Thunder Mountain P500 SPS / WSC / CS

Thu, Aug 26, 1999
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 Profiles: 1 2 3 4 5 6
later climbed Wed, Aug 27, 2008

Oddly, my trip to Thunder Mtn began in a Yahoo! Club discussion about whether Mt. Brewer in Kings Canyon could be done as a dayhike from Road's End (literally). Mark had made a previous attempt in early July, but was turned back due to high water in Bubbs Creek. With 8500 vertical feet to climb and 35 miles, it was going to be a butt- kicker, but Mark and I made plans to give it a shot on a Saturday in late August. As the date drew nearer, I found that I was going to have four days off instead of just the weekend, so I was now interested in backpacking instead of dayhiking. Mark only had the weekend off, so our plans diverged (or rather, I bailed), as Mark still planned to give the dayhike of Brewer a go. [Mark didn't make the Brewer dayhike, but had a valiant attempt. He tried again later, doing better than the first attempt, but again coming up short. I was finally able to do the Brewer dayhike in 2002. Matthew Holliman went one better by doing a combined North Guard - Brewer dayhike in 2004.]

I left work in the Bay Area at lunchtime, and spent the next 5 hour driving out to Kings Canyon. As I entered the park, I was surprised to find it was "National Parks Day" as declared by the Secretary of the Interior. Normally I could hardly care less about such festivities, but this one saved me the $10 entrance fee since everyone was being admitted free today. I stopped at the Grant Grove ranger station just past the entrance station shortly before 5p to get a wilderness permit. The ranger there told me that I had to go down to the Cedar Grove ranger station to get a permit for that part of the park. It was obvious that I wouldn't get there before they closed for the day, but that didn't seem to matter to the ranger I spoke to. There was simply no way he could (or would) issue me a permit. Seems like an application in obvious need of networking to allow the rangers to work together. The ranger sort of lamely told me that sometimes there is a ranger "hanging around" the Cedar Grove station. So off I went, knowing there was little chance I was going to get a permit.

I had only been on the Generals Highway once before, back in 1985, and had forgotten how beautiful it was. From Grant Grove, the road winds 15+ miles down to the Kings River, briefly exiting the park before re-entering just past Moaning Caves, a privately run caving operation. The road follows the Kings upriver through impressive canyons with towering walls all around. There were clouds threatening all about, and there was evidence of rain in the area earlier, but I only got a few sprinkles on the drive it. Just the usual afternoon thunderstorms dissipating, I hoped.

At Cedar Grove the canyon widens considerably in a large meadow, and it is here that the development in this part of the park takes place. I stopped at the ranger station briefly, but as expected found no one. Oh well, I would go with a permit this time. I wasn't going to let a piece of paper spoil my plans (although I've been told the fine is in the order of $250). I drove on to Roads End, parked my car, and stashed my ice chest and extra food in one of the many bear boxes amply provided nearby. I packed up my gear and headed out at 6p. The weather was clearing some, and the threat of rain much diminished.

The elevation at the start of the trail is 5000 feet, and the only way to go from there is up no matter where you want to go into the Wilderness. I planned to take the Bubbs Creek Trail to Junction Meadow, and then follow the East Lake Trail south as far as I could manage. Since I was starting relatively late, I didn't have much time before the sun would set behind me. The first two miles are mostly flat, as they follow the Kings River upstream along the Paradise Valley Trail. The canyon walls tower up 3000-4000 feet on either side, and though not as dramatic as Yosemite Valley, a rather impressive sight nonetheless (and far, far, less crowded). While I didn't run into any people along the trail that night, I did find a few deer calmly grazing along the way - that special National Park variety that have no fear of being hunted and thus no fear of people. After the two mile mark, the Paradise Valley Trail heads north (and up a great deal of elevation) while my route crosses the river at a bridge where the Bubbs Creek Trail begins and heads southeast (and up a great deal of elevation). The canyon walls on either side of me were quite fantastic, towering thousands of feet above me. On the south rim I could see the Sphinx, a striking rock formation 4,000 feet above the valley floor, that can be seen for many miles along the trails here.

Shortly after crossing the bridge, the trail begins climbing steeply through a number of switchbacks, gaining 1000 feet of elevation in less than a mile Behind me, Kings Canyon had the last remaining light still shining that I could see. The canyon dropped lower below me as I quickly gained altitude. Even after the switchbacks ended, the trail continues to gain altitude at a hefty clip. It was 7p now, and the sun had just set. There was still light left to make my way, but it was failing quickly. At mile three, a footbridge crosses Bubbs Creek and marks the beginning of the Sphinx Trail. I still continued east, along the north side of the creek, on the Bubbs Creek Trail. By 7:30p it was too dark to see reliably without a flashlight. Particularly where the trees were thick, it was rather difficult to see the trail. I tried to use my flashlight as little as possible at first, knowing that I would need many hours of use from it still. Eventually the natural light failed altogether and my flashlight came into continuous use.

The trail climbed steadily now, but at a rate that allowed me to keep up a pretty good pace. My pack was only about 16 lbs, which is a nice weight I've found for traveling long distances at a stretch without killing my back and shoulders. I carried a minimum of supplies: my sleeping bag, a pad, a bivy sack, some water, about a pound and a half of food (which wasn't very much), some spare clothes, and a few small miscellaneous items. No stove, no cooking gear, no cup or utensils, no water filter; all things I've decided to go without on my solo journeys. Rain or snow would certainly test my gear selection, as I had only a sweatshirt, a windbreaker, and a $0.99 poncho with which to keep out the elements. But for now that was hardly a worry, as the weather continued to improve and the stars came out.

Somewhere after 8p the moon came up in the east, glowing brightly through the trees. I stopped to take a few photos and watch it rise for these first few moments that I always find the most special. Low on the horizon the moon appears larger than life, even when I know that it's the same size overhead as when it's on the horizon. It must be an optical illusion that makes the moon appear smaller when overhead, probably because its size is lost in the immensity of space among all the stars.

I reached Junction Meadow shortly before 10p, and stopped at the meadows edge to rest, have a snack, and take a bathroom break. I had just passed a few campfires, the first evidence of people I had seen since I left the trailhead. Somewhere in the area I had to cross Bubbs Creek to continue my way south on the East Lake Trail. I believe this was the spot where Mark had been turned back earlier in the season due to high water, and I had some apprehension that I might have some trouble myself. While I expected the water to be much lower now, I hadn't had any real experience in stream crossing at night. I took the trail branch that led towards the creek, but even with the flashlight I lost track of it as it approached close to the creek. After hunting back and forth a few minutes, I spotted the crossing in what appeared to be a shallow section of the creek. From what light I had, it appeared the water was no more than a foot deep for at least the first half of the crossing. Beyond that I did could not see the bottom well enough, but by gauging the movement of the water at the surface, I judged it was probably about the same all the way across (maybe 20 feet total). In order to avoid wet boots and all the accompanying fun this entails (wet socks, blisters), I decided to take off my boots and cross barefooted. The downside of this is that my balance is much less steady, and especially at night I was more likely to slip and fall. Oh, and sharp rocks could cut my foot open and leave me bleeding, cold, and miserable at night in the middle of nowhere - but why worry? My worrying went for naught in the end as I was able to make the crossing relatively easily in less than a minute once I had my shoes off and secured to my pack. On the other side I sat on a log while I dried my feet and put my shoes and socks back on (the trick here I'vefound is to dry your feet on your pants or the outsides of your socks). There are bear boxes located on this side of the creek and some nice campsites, but I still had some energy left and wanted to put in a few more miles.

I was at over 8,000 feet now, and I was beginning to feel like I was in the high country. The trees thinned out more and the moon and stars provided quite a bit more illumination. I was even able to turn my flashlight off for large stretches of the trail and navigate by moonlight only. The trail climbs steeply a short way from Bubbs Creek, climbing a series of short switchbacks. The view down into Junction Meadow at night was delightful, bathed in the soft glow of the moon. The rush of water cascading down nearby East Creek dominated the evening sounds as the trail followed close by the creek on its way up the canyon.

Three miles from Junction Meadow I reached East Lake. It was quite a beautiful scene, the Kings- Kern Divide rising to the south, West Vidette to the east, and North Guard and Mt. Brewer to the west. Being unfamiliar with the area, I couldn't pick out any individual peaks by name (at least at night), but under the moonlight they were amply lit against the black sky with their features well defined. I had hoped to make it to Reflection Lake at the end of the trail a few miles up, but I was pretty beat by now. According to the trail signs I had hiked 15 miles (the TOPO evelation profile showed 12 miles, but I think that was inaccurate). It was 11:30p and 5 1/2 hours since I started, and after climbing 4,500 feet and 12-15 miles, I felt justified in calling it a night. I looked for a nice campsite as I wandered up the trail a bit more, following the eastern side of the lake. I didn't find any suitably flat locations among the trees, by the shore, or in the rocks, so I ended up pitching the bivy sack in the middle of the trail at the high point above the lake, just about halfway along its length. I figured I'd be up early in the morning, and the chances of someone hiking along here between now and then (and stumbling across me) were pretty slim. I set up camp in about 10 minutes, changed into my warm sweats, brushed my teeth, and slid into the sack. I don't think it took me very long to drift off to sleep that night...

I woke around 7:30a the next morning, although I had hoped to wake earlier. Clouds had come in late in the night, covering portions the sky. While they weren't an imminent threat at the moment, they had the look of clouds that meant business, ones I had best keep a good eye on. The views around me were as impressive as I had expected from what I could see the previous night. East Lake appeared to be comfortably nestled among the high peaks that surrounded it, with a thin line of trees surrounding its shoreline. I could identify Mt. Brewer and North Guard to the west, brightly lit in the morning sun. After I took my photos, I packed up quickly, not wanting to have some early hikers find me camped out there in the middle of the trail (more out of embarrassment than worrying about a fine). I munched down a few granola bars and headed south up the trail at 8a.

The trail climbs gradually over the remaining 1 1/2 miles to Reflection Lake. To the south I was able to take in the views of the high mountain peaks and ridges all around me that I could only see silhouetted the night before. Directly ahead of me rose the Kings-Kern Divide, an impressive line of peaks, crags, and ridges that average in the neighborhood of 13,000 feet. It would take quite some time to bag all the peaks in the area, so I had to pick and choose. I chose Thunder Mtn mostly because it has a really cool sounding name. Not the best reason to go out climbing mountains, but it sounded better than "Because it is there". Also, Thunder Mtn has a class 4 summit block, which would make it the toughest peak I've bagged solo. I had my rock climbing shoes in my pack as extra insurance, in case I needed their "magic" properties.

The trail ends at Lake Reflection, beautifully situated at the foot of the walls rising sharply to the divide. It's about twice the size of East Lake and has some great campsites where you feel like you're at the last outpost of "civilized wilderness". Beyond it there are no trees and few plants, just lots of rock and snow (although rather light on the snow at this time of year). I passed Lake Reflection on its western edge, avoiding what seemed like some tough cliffs at the southeast end of the lake. Once past the lake, there is not even a use trail, and my pace slowed accordingly. For 1/3 mile or so the slope is gradual as I follow the creek up to the foot of Mt. Jordan. At this point my route took a slight left turn following nearly straight up a canyon wall that featured a cascading stream, rugged in appearance due to the absence of almost any vegetation along it's banks. I climbed 1,200 feet in 1/2 mile, a tough job at nearly 12,000 feet of elevation. It was still less than 24 hrs since I was at sea level, and my lack of acclimatization was evident. Looking back north, I found I was at a great vantage point to view Lake Reflection below me.

Once up the wall, I got my first views of Thunder Mtn. off to the southwest. It is an impressive peak (from this angle anyway), with no obvious path to the top evident. The route flattened now, as I followed a number of high, unnamed lakes that sit at the foot of the ridge running up to Thunder Mtn. It appeared these lakes were formed in series, as the Thunder Mtn. Glacier receded at various points in time and left behind a number of terminal moraines that allowed lakes to form behind them. The lakes are rather stark, no vegetation (and thus no fish) along its shores, nothing put a bowl of water in a rock depression. At one of the lakes, I rested and had a snack. It was close to noon by this time, and the weather above me was getting more threatening all the time. There was very little blue sky left, and it looked as though it might rain in the near future. The very last lake, just below the northeast face of Thunder Mtn, was still half frozen. I headed due south at this point up towards Thunder Pass. It was 12:30p as I headed up, the weather getting more and more threatening by the minute. I could see low hanging clouds down the valley further, and I felt a few drops every now and then. The weather was coming from the south, but my view was blocked by Thunder Mtn and the Kings-Kern Divide. I was directly under the northeast face of Thunder Mtn (the picture was taken the next day with blue skies), and I could see that I still had considerable elevation to gain were I to still to reach the summit.

Halfway to the pass I reached the snow that filled most of the upper portion of the pass (photo taken the next day). Due to the lack of sun, it was frozen hard and difficult to cross. I hadn't brought my crampons or ice axe, either of which would have made this a breeze. Instead I had to walk on the flat sides of the sun cups in the snow to keep myself from slipping. 2/3 of the way up there is a large exposed boulder field in the middle snow. Aiming for the lower portion of this, I hoped to climb the boulders as high as I could to keep off the snow as much as possible. Once on the boulders, I began to feel more and more raindrops, and the short view I had of the coming weather portended of worse to come. I didn't have any serious bad weather clothes that would allow me to continue despite a downpour. The little I had could keep me dry for a while, but I wasn't going to climb any peaks in inclement weather with them.

Among the boulders there is one large flat one that I decided to set my bivy sack up on, just in case things got bad and I had to run for cover. I figured if I had it all set up ahead of time, it would be much better than trying to do it later with frozen fingers and without getting my sleeping bag and such wet. This way, it might only take two or three minutes once I returned to get inside and start warming up. Just before I finished getting everything set up, the rain started to come down. Uh, oh! I hastily finished, threw my pack partly under an overhang on a nearby rock, and jumped in the sack. It started to come down heavier, and I was particularly proud of my good sense of timing (or rather good luck) in getting out of the rain in time. It was only 1p, and plenty of daylight left, but I wasn't going anywhere for the moment. After 20 minutes or so, I resigned myself that I could be here awhile, and dozed off and on. Although I had a pad under my sleeping bag, the rock still made it difficult to sleep. I'd have to roll over from side to side as the arm under me would fall asleep and go numb. In between naps, I noticed the weather worsened, as it began to thunder and lightening all around me, and the rain came down harder still. The irony of my situation and the name of the peak I was attempting to climb was not lost on me.

Although I was pretty cozy inside (given my predicament at 12,500 ft), I began to consider my prospects for the near future. It was 4p now, and I would have a few more hours of daylight. If the weather didn't let up, I was going to be here for the night as well. That meant it might be 18 or 19 hours that I'd be in the bivy sack, and I didn't know if I could stand it that long. Obviously if the weather stayed bad I'd have no choice, but I've never stayed in a prone position that long in my life. I imagined my legs cramping or going numb as my body withered away trapped inside. Would I get so stir crazy that I'd pack up and head out, even if the rain was still coming down? I thought these were just supposed to be afternoon thundershowers. Why wasn't it letting up?

Somewhere among my mental ramblings I must have fallen asleep again. Shortly before 6p I woke up and noticed the rain had stopped outside. I poked my head out and scanned the skies. I could see patches of blue sky now among the clouds, and while it was by no means safe again this seemed a very good sign that the storm had spent itself. I think I knew that that last statement wasn't really true, and that the rain could start up again in a minute, but I was looking for any hopeful sign to get me out of the bivy sack. I would have to hurry, but I figured I just might have enough time to reach the summit and get back before dark again. I got up quickly and prepared to leave. I would be travelling light, just my jacket, poncho, rock shoes, some water, and my camera. I zipped up the bivy, repositioned my pack out of the weather, and headed out.

I went slowly across the snow field, zigzagging as I looked for the flattest indentations in the snow for footholds (an ice axe would have been quite handy here). I managed to make it to the right side of the snowfield, but the rocks were too steep to climb on as an alternative. I followed the edge of the snow where it pulled away from the rocks, and gingerly made my way up. It took only 20 minutes to reach the saddle of the pass, about 10 minutes ahead of plans. I still had 900 feet of climbing as I headed up the east ridge towards the summit. The top of the mountain was in the clouds, and every now and then I would get a glimpse of the impressive looking summit block. From the pass it was mostly a straightforward class 2-3 boulder climb. In another 20 minutes I reached the point just below the summit block, and this is where things got interesting.

The middle and north (the highest) summits are detached from the rest of the south summit by a small airy rock bridge. Getting to the rock bridge was tricky enough, as Secor's description was rather vague on this point ("descend about 20 feet"), as it appeared a lot tougher than the simple wording. The rocks were still wet, though they retained some gripping capacity if I was careful enough. I couldn't see any way easy to descend from the south summit, so I traversed around from the east to the north side. This exposed me to some scary dropoffs, made all the more so by the clouds that swept across the peak all around me. The airy bridge was an easy one-step move between the the south and middle summits, but the drop on both sides took my breath away momentarily. I then traversed around the east side of the middle peak (class 3) before I came upon the class 4 block that composes the top part of the north peak. I surveyed both of the described routes to the top before choosing the crack on the south side (the jam crack on the southwest side had few holds and looked a bit tougher). I tried to climb the crack with "natural chockstones" in my hiking boots, but I could not hold on and slipped down, the chockstone coming out in my hand. Some chockstone. The visibility worsened to about 20 feet, as I seemed to be in the thick of the clouds. I wondered how difficult my retreat might be should the rain, hail, or snow decide to come down at such an inopportune time. I was suddenly glad I had hauled my rock shoes up here, and sat down to swap shoes. The "magic" of course is just the extra stickiness they provide on such rock surfaces, but it makes all the difference in the world. With them on, I was easily able to surmount the final difficulty, and found myself on the summit block.

The view of course was non-existent. I could see over to the middle peak, and down as far as 10 feet where I left my hiking boots. It was 7p now, and the light was beginning to fail. I quickly took a few photos of the nifty register (as that was all there was of interest to look at), and perused it for a few moments. This was the oldest register I had ever come across, having been placed on the mountain in 1945. The names of the first parties to have climbed the mountain (before 1945) had been transcribed in the front of the register before being left there. There averaged only a handful of climbs on this peak each year. I signed in, and went back down the same crack I had come up. I changed shoes and beat a hasty retreat, retracing my steps almost exactly to keep from getting off-route. Once I was down a few hundred feet, the visibility improved significantly as I found myself just below the cloud layer. If the rain could hold off just a bit more.... The light continued to fail me as it approached 7:45p when I reached the pass again. I could see down to the boulder field and my bivy sack, and had only the slick snow left to cross. Another 15 minutes and I was safely back to my campsite. Not the most comfortable or comforting of locations, nevertheless I was thrilled to be back. I had only been gone 2 hours, but it seemed like much more, and I had burned enough energy (much of it nervous energy to be sure) to know I'd sleep well that night.

I changed into my sleeping clothes and settled in to warm up and drift off to sleep. I had eaten only a few granola bars and a few handfuls of trail mix all day, but I wasn't really hungry, so I didn't bother to eat anything for dinner. Water, on the other hand, was near and dear to me, so I made sure to keep a full water bottle handy when I would wake up thirsty in the middle of the night. Long about 9p, before I had gone to sleep, the rain, thunder, and lightening returned with a vengeance. This time I didn't care if it rained all night, and was happy to drift off to the sound of rain pattering on my bivy. I was awaken later in the evening when the rain changed to intermittent hail which seemed to pound my enclosure with an unbelievable racket. The lightening flashes were visible even through the waterproof sack, and the ones that struck nearest would give me a small start and jolt me awake for a few minutes. Around midnight I became uncomfortable as I realized my sleeping pad had sprung a leak. I blew air back into it, but it would run out in 30 minutes or so. The rest of the night was spent waking up intermittently with sore shoulders, reinflating the pad, drifting off to sleep, and repeating the sequence. No matter. I had climbed Thunder Mtn, and that was sufficient compensation for the discomfort I had that night.

The next morning was absolutely gorgeous. Not a cloud could be seen, and the views around me were outstanding. There were remnants of the hail from the night before, but what little was left was melting rapidly. A full day ahead of me, and more peaks to climb!


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