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Thunderbolt / Starlight

September 2019

After a riotous weekend bagging North Palisade, Mt. Carillon, and (almost) Russell, Anthony and I were keen to get back to the Sierra. Anthony only had two California 14er's left to climb, and so we set our sights on Thunderbolt and Starlight Peak: the most technical 14er's in the state (59. and 5.6, respectively).

Note: Anthony Ottati took pretty much all these photos. He also made a sick trip report you can check out here.

These climbs sat above our pay grade, so we enlisted the talent of our Norwegian buddy, Halvor. Thursday night rolled around, and the three of us set out in Anthony's Ford Transit Connect. We took turns driving, and sleeping in the back through the night. After sleeping out on the East side of Yosemite, and after helping to tow out a group of offroaders from a precarious hole, we were off to the ranger station in Bishop for permits. We snagged them no problem, bought some webbing, accessory cord and food, then headed up to the trailhead. Friday afternoon, we practiced some rappels and then rested up for the next morning.

 

After a sufficiently cold night, we took off hiking, and made it to Bishop pass with a solid pace. Then we cut across to Thunderbolt pass off-trail: boulder hopping and skipping our way up to the pass. I took the high-line, while Anthony and Halvor went lower into the basin. My line choice paid off, and I was up to Thunderbolt pass with some time to spare before they caught up. Anthony commended my navigatory talent at the pass.

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Thunderbolt Pass and the Palisade cluster coming into view

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Halvor making his way to Thunderbolt Pass

We set up basecamp, and with butterflies in stomach, started giving 'er a rip up Thunderbolt Chute #1. This was a straightforward class 4 chute, with easy route-finding. We jokingly refer to these ratings as "California class 4" which must have been rated by a fearless group of legendary climbers, because these routes prove to be quite challenging and a fair bit exposed. Nevertheless, with my lucky chalk bag around my waist to help control my nervousness-induced sweaty palms, I climbed on and on, trying not to look down too often.

Towards the top, after some spicy free climbing, we hit a particularly dicey pitch and decided to rope up. While climbing this, a nice fella by the name of Dalton greeted us. He was a friendly dude and a badass climber. Once we all made it up, we were confronted with a beautiful but daunting summit block, which fortunately had some webbing about halfway up the block for at least some protection for the lead climber. Halvor put on his "fast shades" and got in the zone for a little summit lead climb action.

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Working our way up the chute

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Halvor sending the summit block

We set an anchor at the bottom and I belayed him as he stepped out onto the fine texture of the vertical slab, with thousands of feet of air at his feet. He made mince meat of the climb, and set an anchor at the top so Anthony and I could get our ascents in as well (we would also lend Dalton one of our harnesses to bag the summit as well). Anthony gave it a go, and after some initial trepidation, summited Thunderbolt, his 14th CA 14er. I flashed the summit after him, tagging my 10th CA 14er. Dalton followed, and after a short celebration and a peek at the traverse to Starlight peak, we headed back down the chute to basecamp.

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Top of the world

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Too scary to stand up...

We set an anchor at the bottom and I belayed him as he stepped out onto the fine texture of the vertical slab, with thousands of feet of air at his feet. He made mince meat of the climb, and set an anchor at the top so Anthony and I could get our ascents in as well (we would also lend Dalton one of our harnesses to bag the summit as well). Anthony gave it a go, and after some initial trepidation, summited Thunderbolt, his 14th CA 14er. I flashed the summit after him, tagging my 10th CA 14er. Dalton followed, and after a short celebration and a peek at the traverse to Starlight peak, we headed back down the chute to basecamp.

Following a few rappels, and some easy downclimbing, we made it to camp with lots of sunlight left in the day. I snagged some water for the crew at a nearby tarn, and then we lounged around for a few hours, reveling in the glory of the day's climb and the beauty of the Sierra. It sure is a hell of a place, and I do wish I could spend more time out there...

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Rappelling down

We all slept in Halvor's surprisingly roomy 2-person tent in an attempt to keep warm and have a decent sleep. We slept in until 6am the next morning, and then got to scrambling up to the Starlight chute. We anticipated this day as being the hardest: a notoriously tricky chute to navigate, on top of tricky climbs, lots of exposure, and some vertigo-inducing catwalks, not to mention the 30ft+ summit monolith.

We quickly ascended some spicy class 4 climbing once we entered the chute, and eventually reached the main catwalk. It was only a class 3 feature, but with an impressive amount of exposure, demanding the climber's complete focus. As someone with a fear of heights, I always find these sections particularly engaging and demanding, fortunately I held it together and made it across no problem.

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Getting into 'er

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Halvor getting ready to traverse along the catwalk, the exposed white stripe behind him

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The catwalk behind us as we continue up the chute

We were in a bit over our heads with some sections, as the holds got smaller and the going got steeper. I found myself wishing we had roped up more than a handful of times, but we made it to a bit of a ledge where we could breath easy, at least for a little while. Nearing the top, we decided to rope up and have Halvor lead the last pitch to the base of the summit monolith. Talk about spicy climbing, I was essentially on top rope, with Halvor above and Anthony below, but it certainly got the blood pumping. We could finally see the summit monolith of Starlight Peak, debatably the most impressive looking peak of all the 14er's, and certainly the most recognizable.

 

After staring at the summit block for a while and deciding how to climb it, we started throwing/wrapping our rope around the block to provide Halvor with something to clip into while he lead the climb. The fast shades made another appearance, and Halvor trounced the climb no problem. Anthony and I followed, both of us flashing the summit (climbing it first try). We eventually were joined by three other climbers: Dalton (who we met the day before), his buddy, and a guy named Ilya. We all summited and celebrated heartily at the base of the peak. 

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Anthony on his final California 14er, congrats my man!

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Me on top of Starlight Peak, what a summit!

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The crew, nice helmet Anthony...

Still, we were a bit nervous, as we were only halfway there, and needed to descend an extremely treacherous route. We rappelled and downclimbed slowly back to basecamp, and were happy to finally be out of the chute. After packing our things, we started the long trek back to the car. Hours after the sun had set, we made it to the trailhead, packed up, and got to driving. I smashed a few monster energy drinks, cranked the music up, and knocked out most of the drive in one go. We finally made it back to Berkeley around 2am, still buzzing from the fact that we climbed those peaks. In fact, weeks later, I still find myself buzzing that we climbed those peaks, and I look forward to getting back out soon.

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Down we go, until the next time...