Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sierra Solo 3: The Palisades

The day after climbing the Tenaya-Matthes-Cathedral Linkup I drove down to Mammoth Lakes to meet my friend Jimmy. We hung out at Stellar Brew with his friend Tess and I splurged on a salmon avocado sandwich. Then we walked up to Mammoth Brewing and took advantage of high altitude by getting an afternoon buzz from a flight of tasters. Afterwards I went and sat in the local mountaineering store and thumbed through guide books before wandering back to my car and taking a nap. I woke up hungry and sad. I just wanted to go home. I was in the middle of an amazing week of climbing and rambling around the High Sierra, and all I could do was think about hanging out with my friends in Bend and drinking beer. So I ate a granola bar and called my mom to chat. Ten minutes later I hung up the phone grabbed a burrito with Tess and then hit the road. I needed to get out on my own and away from civilization again.

That night I slept down a dirt road somewhere off 395. I slept amazingly as I hadn't camped below 9,000 feet since the previous Friday. The next morning I drove into Bishop and wandered around for a few hours. I got some water, ate breakfast and drove south through the mounting, oppressive heat of the desert. In Big Pine I drove around in circles a few times before finally finding Glacier Lodge Road and slowly grinding my old truck up to the trailhead for the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, a quick access point to the northern Palisades.

In the parking lot I sorted gear and chatted with a nice, stocky guy with bushy white eyebrows and piercing blue eyes. He introduced himself as Doug and said he had been a climbing guide in the Palisades for years. He gave me in depth beta on my objectives and helped me make some key decisions. I had never been into the Palisades so his help was invaluable given my ambitious plans. After the trip I looked him up. You may have heard of him. His name is Doug Robinson and he wrote a short piece for the 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog called "The Whole Natural Art of Protection." He's also done a lot of things in mountains that get described with words like "first" and "fastest," but he just seemed like a friendly guy, stoked on the mountain adventures. The last thing he said to me before driving away was, that he wished he could be there when I came back out, to hear my stories.

I then hiked up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek (which is amazing!) and four hours later I hopped around to a delightful and protected sandy ledge above Sam Mack Meadow, at 12,000 feet. I pitched my tent and went to sleep in one of the most beautiful places imaginable.

The first view of Temple Crag as you hike up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek... pretty impressive.

Temple Crag above Second Lake.

Looking over Second Lake with Temple Crag on the left and the Palisades (North Pal, Starlight, and Thunderbolt) visible on the skyline just above and right of the broad snowy gully.
Home sweet home! The moraine of the Palisade Glacier is getting the final rays of sun on the left. The skyline (L-R) starts with the edge of Sill, V-notch, Polemonium, U-notch, North Pal, Starlight, Underhill Couloir/Notch, Thuderbolt.

Sunset from my window.
My plan was simple, climb the classic Swiss Arete to the summit of Mt. Sill and then traverse the ridge line NW over Polemonium, North Pal, Starlight and Thunderbolt Peak before descending the North Couloir on Thunderbolt. This would allow me to tag five 14,000 foot peaks in a day and do the classic Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse (IV 5.8) in reverse.

Mt. Sill above the Palisade Glacier and its terminal lake. The Swiss Arete follows the left hand ridge on the skyline and cuts across the face.

Eating breakfast on the terminal moraine of the Palisade Glacier. Above me (L-R) is V-notch, Polemonium, U-notch, North Pal, Starlight, Underhill Couloir/Notch, and Thunderbolt. The previous picture of Mt. Sill is taken looking just to the left.
The next morning I took my time. Something was lacking, my mental energy was depleted and I felt a lack of motivation. Physically I felt great, I had slept well, felt energetic and knew I was acclimatized. Despite that, I lacked the excitement and motivation to climb. I strolled up to the edge of the glacier and sat for a while observing the peaks and eating breakfast. It was beautiful but as I looked at the gullies I saw that they were filled with hard, blue ice. After climbing around the Yosemite high country (Conness is ~12,600ft) I had been certain that sun cups and soft neve would fill the gullies, but I had underestimated the "most alpine" sub-range in the Sierra. As a result I had guide tennies, no crampons and a light ice axe. This would make descent mid-traverse difficult and dangerous.

The V-notch and U-notch couloirs on either side of Polemonium Peak. 'Schrunds, rock fall and bare ice are visible.

I looked over at Mt. Sill and begrudgingly decided that I should at least go look at the Swiss Arete. If I climbed that route at least I would feel like I had done something. I hiked part way across the Palisade Glacier then turned around and went towards the Underhill Couloir on a whim. Then I saw a party of two across the glacier headed to the Swiss Arete. In a mad frenzy to talk to other climbers and relieve my soloist's burden I sped back across the glacier and caught them at the bottom of the gully up to the Gayley-Sill pass. It turned out they were two guys from San Francisco and they were moving slowly, taking their time. It's amazing what a short interaction can do to your psyche... here were two guys going to climb the Swiss Arete, an amazing climb. Hadn't I heard from Doug, just yesterday, how fun it was? That he had climbed it 30 plus times and would love to do it again. Why did I doubt myself? I had let ambition get in the way of enjoying being right here, right now, having an adventure. I was so focused on all the climbing I was trying to do, that I had lost sight of the reason for the climbing. Suddenly I knew that I could do it, and more importantly that I could have a good time.

Lookig across the Palisade Glacier at the Gayley-Sill col with Mt. Sill on the right. Can you see the two climbers on the glacier?

Here is a close up of the gully to the Gayley-Sill col. Can you see the two climbers now?
I scrambled up the rock to the base of the L-shaped couloir, then followed footsteps up next to the Swiss Arete but said screw it and jumped on the rock early. I found amazing climbing, just like I knew I would. The crux came fast and passed easily... I love a solid hand jam. My cracked hands bled on the rock but I didn't care. I took a direct finish straight to the summit and hopped around like a little kid exploring every nook and cranny. I spent over an hour on the summit eating, staring at the mountains, taking photos, and basking in the warm sun.

Looking up the Swiss Arete. Blocky crack climbing on solid rock, a lot of fun.

Looking down the Swiss Arete (the jumbled ridge on the right) from the summit of Mt. Sill. The Palisade Glacier is visible on the left with the terminal moraine (where I ate breakfast) and its lake in the upper left.
I saw this view looking south from the summit of Mt. Sill... and then I jizzed in my pants!

Summit selfie on Sill. Looking south.

Summit selfie looking west along the ridge line with Polemonium, North Pal and Starlight (L-R).
I descended down loose rock and sketchy snow to the top of the L-shaped couloir and whooped with joy. I ran down the soft sun cups and scrambled down the gully to the glacier. By 12:30pm I was back at my tent. I packed up and did the familiar boulder-hop walk-jog routine down to the trail. I stopped at Third Lake and swam briefly before retying my shoes and hoofing it down to the car. I took off my shirt, dumped water on my head and drove. My week of soloing was over. I was going home.

Back in the land of flowing water and plants. An erratic boulder right in the middle of the stream on rock benches above Sam Mack Meadow.

Rehydrating beneath the Palisade Glacier with North Pal, Starlight and Thunderbolt (L-R) above.

1 comment:

  1. great photos and tr. congrats on the send and the stoke. hoping to go up there this month, so I really appreciate the beta you shared.