Rich Leiker and I climbed Middle Palisade, the twelfth 14er in California for each of us. The climb was so enjoyable that it was hard to understand how we had not done it sooner.
We departed from Glacier Lodge at 7:30 Saturday morning, carrying light overnight packs. I also had a rope, helmet, and crampons because I'd read prior reports about 4th class climbing if you get off route, lots of loose rock, and a difficult crossing of the Middle Palisade Glacier. The equipment was severe overkill.
We took the standard approach up the South Fork of Big Pine creek, reaching the top of the switchbacks at 9, Brainerd Lake at 10, and Finger Lake (by a cross-country use trail) at 10:30. From Finger, we intended to climb to the tarn on the next bench to establish base camp. I led us too high up ledges on the right side of Finger lake, eventually climbing above the tarn and wasting time descending 3rd class cliffs to the water. We learned on the descent that the left side of finger lake was a much better choice, at least in late season when it is not blocked by snow.
By noon we had eaten lunch and enjoyed the great views of the Thumb which overlooks the drainage. We left overnight gear at the tarn and climbed to the Middle Palisade glacier and the moraine running down from the peak. It is important to watch the mountain carefully on the approach to pick out the proper chute. Despite lots of route finding complaints in old trip reports, we had no problem identifying the chute illustrated in the California 14er's book, which turned out to be an excellent path. The key to get in the chute is to traverse about 100 feet left along the top of the Middle Pal glacier from the moraine until a ledge becomes visible leading right. An ice axe was useful, but crampons were unnecessary. Even in late season, the bergschrund was not an obstacle.
The east face of Middle Palisade is very imposing from a distance, but proves to be an easy and enjoyable climb. It was straightforward class 3, bordering on class 2 in many places. The rock is high quality Palisade granite with excellent holds. A bit of loose rock is present on the ledges, but no more than one would expect on any other Sierra climb. Rockfall was not a problem with two people, but could be an issue with a larger team.
Peter Maxwell's PCS trip report was another useful reference for route finding. Climb the obvious chute toward the summit (it's so broad at first that it would better be called a face than a chute). Eventually it narrows and runs out; climb over to the right and continue up the next chute. The chute forks; take the left branch to a notch (from the glacier, the notch is clearly visible to the left of a roundish high point on the ridge with two white bands running diagonally a few hundred feet below the top). Climb left for 50 feet to the true summit of Middle Palisade. We made a slightly interesting exposed move onto the summit from the east, but descended an easier route on the west. We were admiring the views of Norman Clyde and Sill by 3:00.
After a leisurely meal on the top with the obligatory summit photos and sightseeing, we returned to camp. The round trip from the tarn was 5 1/2 hours without pushing very hard, but without having to search for the route or do any ropework. Since we were done so early, we decided to pack out and have a real dinner. We got back to the cars at 8:30, using headlamps for the last 20 minutes.
Overall, we thought Middle Palisade was one of the most fun climbs in the Sierra. The face looks very imposing. The climbing is exciting, yet the holds are good and the exposure is not too severe. The approach is short and the views are magnificent.
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