Tom Hartger and I climbed the U-notch this past Saturday, August 21, 2004. We hiked in on Friday, August 20th, and set up camp by the Palisade glacier lake/tarn at approx 12,200 ft.
We woke up at 3:00am Saturday and started walking by 4:00am. Because we took the tedious lateral moraine on the right, we had a lot of talus to walk through and it took forever to cross this in the dark (sunrise was about 6:10am). We eventually reached the bergshrund below the U-notch at 6:45am. I had read a report earlier during the week that the conditions on the U-notch were more likeOctober conditions, where the ice is hard and brittle requiring protection and anchored-belaying each pitch. Our rack consisted of: 9.8mm x 60m rope, 6 ice screws, odd-numbered nuts, 2 cams, 2 aliens, 2 double-length runners, 1 cordolette, 5 single-length quickdraws, a screamer, extra carabiners, and 200-feet of 5mm accessory cord to retrieve our 60m rope (Tom has done this in canyoneering; this allowed us to rap almost 60m as opposed to 30m) along with 4 rappel oval rings. We set up an anchor at the bergshrund. This year the angle by the bergshrund had steepned. It wasn't 42 degrees. I led the 1st and 2nd pitch. The 1st pitch felt more like 50 degrees. Anyway, because of the ice conditions, we made slow progress. Tom led the 3rd pitch and got really tired. So, I led the 4th pitch. Tom said he could now lead the 5th pitch and he did but again slowly. Tom ended up creating a belay anchor at the top of the 5th pitch on the left side of the couloir on the rock. I then had to do a traverse on the short 6th pitch back to the right side of the couloir. At this point, we exited the ice and were on class 3 rock, which was quite loose by the way. Took crampons off, stored away our ice tools and headed up to the top of the U-notch proper next to the start of the chimney rock climb. It was now like 2:30pm.....taking us like 7 hours to reach the top of the U-notch since I started to lead the 1st pitch at 7:30am.
There was a 2nd party consiting of 2 guys. They were almost a half rope length below us during the ice climb. All 4 of us rested and debated whether or not to keep going towards North Pal. The 2nd party planned to do North Pal like us, but decided to rap down the U-notch sometime after 3:00pm. We decided to forego North Pal too but attempted and summited Polemonium instead (which turned to be a mistake). We had class 4 climbing to do to reach Polemonium's summit from the U-notch. We got to the summit at 4:01pm and the nasty thunderstorm (which we underestimated as to its moving speed) was just around the corner. It began to snow and sleet and hail just a few minutes after we made the summit. The rock got wet as a result. We had to rap down and actually belayed ourselves down on class 4 & 3 rock. I made the mistake of putting my rock shoes on and didn't take any warm clothing. I left my boots and down parka at the top of the U-notch because I thought we'd be able to climb Polemonium and return back to the top of the U-notch in less than 45 minutes. It was only 180 vertical feet from the top of the U-notch (13,900 ft) to the summit of Polemonium (14,080 ft). I was wrong. When the rock is wet and you have lightning literally under your head, it just took us forever to get down to the top of the U-notch. During that time (approx 2 hrs), my feet got cold....my rock shoes were wet. All this time the thunderstorm was raging all around us. I kept seeing flashes here and there (not too far away) what seemed every other minute. At one point, I heard this huge buzzer sound (like on a power plant) not too far above us. It scared the sh*t out of me! As I said, it was snowing and hailing all at the same time during our descent from Polemonium. We were very lucky lightning did not get us because we were absolutely vulnerable. I got very scared and feared for my life. The thunderstorm finally died down after 7:00pm. We ended up rappeling the U-notch in the dark (9 or 10 raps....too dehydrated and too tired to care how many raps exactly.....too many though). It was 2:30am Sunday morning when we both set foot about 100 feet below the bergshrund from our last rap. Then, extremely exhausted, we searched for water on the glacier, which we found. And again, we walked back in the dark across the lateral moraine (with the endless large talus....the kind of talus you have to use your hands to climb up & down with). We finally reached our camp at 6:00am, Sunday morning, August 22nd.....26 HOURS LATER AFTER LEAVING CAMP....
"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