I had been intrigued on doing the Palisade Traverse for sometime ever since reading Bob Burd’s harrowing trip report from his 2002 Sierra Challenge. It had been on Augie’s checklist since August 2003 when Climbing magazine featured it as one of “America’s 4 Best Ridge Traverses.” I had attempted to climb Thunderbolt the year before but my partner and I had failed to “lasso” the summit block and we departed defeated.
To succeed this year, I enlisted the help of two friends that I had met over the last couple of years hiking and scrambling. Glenn has done most of the traverse already and had the necessary rock climbing skills to lead the summit blocks; Augie had climbed Mt Sill from our preferred exit point. After much deliberation, we had decided to follow the lead of others and use a car shuttle to enter via Bishop Pass and exit via Big Pine. Glenn and I had both experienced the reverse talus traverse back to Bishop Pass and elected not to repeat that path. At the time, we didn’t understand Augie’s reluctance with exiting via Big Pine TH – something we would understand by the end of the trip.
THE APPROACH AND THUNDERBOLT PEAK (14,003')
The alarm woke us in our comfortable motel beds in Bishop at 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning. I had managed to get about 4 hours of sleep; the others (as I found out later) much less. We quickly got ready, drove to the Bishop Pass trailhead, and were hiking by just before 2 a.m. We made reasonable time up to the pass, occasionally stopping for logistical reasons (eat, replace headlamp batteries, etc.), and filled our water bottles at the small lake by the pass. Our first obstacle was navigating the granite ledge slope of upper Dusy Basin, usually a challenge during daylight hours. Glenn successfully discovered a ledge system that ran most of the way to our target, Thunderbolt Pass, and led us under a moonless black sky.
Bishop Pass Trailhead 1:30 am; Tom (L) and Glenn
About half way across, the faint glow of the rising sun helped guide us the remaining way to the pass. Our unimpressive speed of 4.5 hours to this point didn’t favor a timely completion of our goal but we tackled Thunderbolt’s steep and loose SW Chute #1 with all of the vigor that limited sleep can afford. We scrambled ever upwards trying not cascade rocks on friends below, then moved into the next chute via a ledge system when a chock stone blocked further progress, and finally conquered the 100’ class 4 headwall at the notch between the twin summits. Just after 8 am., the three of us stood grinning under the perilously perched summit block, soaking in the sunshine and the fantastic views around us.
Exposure galore on T-Bolt's SW Chute #1
Looking down over ridge at lake near T-Bolt's summit
Panorama near T-Bolt's summit
Glenn had topped the longer 5.8 side of the summit block before, but he was eager to lead the challenging 5.9 side this time. For Tom and I, virtually any way to get to the top was an aspiration. We eye-balled the block like cognoscenti examining a painting: Thirty feet high on the west side and only fifteen feet on its east side. But it’s readily apparent why most people opt to ascend the longer side. The short side has no apparent bottom if you peel off.
Top portion of T-Bolt's 5.9 summit block
Glenn and Tom pleased after getting up summit block
Glenn was up to the challenge and led the block in great form after having spent a little time coming up with a sure-fire initial move to get onto the summit block. Getting onto the block basically would be the crux for all three of us. Glenn then threaded the rope through the carabiner/ bolt anchor at the top and I lowered him. I then tied in while Glenn set up to belay me. Glenn’s belay was not directly underneath me so a fall would mean a pendulum. Actually, all the belay would accomplish would be to keep a falling body from going all the way down the mountain.
I spent a couple of minutes working up to that first move to get onto the block. After I was on, I probably spent the most time evaluating how to make the second move. After that, my rhythm was pretty smooth to the top. After Glenn lowered me, both of us had to do a little coaxing to get Tom to give it a go. He persevered and made it up in good form. We had the photo/video op and turned our attention to getting to Starlight.
En route to Starlight, we could see two climbers who were right behind us on the traverse eyeing T-Bolt's summit block. The summit block is the lower protrusion dead center and the climbers are just to the right of it.
T-BOLT TO STARLIGHT (14,200'): BACK TO BACK SUMMIT BLOCKS
Starlight's 5.6 Summit Block ("Milk Bottle")
Register Box, Starlight Peak
We all enjoyed the descent from T-Bolt into the notch and started the 4th class ascent to the ridge. I led most of the way including to the bottom of the Milk Bottle. In the process, I found a rather spicy route that included a few 5th class moves, some chimney climbing and otherwise what Glenn and Tom referred to as “an Augie variation.”
Descending T-Bolt's Class 4 Chimney
Augie (L) and Glenn descending final granite slabs from T-Bolt's summit to Underhill Couloir
We came up just left of the 5.6 summit block. The summit block is an awesome sight from a distance rising like a needle in the middle of Starlight’s summit area. It is no less impressive up close. It is noticeably shorter and less difficult than T-Bolt’s block. So when Glenn handed me the sharp end and said I should lead it, I didn’t hesitate too long even though I’ve had little experience trad climbing. I do have kind of an instinct for making effective moves on rock and I got up relatively quickly. I threaded the rope at the top and Glenn positioned himself at the bottom for a belay of Tom. Tom also got up quickly and we were all stoked at having gotten on top of both summit blocks.
Augie attaching himself to the anchor after leading the Milk Bottle
Tom being bottom-roped on Starlight's Milk Bottle
Tom on top of Milk Bottle
Augie on Milk Bottle's tippy-top
STARLIGHT TO NORTH PAL (14,242'): HIGH POINT ON THE RIDGE
Daylight was burning so we quickly packed up and headed back down the way we approached the Milk Bottle. Dropping 50’, we headed south over the SW shoulder and started down climbing a steep wall. Realizing that rappelling would be faster than down climbing with three people, Glenn set up the rope (using a handy established rap station) and we quickly rapped onto a ledge below.
Augie (top) and Glenn down climbing steep chimney en route to North Pal
View of Palisade area lakes on traverse
A bit more traversing put us at the notch with the detached block, secured with the most robust anchor I had ever seen (10+ sets of webbing). The landing on the detached block involved descending to the landing spot and then swinging yourself backward to land on the block. This is a type of rappel you encounter more in canyoneering than in the alpine world.
Glenn, the first to cross, was watching the two of us rap when his camera slipped out of his pocket and fell into a 15 foot deep man-sized crack below his feet. Glenn put himself on rappel and lowered into the crack, looking much like much like a person squeezing into too tight clothes. A bit of deft climbing got him out with his now broken camera (or so he thought) but at least with a still good memory card.
A bit more progress put us 100’ below the summit, guarded by large insurmountable vertical blocks. A ramp and ledge system on the north side of the ridge appeared to allow further progress as far as I could see with an uncertain portion covered by snow. It was as easy as it appeared from the ridge – the snow bypassed and some final 4th class blocks to overcome. Ten minutes later we were standing on top of North Palisade, the king of the ridge line. We enjoyed lunch as we took in the perfect weather, the spectacular views, and our next goal, Polemonium.
North Palisade looking back from Polemonium Peak. Note Starlight and Thunderbolt summit blocks to the right and below N. Pal
Glenn and Tom taking lunch on summit of North Pal
NORTH PAL TO POLEMONIUM (14,080'): MORE RAPS, THE U-NOTCH AND ANTI-CLIMAX
We started our descent to the U-Notch and found ourselves on a steep, steep route. We did 2 double rope rappels (we had a 30m rope) including one where the rope got us to our ledge with only inches to spare. There are rap anchors galore descending to the notch but it goes without saying that each should be evaluated thoroughly. There are some anchors consisting of 5 to 6 pieces of webbing slung around the rock anchor. They reminded me of a webbing clusterf***k.
Webbing convention above U-Notch
However, one of the existing anchors went way beyond untidy. It was a fatality waiting to happen. A big piece of bright red webbing with the biggest solid rap ring I’d ever seen was slung around a bomber rock. The only problem was that THE BACK OF THE WEBBING WAS SITTING ON TOP OF THE ROCK because there was no place to wedge it behind the rock. Glenn went down to this death trap and, with a flick of his wrist, pulled the webbing right off the rock. We used the webbing to build a solid anchor around a rock right below the offending set-up.
DEATH TRAP above the U-Notch
From the U-Notch we traversed and climbed on slabs and ramps and soon found ourselves on Polemonium. After the two summit blocks of T-Bolt and Starlight, and the North Pal high point, Polemonium was anti-climactic. The saving grace was the narrow, airy cat-walk from the peak towards Sill.
Airy cat-walk ridge from Polemonium to Mt. Sill
Register Box, Polemonium Peak
MT. SILL (14,153') AND AN EXCRUCIATING EXIT
It was now 4 p.m. and we had lost a lot of time since North Pal so we had to move quickly. The descent off Pole was easy (I hadn’t expected this after having seen pictures showing people roped up). The huge sun cups blanketing the Polemonium Glacier below us merited some long looks and pictures.
Mt. Sill viewed from ridge to Polemonium
Sun cup formations on Polemonium Glacier
The talus hop ate up a bit of time but by a little after 5 p.m., Glenn and I stood on Mt Sill’s summit. We waited a bit for Augie who had stopped at the cairn for the 4th class descent to Gayley Notch. The lack of sleep had finally caught up to him. Augie later mentioned that, had he not done Sill before, he would have crawled up if need be. But having been there before, his fatigue overcame any motivation to tag the summit again.
Glenn (first) and Augie descending Mt. Sill at end of traverse
We now began the long and torturous 10-mile descent to the Big Pine trailhead. First, the dry North Couloir, then the equally dry Gayley Notch, followed by a traverse composed of ice, snow, rock, and wet sand to Camp Gayley. By now the sun had set and thoughts of a nice dinner in Bishop had long vanished. Quickly descending the ledges below Camp Gayley, we encountered the use trail to Sam Mack Meadows shortly before needing our headlamps.
We forded the river at Sam Mack Meadow barefoot and in the dark-NOT FUN!
Our pace had dramatically slowed due to fatigue and then we were stopped by the stream running down from Sam Mack Lake. A barefooted crossing of a glacier fed stream in the dark was the last thing we needed but there it was. Pushing on, it became clearly evident that we wouldn’t be exiting at any civilized time – Augie was just about done for. At the junction with the main trail, we reviewed our options and opted for a quick nap to recharge batteries.
At 11 p.m., the struggle began anew with renewed energy. With our pace somewhat improved, we forged onwards stopping occasionally for breaks. Near the end Glenn and I (with aspirations to still call this self-inflicted torture a day hike) took our leave of Augie and half-walked and half-ran to the car. Not smart as Glenn twisted his ankle shortly before the parking lot to which we arrived at shortly after 2 a.m. We curled up and got some sleep on the hard asphalt until Augie arrived about an hour later.
EPILOGUE: GRACIAS TO MY PARTNERS; A MEDICAL NOTE; AND A COMMENT ON EQUIPMENT
Kaweah Peaks at Dawn
Kaweah Peaks beckon
It has been a good summer. Just two weeks before the Palisade Traverse, Tom and I had trekked to the Kaweah range and climbed Big Kaweah and Black Kaweah and enjoyed the lushness of the Big Arroyo area. Now, five 14,000 foot peaks (only 4 for me) in one swoop.
Thanks to Glenn G. for being our rock leader and for insisting that Tom and I could get up those summit blocks. Thanks to both Glenn and Tom for being patient and waiting up for me when my gas tank hit “empty” on the exit to the trailhead. They would easily have accomplished the traverse as a day hike but for waiting up for me.
I thought my hitting the wall was just a result of very poor sleep the nights previous to the trip and not being in as good condition as Tom and Glenn. Turns out there was an added factor. When I got home I was given the results of my Complete Blood Count panel as part of my yearly physical: they reflected a case of anemia of some duration with the medicos insisting I had no business doing hard physical exertion, much less a 24-hour plus endurance activity at altitude. In retrospect, it was just an extra challenge to push through, although I feel much better knowing there was a reason for feeling greatly fatigued at a point where we had over 20 hours to go.
Equipment-wise, Glenn and I offer Tom our grudging respect on his choice of seat harness for the traverse. Always concerned with going as light at possible (I swear Tom’s standard daypack is smaller than what I carry when I go on a long trail run), Tom opted to leave his regular harness and to rely on a make shift “diaper” harness made from webbing based on a visual that he pulled right off the pages of Mountaineering:Freedom of the Hills.
When Glenn and I first saw Tom’s get up we teased him big time and predicted unparalleled discomfort in using it and battered internal organs if he fell on it. But honestly, Tom’s contraption seemed to work just fine. He said it was comfortable and he looked comfortable in it the entire time. What’s next Tom? Back to hobnail boots to save the weight of carrying crampons?
A final thought. Except for Sill, the very names of the peaks on the traverse bespeak excitement, grandeur, and challenge. Add a little suffering to the mix if you shoot to do the traverse as a day hike. For most, life generally affords some excitement and challenge as well as suffering, but not always grandeur. This traverse is your chance for some grandeur.