Thunderbolt Peak SPS / WSC

Sat, Aug 5, 2000

With: Mark Connell

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
later climbed Wed, Aug 21, 2002


12,000 feet, 5:30a. I half expected Mark to be stirring to arise like he had the previous day to get an early jump on the day's climbing. It was just starting to get light out, and I could see it would be another cloudless morning. But it was cold outside, right around freezing temperatures, and I had no strong desire to get up so early again. Mark didn't either, as it turned out, and I dozed on for another hour before deciding we'd slept long enough. This time when I called over to see if the water was on, I got a grunt -- guess it was my turn this morning.

I got up and put water on the stove first thing, then went about changing out of my sleeping sweats into the hiking clothes (these would be the same pants and T-shirt from the previous day), and starting to get things ready for our attempt on Thunderbolt Peak. The rope was quite dry and usable -- evidently it didn't freeze overnight as I had feared. The rope had gotten quite wet in sections the previous afternoon coming down from the U-Notch, but overnight the wind had dried it out before it had a chance to freeze. We ate our oatmeal, cleaned up, and were ready to head out to the glacier at 7:30a.

Unlike the previous day when climbing North Palisade, we were less concerned about overcrowding on Thunderbolt. There were at least three routes that were within our ability, and we would have gladly switched plans should we find someone vying for our first choice route. There were several groups that had come up to camp at the glacier near us the previous evening, totaling about 6 in all. Mark and I had the choicest spots with level, sandy floors that had been lovingly constructed by previous parties who had removed hundreds of rocks to clear the spots. We had gotten these by arriving a day earlier before the weekend crowds arrived. The other groups had to make due with mostly bare rock platforms, but at least they didn't have to camp down at Sam Mack, which adds a good deal of elevation and distance to a day's climbing.

As we set out at 7:30a, the sun had risen above Mt. Gayley and was beginning to warm us nicely. We skirted the Palisade Glacier on the right side, clambering over boulders in preference to travelling on the glacier. We were able to follow the ridge of the lateral moraine for about a quarter mile before we were forced onto the glacier. By this time we had had enough of the boulder hopping and were happy to strap on our crampons and with axes in hand, head out on the glacier. Like the previous day, it's a long walk across the glacier for what seemed a short distance. It took an hour and a half to cover the distance to the bergshrund, maybe half a mile. Very slow, indeed. The snow was quite nice for travelling on, not icy, not soft, but allowing a good firm bite of the crampon points which provided a firm footing.

Looking up, I could see another party already nearing the summit of Thunderbolt. They must have started quite early, while it was still dark, or else the travelled very, very fast. I wanted to believe they suffered from the cold in the early morning hours in order to enjoy the enviable position so close to the summit at this hour.

Mark and I were headed for the East Couloir route, class 5, and the middle of the difficulty scale among the three routes we were aware of on this side of Thunderbolt. The Underhill Couloir between Starlight and Thunderbolt is the easiest at class 4, while the East Face route at 5.6 would have been more challenging for us. As we approached the base of the mountain, we noticed the bergshrund might pose a formidable obstacle. It is the same bergshrund that forms an almost unbroken wall between Mt. Sill and Thunderbolt nearly a mile in length. We had heard of difficulties crossing the bergschrund only when attempting to reach the U-Notch, so we hadn't expected to run into difficulties half a mile to the west. To the right of the East Couloir there was bridge maybe 10 yards wide that allowed us to get across, so that concern went away relatively easily. Still, it seemed that later in the season as the snow melted further, this bridge would be no more, and climbers would have a more difficult time getting past the bergschrund on the approaches to Starlight and Thunderbolt. After making it through the fortuitous opening, we headed left and then up the East Couloir. The snow becomes very steep, and we pause after every half dozen steps or so. There is not so much snow in the couloir this time of year, and we wonder if the rock will be easier or harder than the snow that usually covers it to a greater height.

I was a bit ahead of Mark as we approached the end of the snow portion. Up the middle and to the right were some smooth, wet slabs thats offered few handholds. A small dribble of water came down the center of chute, keeping the rock slippery and making that approach less desirable. I climbed up the lower portion of the rocks on the left side, as I found these offered drier and safer climbing. I expected that I would be able to traverse back into the center, but found the way blocked by some smooth cliffs on that side that hadn't been visible from lower down. Mark came up to join me and we discussed our options. The unknown route up from where we sat would require our rope, but it was certainly climbable, at least for the 20-30 yards we could see of it. We wanted to find a route back to the center of the couloir without having to climb back down, so we decided to head up, looking for an exit off the wall as soon as practical.

We traded our axes and crampons for our boots, rope, harnesses, and helmets. I took the lead while Mark belayed me from a relatively wide ledge. Starting up, the climbing very quickly got harder than it looked. I was following the obvious line up a narrow chute, but soon found the way blocked by some large boulders choking the chute from above. I tried several times to climb around them, but I couldn't find the connecting holds to get around the obstructions and my muscles soon tired. I climbed back down about 10 feet, and directed my efforts to the face to the right of the chute. In moving out of the chute onto the face, I managed to knock a golfball-sized rock down onto Mark's mellon, which gave us both a small fright. Good thing we had helmets on! (Later Mark was surprised to find only a small scratch on his helmet for what felt like a softball battering his head.) I had a better time on the face, and soon passed the previous high point and returned to the chute. Several times I tried to traverse right back towards the main route, but the way was blocked by smooth walls (it wasn't truly a smooth wall, as I'm sure better climbers could have made the traverse, but it looked too risky for us). I was a bit nervous about continuing on our route, as I expected it would turn out to be a dead end. If not, why wasn't this one of the regular routes? To be sure, the climbing was fun and interesting, and so far we hadn't encountered anything harder than 5.6 or so.

I noticed a rappel sling around one of the nearby rocks which offered some comfort that others had been down this chute. Of course one can rappel down many a chute that are unclimbable from below. Still, the route kept offering a way up, and each time I climbed over a large obstruction, the way ahead continued to look climbable. Near the end of the rope the slope eased off considerably and I got a good view looking 50 yards ahead, nearly to the top of the crest. The chute opened up and had lots of loose sand and rock in it, but easily climbable. I set up an anchor, called to Mark on the radio, and belayed him up.

Upon joining me, I handed the gear sling over to Mark who took the lead for the second, and hopefully last pitch. As he stepped into the sandy chute and began climbing he found a short piece of hemp rope partially buried in the sand. This was the most interesting thing we found the whole trip, a remnant of a previous climbing adventure, probably pre-1970. The 12 inch piece of rope was very brittle and would disintegrate unless handled carefully. Mark put it in his pack to take back with him. Probably one of those souveniers that get tossed shortly after returning since it sheds horribly and you're not really sure what to do with it. But it wasn't contributing to a historical display sitting on the side of Thunderbolt either, so at the very least we were just cleaning off a piece of trash.

Mark climbed up the second pitch without much difficulty, other than running out of rope just short of the crest. No matter, we could walk the remaining 20 yards. After Mark belayed me up, we coiled the rope and pondered our next move. We were right in the col between the north and south (highest) summits, and climbing the last pitch we got a good view of the north summit which looked rather interesting. We weren't going to have time to climb over to Starlight after climbing Thunderbolt, but it seemed reasonable that we might be able to climb both of Thunderbolts summits and still get back down with daylight to spare, seeing that it was only 1:30p currently. It didn't take much to talk Mark into adding the north summit to our itinerary, so off we went.

From the col, it is a short distance to the north summit. The easiest route traverses over some large granite slopes (angling down towards the Palisade Glacier) that weren't hard, but offered poor protection and seemed a bit disconcerting. The most difficult part of the traverse was a single move requiring one to climb up about five feet onto a higher granite ledge (that also had a good slope to it). I protected this in a crack, clipped the rope in, and heaved myself up onto the higher slope, my legs spread just about as wide as I could manage. I then scrambled up to the base of the summit blocks, and belayed Mark up. As we looked around for the best route up from there, it was not at all obvious that there was a weakness sufficient for our skill level. The east side was a giant vertical wall reaching all the way to the top, maybe 50 feet. I walked around to the south side of the blocks and found only a difficult route up a dihedral with a crack running up the center. I gave up on this after a few minutes as it seemed poorly protectable for the first 15 feet needed to get over the crux. We had only a half dozen nuts with us, and the crack was too wide for the gear we had brought (a medium-sized cam would have done nicely here). Still, the rock faces offered poor hand and foot holds, and I doubted I could pull myself up the crack by my hands. The west side had another steep face that was pretty much out of the question. The longer I took to search out a route, the more uncertain Mark became. He was beginning to accept that he might just not make the top of this block, easily justified since it wasn't the true summit anyway. I still didn't want to give up. Strangely, we failed to walk around to the north side which we read later was the key to the easiest ascent route. Worse yet, we had photocopies of the routes as described by Secor, but we failed to consult them on this important point.

After about half an hour, I concluded that the only route I had a possibility of climbing was the dihedral on the south side of the summit blocks. With Mark belaying, I forced my way up, jamming my hands and toes in as the only means of holding my fall. My hands were fully inserted into the crack sideways, and then cupped to provide opposing pressure between my fingers on one side and the back of the hands on the other. The skin on the backside of the hands bit into the rough granite, and being rather thin on that side, it tended to tear as I pulled up. We had only our climbing boots with us, so it was a bit awkward to get the toes in the crack, but I managed to do just that out of the necessity to relieve the pressure on my hands. I reached up higher and grasped the rock around the top, and hauled myself up onto a large flake. I also managed to bang my knee during this manuever, and I could see some blood spotting through my pants. No matter. My adrenalin level was outrageously high, my heart was pumping furiously, and I was breathing hard -- a little blood wasn't about to spoil all this fun! After catching my breath and letting my pulse rate subside, I resumed climbing. I checked the route around to the left (on the west side) and found no easier way there. However I did find a carabiner attached to a piece of pro (#12 chock) that someone had left on a rappel. I retrieved the gear and went back to the south side where I climbed the remaining 35 feet to the summit.

Mark still wasn't sure he wanted to climb up. I certainly didn't help by making it look more difficult than it probably was (5.6-5.7, if I had to guess). I convinced him that with the rope from above, I could pull him up if necessary, and a fall would be very unlikely. Mark eventually came around, deciding to give it a try, and then proceeded to make it look pretty easy, climbing up to join me in no time. Success! We congratulated ourselves and took the usual summit shots. We were still on the rope tied into the anchor as the summit is a very small perch indeed, and neither of us fancied falling off on our own or being accidently nudged over by the other. We could see that the south summit was indeed the higher point, which reminded us that we had some more work to do before we could begin our descent. It was 3p now, having taken us an hour and a half just for this small summit block. If it took as long for the other summit, we would be racing the sun to get down before it set...

To descend, we decided a rappel off the east side would be the easiest way, so we tied a sling around a large chockstone in a crack near the summit, looped the rope through it, and tossed it over the side. Mark went down first, the trickiest part being to get over the lip where the rope draped over the rock edge. I followed, being careful not to pinch my fingers under the rope at the lip, and also not wanting to let go of the brake hand on the rope. Once over, I leaned back on the rope, only my feet touching the rock, and looked down. Yikes! The first rappel of the day never fails to give me the willies. It was 50 feet almost straight down, and I always have this bit of mistrust of the rope and anchor that makes me uncomfortable. The feeling fades as I realize I now have my full weight on the rope, and neither the rope nor the anchor have failed. I slipped down in medium-sized leaps off my feet, trying not to stop too abruptly (no need to increase the force on the setup more than necessary, eh?). Once down, I pulled on the rope -- and it didn't move. It seems the rope was pinching itself on the lip, I tried the other side of the rope, to no avail, tried shaking the rope, and then tried with a more forceful tug on the fist side, which finally got the rope moving.

Once the rope was retrieved, we decided to have me belay Mark back to the col, so that he could have some measure of safety getting down the tricky step. After doing this, I climbed down to just above the step and used an existing sling we found about 20 feet above the crux move to rappel myself over the step. As I went to retrieve the rope, it came free easily enough, but then wedged itself in a crack after the end had slipped through the sling. Argh. I think this is why some climbers hate to rappel. To free the rope, I ended up climbing back up the step unprotected, but it was much easier being the second time. I tossed the rope down so Mark could retrieve it, and then climbed back down the step a second time.

Back at the col, we immediately set up to climb the rocks up to the south summit. It was probably something like class 5.4 on this first part, about 30 feet of mostly vertical, but lots of cracks and flakes to climb up. We ran the rope out to its full length, just reaching the top of the wall, but not making the final 40 yard traverse. We did this final traverse without the rope (class 3-4), finally arriving at the base of the south summit's final monolith. This was a tricky puppy. Narrow and tall, we could see a bolt with a carabiner attached to it at the very top. There is no obvious route up the monolith. The side we were on (facing east and north) goes free at 5.9, well out of our capability. To us it looked like a vertical wall void of any hand or foot holds. Just how one is supposed to attach one's self to the rock was beyond our comprehension. The west side of the monolith is said to go free at 5.8, but that too, seemed beyond our means. "Many a summit party has been defeated", warns Secor.

The summit register was actually under a rock at our feet rather than bolted to the summit as we had expected. Someone had decided that it was unfair to require one to climb this difficult last block, and had chopped the bolt that held it in place. Still, we felt challenged to climb the monolith ourselves because we knew we would regret it later if we didn't. Fortunately, we had no qualms about how we got up there. We weren't going to climb it free, that was certain, but surely we were capable of some fancy rope work to help belay (and likely pull) ourselves up. To be sure, we didn't really have a great plan to attack this. I figured our first objective would be to see if we could throw a rope over and around it to allow us a top rope we might use to haul ourselves up with. Mark gave me a good deal of the rope which I made into half a dozen loops or so, and then I tossed the whole mess up onto the summit. One end did indeed go over the other side, but one of the loops hung up on the carabiner at the top. It seemed a tad tangled, so I shook the rope a bit and then pulled a bit more. Then I heard a "click". I looked at Mark and said, you're not going to believe this, but I just got the rope into the carabiner. We laughed heartily at our good fortune. Mark tossed the rope back over from around the other side, and we pulled both ends down to give us a nice pulley system we could pull ourselves up on, if necessary.

This was going to be too easy, now. Mark simply had to belay me closely while I stepped from one rock onto the sloping north side of the monolith. It wasn't quite that easy, since the "step" was a wide one, dropping a good 15 feet underneath, and to keep me from slipping off once I stepped over, it was necessary for Mark to take in as much rope as he could during the step. Coordinating closely, I shouted "NOW!" as I stepped over and Mark pulled in a good three feet before holding the rope tight. I then used my hands to climb up the rope the remaining 6-8 feet to the top. It wasn't "clean" climbing, but then we aren't purists. It got us to the top. We took a few photos as proof, and then I climbed down, reversing the move (it was actually a bit trickier stepping over onto the lower rock than the other way around). I swapped positions with Mark, and then he repeated the moves in the same manner, hauling himself to the summit. I got him to pause on the way down so that I could get some photos of him making the tricky step across, but I think Mark would have rather I spent my efforts making sure I had a really good hold of the rope. It almost seemed a shame to have to retrieve our rope now, as we said good bye to our lucky carabiner. It was past 4:30p now, and high time we headed down.

First there was a small matter of lunch. We had eaten little due to all the excitement of the past few hours, but now I was a bit hungry. Mark pulled out a selection of granola bars and Wheat Thins which we feasted on for several minutes before being satiated. Mark went ahead to search out our descent route into the Underhill Couloir while I flaked the rope into the pack (and ate more Wheat Thins). It seemed unnecessary to use the rope to belay us along the 100 yards or so to the top of our descent route, and we could use whatever time this might save us. After I had packed up, I followed over to where Mark had paused, in front of a belay sling left by a previous party. The route descended sharply from here, angling down a steep, rocky gully, where it meets the Underhill Couloir about 150 feet below the top of the couloir. We rappelled down the gully rather than onto the steeper east face to avoid finding ourselves dangling out over the wall. The gully seemed likely to have been the descent route of choice, and we hoped to find more slings as we headed down. Mark went down the first rappel, stopping short of the end when he found the next rappel sling. It seemed prudent to use those we found earlier during the descent rather than risk running out the length of the rope only to find no slings further down. I followed Mark down, and then pulled the rope down from above. At the same time, Mark threaded one end through the next sling and we let the rope drop down below. This time I went down first. The last 20 feet dropped me down a vertical cliff that I would have been hard pressed to climb back up if needed. Here's to hoping the rope doesn't get stuck...

As Mark started down he loosened some rocks that started one down right on top of me. I ducked for cover up against the wall which provided a small overhang to keep me from being pummelled. The rock crashed down a few feet from where I had been standing, but other than the start it gave me, no harm done. It probably wasn't that big either, but even the small rocks make an awful racket as they ricochet off the walls, the sound echoing loudly in the narrow chutes and gullies. Before coming down the steep part to join me, Mark wisely tested the rope first. It was stuck fast. I felt helpless below knowing I could go neither up nor down. Mark would have to free the rope himself, and all I could realistically do was to wait patiently. Of course anybody who knows me may understand just how difficult that is for me to do. I've never been very good at relaxing, and finding myself trapped on the side of a cliff at almost 14,000 feet with only a few hours of daylight remaining doesn't make it any easier. Meanwhile, Mark was having a tougher time, having to climb nearly back to the start of the rappel in order to free the rope. He managed it quite well in fact, and in about 20 minutes had the rope restrung through a sling lower down, and came down to join me in my perch. This time the rope came down without incident. For the third rappel, I suggested we go directly over the steepest portion of the face. It was nearly vertical, which meant the rope would have almost no opportunity to get stuck. It would put us about 50-60 feet from the Underhill Couloir, requiring a fourth rappel. I went first on this leg, and as I went over the edge I looked down and got the willies again. This was pretty much a vertical wall going down 70 feet. It sounds higher if you consider that's seven stories. I'm continually amazed that such a thin rope and minimal gear can hold one on such improbably locals. There is a good deal of faith that has to be put in the equipment (and our ability to use it properly), and on faces like this I can feel that there are still many parts of my brain that are not completely at ease with the whole thing. But I go down anyway (like I have any other choice at this point). On the steeper walls, the rappels are much easier, really, and I'm soon down at the end of the rope. Mark followed down right behind me. We are happy that the rope comes easily away as we go to retrieve it, although we have to be careful to keep it from coming down on top of our heads.

Another rappel of about 2/3 length brought us into the Underhill Couloir, where the slope lessens in a wide, but very long couloir, filled with sand and rock, and not far below a tongue of snow reaching up from the Glacier below. Mark had gone first, myself second. This time, the rope stuck fast when we tried to retrieve it. It got stuck shortly after one end was through the sling above. Pull as we might, it refused to budge. It was my turn to climb back up and fetch it. It was fortunate that the climbing was class 4 at worse, and in fact, it wasn't bad at all. I might have described it as "enjoyable" if we hadn't already had enough for the day and wished only to return to camp. I had to climb all the way back to the top of the rappel, as the rope had wedged itself in a crack not two feet from the sling. There no longer seemed to be a need for the sling we had left there (we were a bit off the usual descent route, so we had to place this last sling ourselves), so I brought it back with me as I retraced my steps on the downclimb.

Below, Mark had pointed out the colorful collection of slings left previously for a last rappel down the Underhill. Two old pitons were the foundation for the original anchor. One was still solidly placed, the other a bit wobbly. A later party decided to back this up with another anchor point placed some 12 feet away. A string of slings had been connected together to make the distance and this connected to slings on the original anchor. But instead of connecting the ends of both anchor slings to the rappel ring at the end (which would have provided the desired redundancy), the slings were tied together with the rappel ring around them. In this manner, the rappel was made even more unsafe since a failure on either anchor points would have resulted in a failure of the entire system. We ended up removing the string of shoddy slings and correcting the redundancy deficiency before attaching our own rope for this last rappel. It is debatable whether it was really needed, since the climbing was no more than class 4 in the couloir, but it seemed likely to be the quickest way down the next 75 feet, so we rappelled.

Mark went first, myself following. Mark started down along the edge of the couloir while I coiled the rope and returned it to the pack. We avoided the snow as long as possible, but soon had to accept the need for crampons and axes again, about 100 yards above the bergshrund. The snow was somewhat soft, having spent a good portion of the day in the sun, although it was currently in the shade again. I walked down facing downhill, a little tricky given the slope was still fairly steep initially. The bergshrund loomed below, opening up a 15-foot wide chasm that we had little interest in tumbling into. We had to gingerly traverse to the left (north) about 20 yards to find a passable route over the bergschrund. It was only once we were past this point that I was able to fully relax, knowing that we had finally gotten by the serious objective dangers. It was now 6:30p, and we had no worries about insufficient daylight. We might still be cooking in the dark, but at least we wouldn't have to cross the glacier in failing light.

A glissade was in order, but I first donned by rain pants to reduce the amount of water I would absorb on the descent. Axe in hand high above my head, I slid down the bumpy slope at a pretty good clip for about 60 yards or so. Eventually the suncups became too great and the slope insufficient to sustain a continuing slide. Looking back I could see that Mark had just crossed the Bergschrund and was also out of the worry zone. I high-tailed it back across the glacier, running, slipping, and sliding along. It takes a lot of concentration to keep up even a slow run across a heavily suncupped glacier, as there is only a fraction of a second to decide where one foot placement should go before having to decide on the next. Even as a foot is placed it cannot be forgotten, as the foot may stick or slide from its original position. Then, with the foot sliding, the next foot's placement must be determined, accounting for the forward movement of the other foot. Perhaps I make it out to be more complicated than it is, but it sure helps me justify why I fall on my ass every 10 yards or so. To someone observing from the sidelines this probably all looks rather comical.

It took only 45 minutes to cross the glacier and return across the moraine, arriving in camp at 7:15p. The sun had just set behind the ridge to the west, and it would not be long before dark. Like the day before, it was a race to cook dinner and clean up before resorting to flashlights, and we just managed to do so. There was no time left for relaxing chat about the day's adventures. As it grew dark it also began to grow cold, so we retreated to our sleeping quarters for the night. I slept quite soundly that night, having sufficiently exhausted myself that the chilly air and hard ground had little chance of keeping me awake. Already I was dreaming and plotting the next day's play on the slopes of Mt Sill...


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