This is quite a long and (over)detailed description of Tim and my expedition on the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse in the Palisades. It is more for my memory than anything, but in case you want to hear what happened - read on!
While chatting a few months ago, Tim and I hatched a plan to add a Thunderbolt to Sill traverse on to the end of a conference that I had in San Francisco. The conference ran from Sunday June 23 to Wednesday the 26th, and Tim planned to fly in and meet me. I woke up around 7am local time on Wednesday to 3 text messages from Tim: "Dude, flight delayed, pilot thinks 2 hours late etc..." No biggie, I figured I would just meet him at the airport instead of him coming to pick me up at the end of the conference. Around 10:30am I got an email that said because I had not confirmed my permit, they were not granting it. (I didn't know I had to confirm it) A panicked call to the ranger set it straight, and I assured him that we were definitely heading in that night and we were definitely going straight to the trailhead as soon as we could, and we were definitely not waiting until Thursday to hike in. (We were definitely planning on heading in on Thursday, but all of the permits had issued, and we didn't get one.) My conference finally ended at noon, and I took a taxi to SFO. Tim landed, we grabbed the rental car, and were finally on our way; almost 3 hours behind schedule. We fairly flew to the Meadows though, arriving around 6:30pm. After some discussion on what to climb, we settled on "Aqua Knobby." Well, typical of Tuolumne, there was someone on that route, (starting at 7pm!!!) so we had to settle for Zee Tree - which turned out to be pretty fun, and very chill. I think we were back in the car before 9, and in Lee Vining for food just before 10. After some searching, we found our permit in the night box in Mono Basin visitors center, and then boogied to Bishop.
The hotel clerk was a tattooed up metal head and he was super nice. The second part turned out to be especially relevant, since the first room we tried had not been made up; and the second room had 2 sleeping people in it! Eventually we got a clean room, bolted the door, and settled in for some sleep.
After breakfast and shopping, we headed up to the trail head, sorted gear, food, etc, and hiked up to Bishop pass. The bugs were awful, but we just kept moving, and made the pass pretty quickly. There we let our guard down, and wasted a bit too much time chatting with some hikers and debating where we should camp for the night. Eventually we decided to grab a bivvy about halfway between Bishop pass and Thunderbolt pass - this turned out to be a huge mistake - we should have camped on the pass itself.
After dinner we decided to melt some snow, and as the flame sputtered and died out, I thought, "oh no, not again..." Honestly, my stove karma has to be reset by now. I have had issues with stoves/ fuel - see: Temple Crag. No big deal, we just filtered some snow runoff, and settled in for sleep. Tim was out in a few minutes, but I tossed and turned and essentially counted down to sunrise. The alarm finally went off at 5am and we drank cold breakfast shakes and set off. (Big mistake #2 - should have been 4am.) The hike to Thunderbolt pass was further than it looked, but we made it up to and over the pass pretty quickly. We found the correct gully, and even caught an old timer on his way up Thunderbolt. He pointed us in the right direction, which was super helpful, and we opted not to do the lightning rod, but did opt for the true summit of TB - 14,003'. After some internal debate, I realized that I would forever hate myself if I chickened out on the V1 X summit block, so I harnessed up, and then hooted victory as I clipped the anchors. Tim belayed me down, I belayed him up and down, then we headed on toward Starlight.
Somehow, somewhere, we totally missed the true summit of Starlight, but I think we were pretty darn close - probably just behind one of the gendarmes that we went around. Technically we didn't summit it, but we were close; ~14,200'. Eventually we came upon a little rap into a gully, and Tim thought we had also somehow missed North Palisade - which totally bummed us out, because that would have meant missing the high point on the route. We rapped, climbed, and summited another peak, and were psyched to see the register say N Palisade - 14,248'. After some summit shots we continued on, this time finding the true U notch rappel. We were happy for the rope, as the downclimb looked terrifying, and there were some tricky shenanigans that went along with getting over to Polemonium peak. Once on the other side of the notch, I put my rock shoes on and we actually roped up for a bit, as the climbing was somewhat technical for a few pitches. I led for a bit, then brought Tim up, only to realize that there was a belay right above my head that marked the end of the technical climbing on Polemonium peak. Tim bounded up and summited - 14,080' - and brought me up quickly.
It was around this time that I saw the eastern sky grow dark... (I hoped our doom was not at hand) I told Tim we needed to get moving, and so we did. We sighted the Sill saddle, and after arriving there, dropped our packs and tagged the summit - passing some mountaineers who had done the U-Notch gully snow climb. (They looked BEAT) We snapped a few (victory?) shots, signed the register and headed back to our packs and down off of Mt. Sill - 14,159'.
Here is where the fun began. The clouds the I had seen from Polemonium had continued to darken and thicken, also the wind picked up, and it decided to start raining. Rain would have been ok, but then it started hailing. Hail would have been ok, but the temps dropped, thunder and lightning crashed VERY close by, and the rocks became a slippery mess. Usually thunderstorms in the Sierras are over quickly. This one lasted about an hour or more, and not only thoroughly drenched us, but also made the going treacherous for the entire time it was coming down. The rain did stop eventually, and our clothes actually dried out due to the high desert air.
It was the time lost more than the rain itself that made the biggest impact on us. We were contouring around the mountains we had just summited, and the going was very slow. What we failed to realize was that the climb was not the difficult part of the traverse, but that the hike back to camp after the descent from Sill WAS. 6pm became 7; 7 became 8; and it was slowly, yet inexorably getting dark. 8 became 9; I swore to Tim - I was 100% positive - that we had just gone over TB pass, and that our camp was just over by that snow patch... Well, we hadn't. And, it wasn't. And the quartz dikes were not the dikes we were looking for... 9 became 10, and I could not really walk anymore. The boulder hopping we had been doing for the last 4-5 hours, and being on the move for about 15 hours had caught up to us, and we were not even sure where we were going anymore. We also could not see anything, despite our headlamps, and were afraid we were going to cliff out, or sprain an ankle at any moment. We had long since run out of water and food, so we decided that we would drink from the runoff, and risk the parasites. We managed to find some water and pretty close to that we found a patch of dirt that was flat and mostly dry. I pulled out everything from my pack - including the foam backpiece and put the pack as far up my legs as it would go, put the pad under my hips, and tried to sleep. (Notice here the lack of sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, jacket, gloves, and warm clothing whatsoever, food, etc) Tim graciously offered me a very thin jacket, and I eagerly accepted. He choked down some jerky and drank some water before laying down. When he did, I unabashedly cuddled up with him, and proceeded to shiver for the next 5ish hours. The temperature probably dipped into the low 40s, and I got exactly zero sleep again. I will admit that I was really pissed off when I heard Tim snoring...
4am could not come fast enough, as I laid there thinking about the true definitions of cold, hungry and tired. The moon broke over the palisades around 2:30am, and then finally 4 came around. I roused Tim and we set off to find our ACTUAL camp. I was pretty nervous by this time, and I was even wondering if we had gone the right direction off the mountain. (I think I was a bit delirious) Tim kept assuring me that we were in the right area, and that even though the lake below us had no island, we would soon see our lake - with the island. Eventually we came to familiar ground, and went over TB pass. That quartz dike system and the gully we had gone up 24 hours ago were a refreshing sight. Eventually we found our camp, packed up and split. We hiked out about as fast as we could, and managed to get back down to the car by about 11:30am. We had foolishly been joking about hiking out the previous night if we had gotten back to camp before 8pm... we hadn't even made it TO TB pass until about 6:30am the following day!
Tim drove us down into Bishop where I think I ate some wings, 3/4 of a pizza and drank most of a pitcher of beer. We rolled over to the Best Western across the street and I hit the bed. I woke up around 7pm, briefly thought about a hot tub, then fell back asleep. Around 1am, I smelled something delicious, noticed Tim eating his leftovers, and woke up to eat the rest of my pizza - having slept through dinner time. The next time I woke up was around 8am. (That's roughly 16 hours of sleep) We grabbed breakfast, then hit the road. We rolled into SF around 5:30pm and grabbed dinner with some friends who pretty much just laughed at us for a few hours, which was certainly deserved. (He had been following our progress on the Spot tracker, and knew we were benighted.) The rest of the trip home was uneventful, and I rolled in to work (totally useless) around 9:30am.
Before this, neither Tim nor I had ever been caught out on a climb. We severely underestimated the hike back out, and fell prey to the classic blunder of assuming the climb was over at the last summit. It seems funny to think that such experienced climbers could have had such a close call, but it shows that climbs should never be underestimated. We should have at least had another jacket, food, a water purifier (or tabs) and a better idea of how long the hike out was going to take. I am glad we escaped mostly unscathed, and I certainly learned a lot, but I do not recommend getting caught out without any gear to anyone, as it was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever had. (Second only to the food poisoning in Utah) I am planning on another Palisades adventure (Evo Traverse) in a couple of weeks, and will be much better prepared.
Thanks for reading - climb safe!