Fri, Aug 6, 2004
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It was shortly before 5a and the day use parking lot at Glacier Lodge was already full. We had a big turnout for today's outing to Palisade Crest and Mt. Jepson, ten in all, the largest showing since the first day of the Challenge. Only a handful had expectations of climbing the class 4 route to Palisade Crest, but since nearby Mt. Jepson was "merely" a class 2 effort, it made for a reasonably easier alternative. Of course it would still be well over 6,000ft of gain and many miles of cross-country travel, making it one of the harder Challenges of the week.
As we left the TH just after 5a, the large group quickly split into two factions. Out in front of course was Matthew and following on his heels were Mark, Michael, Joe, Daryn, and myself. Daryn was a new face who'd come out to join us for today and the following one, and he quickly proved to be a very swift and competent participant. Joe was doggedly back again after getting behind and off-route the day before, and seemed determined to climb to the top of something today. Mark, Matthew, and Michael were my regular companions. Our other almost-regular, Michele, was still suffering an injury and took the day off. Bringing up the rear we had the more casual crew of Peter, Jim, Mark N., and Dana, and it wasn't more than fifteen minutes after leaving the trailhead that the two groups lost sight of each other.
Though still quite early when we headed out, we only needed our headlamps for 15 or 20 minutes before it was sufficiently light out to see our way up the trail following the South Fork of Big Pine Creek. The stream crossing after half an hour was made trivial thanks to a new hewn log bridge that had been installed in the last year. Kudos to the Forest Service or whichever group was responsible for its construction. It took us a bit more than an hour to climb to the top of the headwall in the lower part of the canyon. Matthew had been waiting a good five minutes for us when the rest of the advance party joined him. We took a short break here for a snack, remove jackets, and enjoy the sunrise on Middle Pal and Norman Clyde Peak. To the right of these we could see both Palisade Crest and Mt. Jepson, the sun already dawning on most of the route above Elinore Lake.
Continuing on, we found the turnoff to Willow and Elinore Lakes which we dutifully followed until it became more like a weak use trail. There is no maintained trail beyond this point, but there are use trails heading up the west branch of the creek if one is lucky enough to find them. I was bringing up the rear of our group of six, and shortly before Willow Lake I noticed a series of ducks heading off to the left of the route the others were following. Thinking I had found a key to this cross-country route, I followed the ducks to see if they would lead to a better trail. I lost sight of the others quickly, and followed the ducks for about a hundred yards, across a side stream and onto a small rocky plateau a short distance above the main creekbed. I found no trail but I did manage to find a bivy spot occupied by the tent of two backpackers. One of these was up and about as I came across their tent and called over a greeting. This aroused the other guy who was still sleeping, and I apologized for waking him at the early hour (it was about 6:30a). I then asked them if there was a use trail nearby. This query made me appear to be the uninformed greenhorn about these parts, and they sought to correct me of such a gross misconception. The elder of the two, a grizzled veteran about ten years my senior, complete with a long, bushy grey beard, informed me there was no trail anywhere about. They had been told by knowledgeable friends that there is nothing but horrible bushwhacking up that canyon to the west and were advised against travelling that way. Having heeded this advice themselves, they passed on this bit of wisdom to me. Clearly they would be of little use to me, so I thanked them for the words of warning, bid them good day, and headed off in the forbidden direction.
I was on the south side of the creekbed, about a hundred feet above the channel, hiking through woods and up rocky slopes. Looking back, I glimpsed the other five several hundred yards back just crossing to the north side of the stream. I seemed to be well ahead of them, and though I didn't have a trail to follow, it was not difficult cross-country. Every now and then I would find another duck, and finding they offered no help in route-finding I happily knocked them down. My route brought me to a local highpoint overlooking the canyon. I didn't expect to have to lose elevation in climbing above the creekbed as I'd done, but before me was a side canyon and creek heading south that I could see was not the route to Elinore Lake. I would have to descend back down to the creek. A close inspection of the map shows a swamp where the creeks join, and it was down into this bit of a quagmire that I found myself. No longer did I think I'd found a better route, just some unwanted trouble. I fought my way through some very thick alder to get myself to the south edge of the stream. The creek was too wide to ford easily, so I climbed a large boulder to get a better view. I was just in time to see the others pass me by on the north side of the creek, making good progress over easy boulders while I stood there trying to figure out how to get across. I got a few waves and a few heckles as they continued on, and with more effort I managed to find a way across the creek and once more bring up the rear of the group.
Hiking upstream to the junction with the creek to Elinore Lake, we paused again for a short break. We crossed to the south side of the stream and headed south to Elinore Lake. Having found different places at which to cross, our group got split again as Matthew and I chose the drainage to the right while the others took the left one. The trip reports and Secor seemed to indicate the right chute was the easier of the two and we did find a use trail in places. Overall we didn't think the bushwhacking as difficult as advertised, fairly mild really, and we found ourselves at Elinore Lake by 7:40a. The others had found their route to be similar, and were actually at the lake a few minutes before us. Daryn announced his intention to continue west up the creek to climb Mt. Gayley and possibly Mt. Sill, an outing equally ambitious as our own. Off he went. After recharging our water bottles, our smaller group of five passed along the north and east shores of Elinore Lake, then started the long climb to Scimitar Pass.
We had no trouble finding the correct route - the aerial photo in Secor's second edition marks the route through the gap and up the east side of the ridge leading to the Sierra crest quite adequately, and we were able to make out the notch in the ridge from Elinore Lake easily enough. The difficulty is simply in climbing a great deal of talus and boulders in order to reach the crest, some 2,000ft worth. We split in to two parties on the approach to the notch, then reconvened once we arrived there. Climbing down a short ways on the east side, we then began the long haul up to the crest. The rock was loose and steep enough to earn the dangerous and tedious ratings (or is that dangerously tedious?) though the dangerous label is a bit of a stretch. It was really just plain crappy. Ahead of the others from this point on, I took a steep, narrow chute to the right that the others bypassed. At class 3 it had enough interest to garner a recommendation over the regular route, but it was also a loose affair. The top of the chute brought me to the ridgeline, and I followed this up to the crest where I arrived sometime around 9:15a, about an hour and a half from Elinore Lake (I'd thought it would take an hour). The other four were but dots far down on the ridge and I decided to press on alone to Palisade Crest. I wanted to make sure I had ample time to climb Mt. Jepson as well, and didn't feel like waiting the 30 minutes or so to regroup at the crest.
Now that the tedious part was over, the more interesting scrambling began along the NW Ridge. At first class 2, then class 3 as the rock grew more solid and the route more airy along the thin fin connecting Scimitar Pass to Gandalf Peak (each of the pinnacles along Palisades Crest was named for characters in J.R. Tolkien's novels, and Gandalf, the wizard, is the highest of them). The trip reports suggest there is tricky routefinding at the end of this fin in order to reach the notch before the summit pinnacle. It is rated class 3 if one uses tricky route-finding on the north side of the crest, or class 4 along the crest. I chose to stay on the crest as long as I could, thinking class 4 with easy route-finding shouldn't be too tough. Some 30 yards or so before the notch I came to an impasse along the ridge that was far harder than even old school class 4, and I couldn't see any practical way to continue along it even if I did have a rope and belay. I lowered myself down from an airy block along the crest onto the north side, and made my way down and along this face looking for a route over to the notch. There were a few cairns to mark several possible ways, and I carefully tried several possibilities before finding one I liked. This seemed more like class 4 to me than class 3 as I found myself bridging and stemming and generally getting a better upper body workout than your standard class 3 route would provide. The steepness of the face was a bit frightening too. A loose rock takes only a few bounces before being pitched down onto the glacier below. I imagined that a loose body wouldn't take very many more bounces on top of that.
Once at the notch, I breathed some sigh of relief, though I was still just a little concerned as to how easy I'd be able to find my way back. I certainly couldn't take the exact same route back since my initial lowering off the crest couldn't be reversed. Ahead of me lay the 160-foot class 4 ramp. Imposing from a distance, it is only slightly less so close up. Thinking it was more a mind game than a technically challenging section, I climbed around to the right and then up onto the ramp. The ramp is etched with an evenly distributed series of cracks that offer the key to why it is class 4 and not class 5. I started up one crack then backed down. I looked at the fall line a little closer. I looked up at the 150 feet remaining above me. I decided that climbing in my boots was not a safe bet and paused to change into my rock shoes. This was enough to give me the confidence to tackle the ramp again and up I went. Once moving, it didn't take more than five minutes to cover the ramp. As I neared the top I couldn't see how or where one would exit the ramp - it seemed to go up and end abruptly, not unlike climbing the wrong way on a playground slide. I was relieved to find that once I grasped the final lip and peered over the edge, the ground was flat there and exiting was trivial. A large rock at this point held several dozen slings - many years worth of rappel anchors as each party added a new sling for assurance in their turn. I moved left and onto the backside of Gandalf, most of this side straightforward class 3, and found myself on the summit five minutes later at 10:15a.
Aside from the swell views (NW - N - NE - E - SE - SSE - S - SW - W), the pinnacle provided a swell perch for watching the others as they made their way along the narrow crest. There were only three that I could see, most likely Michael, Matthew, and Mark. They were moving slowly, probably finding the route-finding as tricky as I had. Looking down to the west I snapped a photo of the top of the class 4 ramp directly below me. Even from here the wad of slings around the main rappel rock stood out with its many colors, and I decided it needed some clean up. I signed the summit register and perused a number of the previous entries, noting many familar names including Bob Pickering, Doug Mantle, Steve Eckert, and others. After my ten minutes on the chilly summit I headed down, retracing my steps. At the top of the slap I paused to collect all the worn slings around the large rock there. Slinging them around my neck and shoulder, I was surprised by just how many there had been. I was able to downclimb half of the ramp before I ran into a little trouble. By now Michael was just about at the notch, having paused to watch me. The lower part has thinner cracks and I couldn't recall which ones I had used on the way up. As I bent down and turned to look where my feet were going, the slings hung in my way, blocking my view. They were becoming irksome. The thought of having these things be the cause of a fall was a bit ironic. Following several false starts after which I climbed back to my little nook and rested, I was finally able to make my way back down. I met up with Michael at the notch, and naturally he chided me for making it look so difficult on the way down. I removed the slings and started to tie them up better so I could attach them to the back of my hip pack when Michael made the kindly offer to carry them back for me (he had a regular daypack). I glady accepted.
Matthew was a short ways behind Michael, but Mark was nowhere to be found. The others informed me that Mark had decided to turn around shortly after they started the class 3 (the three of us were unanimous in thinking it more like class 4) downclimb on the north side - too rich for his blood. Matthew wasn't liking the route much either, but having Michael around gave him enough courage to continue. Michael climbed up first, and I paused to take a series (1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5) of photos as he climbed the ramp. After he disappeared around the corner, Matthew started up from the notch. I took one last picture as they were both on the ramp, Michael heading down after summiting, Matthew on his way up. I started back on the traverse, turning in time to see that Matthew too had made it to the summit. I added a few more ducks on the return route across the traverse hoping it might help to make the route more obvious. Back on the crest I went down at a pretty good clip hoping to catch up with Mark. I spied him well before he had reached Scimitar Pass and did my best to sneak up on him as quietly as possible. While still ten yards away, he called out "Hi Bob," without even turning around, foiling my plans to catch him by surprise. While we climbed down together he expressed his regret over not making the summit, the exposure more than the technical difficulty having gotten the best of him. I talked him into joining me for the short climb over to Mt. Jepson to which he agreed.
I was a short way ahead of Mark heading down the class 2 boulders on the lower part of the NW Ridge when I noticed two backpackers heading up from the south, evidently heading for Scimitar Pass, now slightly above us. I modified my route to make sure and intercept the two, particularly when I found them to be two young women, and rather attractive at that. Now I'm usually one to keep such interactions in the backcountry brief, but in this case I would have been happy to tally quite a bit longer. Mona and Megan told us they were seven days out on what would be a 21 day backcountry adventure, and were currently on their way to Glacier Lodge to resupply. For being out seven days (longer than I have ever been out in my whole life) they were impeccably groomed, and the smiles on their faces belied the grueling climb they had nearly completed to Scimitar Pass from the JMT far below. I concluded they were either apparitions or backcountry godesses, possibly both. After our little exchange I bid them good day, and we went our separate ways. Mark, single and the youngest of our group at just 20 years of age, hadn't said a single word while we talked to the ladies, for which I gave him a short ribbing. A half hour later we had crossed the short saddle and climbed to the summit of Mt. Jepson, arriving shortly after noon. In the summit register we noted that Joe had been up here several hours earlier (and a very odd register entry that had both Mark and I scratching our heads, but I can no longer recall the words), but no sign of the other group of four. We took a short break here, signed the summit register, then headed back to Scimitar Pass.
We got back to the pass shortly before the others and we waited. Five minutes later Michael and Matthew returned from Palisade Crest. They decided to forgo the climb to Jepson, and the four of us started back down from Scimitar Pass together. I pointed out to Michael and Matthew the two backpackers far below and described our earlier encounter as incentive for them to move quickly. Michael in particular showing marked interest. After downclimbing some of the awful boulders, we moved onto the glacier when we could, using it to glissade several hundred yards down to where the snow ran out. Upon climbing back onto the moraine, I heard voices ahead of us. Climbing over the moraine shoulder, we happened upon Mona and Megan again. They had taken off their jackets in the warmer sun found on this side and were dressed in shorts and sleeveless shirts. They were seated on a large flat rock in the middle of the moraine enjoying a picnic lunch, looking just as good (even better) than I had described them to Michael and Mark. After a longer conversation they agreed to let me take their picture which I told them they would be able to find later at SummitPost.org. I dutifully posted it to the site that night, but never heard from them, or of them again. After leaving them to their lunch, we made quick tracks down, including one section not far below the ladies that was steep, loose, and very dusty as we slid and skidded down the slope.
Down below Elinore Lake we again split up to pursue the two different routes between the lake and the main creek channel below, and once again we proved them to be about equal by meeting up about the same time. When I joined the others Daryn was with them, having just returned from a successful climb of Mt. Gayley and Temple Crag. Continuing back from the creek junction, we were happy to find the use trail we had all failed to find on the way up once we were past the marshy area. It followed close to the south side of the creek, petering out only when we were very close to maintained trail above Willow Lake (though it didn't connect with the use trail we'd taken than morning at the signed junction). It was easy to see how it could be missed. We kept expecting to see either Joe or the slower group of four on our way out, but never did. When we returned to our cars just before 4p we were surprised to see that we were the only ones back. What could have happed to the others? We found out later - Peter, Jim, Dana, and Mark N. had seen us as we were descending on the use trail below the marsh. They had been on the other side of the river and commented that we were moving so fast they didn't want to slow us down. Their party had climbed well above Elinore Lake, but turned around about halfway to Scimitar Pass as the hour was growing late and they wanted to get back before our appointed 7p dinner time. They happened upon Joe down at Willow Lake, a bit off-route, some time after seeing us go by. Joe commented that he was rushing to get back before Bob just once during the Challenge (he had beaten me back from Conness by an hour on the first day, but must have forgotten that), and was sadly disappointed to learn from Jim that we'd already gone by some time earlier.
Our roundtrip time was just under 11 hours, a good 1-2 hours faster than we'd expected. It had been a very good day indeed. I was happy to get both of the peaks I'd had my sights set on, and back with plenty of time to rest up to boot. Seven down, three more to go!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Palisade Crest - Mt. Jepson
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