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Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse 

YDS: 5.9 French: 5c Ewbanks: 17 UIAA: VI ZA: 17 British: HVS 5a

Type:  Trad, Alpine, 5280', Grade IV
Original:  YDS: 5.9 French: 5c Ewbanks: 17 UIAA: VI ZA: 17 British: HVS 5a Easy Snow [details]
FA: John Ohrenschall & John Mathias - 1958
Season: Summer
Page Views: 21,478
Submitted By: Cory Harelson on Aug 11, 2009

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looking back, after completing the full palisade t...


Another posting of the Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse (but misnamed the Palisade Traverse) is posted ?here?.

This super classic route takes you on a tour of five 14,000ft summits. Start by climbing Thunderbolt Peak. Many options exist; we climbed Southwest Chute #1, which went at 4th class. This deposits you at the base of the summit block. Gaining the top of the summit block involves a few exposed moves of 5.9, and is the crux of the entire route. There are ample places to build an anchor for your belayer, but there is no pro until you get to the top (only about 15 feet). A fall would either be factor 2, or (more likely) you would land you in a pile of boulders before the rope came taught. Either way it wouldn't be good. Belay from bolts on top.

From Thunderbolt, downclimb and then follow the ridge to a small tower. Pass the tower by downclimbing to the left, cutting right eventually to gain some slabs (some exposed class 4), and then climb up to the summit of Starlight. The summit block of Starlight was the only other place where we belayed (although many may feel a belay is justified at other places along the traverse). The summit block is called the "Milk Bottle" for obvious reasons, and goes at 5.4. Great photo opportunity here.

From Starlight, some more exposed downclimbing leads to a small gap in the ridge. We rappelled into the gap and then pendulumed across to the ledge on the other side. After this follow exposed ledges out right, which supposedly lead to a class 4 climb to the summit of North Palisade. We didn't find the class 4 route, and ended up on terrain that felt 5.5 or 5.6 and very exposed.

From North Palisade a short scramble leads to the top of the chimney above the U-Notch. One double rope, or two single rope rappels lead to the top of the U-Notch. Cross the U-Notch, and once again follow exposed ledges (class 4) out right, and then some exciting class 4 straight up to the summit of Polemonium.

From Polemonium, a class 4 downclimb leads to the boulder field on the back side of Sill. Follow the boulders to a notch in the ridge a couple hundred feet below Sill's summit. Drop your packs here and scramble up to tag Sill's summit. Don't forget to admire the view while you're there, it's quite impressive.

Head back to your packs, and head down the last class 4 downclimb of the day. At the bottom of the downclimb, head right on ledges to Apex Notch. From the notch head down the L-shaped Couloir to the Palisade Glacier, then through Galey camp to the Sam Mack Meadow Trail. It's all trail and mostly downhill from here all the way back to Glacier Lodge.

Finally, at Glacier Lodge exchange high fives and have yourself a victory beer, you just summited one-third of California's fourteeners in a day!

A couple of thoughts:
-We shuttled by dropping a car at glacier lodge and then driving to South Lake to start the hike.

-After reaching the summit block of Thunderbolt it took us 9 hours to reach the summit of Sill. Granted we had 6 people so belaying at the two technical summit blocks, and the rappels, took awhile. I'm sure this can be climbed much faster by a competent party of two.

-The last for-sure place to fill up water is at a lake just after Bishop Pass. The next place to get water was Sam Mack Meadow, which we reached about 14 hours later. So bring plenty of containers to fill up at Bishop Pass!

-Locating the trail from Gayley camp to Sam Mack Meadow can be tricky, especially in the dark. Make every effort to be on the good trail before sundown.


Park one car at Glacier Lodge, outside of Big Pine. Then Drive to South Lake, outside of Bishop ~55 miles. Start early and hike up the good trail to Bishop Pass. From Bishop Pass cross country to Thunderbolt Pass. From here, Southwest Chute #1 starts just around the corner to the left.

After you reach Sam Mack Meadow, follow the good trail for about 8 miles past 3rd, 2nd and 1st lakes down to Glacier Lodge where your car will be waiting.


A few nuts and cams to build anchors at Thunderbolt and Starlight. A light rope. Ice axe and/or crampons for the L-shaped Couloir. Approach shoes, and rock shoes for whoever gets to lead the summit block of Thunderbolt. A few slings in case you need to beef up rappel anchors.

Photos of Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse Slideshow Add Photo
Rock Climbing Photo: t-bolt summit block
BETA PHOTO: t-bolt summit block
Rock Climbing Photo: Dave, leading the "Milk Bottle" on Starl...
Dave, leading the "Milk Bottle" on Starl...
Rock Climbing Photo: Tbolt summit block (photo by Damien)
Tbolt summit block (photo by Damien)
Rock Climbing Photo: Above Sam Mack meadow, approaching T-Bolt and the ...
Above Sam Mack meadow, approaching T-Bolt and the ...
Rock Climbing Photo: Cory on some very exposed "4th" class on...
Cory on some very exposed "4th" class on...
Rock Climbing Photo: suncups on the L-shaped couloir
suncups on the L-shaped couloir
Rock Climbing Photo: deer skeleton below sill
deer skeleton below sill
Rock Climbing Photo: Cory leading the summit block on Thunderbolt Peak
Cory leading the summit block on Thunderbolt Peak
Rock Climbing Photo: Approaching underhill across the glacier at 530 am...
Approaching underhill across the glacier at 530 am...
Rock Climbing Photo: traverse to sill
BETA PHOTO: traverse to sill
Rock Climbing Photo: Working our way up underhill, great snow for our s...
Working our way up underhill, great snow for our s...
Rock Climbing Photo: The Palisades
The Palisades
Rock Climbing Photo: Sam Mack meadow, we went up the left snow field to...
Sam Mack meadow, we went up the left snow field to...
Rock Climbing Photo: Our bivy on the toe of the moraine right below und...
Our bivy on the toe of the moraine right below und...
Rock Climbing Photo: view to the NW
view to the NW
Rock Climbing Photo: NE rib on T-bolt
NE rib on T-bolt
Rock Climbing Photo: Palisade Glacier and my approach/descent routes
BETA PHOTO: Palisade Glacier and my approach/descent routes
Rock Climbing Photo: U-notch (in season)
U-notch (in season)
Rock Climbing Photo: exposed fun on the way to Polemonium
exposed fun on the way to Polemonium
Rock Climbing Photo: traverse to pol
traverse to pol
Rock Climbing Photo: steep soft snow below sam mack meadow, the palisad...
steep soft snow below sam mack meadow, the palisad...
Rock Climbing Photo: downclimb to N Pal
downclimb to N Pal
Rock Climbing Photo: On the approach
On the approach
Rock Climbing Photo: Most of the T to S Ridge
Most of the T to S Ridge

Show All 45 Photos

Only the first 24 are shown above.

Comments on Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse Add Comment
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Comments displayed oldest to newestSkip Ahead to the Most Recent Dated Aug 29, 2016
By fossana
From: leeds, ut
May 3, 2010

I have a summitpost page with additional beta on the traverse here.
By fossana
From: leeds, ut
Sep 29, 2010

I soloed the route in reverse this past Sunday (skipped T-bolt due to get off the moraine before dark) as a car-to-car from Glacier Lodge. Have also done this as a car-to-car from S Lake. I'm up in the air as to which one is better.

The approach to the Swiss Arete is long, but the route itself goes quickly. The chimney on N Pal is easy locate and uneventful. You can access the notch between N Pal and Starlight by dropping into the short chimney then downclimbing a lieback crack. It's easy climbing back up to the ridge on the right side. After Starlight I descended Underhill Couloir, which is silty and loose Secor "class 4". Use caution if there are other people around. It's a direct route to the glacier.

As mentioned in the route description it's easy to lose the trail back to Sam Mack once darkness falls. I ended up bushwhacking my way down to the inlet of Third Lake, listening for the running water. In the end it wasn't too bad.
By Cory Harelson
From: Boise, ID
Oct 1, 2010

Wow nice additional info and photos Michelle! Doing it in reverse looks fun, especially since you get to climb the Swiss Arete on Sill if you go that way!
By fossana
From: leeds, ut
Jan 11, 2011

Sorry, Cory. Just saw this post. Thanks! The Swiss Arete is definitely more entertaining than the SW chute on T-bolt.
By J. Hickok
Mar 5, 2012
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a Easy Snow

This was one of my most memorable days of climbing. By yourself is pretty magical and easier to move quickly, but a partner would be welcomed and great to share the experience with!
By harihari
Aug 13, 2012

We did this as a party of 3 in about 5 hours from Winchell (sp?) col to Sill. We did two 30m raps and belayed for one 25m pitch. We soloed the rest of it. We did not tag Sill as our ice tools were buzzing in the storm. The best climbing is almost always right on the arête, where most of the towers that lOok scary bcome easily downclimbable.

I would bring a superlight rope, Camalots from .4 to #1, and a few nuts. If you are not OK soloing 5.6 or so, don't do this route-- you will literally spend 3 days on it. If you can solo 5.8 then ditch the gear and just bring a rope...or ditch the rope and downclimb the raps (maybe 5.5 or so).

A great route and the OP's beta is good.

By Kirk Schleiffarth
From: Flagstaff, Arizona
Jun 24, 2013

Did this route as a party of two on Saturday June 22, 2013. Friday we hiked in and camped on the moraine as close to Underhill couloir as we could get. We climbed Underhill couloir and did the entire traverse from Thunderbolt to Sill on Saturday. We soloed most of the route, rapped 5 or 6 times, and only belayed one pitch on North Pal. Descended the north couloir on Sill and hiked over the glacier to back to base camp. Hiked out Sunday. Great!

Bershrunds are big. U notch and V notch look icy.
By suuntout
Jun 27, 2013
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a Easy Snow R

Adding to schilfes comment, we completed the route camp to camp in 13 hours, perfect weather, route finding did not end up being overly difficult, we found underhill to starlight to take a lot longer than we expected, about an hour and a half.
We used steph abegg's beta on the route and found it very helpful
By Alexander K
From: The road
Oct 18, 2015
rating: 5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c Easy Snow

If you're soloing this just bring 30m rope for raps. Easy to find 4th class scramble to right of chimney when descending U-Notch. I only rapped off of the 2 summit blocks and across the gap between Starlight and North Palisade and felt the down climbs were all quite reasonable. Could probably get away with 20m.
By Geoff Unger
From: Moab, UT
Jun 11, 2016

FOUND! iPhone 5 near the summit of Thunderbolt. Email me if it's yours and I'll return it to you.
By Joe Crawford
From: June Lake, California
Jul 28, 2016
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a

Did this yesterday and had an absolute blast. Schrund crossing below NE couloir of T-bolt was easy still, but the couloir was AI2+ and one tool made it interesting. The beta on Steph Abegg's site is fantastic.
By grabski
From: N California
Aug 29, 2016

This past week we attempted the traverse in a day. Had a great time during the climb. We made it from Thunderbolt to N Palisade, but decided to bail at U-notch because it was getting late and we were moving too slow to finish at a reasonable time. We soloed most of the route, but the one roped section and rappels were slowed greatly by our party of 4. I can't find any good descriptions of the U-notch rappel descent online, so I'm posting here for any future U-notch retreaters.

U-Notch rappel descent beta:

When dry, the descent from U-notch to the Palisade Glacier is long without ice tools. It involves ~8 30m rappels down a loose gully with some tricky rappels, a lot of rock fall, and some care to avoid a stuck rope. Prepare to leave webbing depending on tat conditions. Double-roping the rappels isn't advised as it would increase chances of getting your rope stuck.

From the top of U-notch, walk down a short section of loose rock to a narrow gully at the skier's left. The main col heads down skiers right to the steep ice col that is the standard U-notch ice ascent. But you want to keep skiers left the whole way down. The first couple rap stations are on the skiers right and middle of this gully on some threads and horns. After this keep to the skiers left, following rappels set in the rock on the skiers left side of the gully.

At about the 4th and 5th rappels, the gully will start trending skiers right back to the steep ice. It's tempting to follow the gully down toward this and skirt along the edge of the ice and rock. Don't do this (there are no rappel stations along the rock next to the ice since the ice cleans the rock of any usable features). Instead, while on rappel make an awkward horizontal traverse for 20 ft back skiers left onto the blocky rock face, then rappel down to the next station. The 5th or 6th rappel is similar: it's tempting to follow the gully down right to the ice, but again, do an initial awkward horizontal traverse skier's left along a ramp onto the rock face. Then rap down to the next station. Another couple raps down the rock face gets you to the last rappel. This last rappel deposits you right at the schrund. From there you can hike down the glacier with crampons and axe.

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