A Tale of Two Palisades (and more!)

22 Jun - 2 Jul 2003 - by Mike Bigelow (view roster page)

Mike Bigelow, Julian Bigelow, Craig Bigelow

For those of you that have read my other trip reports, you know that the Palisades have drawn special attention during my annual trips to the Sierra. Living in Taiwan as I do make my climbing opportunities a bit rare, so I often gravitate to my favorite spots. The Palisades have been one of these for years. My first trip to the Palisades was in 1990 when I summited on Robinson and Agassiz but failed on a solo attempt of North Palisade. In subsequent years I've climbed Gayley and made repeated successful climbs on Sill and Winchell.

I've just returned from the Palisades again and want to share my experiences. This will no doubt help etch these eleven wonderful days in my own memory, maybe give others a little assistance in route finding, and hopefully make for some enjoyable reading.

This year's trip was outstanding in all respects. It had its difficulties, its rewards, its challenges and without question some of the grandest scenery I've ever experienced. We also climbed four summits that none of us had previously climbed. Originally we had a team of four planned, but due to a last minute injury, one person was unable to join us. Therefore I had the added joy of sharing this time exclusively with my two sons Julian and Craig. They are eighteen and fifteen respectively. This was Julian's fifth trip and Craig's third. As a dad I was really proud of their growing skill and endurance. This was not an easy trip and they both did great.

Our permit started on Sunday, June 22 so on Saturday we arranged to camp at the Big Pine Creek campground. That afternoon we got some local reports of persistent and deep snow pack up high and some difficult stream crossings. Both reports were proven true and the snow depth ultimately impacted on our planned itinerary. We rose early on Sunday and with 55-60 pound packs, headed south on the trail to Brainerd Lake. After about an hour we had to search for a crossing of the Southfork creek. We found a calm bit of waste deep water about 100 yards south of the normal trail crossing. This ended up being the only place we had to swap boots for sandals. The balance of the day was uneventful. From Brainerd Lake we followed the use trail up the west side talus slope and arrived at our Finger Lake camp around 4:00 PM. After resting a bit I scouted for the best approach to Middle Palisade. It was windy, clear and quite cool, a pattern that would persist for the first several days of the trip.

Monday morning Julian and I set out at 8:00 for an attempt on Middle Palisade. We carried ice axes and crampons but no rope. We both had read several trip reports and decided if we couldn't climb it without a rope, we shouldn't be there in the first place. We followed the ridge and it's series of humps on the left (east) side of Finger Lake, always skirting their tops. This route seemed pretty long and required about a hundred feet of down climbing just before reaching the moraine at the base of the eastern lobe of the Middle Palisade Glacier. After getting a better view of the topography, staying on the West Side of Finger Lake probably makes more sense. The moraine quickly gave way to snow. As the snow angled steeper we both used crampons, although it likely could have been done safely in bare boots. Finally after two hours of talus hopping and another ninety minutes of snow climbing we were at the classic right leading ledge. Finding this ledge is extremely simple. Climb the left-hand lobe of the glacier staying just to the left of the moraine split. Above the moraine split and 50-80 feet to the left, you can't miss it. At the ledge we cached our snow gear, ate and drank. At this point Julian was really fatigued. He tried to eat and drink but couldn't keep anything down. No headache, no racing pulse and he wanted to go on. We figured we'd play it by ear and around 12:15 followed the ledge into the main chute. There really should be no route finding problems on this face. Once you're in the chute, just stay in it. After about 1/3 of the way you can see the chute Secore describes on the right. This chute merges with the one you're already in. Ignore the fact that you may be in a new chute and keep climbing straight up. As you near the summit you can climb it directly or work just to the right and then traverse over to the left. Either way the last few moves are a bit awkward but are still class three. The climb itself is roughly 1,000 feet of quality third class climbing. We encountered fine holds and very little loose rock. After a short stay on the summit we carefully worked our way back to the escape ledge and then glissaded in soft snow back to the moraine. We retraced our approach route and were back in camp around 7:00 PM. We stuck Julian in a sleeping bag and forced water, soup and crackers into him. He was pretty beat but soon started feeling better and slept fine through the night.

On a previous trip I had crossed Scimitar Pass in late summer. This year I foolishly thought we could drop from Finger Lake back to Willow Lake, follow the stream up to Elinore Lake and then cross Scimitar Pass all in one day. That was my plan for Tuesday. Plans can change and this one did. We started late and made a casual hike to a lush stand of pines just below the talus chute approach to Elinore Lake. We relaxed, read, played cards and turned in around 9:30, planning an early departure for the pass.

Wednesday was a brutal and frustrating day. We were on the move by 8:30 and were soon climbing snow in bare boots above Elinore Lake. By the time we passed through the low point in Scimitar ridge the snow was soft and we began regularly breaking though, first up to our knees, later to our hips. Staying on the left of the ridge we were faced with steep, very loose rock or bottomless snow. The work was exhausting. Finally we surmounted the apron of moraine at the bottom of the pocket glacier below Palisade Crest. This was where the real work started. It was perhaps 3:00 PM and the snow had been in the bright sun all day. The sun cups were massive; some being waist deep and it was nearly impossible for the snow to support our weight. Higher up on the face we could see the steeper portion of the climb would soon be losing the sun. We kicked ourselves into high gear and struggled to get up the slope before it lost the sun and froze solid. We didn't make it. By 5:00 PM we were perhaps two thirds of the way up the steep snow below the final ridge crossing. We were making slow progress in increasingly difficult conditions. I opted to climb to a rock outcropping and belay the final portion of the snow climb. I switched to crampons as the top of the snow was now frozen. I lead the pitch with no pack. Initially the crampons worked well but then the last fifty feet or so were an absolute nightmare. With each step I broke through the surface crust and found myself swimming, clawing and using the pick of my axe to make any upward progress. Finally I reached the rocks and set-up a bombproof anchor. Next I carved a ledge big enough for three and fixed the rope. Using an ascender fixed to his harness, Craig followed the rope up to my stance. I had not added clothes over my shorts and as I watched him climb the pitch I was starting to freeze! His effort on the pitch was at the edge of his limit. Climbing with his pack on, his plight was far worse than mine. At some points progress was impossible. He was breaking trough into unconsolidated sugar snow covered with a crust too thin to bear his weight. Using his axe, his hands and tension on the rope he finally made it to the ledge. I quickly tied him into the anchor and Julian followed the pitch with similar, yet faster results. By now I'd been on the belay ledge for at least forty-five minutes and was shivering uncontrollably. The temperature had dropped to the upper 20's and I was standing there in shorts, a polypro tee shirt and a Gore-Tex windbreaker. As soon as Julian was on at the ledge, I rappelled down to my pack, added clothes and re-climbed the pitch. I led the second pitch across another section of snow to a band of rock that led to the ridge crest. After the lead, Craig again followed first. Arriving at my belay, I told him to shed the crampons and get up the ridge! He moved off on his own while I brought Julian over to my stance. I repeated the same instructions I had given Craig and then stayed behind to get out of my crampons, coil the rope and stow the gear. By the time I got moving I could see Craig topping out into the sunlight of the ridge. Julian was just behind him. Following behind them I found several sections of pretty hard class three climbing. Finally I crested the ridge. It was shortly after 7:00 and the sun was dropping fast. My throat was dry and swollen, both from long hours of rapid respiration and a lack of water. We immediately decided the best thing to do would be to drop down about three hundred feet and bivouac in the saddle south of Mt. Jepson. We managed to get a small camp established at 13,000 feet just as it was getting dark. We melted snow for drinking and cooking and started the all-important food and hydration process. After dinner we all crowded into a single two-man tent for the night. We were cramped but warm and the most difficult day was now behind us.

Thursday morning we stayed inside until the sun started warming the sides of the tent. After my morning coffee and Cliff Bar ritual, we all decided to scramble up to the summit of Mt. Jepson. From the saddle it's a forty-minute jaunt and offers fine views of the Sill-Polonium basin and our arduous route up Scimitar Ridge. Judging from the summit register not many people bother with the hike. After breaking camp we descended the western slopes and talus fields to a patch of dry ground in a wilderness of ice and snow. Lake 3,559 was still frozen and the basin was at least 70% snow covered. We camped in this lovely spot for two days and during that time the weather warmed, the wind stopped and we could finally feel summer in the air. Saturday we broke camp and moved north over Potluck Pass. After an afternoon of post-holing into Palisade Basin, we found a small meadow at the East End of the largest Barrett Lake. This would be home for another two days and the base of our Sunday attempt on North Palisade.

Sunday, June 29, 2003 is a date and day I will never forget. Saturday night Julian and I talked. While apprehensive about the climb we both decided that we would take it one move at a time. If we found it beyond our ability or just too exposed we agreed we would just let it go. We rose early and were climbing large blocky talus by 6:20. We made steady progress up the western chute on the backside of the U Notch. As we climbed in the shadows we managed to skirt most of the frozen snow, but at one point we were forced to get past a long pitch by climbing rock with our left hands and hard steep snow with our ice axes on the right. Our immediate goal was the body width crack that marks the start of the Clyde Variation. We found the crack quite close to the U Notch. Steve Eckert's report on this route seemed right on the money when he said it's only fifty vertical feet from the notch. We opted to belay the route from this point and climbed two short and two long pitches to an extremely exposed corner at the end of the south arete of the mountain. From this corner you could probably spit straight down to the ice of the U Notch some 300 feet below. The move was easy to pass but sickening to look at. All in all, the climb from the body width crack to the exposed corner is a pleasant mix of third, fourth and even some second class climbing. Despite our strategy to belay and protect the route as we saw fit, we made good time and soon found ourselves in the LeConte bowl just below the summit. From here we pretty much were at a loss. We spent the better part of an hour looking for the keyhole. We found ourselves on both sides of the ridge a couple of times, but could not seem to hit the sweet spot. Ultimately we found a ledge that worked around just south of the summit block. An awkward mantel in a very tight slot finally allowed us to execute a sloppy pull-up and flop ourselves onto the summit. I checked my watch. It was 1:18. I'd waited thirteen years for this summit and I emotionally hugged my son with congratulations and relief. I've never been on a summit that seemed so high. The sense of openness was truly awesome. I kept thinking, How can something so high and so detached from its neighbors stand year after year? To share the climb and this amazing summit with my son Julian was a remarkable privilege. We searched high and low but unless we missed it, there was no register on the summit. We found a stack of flat rocks in a small recess that looked like the register belonged there. Perhaps it didn't survive the winter. We shot a few photos, had a quick snack and then made use of a well-placed rappel anchor that allowed us to skip down climbing the final summit difficulties. We retraced our route back to the exposed corner and then made two long and two short rappels back to the main chute. From there it was clear sailing and we were back in camp just before 5:30. The Clyde Variation is an outstanding climb. There's little if any loose rock, holds are plentiful and the beauty of the Palisade crest constantly surrounds you. This route is a shinning gem on the crowning summit of the Sierras.

Monday morning we left our Barrett Lake camp destine for Knapsack Pass and Dusy Basin. We kept a casual pace and found the snow pack was really starting to dissipate. Around noon we crested the pass and stopped for snacks. Craig and I liked the shape and visual appeal of Columbine Peak so we decided to climb it. Julian stayed back and read under a sun shelter he fashioned from the fly of a tent. On Columbine, Craig and I pretty much stuck to the ridge and picked an interesting route of class two talus mixed with the odd third class piece here and there. The summit was a little over an hour from the pass. The views of the backside of Agassiz, Winchell, Thunderbolt and North Pal are all quite impressive from the summit. A quick descent and a bit of a trek dropped us into Dusy Basin where we camped by a large lake at the foot of Columbine. Clear skies and the right sun angle made for some great photos.

Tuesday was our last full day. We broke camp around 9:00 and headed south towards the Bishop Pass trail. Our original plan was to cross Agassiz Col and head out on the North Fork trail. Frankly though, we'd had enough of wading through the late spring snow. We opted for a trail instead. We made good time heading down the trail from Bishop Pass, only being slowed by my frequent stops to take pictures. Our final camp was at the 10,000 foot mark next to a mosquito bog. Having spent ten days over 11,000 feet we were lulled into forgetting about bugs in the Sierra. It was not our finest camp. Wednesday morning we hurried out to the trailhead. Our car was back at the Big Pine Creek trailhead so I had a bit of an ordeal hitchhiking and begging rides back to our starting point. Nonetheless by 3:00 PM we were all back in Bishop relaxing over a great Mexican lunch.


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