Polemonium Peak

2-4 Jul 2005 - by Rick Booth

The plan was to climb Starlight Peak from the glacier by some route. I was looking at Piper at the Gates of Dawn as the target. The only problem was to find a partner. I mentioned the project to my longest climbing pal, Al Peery, and he said he would be interested as long as we climbed North Palisade also. Well, that was a no brainer, the exit route from Starlight was over the top of North Pal and down the U Notch. Al was in.

A trip to the Palisades and the Palisade Glacier is hard to resist and Dee signed up Rob Yang for another trip up North Pal and Arun Mahajan and Scott Kreider got a permit for the same time period to also climb North Pal. It appeared you wouldn't be able to swing a dead cat on the Palisades Glacier without hitting a PCS member on the July fourth weekend.

Al and I ran into Scott and Arun in the Big Pine Creek parking lot when we pulled in Saturday morning. They were off before we got our act together. Dee and "Rocket Rob" Yang were long gone. About 9:15 Al and I headed up the trail. It was a long slog up to Gayley Camp, near the Northwest corner of Mt Gayley. My favorite camp site was filled in with snow but Dee had found a decent site out of the wind, however, she had to shovel some ice out of the site. Arun and Scott were one "tier" above us on a flat granite slab, also out of the wind. Al ended up a little further away on a sandy spot a little lower. As for "Rocket Rob", Rob had hiked his butt into Gayley Camp so fast he scored himself a dose of altitude sickness. Neither Arun, Scott nor myself saw Rob all weekend but reliable sources, Dee and Al, claimed he was there, in a site a little above Al.

There was only one other party at Gayley Camp, a friendly group from Reno. The mob in the parking lot claiming to be headed for Sill/Polemonium/Starlight/North Pal/Thunderbolt/whatever were not seen anywhere. As for the sites near the tarn at the terminus of the Palisades Glacier, they were chocked full of snow so deep the big flat rock that everyone tries to camp on was under the snow. There was nobody anywhere near those sites.

Rob decided to stay in camp on Sunday. Dee, then, was to team with Arun and Scott. Arun, Scott and Dee headed out around 6 AM Sunday morning. Al and I were running late, as usual, and got going around 7. At that point I doubted we would have enough time to get up Starlight, make the traverse, and get down the U notch in any reasonable time so we decided to just climb North Pal since I had already climbed Starlight and Al really wanted to climb North Pal.

The 'schrund had a sort of decent snow bridge on the right side, where it usually is. I could see clearly down into the bergschrund when I stepped over it and it was soft even at 9 AM. Scary. Al made it over, though, and I suppose that is the ultimate test since he weighs in at about 240. We climbed up the U Notch without a rope since the snow was decent and we could kick steps all the way up. Curiously, the left side of the U Notch Couloir had a big icy section.

We caught up with Dee, Arun, and Scott at the top of the U Notch. At this point we decided to rearrange the teams. Al was to join Arun and Scott and climb North Pal and Dee and I were to climb Polemonium. We were all going to get new ascents!

Dee and I borrowed Al's gear and the other half of our 50 meter dual rope system, and set a belay at the top of the U Notch. The first pitch was about 5.4 and headed straight up and then headed right towards a nice shelf system. Maybe 80 feet. This was followed by a fourth class traverse towards the notch visible from the U Notch on the south arete. I stopped just short of the notch. The next pitch goes up into the notch and traverses right around a corner. From there it goes pretty much straight up, no harder than 5.5 or so. With the rope drag I had to stop short of the summit.

As I was climbing this pitch, out of the blue I heard, "Rick, you're gonna die!" The standard Joshua tree greeting caught me by surprise at 14,000 feet and I got a good laugh out of it. It was Al, of course, who was comfortably ensconced about horizontal to me about 150 feet away at the top of the first pitch up the U Notch chimney.

Another short pitch and I was on top. Dee followed quickly and we sat on the summit watching our friends work their way through the third and fourth class sections on North Pal. Watching Al looking up at the various options I yelled " Go Right! Go Right!". There are not a lot of places in the Sierras where you can sit on one fourteener and yell directions at friends on another fourteener!

Dee and I rappelled back down into the U Notch. The first rap anchor is just below the summit and has a bunch of decent slings and a hardware store link. We added a poot biner. A double 50 meter system dropped us to the nice ledge at the end of pitch one. A single rope rappel from a solid flake dropped us back into the U Notch. About an hour round trip to the top from the U Notch.

Dee, Scott, Arun and Al were concerned about the softness of the snow and decided to rappel the U Notch. It seemed like the snow held the ice ax quite well so I decided to hike down the couloir. We all ended up rappelling across the bergschrund, though! I was not interested in trying to traipse across the snow bridge at the end of a bright sunny day. We were back in camp before dark.

On Monday, Arun, Scott, and Dee headed out about 8 AM. Al spent a couple of hours fixing up his decrepit pack which had blown out in about three places. Al and I started out about 11 AM. Rob was apparently headed to Sill and/or Gayley, having fully recovered, according to reliable sources. The hike out was uneventful, as usual.

Final notes:

The ascent of Polemonium from the U Notch is easy. The summit is right there overlooking the U Notch. It is so close and easy it is recommended that it be added to an ascent of North Pal via the U Notch, even if it means getting another hour earlier start. It isn't harder than 5.4, with maybe one 5.6 move in there. It is recommended that the leader go all the way to the notch and set the belay there instead of stopping before that. This means the last pitch would go all the way to the top. Depending on the rope drag it is likely that the first pitch can be done all the way to the notch. This means it is possible to go to the top in two pitches. It depends on how comfortable you are with the rope drag. It is not clear if a single rope will get you from the rap anchor on top to the ledge. I doubt if a 50 meter rope will make it and it is possible a 60 meter rope won't make it. There isn't much intermediate, however, so a different rap route might need to be taken. We used a double 50 meter 8.8 mm rope system but a single 60 meter will certainly work for the ascent but the rappel is suspect. A rack of stoppers, small aliens, and cams up to #2 Camalot will work. A double set of anything is unnecessary. A poot biner and sling are useful.

Approach:

The hike up to Gayley Camp or the glacier can be shortened and simplified considerably. The trail goes up a chute as it gets near the glacier and then abruptly folds back to the east to get on top of a rib of rock. The trail then winds around through slabs and involves some traversing on some of the moraine scree. I have been through this twice and it is not the way to go. In the spring or early summer the upper end of the chute near the glacier is full of snow. Go straight up that until the top of the snow, which ends on some dirt but quickly turns into a boulder field. There is usually another snowfield visible and up a little higher. Go across this field. To get to Gayley Camp head slightly to the left and head up to the top of the moraine coming down from the northwest corner of Gayley. After a while a use trail will show up which saves a few hundred yards of knee thrashing boulder hopping. This will bring you to Gayley Camp.

References:

The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes, and Trails, Second Edition, R.J. Secor, The Mountaineers, 1999, ISBN 0-89886-625-1


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