Thu, Aug 22, 2002
Up at 5a, the three of us went about silently packing up, eating breakfast, the usual pre-dawn routine we'd gotten used to by now. Vishal was livelier than the day before, but still a bit sluggish in waking up and getting his act together. Vishal had taken a rest day the previous day and would be a bundle of energy soon enough. Joe and I were pretty worn from the previous day's long workout, but figured our muscles would loosen and feel better as we got started. We left Bishop in three cars, drove to Big Pine, then up the Glacier Lodge Road to the trailhead at the end of the road. Joe and I had left together in order to get to the trailhead on time, while Vishal was the last to leave the motel room, hurriedly trying to get his things in order, some 10 minutes behind us. We parked in the deserted day use lot. Almost right behind us was Brian Boyle, a new face for the Challenge, who planned to climb Middle Pal and Mt. Russell with us. We introduced ourselves, availed ourselves of the restrooms and packed to leave. Just as we were heading out, Vishal came driving up. He'd not quite finished packing and was in a bit of disarray. I spoke with him briefly to assess he wasn't ready to head out, and told him to catch up to us on the trail. Vishal pleaded half-heartedly for us to wait, but I started anyway as it was already 6:15a. Joe was right behind but Brian seemed a bit perplexed by the abandonment and looked ready to wait for Vishal. I waved Brian to join us and explained that Vishal had been late the four days he'd climbed with us, and needed to get on the same program as everyone else rather than have us wait for him. "Besides, he'll catch up soon enough."
We walked past the ranger's domicile at the end of the road, crossed the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, and headed south on the trail towards Middle Pal. The sun rose over the White Mountains to the east shortly before 6:30a, and but a minute later the sun had lighted the faces of Middle Pal and Norman Clyde Peak just visible in the distance to the south. We crossed to the east side of the South Fork, jumping across some widely spaced boulders at a narrowing of the creek. Joe stopped to take a few pictures while Brian and I slowly meandered up the trail. I heard Vishal's voice calling from the other side of the creek, somewhere behind the trees and shrubs lining either side. "Hey, how did you get across?" We gave him some verbal directions and soon thereafter he joined us. Joe was in the lead for most of this beginning section, a relatively flat walk up the lower canyon. Then we hit the headwall, a series of switchbacks up the steep south wall of the canyon. I took the lead briefly, but was soon passed by Vishal who was an unstoppable dynamo. The rest day had served him well, and no one could keep up with him. He waited for us at the top of the hill, then we all took a good sized break to rest and take some photos. It was about 7:45a when we headed out again.
The middle region of the South Fork drainage is a lovely forested area, marshy and fern-filled in a few places, it was a welcome change to the drier landscape lower in the canyon. We hiked downhill for a hundred feet or so before the trail continued its upward climb. As the trail climbs it nears the cascades of the South Fork just to the west, but never close enough to see it. The trail then veers east on its way to Brainerd Lake. Just as we passed a small stagnant lake and the trail was beginning a downward direction, Vishal and I stopped to let the group reconvene. It was 8:15a. Now the hard part would begin as we left the trail here. This was the same route I'd taken the year before, so there weren't any navigational surprises. We climbed a steep hillside under the pines that grow among the granite slabs here, gaining 500ft in short order. Just before Finger Lake we came across a party of Germans camped under the trees, nestled in the rocks in some fine campsites. We waved a greeting before continuing another 50 yards where Vishal and I decided to wait for Joe and Brian. When they caught up, Joe looked fine but Brian was sweating a great deal and looking knackered. Not a good sign as we still had a very long way to go. I asked Brian how he felt to which he replied "Fine," but it wasn't very convincing. We hiked the final short distance to Finger Lake where we all took a break and refilled water bottles. I love this lake a great deal, perhaps the prettiest I've yet found in the Sierra. Its waters are a blend of delicate shades of blue and green, purple and yellow flowers adorn the shores around its outlet, and the rocks and mountain peaks that surround it frame it beautifully. The view of Middle Palisade was now much bolder, and together with Norman Clyde Peak they commanded the whole view to the south. Still, they looked quite far away.
Like a young canine pulling at its leash and finally breaking free, Vishal could be contained no longer. He wandered excitedly about the shore asking which way to go and wondering why we were taking as long as we were. I laughed to myself as I imagined he looked as impatient to me as I do to others most of the time. The peak beyond was obvious, and with a general heading it was pretty much impossible to get lost. I pointed Vishal in what I thought was the best line, and after providing answers to another series of questions, Vishal took off ahead of us. A few minutes later I started up as well, Joe and Brian a few minutes further still behind me. It was now 9a. The next section is almost 1000ft of boulder hopping with a few welcome sections of granite benches sprinkled in between. A year earlier this had knackered David and I and we called it quits just as we reached the moraine below the Middle Palisade Glacier. I was feeling better this time, perhaps a bit stronger, perhaps a bit less tired from the previous day. Still, I could not catch up to Vishal who continued in front some several hundred yards, only now and then catching glimpses of him as he went over a high point. Behind me I soon lost Joe and Brian altogether, never catching sight of them though I looked back every few minutes.
I reached the terminal moraine shortly before 10a, Vishal still well in front, though slower now on this difficult terrain. Morraines are usually little more than unconsolidated piles of rubble, and this one was no exception. Much of the rock was loose, every step suspect as a potential ankle twister or worse. Not much fun in short, and I would be glad to get off it. I caught up with Vishal in about 20 minutes as we approached the medial moraine that splits the glacier in half. Of course I only caught up with him because he stopped to wait for me. We spent about five minutes scanning the route behind us now that we had a commanding view, but saw no trace of the other two, no movement anywhere on the rocks below. I suspected that they had either stopped for a long break or had decided to turn around. It looked like it would just be Vishal and myself to carry on.
I began to pay more attention to the route ahead, attempting to decipher the somewhat confusing information available from trip reports and the guidebooks. The easiest route is not obvious to be sure, and the availability of several options may contribute to the confusion. We climbed the central moraine as high as we could until it literally ran out. Thank God. It was now 10:45a, more than four hours since we'd left the trailhead, and we could now say we were at the beginning of the climb. Secor describes a right-leading ramp that provides access to a wide couloir, but we could not find anything resembling a ramp. After doing a little searching around, I concluded that the ramp must be higher up on the left side. In fact later I found that this is true, but even in mid-August it cannot be approached without climbing on the glacier. To find it, one needs to head to near the high point of the left half of the glacier, exiting at the ramp found on the right side of this half of the glacier. But of course we'd left our crampons and axes in our car since we assumed the center moraine would gain us access to the route directly. I examined the glacier for a minute or so, but determined it was too steep and icy to risk in tennis shoes. We'd have to find another way.
Having climbed up as far we had trying to get to the ramp, I started climbing around on the rocks above us. It wasn't the safest of slopes, with a hurtful dropoff to the left should I slip on the steep slopes. I traversed left around towards the glacier and found the bottom of a class 4 chimney that looked to lead up to Secor's couloir. I watched nervously as Vishal followed over the steep slabs to where I waited, but he climbed without fear and more importantly, without slipping. The chimney, though technically harder, was safer in the event of a misstep, and actually quite enjoyable. Climbing out of the chimney, I found a cairn not far away and could see that we were also at the top of the ramp leading down to the glacier to the left. Ok, so a little misdirection and unintended class 4 climbing, but now we were back on route again.
Once in the couloir (really more like a wide chute), the climbing is pretty straightforward - climb upwards, stay in the chute. It's pretty easy class 3 climbing, and routefinding is no longer an issue. The chute ends on a ridge that defines the left side of a larger chute to the right of the one we were on. There is no need to traverse into the next chute (couloir) as described by Secor, it just natually ascends to join the wider chute. Further, Secor describes some red and white rock that marks this transition point. Though this face has much such rock that is visible from quite a distance, we found no obvious patches here. Mostly it's just a confusing addition to the description and not at all necessary to find the way. Looking down, the wider chute extends far below us. A gendarme splits the two chutes up to where they join. I suspect the right-hand chute can also be climbed from below and made a mental note to explore this option on the way down. Climbing higher, our chute leans up to the left, aiming us almost directly for the summit. Vishal is no longer running away out in front, but is content to follow behind at a distance of about 50 yards. I'm careful in my steps to minimize rockfall as much as possible, sometimes moving a rock to the side to avoid dislodging it. We are high above the glacier now, and have an impressive view to the north. Every now and then I look back for Joe and Brian, but we are probably too high to spot them even if they were still continuing on. Finally topping out on the summit ridge, I climbed up to see where the summit lay. To the southeast it appeared, but the route along the crest itself was too difficult. I dropped back down about 20 yards onto the Northeast face where Vishal waited, and together we traversed about 100 yards towards the summit, staying below the ridge. When we were a bit past the summit, an easy way up presented itself, and we clambered over the huge class 3 boulders to gain the summit.
It was almost exactly noon, having taken nearly six hours to reach the summit. Certainly one of the hardest peaks we'd climbed in terms of time. We found the summit register easily enough and added our own entries. It was one of the clearest days we'd had yet, and the views were wonderful in all directions. I took a series of photographs in all directions (E SE SSE S SSW SW W NW N). While I could identify the major peaks along the Sierra from Split in the southeast to North Palisade in the west, there were no peaks in the region to the south and southwest that I could identify. The nearest peak I'd previously visited was Mt. Clarence King, many miles to the south, and even that one I couldn't identify (even at home later when I had a map in front of me and I could study the photos, I still couldn't find it). This was a huge region that I yet to visit.
We stayed on the summit about 20 minutes before heading back down. We took our same route until we came to the gendarme that splits the two chutes. It was easy to convince Vishal to try a new descent route, so we stayed in the main chute as we continued down. We found this chute got steeper and technically more difficult as we descended, but by staying on the east side of the chute it was never more than class 3. This we followed until we came to small saddle marked with the famous red and white rock that this face is noted for. This saddle we knew would lead east down to the central moraine, and the entire ramp/chute here is filled with the red/white rock mix and easily visible from a mile below. What we didn't know was how hard the climbing would be in this side chute, which had seemed an easier route to get onto from below.
Peering over the east side, we were surprised to hear voices and see 4 climbers below us. They were the Germans we'd met earlier in the morning. I quickly found that the top of the chute was as loose and crappy as the climbers below were finding in the bottom part of the chute. Each step would launch a mini-avalanche of gritty debris with a few projectiles that could achieve missile velocities. Before subjecting those below me to such a barrage, I move off to the north side of the chute that was more solid, and climbed down the class 3-4 rock to where I was level with the others. They were out on a reconnaissance of the route, but weren't planning on climbing it today. I found this odd since they'd already climbed more than halfway from their camp at Finger Lake, but didn't question them further. Vishal had started to come down as well, but was still above us some 30 feet where he halted to let the others pass by. Satisfied that they had seen us come down, and assured that the difficulties were no worse than what they found in the chute, they were content to turn around and call it a day. Almost as soon as I started down with the Germans above me, I realised why they had taken so long to reach this point. They were simply crappy climbers. They couldn't take a step without unloading a barrage down the hill, and several baseball-sized chunks came flying by me before I quickly had to change tactics. I moved back to the north side of the chute, and climbed the harder (but now far safer) rock on the edge, putting as much distance between me and the others as possible. Vishal, watching from above, decided it was far safer to stay where he was above the Germans. I was down the chute and well up on the central moraine a hundred yards distance when I stopped to wait for Vishal, feeling safe. The Germans had managed to descend about 15 yards, Vishal still stuck at his perch above them. I suppose I just expected from the accents that they would be hardy mountaineers, having travelled so far from Germany to do some remote climbing in the Sierra. But they were really terrible, nearly killing themselves and each other in descending. While I waited for about 20 minutes, Vishal finally managed to get around them and extricate himself from their vicinity, and we continued on our way. We were 15 minutes down the route when the others finally reached the bottom of the chute to retrieve their packs.
Slogging our way back across the moraine field was mostly a pain in the butt, up and down all those piles of loose boulders. At least it was mostly down instead of up. In and among all this rubble Vishal and I got split up, he going one way, I another. When I reached the end of the moraine I looked back to see Vishal making his way in the same general direction about a hundred yards behind. It had been a fun climb with Vishal, but I was in need of a break from his company and rather preferred to travel back by myself. So I kept going down the granite slabs and benches, making fairly fast time down to Finger Lake. It was 2:45p when I reached the lake, and I took a few moments to get some more photos here - seems I can't pass Finger Lake by without being awed by its beauty and wanting to capture another piece of it. Heading down from Finger Lake, I decided to take a detour and visit Brainerd Lake a short ways to the east. I'd heard it was a fine lake and so went to check it out. Like Finger Lake it is nestled amongst the overwhelmingly abundant granite, perhaps a bit more vegetation surrounding it, but not much more. From above, the waters look deep and reflect vivid shades of blue and emerald. Climbing down from the west I followed bits and pieces of a use trail that brought me down through a very long boulder field, dropping me several hundred feet in elevation towards the lake. Numerous cairns pretend to mark a route, but they are mostly useless it seemed, so I knocked down most of the ones I came across. At the lake shore I found a few late summer flowers in bloom, and some fine campsites amongst the trees on the northeast side. I also found the terminus of the trail here, marking the end of the cross-country venturing.
Now 3:15p, I headed down the trail, most of it retracing the route we'd taken on the way up. When I came to the saddle in the trail just before the headwall that drops down to the lower part of the canyon, I was quite surprised to find Vishal sitting on a large granite slab, legs crossed, and enjoying the various bags of food he'd brought with him. He'd been expecting me, he informed me with a big grin. "How did you know I was behind you?" I asked incredulously. Having hiked with me the previous days, he figured I'd take a different way down, which invariably would take longer. Had I become that predictable? Apparently I had! I waited for Vishal to finish his snack, and then we went off together down the trail. The two hours that we'd been apart had been refreshing, and I was now happy to continue down together, Vishal chattering away as usual. It was 4:45p when we returned to the trailhead, a fine 10 1/2 hour outing - much harder than it looks on a map! After six days together, Vishal and I parted company. He was heading off to meet a friend, while I headed down to Independence to get a motel room. Joe planned to camp out up at Onion Valley, so we would meet up the next day.
It was quite hot in the Owens Valley, nearly 98F when I got to Independence. I took a motel room across from the Inyo County courthouse, cranked the air conditioner to full, took a shower, and just lay on the bed naked afterwards for what seemed the most wonderful hour of the day. Refreshed, I dressed and logged on to the Internet and to my email at work. While I was working away a knock came on the door, catching me by surprise. Who could that be? I opened the door to find a familiar but unfamiliar grey-haired gentleman with a grizzled beard standing there. It took me a second or two, then I exclaimed, "David!" It'd been a year since David and I had last hiked together for the 2001 Challenge. He hadn't sounded definite that he'd be joining us this year, and I really didn't expect to see him before the trailhead in the morning. He'd driven through town and spotted my car in the parking lot, and got a room next to mine. Now I'd have someone to have dinner with, which is always better than dining alone. We enjoyed a meal in town, catching up on the last year before getting to bed shortly after 8p. Another early start tomorrow, and new faces joining us tomorrow for a climb of University Peak. Six down, four to go!
Joe and Brian had turned back not far above Finger Lake, where we'd last been all together. Brian was pretty knackered from lack of acclimatization, and Joe was feeling like he needed a rest day - much like I did the year before when I turned back with David. Brian decided he'd had enough and decided against joining us for Mt. Russell in two days as he'd originally planned.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Middle Palisade
This page last updated: Fri Oct 3 09:07:27 2008
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