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Thunderbolt and Starlight

July 7th - 11th 2010 Also known as “I can't believe we did that...."

Those present:  Adrian Crane, Deborah Steinberg, Ryan Swehla and Carey Gregg,.

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The challenges we face on every mountain include skill, navigation, and endurance. This trip to Thunderbolt and Starlight had been our most anticipated trip in the level of challenge we knew we would face in many areas.  Last year we hired a guide to work with us on our rock climbing and alpine mountaineering skills specifically for four mountains in the Palisadesnbsp; Last year we hired a guide to work with us on our rock climbing and alpine mountaineering skills specifically for four mountains in the Palisades :  North Palisade, Polemonium Peak , Thunderbolt, and Starlight.  With the help of Dave Miller's training we gained skills that allowed success to the summits of North Pal and Polemonium, yet we had failed on our first attempt of Starlight, and we had yet to try Thunderbolt. We also had notably failed at navigation more than once, so we never felt for certain that conditions would always allow a summit.  With all this in mind we vowed to bring along more trip reports along with the 14er guidebook to bolster our chances of these 2 notoriously difficult mountains.  On this trip were:  Adrian Crane, Deborah Steinberg, Ryan Swehla, and Carey Gregg.  Notably absent from our regular group is Ray Kablanow, who was injured in a climbing accident a month ago, and not well enough recovered to climb these mountains yet.

Wednesday:

We left the SouthLake trailhead at 10:30am and 9700' near Bishop, CA with one bear cannister (to stay legal) and a permit.  Deborah wore a knee brace on both knees and donned a lighter pack than usual, thanks to the guys.

After a couple hours, Deb declared herself out of fuel and in dire need of something substantial to eat!  Ryan kept dangling the "around the next corner" carrot, but Deborah knew her body too well, and stopped long enough to scoop out a large spoonful of peanut butter straight out of the jar, and then continued moving.  From then on Deborah tried to stuff her pockets with plenty of high protein bars, and became known as the "bartender".  We finally moved out of the mosquito zone, and stopped for a pleasant lunch of cheese, crackers, and dehydrated fruit.  We headed up towards Bishop Pass on good trail with little snow passing many beautiful lakes and hikers. We saw the NFS Trail crew at work creating an alternate trail, but once over the Pass we saw no one for the rest of our time there.  Once over Bishop pass we had to leave our nice little trail and head into Dusy basin with rough cross country with snow fields all around.  We set up camp at 5:15pm at a pleasant but damp location near several large rocks.  We are all tired on arrival but pleased by our good camp site by a huge boulder. Snow fields lap at our camp area but there is enough clear ground to pitch tent and set up a cook area. We are probably dehydrated. . .  

We tried to get to bed quickly as we have to be up early for the attempt on Thunderbolt. Deb and Carey sleep on thick mattresses while Ryan and Ados get the deep, dark, cold, damp  troughs between.

 

Thursday.

Thunderbolt.

We woke as agreed at 5am but Deb was clever enough to suggest a 5 minute respite which we all enjoyed. Up at 5:10 , Breakfast was quick since there was plenty of wet water around so we didn’t melt snow and didn’t even filter. We left at 6:30am ,  traversing over icy sun-cupped snow to Thunderbolt with Ryan leading a circuitous route so we lose as little altitude as possible. Adrian complained about the route. We left our hiking poles just over Thunderbolt pass at the base of the first chute. Since on our last climb we had picked the wrong chute to ascend up Williamson, Deb made us confirm it was the correct chute!  At 8 am we started up the chute on steep snow to the chockstone blocking progress. According to more than one set of trip reports we were to take a catwalk to the right and then onto easier terrain above that showed promise of progress. We were all nervous that we might be defeated on our first peak of the trip. We climbed higher and higher until the chute narrowed to a crawl under a large boulder which brought us out into a notch on the ridge. ‘Here already, not bad so far’ we agreed. It is 11am, we are on the ridge. Ryan takes a look at the class 5 pitch and says ‘No worries’. We follow Ryans lead up the easy Class 5 pitch then a short class 3 scramble to the final steep slabs across to the summit monolith. Carey wanders back and forth along the hugely exposed slabs while Deb, Adrian, and even Ryan beseech him to be careful. It is noon when we assemble on the rocks at the eastern foot of the summit block. 

The Summit block is 20 feet high, and exposed to thousand foot drops on 3 sides, and mostly smooth steep granite on the 4th side.  We begin preparations to throw a rope around the block but Ryan first goes to check around it. Although the north and west sides are very exposed but he manages to work his way around on narrow ledges and his voice begins to echo back from the south rather than the north. Suddenly to our surprise, we see his head appear on the south side! He goes back to the west edge where he hangs on a tenuous belay and on the first throw Adrian gets a cord with a rock weighted bag over the top and lowered to him. We pull the climbing rope back over and belay Ryan. Carey then waits for Ryan's call that he is climbing while Ryan waits for Carey's call the he is climbing!  After a couple of minute standoff we get sorted out and Ryan begins. He climbs the west side. We hear grunting and expletives but soon he is straddling the summit itself, and collapses in a heap on top.  He is exhilarated, yet completely exhausted from the most difficult Class 5 climbing he has ever attempted.  Secretly Deborah, Carey and Adrian say a little prayer of thanks that Ryan is along to solve the summit block issue.  It is 1 pm.  Ryan clips another strand of rope into the fixed anchor at the top and then rappels back and clears  his protective gear and ropes. We now have the belay rope affixed to the summit and Carey climbs it in good style and touches the top at 1:40 followed by Deb and Adrian in their take turn to the precarous exposed summit. We didn’t all climb it completely unassisted but we all made it to the summit Palisades sunsetwith the help of our teammates which is what climbing a mountain is all about. Luckily the weather is warm and calm and playing on the summit block for two hours is no problem. We are thrilled to have made it. Deb and Adrian admit they were worried that this trip might be a complete bust, and indeed we are the first summiters in 2 weeks.  We sign the log book now that we have all summitted and place mementos in the summit box in memory of David Kitzmann, who had lung cancer, and in honor of Rochelle Rosen who has colo-rectal cancer.  We hear a human shout but can’t quite locate it in the cliffs below; they are probably on North Palisade. Carey has found altitude a problem on past climbs but is feeling good and climbing strongly so he has a big grin on his face. We clear our gear and head back. Another rabbit hole under a boulder takes us to the rappel. Carey doesn’t have his rappel device so we lower him down the 5th class pitch to the notch and then rappel after him. In the notch we have lunch and are amused by a Marmot who seems to have no fear of us or of steep exposed rock. We descended the step chute being careful not to dislodge rocks to the last rappel over the chock stone to the easy snowslope leading out to the Palisade Basin . It has been a good but long day. We leave our climbing gear in a cache to save carrying it down Thunderbolt pass and then back up tomorrow.  It is 6pm.  We return slowly on soft snow with postholes and the occasional melt out near a rock that ambushes our weary bodies. It is a slog from Thunderbolt pass to camp. Carey gets sick and Deb takes it slowly to save her knee. The weather is still great. We have returned back at camp at 7:15pm.  We have a little Bourbon to celebrate our success and watch the sunset. We take photos and enjoy the beautiful plays of light on the granite peaks and icy lakes. There is no time to spare though, so we go straight to bed after dinner in preparation for another early rise tomorrow when we try for Starlight.

 

Friday Starlight.

We woke at first light at 5 again and took 5 minutes. Suddenly it is 5:30 and we jump up. Deb narrates a strange dream as we get up. We leave at 6:40am after choking down our breakfast of oatmeal. Everyone decides that we will no longer bring oatmeal for our climbing trips for breakfast.  At least we have good Starbuck Via coffee to accompany it. Carey decides to stay back as he never did eat dinner yesterday and prior to that had lost any lunch he had had!  Leave at 6:40am and make it to Thunderbolt pass by 7:45 after another traversing route led by Ryan with Adrian again complaining.  This time we followed last nights tracks that wereStarlight chute made in soft snow, so it is easier going.   Reach the gear cache and load up our packs with an excessive variety of pro gear and ropes to give us the means to tackle any eventuality. At Deb’s insistence we re-read the trip notes and confirm the correct chute as being the last one before the big west buttress. The large snow covered fan is our best clue. It is 8:15 . We climb steep but easy snow to another chockstone blockage and then follow obvious ledges on the right as we gain height. We have a few backtracks as we follow the intricate route that keeps the difficulty at class 3. The terrain gets a little easier after a couple hundred feet and using pictures in the trip notes that we have, we easily find the subsidiary chute that leads up to slabs that are now snow covered. At the top of the slabs we peek out over the steep drop into the next chute. It looks fearsome but sure enough, the catwalk to the left is easy although very exposed to steep drop-off and leads into the center of the chute. Deborah is particularly whiney, as she hates traverses across skinny catwalks with huge exposure.  She calms herself since we use a rope. Ahead is the waterfall as mentioned in the notes. It is iced up and looks very steep from our vantage point. Ryan tackles it with his usual aplomb and after a few minutes, some harsh words and some ice and rocks coming back down to us, he declares he is over the top and has a belay for us. Deb and then Adrian follow on the rope and make it into the steep chute above the waterfall. A little way up the chute a large snowfield covers the center. Adrian takes to the snow while Ryan and Deb skirt it and climb bedrock ledges to the left. Halfway up the snow, Adrian decides it is quite steep and he feels rather exposed out by himself.  There is no choice though so he soldiers on keeping pace with Ryan and Deb and meets them where the snow field dissipates. We are on steep rubble-covered bedrock. Deb and Adrian are nervous about the consistent exposure while Ryan leads on confidently unroped with encouraging words to us both. Finally we persuade Ryan that we would be happier with a rope and maybe move faster that way rather than slower.   The chute steepens and spreads into several possible routes. We check the trip notes but the route is not obvious and we make our own way on steep class 4 rock until Ryan yells back that he is on the ridge. Now where is that "milk bottle" shaped summit block? We begin an airy scramble to the left but in just a few yards we see through a wide crack that the milk bottle is right here!  It is easy to slide through the crack and sit at the foot of the obelisk which looks a lot taller than we expected. It is now 2pm and sunny, but a chill wind blows. Deb writes in the register as we rig the ropes. Steve Porcella, author of ‘Climbing California’s Fourteeners’ and a booster of ‘Climb for a Cure’  put this summit register in place and we are climbing now in honor of his mother Yvonne, a nice coincidence.  We sign the log book also in honor of Sandra Enloe-Burger.  We throw a rope across the east shoulder and Ryan crawls up the south arête. Then he throws a second cord around the west side and we pull the climbing rope around after it.  Ryan clips in and is now belayed by a rope all around the spire and is comfortable enough that he climbs to victory at 2:30pm.   He clips the rope in to the fixed bolt anchor at the top backing it up with a new sling and raps off.  We are stunned by our second success. Deb goes up and summits followed by Adrian. We radio Carey that we cannot believe we have got both summits. We are again the first summiters in 2 weeks. Behind the milk bottle out of the wind it is warm but a steady cold breeze makes it uncomfortable to be Eleventh Summit out of the sheltered spot. We pull our gear, have lunch and leave at 3:30 for the long descent ahead. We have several interesting rappels, one ending on a 5" wedged slab half way down a cliff and each of us refrains from voicing our concerns over how well attached it might be. On one rap we find 180 ft of existing double ropes and feel like we have scored a free descent. We retrace our route moving short-roped and making slow but steady progress. Approaching the bottom we try to get within our 60 ft rappel range of the chockstone and follow ledges down as they appear. Just as we feel we are within range of the rappel we realize we can follow a last few ledges and zig zag to the snow in the floor of the chute. We put on our crampons and slip and slide down the snow out of the confines of the chute into the late evening of Palisade basin. Finally, we are onto easy ground at 7:30pm and pick up the remaining items from our cache just below Thunderbolt pass at 8.00pm. On the pass at 8:10 we radio Carey to put on the hot water. Bohemian Rhapsody ‘Thunderbolt and Starlight, very very frightening …’ rings though our heads. We are thrilled but tired. We unanimously declare that Ray will have to find himself another guide because none of us is thinking of repeating Starlight!. The snow is beginning to re-freeze as we descend Thunderbolt pass to camp and the conditions underfoot are not bad. Adrian retraces his route from the evening before although it includes a little up and down which Ryan good naturedly points out. As dusk descends we don’t quite make it back in the light and need a few minutes of headlamps, but are welcomed by Carey flashing his light from camp. The slight rise as we come into camp slows our progress but we are heartened by Carey’s welcome and the promise of hot drinks and, soon, a hot meal. We celebrate again but are soon in the tent as the night is chilly. After our success , Ryan has expanded his horizons to include an attempt on Sill tomorrow and knowing that Adrian cannot resist a challenge he comments that he should come along ‘…unless you are too tired!’. Carey also agrees to come to Sill as he has had a rest day. Deb is only to happy to look after camp and enjoy a rare day of quiet and self indulgence since she summitted Sill in 2008. Ryan agrees we don’t have to start too early. How long to Sill from here? Maybe 6 hours guesses Adrian – no, no ,make that 10. Maybe it won’t be such an easy day. And so to bed.

 

Saturday..

It is 5:30. We are all awake as Deb won’t stop talking about her latest dream. We doze in wonderful warmth till 6:30 am.  Even though she is not coming with us , Deb gets up to help organize and get us on our way. We leave at 7:42 am and the sky is full of ominous clouds. Since this is Ryan’s trip Adrian lets him lead his contouring route to Thunderbolt pass again but Adrian coins the term AltiVariPhobia (or as Deborah is to later call it "IsoAltiphilia")  for the likes of Ryan who hates to gain or lose altitude. Ryans steps in a deep hole and we have to dig him free. Once over Thunderbolt pass there is a lot more of the same mixed rock and rotten snow with suncups in the miles around Palisade basin to Potluck pass. We cut up before Potluck, skirt a snowfield and ascend the rubble and boulders of peak 13900  the incorrectly named Polemonium peak on the topo map. The weather is coming in and the clouds are massing. Rain squalls are south of us. Adrian is feeling vulnerable as he packed light for this day not expecting bad weather. As luck would have it, we find a faded stuff sack with emergency gear and a space blanket in an old bivvy site and as Adrian puts it in the small summit pack he borrowed from Deb, he finds Debs space blanket which she left in the pack. All of a sudden Adrian has gone from no backup to two space blankets and is much happier to face the weather.  Ryan leads us on a descending traverse following some veins across the granite into Polemonium basin below the Polemonium glacier. The face of Sill with several snow filled steep loose gullies does not look trivial. We choose the right most gully which has no snow and head up. It begins to rain and then snow. Clouds touch down on the peaks, and it is cold and damp. Carey pulls out full winter gear with jacket, pants and heavy gloves while Ryan and Adrian watch in envy dressed in their fast and light weight summer apparel! After Thunderbolt and Starlight, the chute up Sill, although steep and loose is easy going, and we reach the ridge at the same time as the clouds. In a white out of clouds and snowflakes we follow the ridge to the last obstacle, a notch with a couple of class 5 moves to climb back out of it. We are on the summit with the summit box. In the mist, wind, and snow we make a quick summit picture and Adrian signs the register at 1pm , noting that someone summitted just the day before. No time toMist on Palisades search for the earlier entry when Deb and Adrian made Sill the second of the ‘Climb for a Cure’ summits. The clouds begin to part and we get wonderful views of the basin below and the Palisades to the north sticking their sharp summits through the clouds. We descend the way we came and follow Ryan as he makes a great climbing traverse to hit the ridge of Peak 13900 just 10 feet before the cliffs. We huddle in a sheltered nook under some boulders and enjoy lunch of Tuna  and crackers until we get too cold. The weather begins to improve as we descend to Palisade basin and round the corner near Potluck pass. The light of the sun through the clouds playing across the rock and snow is beautiful, and Adrian and Ryan trade leads as we start the long traverse back to Thunderbolt pass on nasty soft snow and boulder fields, never knowing when to put on or take off crampons. Ryan slows to a crawl for a while and scares Adrian and Carey who wonder what is wrong with him.  Complaining about his vision, we wonder is this Altitude sickness? Terminal exhaustion? Nearing Thunderbolt pass we finally have to stop and Ryan takes 2 Exedrin and lies down under a gigantic boulder.  Adrian calls ahead to Deborah at camp, who also is worried.  Magically after a 15 minute rest Ryan is revived. It seems he just had a great bonk. A little rest and food and he is felling a bit better.We move slowly over Thunderbolt pass and call Deb on the radio to let her know we are coming but only slowly. After a few minutes Ryan is improving and is soon feeling almost like himself again. These young guys recover so fast! His recovery may not yet be complete as he did volunteer that maybe Adrian's up and down route following the snow from Thunderbolt Pass to camp might be better than his finely contouring route over boulder field and side slopes of snow. Back in camp Deborah has hot drinks and food ready, and we are relieved that Ryan is totally recovered and dismayed that his appetite has returned with a vengeance.  Clouds loom over the horizon, and Deborah announces that another storm is coming.  Ryan declares that it never rains in the Sierras at night.  We celebrate a great trip and crawl tiredly into the tent at 8:30 pm after watching our fill of slanting evening light on the Palisade granite walls. That night it rains hard, and Adrian runs outside to cover all our gear, then crawls back hurriedly into the tent. A wet night under canvas (or nylon) never felt so good.

Sunday.

We awaken at 7:15am, groggy and tired. After a breakfast of any leftover but oatmeal we are able to break camp and leave by 9:40. Ryan, anxious to get back quickly, packs out all of Deborah's heavier gear, and begs her to move as quickly as she can.  The "family points" issue is discussed, and Deborah does her best to sprint down the trail, arriving at Bishop Pass after only one hour cross country. We are all relieved to be at the point where we will have good trail from here on out.  Descending the steep switchback trail of Bishop pass we meet our first soul for 4 days when we come across a PCT hiker heading in at 11:20. We chat to trail crew at the base of the pass and are invited to be the first hikers to use their newly constructed trail – quite an honor. Fast hike out in the hot sun to the van at 1:10 .  We are grateful that this has been a very successful trip, and our only trip casualty was a pair of rock gloves left behind on Thunderbolt.

 Adrian Crane and Deborah Steinberg

 

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