Field Report: Summiting Starlight and Thunderbolt in the Eastern Sierra

Cascade MountainsMy Canadian friend, Ryan, has always been one of my favorite climbing partners. We’ve climbed together a lot through the years – everywhere from Squamish to Joshua Tree with many places in between. Ryan and his wife try to make their way to my house on the east side of the Sierra for a month every summer, and I always know that month is going to be a rough one. Simply put, Ryan is always psyched to climb and he never wants to stop. I don’t think he knows what “rest days” are beside rainy days in B.C. where he has to climb in the gym. But on the eastern Sierra, the rain isn’t as abundant so not climbing when it’s sunny out is pretty much out of the question for Ryan.

Every time Ryan visits we get a chance to brainstorm ideas for different climbs, and this time it was Ryan’s choice. His pick of the week was the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse in the rugged palisades area just south of Bishop. I’ve always wanted to do the climb so of course I was stoked to check it out.

Climbing the Thunderbolt in the Sierra MountainsThe traverse includes five 14,000-foot summits over more than a mile of ridge with a lot of ups and downs and a steep approach and descent. If you’ve never seen the famed summits of Starlight and Thunderbolt peaks imagine 10 to 15-feet-tall granite spires scraping the sky. Staring up, all we could think, “They’re begging to be sat on top of. “

As we started the long approach the weather was perfectly clear but as we rounded the second lake clouds started to form – dark clouds. We knew we might not make it to Sam Mack meadow, which is where we planned to camp the night before the climb.

Sure enough about six miles into the approach the blue sky disappeared and it started to rain and hail. We took shelter under a rock and thought about our retreat; we were too far from the start of the climb in order to start from there in the morning. After about an hour and a half the rain began to subside and back up the trail we went towards our first goal, the base of the traverse.

Brooks Range Camping GearRelieved, we made it to camp just after dark. After some food, music and a bit of sleep, we left camp around 6 a.m. Needless to say, we were tired. After a few hours of trekking from camp we were on the ridge and finally climbing! On our long awaited journey to see the gorgeous summit of Thunderbolt and the rest of the traverse, we were nothing less than psyched.

Climbing in the Sierra MountainsAfter the long ridge up the north side of Thunderbolt, I took the lead to the Lightning Rod (the summit of Thunderbolt) and a little later Ryan took the Milk Bottle (the summit of Starlight). Throughout most of the traverse we were either un-roped or had no pro in between us – an amazing feeling to be that exposed yet so comfortable without a rope or gear.

Climbing in the Sierra MountainsThe rest of the traverse was pretty smooth from the summit of North Pal, which may boast the best view in the High Sierra. On the way toward Sill we were exhausted. On the last steep section on the descent of Sill I remember showing Ryan some boulder problems I had jokingly done on my last visit to Sill and Ryan, the most psyched climber I know, looks at the boulders, looks back at me and just keeps walking toward camp. I was finally able to tire my friend out so much that even on a sunny day, he passed up some climbing.

– Charlie Barrett

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