Matt flew into LAX at 5 on Friday afternoon. I’d been scrambling all week at work and at home, trying to catch up on my self imposed chores and getting ready for the weekend. I wasn’t feeling totally up to climbing a 14,200 foot mountain, but it had been on the list for a while and the plans were already made. I was just coming off a bad cold and I had broken the joint in my little toe only a week earlier. I couldn’t walk barefoot or even put on a shoe without waves of pain pulsing through my foot - but my mid week experiment of putting on my plastic, cast-like, mountaineering boot and running up and down the stairs gave me a sliver of confidence that I could hack the trip.
I picked up Matt and we headed straight for REI to pick up some last minute items. There is never any catching up to do with Matt - just a quick "Hey what's up?" and we may as well have been living next door to each other for the last year. It's not some macho, emotionally protective guy thing - we just always seem to be in sync and caught up.
After REI, we had dinner in Manhattan Beach, took a quick look at the Pacific, then hit the 405 and headed for Bishop. I had tried to reserve trail permits a week earlier - but no luck, the trail was booked. Our plan was to snag the last two remaining first-come-first-serve permits at the Bishop Ranger Station, and if not, go anyway. Mountain Rangers don’t actually go into the mountains anymore anyway - they're usually too busy ticketing parking violators. Well, anyway, they were still available when we got there, so no civil disobedience was necessary.
At 10 am on Saturday we began hiking the North Fork of the Big Pine Creek trail. Starting at 7,700 feet, we had 9 miles and 5,000 feet of incline to go before we would reach the edge of the Palisade Glacier, our destination for the day and the basecamp for our climb. Not a half mile from the car we realized we were in for a rough weekend. We had overloaded our suspension-less climbing packs in an effort to force ourselves to go light. Had we actually been climbing, it may have been a different story, but with all the ice and rock climbing gear on and in our packs, we each had 40 lbs square on our shoulders. Matt, in all his generosity, took the rope from me only a few hundred yards from the truck when I was already hiking at half his pace.
I had remained in fairly decent shape after our recent trip to Bolivia, running and going to the gym a few times a week. Unfortunately, the loss of altitude and un-climber-friendly work schedule had conspired against me and left me weak, and complainy. Matt made no mention of it and we tried to enjoy the hike.
If the Palisade range was in any state other than California it would be a National Park. The scenery was awe-inspiring. Temple Crag jutting straight up into the heavens looked like a new age Mormon…well…temple! The neon blue lakes full of glacial silt appeared to be glowing from deep below, beckoning us to cool off in their clean, potent waters. They looked as inviting as backyard swimming pools, only much, much colder. Add the black and gray granite surrounding the trail, the red trunked pines and their healthy green needles and it felt like we were hiking through a painting.
Six hours and two inches of spinal compression later, we arrived at our camp; a tent sized patch of flat ground in an otherwise unruly scape of annoying talus. The air was thin and I felt a dizzy head rush every time I bent down or otherwise exerted myself. We pitched the tent fly quickly (the tent itself stayed at home to save weight) to prepare for the weather that was nearly about to hit us. Of course we thought we had more time than we really did, and soon found ourselves throwing our down bags and clothing into the "tent" while melting hail rained down upon us. Matt established himself in the tent and began arranging things while I put on all my Gortex and stayed outside to weatherproof our failing experiment.
The tent-fly-only concept may be a good light weight climbing solution under certain weather conditions - but hail is not one of them. The four inch gap between the edge of the fly and the ground let hail bounce into the tent from all angles. The hail that hit the tent rolled down the sides and would invariably bounce inside. Once inside, the hail quickly melted, creating a cold, wet and all together balmy microclimate. While Matt protected the precious down inside the tent, I built small rockwalls outside to stop the evil bouncing precipitation. The wall worked somewhat - but by the time I was done, the weather had passed and all our stuff was wet anyway.
The clouds cleared up just before sunset and Matt and I were able to eat outside of the shelter and in the shadow of the looming Palisade Range. The Palisade Mountain Chain contains seven of California's 13 14,000ft mountains. They serve as the Eastern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park and as a high altitude playground for ice and rock climbers. Our plan for the next day was to cross the Palisade glacier and ice climb the 1,000ft V-Notch to the summit of Polemonium Peak, then descend the other side to the U-Notch and finally rock climb a few hundred more feet to the summit of North Palisade. An overly ambitious plan even if I had been feeling strong - which I wasn't. The hike in, my "light weight" pack, and the altitude had sapped my strength and motivation. Matt was feeling it as well and we went to sleep unsure of what we would be doing the next day.
Ah yes - this is why I climb
Morning came as it usually does on the day of a long climb in the mountains - dark, cold and unmotivating. Matt and I proceeded through our usual ritual of groaning and fidgeting in our sleeping bags for a half hour, then slowly crawling out to start the stove. We pored hot water directly into our oatmeal packages and used them to warm our hands while we quickly ate. The weather had stabilized and things looked good for the day. A trio of climbers who were camped near us had left an hour earlier and we could see then on the far end of the glacier nearing the start of their climb. We pumped some water from a glacial pool and began our long day.
The first challenge of the day was crossing the quarter mile talus field which sat on top of a steep sloping glacier. "Dang it! This is not fun at all" I was heard to remark. The melting glacier caused the talus to shift periodically making travel slow and unnerving. It made me think of one of my favorite Edward Abbey’s quotes, “A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be places in their path; let them take risks, for God sake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches- that is the right and privilege of any free American.” So there we were, torturing ourselves to celebrate our God-given rights… We finally made it to the edge of the rocks after an hour of crawling, hopping and falling. Our reward was another full hour of slogging up the glacier. Here, the rocks were replaced by three foot penitentes (pyramid shaped snow obstacles shaped by the sun) and small crevasses. Still - we preferred the glacier 100 times over the cruel and unusual rocks.
Arriving at the base of the V-Notch, we looked up in mild disappointment. The bergschrund guarding the entrance to the climb was ugly. The snow and ice was loose or overhanging to the degree that we could not climb it. We tooled around for an hour or so scoping out potential bypass routes on the broken rock that flanked the Berg. Finally, we decided to head to the next chute over, U-Notch, and give that a go.
The U-Notch looked safer and easier - both motivating factors at that point. With our new found enthusiasm, we quickly picked our way to the base of the climb and roped up. I led an easy pitch of rock to bypass the berg, brought Matt up, and we were ready for the snow and ice. Matt and I had both recently invested in new Black Diamond Ice Tools. These mean looking devices are designed for steep, hard ice, like that found on V-notch, but U-notch was a moderate, 50 degree snow chute. In other words, no match for our high tech gear. We quickly ascended the chute.
As soon as we started climbing, my fatigue and altitude grogginess vanished. I forgot about the march in, the hail, the talus and the headaches and simply climbed. Kick the left crampon into the ice, then swing the right axe, kick the right foot, swing the left axe. Kick, swing, kick, swing. Rhythm. Breathing, blood flow, thoughts, all synchronized to the climb. Yes, this is why we do it. Matt, in his own world 35 meters away was by himself, feeling however it is he feels when climbing, and I was in mine; calm, energized and focused. The lifeline between us was our only connection - necessary, and only slightly distracting from the rhythm.
We placed ice screws as we climbed and clipped the rope though each. When the leader ran out of screws, the follower would collect them all and then become the leader. Matt and I leapfrogged this way until we reached the notch. 14,000 feet up, on a small perch of flat ground, we took off our crampons and relaxed for a few moments and gazed West into Kings Canyon National Park. The mountains were smaller than the one we were on, but they looked just as fun. There were a few small clouds floating in from the Pacific, but nothing bad. The weather was still looking good.
Matt switched into his soft sticky climbing shoes and headed up the north side of the notch. The climb consisted of a large open book filled with chaotic cracks and tightly wedged chock stones. He climbed quickly and after a few minutes it was my turn. Since I was following, it was my duty to carry the pack which contained water and other gear we needed higher up on the climb. To further challenge me, I had to climb in my heavy mountain boots. Because of my broken toe, there was no way I could have squeezed into my ballet slipper rock shoes. It didn't bother me though, I was climbing and it felt good. Climbing the rock and delicately balancing my way up the crack was a big change from kicking my boots into the ice for the last 1,000 feet. The motive was no longer power, but technique and grace. I climbed as gracefully as anyone with 30 lbs of gear could and soon reached Matt. Twice more Matt lead off and I followed, until after 200 feet of climbing, we reached the ridge leading up to the summit.
Matt had been sitting there for the 15 minutes it took me to climb up to him, looking up at he summit, now in view for the first time that day. With more than a bit of frustration he asked rhetorically, "Is that the summit?" He was pointing to the obvious summit far on the other side of the ridge. His frustration was not because the rest of the climb would be difficult, but because between us and our goal stood a quarter mile of exposed ridge full of lose rock. We knew it would take us more time than we had to safely traverse the ridge and it was already late in the afternoon. Without a word between us, we both new that this was not the day. An attempt on the summit would have meant we descend the ice chute in the dark and get back to the tent well after our bedtimes. I was already out of water for the day, and was not going to get more until we reached the edge of the glacier, three hours away from our current location. There was little discussion or even regret over the decision. We simply switched ourselves from UP to DOWN and began the first of many rappels.
Rappelling isn't as fun as climbing, but it's still more fun than most things. With our short rope doubled over, we could only descend 60 feet at a time. We used anchors left in the rocks by previous climbers who had longer ropes than us, so several times we have to leave the safety of the rope and down-climb to the next anchor. Before long, we were safely at the base of the chute. We were tired, thirsty and wet from the melting snow on the descent, but we were glad to be on the glacier and closer to the tent.
The remainder of the trip was unmemorable. We ate, tried to hydrate, slept, and woke up early to head out. We each, in private and in cooperation, chided ourselves for the half-assed attempt. We knew better! Our non-alpine start and poor motivation had doomed us from the beginning and we knew it. The climb was actually a great experience and ranks among my best days in the mountains, but failing to reach the summit was significant. The summit matters. Though we were only a few dozen feet below it, I consider the overall climb a failure. We made the right decision, to be safe and descend while we were still on our game, but North Palisade still lingers in the back of my mind, and goads me on every alpine morning.