Friday, July 13, 2012

Thunderbolt Peak via Underhill Couloir Class IV, 5.6 chimney var, 14,003 feet, 06/27/2012

Davi Rivas and I atop Thunderbolt Peak. 
Round two. After a day of rest and rehydration from our successful run up North Palisade we were ready for more. Enter Thunderbolt Peak. This route was all new for us and as is perhaps fitting of the "shortest" of the Palisade fourteeners, at 14,003 feet, we found it to be physical and burly, pugnacious. We'll get to all that after we relive the 3AM drug raid on an otherwise blissful night of sleep. It's just the alarm clock. Ughh. As the BBoys said, "Time to get up and go to work!".  

We put ourselves through all the indignities of our version of the "alpine start", bumped poles and were on our way by 03:45. We repeated our path around the "palisade pond" and put on crampons at the same place we had stopped two mornings ago. Then it was out onto the ice and set a course for Underhill Couloir and Thunderbolt Peak.

Willing the sun to me. Underhill is the notch above my helmet.
We made good time across the ice, though I did notice more fissures than on 2 days previous. By sunrise we were navigating through a series of disorganized horizontal crevasses which pass for a bergeschrund beneath Undehill. The ice was still firm and we avoided all obstacles with ease. Under the mouth of the couloir we shed our crampons and got our first close-up of the chute we'd soon be climbing. First impressions revealed exactly what we had anticipated, a steep and loose Class IV gully filled with sand and ice, unstable rock, and what appeared to be some challenging rockaineering midway up. We put our heads together and each of us decided to stash our poles and one of our short axes at the bottom of the couloir, which was also our descent route. 

Underhill's 'schrund is small, but potentially dangerous.
The 'schrund here is actually a series of lateral crevasses that one must carefully identify and negotiate.  

Let me start by admitting that Underhill Couloir can be done one of two ways in these conditions: the hard way or the easy way, (For those of you reading this as beta for your own ascent rest easy, I'll help you out). Naturally, we didn't know about this clause on this bright and breezy sun-kissed dawn, and we fell victim to the hard logic of ascending the thing by it's most direct line, which is, of course,  the hard way. From the bottom looking up I saw only a mob of loose granite scree and some rotten ice. We ascended straight up the middle, and the gully got consistently steeper. We did some steep scrambling which required big stemming and chimney moves to avoid hanging patches of ice. In places we were forced to climb very lightly as no single piece of rock was in any way connected to any other. Let's just say that parts of this couloir require a delicate touch.

This is the ground up view of Underhill Couloir from just off the ice.

Davi climbing into Underhill
After ascending the scree we finally encountered the large chockstone mentioned in all the guide books. This is the couloir's first of two "cruxy" sections, and Davi led it the hard way (photos below). We shook out the rope right under the bulging obstruction and he went to work climbing up and right under the boulder, pulling through a tall and awkward move to an even more awkward mantle. Davi exited this high move with a bold and inspiring flourish, the time-honored face-down belly hump. "There's gotta be a better way.", I thought, "Be damned if I'll grovel over the lip of a Class IV choss haul." Minutes later I was able to negotiate a somewhat more aesthetically pleasing solution to the chockstone problem. 

After I caught my breath we worked out a pseudo simul-climb through a pitch of more loose rock and intermittent ice.  With the top of the couloir in sight, Davi was again on point for a dicey little bit of steep scrambling up and through a narrow slot that was complicated by ice. I was belaying him from about 30 feet below this nearly vertical slot when I was struck at the base of my skull by a rock the size of a pool cue. Understand folks, that I was born lucky. I had no idea that a rock was coming down and I was looking down toward my feet when it hit. The rock missed my helmet entirely but struck and deflected somewhat off my ball cap which I was wearing backwards (lucky) under the helmet. I quickly shrugged off the impact but had a nagging headache at the left base of my skull for the next couple days. A short time later I leap-frogged Davi and continued the last bit up to the terminus of Underhill.

*A couple suggestions for anyone reading this for route info:
1.) Upon entering the couloir, climb high and right as soon as you can. Doing so will take you up to some small ledges that allow you to avoid a great deal of unstable talus in the gully.
2.) When addressing the chockstone obstacle, I advise backing off 15-20ft before the actual chock and climbing the easy face up and right.
3.) If you do rope up for the chockstone, stay on lead until you run out of rope. The leader will be past any Class IV climbing and very close to the top of the couloir by that point. One roped pitch should get you through to the easy finish.

There was a fair amount of ice in the couloir and several times we found it easier to just rock climb the wall than deal with the ice.
Davi leading right of the chockstone crux...
...and the exit move. On the descent we could see down and realized that climbing up and right is a lot easier if you start on the broken face about 10-15 feet below the chockstone. FYI
The couloir has two distinct 'cruxy" sections. This is the upper of the two.

Atop the couloir we took a good break while enjoying a bit of morning sun. It was immediately clear that above this point our ascent would be a rock climbing one so we deposited our extra water, crampons, and the remaining axes atop the couloir. We soon got back to work, climbing a long and wildly exposed Class III slab. The climbing was easy and quick, very enjoyable. We soon crested the slab, caught our breath and continued up and left into the shadow on the west side of Thunderbolt.

The epically exposed Class IV broken slab above Underhill. This is a wild piece of climbing.
Davi ascending the slab above Underhill.
Above the slab we climbed up and left across a narrow ledge which terminated in a disorganized corner, the main feature of which is a long and unfriendly looking chimney. I racked up while Davi flaked out the rope, staring at the first 30 feet, breathing, planning. My first moves up the chimney got me into a vertical world of scratching and scraping, huffing and cussing. The rock was clean and the holds plentiful, but the moves were strenuous, especially in a pack and mountaineering boots. I slowly ground my way up the pitch until I could see it's end, blue sky between the Lightning Rod (the secondary summit) and the summit of T-bolt. Here I was presented with a choice. The last 30 feet of this chimney bifurcate into parallel seams. The left-hand option puts one in a vertical squeeze chimney, with scarcely enough room to shimmy up. This just looked way too energetic for me so I looked over at the right-hand option. This way offered a left hand crack and a series of easy face moves up edgy pink quartz. I took the right side and later, as Davi followed me up, I got to hear his fussing and spitting struggle up the last bit below me. He had opted for the squeeze chimney and was in full combat at the moment. As he cleared the chimney and came up below me he asked if I'd taken the quartz and when I replied that I had, he issued an expression of disgust that he'd unnecessarily groveled up that last bit. Apparently I hadn't placed any gear in that last 30 feet and as I belayed Davi up, the rope must have flipped left into the chimney and he just followed the rope up into that man-eating crevice. Don't do what he did, it sucks. Do what I did, it's easy.

We just had to go and do it the hard way (5.6 chimney).
This chimney full of stout, burly moves. Aesthetic grace  went out the window. It was a fight.
Davi, about to start up the chimney.

Starlight Peak from high on T-Bolt.

After clearing the chimney we only had a short scramble up and left to the summit block. The views of the range from up here were just awesome. The entire ridge of summits were on display and it was cool to view the Palisades from this vantage. We topped out on Thunderbolt by mid-morning and sat in the sun under the summit monolith atop the peak, which, from where we stood, was nearly at eye level just a few feet away.

Thunderbolt's summit monolith. 

A word about the summit monolith. I'd like to explain what it is and why I didn't climb it. Purists will say that you've not climbed Thunderbolt until you've climbed this last block, which requires creative and somewhat ridiculous rope handling antics to be able to protect it's few 5.8 slab moves. I say let purists be purists, Davi and I climbed the mountain. We didn't haul real rock climbing shoes up with us anyway, and climbing friction slabs in mountaineering boots doesn't really work well so, climbing the summit rock wasn't ever really high our our priorities list to begin with. Now, staring at it from 5 feet away, the top almost at eye level, it just looked like a big boulder on top of a really big mountain. I could visualize all the moves up the thing and it didn't look at all hard, but I doubt if I would have done it even if I had brought the rock shoes. There's 2 manky old bolts on top, one of which doesn't even have a hanger, so that's not safe. Just throwing a rope over the thing and climbing the western side while being belayed from the opposite side of the boulder didn't seem particularly safe.  I quickly analyzed everything that would be involved in climbing and descending this rock and I decided I didn't need to do it to feel like I've climbed the mountain. I viewed it as a gimmick, and Davi felt the same way.  I am forty years old, comfortable in my own hide, and I got nuthin' to prove to nobody because I only climb for myself. I don't need to risk my life for a Kodak moment, and no one can say we didn't choose a challenging route to the summit. 

Besides, I realized that the more energy I directed at this rock, the less I was simply enjoying being on the summit of this beautiful peak. I turned my back on the summit monolith and thought of it no more. Instead, I gazed outward toward Mt Sill and her sister peaks. We located a plastic bottle with some summit scribblings, mostly dating from 2011. We did not find a register.

Just easing into the idea of having to descend this peak. I remember the moment,  I had stopped for a second to sort of take in the view and empty my head before the dangerous work of heading down.

Staring down at chutes and ladders on the descent.
The weather up high was, in terms of the wind we had dealt with 48 hours before on North Palisade, a bit better, though still cold and still breezy. After a bit we were starting feeling the chill and it was time to put the summit behind us. I was not looking forward to the descent, which is pretty much how I always feel about descents from any big climb. I popped some caffeine and advil, stalled for a few seconds to clear my head and Davi and I quietly started down the mountain.We traversed back to the 5.6 chimney. Standing atop and looking down I was again impressed with the verticality of this burly chimney, which I expanded to include the entire route. This entire side of the mountain is really steep. Really. There were a few slings tied around a block at the lip of the drop and we soon tossed a rope out and it just cleanly sailed down. Vertical drop. Off I went.

Permit me to say that I wasn't born with an innate fear of heights, but I do have a very healthy respect for gravity and it's various effects on a falling me. Despite numerous orthopedic injuries I enjoy the hell out of gravity, but I do not enjoy rappelling. I used to work a ropes course at a scout camp, have rappelled many, many miles of rope in my life, and I just don't get much of a kick out of it anymore. Furthermore, it's more dangerous than most people realize and it's one of those time that the average rock climber is 100% dependent on the gear he or she is relying on to stay alive. There is no backup for a failed anchor when on rappel. No plan B. Game over. Every time I clip in I am aware of that fact.

We reversed our tip-toe under the Lightning Rod and by then we were feeling solid on the Class III down-climb to Underhill. On the saddle (or notch, or whatever you want to call it) we enjoyed a nice break in the sun and found, to our pleasure, that we were now out of the icy breeze. A short time later we descended the couloir in two quick rappels before stowing the rope and down-climbing the rest. We decided to do a last, low-angle rappel over the latitudinal cravasses of the 'schrund. It was a good choice to do so as the surface snow was pretty soft and we had no idea how many cracks in the ice waited under foot. I did put a foot through in one spot, feeling only air. Below, on the ice, we stowed the rope for the last time that day and began the long and blinding trek "home". 

Davi, rappelling down T-bolt's steep-as-hell 5.6 chimney. 

The first of two rappels down Underhill.

Both Davi and I were blown away by this climb, this route. This line has everything a High Sierra ought to have. We really enjoyed the steep and airy nature of the rock climbing, quality. As for Underhill, I'll say it's direct and gets the job done. It ain't pretty, but it's straight forward. I'm glad we'd rested the day before 'cause this was a very physical peak. I really enjoyed this climb.

This shot was taken 2 days later on the 29th from Starlight Peak.  Thunderbolt Peak. Gnar.

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  1. I don't think of you any less for skipping that bit to the summit, I wouldn't have done it!

    Great post, keep 'em coming :)

  2. Very good write up on Thunderbolt & all of your climbs. I also did not do the summit block due to lack of daylight and water. My friend & I were, by your photo angle, at the same spot on the mountain; some 10+ ft away and 5 ft below the summit. Just to get to the start of 5.8 route looked hairy, with all sides dropping straight down. This climb began from the Thunderbolt pass side back in 9/1993, when I was 42 yrs old. As for me, since we did not ascend the summit block, I could not put the mountain as it being completed. Note: the crux of our climb was a short section that was a 5.6 move (had to use my rock shoes). tokuo nakamoto 8-7-2013

  3. Thanks for reading. Thanks for sharing. ~DS