Pictures from the ascents of Thunderbolt Peak (Southwest Chute #1, class 3 / 5.9) and Columbine Peak (Northeast Ridge, class 2), with Lanier Benkard, René Renteria and Christine Burke, September 2-5, 2001

René Renteria's trip report:

Southwest Chute #1, III, mostly class 3, some class 4, 5.9 summit block

Palisade Crest, Sierra Nevada Range CA

Sept 4, 2001

Rene' Renteria and Christine Burke

Here's a trip report of a trip to the Sierra that Chris and I went on with our friends Lanier and Romain over Labor Day.

The Palisades were great, and it was a hard-hiking trip. We had trouble leaving a wedding reception in Vallejo (San Francisco Bay Area, California) full of good friends and good wine on Saturday, staying until 8pm before finally leaving for Bishop. We pulled into camp at 8000 ft. at 3am. Lanier and Romain, who had been there a day and had hiked in some of their gear, got us up at 6am to go try to snag a parking spot at the trailhead at 10,000 ft. There was only one left.

We started hiking in with packs heavy with climbing gear and the normal backpacking crap, thinking we might take a nap somewhere along the way, which we never did. Lanier and Romain quickly left us behind to shuffle along in the bright sunshine and perfect hiking temperature. We were trying to get up and over Bishop Pass at 12,000 ft. five miles or so in, which we did after much huffing and puffing and after passing several beautiful alpine lakes. It's gorgeous country, and the view to the Evolution Basin, standing on Bishop Pass, is fantastically full of granite peaks and spires and small streams into lakes. From the pass, we had to leave the trail and traverse cross country over 2 miles of talus under the almost 2000 foot high western escarpment of the Palisade Crest to get up and over Thunderbolt Pass at 12,400 ft., which we didn't after much huffing, puffing, scrambling, wrestling with packs, and resting. We got close, though. At 5:30pm, we found a small, cleared out space at 12,000 ft. with a small snowfield above for water, and we stopped, still not acclimated to the altitude, sleep-deprived, and utterly wrecked.

Predictably, we didn't do much the next day, sleeping late and moving camp up and over the pass. We set up a nice campsite on a level sand and gravel platform at 12,000 ft. near what is descriptively called "Southwest Chute #1" of Thunderbolt Peak, which we planned to climb the next day to the 14,003 ft. summit. Although it was only 11:30am, the clouds had already built ominously, and we could see Lanier and Romain descending the chute, occasionally sending loose rocks and gravel clattering down.

Late in the afternoon, we got rained on, which precipitated a huge rockfall from somewhere near the top of Starlight Peak, the next peak over from Thunderbolt, that we all got to watch. It must have started at about 14,000 ft. as something big slid, slick with new rain, and let go. This was a reminder of how powerful some of the forces in the mountains can be and was an eye-opening example of objective dangers. The rocks shot like bullets and bombs through the bottom half of the Northwest Chute of Starlight, ricocheting off the rock walls and pounding the talus fan at the bottom, almost 2000 ft. down, in explosions of dust. It was incredible. As the booming echoes died down, Lanier mentioned that they wouldn't be doing the route the next day, as they had planned. No kidding. It was likely the newly loose rocks would need several days of weather, wind, and good karma to settle. Perhaps a lifetime.

Having trouble sleeping, I got up and out of the tent at 2am that night to take some Advil and check the weather. The air was perfectly still and almost crystalline. There were no clouds, and the full moon shone with blue-white gemstone brilliance. The lakes below us sparkled, and the bright granite faces and deep shadows of the chimneys, chutes, and dihedrals were so quiet they were speaking. I could feel myself standing on sand and granite stretching to the summit and tried to listen, arms outspread, eyes wide open.

The chute required care to keep from sending rocks down on one another, and the huge walls rose on either side, streaked with horizontal quartz intrusions. A fortuitous ledge (described in the guidebook) led up and away around massed chockstones, and our breathing and beating hearts matched that particular sound of shifting scree and talus. The previous day's weather had left a dusting of powder snow on the rocks high in the chute, and our fingers were cold clutching raspy granite. A few steep moves with blue sky above led us out from the shadows into the warm sunshine of the notch between Thunderbolt's twin summit blocks. The glacier below was dramatic with open crevasses and large bergschrunds below the other mountains, and we could hear a pair of climbers talking: "On belay." "OK." "Climbing."

The steep fourth class moves over slightly icy rock were invigorating, and Chris traversed over to the summit block. She belayed me over, and the real game began. Thunderbolt has a granite pyramidal sculpture, about 15 feet high on this side, sitting on top, as if placed just-so by some playful deity. Normally, the block requires a 5.9 move or two without protection or some creative rope tossing and scrambling for a belay over the top from the other side. However, someone had placed a string of now somewhat manky looking slings linked to the carabiner through the bolts on the summit. Two paths of holds suggested themselves, and I stared at those slings.

My blood rushed through my ears, and I could hear my little voices. They spoke: "Yard on those fuckers," they said. "Climb it clean, don't clip, break your leg if you fall, see if I care, you nit." "Chicken." "It's only right to do this clean and free." "Who are you?"

"I don't think I would do this if those slings weren't there," I told Chris.

"I wouldn't blame you," she said. She wouldn't offer to lead, sitting quietly, patiently, enjoying the sunshine and our days in the mountains; this was mine to deal with. I am grateful to her for that.

Just getting on the block would require a committing lean from a spike of rock onto a friction and mantle move. In the end, I turned my back on wanting to do it clean, grabbed and pre-clipped the hated, wondrous slings. I visualized my moves. I did this again. Finally, I set-off, essentially on top-rope but still nervous and wondering about shame and respect, for myself and for the rock in front of me. I mantled with friction feet and was momentarily transported back to the Gunks and the first move of Classic, remembering how long I spent before finally doing the 5.7 mantle to the first piton. It was funny. I was having trouble getting my inflexible leg up to put my foot by my hand. The blue sky was building small puffy clouds as the afternoon build began, early again. The little local breeze held its breath for me, watching me deal with my demons--disinterestedly, as it has to be--this short piece of granite bouldering at 14,000 feet condensing my climbing angst, fears, and jubilations into a small poem of three moves.


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