a reliable anchor. Der Bergkrabbler climbed past me and stood, uncertainly, upon the boulders of the S summit tower. "Off belay?" I asked hopefully. He looked scared, then minced his way carefully to the most unexposed part of the boulder pile, then quietly allowed himself to go off belay.

So, now we could see the final "airy" traverse to the N summit. I was thrilled: it looked like good, solid rock for a welcome change. Unfortunately, my companions were unimpressed by the view, and declined to continue. The Cat professed an interest in preening herself and taking a nap, while der Bergkrabbler was so petrified that he wouldn't even consider moving from his boulder burrow, much less begin an exposed traverse.

So, I had to solo it, and, fortunately, it wasn't particularly difficult. With careful routefinding, there were only two short bits of 4th class, the first during the descent into the notch, and the second being a muscular move on the way up the summit block. The summit block is just large enough to stand upon ... This remote mountain does not get a lot of traffic; ours was the sixth ascent this year.

We found an easier way down. The western margin of the SE face has lower angles and broader ledges than toward the E ridge. It was still ugly, but, at least, not quite as nauseatingly loose. Der Bergkrabbler had substantially calmed down during my traverse to the N summit and back, but he most certainly wanted a belay to begin the descent. Two belays, together with substantial coaching from the Cat, got him down onto somewhat gentler 3rd-class terrain that he could handle without a rope. The Cat has a marvelous way of purring instructions that can alleviate the fears of all but the most desperate. The tedious loose ledges finally gave way to screeable gravel, then firm talus. All that remained now was to reverse the lovely approach. Total time for the climb was a leisurely 11.5 hours. We concluded our climbing day by jumping in the lake.


The next day, we continued our leisurely traverse around the Upper Kern Basin, studiously avoiding use of any trails. We camped at a small lake just below the saddle where the Lk. South America trail crosses into the Tyndall Creek drainage. We had meant to go farther, but couldn't bear to leave this lovely high country! Instead, we took a quick stroll to view the precipitous scenery surrounding Harrison Pass. On the morrow, we took a combination of trail and cross-country walking back to Shepherd Pass, then descended all the way to Mahogany Flat. There is really only one campsite here, and, though it was already occupied by a ranger, she graciously allowed us to share her site. Anvil Camp is by far the preferrable camping when ascending or descending Shepherd Pass. On our final day, we somewhat unwillingly covered the 6+ miles from Mahogany Flat to the trailhead under welcome cloudy skies that allowed us to mostly avoid the desert heat. On the way up, we had observed the substantial crop of elderberries near the trailhead (outside the wilderness), so, coming out, we collected some berries that will very soon become jam and pie. Yum!

It was raining in Tuolumne Mdws as we made the long drive home.

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