Driving down from Mammoth Lakes after a comfortable night in a motel, René and I set out on the South Fork of Big Pine Creek at 9:45am. We had decided to go light: no tent, just a single wall nylon tarp; minimal amounts of food, sufficient for one night only; no rock climbing gear except rock shoes and a helmet each; no ice/snow climbing gear such as crampons and ice axes; and sneakers instead of hiking boots. As a result, our packs weighed no more than 20 pounds. Expecting a short approach day, we took our time. We stopped for an hour long lunch above Willow Lake, in full view of the Palisades. This was followed by a short hop to Finger Lake, where we spent another hour enjoying a short nap. We continued up cross-country to a tarn above Finger Lake, just beneath Middle Palisade, where we set up a nice camp. We enjoyed the rest of the evening, packed for the next morning's climb and ate a big dinner...
Thursday, September 23rd: The Climb.
We woke up at 6:15 and left camp at 7:25 am, after hot tea and breakfast. The sunrise greeted us with a beautiful view of our destination. I was feeling a bit nauseous at first, having had difficulty eating breakfast, but the feeling soon subsided. We made our way up the scree and talus above camp, to the moraine below the Middle Palisade glacier. The talus was partially covered with snow, making progress slower than normal as we had to pick a line that was relatively snow free. We anticipated at that point that snow would hamper our efforts on the route itself: there was not a sufficient cover for proper snow travel (we lacked the equipment for that anyway, since we were both hiking in sneakers), and the powdery layer covering the talus made progress dangerously slippery and uncertain - it was impossible to say what lay below the snow layer.
We made it to the end of the central moraine that divides the Middle Palisade glacier at 9:30 am, a bit later than we had expected, but not late enough to create problems. We were worried more about the snow than about timing. Surveying the route above us, we found a chimney system rising from the central moraine, which seemed a good substitute for the ledge system generally used by climbers. The ledge system involves walking onto the glacier for some distance, and we had planned not to do that. Instead, we had read about an alternative 4th class chimney system in one of Bob Burd's trip reports. This proved to be an excellent alternative, with relatively solid rock, moderate exposure and great (if easy) moves. It was also free of snow. We were soon at the intersection with the "normal" route, which traversed right into the main chute. Straight above us, however, we saw that the chute immediately to the left of the normal Northeast face chute was largely snow free, especially on its South facing right side. We opted to ascend this chute since the advantages of being snow free seemed to far outweigh the risks of a slight increase in difficulty. Our variation consisted of mostly 3rd class climbing with sustained portions of 4th class when we were forced right toward the top of the buttress.
About 2/3rd of the way up the face, at 11 am, the increasing steepness of our chute forced us right into the "normal" chute. We climbed 4th class rock to the top of the buttress that divides the two chutes, and dropped down a few feet into the regular route. That gully was full of snow, treacherous powder covering the North-facing rock on the left side of the gully. We started climbing this chute, avoiding snow patches whenever possible, with René in front. After a few feet, we reached a large patch of snow which René started climbing. Toward the top of the snow patch, he slipped on a rock beneath the snow, and slid down the snow patch. I was only a few feet below René, and saw him fly by. I extended my hand to grab the straps of his pack, only to realize that this would probably result in two of us being sent to our deaths instead of just one. I quickly withdrew my hand, watching him bounce off rocks and snow. I thought he was going to go all the way down, but thankfully he was stopped after about 30 feet in a slightly flatter bowl of snow. I yelled "René, are you OK", as he stumbled to regain his balance and composure. He had to do a quick check to make sure that all his limbs were intact, and yelled that he was fine. He did not immediately notice the 4 inch long wound in his lower left leg, caused by a rock scraping his leg all the way to the tibia bone.
We held a quick discussion as to what to do next, and took a half hour pause to tend to René's injury. His wound did not seem to prevent him from walking or climbing, but it was bleeding profusely. René was worried that his leg would go numb before we were able to complete the descent. Looking up toward the summit, we saw that we were right below the point where the Northeast face route branches left toward the summit blocks - perhaps only 200-300 vertical feet from the top. It was tempting to go on, but we also looked ahead at more snow patches for at least another 100 feet. It was too dangerous to keep going, and comparatively safer to go down the snow-free rock that we had ascended. We meticulously and slowly reversed our steps, reaching the base of the climb around 1 pm. From there, we set out to reach camp, pack everything up and hike out as fast as we could, so as to reach a hospital as soon as possible.
Thankfully, René's wound did not seem to hamper his ability to walk, despite some fairly continuous bleeding, so we were able to return fairly quickly. We left camp at 3:30 and reached Glacier Lodge a little bit after 7 pm, taking a slightly longer route back, through Brainerd Lake (the route was a bit longer but more consistently on a trail). I ran for much of the last mile so I could retrieve the car from the overnight hiker's parking lot and meet René at the trailhead. At 8 pm, he was at the Bishop Hospital emergency room, and by 11 pm his injury had been tended to...
You can find more photos here.
This TR's title © René Renteria, 2004.