Thunder Mountain P500 SPS / WSC

Wed, Aug 27, 2008

With: Matthew Holliman

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile
previously climbed Thu, Aug 26, 1999

Thunder Mtn is located at the triple divide where the Great Western Divide meets the Kings-Kern Divide. It is one of the more remote peaks in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, one I had visited some years earlier. The earlier trip had been part of a four-day solo backpack trip I did shortly before I gave up on backpacking to concentrate on dayhikes. It was inevitable that I would have to come back for a day visit, and as one of Matthew's few remaining peaks on the SPS list, we picked a day in late August.

Matthew was not used to my drive-hike-drive 25-30hr turnarounds, preferring to get some sleep at the trailhead beforehand. Even though I drove the whole way, he was unable to sleep during the drive and would not have the luxury of a nap before starting out. We arrived at Roads End near Cedar Grove shortly before 1:30a, stuffed our post-hike food in a bear box, packed up, and headed out. We carried crampons and axe because we didn't know if we'd find snow on the north side of Thunder Col, later finding them unneeded - a little extra dead weight to keep things interesting. There was no excitement on our faces as we crossed the bridge out of the parking lot, heading east on the Bubbs Creek Trail - it would be quite a few hours by headlamp before things got interesting. We would both rather have been asleep at that point, I think.

With Matthew setting a fast pace (but not too fast thanks to sleep deprivation), we crossed over the Bailey Bridge in the first half an hour. Four more wooden bridges followed over various streams, then a switchback climb up into the Bubbs Creek drainage. We crossed over Charlotte Creek and continued to Junction Meadow where we arrived shortly before 5a. By headlamp we crossed Bubbs Creek after removing our boots (what a fine location to build a bridge this would be), then continued up the East Lake Trail heading south. The sun had not yet risen as we passed by East Lake, Mt. Brewer rising majestically in the shadows of the early morning to the west. Sunrise came shortly before we reached Lake Reflection and the end of the trail around 6:40a.

We changed leads as we crossed the outlet of Lake Reflection. Matthew started to become noticeably more tired at this point, the lack of sleep finally catching up with him. I had at least napped for a few hours prior to our drive, so I was feeling less of these effects. Our route followed up a similar one used to descend from Mt. Jordan the previous year. Crossing to the west side of the lake we followed easy terrain towards the southwest, then crossing to the south side of the lake's inlet some several hundred yards upstream of the lake. From there we climbed an interesting class 3 chute through the cliffs leading to the unnamed lakes west of Mt. Jordan. This route was made easier by low water flow, surely much more difficult to manage earlier in the season.

Once at the unnamed lakes the route becomes tedious as we knew it would. The lakes are barren of fish with only the scantiest of vegetation to be found. We had more than a mile of tedious boulder-hopping as we made our way towards the peak. We could see our peak off to the southwest while still some 45 minutes from its base, but it seemed to take a very long time to draw near. When we finally pulled up to the last of the lakes, this one located northeast of Thunder Mtn, it was 9:30a. We had been at it for eight hours by now, and the hoped for 9hr ascent looked out of reach. We could finally see Thunder Mtn in all its glory, and an impressive sight it makes from this vantage point.

While Matthew filled his bottles at the lake and we took a short break, I studied the aspects of the peak more closely. The obvious route, the only one described in Secor or the TRs, went up to Thunder Col to the south and then up the East Ridge or Southeast Slopes. I had used this route on my first visit to the summit, and was hoping I might find another way up. The NW Ridge on the crest was hopelessly serrated and the north side looked impossibly steep. The NNE Ridge looked interesting, but had likely cliffs halfway up. The East Face was rather cliffy too, but looked like it might have ways to get through, and it was to this side that I gave more consideration. Matthew guessed my intentions from watching my gaze and we briefly discussed whether one could get up the East Face. Finding me unconvincing, Matthew showed little interest in the extracurricular affair.

After our break we continued south up the moraine towards Thunder Col, all the while I kept eyeing that East Face. When I was abreast of it I decided to "go have a look," turning abruptly west and heading up the sandy talus slopes at the base of the East Face. I never said a word to Matthew, but it was pretty obvious to him what I was doing. When I was several hundred feet up I turned around to see that Matthew was still continuing to the Col. Looks like I was on my own for this one. If I could manage to find a way, it might even be quicker than the more circuitous route through Thunder Col. On the other hand, I might have to downclimb my way out of a fix if I got stuck and could be well behind him. The unknown aspect of the route certainly played a big part in its attractiveness to me.

Initially I scrambled over some ledges, then moved right into the rightmost of two prominent chutes. I climbed this until barred by a massive chockstone about halfway up the face. From there I managed to climb out to the left over more ledges and into the other chute to the left. I was feeling pretty good at this point because my options were opening up. It looked like I could traverse left up a very broad chute to the East Ridge, and it was this line that I had originally picked out from below. But I now found myself with another option to take a more direct line straight up the middle of the east face in the current chute, and it was in this direction I headed. High above I could see the bridge at the notch between the south and middle summits, and I steadily made my way towards it. Whether I would be able to climb out of the notch was another matter. I was happy to find all the scrambling go at class 3 or easier, and climbing out of the notch was a simple matter. The whole route took only an hour to negotiate, making it both faster and easier than the East Ridge route. Finding myself at the notch had saved some of the spicier climbing required to traverse around the south summit.

It was 11a when I reached the airy bridge, and it took less than 15 minutes to make my way to the higher north summit. The crux was made easier by a cheater sling left by a previous party, reducing a class 4 move to something more like class 3. Unlike my first visit when the summit was enveloped in clouds following an afternoon of thundershowers, today there was not a cloud in the sky and it was quite fine looking in all directions. One could see Williamson to the east, Whitney to the southeast, the Kaweahs peeking over Table Mtn to the south, Glacier Ridge to the southwest, Brewer to the northwest and the Palisades far to the north. The summit register, dating back to 2005, contained only five pages - not much to peruse while I was waiting for Matthew to arrive. The old aluminum box with a register dating to 1945 that I had found on my first visit was gone, sadly.

30 minutes came and went, still no Matthew. Though sunny and only a light breeze, I had begun to grow cold even with a jacket that I had recently donned. I began to wonder what might have become of him and whether he might have turned back because of nausea or something else. Time to go look for him. I gathered my stuff back into my pack, then scrambled back over towards the south summit. From atop it I gazed down the SE Slopes but saw no sign of movement anywhere. My trepidation that he had turned back increased. I dropped off the north side of the summit and did the tricky traversing manuevers back to the East Ridge. Just as I was about to reach the ridge and start down the SE Slopes, I heard a familiar wheezing. More of a cross between a wheeze and a cough, I readily recognized it as Matthew's signature breathing, generally reserved for when he's sketched or tired at altitude. A minute later he appeared atop the East Ridge.

Matthew was in better spirits than I expected based on the breathing, though he had no good things to say about the route up to Thunder Col which he found snow-free and a sandy mess. Together we retraced the steps back to the north summit. With me to guide him on the traverse it went faster than it would have by himself. One of the hardest parts is the south summit traverse, an exposed ledge system to get one around to the airy bridge. I wanted to get a picture of Matthew on the bridge itself, but no amount of chiding on my part could get him to take the two steps it required. After hesitating for a good minute, he finally took the bypass on the west side of it, denying me the photo. I lead him back to the crux at the north summit, climbed it to show him the technique, after which he followed in fine style. I then returned below the crux to get photos while he made his way to the summit alone. He spent only five minutes atop, long enough to sign in, take some photos himself, and catch his breath. He then reversed the crux move and we both headed for the south summit.

The descent off the SE Slopes and East Ridge was a standard talus/boulder descent in the Sierra, mostly a class 2 affair. Reaching the col at 1:30p, I got my first look at the sandy chute that had dismayed Matthew on the ascent. Unfortunately it was not sandy enough to make for a good boot-ski descent, much of it packed hard from the weight of much snow that fills the chute most of the year. Moraine and endless boulder fields followed, as we made our way back to the unnamed lakes. I lost track of Matthew after we had reached the highest lake, and at our own pace we separately made our way back along the west side of Mt. Jordan and down to Lake Reflection.

It was just after 4p when I reached the trail on the east side of Lake Reflection. I was relieved to know the hardest parts were behind, but there was still another five hours of grinding it out back on the trail to Roads End. There were pretty scenes at East Lake and of Mt. Bago as I descended to Bubbs Creek. I don't recall seeing anyone else on the trail and no tents at the usual camp locations at East Lake. After crossing Bubbs Creek I stripped out of my clothes and took a quick rinse in the cold stream waters. It was nice to get all the salt and sweat off me, even if I still had three hours to go. As I continued down Bubbs Creek, the sun slowly set through the trees in front of me, darkness overtaking me before I could descend into Kings Canyon. It was 9p before I returned to the car, making for a 19.5hr day - the longest I had done on a Sierra dayhike. I was exhausted and my feet fairly beat up by this time, and it was all I could do to retrieve the cooler from the bear box and change out of my boots. Matthew was another hour behind me, giving me some time to sleep in the car before starting the long drive home. It would be after 3a before I got to bed that night - tired but satisfied with the long day's adventure...


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