After a failed attempt on North Palisade last summer (2003), my partner and I decided to have another go at North Pal. This time we came prepared with only the stuff we needed (2 ice tools, plenty of ice screws, a few pieces of passive rock pro, and very little other equipment). Also due to the conditions of the Bergschrund last year (in September 2003) we decided to go a month early in hopes of getting better conditions.
We left the SF Bay area on Thursday around 9am. Our plan was to drive to Tuolumne Meadows and do an easy rock climb (5.6 or so), or maybe a short hike if conditions weren't that good. We arrived in Tuolumne Meadows around 1pm or so. Andrea (my partner) wasn't crazy about rock climbing (only does it when necessary) and prefers steep snow. After looking up at "The White Book", a 5.6 climb, Andrea asked if we could just do a day hike :-) We decided to do the hike towards Cathedral Lakes. Thundershowers looked like they were threatening off in the distance. After a 5-mile hike (or so) we returned to our truck and headed off for dinner at the Mobil Gas Station/Dinner for some Fish Tacos.
We continued on to Mammoth to camp there. Along the way we hit some thundershowers near the June Lake turnoff. When we got to Mammoth, the ground was wet but drying quickly. After finding our campsite, we setup the tent and found we had nothing to do. But this was Mammoth, something had to be happening. After a quick drive to town, we found Aliens Vs Predator was playing at the movies. A perfect movie to see before climbing (if you haven't seen it, there is a short, but cool ice climbing sequence in the movie).
In the morning it was off for Belgium waffles and strawberries, then down to Bishop to pick up our reserved permit. A short drive later and we were at the trailhead. With our limited equipment, we found the packs much more reasonable this year (upper 50's) instead of the 70 some pounds we had last year. We shouldered our packs and started up the trail for 3rd lake, our destination for the evening.
As usual the trail kind of sucked. Hiking in the chaparral isn't as much fun as climbing on snow, or hiking up above tree line. As we reached 2nd lake, it looked like we were in for an afternoon thundershower. It started raining lightly as we arrived at 3rd lake (around 10,200 feet). We quickly set up camp and then settled in for a 3-hour wait as the rain increased.
The rain stopped just in time for dinner. We greeted our neighbors and then made dinner. We found out that the rain had arrived just about every day around 2pm for about a week now. Our weather forecast was for no rain on Sunday (summit day) and we hoped it would be right. One of our neighbors had talked to a climbing team that attempted North Pal the day before, but had retreated about 2 pitches up because of conditions. I wasn't happy about this since the 40 some degree ice was going to be right about Andrea's comfort zone already if conditions were good. We had a backup plan to climb Mt. Sill via the North Couloir so we decided to press on the next day and get some first hand information about the climbs.
Early the next morning we started up the trail to high camp. This is located on the east side of the glacier moraine. It's a spartan camp, no water, and exposed to the elements. We wanted to reach high camp prior to the next thunderstorm. The climb up to camp (around 12,300 feet) seemed easier than last year (15 less pounds probably helped) and we reached camp just after noon. We had passed some small pools of rainwater on the way up and decided to go get our water there and not hike down to the glacier lake to get our water. We returned from getting our water just as the sky looked like it was going to open up with Mt. Sill in the clouds. We quickly got into our tent and began the long wait again.
This time it was more than just rain. We had hail, sleet, wind, rain, and lightning. Many times we counted the thunder only 2 seconds after the flash (probably less than ¼ mile away). 3 hours later (just before sunset) the storm finally passed. We quickly climbed out of the tent and went to meet our neighbors. There was only one other team at high camp, but a few other people were also returning from climbs.
I discussed conditions on U-Notch with a few of the climbing teams. One team had returned after climbing 3 or 4 pitches. They found water running down under the ice and returned quite wet. Another team had made a successful climb of U-Notch, but ran out of time before reaching any summit (members here at summitpost). This team sounded more experienced than Andrea and I, yet were unable to reach the summit. Despite my desire to reach the summit of North Pal, we felt it wiser to make a climb up the easier North Couloir of Mt. Sill so that we could reach a summit on this trip. I had done research on this route as our backup plan so felt we could be successful on this climb. Sunset came and it was time for bed.
4am came early as we quickly made some hot chocolate. Once again I was going to be powered by GU (very strange thick liquid source of carbohydrates) after my success on Mt. Rainier using it. We worked our way across the boulder field at the glacier moraine. A group of 4 passed us on their way over to Starlight peak. It took us a while to get to the upper side of the glacier (Andrea really hates walking on the boulders). We passed a couloir that lead up but it had very little snow in it, and the upper gully seemed to be completely dry. I thought the route up to Glacier Notch was around a rock buttress that came down to the rock farther along the glacier. We decided to go over there and take a look at it. Walking on the snow was quick and a few minutes later we were at the bottom of the couloir. Steep snow led up to a split bergschrund (two crevasses instead of one with a snow bridge between them). We quickly climbed up the snow (35 degrees?) to the bergschrund. After quickly crossing the snow bridge we continued up the snow. This quickly got steeper (45 degrees), but because of small snow ledges it wasn’t that hard. Near the upper part of the snowfield, the conditions changed to ice. Since we had decided not to climb North Pal via U-Notch we had left my ice tools behind and both of us were using ice axes (I had Andrea’s 55m axe). These conditions were steeper than we felt comfortable with without using ice protection (which we didn’t bring). I found a traverse over to the rock and made my way over to it with Andrea following.
This was also about 45 or so degrees and was comprised of broken rock (mostly small pieces) which were not stable to climb on. I found a rock with a rappel sling on it and started setting up an anchor. I knew Andrea would be uncomfortable with the rock and felt she would need a belay. I set up one of our twin ropes (7.8 mm Lanex) for a belay. After getting things set up, I started up the Couloir . I could see that it would end at a notch below Mt. Sill. The conditions didn’t appear to be harder than 3rd or 4th class rock and most of it looked to be gully climbing. Andrea didn’t like the conditions, but felt okay with a rope. Because of the loose conditions, I set the belays up next to the rock walls, and climbed out in the middle of the gully. During the middle part of the climb, I started a large rock heading down gully. We watched as this large rock (basketball sized) bounded all the way down the gully and out onto the glacier. We moved up to the top of the gully in about 6 pitches of climbing (all 3rd or easy 4th class). We found several rappel slings on rocks on the way up. These slings appeared to be very new so we knew at least somebody had gone down this route recently.
We reached a notch right below the east face of Mt. Sill. Things didn’t look right. This didn’t make sense, where was my L-shaped snowfield, where was the glacier notch between Mt. Sill and Galey? I quickly realized that we had been off route the entire climb. We were between Apex Peak and Mt. Sill, at the start of the “technical” climbing part of the North Couloir. At first I was a bit bummed about making such a mistake, but then realized that the climbing was probably more interesting the way we went.
We took a food break/rest, then left our packs behind and started heading up the route. It seemed the prior evening had left a light covering of snow over part of the rock on the traverse, which made things interesting, but not that difficult. I quickly lead across the 3rd class traverse. Andrea wanted a belay so I belayed her across the traverse to the base of the 4th class section of the climb. I found the “crux” quite simple and quickly climbed up it to the ridge. Andrea came up without too much difficulty. The climb was getting a bit cold, but I had left all but a light sweater in the pack but it looked like there was sun on the ridge. We quickly climbed up the 3rd class ridge (once again Andrea wanted a belay) for several pitches till we were below the summit blocks. I wasn’t able to find what I considered a 3rd class route up this area. I found a short 5th class section (low 5th class) that I quickly climbed up. Andrea didn’t like the looks of the moves I made and found another route (still harder than 3rd class) around the corner. We quickly climbed up to the summit blocks where we met another hiker/climber who had climbed up there by himself from the other side. We took pictures of each other, chatted for a while, and then ate. It was now around noon and we had been going for 7 hours straight. The skies were starting to look a little threatening and we thought we should get headed down just in case the weatherman had been wrong.
I was worried that if Andrea had to rappel or be belayed the entire way down we would never get down in time. We decided to set up a short rope (40 feet or so) so that whenever Andrea came to a part that made her nervous I could belay her down this section. The rest of the time we would travel roped together with a mountaineer’s coil around me, and the loose coils in my hand. The problem with doing this “simo-downclimbing” was any mistake by either of us and we would both go down. We worked together using this method and worked our way down to the 4th class section. I was surprised not to find any fixed rappel anchors here. I set up a rappel sling and started down. While rappelling I saw some rappel slings way off to the side. It appears the rappel route did not follow the climbing route. After rappelling the short section, we handled the traverse and reached our packs.
We decided to follow the normal route for our descent. We figured it couldn’t be much worst than the loose rock gully we had climbed up to the notch. We quickly shouldered our packs and moved down the hill towards the “L-Shaped snowfield”. I couldn’t find an easy way around the snowfield without being at risk of sliding down the small snowfield. So once again we dragged our ice axes out. The snow was soft enough that we didn’t think crampons would be needed. We moved across the snowfield and made our way back onto the scree that lead to the glacier notch. I looked down the notch and was surprised to see how steep it was. There appeared to be a “path” that lead it’s way around some of the steeper rock sections down the gully. Andrea looked down and wasn’t happy either. I felt the best way was to start down slowly, and if we needed to, to set up a rappel from one (or both) of the ropes. We started down the steep section and found the trail did wander down though the rocks with some 3rd class moves in between. We slowly made our way down the couloir (this time the proper North Couloir) until we reached the snow at the top of the glacier. Here we put on our crampons and took out our ice axes one more time.
My information about the conditions on the North Couloir that I had gotten prior to the climb was that the bergschrund was obvious and easily passable. Coming down the snow it appeared to be continuous snow leading down to the glacier. We worked our way down the snow looking for crevasses. Since the Palisade Glacier is an “inactive glacier” nobody ropes up, and the crevasses are very small and easily passable. I was greatly surprised when I stepped onto the snow and broke though up to my hip with one leg. Then the force of my body completely broke though the snow and I fell into the bergschrund. This happened in a second, but I remember feeling the two stages. I fell about 7 feet and landed on a ledge. All around was snow and ice. I saw the crevasse extend below me about 20 feet or so before becoming too narrow for me to fit through. I saw the crevasse extending on both sides. It was about 3 feet wide and completely covered with a thin snow bridge. Survival thinking fired up and I quickly started looking for a way out (didn’t even think to take out the camera and take a picture!). I managed to get my arms up through the opening and on both sides of the crevasse. Above me I saw Andrea in a self-arrest position and had blood on her hands. When I fell though it seems she quickly put herself into the self-arrest position (like trained to do when traveling on a glacier), unfortunately we weren’t roped so it wasn’t necessary. For some reason she had forgotten to put on her gloves and had scraped the knuckles of both of her hands on the snow/ice. I quickly threw my legs up through the opening and onto the snow on the downhill side of the crevasse and crawled out.
Now the challenge would be to get Andrea safely around the crevasse. From below I could see traces of the crevasse and from falling into it, I could tell where the main crevasse was. It appeared that the safest place to cross was closer to the rock on the left side (as seen looking up from the bottom). From below I was able to direct Andrea to what appeared to be a place with solid snow. Andrea quickly made her way to me and we continued our journey across the snow back to the talus slopes.
At this point we were tired, but we had quite a distance of the talus slopes to cross still ahead of us. It seemed the path I found kept taking us lower and lower towards the lake at the bottom of the glacier. This was not good since it would mean climbing back up the slope to the ridge above our camp. Eventually we made out way back to camp. It was around 5pm and the end of a long day, but now we needed to go get water. Fortunately the rain the day before left some small pools in rock pockets around camp so we dragged out the water purifier and quickly filled up our containers.
The weather looked threatening, but it wasn’t raining yet. We were both tired and it was too late for us to break camp and relocate to a lower elevation (our plan) so it meant another sleepless night for me at 12,000 feet (can’t explain it, I just don’t seem to sleep well above 10,000). After a long rest without rain we thought we had better make dinner before it got dark. In the middle of dinner the wind picked up and we quickly retreated to the tent. The wind continued to howl (our estimate 50 plus mph gusts) and my poor little lightweight-backpacking tent (REI Half Dome Plus) was getting pushed (didn’t bring the mountain tent because of weight and need). Luckily for us we had tied the external guy lines on the tent to some really big rocks. We spent the next 3 hours holding the tent poles that were on the wind side of the tent to help support them and keep them from bending. While we were sitting in the tent, our friends from Starlight peak returned with a successful climb. We chatted briefly before they continued down to their camp.
While Andrea and I sat around the tent we talked about climbing motivation. I explained to Andrea that mine was food. And tomorrow’s motivation was Jack-in-the-Box Tacos. I had seen a Jack-in-the-Box in Bishop and I had my heart set on some tacos for lunch tomorrow! Finally a little after dark the wind backed off to the point that we felt the tent was safe and tried to get to sleep.
Daybreak finally came and we broke camp. Neither one of us was very hungry so breakfast consisted of hot chocolate. We quickly loaded up our packs and started on down. We passed the Starlight Peak group a little ways down and chatted with them a bit. It was then time to head on down the trail. We arrived at the car around 1pm and it was time to start the long drive back to San Francisco after a stop at Jack-in-the-Box.