A Higher CallingSkiing on the Palisade Glacier
Sierra Nevada, California, USA
In the beginning there were snowshoes.
Then one day in the Palisades the sky opened up and the mountain gods called down to me a deep, booming voice, “You... must... ski... corn...”
I dropped to one knee and cried out, “I believe! I believe!”
From that day onward, my spiritual life revolved around dropping to one knee and an annual pilgrimage to the Palisade Glacier with skis.
No doubt many others share my higher calling. We have all spent many glorious days paying homage to the Corn Gods by ripping turns on the Palisade Glacier.
The Palisade Glacier from the terminal moraine. The highest peak in this cirque is actually North Palisade (center). (This photo was taken in July.)
Sierra Ledge Rat at his ski camp on the moraine of the Palisade Glacier (12,300 feet). The head of the glacier is 1,000 higher than this camp and a mile away. (This photo was taken in May.)
The Corn Festival
When do the devout attend the annual Corn Festival?
Anytime in May or June is fine for me, but I prefer the week before the Memorial Day. The snow conditions are usually perfect then, and I like to have the Palisade Glacier all tracked out for the holiday crowds.
Too early, and it's still full-on winter conditions up there in the Palisades. Too late, and you're skidding across the tops of sun cups and dodging rocks.
Check for local snowpack conditions as they can change dramatically from year to year.
The mountain gods took a dump on us in Sam Mack Meadow. FRESH POW! (This photo was taken in early June.)
Starting in downtown Bishop, California, along U.S. 395, drive west up Glacier Lodge Road to the Big Pine Creek Trailhead. Follow the North Fork Trail up past First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Lakes to Sam Mack Meadow.
Sam Mack Meadow (elevation 11,100 feet) is the usual camping area for the Palisades. However, I don’t care for that spot. Sam Mack Meadow is too small and too fragile to handle the load, in my opinion. Besides, climbing out of that hole every morning to reach the glacier is a real P.I.T.A.
My preferred area for a ski camp is just above the tarn at the toe of the Palisade Glacier (elevation 12,300 feet). It’s a lot more work hauling your gear up that high, but the views and the ease of getting to the glacier are worth it. It’s about 8 miles to Sam Mack Meadow from the trailhead, and it’s another 2-3 to the glacier camp.
It's not fun hauling all that gear 11 miles up to the glacier. (This photo was taken in May.)
It's thrilling to drop steeply right into Sam Mack Meadow (shown here) at the end of a long day of skiing. But climbing out of this hole in the morning is a real pain. (This photo was taken in June.)
Hiking right above Sam Mack Meadow enroute to the glacier. That's Sam Mack Meadow down below. (This photo was taken in June.)
Hiking up to the glacier. The terminal moraine is visible above. (This photo was taken in June.)
I prefer to camp near this lake at the toe of the Palisade Glacier. (This photo was taken in July. Conditions are less than optimal, you can see rilles and sun cups forming on the glacier, and rocks are starting to be exposed.)
Sierra Ledge Rat at a ski camp on the terminal moraine. (This photo was taken in May.)
Mount Gayley dominates the ski camp on the terminal moraine. (This photo was taken in May.)
The best part of the trip is the gourmet dining. (This photo was taken in May.)
The trail and camp in Sam Mack Meadow is shown in red. The easiest route to the terminal moraine is shown in green.
No matter the conditions on the Palisade Glacier, remember this:
|"There is no such thing as bad snow, only bad skiers."|
I’m a purist. I don’t like tracking up the glacier with anything but turns. So when I’m at the bottom of the glacier, I climb out onto the lateral moraine and ascend there. Besides, it’s usually a lot cooler up on the lateral moraine and the view is so much better.
I’ve never really worried about the crevasses. Ski the glacier, take your chances. The only hole that I worry about is the bergschrund at the bottom of the U-Notch. You had better be in control and in the right spot when you launch over the bergschrund there.
The lateral moraine of the Palisade Glacier. Returning to the head of the glacier via the lateral moraine is more interesting and has better views than slogging back up the glacier directly. And, as you can see, the side of the moraine is nice and steep and also makes for good skiing. (This photo was taken in May.)
Sierra Ledge Rat (arrow) skiing the Thunderbolt Glacier. This gives you an appreciation of the scale. This is some good shit. (This photo was taken in May.)
The U-Notch on the North Palisade. This is one intense ski descent. Actually I found the altitude to be more of a problem than the steepness or the monster bergschrund at the bottom. (This photo was taken in July.)
Looking out across the Palisade Glacier towards Mt. Gayley from high in the U-Notch couloir. You get a good perspective of the steepness. See, it's not so bad.
The upper Palisade Glacier isn’t too steep and the conditions are variable. Here we have some stupendous breakable crust. (This photo was taken in May.)
Skiing off the lateral moraine into the Thunderbolt Glacier basin.
The end of a perfect day. Skiing corn in shorts and a T-shirt. That’s the terminal moraine of the Thunderbolt Glacier down there, and Sam Mack Lake down to the right. (This photo was taken in July.)
Sierra Ledge Rat getting ready for another glorious day on the Palisade Glacier. (This photo was taken in May.)
1. Great backcountry skiing videos. "The Dark Side" is a must see for all free-heel and AT skiers. There is also a nice video on sking and snowboarding on the Palisade Glacier, including skiing the U-Notch couloir.
2. A trip report of a ski trip to the Palisades:
Ski Mountaineering in the Palisades, May 2003
3.Spring Corn Camps with the Sierra Mountaeer Center:
4. A trip report to the Palisades Glacier: U & V Notch, Winchell & Gayley
May 22-23, 1999:
Here are some definitions of a couple of skiing terms:
Etymology: from Middle French; Middle French rando
(tele), from Latin nee
(can't), or can't tele
Date: 14th century
1: a ski that someone uses because they can't tele (common usage)
2: some screwed up binding system
Pronunciation: snô bȯrd
Etymology: from Old High German & Greek; Old High German sneow
(ski), from Greek bord
(can't), or can't ski
Date: Before 12th century
1: a device used by punks who can't ski (common usage)
2: a piece of firewood
3: an oversized skateboard
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