North Pal & Polemonium

2-5 Sep 2004 - by Jim Ramaker (view roster page)

(Note: this trip report is a much longer version of the one posted by Ron Karpel a few weeks ago.)

On the morning of Thu. Sep. 2, after a restful night at Deadman's Summit, Bob Suzuki (leader) and I (co-leader) met Ron Karpel and Bob Evans for breakfast at Jack's Restaurant in Bishop, then joined up with Kirsten and Stephane Mouradian at the South Lake trailhead. We hiked out about 9:45, enjoying the cool breezy weather as we hiked past the numerous beautiful lakes on the way up to Bishop Pass at 12,000'. Our goals for the trip were North Palisade (14,242'), and Polemonium Peak (14,080+').

Instead of leaving the trail right at the pass, Bob Evans suggested that we hike down the other side for about 1/2 mile before heading cross-country to the southeast. This route seemed pretty optimal, as we found a series of grassy benches and easy slabs, avoiding the up-and-down of the higher route. But there's no avoiding the boulders going up to Thunderbolt Pass (12,400'), where we finally arrived at 4 p.m. There's a small campsite about 20 minutes below the pass at some tiny tarns near 12,000', but Bob S. wanted to try to find water closer to the Leconte gully, our climbing route for both peaks.

After wandering around on the boulders below North Pal, we decided that there's no water to be found there except maybe early in the season, and we ended up descending to the largest Barrett Lake at 11,500', where we finally arrived at 5:30 p.m. The lake is 500' lower than the tarns, but on the plus side, it's a beautiful place to camp, with spectacular views both of the west face of the Palisades and westward over the lake, as well as a clean sandy beach and sandy bottom for swimming. But swimming was not on the agenda this night -- after supper, the temperature quickly fell below freezing and a stiff breeze came up. For most of us, it took all of our clothes inside our sleeping bags to stay warm, and water bottles left outside froze nearly solid.

Nevertheless, on Friday morning, we were up in the dark at 5:30 and on the move at 6:40. We headed straight up the large talus slide toward the base of North Pal -- a mistake, because when the angle eases off at the top of the slide, the boulders increase to car and even RV size, making for strenuous going. Much better to do what we did the following morning -- circle a bit to the southeast, climb up alongside a long, low cliff, and then continue up an easy scree slope. In any case, we reached the bottom of the Leconte gully and headed up it, feeling cold in the deep shade despite our upward exertions. Finally at 9 a.m., we found a patch of sun near the start of the catwalk ledge and took a welcome break. Above that, we passed the first chockstone via a class-3 slot just to the left, and the second one via a hard class-3 move just to its right, or if you prefer, an easier ramp about 40' to the right.

About 10 a.m. we found a ledge leading left out of the gully marked by several large cairns. The Clyde variation? Nope, but I didn't figure that out until studying Secor's guidebook back at home. We climbed what Secor calls the Moore variation, a ledge about 500 lateral feet or 240 vertical feet below the U-notch. The Clyde variation is only about 130 lateral feet (according to Secor) or about 50 vertical feet (according to Steve Eckert) below the notch.

In any case, the Moore variation is great -- one exposed class-3 move takes you up to a long ledge with plenty of room for several people to put on harnesses and rope up. From there, a gently rising class-4 traverse takes you leftward around an arete and into the next gully. One nice feature is that the roped section takes just under half of a 60-meter rope, so if you have a number of people in the climbing party, the second can tie into the middle of the rope, do the pitch, and then the next person and each succeeding person can pull the rope back and tie into the middle again (the leader can't throw the rope back to the next climber because it's sideways around a corner).

Once in the gully, I was a bit surprised to see the 50' wide summit mass of North Pal a few hundred feet above us at the top of the class-3 gully. That was it?? Since I still thought we were on the Clyde variation, I was expecting the complex weaving around described in the trip reports, as we worked our way up to the summit ridge. But all we had to do was climb the gully, pass two large chockstones via strenuous moves on the right, climb up into the low-angle bowl below the summit mass, and then do the summit. If you go the right way, it's class-3 all the way with no need for a rope.

The key is not to head for the low point on the summit ridge 100' or more right of the apparent summit, which leads to airy class-4, but instead head for the large blocks about 30' right of the summit. Here you negotiate a series of four deep slots at right angles to the ridge, chimneying out of the first one, then going to the east end of the second one and doing a class-3 step-around move into the third one, with some big air and the Palisade Glacier below you. From there, you can either climb over a fin, or walk around the west end of the third slot into the fourth and last slot. Standing in the bottom of it, the summit platform is about 6' above your head, and the key to this move is to squirm upward and get your left foot up onto a large foothold next to your left ear. Some shorter members of the party had trouble with this contortion, so we quickly set up a daisy chain of slings to provide a couple of artificial hand- and footholds.

We arrived at the summit right at noon as white stuff began falling from the sky. Seed pods? After all, it was supposed to be about 100 degrees down in the Central Valley today. Nope -- snow, and plenty more coming, by the look of the endless bank of dark clouds to the east and south. We signed in and quickly departed, descending the class-3 gully to our rope-up point. A rappel back into the first gully looked like it would be a very long one, possibly longer than our 60-meter ropes, so Bob led the class-4 pitch downward in a steady snowfall, placing plenty of pro since the holds were now snow-covered.

Once everyone was across, we coiled our ropes and headed down the first gully, taking a much-needed break halfway down about 4 p.m. as the snow finally began to let up. From there, we downclimbed the chockstones, regrouped on the large ledge at the bottom of the Leconte gully, and then descended the scree chute that heads slightly to the southeast of Barrett Lake, finally arriving back at our camp at 5:45. When the sun dipped below the ridge to the west about 6:30, the temperature again plummeted, and most of us were in our bags before 7:30.

On Saturday morning, we had a brief discussion about whether to bail out and go home, or reclimb the entire Leconte gully in order to attempt Polemonium. Most of the team was gung-ho to try it. Bob S. had injured his ankle while descending the previous afternoon and had hobbled into camp, but after taping it, he said that he would at least start up the hill with us. "If you start out with us, you won't turn back," said Bob E., and Bob S. of course proved him right.

So we headed up the scree slope and once again up into the cold and shadowy Leconte gully. As on Friday, we took a break at the first sunny spot about 9 a.m., near the area of wall-to-wall slabs about 1/3 of the way up. After that, it became noticeably warmer and less windy than the day before -- back to summer conditions instead of the premature blast of fall. We passed the Moore variation about 10:30 -- the 500' or so from there to the U-notch are especially loose and ugly, so care is required with a group.

At the notch, we roped up and Bob S. led the first pitch -- 100' of 4th class or easy 5th up and slightly right. From there, a wide class 2-3 ledge leads right about 60' right to a notch in the southwest ridge. The ledge is like a blocky, uneven sidewalk with one 6' section missing, and since it's pretty airy, we belayed across the missing section. After the usual delay belaying everyone up the first two pitches, Bob S. led the third and hardest pitch -- up around the arete and out of sight for about 100' of 5.6. Big-time exposure and lots of rope drag here. I followed and belayed the rest of the team up, and we were all on top by 2:15. The last 50' or so to the summit is class-3, and the summit area is nice and spacious. The nearby 14,000' summits of North Pal, Starlight, Thunderbolt, and Sill were spectacular, with the dusting of fresh snow giving them a forbidding alpine quality.

For the descent, we did a double-rope rappel for about 150', all the way down to the sidewalk ledge. For those carrying only one rope, there's an intermediate rap station on a large platform about halfway down. Below this platform is an overhang with a short section of free-hanging rappel, which not everyone on the team liked.

Down on the sidewalk ledge, Bob clambered out to the west end of the ledge (exposed class-3) and set up the last rap, about 100' straight down to the top of the U-notch. By 4:20, everyone was safely down on the rubble and very happy to have climbed this small but challenging 14'er. Most of us had left our packs at the notch, so we had a long-delayed snack break, and as usual, we looked on in envy as Kirsten and Stephane made tuna sandwiches with those new vacuum-packed envelopes of tuna and packets or mayonnaise (they were nice enough to share).

To descend the gully, three of us went down each side and stayed closely bunched, and we had no close calls with rockfall. By 5:30 we were at the bottom of the gully, and by 6:15 we were washing up at our camp in the waning rays of the sun. From Barrett Lake, Polemonium is an insignificant little dome, dwarfed by the soaring battlements of North Pal and Sill, but it's still an interesting and challenging climb. In any case, it's a named 14'er, so it must be climbed. Doing North Pal and Polemonium on successive days as we did was not very efficient, but climbing them both on the same day would be a real challenge for a group, though it should be no problem for a fast-moving team of two or three.

After supper, we retreated to our bags for another clear, frosty night with thousands of stars and the wide swath of the Milky Way wheeling overhead. We had little trouble falling asleep.

On Sunday, we labored up the hill to Thunderbolt Pass, across the boulders and slabs to Bishop Pass, and then out on the trail. We gathered for a late- afternoon lunch at the Whiskey Creek Restaurant in Bishop, then enjoyed the drive up the Owens Valley and across Yosemite in the late afternoon light.

David Underwood adds:

> Instead of leaving the trail right at the pass, Bob Evans suggested that we hike down the other side
> for about 1/2 mile before heading cross-country to the southeast. This route seemed pretty optimal,
> as we found a series of grassy benches and easy slabs, avoiding the up-and-down of the higher route.
> But there's no avoiding the boulders going up to Thunderbolt Pass (12,400'), where we finally arrived
> at 4 p.m. There's a small campsite about 20 minutes below the pass at some tiny tarns near 12,000',
> but Bob S. wanted to try to find water closer to the Leconte gully, our climbing route for both peaks.

To avoid the large boulder field below Thunderbolt Col, stay high on the left (east) side of the ravine leading to the col. There is a short boulder section near the top but most of the route is on more solid ground. I even camped well above the large lake one year when a really heavy rain and lightning storm came in. There was a small stream in the area also.


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