Notes from the Palisades

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 37.09390°N / 118.5219°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 7, 2004
Day 1

Notes from the Palisades

Day 1: Packing to Dusy Basin

The buzzer goes off in our Bishop motel room. Three hours of sleep again!?

Our 60+lb packs delivered to the outfitters station an hour and a half late. It is our vacation. Who cares. Evidently, people who were waiting to be packed out by our mules cared.... Oh well.

Etsuko, Bryan and Jason speed off to Big Pine, leaving two cars at the NF Fork of Big Pine Creek. I am ahead of our mules, running up the Bishop Pass trail switchbacks, past many lakes, with my Camelback and light lunch. Bishop Pass trail is beautiful; more stunning than I had imagined. Mt. Goode’s North Buttress is looming…tempting. Not this time.

An hour and fifty minutes later, Bishop Pass. I consume the expansive view of Kings Canyon, chat with backpackers en-route to Mt.Whitney; I am not remotely tired. Life is good in the backcountry without a heavy pack! Two hours later, our mules arrive to the pass. Together, we continue our journey to the basin. Here is the lake where we are going to settle. What a sight of the Palisades! An elderly packer on his way out gives me his last can of Coors Light. For once, I don't hesitate and gulp it down. I never knew it could taste so refreshing! I set up camp, sort through packs; the sun so warm and the air fluttering with breeze. I pass out on a cozy, flat rock, dreaming of dinner with my partners, wherever they are. Mere dream minutes later, Etsuko's voice bursts out of the walkie-talkie. They are at the pass and are a short distance away. Is it time to eat? It better be!

Our eyes caress the mounds of food and drink: pasta with marinara sauce, eggs, salsa, guacamole, fresh veggies, chocolate, baked goods, tortillas, packs of cured meat, smoked salmon and trout,…and of course bottles of wine and port. It’s quesadillas tonight. Yum!

What is in store for us tomorrow?

The sunset alpenglow baths the surrounding peaks. I snap, snap snap…shooting photos by the lake.





Day 2: Isosceles Peak

I open my eyes; 8am. No alpine starts today...

After leisurely breakfast, we are off to the base of Isosceles Peak, a mile or so away from camp.

Isosceles has perfect geometry when viewed from Dusy Basin. Would calling it the "Cathedral Peak of the Palisades" be a stretch? You decide!

Bryan and Jason are set to climb a new route on the West Face; Etsuko and I scramble towards the peak's prominent SW Buttress.

My right eye is irritated and itching, draining tears with every turn of my head towards the sun. Darn, I forgot my shades at home! But why only my RIGHT eye!?

Etsuko leads the first pitch, the golden granite grippy and solid. She is enjoying herself and at peace. Moments later she is out of rope and up I come to take over the lead.

The next pitch is blocky and easy; I pretend that I don't have any pro. We gain the buttress and, whoosh, a gust of exposure. Nice! The Northeast face of Columbine Peak is starring at us, calling...will we have time to traverse Isosceles and climb Columbine today? Tempting but, better not count on it. I am on the lead for two more short, easy pitches; the rope drag is horrendous! I pause to belay on a huge horizontal block perched on the crest of the buttress; a mirror image of it looking above my head. "There better not be an earthquake right now!"

What the hell is wrong with my right eye?!?

Looks like one or two more pitches; Etsuko goes for it. She diverts from the buttress, going left. What great cracks and faces! We believe this is the peak's West side. I am impatient waiting for my turn as she advances. Soon I loose a sight of her as the granite keeps eating up rope. “WOW! I found a set of beautiful cracks! Awesome!” Etsuko briefly dispatches me over the radio. Will we have enough rope? Is the rope drag too much? Moments later I feed more rope and hear a yell of excitement. My turn... The final pitch is aesthetic, better than all previous ones combined. We un-rope, scrambling the last feet to the summit. What a view! Looking east, the Palisades stand to impress, Agassiz, Winchell, Thunderbolt, Starlight and North Palisade. Looking west are hundreds of big and small peaks, most of which I fail to recognize. To the north, the expanse of the Black Divide. The knife edge to the summit ridge runs south. Not a cloud in sight! The summit register is small. The last summit was in 2001. Here is the record of the first ascent team of SW Buttress. The leader of that team died only a few weeks ago in a paragliding accident. Here is another record from the man who died on Winchell a few years after his Isosceles climb. Trippy...

No signs of Bryan and Jason. Are they alright? Did they bail? Perhaps they are scrambling down? We cannot hear them and decide to descend the Northeast face back to camp. Rappel slings show us the way; after adding our own slings we are off. The rope gets stuck as I pull it down. Ugh! I have to climb back and retrieve it. The rock here is VERY loose. After that single rappel, it’s Class 3-4 terrain, full of loose rocks and sandy slides. A yell from above; here they are! Bryan and Jason stand atop our rappel station. Phew, they made it! We better get off this face soon; it’s a bowling alley.

I step on a large “solid” block. Before I know it, I am on my back, sliding with the boulder towards a drop off. "I am screwed!" I grab whatever I can with my hands. The boulder slides out under me, launches down the face hurling other huge boulders with it, rapidly turning into a stone avalanche. I quickly turn around; Etsuko's face is set with terror. A few scratches and bruises are a small price to pay for my closest encounter with death in the mountains. The rest of the descent is uneventful and we are finally walking on the lush grass of the basin. A group of backpackers curiously approaches, asking us about our climb. “What about that rock-fall we heard?”

Back at camp, we reunite with Bryan and Jason after their successful climb of a new 5.11 route on the West face. “Send the beta to Secor to be included it in his new High Sierra edition.” As the evening grows, we lay down in our kitchen; watch the stars. An unbelievable sight! The Milky Way blasting across the sky, other stars bleak in comparison. Here is Mars blinking at us, shooting stars whizzing by. Not knowing it at that time, we were witnessing the majestic Perseid meteor shower.

Despite the perfect weather we decide against the Palisades traverse tomorrow. Maybe Mt. Agassiz as a warm up? We'll see...


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Day 3: The joys of taking it easy in the backcountry

No alarm to wake us today. The sun does the job in its stead, bringing us out of our sleep at 9am. I slept much better tonight, my body getting used to the high elevation. Gosh, its hot out here!

Casual conversation and plan setting during breakfast. Jason is anxious to hike Agassiz; the rest of us are eager to chill and enjoy a peaceful day. A day without too much physical exertion, please. Swimming in the lake, bouldering around camp and fishing sounds like a good way to spend our day! After a little bit of inner resistance, Jason gives in. He won’t regret it!

Somebody has a bright idea. Moments later we take our Thermarests to the lake. It is too early…the water still did not warm up and feels chilling, uninviting. Despite that, Bryan and Etsuko are quick to leap in the water. I hesitate; the warm sun is much too comfy. I never really enjoyed the sensation of cold mountain water on my skin anyway. Jason goes in on his Thermarest, paddles out towards the middle of the lake and f-l-o-a-t-s. Ok, I am convinced. I grab a Thermarest and I am off. My hands get numb as I paddle, sending goose pimples to the surface of my skin, but I bask in the glaring sunshine, relax and they go away. It's hard to believe that we are swimming in a lake at over 11,000 feet.

Jason stops at a small island in the middle of the lake, laying down to tan his “moon”. I can hear Etsuko and Bryan’s spurts of wild giggles and my camera snapping away. After spending a half an hour in the water, it is time to get some tan and rest on the grass!

Jason joins soon us and tries to convince us to delete his “incriminating” photos. More giggles and laughs are all that he gets in return.

Bryan and Jason are off to fish. Etsuko and I are skeptical and don't count on them to provide for tonight's dinner. Amazingly, Jason soon returns with great news. They already caught two trout and the fishing is good. Now joyful and hopeful, Etsuko and I join them by the lake to “watch for fish”. The Brook Trout that they caught are beautiful. We are going to have a fresh fish feast tonight, after all! As the day advances into evening, Bryan and Jason catch several more trout; now we have five. We have butter, fresh lemon and fresh dill…mmm, we are in for a wonderful entrée. Bryan cleans the fish, filling the spare pot with blood and guts. Etsuko looks on with curiosity. At last, the fish is cooking and the first bites….the best backcountry meal ever!

Soon after dinner, brief discussions about plans for tomorrow. Etsuko makes a tough call; she will be staying back due to increased lower back pain. I am sad and intimidated: sad that I will be leaving my beloved partner behind; intimidated by Bryan and Jason’s climbing ability. Will I be able to keep up? I hope so.

Off to bed at 8pm. The alarm is set for 2:45am. Food for the day ahead is prepared, packs are ready. Overwhelmed by anticipation, I fall into a deep sleep; the deepest I have had so far in this paradise.


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Day 4: The Palisades traverse

2:45am sharp! I am amazingly refreshed. I didn’t wake up once during the night; how unusual. Bryan and Jason are up, getting ready. My hands freeze in the creek as I refill my Camelback; in goes the Gatorade powder. Snacks and final arrangements, then we are on our way. 4am.

As we hike around the Dusy Basin lakes, Jason’s stomach complains. It must be breakfast; cereal with soymilk. Not a good sign! He presses on. We reach the highest lake; time to finalize our plans: climb to Winchell Col , follow the Northwest ridge of Thunderbolt Peak to the summit before continuing to other peaks. Not being sure about the route quality, I am worried but intrigued.

Jason’s pace is unusually slow. I see his pale face in the light of my headlamp. It is getting worse. We stop to refill our bottles at the last water source. We sit down for a quick “plan of attack”. Bryan suggests Jason sticks a finger down his throat and force the bad stuff out of his stomach. Soon we hear gargling sounds. Bryan and I quietly exchange hopeful words. Unfortunately it doesn’t help. Jason calls it quits. I sense his frustration and disappointment; his ultra competitiveness getting beaten down and humbled. After quickly dividing gear, Bryan and I continue towards Winchell Col; Jason goes down.

We choose the right-hand notch of Winchell Col, closest to Thunderbolt. The talus below the col had looked awful from base camp but is actually pretty stable.

I get a glimpse of alpenglow on the eastern side of Mt. Winchell; our side of the ridge remains in the dark.

At last, we are near the notch. Without a word, Bryan and I take a shortcut to the ridge, tackling the 5th class headwall. On solid granite at last! I can already sense that we won’t be roping up much today. As we advance on the ridge, the climbing gets more exposed, more beautiful. I briefly stop to look back. Mt. Winchell stares at us with its sharp summit pinnacle. After snapping a quick photo, we continue. The Thunderbolt summit block still hides from us. The ridge looked deceivingly short from the base. After long minutes of scrambling, we find ourselves on the edge. Uh oh! Almost immediately I notice rappel slings near us. They look pretty good, relatively new. Without much hesitation we launch over. One rappel later we reach the base, the ridge continuing above us. More scrambling. Soon we finally see both summits of Thunderbolt. The Lightning Rod looks impressive from every angle!

Few more steps, the base of the main summit block looms above. We decide on the harder, shorter climb of the east side. A sling with cordelette hangs teasingly from the top. It reaches half way down the summit block, inviting yet treacherous. Bryan takes little time to get ready; changes into his rock shoes and tackles this awesome bouldering problem. As he steps on the rock, I can sense his initial confusion and hesitation: "This does not feel like 5.9!!!". After searching for his feet and hands for a few seconds, he turns to me and all of a sudden, grins: "It is 5.9 after all!" I smile back and watch him launch towards the hidden hold. On to the top of the peak; watch out! The bolts on top are rotten.

We are eating our lunch near the summit. I dispatch Etsuko as I chew my bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. It is so nice to hear her voice. She sounds worried. Jason, after a few hours of sleep, decided to do the traverse, again. He left only five minutes ago. Bryan and I look at our watches (11am), look at each other, and shake our heads in disbelief. Time for us to move on.

As we negotiate the 5th class knife edge between Thunderbolt and Starlight, I see a major drop off on the ridge ahead. Peter Croft's description is pretty vague; I get ready for unexpected surprises. They don't keep us waiting. After a few steps, we are on the edge of the ridge, looking down a vertical wall that finds the ridge far below as it rises up towards Milk Bottle. Oh this infamous Milk Bottle, so close to us yet so far! Bryan points me to rappel slings on the east side. The first rappel is short, maybe 50-60 feet. As we go down, we remain cautious and worried about the loose rock around us. It becomes obvious that we still have at least two more rappels ahead before we regain the ridge again. More rappel slings. They look new. How thankful we are! Once we rap down to the third station, Bryan pulls one half of the rope and throws it down. I start retrieving the remaining half from above. After a few jerks it stops completely. Damn!!! Bryan starts pulling the 2nd half of the rope from below us; it gets stuck as well. Double damn!!!

Making a fast decision, Bryan asks me to put him on belay and starts climbing. Soon he retrieves the rope and down-climbs to our anchor. We are on our way down again. The next rappel is interesting. It goes down only for about 20 feet and then traverses almost horizontally to the right. A new experience for me; Bryan patiently coaches me through it. In one spot, I overcome my fear and let go of my brake hand to climb to Bryan's anchor. He keeps the rope tight and secure. What a weird way to rappel! I am very glad that Bryan is near. We still need to down-climb 50 feet to the notch in the ridge. I remain attached to the rope as I traverse further to the right and drop down some easy cracks and faces. Just as I imagine a long pendulum fall, Bryan suggests I place a directional piece. What a great and timely idea. Upon a quick inspection of cracks, I place a yellow Alien and it fits perfectly! These little suckers never disappoint!

A few more moves and we are at the notch. Above us the steep and broken face of Starlight with the Milk Bottle crown at the top. While carefully avoiding loose blocks, we scramble some 4th class. Somewhere along the way I turn around to look at the wall that we just rappelled. All of a sudden I see something moving down the left side of the headwall. I rub my eyes and look again. Jason!? It took him less than 3 hours to get here from Dusy Basin and he did not have a rope! We yell across the gap and make our presence known; soon he catches up with us and together we reach the bottom of the Milk Bottle. Wow, what a peak! I have seen so many photos and heard so many stories about this phenomenal summit. At last, I am standing under it.

While I settle down for a quick break, Jason speedily solos the pinnacle and calls my attention from the top. I snap a few photos and briefly dispatch Etsuko to tell her that we are OK.

A moment later Jason is back down and Bryan is gearing up for the top. I have no intentions of soloing this thing; Bryan graciously agrees to carry the rope to set up a top rope. I repeat the photo session with Bryan and as he comes down, quickly attach myself to the rope. The summit problem feels easy. Seconds later I hang on to the very top of the pinnacle and look on the other side. What a rush!!!

No time to waste and we are on our way again.

North Palisade looks really close but I try not to get overly excited. We have yet another notch to negotiate. Jason leads the way with Bryan and me not too far behind. All of a sudden our progress comes to a screeching halt, again. I can see rappel slings and hear Jason's voice from below. I look around Bryan 's back and notice Jason's body jammed into the chimney below. It’s a total squeeze, so Bryan and I decide to rappel; short but exhilarating. At first we bounce off the walls of the chimney and arêtes. Towards the end, the crest gets separated from the wall by a gap so we push ourselves off the wall and land on a large block few feet behind us – scary but fun! After the rappel, Jason rushes ahead and finds a small snow patch on the crest. It’s time to refill our Camelbacks. I look inside of mine; it still has a couple of liters of weak Gatorade. I am not drinking enough water.

The ridge that leads to the summit of North Palisade looks clean but hard. Croft suggests going right every time the ridge gets hard, but Jason is either unfamiliar with this beta or chooses to ignore it; he tries to stay as close to the crest as possible. He quickly traverses a steep exposed face on the right side of the ridge and climbs to the base of a steep crack. A few well executed moves later he tops out above the crack on a wide ledge and stops to wait for us. I am making few steps towards the traverse that he has just completed. This feels harder than any other solo climbing we’ve done today, maybe 5.8. I look down; I immediately question if we should rope up for this section. Below me is several hundred feet of fresh air and then jagged sharp blocks in the chute leading to the West face. The move that needs to be executed involves high stepping onto a sloping hold, going around the bulge on friction, until the next set of solid holds. I hesitantly try the move; get discouraged by its awkwardness. I nearly pop off…hmmm, I cannot fall here! After quickly backing off to my previous stance, I announce that I may need a belay. Was I really meaning that? Seemingly not; I find myself back on the traverse, trying my second attempt a moment later. As I high-step to the sloping hold, I hug the rock and slowly shift my body weight over the bulge. Phew, solid holds at last! Jason stares at me with a terrified expression. I guess he thought I may not make it!? As I approach the crack that Jason just climbed, I realize that it is well beyond my free soloing abilities. I feel like asking for a belay again, but I don’t want to slow the guys down. I start climbing the chimney on the right side. Still pretty hard but at least not as exposed and with good features. After negotiating the overhang at top, I find myself on the ledge next to Bryan and Jason. They congratulate me on soloing another challenging spot and together we scramble to the summit, only a hundred feet away.

For the first time in hours, I look at my watch. It’s 5pm and we still have two summits to go. Will we have enough time? I doubt it. Maybe we can at least climb Polemonium. During trip planning, we selected several retreat spots/routes along the crest. The last one before Mt. Sill is supposed to be the Southwest Face of North Palisade, the chute on the other side of the U-Notch. If we go past Polemonium, this descent route may be complicated to reach. Not thinking too much about it, we start downclimbing to the U-Notch. Once we reach the chimney, Jason keeps down-climbing solo as Bryan and I set up a rappel. Finally, some easy, straight forward rappels without complications!

Here we are, atop the famous U-Notch. It’s completely melted until about a hundred feet below the crest. Someday I will come back and climb it from the glacier.

We scramble for a few hundred feet towards Polemonium and move to the West side of its summit block where the going turns from 3rd/4th to mid-5th class. Still, comparatively easy to the ridge between Starlight and North Palisade. Another fine summit! Jason quickly writes our names in the register. We pause to discuss our next steps. It is now past 6pm and an hour and a half of daylight is what we have to work with. Shall we go for Sill? Aside from several airy 4th class moves between us and the V-Notch, it should be easy terrain. I voice my concern with continuing up; we will not have enough time to find our way down before dark. It resonates with Bryan and Jason. We decide to go down. So, how!? In front of us is a bowl filled with snow and ice, what looks like the Polemonium glacier. To the right is a narrow chute that leads to…..?! A chute or a glacier? If the chute is manageable, it will put us directly into the Palisades Basin and may spare us from Potluck Pass. Jason runs ahead as usual for reconnaissance. Minutes later, he is back with a cryptic “It may go….” Unconvinced, Bryan and I check it out. As we hop over boulders I flip pages of Secor in my head, trying to remember if there is a legitimate route going up this chute. I don’t think so; this is not a good sign. Do we really want to commit ourselves to this unknown gully at the edge of the day? I smell the beginnings of a brutal epic. As we reach the top of the chute, all my fears start to come true. It is really narrow and… STEEP, filled with large detached blocks perched on sandy ledges and steps. About 500 feet below, the chute makes a steep turn with its exit unknown. I make two steps down and start a small rock-fall. There is no way I am going down there!! I yell my decision and back off, leaving Bryan and Jason in the chute to deal with it. As I wait for them to come up, I anxiously inspect other descent options. The heavily sun cupped glacier below us looks doable, even in our trail-runners. Perhaps we can stay on its edge and avoid the steeper area. I propose my idea to Bryan and Jason who have just emerged from the chute. They immediately agree and we get on our way. After a few cautious steps onto the glacier and checking out its very loose rock edges, we unanimously agree to continue straight-down the glacier instead. Its sun cups are deep and narrow. While they offer excellent protection from taking a long fall, their edges are harsh and frozen, coming close to penetrating my skin on several occasions. It was a good plan; it takes only 30 minutes to descend from the crest to the bottom of the glacier. It is rapidly getting dark and we need to keep moving; we still have two high passes and the entire Palisade and Dusy basins to cross. For the first time today, I feel sick. I can’t get enough breath in my lungs and it gets worse by the minute. My pace is impacted. Jason gives me GU and I forcefully swallow it. We keep running down boulders towards Potluck Pass. I can see the silhouette of the pass but we don’t have enough daylight left to guide us to it. Headlamps out, we scramble up directly towards the pass and sit down to decide what to do. The darkness has completely enveloped us. The moon won’t be helping tonight; it is waning and won’t be showing its face until 3 or 4am. Our original plan was to go over Thunderbolt Pass. Now I seriously doubt my ability to scramble up a thousand feet to its top. Also, the thought of the boulder hopping down-climb from the pass makes me wary just thinking about it. How about Knapsack Pass? We inspect the map and rejoice that it will be only a couple hundred feet above the basin. This is our path for tonight!

For the next few hours, we stumble, hop over boulders, run down occasional grassy spots past tarns and lakes; time has no meaning here. Jason maintains his incredible energy level, while Bryan and I are start to feel slow and beaten down. Or is it just me, and Bryan is looking after me? Jason has put on his route-finding cap once again, carefully guiding us towards the pass. I can hardly think anymore. My feet just keep moving trying not to fall, my lungs continually trying to suck in air; I force water down my throat…where is the end!? Up or down, it does not even matter anymore. I run out of breath. Stops become more frequent, more lengthy. My frustration mounts as I keep the others waiting. I propose a bivy for myself while they go on. No way, they won’t hear any of this. And here we are, marching again into the darkness.

At last, the top of Knapsack Pass! It should not be too far from here, but when every step takes so much energy…. I try dispatching Etsuko but get nothing in return. My radio battery is dying, maybe that’s why. Despite my complete exhaustion, I notice how peaceful and warm the night is; around 60 degrees with no wind. My compass and altimeter help to guide the way. Finally we reach the elevation of our base camp. As we traverse the ridge of Columbine Peak, darn, more 3rd and 4th class. I wonder how much more strength I have left to go on; it can’t be much since I keep stumbling and pausing. What is my capacity for exhaustion? The surrounding terrain is familiar. We’ve been here before! More stretches of hiking, more rests; we are finally back at camp. 3am…. Can I pass out now?



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Misha - Apr 4, 2006 3:04 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: broken links!

Matt - thanks for bringing this to my attention. These links should be fixed now!

Matt Worster

Matt Worster - Apr 4, 2006 10:22 pm - Voted 9/10


Excellent job!


lavaka - Sep 2, 2006 10:02 pm - Voted 10/10

Enjoying read

Fun trip report on the Palisades

Viewing: 1-3 of 3