It was Sun June 20th and we awoke at 5:30 to attempt the North Face couloir on Norman Clyde Peak. This couloir is described as 700' of 40deg snow/ice in The High Sierra. I've been pursuing these gully climbs throughout the Sierras, and although this appeared to be a circuitous route to the summit, it sounded like an excellent first cramponing route for my partner, Scott.
As on Mid Pal, the day before, we skirted the west side of Finger Lake, and then kicked steps up the Middle Palisade Glacier. Today was as warm as yesterday, and the glacier was soft; no crampons needed. (We still had hopes that the north facing couloir would be firm and crispy). Instead of heading to the high point of the glacier, we angled rightward heading for a weakness in the North-Northeast Ridge which runs down from the west summit of Norman Clyde. From the face of Mid Pal, this weakness had looked like a fourth class, rock scramble that would get us to a notch in the saddle along the ridge. This ridge separates Mid Pal Glacier from Norman Clyde Glacier.
After 2-1/2 hrs of kicking steps we arrived at the base of the rock ledge that angles up and right and sort of curls straight up to the crest of the ridge. To our surprise there was a pink rope hanging on the route! We scrambled up maybe 200', passing the point where the rope was tied to slings on a bolder. It looked solid and would be a welcomed rappel at the end of our day.
The view from the top of the ridge was awesome. The couloir was in clear view, but to our dismay was already completely exposed to sunlight (11am); it was bound to be soft and squishy by the time we got to it. We traversed south along the crest of the ridge to a point where we could 3rd class it down to the snow. We angled our scramble so we would hit the snow above the bergschrund. The 'schrund was not impassable, but we preferred to avoid it. The snow was hard at the rock's edge, so we snapped & strapped crampons.
We traversed horizontally to the base of the gully. The sun was warm and the snow was pure white. There were no signs of past climbers or rock fall. The gully was split down the middle by a small ridge of rock, so we had a choice of a left or right route; we stayed left. As we entered the gully the snow became softer and by midway we were kicking steps. We did get a frozen section along the left side that made for quick cramponing, but for the most part the conditions didn't warrant crampons. We also skipped the rope and snow pickets we were packing, as the angle wasn't threatening (40deg??).
We topped out of the couloir about 1pm and took a break. We estimated our altitude at 13,500' so we were optimistic about quickly gaining the 13,920 summit; wrongo! We started our mini-epic by reading & re-reading Secor's route description of a traverse across the south side of the peak and up to the west summit & then over to the east summit. Well, and hour and a half of scrambling, backtracking, down climbing, and re-reading could not unlock the mystery of this route, so here's what we did:
1.Dropped down about 50' from the couloir notch 2.Traversed into the gully east 3. Up this gully to a point under a car-sized chockstone & traversed right (4th class) into the next gully 4. Followed this gully up and sort of around left out to the north face, staying below large pillars.
At this point we were above the N. Face, on 3rd class rock, and 50 feet below the west ridge of Norman Clyde. We decided to rope-up and traverse across the N. Face to connect to the N-N/E Ridge Route. Scott led 4 pitches of 5.1 climbing that brought us to the N-N/E Ridge Route, obvious due to its easier 3rd class terrain. Another pitch, straight up, and we were just under the second rappel station on the Route. We climbed the "lichen chimney" and were now just a scramble from the east summit. At 5:30pm we stood on the false summit and eyed the exposed ridge over to the true summit; aaaggh, we were out of time!
We rappelled and down climbed the N-N/E Ridge route. There were maybe five, unconnected, rappel stations, snow, ice, water, and loose rock; it wasn't too enjoyable. Based on down climbing it, I wouldn't recommend it.
As the sky darkened around 8:30 we made the horizontal terrain of the ridge saddle and rapelled the stiff, pink rope to the glacier. Two hours of plunge-stepping down the glacier, and boulder bashing under a half-full moon got us back to our camp at the north end of Finger Lake; it was 10:30, 15 hours of climbing later.
The couloir, our real goal, had been beautiful. The route finding above; exasperating. Our west ridge traverse seemed like a pretty direct way to get from the couloir to the summit, we did it with four stoppers and a handful of slings.