Thunderbolt Peak (14,003') and Starlight Peak (14,200')

1-4 Sep 2006 - by Stephane Mouradian

Our group had allocated 4 days over labor day weekend for these 2 fairly difficult peaks. We were Natalie Chun, Louise and Jim Wholey, Bob Suzuki (leader) and Stephane Mouradian (co-leader and scribe).

After the mandatory breakfast at Jack's we had to stand in line for the 8am ranger station opening Friday morning in Bishop. The new National Park rules are that permits must be picked up in person for trips that cross NP boundaries. We eventually left South Lake Trailhead around 9:30am Friday. We made good time to Bishop Pass and slowed down some while trying to keep a good line between Bishop Pass and Thunderbolt. Somehow, the best route in this section is always obvious once one reaches Thunderbolt Pass and looks back. We found space for our small group right below the pass with water trickling from a remaining snow field. We mutinied against Bob's suggestion to drop only a few hundred feet to the more inviting grassy tarns below. Somehow, once you have hiked all the way to Thunderbolt Pass, a few hundred feet matter.

Thunderbolt: Rising with daylight at 6am, we left camp at 7am and quickly reached the chute #1 from the pass. Jim stayed behind with plans to head for Columbine. The Thunderbolt chute was completely dry. As described in several guides, we reached the chockstone and escaped from the chute via a ledge system to the right to reach the upper chute. This led us to the notch where it was time to rope up. We reached the notch at 8:45am and met a solo climber on the way, Mike, who was climbing every summit above 13,800' in the US. (Apparently there is a guide book for that). From the notch, Bob led the low class 5 straight to the foot of the summit monolith. Mike found some way to avoid this section by climbing around on the West side. Bob used an existing cordelette to protect himself while on belay and he successfully tackled the summit monolith and belayed us from the top, including Mike (lucky for him!). We climbed the East side of the monolith which is shorter. The start requires a couple difficult moves but we somehow all found a way. We did use rock shoes. It was 11am and the weather was beautiful even at 14,000' elevation, so we took our time and enjoyed the summit. Our descent was uneventful, except for the occasional rock scare in this decidedly loose chute. We were back to camp around 2:00pm. We lounged at camp, knowing the next day would be more difficult.

Starlight: Intense negotiations led to a 6:30am start time Sunday morning (a compromise between 6am and 7am) For the route finding, we used a combination of Jim Ramaker's report from 07/02, Steve Porcella's guide and a report from Summit post ( We headed for the Northwest Chute, the 5th chute south of Thunderbolt, also described in Porcella as the third most prominent chuteimmediately North of the west Buttress of Starlight Peak. From camp, locate the chute using Secor's picture on page 249. In particular, the wide and prominent fan shape loose rock run out will help you identify it.

1: Start of the chute to the Chockstone: Going up the loose chute, we quickly encountered the expected blockage and, like for Thunderbolt, we escaped the chute to the right via a system of class 4ish rocks and ledges. There were some rap slings in this area but we did not use a belay.

2: upper chute: The above mentioned system led us to an upper chute, mostly loose class 2-3. We climbed this for a few hundred feet.

3: subsidiary chute to the right (South): From step 2, we took this subsidiary chute to the right well described in the summit post report. This system has a gully formed by slabs and leads to a clearly visible vertical slab and notch. It is mostly class 2.

4: The catwalk to the waterfall From the notch, we followed a catwalk which traverses left across the face via a horizontal crack. This catwalk dominates and eventually meets yet another chute. As we met the chute's rising floor we quickly encountered a trickling waterfall. Bob and I tried the class 4 rock on the right, which gradually became harder. Louise and Natalie went straight up, close to the waterfall which ended up being the easier way. The waterfall was class 4 and you can use holds on the left side to avoid climbing straight up the slippery rock.

After that, we continued climbing some loose class 2-3 rock. At one point, we avoided a snow field and slabs by climbing left. That worked well but we had to re-traverse over to the right above the snow to continue. We eventually encountered steeper class 4 rock. Our descriptions called for climbing up to the ridge and a notch. I saw the ridge and a notch with a sling and I led the class 4 toward it. We reached the notch at 9:40am. The route descriptions mention you can see the milk bottle from the notch. We could see 2 prominent pinnacles on either side of the notch but we were not sure which was the milk bottle. In addition, we did not see any easy way to reach them either. We debated for a while going left or going right and which one looked more like the milk bottle. We explored some exposed slabs to the left (North) and finally got a sight of yet another pinnacle further North which looked more like the famed bottle, with no easy way to get there.

Coming back to the notch, Bob looked back down and gave us this I hate to disappoint you but Clearly there was another path below us which we missed leading to yet another notch left (North) of us. To avoid making the same mistake, climb left as you reach the end of the chute. We quickly down-climbed into the chute and re-climbed more class 4 aiming left toward the other notch which also had a sling. We reached that second notch at 10:30am. The milk bottle was standing 50' to our right. From the notch, it is a short exposed traverse to the right and we then climbed up the short ridge coming from the East toward the foot of the bottle.

Up to this point, we had not used any rope or belay. The class 4 felt solid all the way.

To tackle the bottle, Bob and I encircled the rock as high as we could and we were able to swing it above the shoulder of the block. This method had been previously suggested by Ron Karpel as an alternative to lassoing the summit, which takes some practice. Bob used this to set up a first quickdraw and climbed to the top of the bottle. He set up a cordelette at the summit to allow the rest of us to top rope the bottle. We climbed along the arte facing South West, which had the advantage of being wind free and in the sun. The NE face was in the shade and the wind was relentless and cold. Starting at noon, we all took turns climbing. We then enjoyed a long lunch behind the block, on the warm sunny side. We were able to shout and communicate with North Pal summitters (including Mike). In the Starlight register, Bob found his name from his last time up here in 1993 when he and other PCSers had traversed over to N. Pal. This time, we decided to skip the traverse and we left the summit at 1:30pm.

On the way down, the class 4 suddenly did not look so easy. Rather than downclimb, we did 2 long rappels down to get us to the bottom of the class 4 section. We also rappelled down the water fall. We did not rappel the very last class 4 section which, in hind sight, may have been faster. Despite our best effort, loose rocks were a constant issue on the way down. We reached the entrance of the chute at 4:30pm. We took a break and reflected on our climb. The combination of the route finding, loose rock and the sustained climbing make Starlight a demanding climb.

We hiked out on Labor day. Since Schaat's had been mobbed by the holiday crowd and the sandwich line was all the way to the front door, the trip finished as it started: at Jack's.

Thank you to Bob for leading this trip, and especially for leading the class 5 sections.

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