The east side of the Palisades offers some of the best alpine climbing in California. Aside from some of the classic rock routes such as the Swiss Arête up Mount Sill and the Starlight Buttress, three conspicuous couloirs stem up from the Palisade glacier which provide some of the nicest ice climbing routes in the Sierra. The most frequently climbed U-notch Coulior (arguably one of the most classic routes in the range) climbs to the notch between Polemonium and North Pal; the slightly steeper and more seldom ascended V-notch Couloir tops at the ridge crest between Sill and Polemonium. The Clyde Couloir stems up from the glacier just north of the U-notch and reaches up to the divide between North Pal and Starlight Peak. Steeper and narrower than the U and the V, the Clyde Coulior is the least frequently climbed of the three. Nonetheless, under ideal conditions this route provides a great mixture of ice and rock to make it another Sierra classic.
Getting ThereThe Palisade glacier is best approached from the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. From Big Pine, take the road up to the old Glacier Lodge. Trailhead parking is paved and there is overflow parking slightly higher. The approach is straight forward over trail which winds past the Big Pine Ranger cabin, Second Lake, Third Lake and then forks. Follow the fork to the left (sign reads to "Glacier Trail") up to Sam Mack meadows. Here you have three main options:
1) camp at Sam Mack (not recommended by fbagni or physics); a good source of water is here and nice camps sit north of the creek. The problem is the extra distance from the glacier makes for a long summit day
2) climb the short cut up to the glacier moraine which exits Sam Mack meadow due south; this option is only available if there is considerable snow cover over the creek and up the hill; best to camp on the moraine or on the glacier even; again this is only doable with a lot of snow cover, if not go the regular way below:
3)hike up the rest of the normal trail which exits Sam Mack to the east; camp at Galey/Glacier camp
From either one of these, it is easy to get on and cross the glacier to get to the base of the climb
The crux of the climb is likely going to be getting onto the route. The bergshrund separating the Clyde Couloir from the Palisade glacier is usually wider and steeper than the U or V's. Depending up the year and season, the climbing can range from WI-3 to WI-5 just to get on route. To get onto the Starlight buttress, many have reported cimbed it to the left but depending upon year it can also be passed on the right making use of the rocks.
Once above the berg, climb up the middle of the coulior bearing to the right side to avoid the rock/ice fall which is more persistent to the left. During early season it is nice neve at bottom with areas of water ice nearer the top and later season it is all ice.
3 pitches up the couloir leads to a rock impasse; at this point the best of the ice is completed and there are multiple options to continue. One can continue up the middle climbing over the rocks (light 5) to find another patch of snow/neve/ice that leads up to the N.Pal-Starlight notch (3 pitches). Or one can scramble up the rocks to the right (class 3) and from here either climb back into the couloir and up or climb the easy 5.4 rock up the NW face (about 2 pitches).
From the N.Pal-Starlight notch, get over to the milk bottle (if you go around the east side way it is no more difficult than 5.4 with some down climbing). Climb the milk bottle, rap down, sign the register, return the way you came. There are some rap stations on the north side along the rock of the clyde couloir. Use these but use caution as always with used slings.
Essential GearGo light and fast and just bring the essentials: helmet (most important), two tools, crampons, 4-6 screws, and a light rock rack. when climbing this route physics used only two cams (sizes 1 and 2) and a few hexes and nuts. If you bring just a handful of nuts (4-11) and hexes (3-7) you should be fine. bring slings for raps though and plenty of long alpine draws. and again, don't forget the helmet! If you forget your helmet at home, don't climb this route.
External LinksA nice picture of the Clyde Couloir up starlight can be found at this link:
Word of CautionClimbing is inherently dangerous. Some routes are more so than others. More than a few years ago, at least two individual parties suffered fatalities while on this route. These were attributed to a combination of rock fall, ice fall, and rotten ice. Because of this, the Clyde Coulior has received a reputation of being dangerous and risky. This is clearly stated in Burns and Porcella 14ers book and also in Secor's. As a result the route has since been seldom visited and most route descriptions suggest leaving the couloir as soon as possible for the buttress. It is the opinion of these authors (physics and fbagni) that the route under ideal conditions (we climbed during in late summer after a very heavy snow year) is not as bad as its history has given it.
but the above does merit a discussion:
The amount of rock fall on this route is just as comparable to that in the U-notch and V-notch; but unfortunately the clyde couloir is substantially narrower so there is a greater chance of getting hit if it does come down: therefore get in and out of the couloir as early as possible to avoid this chance.
As for ice fall; there is a part of the couloir about 2 pitches in up on the left hand wall where water runs down the wall (melting off the N. Pal snow field) and freezes on the wall at night forming a sheet of ice; during the day the sun hits it and likewise it breaks off in pieces as it melts. When we climbed, consistently about every 10-12 minutes ice from here would break off and come down the couloir. The pieces were usually no bigger than 2 inches in size but that is not saying under other circumstances they could be more massive.
As for the rotten ice, we cannot vouch for this because all we came across was the nicest neve and good ice up top.
again, as with any mountain climbing be safe exercising good judgment, wear helmets and remember that expensive gear is no substitute for experience.