Notes from the Palisades
Day 1: Packing to
The buzzer goes off in our Bishop motel room. Three hours of sleep again!?
Our 60+lb packs delivered to the outfitters station an hour and a half late. It is our vacation. Who cares. Evidently, people who were waiting to be packed out by our mules cared.... Oh well.
Etsuko, Bryan and Jason speed off to Big Pine, leaving two cars at the NF Fork of Big Pine Creek. I am ahead of our mules, running up the Bishop Pass trail switchbacks, past many lakes, with my Camelback and light lunch. Bishop Pass trail is beautiful; more stunning than I had imagined. Mt.
An hour and fifty minutes later,
Our eyes caress the mounds of food and drink: pasta with marinara sauce, eggs, salsa, guacamole, fresh veggies, chocolate, baked goods, tortillas, packs of cured meat, smoked salmon and trout,…and of course bottles of wine and port. It’s quesadillas tonight. Yum!
What is in store for us tomorrow?
Day 2: Isosceles Peak
I open my eyes; 8am. No alpine starts today...
After leisurely breakfast, we are off to the base of
Isosceles has perfect geometry when viewed from
Bryan and Jason are set to climb a new route on the West Face; Etsuko and I scramble towards the peak's prominent SW Buttress.
My right eye is irritated and itching, draining tears with every turn of my head towards the sun. Darn, I forgot my shades at home! But why only my RIGHT eye!?
Etsuko leads the first pitch, the golden granite grippy and solid. She is enjoying herself and at peace. Moments later she is out of rope and up I come to take over the lead.
The next pitch is blocky and easy; I pretend that I don't have any pro. We gain the buttress and, whoosh, a gust of exposure. Nice! The Northeast face of Columbine
What the hell is wrong with my right eye?!?
Looks like one or two more pitches; Etsuko goes for it. She diverts from the buttress, going left. What great cracks and faces! We believe this is the peak's West side. I am impatient waiting for my turn as she advances. Soon I loose a sight of her as the granite keeps eating up rope. “WOW! I found a set of beautiful cracks! Awesome!” Etsuko briefly dispatches me over the radio. Will we have enough rope? Is the rope drag too much? Moments later I feed more rope and hear a yell of excitement. My turn... The final pitch is aesthetic, better than all previous ones combined. We un-rope, scrambling the last feet to the summit. What a view! Looking east, the Palisades stand to impress,
No signs of Bryan and Jason. Are they alright? Did they bail? Perhaps they are scrambling down? We cannot hear them and decide to descend the Northeast face back to camp. Rappel slings show us the way; after adding our own slings we are off. The rope gets stuck as I pull it down. Ugh! I have to climb back and retrieve it. The rock here is VERY loose. After that single rappel, it’s Class 3-4 terrain, full of loose rocks and sandy slides. A yell from above; here they are! Bryan and Jason stand atop our rappel station. Phew, they made it! We better get off this face soon; it’s a bowling alley.
I step on a large “solid” block. Before I know it, I am on my back, sliding with the boulder towards a drop off. "I am screwed!" I grab whatever I can with my hands. The boulder slides out under me, launches down the face hurling other huge boulders with it, rapidly turning into a stone avalanche. I quickly turn around; Etsuko's face is set with terror. A few scratches and bruises are a small price to pay for my closest encounter with death in the mountains. The rest of the descent is uneventful and we are finally walking on the lush grass of the basin. A group of backpackers curiously approaches, asking us about our climb. “What about that rock-fall we heard?”
Back at camp, we reunite with Bryan and Jason after their successful climb of a new 5.11 route on the West face. “Send the beta to Secor to be included it in his new High Sierra edition.” As the evening grows, we lay down in our kitchen; watch the stars. An unbelievable sight! The Milky Way blasting across the sky, other stars bleak in comparison. Here is Mars blinking at us, shooting stars whizzing by. Not knowing it at that time, we were witnessing the majestic Perseid meteor shower.
Despite the perfect weather we decide against the
Day 3: The joys of taking it easy in the backcountry
No alarm to wake us today. The sun does the job in its stead, bringing us out of our sleep at 9am. I slept much better tonight, my body getting used to the high elevation. Gosh, its hot out here!
Casual conversation and plan setting during breakfast. Jason is anxious to hike
Somebody has a bright idea. Moments later we take our Thermarests to the lake. It is too early…the water still did not warm up and feels chilling, uninviting. Despite that, Bryan and Etsuko are quick to leap in the water. I hesitate; the warm sun is much too comfy. I never really enjoyed the sensation of cold mountain water on my skin anyway. Jason goes in on his Thermarest, paddles out towards the middle of the lake and f-l-o-a-t-s. Ok, I am convinced. I grab a Thermarest and I am off. My hands get numb as I paddle, sending goose pimples to the surface of my skin, but I bask in the glaring sunshine, relax and they go away. It's hard to believe that we are swimming in a lake at over 11,000 feet.
Jason stops at a small island in the middle of the lake, laying down to tan his “moon”. I can hear Etsuko and
Jason joins soon us and tries to convince us to delete his “incriminating” photos. More giggles and laughs are all that he gets in return.
Bryan and Jason are off to fish. Etsuko and I are skeptical and don't count on them to provide for tonight's dinner. Amazingly, Jason soon returns with great news. They already caught two trout and the fishing is good. Now joyful and hopeful, Etsuko and I join them by the lake to “watch for fish”. The Brook Trout that they caught are beautiful. We are going to have a fresh fish feast tonight, after all! As the day advances into evening, Bryan and Jason catch several more trout; now we have five. We have butter, fresh lemon and fresh dill…mmm, we are in for a wonderful entrée.
Soon after dinner, brief discussions about plans for tomorrow. Etsuko makes a tough call; she will be staying back due to increased lower back pain. I am sad and intimidated: sad that I will be leaving my beloved partner behind; intimidated by Bryan and Jason’s climbing ability. Will I be able to keep up? I hope so.
Off to bed at 8pm. The alarm is set for 2:45am. Food for the day ahead is prepared, packs are ready. Overwhelmed by anticipation, I fall into a deep sleep; the deepest I have had so far in this paradise.
Day 4: The Palisades traverse
2:45am sharp! I am amazingly refreshed. I didn’t wake up once during the night; how unusual. Bryan and Jason are up, getting ready. My hands freeze in the creek as I refill my Camelback; in goes the Gatorade powder. Snacks and final arrangements, then we are on our way. 4am.
As we hike around the
Jason’s pace is unusually slow. I see his pale face in the light of my headlamp. It is getting worse. We stop to refill our bottles at the last water source. We sit down for a quick “plan of attack”.
We choose the right-hand notch of Winchell
I get a glimpse of alpenglow on the eastern side of Mt. Winchell; our side of the ridge remains in the dark.
At last, we are near the notch. Without a word, Bryan and I take a shortcut to the ridge, tackling the 5th class headwall. On solid granite at last! I can already sense that we won’t be roping up much today. As we advance on the ridge, the climbing gets more exposed, more beautiful. I briefly stop to look back. Mt. Winchell stares at us with its sharp summit pinnacle. After snapping a quick photo, we continue. The Thunderbolt summit block still hides from us. The ridge looked deceivingly short from the base. After long minutes of scrambling, we find ourselves on the edge. Uh oh! Almost immediately I notice rappel slings near us. They look pretty good, relatively new. Without much hesitation we launch over. One rappel later we reach the base, the ridge continuing above us. More scrambling. Soon we finally see both summits of Thunderbolt. The Lightning Rod looks impressive from every angle!
Few more steps, the base of the main summit block looms above. We decide on the harder, shorter climb of the east side. A sling with cordelette hangs teasingly from the top. It reaches half way down the summit block, inviting yet treacherous.
We are eating our lunch near the summit. I dispatch Etsuko as I chew my bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. It is so nice to hear her voice. She sounds worried. Jason, after a few hours of sleep, decided to do the traverse, again. He left only five minutes ago. Bryan and I look at our watches (11am), look at each other, and shake our heads in disbelief. Time for us to move on.
As we negotiate the 5th class knife edge between Thunderbolt and Starlight, I see a major drop off on the ridge ahead. Peter Croft's description is pretty vague; I get ready for unexpected surprises. They don't keep us waiting. After a few steps, we are on the edge of the ridge, looking down a vertical wall that finds the ridge far below as it rises up towards Milk Bottle. Oh this infamous Milk Bottle, so close to us yet so far!
Making a fast decision, Bryan asks me to put him on belay and starts climbing. Soon he retrieves the rope and down-climbs to our anchor. We are on our way down again. The next rappel is interesting. It goes down only for about 20 feet and then traverses almost horizontally to the right. A new experience for me; Bryan patiently coaches me through it. In one spot, I overcome my fear and let go of my brake hand to climb to Bryan's anchor. He keeps the rope tight and secure. What a weird way to rappel! I am very glad that Bryan is near. We still need to down-climb 50 feet to the notch in the ridge. I remain attached to the rope as I traverse further to the right and drop down some easy cracks and faces. Just as I imagine a long pendulum fall,
A few more moves and we are at the notch. Above us the steep and broken face of Starlight with the Milk Bottle crown at the top. While carefully avoiding loose blocks, we scramble some 4th class. Somewhere along the way I turn around to look at the wall that we just rappelled. All of a sudden I see something moving down the left side of the headwall. I rub my eyes and look again. Jason!? It took him less than 3 hours to get here from
While I settle down for a quick break, Jason speedily solos the pinnacle and calls my attention from the top. I snap a few photos and briefly dispatch Etsuko to tell her that we are OK.
A moment later Jason is back down and
No time to waste and we are on our way again.
North Palisade looks really close but I try not to get overly excited. We have yet another notch to negotiate. Jason leads the way with Bryan and me not too far behind. All of a sudden our progress comes to a screeching halt, again. I can see rappel slings and hear Jason's voice from below. I look around
The ridge that leads to the summit of North Palisade looks clean but hard. Croft suggests going right every time the ridge gets hard, but Jason is either unfamiliar with this beta or chooses to ignore it; he tries to stay as close to the crest as possible. He quickly traverses a steep exposed face on the right side of the ridge and climbs to the base of a steep crack. A few well executed moves later he tops out above the crack on a wide ledge and stops to wait for us. I am making few steps towards the traverse that he has just completed. This feels harder than any other solo climbing we’ve done today, maybe 5.8. I look down; I immediately question if we should rope up for this section. Below me is several hundred feet of fresh air and then jagged sharp blocks in the chute leading to the West face. The move that needs to be executed involves high stepping onto a sloping hold, going around the bulge on friction, until the next set of solid holds. I hesitantly try the move; get discouraged by its awkwardness. I nearly pop off…hmmm, I cannot fall here! After quickly backing off to my previous stance, I announce that I may need a belay. Was I really meaning that? Seemingly not; I find myself back on the traverse, trying my second attempt a moment later. As I high-step to the sloping hold, I hug the rock and slowly shift my body weight over the bulge. Phew, solid holds at last! Jason stares at me with a terrified expression. I guess he thought I may not make it!? As I approach the crack that Jason just climbed, I realize that it is well beyond my free soloing abilities. I feel like asking for a belay again, but I don’t want to slow the guys down. I start climbing the chimney on the right side. Still pretty hard but at least not as exposed and with good features. After negotiating the overhang at top, I find myself on the ledge next to Bryan and Jason. They congratulate me on soloing another challenging spot and together we scramble to the summit, only a hundred feet away.
For the first time in hours, I look at my watch. It’s 5pm and we still have two summits to go. Will we have enough time? I doubt it. Maybe we can at least climb Polemonium. During trip planning, we selected several retreat spots/routes along the crest. The last one before
Here we are, atop the famous U-Notch. It’s completely melted until about a hundred feet below the crest. Someday I will come back and climb it from the glacier.
We scramble for a few hundred feet towards Polemonium and move to the West side of its summit block where the going turns from 3rd/4th to mid-5th class. Still, comparatively easy to the ridge between Starlight and North Palisade. Another fine summit! Jason quickly writes our names in the register. We pause to discuss our next steps. It is now past 6pm and an hour and a half of daylight is what we have to work with. Shall we go for Sill? Aside from several airy 4th class moves between us and the V-Notch, it should be easy terrain. I voice my concern with continuing up; we will not have enough time to find our way down before dark. It resonates with Bryan and Jason. We decide to go down. So, how!? In front of us is a bowl filled with snow and ice, what looks like the Polemonium glacier. To the right is a narrow chute that leads to…..?! A chute or a glacier? If the chute is manageable, it will put us directly into the Palisades Basin and may spare us from
For the next few hours, we stumble, hop over boulders, run down occasional grassy spots past tarns and lakes; time has no meaning here. Jason maintains his incredible energy level, while Bryan and I are start to feel slow and beaten down. Or is it just me, and Bryan is looking after me? Jason has put on his route-finding cap once again, carefully guiding us towards the pass. I can hardly think anymore. My feet just keep moving trying not to fall, my lungs continually trying to suck in air; I force water down my throat…where is the end!? Up or down, it does not even matter anymore. I run out of breath. Stops become more frequent, more lengthy. My frustration mounts as I keep the others waiting. I propose a bivy for myself while they go on. No way, they won’t hear any of this. And here we are, marching again into the darkness.
At last, the top of