Fri, Aug 4, 2000
We left San Jose around 8p on Wednesday, surprised to find the traffic mild leaving town on I880, I680, and I580. Driving along we chatted and discussed strategies, switching to I205 and then I5. We weren't paying much attention to where we were going since we'd both been this way many times before. Then I noticed that the crescent moon was just above the horizon in front of our car as we drove along. That made me pause. I knew the moon was setting early tonight, but since it always sets in the west, it seemed the opposite side from where I'd have expected it.
"That isn't right," I said. "the moon shouldn't be in front of us."
"Huh?" came the reply.
Then I noticed an exit sign that said 'March Lane - 1 mile'. "Hey, I think we're in Stockton!"
Sure enough, we were. Mark was on autopilot heading for Lake Tahoe which is 200 miles from where we really wanted to be. Fortunately, we'd only driven about 15 miles out of our way, and we were soon heading in the right direction. If it hadn't been for the moon, we might have gotten all the way to Sacramento before we realized what we were doing. On CA120 we stopped in Oakdale for some gas and caffeine for Mark and his car (not in that order) before heading up through Yosemite. There was some construction going on to repave the road (it's quite nice these days) in the Sierra foothills, and we had to wait for the one-lane follow-the-leader game before we could proceed. Mark noted a strange sound in his car and suspected he might have a flat. But he wasn't sure. I looked out the window at the road to see if there was anything irregular in the paving that might be the cause of it, but could see nothing definitive. We kept driving another 25 miles or so before Mark began to think he really did have a flat. We pulled over in Oak Flat (how appropriate) under some lights, and sure enough the left rear tire was flat as a pancake. Oops. Together we had the small spare swapped out in about 25 minutes and were on our way again. Mark wasn't sure he'd want to complete the entire trip on this wimpy spare, and I agreed, suggesting we could get the tire repaired in Bishop in the morning. It was after 1a when we reached Tuolumne Meadows, and we pulled into the campground there, ignoring the 'CAMPGROUND FULL' sign. We found an empty site (there were a number of them actually) and quickly threw down our sleeping gear, stashed our food in the bear box, and went to sleep. Tomorrow would promise to be a long day, and we wanted as much sleep as we might be able to get.
We woke up early, around 6:30a. Actually, I woke up first and proceeded to rouse Mark out of his tent. We packed the car and were out of the campground before 7a. Onwards! Coming down Tioga road to US395, we noticed it was quite cloudy, and in fact it looked like it had rained recently. Soon enough we had drops on the windshield, then the rain came down briefly. We drove in and out of some small pockets of rain (some heavy rain, too) on our drive down US395. After an hour and a half of driving we were in Bishop, and the weather was looking better, at least in the Owens Valley. Up in the mountains the weather continued to look questionable. Thoughts of rain for the next five days went through our heads, and we tried to convince ourselves this was a passing system. The several tire places we passed on our drive through town were all closed, so we stopped at Jacks for breakfast and our last real meal before hitting the backcountry. I stuffed myself on an omelette, biscuit and gravy, and hash browns, while Mark had something called a Pancake Sandwich. It didn't look like a sandwich at all when it was served, but more a collection of Pancakes, eggs, sausage, and hash browns. This didn't seem to surprise Mark, who apparently knew something of this odd naming convention. While we ate, we pondered the collection of State and World record trouts that were mounted on the wall. Anywhere from 25 to 50+ lbs, any one of which would have scared the hell out of me if it landed on my line. Maybe this is another reason I don't fish.
After breakfast we found a tire place to repair our flat, left the tire with them, and drove to the ranger station to pick up our permit. We expected to get a 10 minute dissertation on proper food storage, water filtration, and other backcountry regulations, but to our surprise the ranger who processed the reservation didn't say more than five words to us, asking us only for our primary mode of transportation. I wondered how they would react if I said, "ATC." I chickened and simply responded, "Foot." By 9a we'd retrieved our wheel, now sporting a brand new tire since the other couldn't be repaired. The excessive driving on the flat tire the night before had caused the tire to get much too hot, and the the sidewall had bubbled on the inside in several places, compromising the integrity of the entire tire and rendering it unrepairable. Or so we were told. Since neither of us was an expert on tires we couldn't argue (reasonably, anyway), and besides Mark had been expecting to replace them soon, so it wasn't that big a loss. I jacked up the car again, while Mark paid for the services, and we put the new tire back on. Onwards! Another 14 miles to Big Pine, and then a right turn on Crocker (this is an easy one to miss, but this time we were on top of things), followed by a 9 mile drive to the trailhead parking lot. To our surprise the parking lot was nearly full, with perhaps 40-50 cars, and only a few empty slots. One of these was right next to the trailhead, so we obligingly occupied it. We had packed up our things and gotten water while waiting for the tire to be replaced, so we were all set to go once we got out of the car. Our packs weighed around 50 lbs each, thanks to the addition of the climbing gear that we would need for this trip. Due to the heavy weight, I had left my internal frame pack home this trip, favoring instead my older external pack which allows me to shift weight from the shoulders to the hips more easily. We had eight miles and 4000 feet to climb -- it was expected to be a very long and hard day.
It was just after 10a when we started. The weather was looking ever more threatening, and we expected the rain to start just as we started on the trail. While we were making our weather observations, a party of two had just returned -- their timing seemed excellent, as they got back to the car just as the rain looked like it was going to come down. We headed up. We'd hardly gotten passed the corral and some of the other structures in the first half mile when the drops started down. We knew we had miles and miles of uphill, and putting on our rainjackets now would maximize the amount of sweat we'd accumulate in our undergarments. We went on another 5 or 10 minutes before I finally caved. I was wearing a cotten long-sleeve T-shirt and some very non-waterproof hiking pants. They were starting to get wet enough that I feared having them soaked shortly. Mark had a poly-pro shirt and some shorts, and seemed less concerned with the light rain that was coming down. I put on my rain jacket and continued on. To my surprise, I wasn't sweating instantly as I expected -- the weather was cool, and the trail sloped gently enough to keep me from working up a sweat. Mark had gone on ahead while I was donning the jacket. Soon after I stopped again, this time to put on my rain pants. I caught up to Mark shortly, finding that he, too, was resorting to the raingear. Despite the rain, it wasn't all bad. We had some great views looking up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek to the Middle Palisade region. The heavy clouds in the background added to the melodramatic effect of the very high peaks in this region, giving them a gothic appearance, dark and forboding, way up in the clouds.
We passed a number of other backpackers returning, all of them offering glowing accounts of their recent trip, despite the bit of rain they had (all the while it looked like we were in for the brunt of it). As we approached first falls, we said goodbye to the cabins and civilization in the valley below. It seemed funny to see picnic benches just above first falls, nestled in the trees, far from the facilities below. But then we noticed there is a second parallel trail below the one we followed, which likely brought visitors on horseback to the picnic areas above. They seemed to have things set up pretty good here, for the more 'civilized' outdoorsmen. The rain stopped again, prompting me to remove the raingear. I was resigned to live with the conditions, but hoped they wouldn't continue beyond this first day. This is not the type of weather one wants to be rock climbing in.
Mt. Alice, described by Secor as "the biggest pile of rubble in the High Sierra," loomed above us to the south across the creek. All paths up to it appeared to be chutes filed from base to top with a mixture of sand and scree. None of them looked fun. To the right and around the corner we got our first views of Temple Crag. What a contrast it makes to Mt. Alice. Temple Crag looks frighteningly difficult from a distance, a fortress made from spires of solid, dark-colored rock. It seemed we should be close to First Lake, but we were still an hour away. Near second falls, I looked around for one last view down the canyon and to guage the clouds coming in from that direction. The weather threatened again just before reaching First Lake, and I stopped to put on the rain gear again, and this time to take a rest. The rain started to come down harder, so I ditched my pack under a tree (where it stayed remarkably dry), and soon placed myself under its protective canopy as well. We had both thunder and lightening, with the thunder reverberating loudly off the canyon walls. There was little to do while waiting on the rain, so I played the game of counting the time between lightening and thunder. "Five seconds. Let's see, I think sound travels at 1100ft/sec. That's about a fifth of a mile. So five seconds would be a mile. Sounds about right." I'm not sure what the purpose of the exercise was, other than to while away some time. If the lightening was right on top of me I don't know what else I would have done except probably relieve myself involuntarily. It was about 40 minutes before the rain stopped, and another 5 minutes before Mark came walking up the path. It seems he had waited out the rain as well, just around the corner and down the trail from where I had been. In the meantime, 2-3 other parties had come up and passed us by, little deterred by the inclement weather. Mark was a bit worried now about the lightening and our prospects for climbing up to the glacier today. On my part, I had little experience with lightening to know if I should have been worried, so I was just happy that we weren't up on the Sierra Crest at the moment.
It was 1p when we reached First Lake. We'd been hiking three hours now, and I was surprised that it took that long to reach the lakes. When the day had started, I had some ill-conceived fantasy of reaching Sam Mack Meadow in 3 hours. Hah! First Lake (like the others) is quite picturesque, although quite a ways off and below the trail elevation. Temple Crag looms up larger than life, dark and monstrous, to the south. Second and Third Lake come in quick succession at this point. Third Lake in particular seems to be a popular camping location, as there were numerous parties that could be seen in various positions between the lake and the trail. Third Lake sits at the very base of Temple Crag and offers some stunning views of its north and northwest faces. Closer up now, the routes are more clearly visible, and what looked impossible earlier, now seemed difficult but exciting. Perhaps I could talk Mark into climbing Temple Crag on our way back, I thought to myself at the time (later, on the way out, neither of us gave it any consideration, serious or otherwise).
Past Third Lake, the trail climbs steeply again, with a few switchbacks to ease the slope. Above that the trail flattens somewhat as it goes through a denser, lusher region crossed by several smaller streams. Halfway between Third Lake and Sam Mack Meadow, the rain picked up again, and once more we stopped to don raingear and protect our packs (and ourselves) under the trees. This downpour lasted over 30 minutes, during which time we had some lunch, and spent a lot of time looking up towards North Palisade and watching the clouds as they came over the crest. The storm was coming from the southeast, so we could see the rain up by the crest five minutes before it reached us. For most of the time, we kept staring up into the sky, hoping to see some patches of blue, or at least an end to the rain. The thunder and lightening had other plans, and kept up their hammering until they had run their course. It never stopped completely, but it did diminish sufficiently to allow us to continue (more accurately, we were bored enough to no longer let a little rain bother us). We turned left at the next trail junction, taking the fork that heads to Sam Mack Meadow. Using a convenient log, we crossed the stream that empties from Lakes 4-7, up the canyon to our right. Our trail headed up steeply again as it climbs the boulder field that lines the canyon below the mouth of Sam Mack Meadow.
Sam Mack Meadow is a delightful spot, a high, hanging alpine valley, in what is otherwise just a lot of rock. It is easy to see why the area is so populuar, as it offers some wonderfully soft alpine carpets, and amazing views of the rock walls that surround it on three sides, as well as views down to the canyon below. There were at least five parties camped here when we arrived, which seemed to tax the available spaces. One party was setting up camp right on the grass carpet at the mouth of the meadow, not the best choice of spots for reducing impact. I wasn't about to say anything though, as it was raining again, most of the backpackers around looked uncomfortable, and I'm not sure they had any better choices for camping sites, besides. Although tired, Mark and I still planned to climb higher to the glacier. It was 4p and we still had plenty of daylight (using that term generously, under the conditions). We crossed the creek, and started to clamber up the boulders following a few cairns we spotted. After a minute Mark declared that this probably wasn't the right route. I was oblivious, happily climbing up the class 2-3 boulders, but soon agreed that there had to be an easier way. Back on the other side of the creek, we spotted the sign that points to the trail up to the glacier. It was about 40 yards further up the meadow. But the creek at that point is impossible to cross without getting wet ( where we crossed, at the beginning of the meadow, one could easily cross by hopping across boulders). So we traversed south, for about 40 yards or so, until we came across the very nice trail that we'd been looking for.
The trail above Sam Mack Meadow is very pleasant. It is less heavily used, and doesn't get the horse and mule traffic that the trails further down get. It follows an arc, up and around the terminal moraine of the Palisade Glacier, careful to avoid the moraine, which is just a fancy word for 'rock pile.' The footing is mostly solid, the views delightful, and to our surprise there were a number of possible campsites (some in use) that could be used between Sam Mack Meadow and the Palisade Glacier. The trail more or less ends about a mile from the glacier, leaving one on a slope of granite ledges just to the left (east) of the moraine. A good number of cairns make it easy to follow the general route up the ledges where eventually the moraine spills over onto the more solid rock and forces one into the boulder field. Fortunately, one doesn't have to hike far on the moraine. We crested the top of the moraine in about 15 minutes, and got our first full views of the Palisade Glacier. All the fourteeners of this area are in view high above us (North Pal highest of all), the Palisade Glacier lapping up to the rocky walls of these gigantic peaks in a semi-circle over a mile around. The glacier then sweeps down to a focus where it calves and melts into a small terminal lake whose water surface was several hundred feet below the ridge of the moraine upon which we stood.
The first thing we noticed was that there were no other campers at the glacier. This was a good thing, since we'd heard there were only a few possible sites here, and we were afraid we might find ourselves having to go back down the trail to find a suitably flat spot. The second thing we noticed was that there were two areas in the moraine down by the lake that looked to have been cleared and leveled. This was a surprise as we hadn't heard about any such 'developed' sites, and were expecting to have to sleep on large, flat rocks. We headed off down, reaching our new homes (for the next three days, anyway) shortly after 6p. 50lbs, eight miles, 4000 feet, eight hours. A very long day indeed. We were delighted to find our campsites had sandy (although wet) bottoms, and rock walls built a foot high all around for wind breaks. Closer to the lake we could see the large flat rock we had read about. We'd leave that to others that came up later. We went about setting up our tent (Mark's) and bivy sac (mine), unpacking, changing clothes, and preparing for dinner. The rain had stopped some time ago, although the clouds still filled the sky. There was little to suggest they were in any sort of hurry to get out of there. Mark felt better since the lightening had stopped some hours earlier, the storm at least appeared to have spent itself, even if the clouds had yet to dissipate. Dinner, a two course meal of spicy soup and elbow noodle something-or-other, didn't taste all that great. We were both feeling the altitude, Mark with a bit of nausea, and me with an altitude-induced headache. We were glad to have spent the previous night at 8000 feet, but it was still less than 24 hours since we'd been at sea level, and here we were prepared to spend the night at about 12,200 feet. Ah, the joys of acclimatization! It was 8:30p when we'd finished dinner, cleaned up, and were ready for bed. I could deal with the headache (two aspirin were on their way), I just hoped the weather would cooperate now that the climbing was ready to begin...
I woke up a number of times during the night, mostly to adjust my sleeping position, but also because I was excited to start the climbing the next day. Looking out through the mosquito netting, I was happy to see a sky full of stars, the North Palisade and the surrounding high peaks silouetted in the night sky. It looked to be a fabulous day ahead...
I had last remembered waking up shortly after 5:30a, after which I fell back asleep. At 6a Mark called over and asked if I planned to sleep all day.
"Is the water on?" I asked in jest, referring to the water for our morning oatmeal.
"Of course." came the reply.
Mark had gotten up at 5:45a, and had indeed put the water on, so I had zero excuses to stay in the sack. To be honest, I didn't really need any, the clear blue sky was incentive enough after yesterday's dreary weather. The sun was shining on the peaks, and on some of the surrounding ridges, but not yet in our camp. The sun was blocked by Mt Gayley to our east and was still 40 minutes from bringing its warming rays to our breakfast nook (It had gotten to below freezing during the night). After rising and changing out of my sleeping clothes, I wandered over to the stove where I found some warmth to help cheer my fingers up a bit. When the water boiled, we ate our instant oatmeal (fruit & cream variety - yummy!), cleaned up afterwards, did some business, and then prepared our packs for the days adventure. The plan was to leave my external pack in camp; I would then use Mark's internal pack to carry most of our load during the climbing. Mark had felt bad about having me hump all the gear, so he had brought a small daypack as well which he filled with his water, our lunch, his crampons, helmet, and some clothes (quite a bit, actually). In the larger pack we put similar items, plus the rope, climbing rack, and harnesses, minus the lunch items. There were also some smaller items like toilet paper, maps, and walkie talkies, all told about 25 lbs or so. A bit heavy, but much lighter than the 50 lbs from the previous day.
Two climbers surprised us as they walked past our camp around 6:45a. They must have gotten up quite a bit earlier than us, and hiked up from Sam Mack Meadow or one of the camp spots along the trail on the way up. They were on their way to Mt. Sill, they told us, after we inquired as to their destination. Good, that wouldn't compete with our effort to North Pal. But they also told us another party of three were on their way as well, with plans to climb the U-Notch, same as us. A party of three, unless they were all good climbers, would most likely be slower than the two of us, so it was in our best interest to get going before the other party showed up. Otherwise, we could be stuck behind them at the U-Notch, costing much time. It was 7a when we started out from our campsite. It took about 10 minutes to reach the foot of the glacier, where we stopped to don crampons and unstrap our ice axes. Just before we headed out across the glacier, we could see the other party about 15 minutes behind approaching across the moraine. There was a gentleman and two ladies comprising their party; the guy was obviously the stronger hiker as he would hike ahead 30 yards or so and wait, while the other two would slowly catch up. He offered lots of friendly coaching and encouragement that we could hear across the distance.
As we headed out on the glacier, the U-Notch did not appear very far away. I guessed out loud that we should be able to reach it in an hour; inside I thought we could get there in 45 minutes if we kept up a good pace. It ended up taking us two hours instead. It certainly wasn't because the terrain was difficult or anything like that. I think it was further and higher than I had originally guessed, possibly because the air was thin and clear, making distant objects appear closer than they really were. Or at least that is what I wanted to convince myself of, rather than admit to just being slow. In any event, the other party wasn't making any faster progress, and we actually increased our spacing from them by the time we reached the bergschrund at the bottom of the U-Notch.
The U-Notch is a 700-foot, 42 degree snow and ice couloir that leads from the base of the Palisade Glacier to the U-shaped notch on the Sierra crest between Polemonium Peak and North Palisade. At the bottom of the U-Notch is a huge bersgschrund where the larger glacier below pulls away from the couloir portion of the glacier. The couloir provides much more surface contact to the glacier, slowing its movement, while the larger mass below moves along at a fast pace. In early season the bergschrund is full of snow and much easier to cross. As the season wears on, the last of the snow bridges across the bergschrund collapses, and it becomes nearly impassable. Only the strongest ice climbers could manage the direct route up the ice, which to us was impossible. The other option is to bypass the bergschrund on the right by climbing the rock on that side. It was to this side that we headed, knowing that there were no longer any snow bridges available this late in the summer. Arriving at the lip of the bergschrund, I was impressed by the size and view of the chasm, although I had read much about it already. Near the right side, the gap wasn't so impossibly deep which was good, since we had to climb down and across to get to the rock climb section. I was about 5 minutes ahead of Mark at this point, so I took off my pack and crampons, and started unpacking the rope and gear. After I got my harness and helmet on, I tried to uncoil the rope and flake it nicely, but in my haste it quickly became a tangled mess. Drats. Mark approached to cross the lower lip of the bergschrund while I was still messing with rope, but I finally had things straightened out by the time he came over and joined me.
The rock climbing portion goes up about 20 feet before one can rejoin the couloir and climb the snow/ice. The route up the rock appeared straightforward, an open book fractured in a number of places offering a variety of holds and possible lines. After Mark tied into the other end of the rope, I reshouldered the pack, and started up. I got maybe four feet before I got stuck. The more I stared at the rocks, the harder they seemed to get. There were lots of hand holds, but none of them very good. I tried shoving my boots in the crack at the center of the open book, but I couldn't get them to stick, or at least reliably so that I could lift up on them. And if the hand holds had been better, I could have pulled myself up with my arms, but this didn't look so promising either. Finally, after several minutes trying various lines, I put in a piece of pro as high as I could and used a stemming move (which I didn't feel so confident in - thus the protection) to get myself past the difficulty. After this point, the rest of the climb was rather easy, and I was soon up above setting an anchor to belay Mark up with. While I was busy doing this, the 3-person party began to arrive at the bergschrund and head over to the base of the climb where Mark was getting ready to climb. Mark and Jeff introduced themselves, chatting briefly before I gave Mark the "Belay on!" signal and he started the climb. As expected, Mark had a bit of trouble at the same point, but managed well in climbing up (I'd guess the crux was about 5.6). While the other team was now tackling the rock section, we tested the snow in the couloir and mutually decided to climb it unroped. It seemed soft enough to allow us to self-arrest should we fall, which was the main concern. Had we tied in on a rope, it would have been equally unsafe (possibly more so) if we did not also anchor and belay each rope pitch. This would have at least doubled the time to climb the snow, more likely tripling it, as one then needs to pay particular attention to the rope to avoid spearing it with the crampon points, and we would have to climb each section one person at a time. We packed away our rope, put on our crampons, and with axes in hand, headed up the couloir around 10a, having spent an hour on the rock climb (a lot of time for 20 feet!). The leader of the other party had already zipped up the rock and was in the process of belaying his companions. His rope handling was fast and precise, and it was clear that he had done this many, many time in the past. Mark speculated that he was an unauthorized guide with two clients, while I thought he was probably climbing with his girlfriend/wife and another friend. Not something we were going to ask him about though. In either case, he certainly acted like a guide, continuing to offer lots of encouragement and instructions for nearly every step of the way. We no longer felt like we might be holding them up since once we were on the snow, there would be plenty of room for them to pass us if they so chose.
The snow was a wonderful consistency in the mid-morning for climbing. Not icy, not slushy (which would render the crampons useless), it gripped the crampon points well as we carefully planted each step. We had expected to find a staircase from previous climbers that we could follow up, but the rain from the previous days had wiped out most evidence of one. It gave us the impression that we were the first climbers of the season (although we knew this was hardly the case). We had also expected rockfall in the couloir, from all the warnings we'd read about in books and in others' trip reports. I'm happy to report there wasn't as much as a snowball that came down the whole time we were going up or down the couloir. This might possibly be due to consolidation of the rock and snow from the rain (and then subsequent freezing temperatures overnight), or possibly because the rockfall danger was over-rated, but I wouldn't recommend betting on the latter. It was a long climb up the couloir. Again, it had looked shorter from below, but once we started climbing it seemed to go on for quite a ways. Along the sides of the couloir on the right side were numerous slings of all possible colors strapped about different rocks at various points along the way. At any given time there were two or three visible, far more than seemed necessary for the various parties to use during the descent. Were they hard to spot on the way down (leading others to add additional rappel slings)? Some of them were 15 or 20 feet higher off the snow, useful only during the early season when the snow level is higher. At that time of course the lower slings are buried in the snow and unusable. It was interesting to speculate on the history of the gear left on the rock, mostly because it gave me something to think about during the long climb. Did I already mention that it was a long climb? We veered left where the couloir split, following the branch of snow/ice that rose highest towards the U-Notch. About 50 yards from the top of the snow I took the opportunity to exit onto the scree and boulders on the right side. I preferred the rock (even though it was somewhat loose) to the highest portions of snow in the couloir, which were more icy than the snow lower down. Mark on the other hand, preferred the snow, and continued climbing it until it ended, about 30 yards from the top of the U-Notch.
The other party had chosen to rope up for the climb up the couloir, and as a result were only about halfway up the snow. They were planning to climb Polemonium Peak to the east of the U-Notch, while our route to North Palisade goes west of the U-Notch. It had worked out quite nicely that neither party had really held up the other despite our similar starting times back on the glacier. It was 11:30a when we reached the U-Notch, an hour and a half of climbing since we left the rock pitch far down below. This was a big mountain, no doubt - my original time estimates from the start of the day were looking pretty foolish by now.
Once at the U-Notch, I first took in the view south of the crest, and then went about sizing up the chimney we had to climb next, reputedly the most difficult pitch of the whole climb (personally I think that first 10 feet back at the bergschrund was the toughest part). Generally, I dislike chimneys. Partly because I'm not so good at them, and partly because I'm usually climbing with a pack - which makes them all the more difficult. Looking up, this wasn't what I had expected for a chimney. Rather than something one squeezes a body into, this chimney only loosely resembled one. It was big enough to drive a truck through (although I wouldn't want to try), and the most alarming feature was the steepness of the walls roughly forming a chimney. Not surprising that the first ascent party in 1903 spent several hours pondering how to finish the climb when they reached this very spot. We had the luxury of (others') experience on our side, and had read all about the various routes. Rated at 5.4, the chimney seemed well within our capabilities, so we didn't have to spend more than ten minutes thinking about it when we got to it. We swapped out the rope and gear again, this time leaving our crampons and axes at the top of the U-Notch -- we wouldn't be needing these the rest of way. There were several slings visible from below, and several more that I found along the way. I used two of these on the climb up for protection points, although they weren't in good positions to protect a fall. After all, they were placed to aid the descent, not the climb up. The climbing felt really great. No serious obstacles, no scary moves, but very vertical and exhilarating. I climbed up to near the end of the rope while Mark gave me a countdown as the end of the rope neared - 30, 15, then 6 feet left. I was very high up, and very near what seemed to be the top of the difficult section. There was some rappel slings around a rock to my left about 10 feet up that I couldn't reach with more rope. To my right was an old piton that might make a nice anchor point, but no good belay seat nearby. So I stopped midway between the two on a nice ledge and went about anchoring my position. (From where I sat, the view down to Mark was nearly vertical, and rather impressive.)
"Off belay!" I radioed down.
A moment later Mark returned, "Belay off!"
I spent another few minutes solidifying my anchor position, having some water, and setting up to belay Mark up. I started to take up the rope and was surprised to find that there was much more than the reported six feet left at the bottom. Suddenly it occurred to me that Mark might not be tied in to the other end below. I knew he had belayed me without having tied into the end of the rope, but I had expected he wouldn't give me the "Belay off!" signal until he had tied in after removing the rope from his belay device. I got on the radio and inquired as to whether he was tied in. From below, I could plainly hear Mark's reply which answered my question:
Ooops. I should have known that his "Belay off!" reply came too soon for him to have tied in. So where was the end of the rope? As far down as I could see, which was to about 20 feet from the bottom, the rope hung down from above. Mark couldn't see the rope from below, however. The end was about 15 feet above him, after the first crack. Try as I did, I could not wiggle or shake the rope lower. It sat in a small puddle in the flat spot higher above him. Either I would have to fix the rope and down climb to the other end (ugh!), or Mark would have to free climb that first 15 feet to retrieve the rope. So naturally the latter is what I suggested to Mark on the radio. His first effort was difficult, as he had trouble climbing the crack (and squeezing into a space around a large rock) with his pack. I suggested he might leave his pack, retrieve the rope, let me lower him down, and then climb it with the pack. Fortunately this worked much better, and our mistake was soon corrected. Without further incident, Mark had soon joined me on the belay ledge where we swapped some gear and rope ends to allow me to lead again on the next pitch.
I was correct in guessing we had been near the top, for after 10 feet I was clear of the chimney and beginning the long traverse along the ridge line. Protecting these types of traverses are always tricky, and I know that I don't do an adequate job of properly protecting either myself or Mark who would be following. It was all class 3-4 at this point, not really difficult, just a few places with some scary exposure. We crossed just above the highest snowfield, in fact, stepping along the mini 'schrund where it separates from the rock by a foot or so. From below on the glacier, it looked like the snow field slopes down to where it ends in cliffs. A fall on it might send one on a 200-foot glissade with a 700-foot plunge off the end. That was scary to think about, even if the crossing wasn't really hard. At the end of the rope I radioed Mark and he came up to join me. Looking towards the peak, it seemed we were another two long pitches away still, and it would take maybe an hour and a half at the rate we were going. I suggested we pack up the rope and climb the remaining arete and summit blocks unroped, getting the rope out if it became desirous (even if only as an emotional crutch). It was shortly after 1:30p, and if we were going to climb either Starlight or Polemonium (or both) afterwards, we'd have to get moving; Mark readily agreed. This last part was also some enjoyable climbing. Mark had started off while I was still packing the rope and gear, and had found a mostly class 3 route up through the summit blocks. There were some interesting class 4 moves on a number of the larger blocks right near the summit that kept the adrenalin flowing freely. Finally, at 2p, we stood on the summit. Success!
No sooner had we started to congratulate ourselves than we noticed a third person right behind us.
"Oh," I remarked, "You guys must have been climbing in stealth mode. We didn't hear you at all!"
"What?" came the puzzled response.
"Did you climb up here by yourself?" I enquired, noticing he had no companion and no gear with him.
"Yeah." came his almost timid response.
"Wait. You free climbed the chimney?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yeah..." he responded again, as if accused of some wrong-doing.
"Wow. Where did you start from this morning?" I continued, expecting he had come up the U-Notch from the west.
"Palisade Crest," was the reply.
Now my jaw dropped and my eyes popped out. "I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!" was all I could respond as I bowed (literally) in deep respect.
We joked about how little our accomplishment suddenly felt by comparison as we continued to chat, still amazed at what seemed a casual adventure to our new friend (wish I could remember his name). He looked to be in his late 20s, and from a few comments we figured he spent a lot of time out of doors (recently he'd spent 22 consecutive days out). The hike from Palisade Crest involves several miles of class 3-5 climbing along the Sierra crest. I'm not sure if he climbed Mt. Sill, but he definitely had topped out on Polemonium on his way to North Pal. We all signed into the summit register and took a break for a snack and to take in the views, which were breathtaking. Looking southeast along the crest we could see clearly to Split Mountain, with all the peaks inbetween easily identifiable: Middle Palisade, Norman Clyde Peak, and Palisade Crest, and closer in Mt. Sill and Polemonium Peak. Below us to the north was the Palisade Glacier, and on the other side were the Palisade and Dusy Basins. Far to the southwest we could see Tehipite Valley, and many, many other peaks to the west and northwest as far as the Ritter Range (I think I could just make out the tops of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak).
Starlight Peak was nearby to the northwest, the tall summit block (called "The Milk Bottle") clearly visible. Between it and North Pal was a ragged arete that went down from both peaks to the low spot in the middle, several hundred feet lower. The loss of elevation was somewhat discouraging. It was already late in the day, and we knew it would be tough to make it on to Starlight. Nevertheless, I started to reread Secor's route description to guage the effort required. Unfortunately, the first move off North Pal calls for a rappel, and the going doesn't look much easier after that. Mark hit upon a solution, suggesting we could rappel down the Starlight Buttress, if necessary to save time, rather than retrace our route. Sounded good to me. Then we could retrieve our stuff back at the U-Notch the following day, and climb Polemonium and Mt. Sill on the traverse. Then Mark found the fly in the ointment.
"But how do we climb the U-Notch to retrieve our crampons and ice-axes?"
In the end (it was only about a minute of discussion), Mark and I decided to pass on Starlight, but head back to climb Polemonium. Polemonium should be a lot easier by comparison, but it wasn't clear that we'd be able to return to the U-Notch, climb Polemonium, back to the U-Notch again, and then get down the couloir before dark. Oh well, we'd have a better idea if this was going to work once we got back to the U-Notch...
Polemonium Peak seems more a subsidiary of North Palisade (much like Starlight Peak) than a separate peak in its own right, but then I don't make the rules. In fact, from what I've noticed, there aren't really any set rules on what constitutes a peak, but rather a loose set of guidelines that distinguish a peak from a subsidiary summit, from a knoll, from a knob, from a ridge, from a ... well, you get the picture. In the end it's pretty subjective anyway, so I just go by what others in the past have declared to be a bonafide peak or not. And to more than a few folks, Polemonium qualifies. So climb it we must! (It has had separate peak status longer than Starlight; largely I think, because the U-Notch (which separates it from North Pal) is quite a bit deeper than the notch between North Pal and Starlight.)
Having just climbed North Palisade, Polemonium was supposed to be third on our list that day, but we had quickly decided that climbing Starlight was out of the question with the amount of time we had left (it was after 2p now). Still, if we could manage Polemonium today as well, it would make for an impressive two fourteeners in a day, and that sounded like motivation enough.
We headed down the southeast arete leading from North Palisade's summit, towards the U-Notch. We went unroped along the arete to the chimney both to save time, and because we were now familiar enough with it to know it is all class 3 until we reach the chimney. I arrived at the top of the chimney a few minutes before Mark, and started looking down an alternative way, on the south side of the crest. Somewhere down this side was the class 4 "Clyde Variation", an easier alternative to the class 5 chimney route we'd taken on the way up. I was curious to see if we could find the route, so I talked Mark into taking it, arguing that it would be faster if we didn't have to use the ropes. I must admit, Mark wasn't convinced from the start, but he let me talk him into it anyway.
I started down what was some nice class 3 cracks, blocks, and ledges. On our left (east, towards the U-Notch), the rocks went class 5-point-something-higher-than-we-could-climb. The distance down seemed longer than a rappel (30 meters), so we didn't have that option should we need to bail out. I kept climbing down, hoping we could get around on some ledges that seemed to offer an exit. Mark was having more doubts, suggesting we rappel (now that we were low enough) instead of continuing the downclimb. I was more stubborn, figuring it couldn't be that hard to find a class 4 route. It was. I kept going down, and kept finding our way blocked to the left, forcing us further down. Soon we were below the level of the U-Notch, and with a rappel, it meant we'd be climbing a ways back up. I finally relented when I had to admit I saw no reasonable climb down, so I got out the rope, and set up a rappel. I admitted to Mark that I'd taken us the long way, and it would have been faster had we just rappeled the two lengths down the chimney. So much for adventuresome alternatives. The rappel rope didn't quite reach the bottom of the gully leading up to the U-Notch, so I had to first let the rope run completely through the rappel device (not the safest rope technique), and then carefully downclimb the last four feet or so. Mark followed, of course I warned him about the rope running out, and he was soon at the bottom as well. Mark then hiked up to the U-Notch while I flaked the rope back into the pack -- we'd need it for a pitch or two on Polemonium.
It had taken us nearly an hour and a half to return to the U-Notch, longer than we had initially thought. Thanks to my superb (lack of) route finding abilities, it was now 3:30p, and we had about 4.5 hours of daylight left, considerably less than we'd hoped. Whatever possessed us to think we could add Starlight on the same itinerary was almost laughable now (that "whatever", of course, was lack of experience with the various routes, and that tendency to stretch one's abilities when climbing by map from the comfort of home in the days before the trip). Fortunately, the other party that had climbed Polemonium earlier had already started down the couloir about 20 minutes ago, so there would be no traffic jam on the route to Polemonium. There had been others that had climbed Polemonium this same day, as we could hear the various parties conversing, even from the top of North Palisade. There had been a "screamer" as well, that interesting variety of climber that feels compelled to let out a blood-curdling scream upon reaching the summit. While I have no doubt that it provides some type of psychological release to the person exercising his lungs, the rest of the folks within shouting range are usually less than enamoured with the outburst, as it tends to break some of the solitude that many go to the mountains to experience. Have you ever heard someone remark, "Oh, did you hear that? Someone must have reached the summit. Good for them!" But I digress.
Back at the U-Notch, we turned our attention to getting ourselves up Polemonium by the most straightforward route possible. Could we climb part of it unroped? That would save some time. Looking around, it seemed I could climb only about 10 feet before seeking the safety of the rope. Oh well. We got out the rope, and this time Mark lead up the first pitch. We found this to be easier climbing (maybe we were just feeling better climbing at altitude with some exposure by now), mostly class 3-4 with some class 5 spots (like the one right in the beginning). Mark climbed up and right from the U-Notch, taking the easier, circuitous route, rather than the direct climb to the summit. Shortly before the rope ran out, he found what is probably the usually belay spot, anchored, and belayed me up. The intermediate pitch was more of a traverse that lead to the southwest ridge over mostly class 3 rock. When I got to the belay ledge and looked back, I noticed that I had placed only one piece of protection for the length of it, and the rope stretched over quite a bit of free space back towards Mark. After belaying Mark up to the second stance, I continued up, taking the lead again for the third pitch, over what was mostly class 4 rock. Quite enjoyable, really. The second rope length brought me directly to the summit, with maybe 10 feet of rope to spare. The summit is crowned by a pile of rather large granite chunks, which make for interesting (but fun) scrambling to reach the top. Shortly afterwards, I had an anchor prepared, and belayed Mark up to join me.
It was only 4:15p, having taken us only 45 minutes to do the two pitches to the top. This was much better time than we had going up North Palisade, due mainly to the easier rock climbing required. Additionally, we had no route-finding errors, which made it seem almost too easy. We had a short stay on top, mostly because we were anxious to get going back down the couloir. We certainly had enough time to find the summit register and sign in, and read a few selections, noting in particular the three parties that had climbed it earlier in the day. North Palisade rose up behind us to the west, Mt. Sill above us to the northeast. The arete leading between Polemonium and Mt. Sill looked quite interesting, but not for today, and not on this trip. Below us we had a nice view of the couloir north of the U-Notch, our descent route (the photo has an odd perspective, the top is actually the bottom of the couloir; where it opens up is actually looking down on the Palisade Glacier. You can also see a climber descending the left side, a short distance from the bergshrund, maybe half an inch distance on the photo).
We scrambled down off the summit a short way, maybe 30 yards, where we had found some useful rappel slings on our way up. Mark went down first, with me following. When I got to the end of the rappel, Mark had already begun climbing down to the next rappel slings a short ways below. As I pulled the rope down from the first rappel, it got stuck somewhere up above. This had been our major concern for climbing. Since we only carried a single rope, a stuck rope meant either abandoning our rope or free climbing back to retrieve it. It would be too dangerous to actually use the rope to climb back up, since there was no telling how much force would be required to dislodge it (my attempts to pull quite strongly from the bottom were futile). Since I was last to come down, it seemed only fair for me to have to climb up to retrieve it, besides, Mark had had to free climb the bottom section of North Palisade's chimney earlier, so it seemed now was my turn.
Up I went. Fortunately, it was no more than class 4, and actually quite enjoyable. I had to climb the entire route back to the rappel sling since it had gotten stuck in a crack just as the rope had been pulled through the sling. Rather than set up the rappel again (and chance the rope sticking again), I tossed the freed end of the rope down and then headed back down. After climbing the route a second time, it was much easier, since I knew exactly where to find all the holds I would need. Back down, I reported my mini-adventure to Mark and we set up to belay a traverse for this intermediate section. I belayed Mark over and down, and then I joined him, although I didn't wait for him to set up an anchor and belay me. I was quite comfortable on this mostly class 3 traverse, particularly after the last section. I realized I would have been able to free climb the entire route from the U-Notch to Polemonium's summit, save for the first little crack about 10 yards up from the U-Notch. Above it there were a number of old and new slings used by previous parties to rappel this very section. We threaded our rope through the slings there, first Mark and then myself dropping down into the U-Notch. This time our rope came down without incident -- hurrah!
It was now 5p, having taken only an hour and a half in total to climb up to Polemonium and back down. It seemed we had still plenty of time to get back down to the glacier and return to camp. First came the business of descending the couloir, 700 feet of 43 degrees snow/ice. By this time of the afternoon, the snow was pretty soft, except for a few icy spots here and there. We could probably downclimb with our crampons and axes with little difficulty, but the image of the huge bergschrund that awaited us at the bottom was a bit disconcerting should we fall. Rappelling seemed the safer option, and with so many rappel slings distributed down the length of the couloir, we guessed it might be the faster option as well. Not so, as it turned out.
We chose to descend without our crampons on, in order to avoid the problems associated with stepping on the rope (the main problem being you could ruin it with one mis-step). This left us without firm footing on the snow/ice, which wasn't a problem as long as we were on the rope. There were several real problems with our chosen approach. First, there were an awful lot of rappels. We could have done the math ahead of time: 700 feet divided by 90 feet (half the length of the rope) is 8 rappels. (It must have been more than 700 feet, because we definitely had more than 8 rappels -- more like 10-12.) Each rappel allows only one of us to travel at a time, so more than half the time we are waiting for the other person, or setting up for the next rappel. While it seemed that there was an over-abundance of leftover slings when we climbed up the U-Notch, we found that there was barely enough to get us down without resorting to our own. A number of the slings were too high on the side of the couloir where they are only useful in the early part of the season (when the snow in the couloir is higher). The others were spaced just far enough to reach from one rappel to the next. (Do not do this with a 50m rope!) Many of the rappels, in fact, ran out before we got to the next sling. This required some delicate footwork to let go of the rope and gingerly walk down 5-10 feet to the next sling. The snow was slippery without our crampons on, and the last thing we wanted to do was end up flying down the couloir and smashing into the bergschrund (that vision of flying out of control into the bergshrund was zipping around in my head quite frequently during the descent).
We were out of the sun now, and it was getting decidedly chilly in the shade. I had on a pair of wool gloves that kept my hands reasonably warm, but Mark was without such protection. During several of the rappels, the end of the rope ended up in the little side stream that had formed lower down between the snow and the edge of the rock walls. It got drenched with the ice-cold water, and handling the rope began to freeze our fingers. Having to wait for Mark to follow down in turn was the hardest part, as it gave the body too much time to rest and cool down. No matter how fast Mark came down it wasn't fast enough to make my fingers happy. I tried flexing and shaking them, but that got tiresome as well, so I just stood there and took it. It wasn't far now... (I took little solice in knowing that Mark's hands were probably colder than my own.)
We finally got down to the top of the bergshrund, and set up for one last rappel off the rock we had climbed in the morning. This was the most enjoyably rappel (even if it was the scariest) as we got to walk down the vertical rock wall instead of simply more snow. Just before we climbed out of the bergshrund, Mark became curious by a snow cave melted deep into the crevasse. Tied into the rope, he was much bolder than he had been crossing the other direction, and wanted me to belay him a short ways down into it. This time I was feeling most uncomfortable (after all, I wasn't tied into anything, and I had no idea how much force I might have to hold should something under Mark collapse), and quickly talked him out of it, but not before he walked over closer to the edge to get a look inside.
Once past the bergshrund there was little need for our rope. The snow had softened considerably during the day, and although steep, the slope presented little real danger anymore. I collected the rope into the pack once more, freezing my hand for the last time. We got out ice axes, leaving the crampons in our packs, and headed down. At first we traversed along the steps taken by others during their earlier exit, as this offered the safest, most sure-footed route. As the slope eased a bit, I decided it was time for the end-of-the-day glissade. I stopped to put on my rain pants which should keep me quite dry on the way down. We had brought our rain gear in case the weather changed, but had no need for them until now. This one slide would make having carried them to the summit and back well worth it. Axe held in the air away from the snow by both hands, I slid down the slope using only my feet for a brake. The snow was bumpy from sun cups (although not too badly), which tended to toss me in the air from time to time. But I maintained control well enough for the several hundred foot descent, covering in less than a minute what had taken half an hour to climb in the morning. After I came to a stop I quickly removed my pack to get out all the snow that had wedged its way between the pack and my back, also removing a good deal of snow from my pants pockets, the cuffs around my ankles, and a host of other hiding places that usually make themselves known when the snow begins to melt. I was pretty dry otherwise, as the rain pants had done their job quite well. I was also impressed with my gortex boots (new this season), which had kept my feet rather dry the whole way down. By contrast, Mark had reported that his feet were quite wet, as mine would have been with my older boots.
Mark opted to walk down a good deal further before glissading, so I headed back on my own, slipping and sliding as best I could (I was trying to skate between the sun cups, but I looked more like a drunken jogger as I fell numerous times and generally had trouble keeping my balance during this part) for the next 15 minutes or so until I reached the rocks. The sun was just starting to set to the west, and I was in the last bit of sun left on the glacier. Already our camp was in shade, and it was probably less than an hour before it would get dark. I arrived back at our camp just north of the glacier's toe after about 15 more minutes of scrambling among the boulders. It was 7:20p when I got back, Mark about 10 minutes behind me. I went to get water immediately and start dinner, knowing time was limited.
Working together, we had dinner done, our rope and gear sorted and drying (we were hoping the rope wouldn't be frozen in the morning), and got ready for bed just as the light was beginning to fail us. A long day indeed, but we were quite proud of our two peaks, even if we didn't get Starlight too, as we had hoped. In hindsight, that was definitely more than we could chew in one day. No matter. Tomorrow we would head out to Thunderbolt Peak, and who knows? -- Maybe Starlight as well!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: North Palisade - Polemonium Peak
This page last updated: Wed May 16 17:06:18 2007
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