Fri, Aug 12, 2005
After several relatively easy days, we knew the eighth day of the Challenge was going to be a tough one. The distance isn't all that much, but the elevation gain is significant, over 6,000ft and much of this cross-country. There were nine at the Big Pine Creek TH for the 6a start. In addition to the five regulars who'd been to each of the first five days, Ron had returned after a rest day. This was a nice surprise, not just because we liked Ron's company, but also because he's the only one of us who'd ever been to the summit. This could be handy for a peak said to have some tricky class 4 route-finding. The other five were Matthew, Mark, Michael, Rick G., and myself. There were also three new faces: Vlad, Jim, and John who planned to climb to nearby Middle Palisade instead of Disappointment.
Starting up the South Fork Trail as the sun began to rise, we were soon hiking in the cool shade as the sun disappeared again behind Kid Mountain to the east. This allowed us to stay cool for the first two hours of the hike gaining elevation against the warmer temperatures that were developing lower in the canyon. Another beautiful morning without a cloud, and though some would develop as the day wore on, they never turned into anything threatening.
It took a little more than an hour to reach the top of the headwall in the lower canyon, where we took a break before continuing on. Our peaks were clearly outlined on the crest above us, but were still more than a few hours away. Mark was again out in front as we marched along on our way towards Brainerd Lake. Mark had paused at the highpoint along the trail where I'd said we'd head off cross-country. He and I took off into the brush and up the granite slabs before the others had approached. We made our way in good fashion to Finger Lake, finding the use trail above Brainerd Lake to make it easier. Mark and I took a break at the lake's outlet while we waited for the others. After about 15 minutes we decided they may not be coming the same way, and we headed off. I led Mark on a route around the west side of Finger Lake, climbing about a hundred feet before dropping again to the lake level at its southern end. This seemed an excellent move to allow us to avoid much of the tedious boulders found high on the west side of Finger Lake on the way to the Middle Palisade Glacier. From the lake we followed the drainage up, mostly over snow. We put our crampons on as we climbed snow nearly all the way to the glacier - much better than boulders!
Mark kept up a good pace in the lead as I did as much as I could just to keep up. We could see no one anywhere on the slopes below us. As we approached the rocky moraine just below the glacier, I could see a few climbers ahead of Mark, already on the rock. To my surprise, it was Matthew and Ron. They had gone on to Brainerd Lake and climbed up from there, evidently finding a better route or possibly just moving faster. Looking at the crest before us, we discussed the four snow-filled chutes to our left as the most likely candidates for an ascent. Michael and Rick were not far behind as the four of us started across the glacier for the chutes. The closer we got the easier it began to look, and our initial apprehension began to dissolve. We were joking as we approached the bergshrund, a puny little thing compared to its big brother over on the North Palisade Glacier. Not that it would be impossible to fall into it, but there were many easy bridges and it presented no serious obstacle. While Mark was off to the left to climb onto the nearby rocks, I attacked the highest wall I could find, about five feet worth. And attack I did, striking my axe into to the top of the short wall as I shouted out pirate slogans. Problem was, my axe wouldn't stick as I repeated the manuever a dozen times to no avail. Each time it would drive in and then pull out horizontally as I tried to pull up on it. The top layer of snow was just too soft. I switched to ugly as I then went after the wall of snow and ice with my gloves, punching holes in the top to try and pull myself up. It wasn't pretty, but I got up and over it. Why Matthew chose to follow over the same way I never bothered to ask him, but perhaps he thought it looked like fun as he watched from below. The others all found more reasonable ways around.
I led the charge up the upper portion of the snow chute, having chosen the rightmost of the four chutes. Mark was not far below as I made my way up easily enough, burying my axe in self-belay ahead of me. With the snow running out and the slope growing steeper and icier, seriousness returned to task. I switched to using the axe head for belay, but soon it wouldn't provide much security as it failed to get purchase in the thinning snow. The snow ran out with about 50 feet of climbing left to the crest, and here I found the diciest conditions of all. The slope was a mess of loose dirt and rock, and I had to move ever so slowly to avoid knocking rocks down. There was very little one could term "solid rock" and I felt my position growing more tenuous by the moment. Looking back down, I could see that the others had moved a bit to the east onto a flat spot on the arete between the two rightmost chutes (and from there planning to climb the adjacent chute to the summit). I feared further movement on my part was bound to send rocks down, so I waited patiently for them to move off to the side. Matthew seemed to be in no hurry, probably unaware that I was waiting on him, so I called down to ask if he couldn't move over to join the others. Once this was done, I completed my short struggle (rocks and dirt tumbling down below me) out of that little death trap and dragged myself up to the crest.
It was 10:45a, nearly 5 hours just to reach the crest. We still had to reach the summit of Balcony, and then the traverse to Disappointment, our day's goal. I didn't wait for the others to reach the crest before I started off on the class 2 talus/boulder climb along the crest to Balcony. It wasn't hard, but it seemed to be draining after the time it had already taken. It took me a bit more than half an hour to slog my way to the top, Matthew only a few minutes behind. By 11:30a we had all six of us at the summit. We took a short break to catch our breath, take in the views, and plot our next move. It seemed there were two options available to get to Disappointment - the class 4 "Eckert" chute on the south side, or the standard class 4 route on the steep, loose north side. I decided to head west off the summit, if I could, thinking it both sporting to look for an interesting way down, as well as a better line along the crest itself. I climbed down the west side of the summit while Mark looked on from above, only to find myself staring at big rocks and big air all around it a short ways further along the ridge. Not for me! I started down a narrow chute on the north side that I figured would intersect the regular route on that side. 50 feet down I spotted Ron, Michael, and Matthew already on the route, having just come through a notch on the crest where they'd started the traverse across the north side. Mark and Rick decided they'd had enough excitement for the day and decided to forgo the effort to Disappointment.
I joined the others just behind Ron and Michael as Ron led confidently across the face. It was steep and loose as advertised, but not as intimidating as we had expected. The route-finding wasn't as serious as we had expected, and it seemed there were a number of ways one could go, higher or lower, in traversing across the face. The traverse led us around to a notch on the east side of Disappointment Peak. Ron was the first up this class 4 chimney, cooly reaching the notch while Michael watched from below. Michael followed, then myself, and above the notch I kept heading up as the others paused briefly. Matthew was only a short distance below the notch, and within another 15 minutes we were all at the summit of Disappointment. It had taken only a bit more than 30 minutes for the whole traverse, but it was a very concentrated bit of time. We looked back and waved to Rick who was still on the summit of Balcony but a short distance away. Mark had already started down.
Matthew and I began to discuss the continuing traverse to Middle Palisade. Ron was a bit discouraging, commenting that only a handful of folks had ever done the traverse. This couldn't be correct, and I read an entry from Bob Pickering in the register commenting how he made the traverse from Middle Pal at the age of 42 (or something around there), "not bad for a weekend warrior." "See," I offered, "if Bob could do it, so could we." Neither Michael nor Ron could be convinced to go further, partly because it was purported to be more difficult than the traverse we just completed, and partly because it was already 12:30p and we'd been at it 6 1/2 hours already. Matthew wanted to do the traverse pretty badly because he hadn't been to the summit of Middle Pal yet whereas I had. But I wasn't going to back out on Matthew today as I was still feeling guilty for backing out on the Temple Crag to Gayley traverse the day before. This one certainly looked easier and shorter - Middle Pal was but a short distance away. Between the two summits was another summit, "Excitement Peak" that we would need to traverse around.
Like on Balcony, I started down the west side of the summit, to at least see how far I could go before having to drop down to the traverse. The descent off the summit was a bit hairy, dropping down a five-inch crack on a nearly vertical slab for some 30 feet. The holds were good, each one just below where I needed it most, but it still took some time to safely make my way down. From above, Matthew looked down and then looked down a chute just to the south. "Hey, can I go down here?" he asked, not able to see the lower part of the route down. "Uh, yeah - if you can get into it, it comes out easy enough to where I'm standing." And in almost no time, Matthew was down the easier route and I was feeling a bit silly for taking the crack down. We quickly came to an impasse (for us) along the ridgeline, and started dropping down onto the north side in search of the regular route. According to Secor, we were to take a horizontal traverse across the north side, then find a diagonal ascent to the summit of Middle Palisade. Secor draws a very nice straight line across his photograph, followed by a smooth ascending traverse to Middle Pal. Once we were on the face, reality was something altogether different from that fantasy drawing. A better description would have been to point out the face is really just a series of vertical chutes and aretes, half a dozen of each to be crossed during the traverse. It was impossible to find a line that looked anything like horizontal, instead it was a scramble from one arete to the next, either climbing up or down, looking for a notch on the arete by which to climb into the next chute. The rock was no different than the stuff we found between Balcony and Disappointment, just more of it. I got ahead of Matthew on the traverse, now and then spotting him as he climbed across one arete while I was climbing into the next chute. Once past Excitement Peak, I started to climb up through the chutes, no longer considering downward climbs. I heard voices in front of me and soon spotted climbers atop Middle Pal's summit. That was a nice stroke of luck - at least now I could see where I was heading. I found my way up to the crest and climbed the ridgeline towards the summit. The others at the summit spotted me when I was about 100 feet away, and I soon joined them.
Success! It was about 2:15p when I got to the summit. The traverse had taken about 1hr45m, longer than I'd hoped, but not by much. Among those at the summit was Vlad, who had started with us in the morning. His friends Jim and John had turned back down near the glacier. Vlad then ran across two other climbers near the start of the NE Face, hooking up with them to do the climb. The other two climbers had been camped somewhere above Finger Lake. The three had been at the summit some time before I got there and were ready to leave. They stayed long enough to have a nice conversation, albeit a short one, before they started down. Matthew was about 15 minutes behind me, better than I had expected - his class 4 scrambling was improving markedly. I suspect it won't be long before he's beating me across this stuff as well. We stayed another ten minutes before it was time for us to depart, shortly before 3p.
From the summit, the descent down the NE Face is fairly obvious. It also helped that I climbed it before, as well as the three climbers leading the way down below. One can see almost the whole route from the summit, nearly a straight shot down that side of the crest through a wide chute. The other climbers weren't moving too fast, and we were soon catching up with them. We were trying to be careful not to knock rocks down, a difficult task with so many loose projectiles waiting to be launched. While Matthew was about 20 yards behind me he unleased a golfball-sized rock towards me. As soon as he yelled out "Rock!" I had my head up to see where it was going. It took a few bounces and then shot straight at me - my reaction was to put up my hand (I was wearing leather gloves) and catch it. That was something new! It tore a hole in my gloves, but didn't break the skin and left only a bruised feeling in my hand. As I started to pass the others, I moved to the left to get out of the bowling alley as much as possible. Sometimes the only reasonable way was down the middle, which I would do nervously until I could once again move off to the side. I was the first to reach the top of the ledge leading down to the glacier and was happy to be off towards safer ground - that's really a poor route to be climbing with multiple persons without a helmet. The ledge led down a ramp to the glacier where I spotted the crampons/axes left by the others. I tried the glacier's slope briefly without crampons, but felt it too hard now that the slope was in shade to descend without. I got out my crampons and had them on in a few minutes, and was already descending the glacier as Matthew appeared coming down the ramp. I had him pause so I could get a picture, then continued on.
Further down the glacier Matthew caught up with me as we followed snow slopes down as far as we could, preferring that medium to the tedious boulders we'd have as the alternative. When the snow ran out we had to scramble down some terrible slopes with hard, compacted earth embedded with loose rocks. It was a messy descent and we had as much trouble managing our own descent down as we did trying to keep out of each other's way. Below this we reached the snow slopes leading down to Finger Lake that we had taken in the morning, and it was a delightful series of standing glissades nearly the whole way back to the lake. We could see the boot prints of Michael, Ron, and the others having descended already from Balcony and Disappointment. We had seem them descending the glacier while we were at the summit of Middle Pal, so we knew they were well ahead of us. We returned past Finger Lake via the same route Mark and I had taken in the morning, making good time down to the trail.
Once down on the trail, Matthew and I took to jogging all the downhills, and from this point it was mostly that. It was nice to have the energy to do so after so many hours out, and we were feeling good as we made excellent time. We caught up to Ron and passed him with about 10 minutes left to the trailhead, he didn't seem too surprised. Actually, Ron never looks surprised. We ended finishing about 15 minutes behind Michael, Mark, and Rick, and 5 minutes ahead of Ron as we got back shortly after 5:30p. It had been a highly successful outing, one of the more enjoyable ones Matthew and I had all week. Eight down, two to go!
Eric L. had showed up late to the trailhead. He climbed up to the Middle Pal Glacier and started up one of the chutes below Disappointment, possibly Doug's Chute or an adjacent one. Before long he turned back due to the looseness of the rock he found. Eric ended up returning to the trailhead before the rest of us.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Disappointment Peak - Middle Palisade
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