Temple Crag (N#241, T#168), Mount Gayley (N#242, T#169), Mount Sill (N#243, T#170), North Palisade (N#244, T#171), Thunderbolt Peak (N#245, T#172), Mount Winchell (N#246, T#173), Mount Agassiz (N#247, T#174)
Travis Day 83
Note: you can also find the same set of pictures set to Nathan's story.
How many mountains is too many mountains? Would 12 peaks in 2 days be too much? 48 in 15? Perhaps 174 mountains in 83 days? I wanted to find my limit. For most of the project I haven't even been close. In fact, the craving only seemed to grow. But in the Palisades I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there is such a thing as too many mountains.
Again we awoke in the dark. It was 3:40am. Just two nights earlier Nathan and I had been shivering in the Palisades together after a 21 hour day traversing the 5 southern peaks of the range. And yet, here we were, heading back for more. We set our eyes on 7 mountains: a full ridge traverse of Temple Crag, Gayley, Sill, and Thunderbolt before dropping off the ridge to climb Winchell and Agassiz. It was a bold plan, but, what the heck? Might as well give it a go!
We began cruising up the trail. I could tell my body was a bit fatigued from the past two weeks but I continued at my usual pace and hoped it would keep up. It did; I'm not sure how, but it always does. By the time we got a view of Temple Crag's massive 2,000ft granite face, I was amped as ever.
The rose tinted sunlight kissed the mountain good morning. Nathan and I carried on to the base of Venusian Blind, a 5.7 climb that ascends one of the Temple Crag's prominent ribs.
We scrambled the first few easy pitches before reaching a magnificent headwall on the ridge where the climbing steepens and becomes more difficult. The headwall began with a crack system and lots of good holds. Gradually the climbing steepened and the sequences became more complex. One sequence involved traversing out left to the arete on small edges and then ascending a wildly exposed pitch!
I wore my approach shoes which have sticky rubber that helped me commit to the cruxy movement. Nathan was in his trail runners and I am still baffled every time I see him solo confidently in them. We both agreed the climb was one of our all time favorite alpine scrambles.
From the top of Temple Crag we earned a view of the rest of our day. Gayley stood in front of Sill and from there the ridge extended north towards North Palisade, Thunderbolt, Winchell, and Agassiz. It was 9am which meant we had nearly 12 hours of daylight to complete our traverse. Time to keep moving!
The ridge from Temple to Gayley started off a bit chossy but quickly improved and the climbing turned out to be quite fun.
Even though it was a bit slower, we stayed true to the ridge to get as much good rock climbing as possible. It took us 2 hours to reach Gayley and once again Nathan and I agreed the climbing had been phenomenal.
The ridge from Gayley to Sill is easy and we cruised over to the base of the Swiss Arete, another 5.7 climb that ascends the east arete of Mt. Sill.
The climbing was fun, mostly 4th class with one or two 5.7 moves. We passed a party whom we had met the day before at the trailhead. Even though we had told them yesterday that we would see them up there, they were surprised to see us. "We thought you guys were joking". We exchanged stoke and small talk and then Nathan and I continued to the summit. We blasted up the climb in 30 minutes.
The next section of our adventure was the notorious Sill to Thunderbolt ridgeline. This traverse is considered one of the premier alpine climbs in the Sierra and we were excited to see what it was all about. We left the summit of Sill around 1pm with a goal of reaching Thunderbolt by 4pm. Onwards!
The ridge was a good mix of easy climbing sprinkled with interesting sequences.
We reached North Palisade at 2pm feeling great and having tons of fun.
The rest of the ridge went smoothly and we reached Thunderbolt at exactly 3:57pm! So far we had stayed on schedule all day, next we hoped to summit Winchell by 7pm and Agassiz by 9pm. Unfortunately we forgot one minor detail that threw a wrench in our itinerary: the summit block of Thunderbolt.
The summit block of Thunderbolt is the most technically difficult climb of the entire SPS list. It is 20 foot tall block rated 5.9. If you don't climb to the top of the block, then you haven't summited the peak. There was no way I would leave if I didn't climb the block. So I jumped on to the starting holds and began the climb. In my approach shoes I immediately felt uncomfortable trusting the small footholds. I made a few more moves up to the crux but wouldn't commit to the final sequence and downclimbed back to safety. Nathan, with only his trail runners, also backed off.
There we were, two "climbers" who were thwarted by the summit block of Thunderbolt. We had heard of people lassoing the block and shimmying up the rope. It's a good thing neither Nathan nor I had aspirations of becoming a cowboy since every throw was way of the mark. At this point we had been trying to climb the last 20ft of this mountain for 40 minutes.
Nathan grew increasingly frustrated and anxious to get to our next peak and said he would give it a few more tries and then we should leave. I could tell Nathan was running out of patience. So far we had achieved the high point of every other peak and I knew we would massively regret leaving without the true summit. There must be a way … … … a stick clip!
We lashed two trekking poles together with a sling and ski strap and taped a carabiner to the end with a rope tied to it. Nathan had to step carefully from another boulder to reach the anchor at the top of the summit block. Closer… closer… clipped! We scurried up the rope and at long last tagged the true summit of Thunderbolt. It hadn't been pretty but at least it worked. 5pm, time to boogie!
We descended off the west side of Thunderbolt down a 3rd class chute and traversed over to the Southwest Chute of Winchell. The route up via Steve Roper's variation is 4th class and supposedly 5.6 at the top where the chute narrows at the upper ridgeline. As the chute narrowed we climbed a committing 5th class pitch with less than ideal rock. From there we tried to continue up and right but the climbing felt quite hard. We tried finding a path to the left but that also felt very difficult. We must have gotten off route because now we were in the middle of a cliff with no 5.6 climbing in sight. Downclimbing was not an appealing option so we kept searching for another way. Spotting a line we had missed, we proceeded to check it out. The rock wall steepened and consisted of massive loose blocks. We were so close to the easier ridgeline above but stuck on a cliff of choss.
Nathan quested up the only viable looking route. Unfortunately, this forced him through a series of detached looking blocks. The only option was to commit all his weight to them one by one. If any of them pulled off the result would be catastrophic. It was one of the scariest things I've ever seen. He kept saying "please, please" as he willed the blocks to hold. I climbed up after him as carefully as I could and we soon reached the ridgeline and finally the summit.
That loose block pitch really took its toll on us. Until that point the day had been awesome type 1 (fun) climbing. And throughout the entire project we'd done a good job staying safe and avoiding unnecessary risks. But that pitch crossed a serious line. We did our best to talk through it and reset our mental state. With only one peak left for Nathan this should have been time for celebration, instead we were feeling ashamed of putting ourselves in such a serious situation.
Thankfully, the sunset from the top of Winchell was absolutely stunning.
Our ascent ridgeline glowed in the evening light. And on the summit of Agassiz we saw tiny silhouettes. "Eeeeeeeeyouuuu!" they shouted. Our friends were up there! Suddenly I felt my spirits lifted and gained a renewed energy. Nathan was smiling. "What do you say we put it behind us and go find our friends?" I offered. Nathan nodded and began to charge down the east ridge of Winchell.
As we traversed to Agassiz the last rays of light faded into the night and we heard whoops and hollers from our friends above. Nathan and I found different ways up the mountain, I figured he would want to climb his last peak alone with his thoughts. I waited for him just below the summit and then we climbed together.
The mountain master himself, Jason Hardrath, was there to congratulate along with Ayelet, Mason, and Chris. They offered us cookies, chili bread, cupcakes and positive vibes. It was amazing having them up there. It was 10pm and they had been waiting for us to arrive for over 2 hours at nearly 14,000' in the dark and cold night! Unbelievably cool!
Nathan had done the impossible. He completed the list in a single season, just 138 and a half days. I had mixed feelings, very happy for him but also sad that this was where our paths diverged. Heading down we reached the trailhead around 1:30am to find Ashly waiting with two pizzas, one for each of us. People are so cool! We caught up, told stories, and laughed until it was finally time to retire. For Nathan, the journey had come to an end. For myself, a new chapter had begun. I had 73 peaks left to climb and needed some well earned rest.
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