Monday, June 24, 2013

Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse (Palisades)

Date:  June 21-23, 2013
Route: Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse  (Trad, 5.9, steep snow, alpine, Grade IV)

1) Thunderbolt - 14,003 ft.
2) Starlight - 14,200 ft.
3) North Palisade - 14,242 ft.
4) Polemonium - 14,200 ft.
5) Sill - 14,162 ft.

Introduction:

This is a classic high Sierra route, which traverses five 14,000 ft. peaks including Thunderbolt, Starlight, North Palisade, Polemonium, and Sill.  The peaks make up an imposing ridge that towers above the Palisade glacier.  This route requires rock and snow/ice skills and is an instant classic.      
There is no easy way up onto or down off of the ridge.  Once on the ridge, route-finding and the ability to cope with airy exposure is a necessity.  Roping up for the entire thing would require a lot of time and likely, a bivy.  
Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse in the Palisades

This route is rated 5.9, however, we only belayed 3 "pitches."  Most of the ridge is exposed 4th and low 5th class scrambling, with 2 difficult summit pinnacles.  The summit pinnacles can easily be bypassed, which would make this route a 5.6 at most.  The following is a trip report, not THE route, as I'm sure we wandered a bit.  


TRIP REPORT:

This was my first trip to the Sierras and it didn't disappoint!  My friend, Brent, invited me to do the Palisade Traverse in the Sierras.  My first response was, "the what?"  We poured over trip reports, routes, beta, and logistics for the following week and made our way to Big Pine, California to the Big Pine Creek trailhead.  

The Approach
We got a permit in Bishop and starting hiking up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek.  We followed the North Fork past Lake 3 and then turned west on the Glacier Trail towards the Palisade Glacier.  The obvious trail ended at Sam Mack meadow due to talus and snow cover.  From here we made our way up the left (south) gully towards the moraine where we found a well-protected bivy site around 12,300 ft.         

The Climb
We awoke with the sun around 4:30 am and left camp at 5:30 am.  We climbed up the glacier towards the Underhill couloir.  A large bergshrund was blocking entry onto almost every couloir in the cirque with the exception of a small bridge on the Underhill couloir.  The couloir looked very intimidating from camp but it turned out to be a straight forward 4th class snow climb all the way to the ridge.

Heading towards Underhill couloir, just right of center


Thunderbolt
From the top of Underhill, we scrambled up 3rd class slabs, across and up a 4th class exposed chimney to the Thunderbolt summit block.  The true summit is a lone pinnacle rated at 5.9 R.  We creatively lassoed the pinnacle and used a prussik to belay myself as I climbed the block.  It was very challenging and rewarding summit!  We downclimbed the same way we ascended.

Coming up 4th class chimney to Thunderbolt
Thunderbolt Peak

Starlight
We remained unroped and scrambled up 4th/low 5th class rock to the summit of Starlight.  This portion of the trip was the most difficult for route-finding and we found ourselves making 5th class moves as we made our way up the right side of the ridge.  Like Thunderbolt, Starlight has a difficult summit pinnacle (5.6 R), appropriately named the "milk bottle."  We rappelled twice on our 60 m 8.1 mm rope.  Plenty of slings and rappel stations were available.  
Sun hiding behind the milk bottle on Starlight peak as Brent climbs 4th class rocks towards summit

Milk Bottle

North Palisade
North Palisade was probably the most challenging peak along the traverse.  We scrambled up and around a false summit pinnacle to the notch where we had to rappel and swing over an airy drop before we could continue upward.  From there we continued up and right to a 5.6ish chimney.  Brent led this pitch to the summit and it turned out to be the only pitch we belayed on the entire route besides the two previous summit pinnacles.  We scrambled down the ridge a ways, then rappelled twice down to the U notch.  
Sweeeeeet exposure
Looking west into Kings Canyon NP from North Palisade
Polemonium
From the U notch, we climbed 4th class rock up and right to a small notch on the right skyline, where there is supposedly a 5.2 finger crack.  From the notch, we climbed low 5th class rock on the exposed ridge to the summit of Polemonium.  This was one of the most fun sections of the traverse!  We downclimbed to the V notch. 
Looking north along the ridge from Polemonium.  The Milk Bottle is the tiny pinnacle on Starlight in the center.
Polemonium Peak
Sill
From the V notch, we scrambled along the ridge, staying right when impassable, towards Mt. Sill.  This portion of the traverse is long, relatively easy, and beautiful.  We reached Sill at 5 pm, about 8.5 hours after reaching Thunderbolt.  We downclimbed Sill and glissaded down the North Couloir towards glacier notch and traversed across the glacier back to base camp.  We left basecamp at 5:30 am and were back by 6:30 pm.  
Looking north from Sill

The Palisade Glacier cirque.  Underhill couloir is the snow-filled line just right of center.


TIMES
Friday June 21, 2013
    6.5 hours to hike to Palisade glacier moraine camp 
    
Saturday June 22, 2013
    5:30 am - left moraine camp
    7:30 am - reached top of Underhill couloir
    8:30 am - reached Thunderbolt Peak 
    11:00 am - reached Starlight Peak
    12:00 pm - the notch 
    1:00 pm - reached North Palisade Peak
    3:00 pm - reached Polemonium Peak
    5:00 pm - reached Mt. Sill
    6:30 pm - back at moraine camp

    Total time: 13 hours
    Total time from Thunderbolt to Sill: 8.5 hours

Sunday June 23, 2013
    4 hours to hike out


GEAR
Summit Day Clothing:
    -approach shoes, socks
    -soft shell pants
    -long sleeve wicking shirt
    -arc'teryx atom puffy
    -beanie, gloves

Summit Day Gear:
    -60 m 8.1 mm rope
    -harness, ATC, PAS, cordelette, lockers
    -6 slings, a couple cams, one set of nuts, extra webbing and rappel rings
    -first aid kit (pain meds, sunscreen, TP, gauze, band aids, joint wrap)
    -radios
    -food and 3 liters of water