Fri, Aug 10, 2001
There was no way we were going to climb North Palisade. Mt. Darwin had beaten me pretty good the day before, and I was worried that I might be too beat trying to attempt North Pal, that I'd fail to climb both it and Split Mtn the next day. What I really needed was a rest day, but that wasn't really allowed by my own hazy conception of what the rules were. It was supposed to be 10 Peaks in 10 Days, not 9 Peaks Plus a Rest Day. So the trick was to find something new and tough, but just not too tough. David and I settled on Middle Palisade. Neither of us had climbed the peak or anywhere in the drainage of the South Fork of Big Pine Creek, and as a fourteener, it was a pretty impressive peak, too.
We left our motel in Bishop around 5:30a and drove down US395. The sun was already rising on the Sierra Crest, Mt. Humphreys just visible as we drove past the golf course south of town. Once we reached Big Pine, we found our turnoff near the center of town and turned right up Glacier Lodge Rd. On the way up I spotted the small "V" between the twin summits of Split Mountain, and marvelled at the smooth slope of its North Face that could be seen in profile. At the end of the road we found convenient day use parking right at the trailhead. There were no cars or people around this early in the morning, and the only sound was the din of the creek cascading forcefully though its streambed a short distance from the parking lot. We packed up our stuff, locked our cars, and headed out. The South Fork trailhead heads past a few cabins that appear to be used by the rangers that manage this area. I don't know whether to be envious of their prime real estate or not, given the traffic that must go by their backdoor on a regular basis. I opt to be envious. The trail crosses the North Fork Big Pine Creek on a very deluxe steel and wood bridge, a nice 20-foot cascade just upstream. The sun is already shining on us and it appears it may be a rather warm day.
We followed the trail upstream as if follows the west side of the South Fork, at first easy and flat. It is very dry in this lower canyon, and all the trees are bunched along the banks of the creek. There is just the hardy scrub along the trail. A mile or so up we came to the crossing where the trail goes to the east side of the creek, this time without the benefit of a nice bridge. Or any bridge, for that matter. The easy thing would have been to just take our shoes off and wade across, as the water would barely go past the knees. But the water is moving swift and cold, and we do not relish an accidental swim. So we spent a good five minutes scouting the banks for a way to cross on a downed tree or over some boulders. We didn't find any trees (the aspens don't do as well in this category as the larger pines and cedars). But we did find some large rocks that constricted the creek enough to allow us to jump from one rock onto another with a questionable landing. After crossing I pause to see if David will make it as well or take that drink we were worried about - he does fine, and we continue on. Kid Mountain, nearly 12,000ft high, looms high to our left forming the east side of the canyon, and the trail now moves into shade behind this wall. That is fine with us, for we have no problem keeping warm as the trail starts to gain more serious elevation. At the end of the canyon there is a headwall to be climbed, and the trail begins to switchback as it climbs the steep slope here. I went ahead of David as the switchbacks grew more tedious, so that I could take a longer rest up higher where I hoped to find better views.
The trail levels out after the headwall where it offers some fine views of not only the lower canyon, but ahead to the Sierra Crest and the impressive peaks of Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. David caught up shortly, and after a break for a snack, we continued on. The trail heads downhill slightly, and while making life easier for us momentarily, I never relish losing altitude to be gained a few minutes later. The flora has changed remarkably, and it is very lush here in this upper canyon, almost swampy in places. The aspens give way to the evergreens, and the scene takes on a much more inviting appearance. We took the trail that forks left towards Brainerd Lake and resumed our upward climb. The trail pretends to follow the creek that cascades down from the Palisade Basin above, but it never gets close enough to take in the views of the falls, instead just providing the sound track of what one imagines to be an impressive watercourse. Eventually the trail turns east, flattens, and begins a downward direction towards the lake. We paused at the highpoint in the trail here to consult our maps, and decided it was time to strike off cross-country.
In other areas this is much more obvious than today. We have no clear view of our goal, as there is a very steep slope ahead of us blocking the view to the upper basin, and there is still many trees similarly hindering the view. We start out with a short section of bush-whack, followed by a boulder field, which leads us to a steep granite slope that we choose to climb instead of more boulders. Most of this is straightforward class 2, but there are a few places where the granite slope get steep and we used our hands to pull ourselves up to the next ledge. I looked for cairns or other signs of previous travel through this section, but could find none, and there is a small nagging doubt that we are heading toward a bad place. We might get cliffed out, find ourselves on local highspot (with much downclimbing to get off), or be heading in the wrong direction. The last seemed unlikely, but since we had little visibility as to where we were heading, the first two seemed very real possibilities. David complained very little about my route-finding, in fact not at all that I can remember. Knowing I've made some pretty ugly errors in the past, I now and then asked David for his opinion to see if he felt we should be doing something differently. For the most part he seemed perfectly content to let me take us where I will. I suppose he'll have to be along for one of those ugly-mistake hikes before he learns to trust me less whole-heartedly.
We top out on the granite slope, and to our relief we are not met with cliffs or downclimbing. In fact, we had a great view again of both Middle Pal and Norman Clyde Peak. There is a rounded ridge that we can follow further up, the creek cascading a ways down on the right side. As we hiked along, we came across evidence of previous visitors. There were some rocks lining what we thought might be a use trail, but aside from the 15 yards of trail here, there was no evidence on either side of it going anywhere. We found that we were on a knoll above the outlet to Finger Lake, and impressive lake nestled between the canyon walls here. There were fine campsites in half a dozen locations up here, and I imagined that this was a long abandoned group campsite used by the Palisades Climbing School before it closed many years ago. I have no further evidence as to whether it is true or not, but it seems a fairly ideal campsite location - flat sites, great views, and water only 30 yards away. David and I hung out here for 30 minutes or so, mostly to give David a chance to filter some water at the lake's outlet. On the west side, I looked around for evidence of a trail leading higher, but found none. It is mostly boulder fields going up a in the general direction towards Middle Pal, and I was hoping to find a "preferred" path up the slopes, but was unable to make out anything definitive. It looked like something might go off in this direction, another one off in that direction, but hiking up a short distance I lost whatever it was I thought I was following.
When David was done we headed up, staying close to the west back of the lake where there were some trees. I hoped these might afford less rocky terrain, but that did not turn out to be the case. It was more of a bushwhack until we gave up that path altogether and began heading more southwest directly up the boulder fields. These were large and bountiful. Rarely have I seen so many acres of boulders upon boulders. We must have been climbing an ancient moraine, the debris carried down by the glaciers when they were a more powerful force in this region. I left David behind again as I climbed steadily up without taking breaks. But I was definitely getting tired, and was using this tact only so I could take a longer break further up. Cresting the slope I was finally greeted by a full view of the two main peaks from their base to their summit, and they were still a good deal away, much to my disappointment. It looked to be a couple hundred yards to the base of the Palisade Glacier, then a quarter mile or so traversing left to the base of Middle Pal. And of course, then a few thousand feet of climbing to the summit. I was beginning to grow ambivalent about reaching the summit. On the one hand, I was concerned that our progress was slower than it should be, and of course I was willing to blame that on David. On the other hand, I had to admit that the previous day had been pretty tough on me and I wasn't really minding the slower pace all that much. I was additionally concerned that I might not be up for the tough hike the following day to Split Mtn, which I wanted to climb a good deal more than Middle Pal. When David came up to join me, we discussed the situation. It seemed David wasn't all that keen on the long class 3 climb up ahead, and was similarly ambivalent, though he was willing to keep going if I wanted to push for the summit. I had to admit that David was showing more drive than myself at the moment and I couldn't fairly use him as an excuse to back down. So I declared that I really wouldn't be unhappy if we turned around at this point, and left it to David to decide whether to continue. I think he enjoyed my moment of weakness after watching me push relentlessly the past days, and with a slight smile agreed to turn around.
It was around noon, which meant that we'd probably get back fairly early. To add some interest on the return we took a different direction, heading east, where we planned to hike down to the inlet side of Finger Lake. There is a great view of The Thumb, and after looking at it from a number of angles I added it to my mental list of peaks to climb in the future. On a bench high above the lake's southern end, we found a tent and other gear in a small campsite that was currently abandoned, most likely while the occupants were off climbing. Climbing down to the lake involved more giant boulder fields, and it seemed they couldn't end soon enough. At the lake shore we found a small green belt that hugged the edges of the lake, and provided the easier hiking we'd been seeking. Unfortunately, it's simply not possible to hike either the east or west shore of Finger Lake from one end to the other due to high cliffs that force one to either take a swim (not a popular option in the freezing waters) or climb up the cliffs. We tried to follow the west bank as far as we could, eventually stopped by the massive walls. Darn. We didn't really want to climb up the several hundred feet to get over and around the cliffs, but we had little choice. It turned out to be fairly fun class 3 climbing in places, and I found I was enjoying this little stretch a good deal. David followed up in fine style, though his level of enjoyment was a bit lower than mine. With some bushwhacking (the same bushwhack we'd avoided on the way up) through thick alder that grew along the banks, we finally managed to get back to the lake's outlet where'd we'd started several hours earlier.
We hiked back up the knoll, then started down the other side, again taking a slightly different route than we'd taken on way up. We were further east, descending easier sand and scree slopes, with a fine view of Brainerd Lake below us to northeast. Above the lake to the east rises another impressive peak, Birch Mtn. We found more evidence of use trail here, and followed the short sections where we could, but soon lost them again. Down and down we went, losing altitude at a steady clip, and with a little more bushwhacking found ourselves back on the trail, almost at the point we'd left it earlier. Pretty good homing instincts, we thought! We passed two groups of two backpackers who were on their way up to Brainerd Lake, with heavy loads that included climbing rope and gear. Watching them sweat and struggle with their loads, I was feeling both wimpy (that I was feeling tired going downhill with no more than four pounds of gear) and thankful (that I was going downhill with no more than four pounds of gear and was heading for a hot shower) as we exchanged greetings.
I took more time going back to enjoy the views of this area, and to photograph some of the flowers and trees found here. When it came time to cross the creek again, this time I simply removed my shoes and walked across the streambed. I then dried my feet off, put my boots back on, and was on my way in only a few minutes. It was pretty obvious that the morning's delay in trying to get across was a wasted exercise.
It only took a few hours to return to the trailhead, and it was just past 3p. Gee, what would I do with so much extra time? Rest, of course. Back in Big Pine, we found a decent enough motel about as cheap as they come. In fact, the quote he gave us for a room was so low (little more than $30) that we each got our own room. Seems the further south one travels on US395, the cheaper the rooms get. There seems to be a direct correlation with the elevation of the town you're staying in. After we'd had a chance to clean up, we went out to dinner. David's co-worker Toby was going to join us for Split Mountain the following day, and we'd managed to contact him on David's cell phone, but he'd just left the Bay Area. He was going to be arriving late in the night, and I expected his lack of acclimatization would get the best of him. But Toby was key for our adventure tomorrow since neither David nor I had a 4WD. Fortunately Toby did, and it was going to come in mighty handy the next day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Middle Palisade
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