Day 1, Approach to Bishop Pass
Bishop Pass Camp Near Bishop Pass
After visiting the summits of several of the other, less difficult California Fourteeners, we directed our focus to Polemonium, North Palisade and Starlight. We had been close to these peaks before. In 2007 we gazed up at them from the Palisade Glacier on our way to Mt. Sill. In October 2008, we made a half hearted attempt to ascend these peaks, a mission aborted due to early snow, short daylight hours and an underestimation of the effort required. We continued our planning for months, coordinating time off from work, time away from families, which trailhead to use, which approach route, what equipment to bring, how much food, where to camp, and what-if scenario options. We read guide books, reviewed trip reports, and checked weather forecasts. One lingering snag was that we were unable to reserve a wilderness permit for the dates that we could all be available. We decided that we would roll the dice and try to get a walk-in permit.
DAY ONE: On Saturday, August 8, 2009 at 3:00 a.m. I met Phil and Joe at Joe’s house in La Mirada, a suburb in the southeast part of Los Angeles County (Southern California). By 3:30 a.m. we were in Phil’s car on our way north, headed to the Inyo National Forest Service office in Bishop. We arrived at the Ranger Station a little before 8:00 a.m. When the door opened we were the third group in line and we were very fortunate to get a permit to enter the wilderness from the South Lake trailhead of the Bishop Pass Trail that same day. We fortified ourselves with a hearty breakfast at Jack’s, grabbed sandwiches at Schat’s and headed up to South Lake. Trying to find a parking space at the South Lake trailhead on a Saturday is not easy. We double parked just long enough to change clothes and unload our packs at the trailhead. Then Phil ended up parking about a mile down the highway near the entrance to Parcher’s Resort. Phil was able to hitch a ride back up to the trailhead from a hiker who was going to ferry in some supplies to her husband, a backcountry Ranger. Just after 11:00 a.m. we had our 60+ pound packs on and we were on our way. As usual we brought enough food for one or two extra days. Between the three of us, we also carried two water filters, two stoves, two 9mm x 60 meter ropes; Phil packed a thorough Alpine rack with a set of friends, stoppers and hexes. Phil and I both carried small tents, Joe took just his footprint and rain-fly. It was a gorgeous August day. South Lake was full to the brim, only inches from flowing over the spillway. There were a few people on the trail some going in and some coming out. The weather was perfect, mostly sunny but an occasional cloud provided some cooling just when we started feeling a little too warm. We took a short lunch break in the shade alongside Timberline Tarns. The mosquitoes were aggressive enough to make it necessary to apply some bug repellent. Since we were committing multiple days to increase our odds of accomplishing our mission, we decided not push too hard the first day. We arrived at Bishop Pass at about 4:30 p.m. and then wandered a little south over to the tarn near the pass. It was good to make this first day a part of an incremental acclimatization program, going from near sea level to 12,000 feet in 13 hours. We found some good tent sites on the northwest side of the tarn, set up camp for the night and simmered some tortilla soup for dinner. A little before dark we saw a group of four coming back from the Palisades. They told us they were going to get down below Bishop Pass to make camp for the night.
Day 2, On to Palisade Basin
Camp in Palisade Basin
DAY TWO: On Sunday, August 9, 2009, we slept in until after 7:00 a.m. We hadn’t expected to get a permit to enter until Sunday so Saturday turned out to be our ‘bonus’ day giving us a head start all the way to Bishop Pass. We got up and leisurely made bacon, egg, & cheese burritos. Fresh flour tortillas, real cheddar cheese, crumbled bacon, and O.K. powdered eggs. For this second day of our trip we had to stay psyched up to get our 60+ pound packs over Thunderbolt Pass. Saturday’s progress up to Bishop Pass had all been on improved and maintained trail. Sunday’s travel was different, all off-trail hiking and scrambling. We held as close as we could to 12,000 feet traversing below Agassiz and Winchell. Then we worked our way up through the big boulder moraine on the northwest side of Thunderbolt Pass. It was not as hard as I expected. We made it to T-bolt Pass at about 1:30 p.m. During our leisure lunch break we studied the Palisade Basin, looking for a campsite that would offer a water source and the shortest possible approach to the west chute of the U-notch. We headed down to a pond at approximate elevation 11,800 feet. We made camp south of the pond. We saw one group of four camped north of the pond. They had a single big yellow expedition tent. We made camp then cooked up some pasta shells, marinara sauce, and Cajun sausages for dinner.
Day 3, Polemonium
Phil on Polemonium Joe on Polemonium Polemonium Register Joe Rapping off of Polemonium Bivy 1, U-notch
DAY THREE: Monday, August 10, 2009 at 4:00 a.m. I woke up my partners to get ready to make our actual ascent of the mountain. We had coffee and some breakfast burritos by headlamp. We packed climbing and bivy gear, stashed our bear canisters in a snow patch, and filled up on two days worth of water. By a little after 6:00 a.m. we were headed east up the inclined slabs of Palisade Basin to the west chute of the U-notch. Up the slabs, through the moraine boulders and up the talus fan into the chute, we beat our estimated travel time. We made it to the top of the U-notch at about 10:30 a.m.
We didn’t waste any time getting our harnesses on and trying to find a route up the rock on the south side of the U-notch that would lead us to Polemonium. ‘Porcella and Burns’ simplify their description of the route to Polemonium saying to just “climb up and right”. Phil mounted the center rib that divides the top of the U-notch and found a traverse that went up and right, then down, then up and left, then up to a small gap. Phil led and set pro at comfortable intervals averaging about 15 feet. Joe followed tied in on a byte at center rope, clipping around his tie-in as he passed each pro placement. I came up last and cleaned. We repeated our three-on-a-rope process for 5 or 6 pitches to the summit. The only snag encountered was on pitch 4 when Joe’s boot got wedged so far in to the crack that he had to un-tie the laces and pull it out with his hand. By 2:30 all three of us were on the summit of Polemonium. No one said it out loud but I’m sure we all wondering how far we could get before dark and if a bivy was becoming more eminent. We high-fived, bumped knuckles took some pictures, surveyed the view and had a quick snack. We made our way back down to the U-notch by a more direct route than we came up. We somewhat retraced our ascent route but we were rappelling so our descent route was a much more direct alignment.
We were back to the U-notch around 4:30 p.m. Joe and I were so pumped by the climbing and rappelling that Phil caught us a little off-guard when he pointed out a bivy spot he noticed on the last rappel. Bivy at 4:30? But what was our alternative? Start up the chimney to North Pal this late in the afternoon? Go back down to camp in Palisade Basin? (NO WAY!) O.K. then, time to bivy!
Our bivy ledge, about 80 feet down from the top of the notch on the west side was not too bad. We used our packs for sleeping pads and we were somewhat cozy in our down bags, with a space blanket draped over the top of us. We had somewhat of a fitful night’s rest but we liked knowing that in the morning we would be within close striking distance of North Pal.
Day 4, North Palisade
Climbing the "Chimney" Phil Capturing Joe on North Pal North Pal Survey Marker, Palisade Glacier in Background
DAY FOUR: Tuesday, August 11, 2009, since we were already at approximately 13,500 feet, we didn’t feel the need to get up early. And, since we were on the west side of the notch we thought we would wait a while for sun to rise higher and warm the notch a little. Then about 8:30 we heard voices from down below in the west chute. We thought it would be good to get up and get started; after all there is really no excuse for sleeping on the mountain and not being the first group on the route.
Fortunately, we did not have a route conflict with the other party. They were going up to Polemonium and we were on our way to North Pal. We speculated that the two climbers were a guide and client pair. We admired the leader (guide?) as he climbed quickly on a much more direct route than ours. He placed no pro that we could tell. After ascending a whole pitch, he brought up his second.
While ferrying gear up from our ledge to the top of the notch in preparation for the chimney climb, a bowling ball size rock got knocked loose and started accelerating down the chute. Phil was on his way up and got caught in the direct line of fire. He sustained a powerful blow to his left calf muscle. Being the Clyde-like hardman that he is, Phil just massaged his leg for a few minutes and said the best thing to do is keep moving so it doesn’t have a chance to get stiff.
Meanwhile we were gearing up to ascend the chimney on the north side of the U-notch. We decided that Phil would lead and place pro. Since the chimney is a steeper climb, Phil led without wearing his beast of a pack. Joe followed and cleaned pro. Then I tied Phil’s pack in so we could haul it up on the rope. I tied in and climbed about 5 feet behind Phil’s pack so I could help dislodge it when it got hung up. It took some effort but we made it up the chimney in what seemed like three half pitches. It was very gratifying climbing, steep, near vertical in places, but ample hand & foot holds.
As I was about half-way up the chimney, I looked back across the U-notch. The guide-climber two-some had already rapped off of Polemonium. They took a leisurely break in the notch and then headed down the west chute about 11:00 a.m. We couldn’t help but appreciate how much faster they did Polemonium compared to us. O.K. let’s rationalize a little. They were younger than us by 10 or 20 years, One guy was a guide and had probably been up Polemonium many times, They had really light packs and hardly any gear, They only climbed Polemonium so they didn’t need to save any reserve energy for North Pal and Starlight. (I feel better now.)
From the top of the chimney we didn’t find the walking traverse to the summit blocks we were expecting. We made a pitch-length traverse across the east face above the omnipresent snow field. Then we down climbed a little into the “bowl”. From there it was only a few hundred feet of class three climbing to the summit. WOO-HOO! North Pal! Again we repeated the ritual of high-fives, bumping knuckles, taking some pictures, surveying the view and having a quick snack. It was about 3:00 p.m., on to Starlight?
We double checked the route descriptions on the loose pages we copied out of ‘Porecella & Burns’ and ‘Secor”. We started making our way traversing north along the ridge towards Starlight. By 4:30 we were in a saddle directly above the Clyde Coulior. Again we took short break to consider the route and how much longer it might take us to reach Starlight. Should we keep going? Would we find a bivy spot later if we needed to? If we bivy again will we have enough water? Could we find some water on the descent? Could we make it to the Thunderbolt Chute, our only known, previously traveled descent route? It’s getting late in the day, how hard will the “Milk-Bottle” be? Then Phil reveals that he has lots of water left! Part of a camel-back bladder, a full Platypus and a Nalgene. That’s part of the reason his pack is such a beast! O.K. we have water, let’s bivy! We settled in, this time on two separate ledges. Joe and I together on the larger upper ledge, Phil down a few feet on a lower tier. It was another mostly uneventful night, except for a rat getting into Phil’s food. Yes, that’s right, a ‘Sierra Ledge Rat’ at 14,000 feet. He seemed to be determined to chew into Phil’s bag of almonds.
Day 5, Starlight and the Descent
Face Traverse to Starlight Bivy 2, Above Clyde Coulior Phil on the Milk Bottle Joe on the Milk Bottle My Turn on the Milk Bottle
DAY FIVE: Wednesday, August 12, 2009, having spent the night on the east side of the Ridge at almost we were enriched by the experience of seeing the very first rays of sunrise from what had to have been 14,000 feet. With the sun glaring in our eyes, there was no sleeping in too long for us on this morning. We got up and started getting ready after our second bivy on the mountain. Maybe I was slightly complacent from the repetition of spending a second night on a ledge. Whatever the reason, somehow after carefully stuffing my sleeping bag into the compression stuff-sack I inadvertently knocked it off of the ledge. Being tightly compressed, it bounced like a football three times on rock then onto the snow of the Clyde Couloir. In an instant it was gone. It either went all the way down to insertion into the bergshrund, or with a lucky bounce, it may have made it onto the surface of the Palisade Glacier. In either case, I’ll probably never see it again. (But just in case, if anyone finds an REI +30 degree down bag in a black stuff sack, I’ll pay for shipping and a handsome finder’s fee to get it back.) I was counting my blessings that I was able to spend the night in the bag before sending it down the coilour. I tried to avoid obsessing about not having a sleeping bag for later that night back at camp. Looking at the bright side, it was 2.75 pounds less to haul off the mountain, and now I have total justification to shop for new gear when I get home.
After snacking on some food, we finished getting ready and made our way along the traverse, through two small notches and a little after 9:00 a.m. we were at the hallowed ground, the base of the “Milk-Bottle”. We took a few minutes to study the difficulty of the possible means to ascend it. Could we lasso it and go up the 5.9 east face? Or could we make it across the gaping open chasm and make our way up the easier, lower angle 5.2 south side. We decided on the easier south side. Phil went first and dragged the rope up with him. Once he could reach the top, Phil clipped the rope through the biner that was on a weathered old piece of 7 mm perlon cord. He also looped a cordelette twice around near the top of the pinnacle, and clipped the rope into this secondary anchor. Then Phil in his signature style, stood straight up atop the Starlight summit spire that afforded just enough footprint area to get his two feet on. Joe and I made sure to capture this digital Kodak moment. Phil rapped down and next was Joe’s turn. Joe climbed totally under his own power but with the now with the security of a belay from an anchored top-rope. More pictures, then my turn. I decided I would clean the added loops of cordelette but I didn’t trust the old weathered perlon on its own. So, I downclimbed with a top-rope through the old biner, but without putting any load on it.
10:30 a.m., Right On! All three of us, making it to the top of all three peaks! Now all we had to do was figure out a descent route.
Phil and I had bagged Thunderbolt a few years earlier, but Joe was hoping that we would find the energy and motivation to make the traverse to T-bolt again on this trip so he could add it to his summit log. But after two days and two nights on the mountain, our group consensus was to just go down the nearest viable chute. We peered down over the west side as we worked our way north a short distance along the ridge. We were hoping to see some rap anchors or other obvious signs of a descent route. We didn’t see much. From up on the ridge we saw one rap anchor that could have only been used by someone traversing north to south, or from Thunderbolt to Starlight. But we decided that with two ropes we would be able to make some long raps if necessary and we would find our way down what we thought was the Starlight Chute. (Later, after checking reference info. We learned that we really descended via the Northwest Chute) We did little downclimbing, opting mostly to keep on rappels. We eventually did find, and use a few rap anchors left behind by previous descents. Two of them were the typical pieces of webbing looped around a horn with a biner. One anchor consisted of a piton made from nickel, chrome-molly or some kind of corrosion resistant alloy. It had a cold-shut link on it. The last of the anchors we found had three hexes placed in nearly horizontal crack. Except for the piton, we ended up supplementing some new webbing or cord to most of the existing anchors before we trusted them for rappels. Between the three of us we had several pieces of webbing in varying lengths, a few cordelettes, and some rap-rings. Needless to say it took us more raps than we had ‘leaver’ gear available for. After we exhausted our supply of rap-rings, we started donating biners. Then cordelettes took the place or webbing. And on the last few raps, Phil ended up cutting pieces off of his rope to make rap anchors. We made one very memorable two-rope rappel, totally free suspended, off an overhanging section of chimney that once below the roof; we saw a surreal arrangement of ice sickles up to 30 feet long.
Finally at about 3:30 p.m. we touched down on the talus fan at the base of the chute and were able scramble down to the moraine and on to the inclined slabs that connect the mountain to Palisade Basin. We felt like astronauts returning to earth after three days in orbit on an asteroid. All three of us were totally out of water and feeling quite dry in the mouth. As I took off my harness and some excess layers of clothes, Joe dug into the snow patch and handed me some clean snow-cone ice to wet my whistle. Phil bee-lined it back to camp. At about 5:00 p.m. when Joe and I got close to camp, Phil was already filtering water. He greeted Joe and I with the ceremonial toast of Colonel Blanton’s single malt whiskey. After that, we chugged what seemed like gallons of cold fresh water out of Phil’s Nalgene. We returned to our tents, dropped some gear and then went back to the pond to splash some water about ourselves in an effort to remove a few days worth dirt and sweat.
Although we were pretty exhausted, being pumped from making it up and back from three more Fourteeners gave us the energy we needed to get dinner going. That night we dined on Phil’s offering of smoked & peppered Salmon served on a bed of wheat pasta shells with a seasoned butter sauce. M-M-M! It was the best! A night-cap shot of the Colonel and it was off to bed. This time there would be no sleeping bag for me. Phil suggested that I use the old emergency bivy technique and pull my empty pack up over my feet and legs. I also had the space blanket to wrap up with. Although I wasn’t toasty-warm, I wasn’t miserably cold either. Having a tent and thermarest pad helped.
Day 6, Exit via Knapsack & Bishop Passes
DAY SIX: Thursday, August 13, 2009, without a warm sleeping bag to linger in, I hopped out of my tent at 5:00 a.m. and fired up the stove to make coffee. We wanted to get an early start in case there was still a chance of making a rendezvous with a group of four other friends in Dusy Basin. The original, loose plan was to meet in Dusy Basin on Wednesday afternoon. But since we took a day longer than anticipated on the mountain we knew we may have missed the opportunity for a back country re-union. (We didn’t know it at the time but it turned out that our friends had a change of plans and didn’t camp in Dusy Basin on Wednesday night after all.)
On our approach we elected to make our way into Palisade Basin via Thunderbolt Pass. For our exit route, we decided to use Knapsack Pass. We picked Knapsack for three reasons. First, we were hoping the terrain would be more hospitable for hauling out our full packs. Second, it was a more direct route to our rendezvous location. And, third we had never been through Knapsack Pass before so it offered an element of new adventure. We dropped a little elevation on very gentle grassy ramps down to the north shore of the westernmost of the Barrett Lakes. After that, there was some scrambling, boulder hoping and the occasional class 3 move, but Knapsack Pass did prove to be less strenuous than Thunderbolt Pass. We traveled cross-country through the Limber Pines and meadows of Dusy Basin which was green and lush in contrast to Palisade Basin. We came across a party of four between the un-named lake north west of Columbine Peak and Lake 11388. It seemed to us that two members of the group were dads or uncles and two were sons or nephews. Its reassuring to see the gift of the Sierra being passed on to a successor generation. We talked for few minutes about where we all were going and where we all had been. At about 10:30 we intercepted the Bishop Pass Trail near 11,500 feet elevation and by noon we were at Bishop Pass. We decided to proceed down below the pass to take a break and get water. On the way down the pass, in the boulders of the moraine, we saw a group of Forest Service Rangers, trail construction contractors, and possibly a couple of student intern-rangers. They were assessing some trail re-alignment work through the moraine. Once down from Bishop Pass and the closer we got to the trailhead, we began to see increasingly more people. Climbers, backpackers and dayhikers. Some were going in and some were coming out.
We took our packs off for one last break alongside Long Lake. We ate a little lunch and filtered some water. Then we walked the last segment back to the trailhead. We dropped our packs and Phil walked the mile to retrieve his car, where he left it parked near the entrance to Parcher’s Resort. While we waited for Phil, Joe and I watched some groups climb with top-ropes on the rock crag on visible from the trailhead parking lot. Phil pulled up handed us some cold beers. We took a few minutes for a celebratory toast then we treated our tired feet to our sandals and jumped in Phil’s car for the drive back to So. Cal.
Six days in the Sierra. Three Fourteeners. Another epic trip.