A Free Night at
Glacier Ledge Hotel
August 8, 2004
Story by Penelope May.
As I lay tossing (but not turning), shivering and shaking, on a coiled rope on a rocky ledge 60’ above the ‘schrund of the Palisade Glacier, I was reminded of Bob Somoano’s comment when he first realized that I was “seeing” Alois Smrz, when he advised, “You know Alois, You bivy!”. I had been skeptical at the time; now I was realizing that the inevitable had occurred. He had tried many times already, even at Tahquitz, in winter. There, however, since I had: (a) a car, (b) a house, (c) 4 lamb chops, and (d) a good zinfandel, all nearby, I had refused. Finally, he had got me! How had I let things come to this point?
Earlier this year, we had eagerly signed up for Ron Barry’s trip to Temple Crag. As the time approached, everyone on the trip gradually cancelled until we were the only ones left holding the permit. Never mind: we would go and tackle Thunderbolt Peak (14,003’). But why not expand our time up north and throw in another objective as well…no point in dillydallying. We decided on Laurel Mountain (11,812’) as it was close to our destination (out of Convict Lake), was featured in Peter Croft’s climbing guide and being only 5.2 would easily allow me to swap leads, and show myself to be a real climber!
Laurel Mountain has historic interest too: John Mendenhall, made the first ascent with James Van Patten, in 1931, making it the first time belays were used in the High Sierra.
Laurel Mountain’s route is long, some 3,800’, so to maximize daylight, we hiked in to the start of the climb the night before with a small sleeping bag, finding a wonderful flat “bed” rock nearby for the night.
At dawn we were climbing over the “Cleft” to begin the climb..no rope needed initially and we moved carefully but easily, in climbing rubber-soled trail shoes. The bottom of the climb involved some easy gully cracks which then turned into a giant staircase which stretched impressively thousands of feet high. The bottom sandy rock turned into red basaltic rock which turned into white slabs; Peter said they were clean, well they were not…there were ball bearings everywhere…but still we carried on without a rope, always on the alert for the final moment when we would need it.
Suddenly, about 12 o’clock we found ourselves at the top of the rocky trough which constituted the climb! Alois informed me that I had just soloed my first technical climb!
The entire carved-out route dropped off below us. We noticed that the summit was still some 1,000’ above us, above a horrible-looking steep, scree slope, notably not quantified in Peter’s book: we opted not to tackle it. The descent route in the guide book is noted as 9,600’ (probably should be 10,600’) and shown on the map to be somewhere inaccessible, but shown nicely on the photo (as somewhere else). We did what most apparently do and took the easiest northern ridge down to where we could scramble and slide through the brush and scree to the bottom to near where we started. Not exactly a clean rock climb but satisfying due to the size of the formation; soloing it, while carrying a 20-lb pack, certainly bolstered my confidence and filled me with adrenalin and glee.
The next morning we found ourselves at Big Pine. We re-sorted our gear and back-packed up to Third Lake. It was a way of resting after yesterday! The following day we hiked up to the moraine around the Palisades Glacier, finding neither other folk nor familiar water sources. The basic glacier material was visible, with the surface snow all disappeared, couloirs were empty and the V-Notch and U-Notch looked to be rock hard ice. We set up our tent and pondered our water problem; eventually we found a source some 600’ below some steep slabs and spent the rest of the afternoon shuttling water up. At one point, I realized that my hands were bright red and concluded that some of the pink algae on the snow had powdered onto the nearby rocks, which I had touched. I rubbed them on some running water over a granite block to clean them of any possible contaminants to our drinking water and successfully removed the first layer of skin. Only a small loss! Plenty left for removal during the rest of the trip. Eventually we were organized and spent a short night in the tent.
Next morning we were up and out rather late, about 5:30. We had a pleasant walk across the glacier and climbed up a short snow slope, and crossed the ‘schrund, to the beginning of the Underhill Couloirs; we took the one on the right.
There the “fun” started: the couloir was steep, awkward and extremely loose. We took out the rope at the crux which is the chockstone about half way up, a 5.8 lie back, to the right. Fortunately I had someone with me who could manage that! We then continued our slip-slide to the notch. From there the dramatic Lightening Rod (the non-summit south peak) was highly visible in front of us.
I happily lead my highest pitch yet, up the slabs to a ledge, from where we cast about for the way to the summit. The best way is to turn left 50 feet and find a corner and follow it to the top. From the summit ridge, we tiptoed across huge boulders to the summit, a large triangular block lacking any noticeable features, apparently teetering on the top of the mountain, rated 5.8. According to Cameron Burns, “of all the 14,000’ peaks in California, Thunderbolt’s summit monolith is the most difficult to surmount”. Alois pointed out the Summit Register which was now lying below the block; in 1999 (we think) it was removed from the summit block, thereby removing the traditional method of providing a self-belay, and more importantly, providing certain weenies an opportunity to claim an ascent without really doing it. Alois surveyed the scene, then, snow boots and all, stepped onto a dent in the edge and hauled himself gracefully up: the man has style! He then provided me a belay and I was able to follow him up, actually without too much trouble.
Now it was about 2 o’clock and we realized the need to descend expeditiously. We were able to rap the corner due to a rappel station we found, and then I lead “my” pitch back down to the notch. There I changed back into boots to face the onslaught of the Bowling Alley ahead of us.
Alois went ahead on the worst part of the climb…scree and rock was slipping everywhere and crashing down on us both. He sustained a couple of nice bulging bruises on his shins. We took advantage of various slings and rusty pitons, reinforcing all, and slowly descended. I am sure he could have moved much faster without me in tow. Small rocks everywhere shot down and threatened the rope, adding to the tension. Each time we found another sling from which to rappel we were grateful (and hopeful as to its integrity)…and anxious about finding another one…it was so steep and slippery.
The hours went by and the light gradually faded. Toward the bottom of the couloir, to enhance speed, we quit rappelling and merely grasped the rope threaded through the slings and slipped down together.
At one point, as we were pulling the rope, we noticed a bad cut about 2 feet from the end of it. Fearfully, we checked over the rest of the rope by headlamp and gratefully discovered no further apparent damage. Unfortunately we were not quite fast enough and as the light slipped away we found ourselves perched above the glacier, including the complex crossing of the ‘schrund below us, without a single ice screw on hand. The inevitable words came: “Pen, we are going to have to bivy!” I could not believe it was actually happening. Still, better to bivy than die, did occur to me.
We were lucky in finding fairly soon a small but flattish spot where we were able to clip ourselves to a piece of pro and huddle together over the rope. We both had hats and gloves, I had a fleece jacket, Alois did not, and otherwise we were lightly dressed for the balmy summer climate of the (daytime) Palisades! Needless to say, after about 20 minutes, we found ourselves very cold. Alois shook me most of the night, this having the combined effect of providing him with aerobic exercise and keeping me moving and slightly warmed…did I say warmed? That is an overstatement.
We managed to stay in good sprits despite being so tired and certainly frozen, and rather bruised from those little sharp rocks under the “mattress”…I counted the hours on my watch, attempting encouragement of progress reports on our torture. On occasion we stood up and did knee bends and arm exercises, which generated a very small amount of heat. We took it in turns to put our feet in Alois’ larger back pack…mmm….that was the most luxurious moment when it was my turn! I knew it could not last, that the misery would pass, and indeed, of course, it did: the sun rising has rarely caused the euphoria of that following morning when the rays came flashing over the Sill/Gayley notch.
Funnily enough we were rather stiff and tired by the time we had occasion to climb down to the Glacier.
A few hours later we limped into our camp, where a welcome bowl of water was reconstituted into hot soup. We were completely exhausted. A sleep would be nice. Unfortunately, as I had just informed Alois, I had an important meeting with a new client the following morning…we could not just stay another day.
Somehow we managed to slowly pack up camp and then descent the talus to the trail at Sam Mack Meadow. The peace and tranquility (and warm sunshine) there was a treat..for just a few minutes, we wasted time: I took off those miserable Makalus from my swollen, blistered feet and we lay on the grass together, smelling it, listening to the gurgling stream, drinking water and absorbing the majesty. Of course, the pleasure was short-lived and we continued on our hike out…about 10 miles and 5,000 feet of descent to the car, where we arrived about 7 pm.
After showering with warm water from bottles left in the car, eschewing beers due to the impending drive, and advising a lone climber clutching RJ’s Guide Book, as to the ice or dirt in the couloirs, we drove off to Lone Pine for a meal. Alois, the hero, managed to stay awake another 5 hours to deliver us home to Idyllwild by about 3 am. Yes, I made the meeting on time, but my finger nails looked awful and the cut on my thumb pad bled onto the contract. Rather special don’t you think???
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe