For almost a year, I had been carrying around this image I found online, in my iPhone album. The image shows a highly sought after mountaineering route in the high Sierras called the Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse, and often mistakenly referred to at the "Palisades Traverse."
The route, as you can see in the photo above, summits the peaks of five California mountains, and particularly, ones over 14,000' tall. From right to left; Thunderbolt Peak (14,003' / 4268m), Starlight Peak (14,200' / 4328m), North Palisade (14,242' / 4341m), Polemonium Peak (14,080' / 4292m), and last but certainly not least Mount Sill (14,153' / 4314m).
I would periodically flash that image to people on my phone and txt it to friends out of state. It was on my radar. Inspired by one of my climbing mentors Sam Rivera, I made a goal to summit all the mountains in California over 14,000' tall. There are somewhere between 12 to 15 of these peaks, depending who you ask (controversy based on technical peak prominence). I had only finished two; Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley. The 14ers pictured above are respectably the more difficult to obtain, because of their required technical climbing, compared to many you can simply hike and scramble up.
In December of 2015 I started planning this trip, and with complete integrity, the first part was hiring an outfitter to get a guide. I'm crazy and I'm strong, but I'm not that crazy, and I'm not that strong, so better to be real! I found an itinerary I liked and set dates with Sierra Mountain Center, located in Bishop, California. Full disclosure this trip is no joke, it's long, it's expensive, and it's billed as their most strenuous offering. One cannot just buy your way on board, guides require you to submit your climbing resume with well documented experiences and skills. The anticipation seemed to never stop building and I would always return to that photo above and just stare at that red line heading over all those named peaks.
With half a year to plan for the trip, and much of the challenge being to lug all your gear up and over the terrain and peaks, I started packing way in advance. I even had a couple holidays to collect some of the necessary provisions. Below is a photo of the general gear I used. There were some last minute decisions, based on weather, where I opted to abandon the mountaineering boots and climbing shoes and settled on using Goretex 5.10 Guide Tennie Mid top approach shoes for the entire trip, which was perfect for me.
I won't cover all the particulars, but items include things like: Harness, Helmet, Bivvy Sack, Sleeping Pad, Light Gaiters, Various Climbing Hardware, Crampons, Down Sleeping Quilt (in purple compression sack), Long Underwear, Insulating Jacket, Rain Shell, 2.5L Water Bladder, Chalk Bag (luxury item!), Food, Mess Kit, and other personals that all fit into that 40L backpack! Was less of a miracle and more just meticulous planning and effort. The trail weight of the pack was just below 30 pounds when we weighed it before we headed into the wilderness. Not bad because there were a few added items to this that we needed to share for a safe experience, and this doesn't include the items I was wearing either. Fun to shop and pack, bittersweet part is I shredded so much of this stuff out there. Broke it in with the quickness!
Luis Perez, my old friend whom I met thru Sierra Club's Wilderness Travel Course was my climbing partner for this trip, he's a soldier in every sense of the word. We had done what training we could after booking the trip, and had a fair and diverse amount of experience before we had this objective in mind. Our guide Ryan Huetter had done this trip about 12 times. Which is like a million if more than once. It's also a number that reflects how challenging this trip is. It's not common or simple enough to be heading out every weekend or every month to handle. Ryan is 2 years younger than me and a total savage. His website reflects some his accomplishments, which in brief, include several trips up El Capitan, tough routes in Patagonia, and extensive world exploration. His ability to tolerate Luis and I for a couple around-the-clock days might be his most challenging accomplishment yet!
The three of us headed to the Bishop Pass Trail near South Lake and began our hike in on Friday July 1st, 2016 in the late morning.
We hiked past South Lake and Long Lake. Along the trail we passed the typically beautiful Sierra scenery. My enthusiasm was so high, the fact my 30 pound pack had no frame or load lifters wasn't even on my mind, just cruising and moving.
We began to progress above the treeline, per the usual, the farther you hike out, the less humans you will see.
There was enough snow still covering Bishop Pass that we skirted cross country to our destination.
Above you can see me standing at our first camp. We arrived around 6pm, with plenty, perhaps even too much, time to spare. This is a bivvy site below Thunderbolt Peak. The idea was we use it as a bit of a base camp. We would spend our first night and third night camping here. The second night we would sleep high above the crest of the ridge. This meant carrying MOST of our belongings with us but allowing us to leave our last night and final day's food here.
We took a minute to gaze at our target peaks and watch the sunset. This time of year, the sun doesn't fully set until around 9pm and it's not really dark until even later.
We went to bed at 8pm while it was still light out, that was difficult but necessary. Here you can see our typical camp arrangement. This is sleeping for 3, and we were lucky to even have this much space and this flat of ground. At this point we are sleeping above 12,000' sea level.
We woke around 5-5:30am, had breakfast of oatmeal or granola and packed up our sleeping kits. Climb time! Gear up; helmets, harnesses and ice axes and we began our ascent of Thunderbolts' Southwest Chute #1 to gain access to the ridge of our traverse.
The snow was stiff enough that axes were mandatory but soft enough we declined the use of crampons. Oh, and Ryan chopped steps for a couple thousand feet, so yeah that helped! Was about a quick 2,000' gain to get up this snow gully.
We got to the summit block of Thunderbolt right on time. This summit, holds what is considered the most difficult moves of the entire route. Best we get it out of the way early before getting exhausted. The summit of Thunderbolt looks like a thumb sticking out. It is short, steep, impossible to protect on lead, very exposed and has real "bouldery" (difficult) moves to gain. Above you can see Luis gripping on what feels and looks like a very blank face of rock. You can also get an idea of the airy exposure below him.
Here you can see me almost at the peak. You come around and can sit on the top. The summit registry (sign-in box) is actually bolted to the peak of this rock. Impossible to sign in without getting up there. Ryan lead the moves from the 5.9 side and there is a single bolt on top where I lowered him off and he belayed us up. It was tricky even on top rope. I'm not sure the 5.8 side would be much easier, the belay stance is certainly more awkward. You really need some guts to lead this little thing. Don't be fooled by the grade, there's no place for rock protection, it's a mandatory free solo.
Even when I got to the top, I signed in quickly and you just want to get the heck off of there, and coming down off a single, old, crappy bolt was sketchy too. Done and done, NEXT!
From the summit of Thunderbolt, it's on to Starlight Peak. We began much of the heavy 3rd and 4th class climbing with intermittent pitches of 5th class climbing, all while carrying our full packs and around 14,000' above sea level for the kicker.
Above you can see a common occurrence of traverse movement out there. Not notably difficult but often nerve racking, and more often then not, we were not being belayed off anchors, rather just a mountaineer's coil, or maybe a natural loop around a horn or block. All fairly casual, just keep your head in check and it's smooth sailing.
Below is a video from Luis's GoPro cam, I can't recall exactly what mountain this is, it's sort of a blur, but gives you a fair feel from first person perspective.
Above you can see me stemming a small chimney, Ryan tied in above and Luis tied in below.
Above is a photo of me climbing the final summit for Starlight Peak. This feature is known as the "Milk Bottle" It's a very similar scenario to Thunderbolt, an exposed, unprotectable pinnacle. What makes this slightly different, is the registry is bolted on the ground, not on the tip, it's also a shorter climb, and graded like 5.6 YDS instead of 5.9 YDS. It also does NOT have a bolt to lower off the top, just a piece of webbing someone tied around it. You can see the the registry in the photo on the ground in the lower left corner (grey box) and the blue webbing anchor at the top of the photo.
Again this is a very blank, and stiff move for the grade. I didn't find it much easier than the other summit block. At this point we stopped for a brief lunch break. We met two other women who were trailing behind us. We had a few minutes to chat with them. They had attempted the traverse before but only made one or two peaks. This was their second attempt. One woman was a ranger from Yosemite in town for the weekend, the other women was part of the Inyo Wilderness Search & Rescue team. This just gives you some insight on the TYPE of people who come out for this trip. To me, they're essentially professionals. This type of activity can be part of their job. I WORK IN AN OFFICE AT A DESK, pretty serious stuff out there. They were attempting to do the whole traverse in a day, they ended up only tagging a respectable 3 of the 5 summits and headed down the mountain.
There is little-to-no down time on this trip, after signing in at Starlight, it was on to North Palisade, our last goal for the day. This route leaves you always wondering (and worried) what's around the next corner. You're switching from down climbing, to rappelling to traversing, to face climbing, to "butt scooting" over super exposed knife edge ridges, to who knows what's next?, and there's no time to dwell on it.
We worked our way over to North Palisade's summit and upon reaching the top, we were relieved there were no more spires to tag, just nice normal seating. Now with three times the sense of accomplishment, we signed our names to the list of mountaineers who had visited this classic Sierra peak. Time to make our way to the night's camp.
We set up our bivvy site just below the summit of North Palisade. A much smaller space than we acquired the night before, below Thunderbolt. Luis and I squeezed right next to each other and Ryan slept in the "basement" on a much more exposed ledge.
I think the time was probably the same, around 6ish pm. We melted snow to fill our water bottles and boiled water to re-hydrate our dinners. I was struggling with some moderate altitude sickness the entire time. I think Ryan and Luis are immune to it, so I just pretended to be. I was eating probably 12 ibuprofen a day (2400mg?!?) which seemed to make my headache subside but was tolling on my stomach. It was so hard to eat. One symptom of Mountain Sickness is suppressed appetite, which is overly complicated when you've burned thousands of calories that day and will burn thousands more the next day. You must force yourself to refuel.
We went to bed same time, around 8pm. Was easier to fall asleep, being way more tired, but was challenging because it was much colder sleeping above 14,000' sea level and my head was pounding.
Above is Ryan doing some pre-sleep flossing while Mount Sill looms in the back like a shark fin. Two more mountains tomorrow, Sill being the final one.
We woke up like this. If you want to get closer to a friend, go camping with them. Share a tent maybe, or just cozy up on the side of a cliff and hope that small pile of rocks keeps you from rolling off. Luis made this pattern of always sleeping closest to the wall, but I didn't fight him about it.
5:00 am on Sunday July 3rd, 2016 we woke up to finish the peaks. Our packs were getting lighter as we consumed more meals and snacks (not MUCH lighter). Next step was to head out to the summit of Polemonium Peak.
Unlike yesterday morning when we climbed the snow gully, this day we had to immediately descend some heavy gain from North Palisade to a saddle, the head back up the neighboring mountain to keep the course. Things look so close, but the terrain is so brutal it takes hours to often travel just one mile.
We had some steep and awkward rappels to do, including one over the "chasm of death" at the bottom, that I wish we had on video. I geeked out as I almost descended a bit too far to catch my footing. Ryan to the rescue. The rappels were taking longer than normal. Our strength and weaknesses were probably pretty different than the average participant out here. Our strength was packing really properly and humping our gear up and down with no complaints. Our weaknesses included some basic snow travel techniques and our rappelling speed. Our movement on 3rd-5th class was average.
Above and below are some good first person perspectives of frequent traverses. These sideways climbing movements, are possibly more difficult than just heading up a vertical wall (for me anyway). It's gonna be ugly if you fall sideways and pull on the other 2 people tied into your rope. Easy does it in the "no fall zones."
almost there! I reckon somewhere between these photos we did like 3-5 pitches to gain the summit of Polemonium.
After the hardest technical stuff was over, we walked up the slabs to get to the true peak. Still feeling "pretty good."
Signed in, and time to go!
Again you feel like "Mt Sill is just right there" but it takes hours and hours to travel the talus just to get to the base of the next mountain's route.
We got to the base, passing a group of a few other climbers coming from the north. Here we sat our bags down and would just "run" up to tag Mt Sill, maybe 300-500' of 3rd class scrambling. It was obvious I was wearing down. I admitted to feeling maybe 65%-70% healthy while we sat at the base of the last mountain. Our travel was slowing, and in order to get back to our original base camp at a reasonable hour we would need to move quicker or negate parts of the itinerary. I had little to no intention on coming back out here, so it was in my order to finish this last mountain. We set a turnaround time and headed up. I had a 2nd and 3rd wind and just rocketed to the top. DONE.
After we signed the registry and began our big descent, Luis made a joke "ok well that was anticlimactic" which was really funny, but only because it was so true. I was so tired and altitude sick, and we just completed reaching 5 huge summits, but didn't feel anything. I didn't have an overwhelming sense of accomplishment or joy, perhaps it was just surreal? Perhaps the journey is the destination?
Our trip took a particularly interesting twist after we summit Mt. Sill. Ryan was studying some topographic maps on his phone, and thought that he found an arguably easier way to get us back to camp. The normal guided route entails retracing steps back to Polemonium and down the U-notch couloir and then hiking back to camp. Our travel on the rock was slowing, so the concept was to seek this more 2nd class trail back, would add some distance, but negate some rappelling and talus. SOUNDED LIKE A PLAN.
It started out a little rough. Right away as we descended some steep snow. It was pretty slippery and this was no where near as steep as the U-notch would have been. We did a little plunge stepping and just took it slow. Luis thought it would be easier to glissade, although we had full packs on. It was pretty obvious and understandable that Ryan wasn't fully impressed with our snow travel. SORRYI LIVE IN SoCAL, it's literally 100 degrees outside my house as I type this at 11am! I don't see much snow! Poor guy, he really put up with us like a boss, much respect. I was wondering if he was second guessing this decision when he realized our snow travel was as weak as our rappelling? Either way, we needed to get down and we committed to this descent.
I was actually able to catch a monster glissade that saved me a fair amount of time and effort. Butt-sledding was really fun and enjoyable after so much technical up and down movement.
At this stage, things started to get a little dark for me. We got off the snow around 5pm and took our LUNCH. I was getting VERY warm. I think the sun reflected off the snow and gave me some heat fever. I was putting snow on my face and chest and back to cool my core temperature down. I had also consumed near a gallon of water at this point and the ease of travel wasn't panning out.
We ended up having to drop a TON of gain, well over 1000' and then head up over Potluck Pass, really moving over tons of snow and rock and up and down and around. It wasn't treacherous terrain, and the ropes were all put away, but my body was hitting a big wall.
We started losing sunlight and I was losing my mind. I wasn't sure if the guide was trying to save my life or kill me?!?! My stomach was so sour and my skin was on fire. Around 7pm we just plopped down at an alpine lake, we had a brief but serious discussion if we would just crash the night right there (we had been carrying our sleeping kits everywhere) the rub however, was all our food was back at our high camp. And we would still need to ascend back in the morning and then hike out to the car. Would make for a tough day. I felt like the weak link, but it was near impossible to pretend my mountain sickness wasn't playing a role, and it wasn't the place to be dishonest. I sort of made the executive decision to carry onward and upward to camp, opposed to sleeping by the lake (which we would have been terminated by mosquitoes) It took us over 2 hours to get back to the camp from that lake. It got dark and we only had one working headlamp between the 3 of us. I was boulder scrambling with an iPhone flashlight in one hand, which made it super awkward.
We got back to our base camp at 9pm (14 hours of mountaineering) and I just passed out. Seriously just keeled over with no dinner. Kept feeling like I would puke any moment. Luis also skipped dinner and passed out. Ryan, was too funny. This is like a lightweight any-old-day for him. He cooked a fat meal late at night and casually did his camp duties like it was nothing. This is probably par for the course of a guide. You have to walk super slow at the pace, stay positive, deal with the weak! That's the gig I guess. I would have felt major guilt to commit to sleeping near the lake knowing Ryan was hungry and we had no food with us.
I woke up, still pretty beat and our shoes mildly wet from the snow travel. For the first time in years I skipped coffee, I couldn't. I couldn't stomach anything. I had probably burned 10,000 calories and consumed a couple to three thousand. We packed up and had an 8 mile hike back to the car. Ugh, even the second class day hike back over Bishop Pass was going to be rough, but I always kept my spirit high and like my father taught me, I maintained my sense of humor the whole time.
It was Monday July 4th, 2016, and we heard a helicopter flying over head. I joked with Ryan, asked him if called a ride for us. We didn't think much about it at the time.
We stopped for more water on the way back. It was very hot at the lower altitude and off the mountain. I was staying very hydrated but still had many residual feelings of illness. I was able to stomach a couple protein bars on the hike out, but my appetite was weak.
After you summit your objective in mountaineering you're only half way done. You still have to get down. Many people summit Mt. Everest but die on the way back, it's not that uncommon. The trip isn't over til you're home. The descent is never as exciting or enthusiastic as the way up.
When I got back it turned out that helicopter was Inyo Wilderness Search and Rescue, the Sheriff reported "The 67-year old climber from Oakland CA fell approximately 800 ft during a descent from U-Notch after climbing North Palisade. Inyo SAR was contacted the afternoon of July 3rd, but due to weather conditions late in the day the helicopter was unable to fly until July 4th. Two Inyo SAR members met H-40 (out of Fresno) the morning of the 4th and were flown up to Palisade Glacier where they hiked about 500 ft up to recover the body and lower to the helicopter."
The whole thing was very odd, the women who we saw on route, from the S&R team, was friends with our guide Ryan. They were in touch after this incident and she said the man signed into the summit registry perhaps a couple hours before we did. The man was climbing with his brother. His wife was waiting for his return in a tent at the base of the mountain.
When I got home I felt so strange. I felt accomplished and defeated. I felt like I had really pushed the limits. People will say what they will about using a guide service, but not only would this have been IMPOSSIBLE to navigate without a guide, it was nearly impractical WITH a guide. The guide's main function, is to make decisions, difficult ones. The climbing itself was not the crux. Their wisdom is what you're contracting. I kept thinking how weird it was Ryan took us down this totally unconventional and unexplored descent from Mt. Sill instead of going down the U-notch like most trips go. It turns out with the heat really moving in, conditions were on a fast transition. The U-notch couloir was filled with what they call "snice" snow/ice, not really steady or stiff for climbing or spikes. That slip and fall could have been anyone. The inherent risk is always there.
I got back to L.A. and was so happy to see my family. I had no communication on the mountain for 3 nights and I know my wife was thinking about me. I couldn't help but feeling this sort of overwhelming guilt for being out there. Putting myself in a highly strenuous and delicate situation, and having my family go about without hearing I'm ok, having the guide ensure we're safe. For why? To sign my name in these little boxes? To test my self? To summit all the high peaks? I'm not sure the motivation.
My appetite came back after half a day in more typical altitude and it returned with a vengeance! Ate like 4-5 meals the next day! I also took the next 3 weekends off to spend with my family. I thought this trip was so demanding, I needed to really take a break. This is my longest trip report because it was my most effecting trip. Several days high in the Sierras was something serious. Huge thank you to my family for their support, Luis for this partnership and Ryan for his guidance. This was one for the books!