Climbing a Classic High Sierra Traverse in Just 2 Days
Written by Mike Pond, Photos by Lorenzo Riano
40 hours, 20 miles, 13,804 feet of elevation gain, Five 14ers, one epic adventure
There are many ways a climb can be measured. Height, difficulty, distance, snow, ice, rock… Alpine traverses in the Sierra are measured in miles of technical terrain. They’re big, beautiful, highly technical, and are a gem of the California alpine. And for all the things that can go awry in the mountains – the weather’s too hot or too cold, storms, thunderstorms, wildfires (all of which we have already had this season) – sometimes everything just falls into place and goes without a hitch. This was one of those times.
Over two days, Lorenzo Riano and I climbed the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse. Located in the Palisades, the heart of one of the Sierra’s prime climbing areas, a ridge links all the peaks in this high mountain cirque. This traverse is usually done in three or four days. Lorenzo and I have a bit of a penchant for going big. I’ve done my share of long days, mostly on the climbing side. Alaska, Washington, California – usually long alpine and rock climbs. Lorenzo, on the other side, has done a few wacky things (that he’s eager to point out are stupidly long): Everesting (29,000 ft. vertical up and down on a bike in a single day), ultra-marathons, and few dozen other wild endurance (mis-)adventures. At least we both share an aversion for heavy packs, and a love for moving fast over long days in the backcountry. We’re both easy going, chatty while hiking, and really like spending time in the mountains. We had a blast.
On the first day, we set the alarm for 1am, typical alpine start time. I never like getting up early, but I also never mind being high up in the mountains with plenty of time. And the early morning alpenglow over Temple Crag and Second Lake doesn’t hurt either. On the approach, we passed all types of terrain – open sagebrush, ponderosa forest, several lakes, alpine meadow, rocky glacial moraine, glacier, snow couloir, alpine rock ridge.
With valley temps in the upper 90s, our access to the ridge top, a Northeast-facing snow couloir, would be early to melt to a soft sloppy mess. By the time we crossed the glacier and started ascending toward summit of Thunderbolt, the snow had softened enough to allow us to travel easily with a light ice axe and approach shoes with crampons (the alpine rock special). If we were a couple hours later, the snow would be too sloppy to travel. By the time we were higher up in the couloir, we had to exit off the soft snow to scramble on rock – really glad we didn’t get up later.
Once on rock terrain, the non-stop flurry of ropework begins. Scramble together, drop the rope coils, climb a pitch, belay, grab the rope, scramble a few more moves, walk on talus, drop the rope, climb more rock, place a few cams here and there, belay on innumerable rock horns, climb together, sling the ridge crest, rig a quickrappel, recoil… This is where efficiency is paramount. Every little break, every slow coil, every moment not spent moving is time standing still – and we had little time to spare.
Lorenzo was as quick with a joke as he was at climbing. And nearly two days near or above 14,000 ft makes you a bit loopy. Who needs drugs when you’ve got hypoxia? As the sun gradually sunk toward the horizon, we started keeping an eye out for a bivy site. I knew there were good ones off the summit of North Palisade. As the sun set, we rappelled down off the summit block – directly in to a deluxe site. Perfect. Sigh of relaxation. Not bad – 18 hours of climbing. We unroped and scrambled over to collect a few ribbons of ice, the final remnants of a thin snowpack and our source of water for the evening. We slid in to our sleeping bags (o save weight, we didn’t bring a tent) and melted the ice for tea, dinner, and tomorrow’s climbing day. As the sunset faded, we were treated to a 180-degree view of the Sierra, from our own private campsite above 14,000 ft.
Our 4:30 alarm came early. Still dark. We estimated a 12-hour day (it ended up being a 13:30-hour day). Coffee, oatmeal, pack up camp, ropes on, start climbing again. We picked our way across the ridge, the terrain getting gradually easier and easier, until our unroped scramble to the final peak, Mt. Sill. We savored the morning view, and could see our entire descent. Hard to believe we were going that far today. A bit more rope work, a short rappel, and more easy down scrambling led to a fun glissade down soft snow for a couple hundred feet. More scrambling, more walking, much more walking, and more walking led us down the glacier, moraine, sub moraine, meadows, trails, lakes, and back to trees, sagebrush, and finally, finally, to our cars. Stop the watch – how long? 13.5 hours of climbing today. 39:56 since we left yesterday (just yesterday? Wow).
The cold beverages, watermelon, and piles of snacks were a delight. We basked in the evening coolness, and took off our shoes. Looking up at the mountains above, it was hard to believe we did all that in just two days. It was a blast!
Thanks to Lorenzo for being such a great partner, and for being just nutty enough to suggest such a wild trip. Let’s get out again!