The Balcony-Disappointment-Middle Pal Traverse Route. Starting on the left, the high points on the crest are Balcony Peak, Disappointment Peak, Excitement Peak, and Middle Palisade. Our route was anything but a straight-line traverse across the face!
We met at 8 am at the backpacker parking lot on Glacier Lodge road and hiked up the Big Pine Creek South Fork trail to Brainerd Lake, where the official trail ends. The surface of the lake was alive with hundreds of jumping fish. They were probably feasting on the abundant mosquitoes currently in the area. The fish were not nearly as efficient as hoped, as there were still plenty mosquitoes to feast on us. We picked up the use trail above the west shore of Brainerd Lake and followed it to Finger Lake.
There was still plenty of daylight left, so we headed up to the next lake in the drainage, Lake 3400+ m. This would make our climb day shorter, which turned out to be a fortunate decision. To get there, we followed the west side of Finger Lake, then headed more or less directly up to the outlet of the Lake 3400+. The better way to go is around the east shore of Finger Lake, which we did on our way out. There is a good use trail over the buttress that abuts the east side of the lake. Once over that, easy walking and boulder hopping gets you to the southern end of the Finger Lake. We found some nice campsites above the east shore of Lake 3400+.
Expecting a long day, we started hiking for the peaks with headlamps on at 5:20 am the next morning. Much snow was still here in late June, so we put on our crampons only a couple hundred yards out of camp and marched up to the major snow chute (the more western of two chutes) east of Balcony Peak. The snow only went halfway up the chute, whereupon we then climbed up the rest of the chute on amazingly loose scree. The crumbly rock in the chute was bad enough that no one really wanted to come back this way.
Susan crossing the glacier, nearing the start of the snow chute that leads to the southeast ridge of Balcony Peak
The easy climbing on the ridge to Balcony Peak went fast; Lisa and Louise went to the top of Balcony to sign in the register and check for possible routes over to Disappointment Peak. The rest of us investigated jumping off points for the traverse to Disappointment about 300 feet below the summit of Balcony. I had with me two reports for the traverse; Secor's description in his Guidebook and a report by Bob Burd and Matthew Holliman who did the traverse a few years back. Bob and Matthew appeared to have started their traverse roughly 200 feet below the summit of Balcony. Secor says to start about 300 feet below the summit.
There was no reasonable starting point nearer the Balcony summit where Bob and Matthew had apparently started their traverse, because everything appeared to immediately go class 4 or more. We all thought Bob and Matthew were crazy. We chose to start down a short, narrow chute where Secor says to start, about 300 feet below the summit. This chute led to a narrow catwalk to the left, which in turn led to a rib which we down-climbed until we could drop into the wide chute to the west.
Descending into the chute below Balcony Peak. A somewhat typical view of what the traverse was like. Photo by Steve Eckert.
Once in the chute, we could see no easy way to continue a level traverse. We saw a possible way over the next rib another 100 feet below us, near what looked like a duck on top of the rib itself. As we carefully descended, the so-called duck turned out to be just a big flat rock on a much larger boulder. Others still thought it was the handiwork of some passing human, but I remained skeptical. Anyway, we found a class 3 route over the rib into the next chute about 20 feet below the duck. Climbing up this next chute, we put a few more rocks on top of this duck as we passed by it to make it much more obvious. As it turned out, this was the nearest thing to a route marker on the entire traverse...we saw no indication that anyone had ever marked their progress in a similar fashion. Probably an indication of how few try this rubble-strewn route. The description of the chutes and ribs we encountered on the traverse are exactly what Bob and Matthew described in their report: much disagreeably loose rock over steep class 3 terrain with occasional class 4 moves.
Climbing up the chute, Steve spied a possible way over to the next rib. Once on the rib, he found the climbing was much more solid going straight up the rib. This proved to be the best class 3 climbing on the entire traverse, but ended much too soon. In the next chute over, the notch between Balcony and Disappointment became obvious about 200 feet above us. This chute is also known as Doug's Chute, according Secor's guidebook. After crossing a steep snow bank, we ascended the right-hand side of the lowest point in the chute almost all the way to the notch. The climbing here was also fairly solid and fun. Getting above the notch itself introduced us to our first class 4 climbing of the traverse, although no one needed a rope for going up it. Lisa suggested she thought it went more like low class 5.
The final 100 ft up the SE ridge to the summit of Disappointment went class 3, with one short section of class 4 at an open book about 20 feet below the top. Although everyone was happy about reaching the summit, the nerve-wracking traverse over steep rubble kind of put a damper on things. We then continued the traverse now to Middle Pal, as no one wanted to go back the way we came.
Steve nearing the summit of Disappointment Peak.
On the summit of Disappointment: from left to right, Steve, Louise, Lisa and Susan.
We first investigated Bob and Matthew's route description for starting off the summit of Disappointment towards Middle Pal, which appeared to begin on or near the crest. It was an amazingly steep, difficult-looking knife edge and very exposed. And again, we all thought they were crazy.
The easiest way we found to start the traverse to Middle Pal was to go back down our ascent route almost 20 feet to the top of the class 4 open book section. Then carefully descend onto Disappointment's NW face. After traversing down and across below the Disappointment summit tower, we found ourselves in a wide chute below the Disappointment-Excitement Peak notch (D-E notch). Lisa and I ascended to the ridge between Disappointment and Excitement Peak to have a look. It was still knife-edged, steep, and far beyond our climbing preferences. Running the ridgeline was out of the question. Back down in the chute, there was a flat-topped notch in the rib across from us, but we could not envision a route that would go to get us over there...much too steep with no clear connecting ledges.
However, we thought we could see a notch nearly 200 feet below us on the rib, so we slowly picked our way down to it. The notch turned out to be a red herring; it didn't go. I kept dropping down the chute towards an area of more fractured rock in the rib we needed to cross. I managed to work my way onto the rib in this fractured section after a little class 4 action. The rope came out for those who wanted a belay for this section onto the rib. We had dropped so low in this chute such that we were only about 50 feet above the ominous drop off over the Middle Pal glacier. Lisa's GPS said we were now 350 below the D-E notch. Getting down and out of this chute was the crux, and the low point, of the traverse. The worst loose rock of the traverse was probably here and it was universally unpopular with our group.
Comparing the surrounding terrain with the photo on page 223 of Secor's Guidebook (2nd edition), I could tell we were now entering the chute that is part of the East Face route. We joined the East Face route just above the cliffy section that involves some technical rock climbing. Above this technical section where we joined it, the climbing went class 3, was more solid, and was quite enjoyable. For some, too many nerves were frazzled after the previous chute to really enjoy it.
We stayed right when the chute split, thus avoiding one or more class 4 ribs to cross if we had stayed higher on the traverse. This was probably the one main advantage dropping low in the chutes to find easier routes over the ribs. We continued going up until we were about even height with the Excitement Peak-Middle Pal notch that was to the left of us. There was a nice catwalk here that took us right onto the next rib. I beheld a very uplifting view from here, I could see the characteristic summit blocks of Middle Pal; they finally seemed within reach.
First view of the pointy Middle Pal summit blocks, on the right above the largest snow field. Photo by Louise Wholey.
On the rib, we climbed up about 10-15 feet of class 4 to where we thought we could descend into the next chute. It was also class 4, but we all wanted to rap down it rather than downclimb. It was about a 40 foot rap. Louise and Lisa led the way up and across to the next rib as Steve and I coiled the rope. The climbing here was easier and we were soon over the next rib and traversing just below the ridgeline. We passed over a bivy site and approached the final summit blocks following a catwalk now on the west side of the ridge. It took us a somewhat embarrassing 5+ hours to do the quarter-mile traverse from Disappointment Peak to Middle Palisade. But the route back to camp was now a relative cakewalk down the standard class 3 northeast face route of Middle Palisade. The footing was better, but we were all getting tired and lazy, knocking rocks down more often then we were during the traverse.
Susan and Lisa starting down the standard route a little below the summit blocks of Middle Palisade.
And finally off the rocks and back on the Middle Pal Glacier! Photo by Steve Eckert.
We reached camp about 8:15 pm making it a 15 hour day. Now that both Steve and I have climbed Disappointment Peak by the two most common routes, we agreed that the class 4 south chute route on Balcony was the easier approach to Disappointment Peak. The hardest part of this Balcony south chute may be more intense then any portion of the traverse route we just did, but the chute is only 250 feet long, and then the hard part is over. Probably the main problem with the Balcony south chute is its greater potential for rockfall.
For us, the traverse route was about 2% class 4 and 98% class 3 or less. About the best definition I can give for the fuzzy line between class 3 and 4 is that anything that we did not think we would want to down-climb without a rope we called class 4, even if we could ascend it without a rope. By this standard, we crossed 4 or 5 short sections of class 4 on the traverse, although we only pulled the rope twice for protection.