Thunder Mountain (Mt Nirvana) Expedition 2017
The west face, with our different routes shown
First Ascent of West Face (5.9, 30 pitches)
Eric Gilbertson, Dave Custer, Susan Ruff
July 12 – Flight Seattle to Vancouver
July 13 – Flight Vancouver to Whitehorse
July 14 – Drive Whitehorse to Watson Lake, evening helicopter flight to base camp
July 15 – Rainy morning, evening clear, haul 1st load to lower cave
July 16 – Rainy morning, evening clear, haul 2nd load to lower cave
July 17 – Rainy rest day in camp
July 18 – Fix some pitches to ABC, bivy in drippy caves in the rain
July 19 – Rain all day, bivy in drippy caves
July 20 – Fix last vertical step to ABC, descend to base camp
July 21 – Rainy rest day, hike Gargoyle Ridge West Peak
July 22 – Move to ABC, kick steps in snow to base of SW gully
July 23 – Climb west buttress, aiding last pitch in rain, turn around at midnight 300ft below summit
July 24 – Rappel back to ABC, arriving 24 hours after start
July 25 – Descend to base camp. Swim in lake
July 26 – Rainy rest day. Cairned approach to left ledges route
July 27 – Rainy rest day
July 28 – Hike to ABC in rain/snow
July 29 – Descend to base camp in rain/snow
July 30 – Rainy rest day. Hike peak north of camp
July 31 – Dave and Eric move to ABC
Aug 1 – Climb to ridge north of Paija Peak, to notch above ABC. Route looks too tough so retreat
Aug 2 – Climb up SW gully to wet aid pitch, too wet so retreat
Aug 3 – Haul most of gear from ABC back to base camp
Aug 4 – Move remaining gear from ABC to base camp, swim in lake
Aug 5 – Rainy rest day in camp
Aug 6 – Climb left ledges route to bivy below northwest ridge
Aug 7 – Retreat from bivy ledge after sleepless night, arriving 1am in base camp
Aug 8 – Rest day
Aug 9 – Rest day
Aug 10 – Leave camp 2am, climb left ledges route, reach summit 12:30am
Aug 11 – Rappel back to base camp, arriving 7pm
Aug 12 – Rest day
Aug 13 – Fly out to Watson Lake, start driving south
Aug 14 – Drive to near Dawson Creek
Aug 15 – Drive to Montana
Aug 16 – Amtrak train from Shelby, Montana
Aug 17 – Arrive Seattle
The West face in snowy conditions (photo by Mike Fischesser)
Thunder Mountain (Mt Nirvana), the tallest mountain in the Northwest Territories, is a remote, technical peak nestled deep in the Ragged Range in Nahanni National Park, far from any road or airstrip. Its summit is the convergence of three razor-sharp rock ridges, flanked by sheer granite faces up to 1000m tall and guarded by massive, icy glaciers in the east and north cirques. The peak has seen only a handful of ascents since it was first climbed in 1965, of which two were on the north face, and four on the east face. The peak is still officially unnamed. The first ascent team called it Mt Nirvana, but currently the Canadian government is working to officially recognize the name Thunder Mountain, reflecting the local Deh Cho first nation name for the mountain.
I had previously been on two expeditions to Thunder Mountain, a failed attempt on the West face in 2015, and a successful ascent of the East face in 2016. In 2015 I had helicoptered from Watson Lake with Dave Custer and Susan Ruff to the base of the west face. Over 3 weeks we attempted to figure out a way up the complicated wall of gullies, ledges, sheer faces, and cracks. We ultimately reached a point roughly 16 pitches up ascending a gully bisecting the face, but ended up retreating when we encountered crumbling, unprotectable rock.
The East Face, with the route Len and I took in 2016
The expedition was beset by extremely rainy and unsettled weather, with only one or two good climbing days per week. However, we gained valuable insight into how to succeed on the face, in case we ever returned. To exit, I ended up hiking out from base camp for a week, then paddled out the Nahanni River back to civilization.
On the successful ascent in 2016, Len Vanderstar and I approached from the Tungsten mine, paddling and bushwhacking for a week to the base of the climb. We then spent a harrowing 51 hours dodging avalanches and climbing rock to ascend the East face and retreat to camp. At the end of the climb we bushwhacked for another week back to Tungsten.
As of early 2017 the biggest face of Thunder Mountain, the 1000-meter-tall, 2km-wide West face, was still unclimbed, and I was intrigued by figuring out a route up it. Dave, Susan, and I were all available for another expedition, and planned to return in the summer of 2017. This time we would try to learn from our mistakes, and accordingly made modifications to our plan.
The North Face, viewed as I hiked out to Tungsten in 2016
We would give ourselves roughly 5 weeks instead of 3, to account for the rainy weather and lack of good climbing windows. We would also shift the expedition later in the summer, between mid-July and mid-August. Dave had run into some climbers at the Lotus Flower Tower, a popular climb farther north in the Ragged Range, who concluded from combing through past trip reports that the best weather in the area generally happens in early August. This would be late enough that much of the snow on the mountain would have melted off, but not so late that more accumulating snow would be likely to fall.
We planned to helicopter in and out to maximize climbing time, and also planned to establish an advanced base camp halfway up the mountain, so that a summit window might only require 18 hours of clear weather instead of 36.
After finalizing permits with Nahanni National Park and reserving helicopter time with Trans North, we were all set for our next expedition.
First, we all needed to converge on Watson Lake. Dave and Susan were driving from Boston, and my plan was to take a 48-hour greyhound from Seattle. I’d completed this Greyhound journey before, and though it contains such perks as a night layover in Vancouver when the terminal is closed, and high likelihood of delays, it is by far the cheapest way to get from Seattle to Watson Lake. The only alternative is to fly to Whitehorse, then take one of the new 3-times-a-week flights to Watson Lake, but this option is considerably more expensive and less flexible.
Two days before my bus was scheduled to leave, I unexpectedly got a call from Greyhound that my bus was cancelled indefinitely. Apparently forest fires in British Columbia were forcing roads to be closed and towns to be evacuated, and there was no option to detour around.
I frantically looked into the only alternative, flying, and managed to find a one-way ticket to Whitehorse that wasn’t too expensive. It had an 18-hr layover in Vancouver, but I bought it anyways. At least a plane can fly over a forest fire.
I departed Seattle July 12, and by the afternoon of July 13 had made it to Whitehorse. The next morning
Loading up the helicopter in Watson Lake
I rode down to Watson Lake with Steve, our helicopter pilot, and met up with Dave and Susan at the hangar. Amazingly the weather was good enough to fly, and we all made it in to base camp that evening at a small unnamed lake at the base of the West face of Thunder Mountain. To save on helicopter time, Dave and Susan drove up the Nahanni Range Road to the Hyland air strip with some extra helicopter fuel. I flew directly in to base camp on the first leg, then Steve picked up Dave and Susan at Hyland strip and brought them to base camp.
I had envisioned up to a week delay, given that the helicopter had been delayed 5 days in 2015 picking up Dave and Susan from base camp, and was excited to have so much extra climbing time.
A nice view of the summit on the flight in
We quickly set up base camp exactly as we had in 2015. On one side of the meadow we set up the cook tent and balanced our extra food on a huge boulder. On the other side we pitched our tents. I’d seen a grizzly bear near the lake while hiking out from the 2016 expedition, and we didn’t want to take any chances with more bears in the area. At this point in the summer there was no real darkness at night yet, just a few hours of twilight, and were finished up by midnight.
Our first plan of attack on the West face was to try a system of cracks and steps we’d identified in pictures on a buttress just left of our 2015 route. It’s always difficult to tell from a picture if a route goes, because you can’t see every feature, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if a crack is a chimney or a nice little hand crack.
In 2015 we’d climbed directly up from base camp to near the base of this buttress, but later discovered a
Hunkering under a boulder while hauling gear to ABC.
long 4th-class ledge traversing the face halfway-up. The ledge contained a few 5th class sections, but we thought, if we could put an advanced camp on this ledge, it would make it easier for us to explore different route options on the upper half of the mountain. To facilitate moving gear to the advanced camp, we would fix ropes on the few exposed places of the ledge.
With this plan, we spent the first few days hauling loads up towards advanced base camp. During breaks in the rain we brought ropes, cams, tents, sleeping bags, and food up the valley from base camp and along the ledge. Sometimes we would stash loads under overhanging boulders to shelter them from the rain while we retreated to bring up more loads. Sometimes it rained all day and we were stuck in base camp reading books.
On July 18, just as we were about to fix the last pitch, a heavy rain started and we hunkered down under
A damp bivy site at the drippy caves
some overhangs partway along the ledge. It was evening, and we had planned to establish advanced base camp as our sleeping spot for the night, but it was too wet to proceed so we ended up sleeping under the overhang.
The rain didn’t relent for the next 36 hours, so we ended up stuck in what we dubbed the “drippy caves.” We had ample time to flatten out the floors and fortify the caves with walls to guard against blowing rain, and were relieved when the skies finally cleared.
After giving the rock a little time to dry, we fixed the last pitch, and hauled the last of the gear to our advanced base camp (ABC) location. We’d scouted out this location in 2015, and it was a reasonably wide area under a large overhang. It was wide enough that we could walk around unroped, flat enough to pitch tents, and sheltered above by a large overhang. We spent several hours moving rocks around to level out areas for tents, and then retreated back to base camp.
Our strategy was to wait at base camp until a large enough weather window was predicted, then move to ABC for a summit bid. We had a few friends sending us weather forecasts via satellite text messages on our Delorme Inreach units, and these were invaluable for planning purposes.
Summit Attempt 1
On July 22 it looked like we were getting our first weather window, so we hiked our gear up to ABC.
Sunset from advanced base camp.
After jumaring the last fixed line up a steep vertical step and traversing a small snowfield, we reached the ledges of ABC and set up camp. The weather seemed to be holding, so Dave and I decided to scout out the route ahead a bit. This year the ledges were unfortunately much snowier than they had been in 2015, and we used this time to kick out steps in the snow while simulclimbing across the exposed sections.
We reached the base of the southwest gully, our previous route, right as a rain squall moved in. This was our cue to retreat, and we easily followed our steps back to ABC. We melted snow and cooked good dinners before going to bed for the night.
The morning of July 23 we slept in til 8am, to give the sun a chance to dry off some of the rock on our face, then started across the ledges. We alternated leads while simulclimbing, until we reached the southwest gully. The snow was hard and crusty, and we were thankful for the steps kicked out the previous evening.
Dave leading up the snow gully
Dave and I each lead a snow pitch up the gully, and then diverged from our previous route by traversing left on another ledge system, which we dubbed pooh ledge. At a wide section we stopped to switch from mountaineering boots to rock shoes, since the rest of the route appeared to be all rock. I kept my boots and ice axe in my pack, however, just in case the summit ridge was snowy. That way I could kick steps.
Dave led farther out the ledge, and after a false start up a tough aid section, went a little farther and found a good moderate face climb. Susan and I followed up the face climb to chimney pitch, and then Dave led up a fun steep hand crack to another wide ledge.
Susan led a zig-zagging pitch up and around an awkward corner, but then it started to rain. Our forecast had been for clear weather for the next three days, but it’s a safe bet in the Ragged Range to expect rain any day.
The rain briefly let up, but the small overhanging crack above us
Dave on the face climb pitch
would be tough to climb on slippery rock. Nevertheless, Dave aided up the crack, amid more rain squalls and darkening skies. The pitch crested the arête on the top of the buttress, but unfortunately by this point it was dark enough to need a headlamp, drizzling, cold, and windy. The climbing above us looked like it might work, but might require more tricky aid climbing. In those conditions it was too risky to be trying more pitches of tough climbing, so we retreated.
Six rappels and a bit of downclimbing led us back to the main ledge, where we traversed back to camp. It had been a 24-hour push, and we were exhausted. I crawled in my bivy sack and went to sleep, waking only intermittently throughout the day when more rain squalls hit the tarp over my head. The next day was supposed to come with the start of a long rainy spell in the afternoon, so we packed up and headed back down to base camp.
The next five days were a return to normal, wet weather of the Ragged Range. One day the rain didn’t relent for 26 hours, and I managed to finish my first book of the trip, 1491. During lulls in the rain I hiked up to a route I had scouted in 2015 on the left side of t
Retreating at dawn
he cliff, and cairned the approach in case we ever decided to try it.
At one point a half-day lull was predicted, and Dave and I hiked up to ABC the night before. However, that evening it snowed on us, and continued raining the next morning, so we returned to base camp.
In between reading more books, including a few detective stories from Dave, I managed to scramble up a small unclimbed peak north of camp, and place a fresh cairn on top.
Summit Attempt 2
Eventually another 3-day window was forecast, and on July 31 Dave and I again climbed up to ABC. (Susan had twisted her ankle and would let it heal for a few more days back at base camp). Our strategy this time was to try a different summit route, that didn’t require the difficult aiding of the west buttress. From studying pictures on a laptop in camp, it appeared that if we could follow the south ridge far enough, we could gain a ledge system that traversed onto the East face and meet up with the East face route.
Look up the South ridge towards the summit with difficult terrain ahead
On Aug 1 we left ABC and headed toward a route we had discovered in 2015 that gains the south ridge. I led an easy pitch up a gully to the left of Peak 33 (“Paija”), then Dave led a longer slabby pitch to the base of a wet cave. Water was streaming over a chockstone, making our route from 2015 more difficult. The rock to the left was dry, though, so Dave led a short aid pitch to the top of the chockstone. From we led two short 4th class pitches and then gained the long 3rd class ramp to the summit ridge.
At the ridge, Dave led across into the notch (the notch above ABC), and tried to scout out the rest of the south ridge above us. Unfortunately, any route to get past the notch appeared to require surmounting a large overhanging feature, which would be very difficult. Interestingly, below the notch to the east I spied an old piece of webbing around a rock horn. I suspect this was from the 1970s ascents in the area by Tony Daffern and Pete Ford, perhaps when they climbed Paija.
It appeared this route was a dead end, so we headed back the way we came, scrambling up a small subpeak on the ridge along the way. We reached ABC by 7pm, which was early enough that we could mount another attempt on the summit the next day.
Rapping back down to ABC
We weren’t sure which route to try next. There appeared to be no obvious path up on this side of the cliff. The buttress required difficult aid and might not go. The gully could be soaking wet from snowmelt. We scouted around near camp, and there were a few crack systems that might work, but they were dripping wet. One was dry, but steep enough to require aid, and looked like it might soon dead end.
In the end we decided to try the southwest gully route. We had climbed this in 2015 to within about 3 pitches from the summit ridge, and it looked like those pitches might go if they were dry. Moreover, the rappel anchors were already in place, so we could make a quick retreat if needed.
Summit Attempt 3
The next morning we rose early and quickly started simulclimbing across the ledges. At the southwest gully Dave led two snow pitches, and then we dropped off our boots on the pooh ledges.
The next pitch was the first crux of the route, a wet 5.9 chimney. Dave had come prepared, though, with
Turning around at the raging stream
custom machined #7 and #8 camalots. Dave expertly led up the chimney, and the cams fit perfectly.
The next two pitches were familiar from 2015, and then we came to the tricky aid pitch. In 2015 this area was a damp overhang underneath a chockstone and we had aided a crack to the side. However, this year the ledges were much snowier, and there must have been a big snow patch above us because the little cave was a raging stream.
There was no way anyone could climb through or belay in this stream without getting completely drenched and hypothermic, so we reluctantly retreated again. By 9pm we were back at ABC, and scratching our heads how to proceed.
It appeared this year was not dry enough for the southwest gully route, and any other route on this side of the cliff would require difficult aiding, and possibly dead end.
I suggested attempting the route I’d scouted on the left side of the cliff. This route involved hiking to Trident col (the col north of Thunder Mountain), then traversing a few hundred feet on 3rd class ledges to the base of some climbing. From my scouting, the angle of the climbing seemed low, and it looked doable. I proposed aiming for a
Retreating back to camp down the southwest snow gully
notch in the northwest ridge with the slender needle in it (referred to in Buckingham’s report). If we could reach the ridge, we could either follow it to the summit, or cross over to the north face to meet Buckingham’s route, which we knew led to the summit.
We agreed this was a reasonable approach, and over the next two days managed to haul all the gear and fixed ropes back to base camp. There we waited again for another good weather window.
Summit Attempt 4
On August 6 we had another weather window, and set out from base camp at 6am. After a few hours we reached the ledge system near Trident col, and scrambled across to the right, eventually dropping down into the gully separating peaks Scylla and Charybdis (the two peaks north of Thunder Mountain). Here we roped up and started climbing. Dave led the first moderate and mossy rock pitch to get out of the gully, and we proceeded swinging leads for the rest of the day. Amazingly, we found a ledge system that cut in between two steep faces, reaching a small waterfall in a basin on the side of Charybdis peak.
We climbed a short 5.8 pitch to the left of the waterfall, then two more slabby pitches before reaching a
Traversing the ledges on the left ledges route
broad basin. The terrain was easy enough in the basin that we unroped and scrambled up higher. We were aiming for some ledges leading into the needle gully, which we had scouted out from a helicopter picture, and when the terrain steepened we roped up for two more pitches to the crest of an arête.
What we had hoped would be easy scrambling into the next gully was in fact a steep face. We had climbed up too high! The face looked climbable, though, so we slung a horn on the arête and rappelled down into the gully.
From here we traversed some 4th class ledges, and were finally at the edge of the snow in the base of the gully. I looked up and saw the slender needle in the notch above, and knew that if we could reach that needle, we could meet up with Buckingham’s route and have a good shot at summitting.
Climbing above the waterfall, with base camp far below
I had carried my boots and ice axe up, so led a long snow pitch up the gully to a rock belay on the other side. From here Dave led a short rock pitch, and then I got to lead a tricky, scary pitch requiring surmounting three overhanging chockstones in a side gully. At least it was dry.
At the top of this pitch it was starting to get dark, but we were finally at the base of the face leading up to the northwest ridge. From pictures, this face appeared to be the crux of our route. It looked like there might be a crack system leading up, but we’d have to get closer to see if it would go.
Unfortunately, by this time of summer there were legitimately several hours of complete darkness every night, and it would be tough navigating this darkness and climbing the crux in the dark. Moreover, we were each pretty tired from the previous 15 hours of
Digging out a bivy platform in the dark
After poking around at the route above and turning around at a few dead ends, we decided to bivy until
daylight. Luckily there was a small scree ledge in the area, and we built a bomber anchor there and hunkered down for the night.
I still had my ice ax (in case the summit plateau was snowy), and we dug out the ledge large enough so we could each curl up in a ball on a flat surface. We still had to be clipped in to the anchor, but in theory it would be possible to sleep.
Unfortunately, in practice, sleep wasn’t really possible. I put on all my layers, piled up the rope to lay on, wrapped up in a trash bag, and curled up in a ball to try to sleep. The night was cold, and I don’t really recall sleeping for more than a few minutes in between shivering.
Pretty cold curled up in a trash bag blanket
The next morning took all too long to arrive, but even when we could make out the mountains in the distance, it would be a long time before the sun penetrated our deep notch enough to warm anything up. Both our feet were numb, and we were exhausted from not having slept. By 11am we decided to retreat, not feeling up for the unknown crux of the route.
It took a while to set up all the rappel anchors, but we eventually made it back to Trident col with no ropes getting stuck, and staggered back into camp at 1am, 43 hours after leaving.
Our forecast was for another weather window starting in a few more days, and this appeared to be the last window for the trip. We had one final shot at summitting, before we had to fly out.
Retreating back down to the lake after a sleepless night
We rested the next day and a half, taking brief swims in the lake, reading books in the rain, and eating lots of food. Our plan for our last attempt was to try to finish the previous route past our bivy site, up the northwest ridge to the summit. We would try to start earlier, pack lighter, move faster, and hopefully get past the crux before dark. August 10 would be the start of our last summit bid.
Earlier in the trip my watch had gotten wet and stopped working, so Dave and Susan said they would set an alarm for 1am August 10, so we could hopefully get to the climbing section when it was light enough to not need a headlamp. Amazingly, after 3 days of not working, my watch inexplicably turned on that evening, and I decided to set a backup alarm just in case. This would prove very important.
Summit Attempt 5
Climbing an arete above the needle gully
My alarm woke me up at 1am, and I waited a few minutes to see if Dave and Susan were coming over to get me up. It turned out their alarm hadn’t worked, and luckily I got everyone up on schedule.
As we were packing up in the darkness, I looked to the north and saw a green curtain shimmer across the sky. It was the northern lights! This was the first (and only) time we’d seen them on the whole trip, despite looking outside most nights, and I thought it must be a good omen.
Dave and I set out at 2am, carrying the skinny ropes, and skimping out on any gear we could. At the ledges we ditched our boots and changed into rock shoes, and scrambled over to the climb. I still carried my ice ax for the snow pitch, but planned to ditch that after the snow.
Dave led the first pitch in the dim twilight, and after that we no longer needed headlamps. We swung
Preparing to lead up the needle snow gully (photo by Dave Custer)
leads, each of us leading the exact same pitch we did previously to increase efficiency. This way we more or less remembered which moves to make and where to place each piece of gear, and we saved a lot of time.
To cross into the needle gully we climbed slightly lower than the previous time, and reached our 4th class ledge without having to rappel. The snow had melted out considerably in the needle gully, so much so that I could lead in scree on the side, and only needed to cross a 20ft snow section. This was fortunate, since I didn’t bring my mountaineering boots and was kicking steps with my rock shoes.
Climbing 5.9 crux to the northwest ridge (photo by Dave Custer)
We soon reached the bivy ledge, and it was only 12:30pm. By starting earlier and moving more efficiently, we had gotten there nine hours earlier than in the previous attempt! There was now plenty of daylight for the crux of the climb, and I let Dave take the lead for these pitches.
From the bivy ledge we traversed right for a pitch, and then spied a feasible crack system reaching all the way to the ridge. It looked like it might actually work!
Dave then led a handcrack to a hanging belay, and another shorter crack to a small ledge inside a chimney. From here we had to surmount a small overhang, but there was a sensational hold just where we needed it that allowed us to move onto a face and got around the overhang. Just above this move was a shower-stall-sized belay stance, that even had a waist-high wall on the back.
The view into the North cirque
The final crack up to the ridge was full of loose rock, but was short and less steep. In all the four crack pitches were probably 5.9, and definitely the crux of the route. Once on the ridge we were greeted with huge 3rd-class area big enough to pitch a tent. It was the perfect place to take a short break and plan out the rest of our route.
It was 5:30pm by the time we crested the ridge, meaning we had about 5 hours of daylight left. Ideally we could reach the summit before dark, when navigation would be considerably more difficult.
The ridge above us looked quite sharp and technical all the way to the summit. However, I had taken a picture of the north face on my hike out in 2016, and had printed that out and taken in in my pocket. From that
Planning our route up the North face
picture, it looked like if we traversed onto the north face at our level, we could follow ledge systems and regain the ridge higher up. We might even be able to meet up with Buckingham’s route, which we knew would lead to the summit.
I led an easy 4th class pitch on a ledge wrapping around at our level, and then Dave followed upward-ramping low-5th-class flakes and ledges up higher. I then led another ledge, surmounting a short layback crack, and Dave led a delicate steeper ledge trending up and left.
In this area we noticed some sections of mossy cracks looked like they had been cleaned out in the past, and we wondered if this was from the attempt of the Bennett team in 1993. On that trip they got to within less than a pitch of the summit plateau before having to retreat in a snowstorm.
Dave climbing up the north face
On the next pitch the tiny ledge basically disappeared, requiring delicate footwork until I found a wide cracking trending straight up the mountain. It looked like the route from here would go one way or another.
As I neared the end of the rope I came across a large chockstone, and noticed that if I took my pack off I
could wriggle up a hole behind it. I didn’t want to make Dave do this, so climbed easily over the front of it. This chockstone reminded me of the chockstone that Buckingham reported for his first ascent route, and above it I noticed what looked like an overhanging crack that might gain the summit plateau. It appeared we had converged onto Buckingham’s route!
I belayed Dave up, then got to lead the last pitch. I wriggled up an offwidth crack, then reach the short overhanging crack. It looked too awkward to squirm up with my pack on, so I clipped the pack to a cam and planned to haul it up once Dave got there.
Dave signing the summit register in the dark
The crack could actually be climbed like a chimney, with great foot and handholds on the sides. When I got close to the top I blindly reached my hand up and grasped a huge jug hold. After pulling myself up over the lip, I crawled onto a broad, gently-sloping, boulder-strewn plateau. The summit was just a short walk away.
At this point it was finally dark enough to require a headlamp, but having climbed the last real pitch, I wasn’t worried about navigation at all. To the north a faint orange glow hugged the horizon in a narrow band. The sun was just below the horizon, and the alpenglow would last like this until sunrise.
There were no real cracks on the plateau for an anchor, so I slung a few boulders and belayed Dave up. After hauling up the packs, Dave took the final lead to the summit. The terrain was only 3rd class, but still exposed on the north face, so we put in a few pieces of gear just in case.
Me on the summit, with the end of sunset behind me to the north (photo by Dave Custer)
By 12:30am, August 11, we both reached the summit. It was an amazing culmination to our trip, having summited in the last possible window after a month on the mountain.
We dug out the summit register, and found the names of Bryan Haslam’s group from 2013, and one sign-in from a man who had helicoptered to the top in 1990. Interestingly, the older sign-ins were missing, but they could have been removed when the register was replaced in 2013.
I signed in Len Vanderstar and myself from 2016 (since the summit had been covered in snow then and we couldn’t find the register), and Dave signed us in for this year.
It sounded appealing to just sleep on the summit, and indeed we could have easily leveled out a spot, but unfortunately it was really windy. We had been lucky all day to be sheltered from the wind in the deep notch near the needle, and on the north face, since the wind was coming from the south. The south wind had also meant the temperature was much higher than average.
Rapping off the north face in the dark at 1am
We considered descending to the south ridge, where I remembered a few sheltered places to bivy, but then we remembered the weather forecast, which called for rain later that afternoon. It would be pretty miserable to be rappelling in the rain, so we decided to just start rappelling that night and try to get off the mountain while the weather was still good.
After a half hour on the top, we were getting cold and downclimbed back to the edge of the plateau. We had topped out only about 20 ft from where the northwest ridge meets the plateau, and had left a cairn here to find the same spot. We suspected there should be an old rap anchor from Buchkingham’s trip, but we didn’t find anything.
After excavating some boulders Dave found a crack near the edge, and we rapped off a cam and small fixed chockstone down to a lower ledge. From here one more rappel brought us to another ledge, and we started traversing. The unfortunate part about our route was that, because it was diagonal, we would be forced to lead several traversing pitches on the descent.
We traversed a pitch, rappelled, and then traversed another pitch, passing an old single-piton rap anchor
Sunrise to the northeast around 3am
that I guess was from the Embick climb in 1975. After some down leading, diagonal rappelling, and traversing, we finally reached the nice ledge at the edge of the northwest ridge by 7am.
It was now time for the scarier, steeper rappels, and we left a bigger, stronger anchor here. It was pretty
thrilling crawling over the edge and looking 2000ft down between my legs at camp below. Two rappels brought us back to our bivy ledge, and from there we knew we already had anchors set up the rest of the way down.
I remembered to pick up my stashed ice ax along the way, and we followed the same rappel line all the way back, stopping briefly at the waterfall to fill up water. On the
very last rope pull one of the ropes got stuck, but when both Dave and I pulled with all our might it finally came down.
Resting in base camp at the cook tent (photo by Dave Custer)
We hiked down in the heat of the evening, on probably the hottest day of the year, and arrived in camp at 7pm, 41 hours after leaving.
We were originally scheduled to fly out August 15, but the long-term forecast looked like a full week of bad weather coming in soon. If we didn’t fly out a little bit early, we might be stuck in the rain at base camp for a week just like we’d been in 2015.
Luckily we were able to get in contact with Trans North and all flew out to Watson Lake on August 13, just in the nick of time as the rain and fog was moving in. I bet if we’d waited another hour, we would have been stuck the whole week.
Flying out to Watson Lake
Back in Watson Lake I discovered that the roads in British Columbia were still closed to forest fires and the Greyhound buses weren’t running. Luckily, though, Dave and Susan were able to squeeze me into their car. I rode with them down to Montana, then caught an Amtrak train from there back to Seattle, arriving August 17.
Climbing History of Thunder Mountain (Mt Nirvana)
July 29, 1965 – Bill Buckingham and Lew Serdum, via North Face needle traverse route. Flew to Lonely Lake, overland trek to Nirvana, hike out to Tungsten. ~30 hours round trip.
July 1972 – Pete Ford and Bob Howell attempt on East Face (roughly halfway, leaving piton). Helicopter in, hike out to Tungsten
July 26, 1975 – Embick, Long, Thompson, via North Face right diagonal route. Helicopter in, hike out to Tungsten
Aug 22, 1990 – Dr. Chris Holtz et al, attempt via North Face, retreated at bergschrund. Helicopter in and out.
Aug 23, 1990 – Dr. Chris Holtz lands on top in Helicopter, places new summit register
July 20, 1993 – Bennett et al, attempt via north face Buckingham route to 10m below summit. Trek in and out from Rabbitkettle Lake.
July 19, 1996 – Bennet et al, via East Face. 28 hours round trip. Trek in and out from Lonely Lake.
July 2013 – Len Vanderstar, Brian Friedrich, James Coleridge, attempt on East Face. Made it to base camp but snowed out on route. Trek in from Hole in the Wall Lake, helicopter out.
July 2013 – John Ferneaux (guide) and Darrell Ainbrough (client) via East Face. 18 hours round trip. Helicopter in and out.
Aug 29, 2013 – Ryan Haslam, Isaac Hoff, Jed Wema (?) via East Face. 44 hours round trip. Helicopter in and out.
July 2015 – Eric Gilbertson, Dave Custer, Susan Ruff, attempts on West Face to about 150m below summit.
June 21, 2016 – Eric Gilbertson, Len Vanderstar via East Face. 51 hours round trip. Paddle/hike in from Tungsten, hike out to Tungsten
Aug 11, 2017 – Eric Gilbertson, Dave Custer, via West Face. 41 hours round trip. Helicopter in and out.
Route overview. Numbers refer to attempt in 2017 (1st attempt, 2nd attempt, etc).
The north face portion of our route, showing likely lines of the other two routes on the face (Buckingham, 1965, and Embick, 1975)
West Face (5.9, 30 pitches)
Approach – Scramble on 3rd class ledges from Trident col to gully separating Scylla and Charybdis
P1 – climb upward-right-trending mossy crack to flat belay stance (5.6)
P2 – traverse up and left on grassy ledges (5.0)
P3 – traverse left and up talus to V-notch (4th class)
P4 – climb to top of V-notch (5.5)
P5-8 – traverse right on grassy ledges to base of a waterfall (low 5th)
P9 – climb 30ft crack on left side of waterfall (5.8)
P10 – up slabs on side of waterfall to next ledge (5.6)
P11 – up slabs to next ledge (5.4)
Scramble 3rd class up and right, aiming for highest flat ridge on arête.
P12 – climb up and right to right edge of flat area on arête (5.4)
P13 – traverse and downclimb to the sandy ledges in the needle gully (5.5)
P14-15 – traverse sandy ledge to middle of gully (4th class)
P16 – climb steep snow or scree full rope length up middle of gully to belay on right (low 5th)
P17 – climb rocky steps up wide side chimney on right side of needle gully to belay ledge (5.6)
P18 – surmount series of overhanging chockstones in wide chimney (5.8)
P19 – short pitch to obvious dugout bivy ledge (5.6)
P20 – traverse up and right from bivy ledge to flat belay stance (5.7)
P21 – move left 10ft and climb up hand and fist crack to hanging belay (5.9)
P22 – move up and left up cracks to belay inside base of wide double-crack chimney (5.9)
P23 – traverse left, climb to overhang, move left onto face, up to shower-stall-size belay (5.9)
P24 – continue up lower-angle block-filled cracks to northwest ridge (5.9)
P25 – descend and traverse climbers left on ledges (4th class)
P26 – diagonal up and left on ledges to just below ridge crest (5.6)
P27 – diagonal up and left on ledges, cross snow-filled gully, 15ft layback to belay ledge (5.7)
P28 – diagonal up and left on narrow mossy ramp (5.7)
P29 – traverse left with delicate feet, then up vertical crack, and around or behind chockstone to belay on top (5.7)
P30 – climb offiwidth above chockstone to cave with overhanging crack with belay at top on summit plateau (5.7)
Scramble exposed 3rd class from here to the summit.