Hatching a Plan
Having been to the eastern side of the Palisades plenty of times, I felt it was time to give the west side a little love. The pictures and maps I had seen had put this less popular side of my favorite section of the Sierra Nevada on my list for a while. With my favorite climbing team mascot (my dad) already planning to be there on a backpacking trip with his brother-in-law, what better time would there be to hike in, spend some time with my Old Man in the backcountry, and hopefully get a climb in?
My first objective was finding an objective. Having never been up close to this side of the Palisades, I turned to my favorite resource: RJ Secor’s “Peaks, Passes and Trails” guidebook. My eyes were drawn to the West Face of Mt. Winchell rising up above Dusy Basin. This was the only major Palisade peak north of Middle Pal that I had yet to climb, and this side of it looked to be by far the most impressive. The West Arete was mentioned in the Fiddler/Moynier book as a classic, but there is little to no information about the route other than lines drawn on aerial photos and very vague descriptions. Thanks to Misha for the info posted on Summitpost, and an especially big thank you for keeping the descriptions to a minimum and keeping the adventure level high.
Now all I needed was a climbing partner. Brett and I had talked about getting out and doing something in September, but he had some previous plans with his girlfriend.
I said, “Why not bring her along?”
She seemed amenable if her work schedule would allow it, which ended up not happening. I think this turned out to be for the better, as you will see in the report that follows.
When I pitched the idea to Paul, he was up for it immediately, despite not knowing that this route even existed. I guess I told him “West Pillar of Mt. Winchell” when we made the plans over the phone. I don’t remember this but I also don’t remember how I ended up sleeping on my buddy’s couch after being at the bar that night. Despite my blunder preventing Paul from finding any information on the route, a plan had been hatched! Labor Day Weekend was just a few days away and the weather forecast looked great.
The first mistake of the trip happened before the trip even started: eating sketchy Chinese food at a Reno casino the night before. My stomach would bother me for the entire walk in and all night while camped underneath Mt. Winchell and Thunderbolt Pk. in Dusy Basin.
Just before we crossed over Bishop Pass, we talked to two guys who were looking for Paul Aaron’s brother. They wanted to tell him that Paul was camping on the opposite end of the lake his friends were supposed to meet him at. Now, my climbing partner was Paul, and Bill Aaron was my dad’s brother-in-law, and we were supposed to meet them at the lake we were talking about, so we decided the guys were definitely trying to pass a message along to us. They got just enough details right for it to not be a coincidence, but they botched enough details that they weren’t very credible. The only thing that was for certain was that they were stoned as hell.
We decided to check the end of the lake they talked about first, and sure enough, my dad and Bill were there. We had a quick dinner, watched the sunset and accompanying alpenglow on the objective for the next day and tried to get some sleep. Between my upset stomach and headache, I barely slept a wink. I told Paul there was no way I’d climb in the morning if I still felt like I did, and he gave me 800 mg of Ibuprofen. Luckily I woke up feeling fine. We ate a quick breakfast and began the walk over to the base of Mt. Winchell.
We crossed some cool granite slabs behind the lake that were speckled with tussocks of alpine grasses to reach the talus field at the base of the peak. After maybe an hour or so of mostly easy going we started the real climbing, a few hundred feet of moderate 4th and 5th class scrambling to where the route started to steepen. We broke out the rope and gear here and Paul led up a steeper pitch of surprisingly solid granite. I thought to myself, if the rock quality on the whole route was this good, we may have unearthed a relatively unknown gem. This would turn out to be the case---this route is truly a classic.
When Paul passed me the sharp end, we had joined the ridge proper and there was fabulous exposure back down to Dusy Basin below us. If the West Face of Mt. Winchell looked convoluted from down below, it looked absolutely chaotic once up in it. Many twisting ribs, steep ridges, spire-like pinnacles and deep gullies decorated the wall. This wouldn’t be a good place to get lost or have to retreat from. Luckily, route finding on our line turned out to be pretty straightforward. I led up a steep layback crack, crossed over to the south side of the ridge, and brought Paul up. We were able to stay mostly on the crest of the arête, and though this made the climbing more difficult in spots, the enormous drops to both sides of the arête made the climbing exciting the whole way.
One pitch in particular, about mid-way up, traverses a horizontal section of the ridge for about 100 feet. Though the climbing was easy, this was the most spectacular location on the entire climb.
I guess the climb wasn’t exciting enough for Paul up to this point, because maybe 2 pitches beyond this point, Paul says “F*@#.”
“What?” I ask him.
“I left my pack.”
“Oh, at the bottom of this pitch?”
“No, a couple pitches back.”
“What???” I say, more emphatically this time.
At this point, there was no returning for the pack. It would have taken too long and ensured we’d spend the night somewhere below the summit with no sleeping bags. The next few pitches of the climb were highlighted by me realizing, one by one, some other important piece of gear was still in Paul’s backpack.
Mike: “Oh no, we still have to do the descent and the photos and descriptions are still in your backpack.”
Paul: “I’m sorry.”
Mike: “If we have to stay out in the cold, your jacket is still in your backpack.”
Paul: “I’m sorry.”
Paul: “Can I have some of your water?”
Mike: “Oh yeah, yours is still in your backpack.”
Paul: “I said I’m sorry.”
When I finally realized Paul didn’t have a headlamp for the descent anymore, I wasn’t too amused. The route fought us until the very end, as we stayed roped together the entire way and the climbing never really dropped out of the low 5th class range.
Mike: “I sure hope we can make it down without your headlamp and the descent description.”
Getting Down Safely
This last comment led to a little bit of an argument on the summit before I realized I needed to get over the fact that Paul left his backpack in the middle of the route. Luckily someone had left a guidebook page saying which gully to take down to the Thunderbolt Glacier. Paul was sure we needed the northern most crossing back to the west side but I knew from my trip here with Brett the year before that it was the southern most one. We had to cross a giant unexpected field of hard snow and ice which we were completely unequipped for. Instead of ice axe and crampons we each picked up a rock and started cutting steps up to Winchell Col. This took forever and by the time we were up to the col it was completely dark. I could see back down to the lake by which my Dad was camped so I flashed my light to him so he could see we were OK. He flashed his headlamp back in acknowledgement. As soon as I had done this I realized he would only see one light and be left to wonder whether it was Paul or his son who was still alive. Oops.
Thus began the downclimb of the couloir, with Paul staying within a few feet of me to mooch as much light as he could from the tiny halo of my headlamp. It was slow going to say the least, with the nearly full moon on the other side of the Sierra Crest offering us no help in the deep, west facing cleft that would entertain us for the next few hours. A few rappels were necessary, though I’m sure we would have climbed around them in the daylight. I nixed the idea of any double rope rappels, as this would have led to a higher probability of a stuck rope or rocks pulled down with the rope from above. We had to contend with a fair amount of falling stones, but we were able to find pretty good shelter in the walls of couloir each time we pulled the rope. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we reached the bottom of the couloir and did one long double rope rappel that was free-hanging for the first 70 feet or so. This put us down on the talus and into the moonlight that had finally crept over the peaks behind us.
We limped across the talus, thoroughly exhausted. It was still maybe an hour back to the other side of the lake, and we arrived at 1 AM, 18 hours after we had started at 7 AM the day before. We had definitely underestimated the route. I barely slept because I was feeling nauseous from altitude, and I couldn’t keep my breakfast down in the morning. The walk out was miserable and I didn’t feel normal again until I was back down in Bishop. For once my Dad had to wait for me at the trailhead after the hike out.
This was a great trip and a spectacular route. It really deserves more attention. I would certainly give it every bit of Grade IV, 5.8 and would say I liked it better than Sun Ribbon Arete on Temple Crag. With the descent and climb back up over Winchell Col I would say it is probably about the same level of effort for both of these Sierra Classics, but the rock on this side of Winchell is of better quality.
Thanks again to Paul for an awesome climb and to Bill and Dad for hanging out in our camp with us.