A Night Out on Palisade Crest

13-15 Sep 2003 - by Aaron Schuman

We set out for Palisade Crest: Charles Schafer, Bob Evans, Ric Rattray, Fi Verplanke, Greg Johnson, and myself, Aaron Schuman. We hiked from the ruins of the old Glacier Lodge up the South Fork trail. Quickly enough, we reached the point where we wanted to leave the trail, just above Willow Lake, and stopped for lunch there.

We followed a use trail up the main drainage from the Jepson Glacier. The trail was sketchy in places, but we were confident in our plan to stay near the creek bottom until we turned left at the second major inflowing stream. When we made the turn along the small stream draining Elinore Lake, we followed the directions in Secor's guide. The directions were accurate but we were still a bit confused. Secor advises staying west of the stream, but east of a trench. Another way to say it is that there are two closely separated channels in the mountainside coming down from Elinore Lake. The east channel carries the water that flows down from the outflow of the lake, and the west channel is not as well watered. We stayed between them, but close to the drier west channel. We reached the lake around 4:00 p.m. and found good campsites on the northwest side.

We studied the route description, the map and the mountain. It was hard to recognize the ramp up to the crest in full daylight, but as shadows began to fall, the ramp stood out more distinctly. We could see almost the entire route from camp.

In the morning we headed up a talus slope to a point we named the "O-Chute" ('O' because the chute is open, and abbreviated so that it would fit the six character limit of a waypoint name). We crossed behind a knob, and gained 400 vertical feet out of view of the lake. At the base of the glacier we filled our bottles with the abundant meltwater. We continued up the ramp. It got steeper, sandier and looser as we approached Scimitar Pass. We reached the pass at about 11:00 a.m. Future climbers of this route should remember that Scimitar Pass is nowhere near the low point of the Pacific Crest in this area. It is only designated a pass because it is climbable from the east, and most approaches to the Crest in this area end in tall, sheer cliffs.

We climbed easy class 2 and 3 rocks from the pass to the local high point of the Crest. The traverse became increasingly difficult. There were step-across gaps exposed to the risk of long falls on both sides. It was very gusty, and we worried about losing our balance in a sudden gust. Bob asked for a rope at one point, and we wasted way too much time flaking out the rope for a single move. At 2:00 p.m., we were just above the sharply cut notch just north of the highest tower (the "Gandalf Tower") of Palisade Crest. Four of us decided to turn around. We didn't think we were going to reach the summit and get back to camp by nightfall. Charles and Bob were determined to succeed, and so they continued on. We gave them both ropes and all of the protection pieces, and wished them luck.

Gandalf Tower of Palisade Crest

Photo by Greg Johnson

We retraced our steps and returned to camp by sundown, at around 7:30 p.m. We each made our best guess as to what time they would be back in camp. I made the latest guess, midnight. We turned in at around 9:00 p.m. At 1:30 a.m., I woke up. I checked Bob's tent and Charles' bivy. They had not returned. Everybody else was awake too. I shined my headlamp at the mountain, tracing out the route, hoping to see Charles and Bob shine their lights back at me. But the mountain was dark.

We arose with the sun, and the tents were still vacant. We began preparing emergency plans: who would search the mountain, who would go down and ask the ranger for help, what high points we thought would give cell phone reception.

At 8:00 a.m., we saw Bob approach the lake alone. Though we were happy to see Bob, it was unsettling to see him without his climbing partner. I hiked down to the lake to meet him. Bob said that Charles was just behind him, and in fact, at 8:30 a.m., Charles emerged from the talus, snapping photos.

Charles successfully summitted at 4:00 p.m., and he belayed Bob up to the top shortly afterward. The two of them rappelled down to the notch, but the double rope system tangled when they tried to retrieve it. Charles had to reclimb the class 4 section to free the rope. They got off the difficult class 3 part just as they used up the last of the daylight. It was too dark to continue, even with headlamps, and so they waited two chilly hours for the moonrise at about 10:00 p.m. They continued down, very slowly, alternately hiking and resting. At 3:00 a.m., out of the wind, behind the O-Chute, they decided to call it a night and wait for dawn.

Back at camp, we swapped gear and rearranged our carpools. Charles and Bob would sleep for a while, then hike out and drive home together. The rest of us would hike down immediately and get home in the evening. We weren't worried about Charles and Bob getting out by themselves over relatively easy terrain. Charles would phone in the morning.

What would we do differently next time, to ensure that the whole group could reach the summit and return to camp in the daylight? Know the route in advance. Go earlier in the summer, when the days are longer. Move quickly on summit day. Make difficult turn-around decisions early. Carry walkie-talkies if there is even the possibility of dividing the group. I saw some rappel slings halfway up the class 4, and I wondered about avoiding the overhead of the double rappel, but Charles still thinks that two ropes were the right gear for the climb.

Our scary story has a happy ending. Everybody got out safely. No rescue was required. And two bold members of our party even got to the top of this challenging peak.

Bob Evans remarks:

We moved quickly enough, until I began uncoiling the rope. Our late return was due the following: I slowly flaked the rope; I failed to free the ropes before beginning my rappel; I made a class 3 route finding error after the rappel, stranding myself on a a knife edge until I managed to turn around; I needed aid climbing back up a 15 foot class four dihedral, located about 50 feet north of the notch, where a long webbing is tied around a boulder as an anchor (we rapelled down this part on the way to the peak); I made one class 2 route finding error when, against Charles' instructions, I descended a few hundred feet past Scimitar Pass. These flubs cost about 1 hour. With that extra hour, Charles and I could have found the pass before dark. If we had found it before dark, we would not have waited 2 hours for moon rise, and we would not have bivied. We probably could have returned to camp at midnight.

Arun Mahajan comments:

I am glad to hear that you all got back safe and sound. Of the few reasons that you mentioned in the report that might have caused you all to not make it, I think the main one is the duration of daylight. This trip is definitely one for when the days are longer because of the complex route finding after the pass. In that sense, it is harder and longer than Clarence King, which I remember doing with you and that was also in September.

It is also correct to take 2 ropes. In fact with a 60m rope, you can do the class-4 slab as one long pitch. A full length rappel is possible with 2 60m ropes instead of mucking around with an intermediate rap station.

If you have them, then taking 2 9mm ropes of 60m each could be a possibility.

What Bob describes are events that can happen to anybody on an alpine climb, so he should not be too hard on himself!

David Harris comments:

Elizabeth Wenk and I climbed Gandalf a few years ago in September. We brought a single rope. The 3rd class to that notch was a bit sketchy and slowed us down for route finding. I believe we roped up and simulclimbed part of it.

The 4th class slab in some ways was easier because there was no routefinding. A single rope would have been fine, though with your big group two ropes might have been faster.

After the climb, the thought of traversing the entire Palisade Crest sounds like a very long day.

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