Since our good pals Baba and Lizzie has moved to Truckee, California, we have been trying to reunite and climb some California 14ers like the good ole days back in Colorado when they lived in Vail. Finally, after not being able to get a Whitney permit, J and I booked a flight to Reno to see Baba and head down south to the Bishop area and try our hand a California’s hardest 14er, Thunderbolt Peak. In the end, we thought this plan was worlds better anyway than the highly popular Mt. Whitney further south, the tallest peak in the contiguous US. However, our sights are still set on one of Whitney’s classic rock climbs as well as neighboring Mt. Russell for next summer 😀 Our other long lost Colorado pal Mikey Johnson, Kristine and my ex-roommate, and good pal and climbing buddy of all of us, came up from his surf life in San Francisco and joined us as our 4th. A reunion tour indeed this would be and we were all excited. Personally, for J and myself, to get into a new range altogether was amazing in itself. Especially, such a dramatic, jagged range of wonderful alpine rock.
Baba picked J and I up in Reno on a Thursday night and we spent the night at the Aldrich Residence in Truckee catching up with Lizzie and the kids. I even got to cuddle with their golden retriever, Khumbu, who we all like to think Rainie and Kona taught how to climb mountains back in Colorado. One thing drastically different than Colorado in planning for peaks is the whole summer permit system. Mikey had driven to Bishop the night before to be in line at the ranger station first thing in the morning for a camping permit for the North Fork of Big Pine, the more standard way of approaching Thunderbolt and the Palisades. However, somehow those permits were taken but ingenious Mikey somehow got a permit for going in from South Lake and out the North Fork of Big Pine figuring maybe we could play dumb (if caught by a ranger) going into Sam Mack Lake or perhaps say we were on our way out. Anyway, Baba and J and I took the minivan south on 395 to meet Mikey in Bishop. After grabbing street tacos in 100 degree heat and a few more supplies we all drove up about 4,000’ into the hills to Glacier Lodge at about 8,000’, a 20 minute drive west of Big Pine. One thing about the Eastern Sierras is the big vertical relief above the valley of around 10,000’ considering Bishop is around 4,000’ and the tops of these peaks are over 14,000’. Pretty impressive. We get to the Glacier Lodge parking area and begin to pack our backpacks and sort gear. We were hesitant about going in this way but I figured these California guys can handle it and do the talking in case we confronted a ranger. As luck would have it, a ranger had just finished hiking out and asked to see our permit. Mikey did the talking and explained to her we were setting up the shuttle, which clearly it didn’t look like 😀 Whatever. She took the bait and then we asked another hiker who had just finished about possibly seeing rangers and he responded he thought there was one camped way up there. That solidified it – we were going to go in from South Lake, which started at a higher elevation of 9,800’ but was a lengthier and more complicated approach. We thought about daytripping it as well but we had brought all our backpacking gear and were all looking forward to getting remote in the backcountry for 48 hours. So we drove back out to the valley and headed back to Bishop and up to South Lake and the trailhead.
The mosquitoes were pretty bad, but we tried to move fairly quickly and the higher we got the less present they were. We passed several beautiful lakes including Long Lake and a phenomenal peak called Mt. Goode, a lowly low 13er, with an imposing yet inspiring north face.
We reached Bishop Lake at around 11,200’ after 2-3 hrs and maybe 5 miles and found a nice place to set up camp. This was the last decent place to camp and lake for that matter before the 12,000’ Bishop Pass. We settled in and had a great time reliving old memories and catching up like we never skipped a beat. Up at 4:30am, I started up the jetboil for coffee and oatmeal. The sky was amazing and the weather even better. You don’t get this kind of high pressure systems in Colorado often except maybe in September whereas here in the Eastern Sierra apparently it’s pretty typical for the summer months.We began the hike up to the 12,000′ Bishop Pass and then left the trail veering due south across snow and rock along the west side of Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Winchell, and eventually Thunderbolt Peak. We made our way to Thunderbolt Pass and took a break.
We donned our crampons and began the climb up the couloir until we reached a chockstone, but I had read that there was a 3rd class ledge to the right to bypass this obstruction in the steep gully.
It was then a good 1,200’+ climb up a steep, loose, and dry chute to a small col between the north & south summits of Thunderbolt Peak.
Our original intent was to climb the North Couloir up Thunderbolt from Sam Mack Lake, but this Southwest Chute 1 route seemed more remote and more of an adventure than just kicking steps straight up the North Couloir. I think we were all sort of glad the North Fork of Big Pine approach didn’t work out. Once at the little notch, J and I climbed up class 4 (would have been low 5th class in Colorado) slabs for about 60′ to a little ledge and set up a belay for Baba and Mikey. I then set up a belay and brought big Baba up to me. Keep in mind that J and I rock climb all the time…well, as much as two dads ever can. Mikey and Baba rarely ever rock climb, especially Baba, so this whole deal of rock climbing at 14,000′ was a bit of a new deal for them. However, they did fantastic and brought a great sense of accomplishment (I think).
It was then a short scramble to a nice viewing ledge of the final 5.9 summit block. It was then another 40′ of scrambling up to the summit block. This summit block is the part of the climb I was really looking forward to. Its about a 15-20′ boulder problem of 5.9 moves with no protection. There are, however, anchor bolts at the top to top rope the summit pitch and lower off of. I led off up the block with my 30m/8mm rope tied to my harness and made the super fun moves topping out at the anchors.
J then wanted a crack at the lead, so he took off. Got several shots of him making the moves.
Now, it was Mikey’s turn. He top roped it clean (as in not hanging on the rope).
Last but not least, it was Baba’s turn. He later told us he was concerned all that morning about whether or not he could make the moves to summit Thunderbolt. He stepped up to the plate and gave it 110% of everything he had. After a few attempts and some beta from J and myself, he made it!
J and I then played around a bit and tried a really hard slab, crimp route on the block’s north face.
Once everyone was down back at the large ledge, J and I scrambled south to the edge of the ridge looking down at the downclimb to the Thunderbolt-Starlight saddle. “Not today” we thought. We would need to move fast and unroped and feared we would be belaying a lot and time just didn’t allow. Next time, we may come in from Sam Mack Lake and climb that Underhill Couloir to the Thunderbolt-Starlight saddle and start south from there climbing Starlight, North Palisade, and Polemonium all the way to Mt. Sill at the end of the Palisade Traverse. This was absolutely fine because I wanted him to go with me up Thunderbolt’s north summit since I saw rappel webbing at the top. The primary objective was Thunderbolt, anyway, and everyone was satisfied with that.
We backtracked and rappelled the class 4 slab pitch above the notch between Thunderbolt’s two summits.
Upon all of us reaching the notch and pulling the ropes, I racked up and J belayed me from the notch on a traversing pitch to the south to get on the Lightning Rod. Mikey and Baba sat back and enjoyed the show.
Its hard to know what this north summit is rated (maybe 5.8?), but it was fun nonetheless. A small intermediary pitch was necessary to get in place for the last pitch. I placed two pieces on the last pitch and then ran it out maybe 40′ on much easier 5th class terrain to the webbing.
We then belayed each other up the final 5′ to the actual tippy-top with supreme exposure.
After a rappel snafu and me reverse rapelling up to get the knot unstuck (I could not be belayed by J due to length of rope issues and where the knot was located), we retrieved both my 30m/8mm ropes and made our way down the chute.
Regrouping on Thunderbolt Pass, we made our way across the lengthy traverse on the west side of three peaks (upper Dusy Basin) back to Bishop Pass. Crossing deep sun-cupped snow and rocky terrain with a torn meniscus (me) is not the fastest. I had town this guy maybe 5 weeks prior with too much mountain running, especially the downhill. Baba heard a pop in his leg too on this high traverse and was a bit gimpy as well on this terrain. I believe we arrived back at camp around 5pm maybe and all went for a super frigid dip in the icy Bishop Lake. Sure did make the knee feel better, though.
After a great evening and a long night’s sleep, I got up Sunday morning thinking I may wanna go summit Mt. Goode. However, I couldn’t get any takers. Baba wanted too, but his knee was not feeling the best. After lots of coffee and breakfast, we leisurely packed up and made our way back to South Lake and the trailhead by early afternoon. We all just had to take a dip in the frigid South lake and man was it awesome. I tried to walk these logs out into the lake but failed miserably when they started spinning in the water. I made one whole log though. Ninja Warrior-esque 🙂
We drove into Bishop blasting 80s like we used to do a decade or more ago in Colorado and ate enough pizza to feed a small army (primarily, J and Baba). After discussions of what to do next, we decided to go rock climbing near Mammoth on the way home. Granted I had never cragged and led 5.10/5.11 with 8mm ropes, but now I can say it does work. Not ideal, but it does work. Mikey had a full-fledged climbing rope in his car, so we put up a few routes and made pals with the locals. They were great folks and wanted us to stay for some concert, but we had to head out as J and I flew out at 7am the next morning.
We said our goodbyes to Mikey who got a room in Mammoth before heading back to San Francisco the next day. It was so great seeing Mikey again. As much as I wanted to cuddle and sleep with Khumbu again, J convinced me we should stay in Reno at a casino and that he would pay for it. J really does LOVE casinos. there is no denying it. Obviously, this plan was better for Baba too as he could just drop us off at the airport in the morning. After many drinks and some Mexican food and margs, we turned in around 2am.
Just a phenomenal weekend with all these fellas. Its just what we needed to kickstart an annual California 14er trip. I cannot wait until next summer to head back out.