Fri, Aug 14, 2020
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Middle Palisade previously climbed Fri, Aug 12, 2005|
Day 8 would be the second hardest of this year's Sierra Challenge with 6,800ft of gain over the course of 13mi. Unofficially named Excitement Peak lies on the Sierra Crest in the Palisades region between Disappointment Peak and Middle Palisade. It has little prominence, first appearing in Secor's guidebook as a pinnacle to be bypassed on the Middle Pal to Disappointment traverse. Matthew and I had done just this in 2005 when we did the traverse from Balcony Peak to Disappointment to Middle Pal. Secor gives no actual description of climbing the minor summit and I could find no information online, either. Clearly folks had been to the summit as the locally-derived names suggests it was found to be a spicy undertaking. I didn't know if I would personally be able to reach the summit, but it seemed a worthwhile adventure and why it landed on the Challenge this year.
We had a modestly-sized group of about 7-8 for the 6a start from the South Fork trailhead. The trail up the South Fork Big Pine Creek is a familiar one, about five miles to Finger Lake if one uses the shortcut to bypass Brainerd Lake. There are two places that seem to change over the years, the first being where to cross the creek. Without a fixed bridge, the crossing can be treacherous in high water, more tame late in the season. Today was closer to the latter and I was able to get across on rickety branches without taking my boots off or, as sometimes happens, falling in. The second change is where exactly to find the Finger Lake shortcut. I was on my own for this section, thankfully, because despite having used it at least half a dozen times, I pretty much botched it this time and ended up on terrain both brushier and rougher than it needed to be. I reached the outlet of Finger Lake by 8:15a, finding Mason just on the other side. Others were not far ahead starting up the boulder fields above the lake. Mason and I followed a route closer to the lake that offered no real advantage over the more direct line further to the west and we got a bit behind the others. Mason was moving slowly today, having not yet recovered from his 19hr+ outing the previous day, and decided to take a rest while I pressed on. He wasn't feeling it today and would turn back without making it past the glacier - similar to where I turned back on my first effort during the first Sierra Challenge in 2001. I continued up on my own, reaching the edge of the moraine shortly after 9a.
The moraine is the loose pile of rock left by the receding Middle Palisade Glacier. Ahead I could see a couple of figures, Zee and Fred making there way higher still up this loose collection of unpleasantness. I followed their route across a couple of low-angle snowfields to reach the medial moraine between the two halves of the glacier in about half an hour. I would have been better off following the others to the redish rock on the right, marking the standard route up the main chute. Instead, I was curious about the state of Secor's route, a narrower chute just to the left. I'd brought crampons and ice-axe for just this purpose with the added bonus that I'd have the lower half of this route to myself with less concern for rockfall from others above me. I wandered out onto the glacier at its upper edge and found nothing that looked like the class 2 ramp I recalled when Matthew and I had used it 15yrs earlier. Thinking it was further left than I could remember, I continued along the upper edge of the glacier until I was almost directly under Middle Pal's summit and found nothing but difficult terrain wherever I looked. I backtracked nearly to where I'd began on the snow before recognizing the ramp above me. Trouble was, the glacier has receded over the past decade and a half, exposing some terribly loose and steep terrain below the start of the ramp. I scrambled up this every so gingerly, but it very unnerving for that first 15-20ft or so, more like class 3-4 than class 2. I quickly found ducks above and the right-leaning ramp that would take me more easily up to Secor's chute, helping confirm I was on the right route (later I would find I had a similar photo of the ramp from 15yrs earlier that showed it was the same ramp as well as some changes where rocks have shifted and fallen out of position). It doesn't look like this route sees much traffic anymore, and with the increased danger I could see why. At the end of the ramp I followed more ducks around the corner and into the steep class 3 chute going straight up. The rock quality here is pretty descent and makes for some fun scrambling. The chute merges with the main chute after about 10min where I met up with Zee once more. He was moving more slowly now and I pulled ahead of him as I continued up the main chute for another half hour to reach the summit by 11:20a.
I found Sean K and Sean R already at the summit, Sean R getting ready to start for Excitement. Grant and Clement had already headed off and were out of sight. Sean K had reached his goal for the day and planned to rest up more before starting back down. The 1936 aluminum Sierra Club register was still at Middle Pal's summit along with a number of booklets covering decades of ascents. I quickly signed into it so as to continue on to Excitement, hoping to take advantage of the others' route-finding. The distance to Excitement was only about 600ft, but it would take me 45min to traverse between the two. The route starts off as a standard class 3 scramble along the ridgeline, losing little elevation until Excitement comes into view and the ridge drops off steeply. Grant was already at Excitement's summit and Clement was close behind, following its steep and exposed class 3 NW Ridge, directly on the crest. The route looked reasonable to my eye despite the exposure, until a large block is encountered about 30-40ft below the summit. I watched Clement make an exposed move along a thin ledge at the base of this to reach a body-sized crack, then back off and call up to Grant for some direction. Grant told him he used the crack and then Clement carefully made the same moves, wedging himself in the crack before pulling up onto rocks above. It seemed an awfully dicey proposition to me. Not liking the looks of it, Fred had gone around to the left to look for another way up. Closer to me, Sean R had just finished reaching the chute on the north side of the notch between the two summits, and I didn't have a chance to see how he got there. I called over to him for some help to which he indicated he'd gone down the northeast side before traversing across. With a few missteps, I finally managed to follow a similar class 3-4 path, meeting up below the notch with Fred already on his way back. He was a bit excited, eager to get off such treacherous terrain and probably wouldn't be able to relax until he was back at Middle Pal. I was feeling similarly, but internalizing it more and cautiously making my way across. Fred had said that his route was probably easier and encouraged me to use it. After we parted, I moved around to the Northeast Face and was happier with what I saw there - steep, but looking less exposed and with more than one option. As I was moving up this face, Grant and Clement came down to my left, eager to get on with the traverse to Disappointment. They were calmly having a discussion about possible route lines as they disappeared below me. I found the left side of face had easier scrambling, no more than class 3 with good holds and decent rock. When I popped out on the summit just before 12:15p, Sean R was already there, having utilized Grant's ascent route. Finding no register, we left one of our own to which we added the names of our companions who'd already left. The summit was a wild little perch that could hold a few folks comfortably with a wide-ranging view to the north and south. We exchanged waves with Sean K at Middle Pal's summit to the west.
Almost as eager as Fred to get off this difficult terrain, we spent only a few minutes before carefully retracing my route off the NE Face. My route on the traverse back towards Middle Pal must have been a variation of the outbound route, because I came across a rap station that I hadn't seen earlier. The return went quicker, only about 30min to reach Middle Pal's summit. Zee had reached the summit and was just starting down not far below us. Sean K had left the summit earlier and was somewhere ahead of Zee. I was very careful to avoid knocking anything down with others below me, and for the most part kept to the east side of the chute to minimize having them in the direct line of fire. Near the bottom of the main chute, I came across David Park on his way up. He was probably about 45min from the summit at the pace he was moving, but seemed in good spirits and didn't seem to mind that he'd be the last one off the summit today. I used the red rock route for the descent, loose and crappy for the lower part, but not really dangerous. I nearly caught up with Fred as I reached the top of the medial moraine, but he decided on a more direct descent down the glacier while I took the more roundabout way along the top of the moraine. I would catch up with him again past the glacier when he pause to empty snow and debris from his shoes. Further down the route, the two of us came upon Sean K above Finger Lake. I struck up a short conversation with the 16yr-old, knowing he had been eager and nervous to climb the peak which would be his hardest ascent to date. I asked him if he thought it was easier or harder than he expected. He replied enthusiastically, "Oh! Twenty million times easier!" He would be one to watch out for in future Challenges. We descended to Finger Lake where Sean K paused while Fred and I continued down. It would take us most of the next two hours to make our way back down (yet another version of) the shortcut to the Brainerd Lake Trail and then back down the South Fork drainage to the TH.
We were the first to arrive at the parking lot with Sean R only a few minutes behind us. I headed off to Independence where I had reserved a room at Ray's Den for the next few nights. I was relieved to be done with the hardest of this year's peaks, knowing the next two days should be considerably easier.
The only change in jersey status today was Zee reaching his 5th Challenge Peak to tie him with Emma for the lead in the White Jersey (under 25yrs). She had left after the fifth day, expecting to be done, but had decided to come back for the last two days, keeping Zee on his toes.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Middle Palisade
This page last updated: Mon Sep 21 18:30:07 2020
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