-- Steve Porcella and Cameron Burns, "Climbing California's Fourteeners"
Starlight Peak is one of the hardest peaks in the Sierras by its easiest route, and definitely the hardest of the 15 Sierra 14'ers. On the weekend of July 13-14, our six-man team set out to climb it -- leaders Rick Booth and Ron Karpel, plus Arun Mahajan, Erik Jensen, Charles Schafer, and myself (Jim Ramaker).
We met at the familiar South Lake trailhead at 8:30 a.m. and hiked up the easy and beautiful section of trail past Long, Saddlerock, and Bishop Lakes. After that came the impressively constructed switchbacks up to Bishop Pass (11,900'), and then a short cross-country jaunt to our camp in Upper Dusy Basin at 11,600', where we arrived about 3:30 p.m. Very uncharacteristically for a PCS trip, we then laid around for a couple of hours, taking naps and gazing up at the towering west faces of the Palisades peaks. Weather was iffy -- we'd had light showers at dawn on Highway 395, and clouds most of the day. A shower drifted in from the south around 5 p.m., but it was brief and didn't amount to much. After an early supper, we climbed into our bivy bags shortly after 7 to rest up for the big day on Sunday. (Interestingly, everyone on this trip had bivy bags -- besides the familiar Outdoor Research model, there were examples from Integral Designs, Mountain Hardwear, and Bibler.)
True to plan, we were up at 5 a.m. and rolling right at 6. We arrived at Thunderbolt Pass in about an hour and were shocked by the lack of snow. Last year when we did Thunderbolt, its chute (the first one south of Thunderbolt Pass) and the talus fan below it were thick with snow -- a nice snow climb. This year they were completely dry. We identified our intended route, which Porcella and Burns call the "Starlight West Chute," describing it as "the third most prominent chute south of Thunderbolt Pass." Actually it's the fifth chute if you count the smaller ones that turn into vertical chimneys higher up. In any case, the correct chute has a wide opening and a very wide talus fan below it. (A photo on page 222 of Porcella and Burns clearly shows the chutes on this complex face.)
We ditched our crampons and ice axes and started up the chute at about 8. Just as on the Thunderbolt climb, we exited the chute by climbing up loose class-4 ledges on the right into a second, higher chute. After several hundred feet of loose class 2-3, this chute ended in a wide slab inclined at about 30 degrees. Pulling over the top edge of this slab, we were confronted with a big drop into the next chute to the south. But a catwalk traverse with several horizontal cracks led off to the left, until it was joined by the steeply rising floor of this third chute.
I requested a rope on this somewhat exposed traverse, but the holds were so plentiful and solid that it wasn't necessary, and we didn't use one on the way down. Once in this third chute, we immediately came to a 30' waterfall pitch. Late in the year with the waterfall dry, you could probably climb straight up it (class-4). But water was pouring down it, so we tackled a section of class-4 ledges and slabs on the right. These continued up for about 100' and were pretty steep all the way, so we used a rope on the upper part.
Above that, we climbed a long section of class 2-3, easy except for the constant care required to avoid knocking rocks down on one another. The third chute continued for about 800' and ended in a headwall leading to the summit ridge. We roped up and climbed a short class-4 pitch up and left to double rap slings, though you can avoid this pitch by climbing up and right to a hidden ramp behind a huge boulder, and then downclimbing about 10'. From the double rap slings, we climbed some class-3 and then another roped class-4 pitch up to a nice rap station with four slings. Unfortunately, the ridgetop was another 15' above, at the top of an awkward class-4 chimney that required yet another belay.
Finally, around 11:30, we arrived at an airy notch on an exposed blocky ridge that extends out to the west from the main north-south summit ridge. About 50' away stood the notorious "milk bottle" -- steep, slender, and devoid of cracks or visible holds. We clambered up the blocky ridge unroped, got on the true summit ridge, and then Ron set up a belay for the milk bottle. Rick tackled the south side of it in mountain boots, an awkward lead with a bulge at the top that scared even him a bit. The top of the milk bottle has a manky 1/4" bolt, so Rick clipped a toprope to it and we moved to the north side of the milk bottle, which is taller but has a little arete that appeared to offer some holds.
Most of us used rock shoes, but even then it wasn't easy. There are only a couple of positive holds for the entire 20' -- everything else consists of sketchy counterforce and friction moves using the edge of the arete for handholds. No two of us climbed it exactly the same way. Those of us who've climbed both thought that the milk bottle was at least as hard as the summit block on Thunderbolt, which has a series of tiny holds that fall into a repeatable sequence.
The feeling of sitting on top of the milk bottle (none of us managed to fully stand up) is nicely described by Porcella and Burns:
"Upon reaching this diminutive point, the climber's senses are besieged by vertigo as well as euphoria. The ridge below, much like one's stomach, seems to drop out from beneath. More than 1000 feet below to the east lies the magnificent Palisade Glacier. To the west lies the incredible expanse of Dusy and Palisade Basins. The view, like the exposure, is nothing less than exhilarating."
After snacks, photos, and the usual perusal of the summit register (which is at the base of the milk bottle), we started down at 1:45. We belayed down the 15' chimney, then rapped from the four slings. Charles and I then set up a second rap from the double slings, while the others circled around behind the big boulder and started down the 800' chute. While I was rappelling, I felt a jerk and slipped down a few inches. I thought it was just the rope straightening out, but Charles later told me that one of the two rap slings had snapped! The rappel was fairly short and low angle so there was no great danger, but it was a good reminder that existing rap slings are always suspect and need to be carefully checked, and if necessary, backed up.
As we descended the upper chute, big clouds drifted in from the south, and we were grateful they had waited until after we had summited. At the waterfall pitch, we rapped straight down it using existing slings -- a bit wet but faster than going down the slabs we'd come up. Going back across the catwalk traverse, hailstones started pinging on our climbing helmets, but it was a mild storm -- no wind and no thunder. Now we were at the slab at the top of the second chute with just one more hard section below us -- the loose class-4 ledges at the bottom of that chute.
We descended the chute and found the ducks we'd left to mark our traverse line into the lower chute, but it started raining, so Ron wisely decided to set up another rap instead of downclimbing the rubble-covered ledges. This was a full double-rope rappel, from a single strand of thin spectra cord looped around a large boulder. To the uninitiated, this looked like trusting your life to a shoelace, but the stuff has a breaking strength of 4000 lbs. so no problem. Some of us (okay, I'm guilty) knocked down some loose rocks while rappelling, so if you rappel this section in a group, be sure to move out of the way as soon as you get off rappel.
At last, right at 5 p.m., we were all safely down on the talus, and the skies were even starting to clear off. What a great climb! Though not an alpine rock climb, it's a classic mountaineering challenge, with class-4 rock, loose crap, routefinding challenges, and oh boy that summit block. In early season with some steep snow in the gullies, the climb would probably be even better.
After collecting our snow gear and taking a much needed snack break, we boulder-hopped back to Thunderbolt Pass and then worked our way down the slabs and boulders to our camp, where we arrived about 7 p.m. What a great feeling to sit around cooking supper and look up at that towering 2000-foot wall whose top we had just visited. We suddenly realized that we could clearly see the milk bottle -- a tiny pointed tower between two large blocks. As Rick said (paraphrasing here) "You know, you look up there and you think -- there's no fuckin way I could climb up to that fuckin thing."
After supper, the sky cleared off completely to a crisp alpine night, and we crawled into our sleeping bags to watch the Milky Way and the shooting stars as we drifted off to sleep.
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