Can't Touch It! Winter Ascent of Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse

Many cruxes were identified as we made our way up the drainage heading towards the Palisade Glacier. The perfect combination of conditions, psych, and weather had to come together before the mountains would permit our passage.

(Note: For this trip, we've got a brand new feature on PullHarder - 3D trip reports! Be sure to read all the way to the end to check out our adventure in 3D.)

I tried Palisades last winter and knew that to accomplish it we will need to have good khram to khram communication, snow conditions and support from the Jesus. This year it all fell together indeed!

  • Snow needed to be hard enough for us not to posthole the whole way.
  • Snow/ice had to be soft enough in the gulley and on the ridge so that we could move sufficiently fast.
  • Weather needed to hold steady.
  • We had to be out of the mountains by midnight on Monday otherwise some people would be VERY worried.
  • Konstantin's pneumonia/ebola needed to remain in check.
  • The AAA sized Honda Fit battery had to start in the cold on the way back.
Natural selection?
Natural selection?

Tucked away from civilization in the Eastern Sierra mountains, the Palisades crest consists of five 14k ft peaks connected by a continuous ridge rising above a glacier. Although there exists a much longer Palisades traverse which links up other mountains in the vicinity, the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse is the one most often done and perhaps one of the most classic climbing traverses in California. First ascended in the summer of 1934 we couldn't find information of anyone successfully completing the traverse in Winter but we felt strong and were excited about a weekend of suffering.

We left after work on Friday January 14, 2011 and managed to drive to within two miles of Glacier Lodge where the snow plows had ceased their duties. At 3:30AM that familiar sound of my alarm woke us up as we started up the trail. We listened one more time to MC Hammer “Can`t touch it” and took off. The road up to Glacier Lodge consisted of hard packed snow so we managed to cover that ground relatively quickly in our boots. At Glacier Lodge we began the slog in our snowshoes up towards the Palisade glacier. Although it was long, the approach was not completely unenjoyable as conditions were good, spirits were high, and Konstantin entertained us with his song.

[vimeo]20002429[/vimeo]

11 hours later we made it to our bivy spot on the snow field below the Thunderbolt couloir and after a quick meal we started the process of getting some rest (even though it was only 4PM!). In the morning, Konstantin announced that despite his hacking, his lungs just might be strong enough to ascend the ridge and that he doesn't even like pneumonia. Sure enough, we pushed strong up to the ridge and managed to start ticking off the summits. Jesus was there, holding our khrams on belay. Snow conditions were unbelievably good compared to the last year with almost no deep snow clusterfucking involved. After a bit of disorientation on the ridge we lassoed Thunderbolt peak and I pseudo-top-roped my way up to it in boots. Next up was Starlight, which Konstantin led with ease despite the wind that was starting to gust.

By this point in the day we had established that Konstantin was comfortable on the snowey and icy pitches while I was more comfortable on the rock. We simul-climbed when we could, unroped where we felt comfortable, and pitched it out when it got sketchy. Shay was seemingly fearless squeezing his way down the cold chimneys and squirting up the exposed 5.6 slabs. I had to insist several time to rope up, to keep this unstoppable jewish lizard alive.

Konstantin navigates the ridge
Konstantin navigates the ridge

Realizing that we would soon have to settle down for the night, I set off on a steep but easy lead towards the summit of N. Palisade with the intent of finding a suitable bivy spot. The wind on the North side of the ridge was blowing incredibly strong, which limited our options. Finally I settled on a small slopey ledge and belayed Konstantin in order to inspect. We managed to move some of the snow off of the ledge and made it such that 1.3 of us could lay down on their back comfortably. This would have to do.

[vimeo]19566360[/vimeo]

That night we would stay tied in with sleep coming in 30 minute bursts. Every 30 minutes or so Konstantin would slowly slide down the ledge so he would need to readjust, which involved pushing up against me despite my precarious position above the abyss. Nonetheless, his presence was appreciated as he helped to contain my own sliding. Ropes that held us on the ledge stayed tight all the night long so did our assholes. In the midst of the night I finally came to conclusion that the only way for me to catch some sleep is to crawl on the top of peacefully snoring Shay. Boy, that bastard was sneaky and hard to mount! My iron russian chocking technique would be easily avoided by Shay`s direct punch in my head. Finally, we found some cease-fire position and I fell asleep.

Sunrise from the Palisade crest
Sunrise from the Palisade crest

The next morning (Monday) we awoke to a clear day and despite the cold managed to get moving relatively early. Three summits later we were on our way down, rappelling down the gully between Sill and Polemonium and then downclimbing the rest of the way. Despite the ups and downs of the previous three days, we had sent! I worried a lot about rapelling down since in the summer it was the sketchiest part due to lots of loose rock. Despite looking a bit disturbing repelling down turned to be ok since there was no loose rock in winter. We quickly made our way to the glacier unsuccessfully tried to ass-glissade the hard pack snow down the Temple crag and in a few hours were at the final 2 miles of the trail. Here Jesus left us. Snow was deep and wet making us semi-postholing even in our snowshoes. We went completely back country just trying to stay in the right direction towards the car. And at this time optimistic Shay started to sing some R rated Irish song to keep our moods high! It worked: in a few minutes we were back to the car, passed the last crux (starting it) and enjoying the latest MC Hammer hits....Can’t touch it!

On top of Sill Zussamen!
On top of Sill Zussamen!

Commentary in white by Shay and blasphemy in Yellow by Konstantin

Our friends at Tomnod have put together an awesome interface to post trip reports in 3D. You will need to download the Google Earth Plugin if it is not already installed. Use the buttons to advance the tour, drag the view around and click on the pics to increase their size. Note that it is best viewed in Safari, Chrome, or Firefox.

To create your own TR using the Tomnod 3D Explorer go here.

Please help out Tomnod by completing their survey or by clicking on 'feedback' above and telling them what sucked and what was awesome (or leave comments below).

[nggallery id=151]