NORTH PALISADE (14,242 ft.)
Named by Whitney Survey in 1864
The Wheeler Survey used the names 'Northwest Palisade' for North Palisade and
'Southeast Palisade' for Split Mountain in 1878.
(Wheeler Survey, Tables, 19.) In 1879 Lil A.
Winchell called North Palisade 'Dusy's Peak.' (Winchell,
160.) In 1895 Bolton C. Brown named it for David
Starr Jordan, and also called the Palisades the
'Saw-Tooth Mountains.' (SCB 1, no. 8, May 1896: 296-97.) Jordan's name
was later given to a peak on the Kings-Kern Divide, and J. N.
LeConte prevailed over Winchell. 'I have called the peak
merely the North Palisade, and now ask you if you cannot ... put Dusy's name
on some less imposing mass, and give us a name to be handed down through all time.'
(Letter, LeConte to Winchell, Feb. 23, 1903, in SC papers in BL.)
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
"North Palisade, elevation 14,242 feet, crown of the Palisade group, is an austere diorite monolith. Guarded on its northeast side by a large ice field and on its southwest flank by huge, sheer walls, North Palisade is the spectacular culmination of the incredible ridge known as the Palisades. As a peak, North Pal (as it is commonly known) is one of the most sought-after summits in all California.
The Palisade group was first named by the members of the Brewer Party of the Califorinia Geological Survey in 1864, the same year the party discovered and named Whitney. In his annual report on the Survey's findings, Professor Brewer wrote, according to Joseph N. LeConte's 1904 Sierra Club Bulletin article:
'At the head of the Middle Fork [of the Kings River], along the main crest of the Sierra, is a range of peaks from 13,500 to 14,000 feet high which we call "the Palisades." These were unlike the rest of the crest in outline and color, and were doubtless volcanic; they were very grand and fantastic in shape ... All doubts as to the nature of these peaks were removed after observing on the east side of the crest, in the Owens Valley, that vast streams of lava had flowed down the slopes of the Sierra, just below the Palisades.'
Although the igneous,fine-grained diorite of the Palisades bears little relationship to the lava flows of the Owens Valley, the Brewer Party were correct in their observation that the peaks were grand and fantastic in shape.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, North Palisade went through several renamings. As was common in the early history of climbing in the Sierra, lack of communication caused many mountains to receive multiple names.
In 1875, members of the Wheeler Survey recognized the terrific height of the peaks in this part of the Sierra and measured the two highest points in the range by triangulation. The two points, Northwest Palisade (North Palisade) and Southeast Palisade (Split Mountain), were determined to be 14,275 and 14,200 feet tall, respectively.
One of the earliest mountaineers to visit the region was Frank Dusy, for whom Dusy Basin is named. In 1877 Dusy explored the headwaters of the Kings River, although he made no significant ascents in the area.
Two years later, in 1879, Lil Winchell visited the Palisades and named the tallest peak Dusy Peak, after Frank Dusy. Winchell climbed and named the two peaks north of Dusy Peak: Mount Winchell, after the geologist Professor Alexander Winchell, and Mount Agassiz, for Louis Agassiz, the renowned French glaciologist.
Then, in 1895, Bolton Coit Brown, standing on the summit of Mount Woodworth, gained his first glimpse of the Palisades. He dubbed the tallest peak in the group (North Palisade) Mount Jordan, after the president of Stanford University.
LeConte expressed his desires to make a first ascent in the Palisades in his 1904 Sierra Club Bulletin article:
'To capture the summit of North Palisade, therefore, had long been a great desire of mine, and a number of trips through the mountains to the west and south of the peak only furnished a still further incentive to make the attempt.'
In 1903, LeConte, James Hutchinson, and James Moffitt made plans to explore the northern Palisades. Later that year, leaving the high country of the southern Sierra, where they were camped with a group of Sierra Club members, LeConte and his wife crossed Harrison Pass and joined their fellow mountaineers Hutchinson and Moffitt in the Kings River canyon.
On July 21, having enjoyed several days of rest, the group began the long approach to the mountains. After two days' travel, LeConte ascended Marion Peak in order to study a passable route to the northern Palisades. LeConte was greeted with a full view of the most forbidding of Sierra peaks; in his 1904 Sierra Club Bulletin article, he continued:
'We turned our attention to the north Palisades, which rose in a forbidding array of jagged spires ten miles to the north. It now appeared that, although the actual summit of the highest peak was on the main crest, the whole of the great knife-edge did not constitute a portion of it. ... One deep cleft, in particular, worried us, but of course it was impossible at so great a distance to tell whether it was passable. the western face of the mountain appeared to be totally inaccessible, though a few narrow chimneys seamed its savage face. ... For over an hour we stayed on the summit of our peak studying the chances pro and con, and had to confess at last that the odds were against us.'
That evening, the group began preparation for their final push in their trek to the Palisades. They believed they were going light, taking only the necessities, which were: an eider-down quilt for each person, a 4x5 camera with eighteen glass plates, a light plane-table, two Sierra Club registers, a small pot and frying pan, four spoons, four tin cups, and three days' worth of food.
Their plan was to attempt to climb North Palisade first; then, if the ascent proved impossible, they would try to climb Mount Sill, which they felt would be easier. The assault party consisted of LeConte, Hutchinson, Moffitt, and Robert Pike. Robert Pike and his brother John had joined the group several days earlier. Mrs. LeConte and John Pike were to remain in camp at the head of the Kings River.
On July 24, after two days of travel, Hutchinson, LeConte, and Moffitt made their attempt on North Pal. They climbed up the steep southwestern chute, later known as the U-Notch, but were stymied by the sheer rock walls above. Surmounting these walls, LeConte realized, would be the key to success. The trio spent an hour resting in the U-Notch, wondering if they would ever reach the tallest summit in the Palisades. To pass the time during their indecision, the three men began rolling rocks down the east side of the U-Notch. Apparently, as LeConte mentioned in his 1904 Sierra Club Bulletin article, they found this quite entertaining:
'It was really a thrilling site [sic] to watch them go thundering down the cliff, leaping across the bergschrund, and then end over end through the snow till only distinguishable by the snow-foam when they struck.'
Although boulder-rolling may have been an acceptable pastime for 1903, with the number of people frequenting the Palisade Glacier these days, it could be extremely dangerous.
Soon the three mountaineers turned their attention to Mount Sill, and scrambled out of the U-Notch and on toward Mount Sill. They summitted that peak within an hour.
The following day, the trio reascended the U-Notch chute again from the southwest. They were particularly careful to watch for access out of the huge chute to the left. Two-thirds of the way up the chute, Hutchinson and Moffitt found a crack system that they thought might yield an easy route to the upper reaches of the mountain. The climbing was difficult, however, and as the pair labored to climb the cracks, LeConte spied a narrow ledge system lower down the chute that traversed across the steep walls that were giving the group so much trouble. LeConte descended to the ledge, and after some nervous crawling, had discovered the key to the ascent. The three climbers quickly scrambled up the broken ledges above the 'catwalk,' and were soon deep in a steep ice-filled gully.
As LeConte wrote in 1904 in the Sierra Club Bulletin, 'Up this we climbed with the greatest care. Sometimes it was only wide enough to admit a man's body, and we had to work up with knees and elbows. in some places it was filled with clear ice, and great icicles hung directly in the way from some lodged boulder above. These had to be avoided by stepping in the narrow space between the rock and ice, or by finding footholds on the wall.'
Soon the climbers were on easier ground above and the summit was within view. After entering the 'bowl'-shaped area just south of the summit, the group climbed the huge, precariously stacked blocks that every subsequent ascensionist of North Palisade has encountered. LeConte's Sierra Club Bulletin article continued:
'Even there -- even 20 feet below the top -- we almost failed. The knife-edge was composed of thin blocks standing up on edge, from 6 to 8 feet apart and equally high. These had to be climbed over one by one, by letting down at arm's length between two and pulling up over the thin edge of the next. At 11:30 we crawled out upon the crown, victorious at last, after nearly 2,000 feet of difficult rock climbing.'
Finally, the summit of North Palisade had been conquered.
After their triumphant return from the summit, LeConte recounted that he and his pals engaged in a common mountaineering practice:
'That evening we celebrated by eating up practically everything we possessed that was edible, and wound up by smoking whole and complete stogies.'
By 1904, when James Hutchinson, Joseph LeConte, and J. K. Moffitt had made an ascent of the tallest Palisade, the mountain had been through so many names that LeConte commented:
'Until further particulars of the naming of the highest point can be obtained, I shall refer to it as the North Palisade, leaving to the next [Sierra Club] Bulletin the result of this investigation.'
Apparently LeConte's frustration with the unknown names previously applied to the
peak, and his simple reversion to the earliest name given to the mountain, were
enough to promote the title North Palisade into popular usage. The name stuck,
and was never debated."
- Stephen F. Porcella & Cameron M. Burns, Climbing California's Fourteeners