Fri, Aug 15, 2003
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I'd been wanting to climb Norman Clyde for several years now, and finally figured I had enough experience to tackle it's class 4 NNE Face. Of all the peaks in this year's Challenge, this was the one I wanted to climb most. On the otherhand, it seemed the least popular one with everyone else, as I had nobody interested in joining me. Michael had gone home after Sill, Matthew thought this one a little too rich for his blood (he went off and climbed Cardinal Mtn. via Taboose Pass Trail), and nobody else was signed up until the next day on Mt. Tyndall. Today would be a solo outing.
It was just after 5a when I left the trailhead from Glacier Lodge heading out on the South Fork TH under the light of my headlamp. I was getting very familiar with this route, now my third trip up to Finger Lake in three years. The previous two trips were to Middle Palisade, the sister peak to Norman Clyde about a mile to the southeast. The waning moon was glowing brightly above Middle Pal and Norman Clyde as I hiked up the South Fork before well before sunrise. It was magical with the moonlight, the quiet, and the chilled, still air. I almost wished I'd have started at 2a instead of 5a to enjoy more of the Sierra night. The sun had risen shortly before I reached the junction with the Willow Lake Trail, another fine day with hardly a cloud to be seen. It took two and a half hours to reach beautiful Finger Lake, and another hour to climb all the benches and boulders up to the start of the NE Face route. This last hour is rather tedious from a climbing perspective since it's mostly just boulder field upon boulder field. But at least the views are spectacular of Middle Pal and Norman Clyde looming high into the sky to the south. Though mostly barren rock, there was some green grasses and colorful wildflowers to add some welcome change to an otherwise limited color scheme.
I went for the variation described by Secor that follows a ledge and crack system to the saddle on the ridge above. This I found without trouble, and enjoyed the class 3 climbing up to the ridge. At the ridge I took a short break to take in the views of Palisade Crest, Jepson, Sill, and Gayley. The North-Northeast Face of Norman Clyde looked like cliffs from this perspective - my nerves were a bit shaken. After climbing along the ridge for a while, it was time to drop down onto the NNE Face, and I picked a place marked by a duck. As I was to find out, there was more than one entry point marked by ducks, at least three that I now know of. Not knowing this ahead of time, I dropped in earlier than described by Secor, but this didn't make much difference. The lower part of the route can be climbed by a variety of ways, and I picked ones that kept the climbing to class 4 or less. Once on the face it was less steep than it had appeared from afar, but it was fairly sustained class 3 at the minimum.
As I was halfway up, I heard voices above and looked to see to climbers standing on the ridge above looking down. We waved to each other, too far away to talk. They walked along the ridge a ways, and I assumed they were coming down, so I headed towards where I thought they were dropping down. Turns out they were traversing the ridge, probably towards Palisades Crest. When I got up to the point on the ridge I'd seen them traverse, I found the climbing much more difficult than class 4, and I was considerably off-route to the right. I was looking through a small notch in the crest with a tiny window view to the other side. An old sling was tied around the rock I clung to, probably to allow someone to make a rappel back to the NNE Face. But looking up either side was 5.6 climbing with death exposure. Those guys were superman and there was no way I was going to follow their line to the summit. I downclimbed and tried another line to the left, and repeated this process two more times, each ending in class 5 climbing above me. What I thought was going to be easy navigating was turning out to be as tricky as advertised. Eventually I followed a few key cairns that lead to the correct exit. Something like a thirty-foot chimney/inside corner led to the ridge above and the lower NW summit. I took a photo looking down from the top of the chimney. It was a bit disorienting that I could see thousands of feet almost straight down to the glacier below. Atop the ridge, it was another ten minutes of easy class 3 to get to the the higher SE summit.
In the register I found more familiar names, including 3 from Bob Pickering. In one of them he mentions a 6hr climb from Glacier Lodge, the same time it took me. There was also an entry from Vishal J. who had climbed with me on six of the peaks last year. He dedicated the climb to me personally for introducing him to ropeless class 4 climbing. I thought that was a nice gesture.
After half an hour on the summit taking in the views (N - E - SE - SW - W) I headed down, that's where things started to go wrong. Actually just one thing, the achilles tendon on my left foot. Seems the stress of the last week had taken its toll, and just like last year the weak point turned out to be the achilles. My foot had started to act up in the last hour to the summit, but now as I started to descend the problem was far more advanced. This was a crummy place to get a bum foot, on a difficult class 3-4 face. I found new climbing techniques in descending the NNE Face. I relied more on my hands and one good foot, the other one only useful in about half the normal positions. After two hours I got off the technical section, then faced an hour and a half back to Finger Lake over many boulders. Ugh. My foot was getting worse. I tried many different placement techniques to see if I could reduce the pain - stepping on the heel, on the ball of the foot, sideways. Some things seemed to work for a while, but the pain resumed a short time later. It got so that any way I put weight on that foot caused pain. My Martha Stewart gloves came to the rescue while climbing over and down the boulders as I had to rely on my hands more and more to get around them. If I didn't have those gloves my hands would have been thrashed. The weather started to turn as thunderclouds started to develop behind me on the crest. I imagined all sorts of less-than-fun ways I might be stuck out here overnight. I just had to get back.
After a another half hour I finally got back on the trail, and then hobbled another two hours back to the car. It actually started to feel better there at the end, but I think that was mostly due to the nerves simply deadening to the pain after six hours of abuse. My foot was pretty much useless. It was 5:30p when I got back to my car. What to do? There were still three days left in the Challenge. I decided to drive down to Independence, the meeting place for the next day's hike to Mt. Tyndall, sleep the night, and see how I felt in the morning. Early evening thunderstorms let loose over the Sierra as I drove south on US395 - at least I wasn't out there with that additional unpleasantry to contend with. In Independence I met up with Matthew (who'd had a successful outing to Cardinal Mtn) and David Wright, who had participated in the 2001 and 2002 Challenges. We ate dinner together at the same dumpy diner I'd eaten at the year before. The annoying flies were still there as was the very old, wrinkled customer whose gender was impossible to tell. I love this town.
The next morning I got up at 4a with Matthew and David and paced the floor for about a minute. My foot felt no better and was in no shape to hike anywhere. I deputized Matthew for the remaining three days and went back to sleep while the other two got there things together and took off. I was sad - I really wanted to climb these last three days, a chance to climb the last two 14ers I'd yet to climb, Tyndall and Langley, along with a rematch with McAdie. These would all have to wait for another time. I got up again around 7a and started the long drive back to San Jose. In the meantime, Matthew and others made a respectable go for the last three days. For further words on their efforts:
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Norman Clyde Peak
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