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A Full Basin in the Eastern Sierra

{mosimage}Rockfall rained down Thunderbolt Peak, football-sized granite chunks hurtling 500 feet down to their resting place in the Palisade Glacier, the largest and only permanent glacier in the Eastern Sierra, as climbers scaled the east face of the mountain.


Rockfall rained down Thunderbolt Peak, football-sized granite chunks hurtling 500 feet down to their resting place in the Palisade Glacier, the largest and only permanent glacier in the Eastern Sierra. An autumn breeze carried the bite of the impending winter while clinging to gritty frozen granite as I and two others scaled the east face of this ominous mountain, barely grazing fourteener status at 14,003.

The basin that holds the glacier is fortified by six of California’s 15 14,000-foot peaks, along with a slew of other toothy crags and climbing routes that climbers and backpackers flock to each year. Middle Palisade, Mount Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade and Starlight Peak join Thunderbolt Peak south to north, dominating the Palisades region of the Sierra.{mosimage}

Each dawn was utterly breathtaking. Hues of orange and gold highlighted the eastern horizon silhouetting Mount Gayley to the east.

My dome tent, tucked away in a colossal moraine of granite blocks and slabs, served as a fine vantage point to study these behemoths and their potential routes, or to simply admire the Eastern Sierras’ rugged grandeur while listening for consistent rockfall. {mosimage}

Each sunup transformed the tallest peaks into a swath of pinks, then oranges and gold with an intoxicating deep blue sky.

At sunset, Mount Robinson jutted in the northeast, its western arete glowing with the end of each day. From the east end of the moraine, the descent broadened into a scenic valley and a series of turquoise blue lakes, the liquid jewels of the Palisades.

The east face of Thunderbolt folded outward into an open book, cracks and granite fins serving as convenient hand- and footholds on this pitch to a narrow precipice. {mosimage}

On belay, I lost track of the lead guide on the next pitch, just the rope slithering through my hands and belay device kept me abreast of his rapid ascent. A golfball-sized rock pelted me on my helmet, the first of many that made a fairly straightforward climb a tedious one. Soon those reliable holds became moveable objects dislodged from loose dirt and weathered granite.

While meticulously picking my way up a challenging pitch, I forced myself to dwell on a old mule deer buck we spotted between First and Second Lakes four days prior in the valley below. His muzzle was snowy white, his antlers wide and thick as a Louisville Slugger. {mosimage}

I wondered how many hunting seasons that old buck had survived. Its wily seasoning inspired me to the next ledge, my fingers stiff and cold as we neared the summit spire.

Gazing eastward, the White Mountains were ensconced in midday haze. Blue skies hovered overhead, but not visible until we reached the summit was a front sweeping in from the west.

No time to revel in our summit quest before we had to descend rapidly. Wind, snow and cold bearing down on us, we repelled the same way we ascended, setting up anchors and using reliable slings left by climbers before us.

Soon those blue skies vanished, and dark, charcoal gray clouds engulfed the Palisades. Everything appeared so dreary and bleak. Weather in the mountains can either make you smile or frown. {mosimage}

Our moods transformed with the front, but we descended quickly and efficiently, avoiding the loose stuff until we reached a notch at the bottom of the east face. Once off the rope, rockfall followed while skirting the face down to the glacier.

Crampons affixed to our boots, we followed glacier-fed streams set free by the midday sun, the sweetest water in the Sierra. We rock-hopped across the ridge of the moraine, springs in our steps following our successful summit and the impending storm we beat back to our camp. My hands wrapped around a warm mug of soup finished another day in the mountains.

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