Thunderbolt to Starlight
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know if I had it in me to do either of these summits. My mountaineering skills were good to a point, but I definitely was aware of my weaknesses--I had never done technical rock climbing before...haha. So I saved my money and hired SMI to help me reach these summits.
My plan was to spend the night on Starlight Peak. I had no idea the logistics of doing this. I just knew I wanted to photograph that summit and from that summit like no one had ever done before. Ross (my guide) was psyched about this idea. Sleeping on that summit would be a first for him as well. We also had Liz with us. Another guide for SMI, and she helped carry water and camera gear for me. She was also an amazing encourager.
We started the hike out of South Lake and quickly made our way over Bishop Pass and Thunderbolt Pass. Ross’s route through the talus was quite simply amazing. It’s easy to get off track in this portion. One can go too high or too low and get caught up in impassable boulders or add extra miles. For lack of a better term, it was like we never got off the trail. Once over Thunderbolt Pass, we set up a circus-like tent in our campsite that we all slept under.
I photographed through sunset and into the night. Ross and Liz were asleep by the time I got back. I tried to be as quiet as I could getting into my sleeping bag. I managed to make it in without waking anyone up. Oddly enough after earlier mentioning how I don’t snore, I eventually fell asleep, and apparently began to snore. I woke up after Liz hit me on the back of the head...haha. My bad.
I awoke before sunrise and set up to shoot in the basin before heading up Thunderbolt Col. Ross and Liz stayed sleeping. We were not concerned about getting a super early start to the climbing. We had all day to do both Thunderbolt and Starlight. As Ross kept putting it, “we’ll do a gentlemen’s start.” Not sure where that expression came from, but for whatever reason it meant we were starting later in the morning.
We had bagels and salmon for breakfast and headed up. Keeping what weight we could with the tent. We were not sure if there was water available on the actual traverse, so Liz carried an extra 10 liters of water with her. It was impressive to say the least!
Heading up Thunderbolt col was actually quite nice. Steep, but I felt good and was moving fine until we hit the notch at the top. This would be my first introduction to 5th class climbing with some exposure. Although Ross and Liz assured me a fall would not be fatal, I had my doubts. None-the-less, I pressed on. Finally arriving at the last pitch, I could barely get my left foot into the crack as I moved laterally across the rock wall. Ross simply said “Trust it.” So I did, and it worked. We had a few more exposed spots as we approached Thunderbolt, but I was getting used to it. I was feeling good.
And then we hit the summit block. All I could think was no way. I can’t make it up that. Not only was it a difficult move to getting to the top, but the exposure was a little wild for me at first. Liz could tell I was hesitant about going up. So she told me to purposely fall off the rock, and get a feeling for how the rope reacts. It was a great idea. Once I had that security of knowing a fall wasn’t a big deal, I went for it, and actually made the summit. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty, but whatever.
Feeling like I was on cloud 9 after that, we ate a quick lunch and headed for Starlight. My confidence drifted a little bit when we arrived at our first rappel for the day. “You want me to just lean back over this 200 ft ledge?” Yep. I was a bit terrified at first. Ross looked at me and asked in his made-up German accent “Do we want a prayer break?” The accent kept the mood light. So I quickly said a prayer to myself, and replied with “I’m good. Let’s go.”
Ross went first, and once he was down, I got the cue to go. Liz was coaching me on how to position myself, and I felt good for a few seconds, then crashed pretty quickly as the ledge began to curve inside and so did I as I was reminded of the solid nature of rocks. I laughed and regained control. As a side note, I think I had over 25 visible bruises on my body after this trip. All from crashing into the rocks in one form or another. Anyway, back to the first rappel. Once I was in a pretty good groove, I asked Ross “Are you getting this on video?” He responded with “No, That would be really irresponsible of me if I were taking video right now”...as he was taking video. I thought it was hilarious.
Throughout the day, the climbing was enjoyable, but there were some instances where we had to make some serious moves that caught me by surprise. At one point we were on a ledge that had a bit of a gap in the middle. Like an 8 foot gap. Ross set a cam in the middle and I had to take a leap of faith to the other side. Everytime I would make a difficult move on exposed terrain I would say to Ross jokingly “Ross you got me?” He would always say “I got ya dog.” It made me feel good inside knowing that we could still joke around when I was scared.
We eventually made it to Starlight, after taking some time to set up camp (for lack of a better term), Ross climbed the Milk Bottle, Starlight’s incredible summit block, and was setting up the rope for us to climb. As he began rappelling from the top, there was a full moon rising in between him and North Palisade. As a photographer, it was such an authentic moment with iconic scenery. It totally set the creative tone for the rest of the night and the morning.
Before “going to bed,” Ross graciously climbed the milk bottle again for a shot under the stars. Liz was on belay, and our headlamps lit up the rock with Ross on top. Starlight under the starlight. It was awesome.
We all slept on what little room we had on the summit. Ross set up a rope around the perimeter of the summit area. So we slept in our harnesses roped in just in case one of us rolled over in our sleep. Literally the ledges were about as wide as us. At one point around midnight, Ross woke up and blurted out “This is so rad! I can’t believe where we’re sleeping!” He was right, I couldn’t help but be excited too. I didn’t sleep at all. I was running on adrenaline, and I knew this was one of the coolest things I will ever do in my life.
Ross woke up again at 2:00am and he climbed up the Milk Bottle again. I photographed again under the stars as the moonlight changed. However, the entire sky became engulfed by clouds at this point. Ross and I stayed up watching the clouds while drinking hot chocolate while wrapped in our quilts. While the later night shots didn’t turn out, it looked like sunrise was going to be incredible. And it was…
Sunrise happened. Not only am I in one of the most remote, beautiful, unique locations on the planet. I’m pretty sure no photographer has ever shot night shots or sunrise shots from this summit. The sunrise was surreal. The low clouds combined with the occasional breaks allowing the light to shine through creating God-beams lighting up arguably the most impressive traverse in the Sierra. It was special for me. A moment I will take with me forever.
Up to this point in my photography career, these are the most meaningful moments I’ve ever captured. Starlight is such an elusive peak. Ross calls it the “middle finger of the Palisades.” There is no easy route to it. All routes require exposure, technical climbing and route finding. Even traversing from other nearby summits via North Palisade or Thunderbolt require the same skillset. I bring that up only to say it makes the moments we photograph that much more special.