Thunderbolt Peak

12-14 Sep 2003 - by Gary Craig

It was a privilege to be a member of this group for a climb of Thunderbolt Peak. The group consisted of Rich Henke, Rena Tishman, Ron Bartell, Christine Mitchell, and myself, Gary Craig. Our outing started on Friday Sept 12th and ended Sunday Sept 14th. We had perfect summer weather for all three days and there was not a single mosquito to be found.

We started hiking from the South Lake trailhead to Bishop pass at a leisurely 9:30am on Friday. There's not much unusual to report about the hike to the pass except for the death of a horse. More about that later. After crossing the pass, we followed the trail down to the first major switchback. At this point we left the trail and did a slightly descending traverse (with lots of little ups and downs) to near and a bit above a small pond on the north side of the largest lake in Dusy Basin. This pond shows on the 7.5 minute map at UTM 637069.

We awoke for a planned 6am departure on Saturday which turned out to be about 6:20. We walked/scrambled east to Thunderbolt pass, over both gentle terrain and talus of increasing size, which took about an hour from camp. Everything is easy class 2 at worst so far. We rested at the pass for a bit, and then set off for "Southwest Chute No.1" as named in Secor. This is the first chute on TBolt on the east side of the pass. One makes a slightly descending traverse to reach the scree cone emanating from the chute. This is climbed directly via faint use trails and generally following the path of least resistance on the left side. Sometimes you are right up against the rock wall on the left.

The first hard section is obvious. The chute narrows but is still fairly easy for a while. But, large chockstones are visible above, and you climb to within about 50 feet of them before exiting the chute on a ledge to the right. This ledge is the key to this section of the route. Rich climbed up to the chockstones and found evidence of rappels at this point (slings and bolts), but to climb directly up here is high 5th class. The key right-side ledge is easy but scary after a bit as it becomes exposed. There is at least one spot where there is a gash in the ledge and you need to step down and out over the void to pass. Again, easy, but pay attention. A bit further the ledge curves to the left and it is possible to scramble up off the ledge onto easier terrain. This scramble was OK going up but most of us wanted a belay when coming down due to the exposure.

From above the ledge, we climbed steeply but without difficulty up to the notch between the south and north summits, following right-hand branches in the main chute as recommended. It was low class 2 at most. Just below the notch, one tunnels below a huge boulder. We were glad to get to the notch where we first felt the warming rays of the sun. We had a nice rest here with glorious views of the Palisade Glacier, the White Mountains, and beyond.

The wall to the right at the notch is low 5th class; Rich led it via the obvious main crack for the first part and then moved a few feet down and left, over an awkward block, and then up, and then right to a belay spot. The rest of us followed with a top rope and little difficulty. One then easily climbs up just a few seconds to reach the main crest of the ridge between T-Bolt and North Pal. This is a grand viewpoint with large slabs to relax on. Above the slabs, back toward the summit to the west, one moves easily through some boulders to the right and then across (right to left) some exposed rock via a large crack. This section is easy but don't screw up!

After the crack, one is standing in a boulder pile; by far the largest of which is the summit block. Rich led the summit block free, protecting via a sling left hanging off one of the summit boulder bolts. After gaining the summit, we rigged an etrier for the rest of the group and Rich belayed from above. I was the first one up the etrier and it was quite an experience. The rest of the group followed, tagging the top of the summit block and then returning to the "safety" of the boulders below. We were a bit dismayed to see that the summit register has been moved. Apparently it had for many years been bolted to the top of the summit block; it is now loosely stored just below in the boulders.

We were not the only climbers on Thunderbolt that day. Two climbers camped near to us were ahead of us the whole way and were also climbing Starlight Peak the same day, where they were successful. We could see them at the summit "bottle" while we were tackling T-Bolt. Later, after we left the summit area and had descended back into the chute below the crest ridge notch, we could see another climber above us, solo, attempting to set up protection on the summit. We have no idea of his success.

We returned to camp without excitement, with only one short roped pitch at the upper entrance to the ledge system in the chute. We straggled into camp after crossing the pass as best we could in about a 12 hour round trip. Amazingly, a fine dinner appeared and spirits were deservedly high.

Sunday morning's departure was at a leisurely hour. Rich, Rena, and I veered a bit higher and to the right as we approached Bishop Pass, passing along the left (west) shore of lake 11,900 near the pass. This saved some footsteps and the walking was easy. From camp, we traversed, then followed the outlet stream up to the lake, then made for the trail. After crossing the pass, we descended the switchbacks and noted the carcass of the horse that we had seen tumbling down two days earlier. Flashback: Christine and I were hiking together and had just started up the steep switchbacks on the trail above Bishop Lake, when we came upon a pack train that had passed us earlier in the day, going south. All of a sudden, a horse (who we learned was named "Tarzan") was tumbling downhill, across the switchbacks, through large talus. There had been an earlier accident, and Tarzan was already injured and spooked. This proved to be the fatal incident, as the last tumble broke his neck, as we later found out from the cowboys. Fortunately Tarzan was not carrying a rider, just equipment. The middle and upper portions of the steep part of the switchbacks were stained with large splashes and even pools of blood. End flashback: it was kinda creepy hiking through here on the way down on Sunday, and we took note but did not linger at the site of the accident.

Our group hiked down to Timberline Tarns and took a long break, and then hiked out to the cars. Boy there sure were a lot of people on the trail on Sunday! Mostly dayhikers from South Lake, but I didn't expect that many in mid-September. No worry, it's good to see people "out there". This was a great trip with great friends.

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