The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is one of the gnarliest areas I have ever been too. The exposure of the rock makes 3rd class climbing feel like 5th. One of my first mountain climbing adventures was in this range and it forever changed my outlook on life.
Since that first experience, I had only returned once to the Sierras to climb Mount Whitney via the mountaineers route, but in September of 2014 my friend Brent and I decided to brave its granite bowels once again to attempt the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse.
To spare the hype, I will tell you that this was my partner’s first technical mountain, and I had never been the only trad leader on an alpine style ascent, so this was an incredible learning for me. I pushed myself as hard as I could in order to safely and successfully summit Thunderbolt and we ended our journey upwards about 300 or 400 feet below Starlight peak before we decided to bail due to lack of time. The climbing was relatively easy, but very exposed and I just reached the threshold for my personal level of comfort at the time. Despite this point, the story is still good, so I will go on.
We failed to get permits for 2 nights, so we snagged 1 permit and started hiking at midnight on the 4th of September. My allergies were going crazy, so I popped a Benadryl before we set out on the trail in the dark. The first 4 hours can be described as a bit of a delusional blur following perpetual spotlight cast from my headlamp onto the trail.
After the effects of Benadryl began to wear off, we found ourselves trying to navigate to the base of the peak with no landmarks to guide us. We wandered through high alpine meadows in the general direction of the peak before stopping to nap under a large boulder. Here we stashed our gear and once the sunlight began to light the intense scenery that surrounded us, we were able to make a direct line to the Southwest Chute #1. The steep gully to the top of the first peak on our journey.
We worked our way up the couloir that looked very intimidating, but by following the path of least resistance we never found ourselves in terrain above 3rd class. After gaining a few thousand vertical feet and choosing left at any fork we came to, we reached the top of the couloir and a 30 foot headwall.
We decided to save time and skip roping up for this short technical section, so we soloed up the 30 feet of easy 5th class rock to the large ledge below the summit block. We wandered on flat ground around a some large boulders to an exposed slab that we traverse across to the base of the large summit block boulder.
Another team was just finishing on the summit, so we tossed our rope to them and they ran it through the single bolt at the top of the 15 foot, unprotect-able “5.9” boulder problem to the true summit. We had heard stories of people lassoing the bolt at the top to get up, and since we were not confident enough solo 5.9 alpine rock, we were grateful for the chance to stand on top of the true peak.
We both got our moment on the top of the pillar at 14,003 feet before rapping down and traversing back onto and along the main ridge line. Some scrambling brought us to a steep technical down climb. We found some slings that appeared to be in good shape and rapped onto a large platform above some exposed 3rd class slabs. We down climbed into the a large twin gully that marked the low point between Thunderbolt and Starlight.
After crossing the gullies we simul-climbed our way up some 4th class terrain over an awkward roof and onto another ledge. From here I climbed a steep handcrack above 2000 feet of exposure. At this point we could see the route straight up to Starlight peak, but once up Starlight, we would have to move over the next peak to be able to bail out of the chute between the 3rd and 4th peaks on the traverse. It was about 3pm at this point and we decided it was probably time to find our way off the mountain. I had pushed myself as far as I was willing to push.
We began rappelling back down to the twin gullies where we made our way down the first one. The beta I had looked at before we started pointed out one of these gullies to be a viable bail option. This one was not the option though. We hiked down until we hit a 300 foot cliff and had to return to the ridge and navigate to the other gully. This one cliffed out as well. The old webbing slung around a rock gave me hope that this was our way out, but the cliff looked like it might be to big for our rope.
While I waited for Brent to catch up with me, I reslung the boulder with webbing that I had purchased in Bishop and set up the rope for a rappel. When Brent arrived at the cliff’s edge, he was not happy. He looked down the cliff and was not optimistic about this option. I was a bit nervous about rapping off an unknown cliff, but I had cams and a prusik. If the rope didn’t reach the ground I could ascend back up or build another anchor for a second rappel. I trusted my ability and ignored the worried concerns of my partner. I rappelled.
The rope reached and I untied at the bottom. Brent followed down and we pulled the rope. We down climbed through some easy terrain before hitting another rappel. This one was much shorter but required a new sling as well. I replaced it and we both reached the bottom, pulled the rope and scrambled to a final short rappel. As we reached the ground on this last rappel, the sun was setting. We looked down at the last few hundred feet of scrambling to the bottom of the chute and realized we barely missed having to sleep on this mountain.
We hiked back to our camp in the dark and had to search for some time to find the boulder where we stashed our gear. We through a tarp over us and laid down, mentally and physically exhausted. We had been hiking for over 22 hours by this point. We woke up and had a lazy morning before starting the hike back to the car.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, this was a huge learning experience for me. It put me way outside my comfort zone and was a great step into being a leader during big alpine adventures. The Sierras are not a comfortable area to be in and they make you feel incredibly insignificant. I can’t wait to go back and do this entire traverse!