This was a scheduled California Mountaineering Club climb of Middle Palisade led by myself and Brian Beach. Neither of us had climbed this Calfornia fourteener (14,012’) before and we liked that the South Fork of the Big Pine River trail is generally less trodden than the North Fork trail.
Due to concerns of group management over loose rock on our intended route, the Northeast face, we decided to limit the participants to six including the leaders.
Middle Palisade from the South Fork Trail
A few weeks prior, Brian and I had driven to the Lone Pine Information Station very early one Saturday morning to get a walk-in permit to scout our route. We were fairly shocked when we told there weren’t any permits available for Sunday. Yes, it was a summer weekend, but the South Fork trail? We attempted to salvage the day with a drive to the Onion Valley trailhead and a hike to Robinson Lake to stretch our legs. The hike was nice but we were still disappointed not to have a chance to do our scouting.
The outing weekend came and Brian, myself and another participant found ourselves spending a very balmy Friday night at the hiker’s overnight lot near Glacier Lodge. Two other participants arrived in the morning having taken the luxury option of a car campsite along Glacier Lodge Road the previous evening.
Our group of five got off around 8 a.m. and enjoyed a moderate pace with plenty of breaks for water, snacks and clothing adjustments. We were appreciative of a cloud cover, but at the same time concerned that the clouds were a precursor to the 40% chance of rain forecast for the area this weekend. Some of us supplemented our carb intake along the way by stopping to pick the ripe fruit from abundant elderberry (tart but pleasant tasting) and gooseberry (deliciously sweet!) bushes.
Cave along shore of Brainerd Lake
We took the South Fork trail all the way to Brainerd Lake, deciding to forgo a supposed shorter cross-country option across a boulder field. At Brainerd Lake we quickly located the use trail at its north end leading to Finger Lake up a talus field. Everyone was duly appreciative of the beauty of Finger Lake at 11,280’.
Beautiful Finger Lake
We made our way around Finger Lake’s north end and began a short traverse on the lake’s east side. We then girded ourselves for a steep 600 foot climb of a wide talus field. Fortunately, the talus was pretty stable and so the climb was enjoyable. But everybody began to feel the physical effort required at this altitude.
At the crest of the talus field we spotted the unnamed lake that would serve as our campsite. The setting was superb. The lake was ringed with beautiful jagged peaks and there were plenty of good tent sites. We had company at our campsite for a brief time. A party of three that had just summited Middle Pal was breaking camp and left shortly after we arrived. One of the three told us that our intended route was as straight-forward as we anticipated it to be.
As we pitched camp, the cloud cover above started to look serious. When it became obvious that the skies were going to open up, we were at least hoping for one of those brief Sierra Nevada afternoon storms. But it was not to be. At around 3 p.m. Mother Nature unleashed a soaking that lasted for 3 hours. She then gave us just enough respite to fire up the stoves and have dinner and get ready for the sack. At 8 p.m. sharp the skies opened up again and did not stop until about 6 the next morning.
At our 4:30 a.m. wake-up conference, Brian and I concurred that we would not attempt a 3d class route on wet rock and perhaps fresh snow on the route as well. We announced our decision. There no objections. Since it was still pouring, everyone stayed in the sack until it stopped. When we emerged from our tents between 6 and 6:30, massive white clouds covered the terrain in the direction of Finger Lake and the high peaks encircling us were also obscured by cloud cover.
Sunday morning conditions
Finger Lake seen on the return
Everyone was packed and ready to go a little before 8. We made good time back down to Finger Lake and Brainerd Lake and then we were back on trail. We took our time hiking back and were back to the trailhead sometime after 11. Mother Nature had taken away our opportunity to climb a fourteener, but the scenic beauty, challenging aerobic workout, and camaraderie experienced still put this outing in the positive column. And besides, we’ll be back.