Thunderbolt Challenge

10-17 Jul 2005 - by Mike Bigelow

Team Members: Mike Bigelow, Julian Bigelow, Craig Bigelow, Brett Whitaker, Ben Verrill.

Our team of five departed from Bishop Pass trailhead at South Lake around 11:30 Sunday morning. We we're a little nervous about the snow conditions. 2004-2005 will long be remembered as a huge snow year. Earlier that day when picking up bear cans and our permit, we were told to expect persistent snow starting about half way past Long Lake. We were glad this report was a bit exaggerated, however by the time we arrived at Saddler Rock Lake the snow cover was maybe 70% and the trail was becoming obscure. We opted to establish our camp just near the lake's outlet right at 11,100 feet. This was a little lower than we planned, but it worked out fine as a base camp. As most of us had just flown in from Asia, we scouted around some, ate an early dinner and then retired early for a fitful night's sleep.

After breakfast Monday, we set off to climb Aperture Peak via Jigsaw Pass and the north face route. We followed the Bishop Pass trail as well as we could to just below where the switchbacks start. At this point we were in total snow. We diverged from the route over Bishop Pass and climbed mixed snow and large talus toward the east. When approaching Jigsaw Pass from this direction, the actual pass is blocked from view by a large buttress. It only becomes visible when you are quite close to the scree and talus fan. To find the pass from the north, just identify Aperture Peak and then look for a talus fan low and to its north. Finally from the base of the fan we could make out the signpost in the notch. We stopped for a moment, cached our crampons and ice tools then headed up the fairly stable scree fan. We found no use trail, but did find a very loose chute! We stayed on class 2 and 3 rock when possible to avoid the unstable scree. It took us about forty-five minutes to climb the chute. We snacked a bit and then traversed a few hundred yards to the east. Some of us felt the traverse was pretty dicey! The talus was huge, but many of the massive blocks moved under our passage. We thought it possible that the entire ridge supported by one big nose of talus could collapse at anytime. Once we moved on to the face, the climb moved into sustained third class terrain. Julian was really feeling the effects of altitude and decided to go back to the pass and wait for our return. The remaining four of us pushed on and summited about an hour later. Although there are likely many routes on this face, the route we climbed was primarily class three, some of it quite hard, and perhaps twenty feet of class four in a shallow chimney. The summit views are great, particularly to the south and west. We judged it as a quality route on a rarely climbed yet impressive summit. Our return to the pass was tedious and slow, again marked by a tense crossing of the loose talus. After reaching the pass, we made a quick drop to the snows below and made great time back to camp.

Tuesday, Brett and I climbed over snowy and sandy terrain toward the southeast face of Mt. Goode. The slope was still snow covered and climbing conditions were perfect. We kick stepped to within 100 feet of the summit and then after one awkward class 3 move through the summit boulders, we were on top. We were back in camp four and a half hours after leaving. Without the snow, this climb looks like it has high sand in your boots potential. Not the greatest summit I've been on, but well worth the effort.

We decided to kick back and rest on Wednesday. We read, slept, did a little bouldering and generally slacked off. Thursday we were up early and off to climb the northwest slope of Agassiz. After leaving the Bishop Pass route at the 11,700-foot mark, we climbed the prominent left curving rib on the right side of the northwest slope. It was a solid and fun route and the summit offers wonderful views of the entire Palisade range and their glaciers. With this year's snowfall, we'll no doubt get a year's reprieve from the glaciers decline. Around 1:30, just as we were hooking back up with the Bishop Pass route, we felt and heard an earth shaking series of tremendous rock falls. They came as a set of three or four thundering avalanches. We could not see any dust cloud but the sound seem to come from the east side of the Inconsolable range. We couldn't help but wonder if the unstable talus on Aperture was involved. The rest of the descent was fast and uneventful. We did the entire trip in six and a half hours. Back in camp that night we finalized our plans for climbing Thunderbolt. Julian, Brett and myself would leave base camp on Friday mid day. We planned to take minimal gear and establish a bivouac camp near Thunderbolt Pass, rise early on Saturday, climb Thunderbolt and then return to our Saddler Rock base camp late the same day.

Friday morning around 11:00 the three of us set off with climbing and bivi gear for our attempt on Thunderbolt. From Bishop Pass we stayed high on the traverse and encountered little snow on the southwest facing slopes. After a pleasant hike of a couple hours, we found a sheltered flat spot free of snow near the north side of Agassiz Col. From there we could view the slopes approaching Thunderbolt Pass. We decided to make camp here. We knew it was still a fairly long trek to the pass, but faced with heavy snow on the slopes ahead and a bit of a down climb as well, we decided we'd rather do it with just climbing packs rather than all of our gear. We lazed around our bivi site through the late afternoon and were in bed by 8:30, anticipating an early start to the long day ahead.

Saturday we were up before five and on the move by 5:25. We soon were in crampons traversing across the frozen slopes toward Thunderbolt Pass. The weather was just barely below freezing, perfectly clear and calm. By 7:00 we had crossed the pass and were climbing up the snowfield that fully covered the talus fan at the bottom of SW chute #1. From here we could see the majority of the day's challenge; steep snow, rock-fall and loose scree.

Climbing the chute with full snow cover was a mixed adventure. On one hand we were able to crampon up in quick and solid style. On the other hand the snow was heavily peppered with rocks from the size of walnuts to televisions. At the base of the climb we saw a huge boulder resting in a snow a crater the size of a large SUV. The abundant rock-fall crashing into this gully appeared to mostly come off the near vertical left hand wall. The sun was still behind the ridge and temperatures were low so we hoped for the best and relied on the principal climb fast and be ready to dodge! We quickly reached the chock stones clogging the gully and marking the end of the snow climb. We packed our crampons and ice tools, not knowing the conditions above. The right leading catwalk was simple to locate and is quite easy, however on ascent I made the mistake of leaving the ledge before rounding the corner and made an exposed class four move up to the left to gain the class two terrain above. Later while on descent, we found that by following the ledge around the corner, the terrain is much easier and safer.

Above the catwalk ledge, the route takes on a more typical feel. The class two gully was loose but manageable. After following a few natural right leading braches, the mainly snow free upper chute led us to the tunnel marking the notch between Thunderbolt's north and south summits. It was only about 10:00 AM when we arrived at this sunny spot that has a fantastic view of the Palisade glacier and Mt. Sill. There were a few teams gathering at the notch, so rather than directly climbing the right hand wall, we tried a recommended route that descends the north side of the notch about twenty feet then moves right around a corner. We roped up for the pitch, not quite knowing what to expect. I ran out about 80 feet of rope to a good belay spot above the mixed class three and four difficulties. From there it was a few simple class three moves to the summit ridge. All in all we found this alternate route pretty easy. If it's crowded, or if you want to bypass the short class five section, I'd recommend this variation. Probably most climbers would feel comfortable doing it unroped. The last remaining bit is an extremely exposed fifteen-foot traverse across a seventy or eighty degree slab toward the summit blocks. Your feet have a solid narrow ledge and your hands have a bombproof crack to move along. Upon arrival at the summit we worked for quite sometime with another team rigging the summit boulder. Ultimately, due to lack of gear, skill and interest, only one of the group managed to climb the block. I decided that if I couldn't climb the fifteen-foot block free, I'd rather pass. I made a few lame attempts before admitting it was beyond my ability. Nevertheless, we were all happy with our accomplishment and seven of us left the summit together and shared a seventy-foot rappel back to the notch. After a slow and careful descent back to the chock stones, we donned our crampons again and made our way down the gully and back to our bivi spot. The long trek back to retrieve our sleeping gear then onto our Saddler Rock base camp went smooth, if not a little slow. We arrived around 7:00 PM after a thirteen and a half hour day. Back in camp we learned that Ben and Craig had hiked up Chocolate Peak and spent an enjoyable last day cruising around and shooting pictures.

Sunday morning we packed up early and were back at the trailhead well before noon. Many thanks to the whole team for making this another safe, challenging and memorable trip.

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