and I were determined to conquer North Pal after our attempt to climb it in November of 2005 got turned back due to some pretty frigid weather. I couldn't seem to tag a trip to the Palisades on the end of any of my trips to San Jose in the years since but fortunately my amazingly understanding wife let me take off 10 days to visit Jon for some mountaineering delights in the Sierras. We had some big plans including a traverse of the Palisades, the east ridges of Whitney and Russell, and Bear Creek Spire. Reality sometimes intrudes on my usually wildly optimistic mountaineering plans and this was to be such a week. But conquer the Palisades we did and it is a trip that both of us will long remember.
The trek in
Getting to the Palisades turned out to be quite a trek. I first had to fly from London to New York, where I parted ways with the Mrs. and son, as they headed to Bermuda for a weeks holiday. Then I had a long flight to LA, followed by a long layover and then a quick flight to Reno. I didn't get into Reno until midnight after having been on the trot for about 24 hours. Jon and I crashed at his place and then got a rather late start at 5:30AM. We had a good 3 hour drive from Carson to Bishop where we got our permits and bear canisters. We were on the trail by 9:30 and had what we thought were light 50lb packs vs. the 60lb packs that we had carried in on our November trip a few years back.
Temple Crag Our bivy
It's a long hike into the Palisades but fortunately the views are great compensation for sore legs. We found that we were both in quite good shape and we cruised along the trail and reached 3rd lake in a few hours. After soaking in the views of Temple Crag and plotting some future climbs up it we made our way towards Sam Mac Meadows. A few parties on the way down to Sam Mac who had done the traverse the previous day indicated the conditions were good but they had had long and serious undertakings. After getting some good beta we made it to Sam Mac around lunchtime and took a long break in that spectacular meadow. We then made our way up the ridge on the left side of the meadows and decided that rather than hiking all the way to the glacier that we would bivy on the ridge. We found a spot at around 11,500 ft where the trail on the ridge has a fork. The right hand fork led to a nice and sheltered bivy site. It was only about 2:30 at this point so we had quite a few hours to kill before it got dark. Fortunately we had both brought books with us and were able to enjoy reading in a pristine alpine environment.
We had a leisurely start the next morning and were back on the move at 7AM. The last time we had been in the Palisades we had left the ridge high up and climbed towards Mount Gayley before dropping down to the lake. That had involved a lot of boulder hopping so we were hoping to find a better way to the lake on this trip. Well we got lucky and found a comparatively easy way to the glacier. We basically continued right past our bivy site and headed directly above Sam Mac. Then we followed a ravine and soon ended up climbing a big pile of sand and scree which put us just above the lake. From there we had to do some boulder hopping to get down to the lake and we ended up camping at on a platform that supports 2 tents. The same one we had camped on a few years back. After setting up camp we made a quick jaunt up Mount Gayley, from our vantage point on the summit we scoped out our route across the Palisade ridge as well as the exit from the glacier onto Thunderbolt.
Early morning and no headlamp
After spending a hot and clammy night in 15 degree down bags and bivys we got up at 3:30AM and had breakfast, hitting the talus by 4. Jon's headlamp died just a few minutes after leaving camp so we had to make due with my headlamp between the two of us. This got a bit tricky as we had lots of boulder hopping to do. But we soon made our way to the top of the moraine behind the lake and then headed back towards the glacier along the top of the buttress that forms the right rampart surrounding the lake. We made quick but careful work of the buttress and upon reaching the glacier we donned our crampons and made our way up the ice towards the Underhill Coulior.
Near the top of the Underhill Jon on top of the Underhill
Its hard to beat seeing the sun rise in the mountains and we had great views over the Eastern Sierras as the sun began to cast it rays in our direction. Ahead of us rose the bergshrund that cleaved the glacier away from the steep flanks of Thunderbolt. We had assiduously scouted out the berg from our vantage point on the summit of Gayley the day before and thought we had spied a snow bridge that we could cross just to the left of the Underhill Couloir. Sure enough once we reached the berg the bridge was intact and looked nice and solid. I belayed Jon across it and soon joined him on the sandy ledges at the base of the Underhill Couloir. We packed up the rope here had a bite to eat and soon made our way up the couloir. The lower section of the couloir was quite sandy so even though it was only class 3 we had to be careful as it could be difficult to find stable foot holds in some sections. The sand petered out after a couple of hundred feet and the rest of the way up was a fun scramble. About 2/3 rds of the way up the couloir is blocked by a big chockstone. The chockstone bulges out of the couloir and is a bit awkward to surmount when you have a pack on. But Jon found a route up the right hand side and I soon joined him. From here it was easy scrambling to the saddle that separates Thunderbolt from Starlight.
Once we reached the top of the couloir we scrambled a couple of hundred feet up some 40 degree slabs. At the top of the slabs is a ledge. We traversed right across the top of the ledge and soon came to a 10 ft gap with a long drop below it; fortunately the face rising above the gap had a few footholds on it and we were able to traverse across the face to the base of the 4th class chimney which leads to the summit. I led the way up the chimney and we both noted the position of rappel slings along the way to make our return a little easier. Once at the top of the chimney, we had a bit of scrambling to do before reaching the famed 5.9 summit block at 7AM. We didn't have any rock shoes with us and neither one of us really cares for aid climbing so we had to make do with topping out about 10ft below the true summit. The summit itself offered spectacular views of the rest of the crest and we took a few minutes to pick out the line that we would climb the rest of the day.
After signing the register we made our way back to the chimney and set up a rappel. Jon led the way and I followed him down. Unfortunately when he pulled the rope down it got stuck about 30 ft above us so he climbed up and fetched it down. We then had one more rappel to reach the gap that separates the chimney from the slabs. From there we made quick work of the traverse and began our descent of the slabs. Having an 8 month old son was beginning to effect my risk analysis and I decided to have Jon belay me down the slabs. It seems embarrassing now as they were quite easy but at the time it did give me a great piece of mind. Thankfully, Jon is a patient climbing partner and he didn't mind the delay. Once reaching the bottom of the slabs we crossed the top of the Underhill and made our way up the ridgeline towards Starlight.
Jon at the summit register on T-bolt, with Starlight rising beyond On top of T-bolt
The traverse to Starlight Jon on the Milkbottle
We followed the top of the blocky ridgeline that runs between T-bolt and Starlight as much as we could but we ran into a headwall near the top of Starlight. We found a way around the left side of the headwall and were able to climb a chimney that led to the summit. And what a summit! Starlight must have one of the most distinctive summits in the Sierras. Jon had a crack at leading it and was soon on top of the Milkbottle, the most precarious summit either one of us had ever been on. He enjoyed the views for a few minutes and then rapped of and belayed me up.
After rapping of the Milkbottle we rehydrated and ate some granola bars and gummy bears to try and replinish some calories. I always have a hard time eating in the mountains and this was no exception. Fortunately I managed to consume a couple hundred calories before we began the next stage of our traverse.
Jon on N. Pal On top of North Pal
Ahead of us lay our most challenging part of the day, the traverse from Starlight to the summit of North Pal. We headed down the left hand side of the ridge and had to downclimb a 20 ft cliff just below the summit of Starlight. From there we traversed a little further along the ridge until we got to a gap that separated Starlight from North Pal. It looked pretty steep here so we decided to rap of the gap and into the Clyde Couloir. We found a precarious track across the coulouir about 50 ft below the end of our rap so we headed down to it and gingerly crossed the couloir without any crampons on. From there we had to gain about 300 ft of elevation to reach the summit. Most of the climbing was 4th class but we ran into a few short sections that were low 5th class. Jon led one rope length and I led the next. In general the climbing was up cracks and corners that were interspersed with ledges. The climbing wasn't difficult but the exposure was tremendous. We had close to a 2000 ft drop down the face between us and the glacier.
Jon rapping into the U-Notch
The route finding on the face wasn't the most obvious but as I was nearing the end of my lead I heard some voices above me and saw a head poke out over the face directly above me. I was stoked to hear him say that he was on the summit so I belayed Jon up and we made a quick last scramble up to the summit to enjoy our highest peak of the day. There were 2 retired guys on the summit who had climbed up 3rd class route up the other side of the mountain. They had scrambled the last bit up to the summit but one of them felt uncomfortable on the downclimb so Jon placed a cam and set up a quick belay for him. Jon soon joined me on the summit where we enjoyed the views from the king of the Palisades. It felt great to be on top of North Pal. Jon and I had both wanted to climb it for a long time and we certainly enjoyed having reached the summit as part of the Palisade Traverse.
We left the summit at about 1 PM and traversed across the top of the face and down the ridge a ways until we reached the U-Notch couloir. We decided to rap down into the couloir rather than down climb a 5th class chimney. It took us 2 raps to get down and fortunately the rope didn't get stuck this time.
On top of Polemonium Jon on the summit
We took a break in the sweltering U-notch to eat and rehydrate. Bad luck to Jon, he dropped a water bottle here and it started rolling down the couloir. Fortunately it stopped after about 50 ft. We would have been in tough shape if he lost it as we were starting to run low on water. Once Jon retrieved his bottle we climbed up about 50 ft to reach the top of the couloir and then we made our way across to the base of Polemonium. The route we picked out looked like it might be 5th class so we roped up and Jon led a full rope length up a series of cracks, chimneys and ledges. I was getting pretty cold belaying him as the belay station was totally in the shade so I was more than ready to join him once I got my chance to climb. After reaching him he led another pitch up some ledges and huge boulders. I took over on the next lead and climbed up a gully and a headwall to reach the summit. We met another party that were coming up from Mt. Sill just as I finished belaying Jon up. They told us they had started their traverse the day before and had bivied high up on the ridge somewhere near the U-Notch and were finishing their traverse today.
Polemonium itself seems a bit insignificant but the summit afforded us incredible close up views of North Pal and Starlight. From the summit we had to either downclimb or rappel an arête to reach a small col. I ended up having Jon belay me down and then he downclimbed the arête to reach the col.
Jon signing the register Finally, on top of Sill
Once in the col we were confronted with a large headwall that formed the start of the next portion of the ridge. We found a way to traverse left around the headwall and soon ended up on the ridge proper, from there it was a long 2nd class traverse to reach the summit of Sill. We were both getting pretty hot and tired at this point so we took a break halfway along the ridgeline to eat and drink some of what remained of our dwindling water supply. We kept trudging on and after a 1/4 mile or so we reached the base of Mt.Sill where we ditched our packs and began the scramble to the summit. It took about 10 minutes to reach our last summit of the day. Sill commanded some great views across the whole crest as well as of Middle Palisade and Mount Gayley but we didn't stay too long on the summit as it was slightly after 4PM and we were more than ready to get back to camp.
We made quick work of the scramble down to the base of Sill and then we worked our way down the face to the descent route. I was feeling a bit weak at the time so we decide to rap down the upper 4th class portion of the descent route rather than downclimb it. At the bottom of the rap we had a short traverse across some sandy slopes to reach the L couloir which we would descend the reach Glacier Notch. Most of the upper portion of the couloir was free of snow so we had to slog down some pretty sketchy sand and scree. I lost my footing at one point on a loose slab and took a bit of a slide but fortunately I had my ice-axe out and arrested my fall pretty quickly. Once we had descended a couple of hundred feet we reached some snow, put our crampons on quickly and then descended the sun-capped couloir.
We had been out of water since the summit of Sill so we were both craving a drink at this point. Frustratingly we could hear all sorts of streams running under the talus at the base of the couloir but we just couldn't seem to find them. Rather than fruitlessly digging through the talus we headed towards Glacier Notch and descended the 2nd class gully there to gain the Palisade Glacier. We found a nice clear stream high up on the glacier and refilled our bottles there. Once we had drank our fill we made a quick descent down the glacier. It was getting to be after 5PM at this point and we saw signs of rockfall so we bogeyed down the glacier as quickly as we could. We got to back to camp at 5:30 and gladly kicked off our boots and crashed on our sleeping bags until we felt up to cooking some dinner.
The Palisade crest from Sill to Thunderbolt
A journey's end
After dinner we had a few yours of daylight left and then hit the hay. I had been getting really hot sleeping in my 15 degree sleeping bag and bivy so I decided to try sleeping totally under the stars that night and forget the bivy. Murphy's Law intruded though and it started raining at about 1AM. I furiously searched for my bivy and dove into it as fast as I could at which point I realized it was inside out. I then spent a few steamy hours inside the bivy before the rain stopped but at least my down bag stayed fairly dry.
Sam Mac Meadows Sam Mac Meadows
Later that morning we had a leisurely breakfast at 6AM and packed up camp around 7. Neither one of us was looking forward to carrying 50lb packs on the 8 mile hike out. But we were still on a high from our previous day's climb and were able to forget our sore knees for a little while.
To get back to Sam Mac we scrambled across boulders to the top of the moraine directly behind the lake. We then downclimbed a treacherous scree and sand slope to gain the gully that would lead us back to Sam Mac ridge. Bizarrely enough this was the most dangerous climbing we did on the trip. We each had heavy packs on and had to try to balance on the steep and slippery slope. I stepped on a really loose pile of scree at one point and fell pretty heavily on my backside. Unfortunately my thumb caught a rock when I landed and ripped a large and bloody portion of my finger nail off. We were extra careful from that point and reached the bottom of the slope in about 10 minutes. From there we picked up the ravine and walked down to our bivy site from our first night were we then gained the trail back down to Sam Mac. We took a long break at Sam Mac to refill our water bottles and eat another breakfast before starting the long descent to the trailhead.
Thanks to Jon's Alieve our knees weren't feeling too bad but the descent from the Palisades is never a fun one and we made firm declarations that we wouldn't be coming back to the Palisades for quite a few years now that we had managed to knock off the Palisade traverse. The Palisades are a tremendous range but you sure have to work hard to earn your summits. The traverse itself was a great alpine climb and was probably most committing climb Jon and I had ever done together. I always have a great time climbing with Jon and it is a fine thing to be able to share a love of the outdoors with family.
Well the Palisades sure were an inspiration and we know that there are all sorts of mountains still waiting for us in the Sierras. They were also a good indicator of our ability to be able to do long alpine routes. We were feeling confident on the way down that we would be able to tackle Whitney and Russell. But as fate would have it this was to be the end of our trip as far as big mountains were concerned. Once we got back down to Bishop the rangers told us a weather front was moving in across the Sierras that was likely to bring in a lot of thunderstorms. They strongly recommended staying out of the high Sierra until the storm passed. We still had 5 days left on our trip and we weren't about to spend it lounging around Carson so we spent the rest of our days cragging and climbing smaller peaks. It wasn't what we had originally planned but we still had a great time and the feeling of accomplishment that we got after climbing the traverse was enough to get us over our disappointment at not being able to climb Whitney.