Middle Palisade: Wrong Chute, Right Peak

5 Sep 1993 - by Peter Maxwell

The title could be otherwise described as "crossing to the next chute means staying in the one where you are". This aptly depicts our situation on Middle Palisade (14040 feet) over Labor Day weekend. The group consisted of Noreen Ford, Paul Magliocco, Peter Maxwell (leader), Jim Ramaker, Charles Schafer (co-leader) and Kai Weidman. We were armed with 7.5 minute topos (amazingly trailhead to peak was covered in ONE map, which defies Murphy's Law) and the words of both Roper and Secor, but that didn't prevent us from ascending the "wrong" chute.

Although this trip was intended to be an official one, it changed into a private trip. The reason was that while checking with the ranger the week before the trip, he said there was a lot more snow around than normal and recommended taking ice axes as a safety precaution. Faced with the prospect of running an official but potentially more dangerous trip, and a safer private trip with proper equipment, it didn't take much time to make the decision.

The planned 9 am start from the trailhead at Glacier Lodge ended up being 9.30, which wasn't bad considering driving distance from the Bay Area (694 miles round trip). The worst part about this trailhead was the 15 minute walk to the carpark, which was conveniently situated for the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail but not ours, which was the South Fork. We met Tim Hult and Eugene Miya there, preparing for the V-Notch and another PCSer, Bill Donner, who told us of their ambitions to climb Norman Clyde Peak by a recently discovered class 3 route on the west side. We thought this involved an incredibly long hike but they were optimistic.

Almost from the beginning we could see our destination, with it's distinctive, broad, ridge-type summit. All views disappeared for a while as the trail switchbacked up a long climb, conveniently in the shade, and then as we came over the top we were suddenly out of the foothills and into the true High Sierra. From this perspective the east wall looked unclimbable, at least by a class 3 route, and we spent some time speculating what would be our route the next day.

As were eating lunch at Brainard Lake (or is it Brainerd? - neither the USGS nor the NPS seem to be able to make up their mind on spelling) we quizzed two day hikers who were returning from the glacier. They informed us that Finger Lake was a bit crowded but a there was a completely deserted beautiful tarn with a small lake on a bench above Finger Lake. This then became our camp site. True to word, we had the place to ourselves, and it was on the route to the climb anyway, so we even saved a little time the next day.

The only problem was the mosquitoes. Jim, Paul and myself decided to sleep out, the weather was so pleasant, but this was a big mistake. Voracious mosquitoes came out during the evening and stayed out all night. They would discover minute portions of skin that got missed in the repellant application and converge on them. Scalps underneath beanies were also a good target so all three of us got dive-bombed all night and had a miserable sleep as a result. This was all the more surprising because of the time of year. It was definitely an easy decision to sleep in the tent the next night.

Since we had 3200 feet of climbing of unknown difficulty the next day we budgeted for a 12-hour day and decided we should leave fairly early. We planned for a 6.30 departure and made it by 6.45. Being only 15 minutes late made us feel pretty good, as did the temperature, which was a balmy 42. It was a gentle climb and traverse to get to the glacier (definitely a better route than going to the south end of Finger Lake and climbing from there), where we filled up with the last water available until the return.

Paul and Charles headed off on the moraine splitting the glacier while the rest of us took a "short cut" across the snow. Despite our intentions to show the other two our way was better, we encountered more difficult conditions and we could see them getting further ahead, easily beating us to the point where we rejoined.

Roper's description is actually better than Secor's, since he specifically states to go a short distance on the south portion of the glacier before starting the climb. Had we not done this we'd have had a lot of trouble getting started on the mountain.

The next milestone was to "cross over to the next gulley" at a point when we encountered "an obvious patch of light colored rock". As we discovered on the way down, a far better description would be "follow the obvious chute to the summit" as the so-called crossover was not really a crossover at all, but a continuation in the same direction as the chute we started out in. We really crossed over and ended up in a chute which took us to the north of the summit.

For us, wrong was right, because this chute turned out to have much more solid rock than the other. It also became a lot steeper which made it a lot more challenging and fun. Bordering on class 4, it never really made it as there were always lots of handholds. However, none of us wanted to downclimb it and we were hoping to find a more gentle way down. There was also still loose rock so it was important to stay close together. Charles was so keen to summit that he had to be restrained from blasting off in the lead and blasting us with rocks. At one point someone dislodged a largish rock which in turn created almost an avalanche which tumbled down to the glacier far below. This was not to be taken lightly.

When we "summitted" we were two couloirs to the north of the real summit. We could see it, but the knife-ridge we were on had hideous drops to the west and a decidedly class 4 move to traverse on the east. Without knowing if there was a class 3 traverse we descended about 20 feet and explored the ledges. We were in luck, and the traverse turned into an exciting class 3 adventure, never knowing if hand or footholds would degenerate around the next bluff, and always being rewarded. This was High Sierra class 3 climbing as it should be!

Our final assault on the summit block saw all of us scramble with great difficulty up the last portion, only to discover there was a trivial route round the back side. We made it at noon and lazed around eating lunch until 1 pm. Even Paul, infamous for difficulties with altitude, ate heartily with no problems.

Our descent took us down the "correct" couloir, but although this was less steep than our ascent, the rock was much crumblier and we had to be super careful about dislodging a shower on people below. We all agreed that to climb up this would not have been as much fun as the route we took.

Coming back down the glacier, several of us took advantage of having ice axes and did a sitting glissade. Noreen gave us a show that was as good as the best Barnum & Bailey could offer, by demonstrating the "Demolition Derby" method. This involved hitting a large depression, coming out spinning out of control, loosing her ice axe (right by me as I stood and watched this amazing spectacle) and then careering down the slope, with much vocal sound effects. Fortunately there was a gentle run-out and she came to rest at Kai's feet, as if the whole thing were staged.

We were back in camp by 4.30, making this a 9 3/4 hour day instead of our budgeted figure. The spectacles were not over though. Up on the slope above us we caught sight of a bear! This shattered many people's ideas of where bears are and are not. It was a small bear and we wondered if it was exploring because there was nothing up there for it, there being only isolated clumps of stunted trees. This meant that there was nothing much for us to use to bear bag, either. We split the food into two parts, one being hung from the best branch that could be found, and the other, spurred on by Jim & Paul, was taken to some nearby cliffs and suspended over the edge. Neither cache suffered, and we suspect the bear wandered to better pickings at lower elevations.

During our descent we had heard lots of shouting across the valley and as darkness descended we saw lights on the side of the mountain opposite. These turned out to be the remnants of the ill-fated Clyde Peak attempt, which, as we had originally thought, ran out of time far short of their objective. Bivouacs were called for, which would not have been all that pleasant as the temperature the next morning was 28 with ice on the ground and tents. We got the full story from Bill, whom we met at Finger Lake on our way back. Not the least of their problems was navigating to Southfork Pass, which apparently is very difficult.

The hike out was uneventful, and we were able to consummate the trip at Sizzler in Bishop for a late lunch at 2.15.


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