Bailing down the U-Notch on the Palisade Traverse

Page Type
Trip Report
California, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Jun 20, 2010
Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Scrambling
9198 Hits
92.32% Score
Log in
to vote
Page By:
Bailing down the U-Notch on the Palisade Traverse
Created On: Jun 23, 2010
Last Edited On: Sep 14, 2013

The Traverse

The Palisades is the most alpine subrange in the Sierra and contains some of the Sierra's highest peaks, its largest glacier, and most stunning scenery. This is a trip report for the Thunderbolt-Starlight-North Palisade-Polemonium-Sill traverse, a classic route that traverses five of the major Palisade peaks, all above 14,000 ft. This five-summit route is often referred to as the Palisade Traverse, although there also exists a "full" Palisade Traverse (which includes the Thuderbolt to Sill traverse along with several other Palisade summits) which much longer and has seen far fewer successful completions (the FA in 1979 was done with pre-placed caches and took 7 days to climb). It is possible to do the traverse from Thunderbolt to Sill (or Sill to Thunderbolt) in a single 22-mile car-to-car push, but Mark Thomas and I wanted to enjoy the beauty of the area (and do some night photography!), so we established a wonderful camp on the lower Palisade Glacier. We planned to do the Palisade Traverse in a day from basecamp. However, we ended up only climbing Thunderbolt, Starlight, and North Palisade before darkness forced us to forgo Polemonium and Sill and descend down the couloir from the U-Notch. Fortunately, though, we successfully climbed what are thought to be the three most aesthetic summits of the traverse. Our inability to complete the traverse before nightfall was due to a few factors, such as having to scope out the unfamiliar route, some early-summer snow on the route that forced us into convoluted detours, and too much roped simulclimbing and belaying. However, that said, more often than not climbers end up bivying or descending early on this Grade IV route; most of the successful traverse-in-a-day attempts are done by unroped soloists. Below is a labeled panorama of the peaks of the Palisade Traverse, a map of the route (the complete route as well as our truncated route), and a profile.

Map, route overlay, profile:

(Labeled panorama of the peaks of the Palisade Traverse, by Steph Abegg.)
(Map of the route, by Steph Abegg.)
(Profile of the route, by Mark Thomas.)

The Approach

route: North Fork of Big Pine TH to camp on Palisade glacier miles: ~9 miles to glacier camp (~7 on trail, ~2 cross-country) elevation gain: ~4550 ft from TH (elev. 7750 ft) to glacier camp (elev. ~12,300 ft) We chose to approach the Palisades via the North Fork of Big Pine trail, which gains about 9 miles (the last 2 are cross-country) and 4550 ft as it winds through a series of lakes to Sam Mack Meadows and then up to the Palisade Glacier. The trailhead is just west of Big Pine. Due to the early-summer snow cover, we turned off the trail before reaching Sam Mack Meadows and ascended the snow above Third Lake directly to the glacier. It was a pretty easy approach, but gains a lot of elevation so would definitely make a car-to-car push on the Palisade Traverse a good workout!

Photos from the approach:

Mark's photos of the approach:

Steph shooting away
Mt Winchell & AgassizWinchell & Agassiz.
Nearing camp
Steph & Thunderbolt PkSteph & Thunderbolt.

Summit 1 - Thunderbolt Peak

elev.: 14,003 ft route: North couloir (~40° snow) on summit: 10:08 am With the early-season snowcover, the traverse to the base of the North couloir of Thunderbolt was easy. The bergschrund was also covered, which can present a problem in later season. The route took a straightforward 35-40° snow couloir to the ridge (take a left spur near the top unless you feel like adding some time to the traverse). From there, we roped up and simulclimbed along the ridge to the summit. The best route probably takes the left (NE) side of the ridge. The summit of Thunderbolt has a wildly exposed summit block. The east face looks like it would go at 5.9, but it is slabby and unprotectable, a fun boulder problem if not for the sheer drop on all sides. Previous reports indicate that you can set up an aid system on the summit block. Skeptical, I gave Mark "10 minutes," feeling that given the traverse ahead of us, each minute was just as valuable as a foot closer to the true summit. After about 45 minutes that produced a sketchy looking anchor where the rope was only held in place by a protruding old bolt pin, we decided to forgo the final 10 feet and head onwards. Sorry Mark.....

Photos from Thunderbolt section:

Mark's photos from the Thunderbolt section:

Steph getting ready to climb the N CouloirSteph at the North Couloir.
Steph in Morning AlpenglowMorning Alpenglow.
Mt Winchell at Sunrise from the N CouloirWinchell at Sunrise.
Steph high in the N CouloirSteph high in the North Couloir.

Mark's annotated overlays for the Thunderbolt section:

Thunderbolt E Buttress RoutesAscent routes.
Thunderbolt to Underhill CouloirDescent.
Thunderbolt SummitsThunderbolt and Lightning Rod.

Summit 2 - Starlight Peak

elev.: 14,200 ft route: NW ridge, traverse from Thunderbolt on summit: 2:44 pm Traversing from Thunderbolt to Starlight was mostly 4th class over loose blocks, generally on the right (west) side of the ridge. There are a few low 5th moves on the downclimb from Thunderbolt, but they are pretty easy. Many trip reports indicate it takes about 30 minutes to 2 hours to traverse between the two summits, but it took us far longer due to some poor route-finding decisions and rope drag (I'd suggest staying unroped rather than simulclimbing; in fact, in the interest of time, the traverse in general requires mostly exposed unroped climbing). The summit block of Starlight, called the "Milk Bottle" because of its distinct shape, is perhaps the coolest summit I've climbed. This was one summit block we were not going to bypass - we didn't bring along the pink cowboy hat for nothing! Although slabby and exposed, the moves were actually pretty easy (5.7ish?) on great holds, and Mark led easily up to the top. I had no problem following in my boots. To get down, we rappeled off the bolt that is on the top.

Photos from Starlight section:

Mark's photos from the Starlight section:

Steph ascending to StarlightTraversing to Starlight.
It looks pretty tall!The Milkbottle.
Steph Giving Starlight a Big HugGiving Starlight a Big Hug.

Mark's annotated overlays for the Starlight section:

Underhill Couloir to StarlightAscent.
Underhill Couloir to Starlight (close)Ascent.
Starlight to NotchDescent.
Traverse from Starlight to N PalStarlight and N Palisade.

Summit 3 - North Palisade

elev.: 14,242 ft route: NW ridge, traverse from Starlight on summit: 7:28 pm (uh oh....) Starlight and North Palisade are quite close, but there is a difficult gap (aka "Notch" or "stem of faith") to cross which requires a tricky swing from one side of the chasm to the other off a set of slings (some reports mention downclimbing a chimney and then being able to step across the gap lower, but this looked a bit tricky too). From the gap, various reports suggest taking the right (SW) side, even though this side appears to be less featureless than the left (NE) side. We opted for the blocky left (NE) side, but ended up encountering a lot of early-season snow that forced us into convoluted and difficult detours; perhaps the right (SW) side is indeed a better choice. At least the evening lighting was nice when we reached the summit of North Palisade! After the summit of North Palisade, the traverse requires descending to the U-Notch, which is an easy scramble and a couple of rappels from some slings. (Note: it is also possible to avoid the rappels by downclimbing the Class 4 Clyde variation, which descends the drainage to the right (west) side of the peak. Cairns mark where you leave this drainage about 400 ft down, turning left and traversing on some exposed but solid ledges that deposit you in the W Chute about 50-100 ft below the U-Notch. You could also downclimb the area where the rappels are, which is low 5th.)  By the time we reached the U-Notch, it was getting dark. Rather than spend a cold night in the notch, we decided to try to descend the U-Notch couloir, hoping that since it was early season the condition of couloir would be more snow than ice (the couloir is a popular alpine ice climb in later summer). Fortunately, we both had crampons and 2 tools, and we encountered no ice, so we were able to back down the 2000' of steep snow in the darkness without a problem. There is a bergschrund at the base of the couloir, but we found some rappel slings on the side wall (climber's right) and our rope just reached over the schrund. While we were setting up our rappel, some giant rocks careened down the couloir right where we had been about 10 minutes previous. Yikes. From the base of the couloir was an easy traverse across the Palisade Glacier to our camp, which we reached around midnight. I made some hot chocolate, snapped a few shots of the Milky Way above the moonlit Palisades, and joined Mark who was already snoring away in the tent. It was disappointing not to have completed the five-summit traverse, but at least we climbed the three more difficult summits, enjoyed that part of the route, and made it safely back to camp. I will definitely have to return for the full traverse, someday....

Photos from North Palisade section:

Mark's photos from the North Palisade section:

The Notch
Steph at the NotchSteph at the Notch.
Interesting Ridge SpursInteresting Ridge Spurs.
Where to go now?Where to go now?

Mark's annotated overlays for the North Palisade section:

Traverse from Starlight to N PalStarlight and N Palisade.
North Palisade from StarlightAscent.

Summit 4 - Polemonium Peak

elev.: 14,200 ft route: W ridge, traverse from North Palisade via U-Notch on summit: N/A (Since Mark and I did not climb Polemonium or Sill, my descriptions here are just general descriptions gleaned from other trip reports. There are no good photos of the route.) The traverse between North Palisade and Polemonium first involves an easy scramble and two rappels to the U-Notch (see previous section for description). From the U-Notch, it is not far to the summit of Polemonium. Ascend a series of Class 4 ledges up and right to a notch in the ridge (1 pitch). The toughest part of this section is the beginning, and the pitch ends short to reduce rope drag. From the notch, ascend the ridge, deviating slightly to the left (north) side of the ridge for a short 5.2 finger crack crux move. Above this is easy 4th class scrambling to the summit on an exposed and airy crest!

Photo of Polemonium from North Palisade at sunset:

Mark's annotated overlays for the Polemonium section:

U-Notch Route to PolemoniumAscent.

Summit 5 - Mt. Sill

elev.: 14,162 ft route: W ridge, traverse from Polemonium via V-Notch on summit: N/A Mt. Sill lies quite a distance from Polemonium, but the route is straightforward and can be done quickly. After the short Class 4 section of downclimbing from the summit of Polemonium, it is just 2nd-3rd class scrambling near the ridge all the way to Sill. Whenever the ridge gets more difficult, drop off to the right (south) side of the ridge. From reading other trip reports, the descent from Sill to the Palisade Glacier is apparently not that fun. The descent starts a bit below the summit of Sill (on the route between Polemonium and Sill). The descent route is marked with cairns. At a step/slight notch in the ridge, turn right and downclimb a series of 4th class chimneys, traversing slightly right (east). From here there are some exposed and sandy ledges that traverse to a notch between Mt. Sill and Apex Peak. This whole section may have verglas form on it in various spots at night and the rocks are loose. From the notch, either descend the L-Shaped (north) Couloir to Glacier Notch, or if you don't have crampons, descend to the left (north) side of the snowfield on class 2-3 blocks, with loose blocks and scree. At the leg of the "L" there is a rappel station for clearing the final section of snow. This puts you at the Glacier Notch at 13,200 ft. Descend one of the earlier couloirs closer to Apex Peak and NOT at the lowpoint of the ridge closer to Gayley. This descent to the glacier is class 2-3 and has extremely loose rock and scree. From there there is a 30-35 degree downclimb and traverse along the edge of the Palisade Glacier to the moraine and climbers trail, which leads back to Sam Mack Meadows.

Photo of Mt. Sill from North Palisade at sunset:

Mark's annotated overlays for the Mt. Sill section:

Mt Sill RoutesAscent routes, descent.
Mt Sill Swiss AreteAscent routes, descent.

At Camp

We had a beautiful camp on the lower Palisade Glacier, well-placed for both the approach and descent from the traverse. The Palisades were beautiful in the light of the waxing moon, so Mark and I both spent some time doing some night photography. It was fun to have a climbing partner interested in being awake to enjoy the stars as well!

Photos from camp:

Mark's photos from camp:

Loungin  at CampLoungin’ at Camp.
Sunset over Mt WinchellSunset over Mt. Winchell.
Sunset over Mt AgassizSunset over Mt. Agassiz.
Sunset over Mt RobinsonSunset over Mt. Robinson.

Hiking Out

Although we had hiked in via the snow slopes above Third Lake, we chose to hike out via a quick glissade to Sam Mack Meadows. The trail was snow free after the Meadows, and visions of a post-climb meal propelled us onward. I will definitely have to return for the full traverse, too bad it's so far from Seattle, maybe I can link it with a Yosemite climbing trip...

Photos from the hike out:

More on my website

This trip report is copied from my website, which has several other climbing trip reports and photographs from the North Cascades and elsewhere: Additional photos taken by Mark that are not attached to the trip report can be seen on his Picasa album.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-19 of 19
Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Jun 25, 2010 7:12 am - Hasn't voted


Don't you just love it!


PellucidWombat - Jun 29, 2010 2:46 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Post-holing

I really loved how my foot plunged into a moat that made it slip around and underneath a submerged boulder. It locked my foot right in there!


StephAbegg - Jun 29, 2010 3:05 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Post-holing

And instead of offering a helping hand, I pulled out my camera while Mark nearly lost his leg to frostbite... =)


PellucidWombat - Jun 29, 2010 3:10 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Post-holing

so that's why when I asked for a hand you tossed me the other trekking pole and took a step back! >:-)


SJ - Jun 30, 2010 11:39 pm - Voted 9/10

Re: Post-holing

You need to turn that pic into one of those motivational posters, something along the lines of "Determination" or "Persistence" or in my case, "White hot rage and frustration"


PellucidWombat - Jul 1, 2010 1:25 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Post-holing

Here's one from a poster, slightly augmented for the occasion:
Achievement: In life you should not pursue goals that are easily achieved, develop an instinct for only what can just be achieved through your greatest efforts - even if it just to get back on your feet.


phlipdascrip - Jun 29, 2010 7:50 am - Voted 10/10

Great pictures

as usual - love the night shots. 6mm, what camera did you use?


StephAbegg - Jun 29, 2010 3:22 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great pictures

10 mm lens on my SLR (all the night and camp photos were taken with my SLR). Love that lens for wide angles!
The "6mm" is a mistake, that's what my program automatically denoted for my little point and shoot (all my climbing photos taken with the point and shoot), which is more of a 35 mm equivalent....


Aviprk - Jun 29, 2010 1:12 pm - Hasn't voted


I was just there this past weekend. It was beautiful. We did a dayhike to Cloudripper in the Inconsolable Range. Great hike and Great views of the Palisades!


shknbke - Jun 29, 2010 4:54 pm - Voted 10/10


Top notch report as usual, Steph! Those are some fine annotations of the routes, Mark. There are few if any traverses here in CO that can compete with the difficulty of the Palisade traverse. Even 3 summits is a huge accomplishment!


scotthsu - Jun 30, 2010 9:18 am - Voted 10/10

Very nice TR

with quality photos! One of my absolute favorite areas in the lower 48. First time I hiked up to the Palisade Glacier staring at the incredible Palisades towering above, I instantly decided to learn how to become a technical climber. Second time, we got chased off the Swiss Arete route on Sill due to static electricity and buzzing ice axes (but still managed to summit afterward via the standard route). Next time hopefully will be an attempt of the Traverse, so thanks very much for the great beta. By the way, I enjoyed checking out your personal webpage too! Happy climbing.


JedSMG - Jun 30, 2010 12:05 pm - Hasn't voted

Excellent pictures!

I'd like to echo comments above on the quality of the pictures! Especially the route overlays. Clear, accurate, and you've highlighted the most important variations and options (in my experience anyway)
I do feel obligated to point out that the complete Palisade Traverse has now been completed a number of times. In addition to the two guided parties mentioned in the TR, there's team North Carolina (Adam Penney and partner) in 2004. Michael Reardon's contested traverse in 2005. And complete traverses in a variety of styles (on-site, single push to redpointed with chalk tick marks, to 4-day bivy style) by Lakey, Walker, Lawson, Kirk, Ciancio and possibly others. I know, respect and trust Lakey, Lawson and Kirk.


PellucidWombat - Jun 30, 2010 2:06 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Excellent pictures!

thanks for the update! The few guidebook discussions on the full traverse seem to be dated just before those years.


PellucidWombat - Aug 10, 2010 4:23 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Excellent pictures!

This weekend I saw that Lakey, Walker, Cianco, Lawson, and Kirk's names were all over the register of Gimbley Pk (Palisade Crest). Lakey and Lawson especially seem to be repeat visitors to that area.

I also saw Penny and Adam's names in there, as well as some other noteworthy entries. :-) Reardon was nowhere to be seen in that register, nor the one on Master Samwise Pk.

I still wonder how many people in total have done it? It seems that only 9 people (+2 from the second traverse that were not in there) actually signed the log since the FA stating that they were attempting "The Big One". As far as I could tell from signed summit entries and FA info in the guidebooks by Croft, Secor, and Moynier/Fiddler, fewer than 30 people have ever even climbed the southernmost peak of the Palisade Crest.

Do you have any ideas of other reliable names that might have been left off of the list?

pjc30943 - Jul 9, 2010 12:14 am - Hasn't voted

Nice work!

Nice work as always, Steph! Great report. Well, at least you got further than we did last summer, after we wasted a million hours ascending thunderbolt's loose NW ridge...


StephAbegg - Jul 12, 2010 12:19 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice work!

Thanks! I recall you mentioning a couple years back you were wanting to do the traverse. Planning on a re-attack?


PellucidWombat - Mar 28, 2011 7:46 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Nice work!

hahahahahaha! After returning to summit Thunderbolt via the NW Ridge, I can completely relate. A word to the wise - unrope and free-solo where you can! :-)


pratyush - Aug 11, 2011 1:28 pm - Hasn't voted

nice TR!

I did not realise at first that this was 2010 - because we (3 of us) also bailed after North Palisade the same dates but in 2011. We downclimbed the other side of U-Notch though. TR:

I am headed back there tonight, in a team of 2. Let's see how it goes now!


efunk - Sep 21, 2011 1:31 am - Hasn't voted


Nice Trip Report. Attempted the traverse in June and ended up bailing down the U-Notch as well. An awesome area and traverse though! Makes me respect people like Peter Croft all that much more.

Viewing: 1-19 of 19

Bailing down the U-Notch on the Palisade Traverse

Trip Report
58 Images 19 Comments


Trip Reports in California


PalisadesTrip Reports
North PalisadeTrip Reports
Starlight PeakTrip Reports
Thunderbolt PeakTrip Reports