The North Fork Trail: Scenic Route Par Excellance
This was a 4-day California Mountaineering Club outing described as “strenuous.” So, it’s no joke. Gotta be ready, gotta be in shape, gotta have your “stuff” squared away as they used to say in my Army days. Our plan was to pack in to the moraine at the foot of the Palisade Glacier (Gayley Camp at about 12,200 ft. elev.) from the North Fork Trail of Big Pine Creek on Thursday (July 20), do Mt. Sill (14,153 ft.) and Polemonium Peak (13,962 ft.) on Friday, either Mt. Winchell (13,775 ft.) or Mt. Gayley (13,510 ft.) on Saturday, and pack out on Sunday.
I never tire of the North Fork Trail of Big Pine Creek: the moderate slope of the trail sweeping up to Second Falls, the lush green vegetation and wild flower gardens in the vicinity of the Lon Chaney cabin, and the first magnificent views of Temple Crag. All of this is topped off by the stunning sight of First, Second and Third Lakes. We then took a left onto the Glacier Trail toward Sam Mack Meadow. When climbing peaks on the Palisade Crest, some swear by setting up camp at Sam Mack, as opposed to up on the glacier, even though it adds a lot of vertical distance to your day when climbing those peaks from Sam Mack. But certainly, Sam Mack is a beautiful place to camp.
We took a lunch break at Sam Mack Meadow and then pushed on. We had to go down river a little bit before we could cross the creek and then moaned and groaned as we hefted ourselves up a long rock slab to connect up with the use trail that goes to Gayley Camp. From here on out, you have to keep a sharp eye out for the trail because it disappears readily. We alternately crossed sections of snow and sections of large boulders in order to follow the trail. Occasional ducks along the use trail were helpful.
After nearly 8 hours of humping our packs, we got to Camp Gayley, near the toe of Palisade Glacier. A short distance from our selected campsites, a convenient water source was provided by a finger of the glacier. As we were setting up camp, the familiar Sierra Nevada afternoon storm paid us a visit. I hurried and threw a large black garbage bag over my backpack because I didn’t have room for my pack in my one-person tent. For good measure, I also shoved my pack into a space created by an overhanging rock. Now it would stay dry. Good thing for taking these measures because the rain continued solid, including some hail, for several hours. I was thankful also for bringing a paperback to while away the time during the storm. The storm let up near the dinner hour and we took advantage of the lull to fire up the stoves and have supper and talk about things people talk about when they are in a setting like this.
But Mother Nature was not about to let us have a completely dry dinner hour. She opened up on us again forcing us to get into our tents and shelters for the rest of the evening. The storm continued throughout the night accompanied by a strong wind whipping the tent with a rhythm which felt like a boxer hitting the heavy bag at a very slow speed.
At our designated wake up hour of 5:30 a.m. the rain was still relentless. We waited and waited for Mother Nature to let up. She finally did so around 9:30 a.m., but by then it was apparent that we would have to scrap our plans to do Sill and Polemonium today. We voted to salvage the day by climbing Gayley, which peak we could easily do in a few hours.
Mt. Gayley via the "Spice" Route
We left camp about 10:45 a.m. The snow on the part of the glacier leading towards Glacier Notch (the big notch between Mt. Gayley and Mt. Sill) was soft and so we kick-stepped our way up to an area below the notch that provided 2 or 3 rock chutes by which to gain the notch. All of the chutes had lots of loose rock so much care had to be taken here.
From the notch, we made our way across a snowfield towards the start of the Yellow Brick Road route, which route goes just right of Gayley’s Southwest Ridgeline. But two of us opted to follow directly the top of the ridge. The creator of the SummitPost Mt. Gayley page has quoted Bob Burd as describing this top-of-the-ridge route as adding “spice” to the climb. I will vouch for that. What you encounter is some good 3d class climbing interspersed with ample amounts of great 4th class climbing and some low 5th class sections thrown in for good measure (there are options to avoid the 5th class sections if you wish). The rock is solid and its configurations give you a chance to use a variety of climbing moves. I was having so much fun, I got myself into some difficulty as described below.
Bouncing a Boulder Off My Chest
In the course of exploration on this “Spice” route, I tried to determine whether any sections would “go” to the left of the ridgeline. I traversed a short 3d/4th class section to see if I could get back to the top of the ridge by rounding a corner a little ways away. But when I could clearly see the corner, I realized there was nothing beyond it but smooth virtually 90 degree rock and hundreds of feet of crisp, clear air below. I began to backtrack. At one point on my traverse back I had both feet on a 6 inch ledge and reached for a hold, just above and to the left of my head, to continue my traverse with a little upward movement. The hold was a roughly rectangular-shaped rock about 3 feet tall and about 2 and ½ feet wide. It appeared solidly placed as I reached for it. Being a careful climber I naturally put a little pressure on it to test it before committing to pull up on it.
A little pressure was all it took to dislodge this 125 pound (I weight train regularly and so trust my judgment on what objects weigh) piece of granite from its resting place. There was that split moment where you know you have just done something very serious and where the outcome is uncertain. In that split second, I knew that, whatever else happened, I couldn’t let that rock knock me loose from my perch on 4th class terrain. As the rock came down, my chest was positioned away from the mountain facing left. The rock came down in such a way that I feared it was going to hit my chest and slide down onto my feet. The rock did brush my chest and, as it did so, I pushed out with my chest to try to push it away from my legs. It worked. The rock cleared my legs and feet and continued its crashing ride down the mountain. Close call! My chest was none the worse for wear.
Except for not being there, I wondered what else I could have done to avoid that incident. I tested the hold and the hold failed the test. At least I was prudent enough not to test the hold directly above my head.
I made it back to the top of the ridge without further incident and joined my partner to continue our ridge route. All I said to him was “don’t go to the left of the ridge top.” We soon joined up with the rest of the group that had taken the Yellow Brick Road to the summit.
Back at camp, we had a dinner hour without rain. But black-tinged clouds were menacing in the distance. We could only hope that the weather would cooperate for tomorrow’s outing to attempt Sill and Polemonium.
North Couloir to Mt. Sill
The day broke with relatively clear skies and we were off to tackle the L-shaped couloir route to Mt. Sill before 6:30 a.m. Being this early, the snow on the glacier was hard and so we had to strap our crampons on. It was a good warm-up for the day trudging across and up the glacier to the bottom of the rock chutes that lead to Glacier Notch. These chutes were slightly more of a challenge than yesterday because of the presence of ice on some of the rock. And the rock was as loose as all get out just like yesterday. Once again, we reached the notch and eye-balled our route up the big North Couloir.
Snow soft enough so we can take off our crampons? Think so, let’s give it a go. And it was o.k. But it’s a long couloir. We alternated leads and got some variety. Some leaders liked to go straight up while others preferred the “switch-back” approach. The preponderance of votes was for the latter and so the “straight-up-the-couloir” guys were reeled in. Seemed pretty steep towards the top. Ice axe a must if you want to be secure. Finally got to the narrow saddle between Sill and Apex Peak to the northwest. Good work-out.
Put the ice axe away. Time for rock climbing again. Now you climb up to the left and get to an exposed ledge system on which you traverse across Mt. Sill’s west face. The ratings might say this is Class 2 to Class 3, but the exposure, combined with sections of wet and icy rock, made this a full concentration route. The rope came out and most in our group used it, particularly to get up slippery sections of rock.
Towards the end of the ledge system there is some 4th class climbing to get to Sill’s Southwest Ridge: exhilarating at this altitude. Once on the ridge, you follow it left to the summit. The views from Sill? Great, just like you’d expect.
From the summit we retraced our steps to the place where we had ascended to the ridge. Polemonium was next on the day’s agenda. The narrow ridge leading to Polemonium stretched temptingly before us. Problem. Dark clouds moving in. But with any luck those moisture buckets won’t be over us for another two hours. At this point, most of the group decides to pass on Polemonium. Two of us say we’d like to go for it. The rest of the group says “cool, we’ll wait here for you.” We’ve only got one rope and so we need to descend the challenging sections of Sill's west face between the ridge and the saddle as a group.
The two of us who want to do Polemonium have never done it before so we don’t know how long it will take us from our position. But at least a couple of hours. That will put us in mid-afternoon and by my estimation, the rain clouds in the distance stand a very good chance of planting themselves right above us just we will be descending from the ridge to the saddle. Bagging Polemonium today is not important enough to me to risk exposing the group to having to descend the west face and then the couloir and the glacier in an afternoon Sierra thunderstorm. So I say “I think I’ll skip it as well, let’s all go down together.” My would-be Polemonium companion is fine with that and so the group starts back down.
Going down, we set up rappels in a couple of places (a fair number of rap slings already dot the rocks if you care to use them) and soon we were back at the top of the couloir. The snow in the couloir was very soft by now and so plunge-stepping got us down fairly quickly.
Gayley One More Time
We took a break at Glacier Notch. One of our party who had had a touch of altitude sickness yesterday and thus missed our Gayley climb decided he wanted to do it now. Perfect! Something to do the rest of the afternoon. So I offered to go with him. The same buddy that had done the Spice Route with me yesterday also opted to come along.
We did the Spice Route again and it was as much fun as yesterday (I did omit trying to look for a line to the left of the ridge). From the notch to the summit and back again took us exactly one hour. Going back to camp the snow on the glacier was perfect for glissading and I had a wonderful ride down for several hundred feet. Just as we got back to camp (about 3 p.m.), the skies opened up. Perfect timing. I thanked the rain gods for waiting this long. I jumped into my tent and got back to my paperback.
Beside not reaching Polemonium, the only other disappointment on this trip was that my digital camera malfunctioned big time and so I'm not able to adorn this trip report with breath-taking, award-winning photos.
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