Starlight Peak

July 12-13, 2019


Bishop / The High Sierras, CA

Starlight Peak is rather just a sub-summit on the massif of North Palisade but because of the difficulty in reaching its summit, even by the easiest route, and the aesthetic nature of the summit block – “the Milk Bottle” this summit deserves a position in the fabled list of California 14ers. From a peak-bagging perspective I think this one is harder to climb than the nearby Thunderbolt Peak making it the most difficult 14er in the “Lower 48”. For those serious about the list it’s best to tag the summits of Thunderbolt, Starlight and North Palisade as a traverse because this is the most efficient way to bag the three hardest, and that’s exactly how Matt and I did. Earlier in the trip we had already climbed Thunderbolt Peak and now with about 4 hours of daylight time to spend we decided to head for Starlight Peak.

Thunderbolt, Starlight, North Palisade Traverse. GPX DL

The start of the scrambling out of the col was easy 3rd class on climber’s right side of the ridge crest and the first challenge didn’t come until near the top of the “Dike Bands”. A series of vertical columns of rocks blocked the way and we must gain the top of the bands via one of the chimneys. I picked one and found no problem with rock shoes but the climbing is solid 4th class and especially awkward with the heavy packs. After climbing onto the Dike Bands we were confused about the beta. I thought we had to climb onto the ridge and follow the ridge but that was a mistake. We did have to ascend the ridge but only for partway. After a series of 4th class steps with increasing exposure we came to a dead end and pulled out the beta again. It was apparent that we had to be much, much lower than our current position so as frustrating as it seemed we had to built an anchor and rappel down. Then a bit of down-scrambling we came to another existing anchor and did another full length rappel to get into a “central gully” feature on the NW face of Starlight Peak, and were finally now at the base of the climb with no intermediate ridges in between.

The infamous summit bottle on Starlight Peak.

Starting on Starlight Peak, looking back at Thunderbolt Peak

Matt finishing the tricky 4th class climb onto the “Dyke Bands”

Climbing on following the crest of the “Dyke Bands”.

Exposed CA Class 4 at its finest.

Me soloing more 4th class climbing. Photo by Matt L.

Here’s one off-route vertical pull-up that’s uber strenuous with the heavy packs

Matt continues scrambling on increasingly exposed terrain.

Here’s our off-route rappel…

Finally could see the route. The only line goes up the middle of the snowfield

Matt leading down the (on-route) rappel to get into the central gully

There’s running water underneath the snow patches so we again, loaded up the water bottles before resuming the ascent. The off-route climbing and rappelling had costed at least an extra hour and I was not particularly happy about that. The scrambling was class 2 transitioning to class 3 as we were approaching a headwall feature. We briefly gave the climber’s right side a try but checking the beta we convinced ourselves that the only possible route was to climb the chimney in the middle which then required climbing 50 degree snow/ice to get into. I spent a couple minutes swapping rock shoes back to mountaineering boots but didn’t bother to don crampons and meanwhile Matt led in front. The snow looked easy but there seemed to have a sketchy transition onto rock that he had to stem against some ice. The rock chimney looked like at least 4th class even by Californian standard so once Matt topped out I easily soloed the snow to the ice step and asked for a belay. The stem against ice turned out to be not as difficult as I thought but the chimney climb with a heavy pack was strenuous indeed. After that we had more fun class 3+ scrambling rounding to the south side of the summit block where we found a not-so-great spot to bivy.

Scrambling on easy class 3 blocky terrain

Traversing into the central snowfield…

Matt soloing the steep pitch of snow then the chimney

Above the crux now, back onto easier terrain

We were confused again so Matt went around to look for a line

The views into the heart of the Sierras are breathe-taking

This is our third objective – North Palisade

After ditching the gears we went for the summit block – the Milk Bottle. Getting to the base of it required one solid 5th class move that I barely made across with rock shoes and no backpack. Then using one cam as belay station Matt went leading the summit bottle. It’s 5.7 climbing with no intermediate pro until the sling around the summit horn. I felt the hardest move was getting onto the climb, and the last move to reach the true apex. I overcame the bottom of the bottle by hand-traversing and the middle section by some slab balancing. The upper bottle required a bit of arm strength but all were done with a top rope belay so not a huge deal.

Matt down-climbing to the base of the Milk Bottle

Me traversing the exposed ledge after a committing 5th class move

Matt and the Milk Bottle

Matt on the summit of Starlight Peak – The Milk Bottle

Me on the summit of Starlight Peak – The Milk Bottle

On the way back to our bivy I tried several times to solo back across that 5th class long reach but found no way. I then asked for a belay again, downclimbed into a snow chimney and kick-stepped up (on rock shoes), and done. The rest of the evening was spent cooking, taking photos and building our bivy ledge. It was a lot of work to move around rocks and trying to fill in the sharp rocks. The night wasn’t as cold as I thought and I regretted for hauling the -7 degree sleeping bag up there (should have brought the +2 degree bag). My air pad worked perfectly until 4 am or so when it popped and became useless… In the morning with daylight time I found the leak and I was glad it’s just a small, repairable one as the air pads are expensive these days… Despite the no acclimation I felt the sleep at 4300 m wasn’t as bad as I thought. I didn’t get a ton of sleep but did not develop any sign of headache neither.

Me with North Palisade behind. Photo by Matt L.

Me with a sea of Sierra peaks behind. Photo by Matt L.

A panorama shot from our bivy. Click to view large size.

Matt posing at the bivy with the evening horizon

Matt starting to build our bivy ledge, barely enough room to fit two

A closer look at North Palisade

A zoomed-in shot towards south into Whitney area

Rugged spires on the south-west faces

Mt. Sill and Mt. Gayley on evening glow

Spires on Starlight Peak with the moon above

A closer look at Mt. Sill

The tip of Mt. Gayley on alpenglow

Now it’s dusk horizon behind North Palisade

Time to sleep.. I guess…

We were not in a hurry in the morning because of the coldness. We wanted to have as much sunlight as possible on the north-facing rock before committing to the traverse towards North Palisade. The descent off Starlight Peak was done by two rappels station to station and the hardest was getting into the first rappel. None of us wanted to commit to a swinging so we opted to down-climb some exposed 4th class rocks to get into the rappel.

Sunrise from the comfort of my sleeping bag

A sea of Sierras to the south

I think that’s Black Divide

Mt. Goddard a 13er looms in the distance

Mt. Darwin to the north. This one is pretty close to 14,000 feet

Looking straight down the east face into Palisade Glacier

Matt rappelling the 1st pitch off Starlight Peak

The second pitch of rappel to get off Starlight Peak

A wider view into King Canyon National Park

A review shot of Starlight Peak. It’s a sharp one…

From Starlight/North Palisade col we could see the climbing ahead wouldn’t be that great because of the coldness and wind. Much of the climb up to North Palisade would be on the shady NW aspect which wouldn’t get any sunlight until in the afternoon, but up we went nonetheless.

Speaking the climbing on Thunderbolt and Starlight I think they deserve the quality reputation. There are a ton of 3rd and 4th class climbing (California standard) and requires a lot of general mountaineering experience and skill sets to move efficiently. By comparison I felt the “climbing” on Mt. Sir Donald was much easier albeit probably more exposed. The respective summit blocks offer real 5th class climbing that even rock climbers might feel challenging.