Gandalf Peak - The Thinking Person's Mountain
(The Peak with Two Names (Palisade Crest))

14-16 Jul 2000 - by Peter Maxwell

This peak is otherwise known as Palisade Crest (13520'), and on July 14-16 four adventurous hobbits ventured into Highsierraland to tackle this class 4 pinnacle. Participants were Peter Maxwell (organizer), John Kerr, Arun Mahajan and Larry Sokolsky. For Peter and John it was their second attempt, after a bungled trip one year ago in which they took the wrong route to get to Scimitar Pass. The "bozo experience factor" (BEF) gained from this trip was put to good use and the same mistake was not made again. BEF helped us in other ways too, as will become clear.

We started hiking at some leisurely time after 9 am and plodded our way up the south fork of Big Pine Creek. With "only" 5-6 miles and 3300' elevation gain the hike in looked a breeze, but the large amount of boulder hopping required beyond Willow Lake made it seem a lot longer and more strenuous. BEF helped us avoid the bog which one encounters by following the trail on the south side of the creek for too long. This bog is at the exit of the gulley just before the one through which descends the exit creek from Elinore Lake.

The worst part of the hike was shortly after turning southwest to head up to Elinore Lake, when we encountered swarms of mosquitoes the likes of which none of us had ever seen before. They were in our eyes, mouths, ears and all over our clothes. Even high speed panic application of bug repellant couldn't stop the unwelcome experience of being an involuntary donor to the Mosquito Red Cross. Luckily this infested area was small and very shortly after they became merely "numerous", a state which lasted to the lake. We were fortunate to have a breeze each afternoon which kept them down considerably, more so than the night - getting out to relieve oneself was an invitation to the many mosquitoes who didn't seem to know that they were supposed to be sleeping.

I demonstrated that meals do not always have to be dehydrated by bringing out real food: tortillas, refried beans, cheese, lettuce and salsa. John was very skeptical, making references to the high altitude bean problem. He was right, and severe indigestion lasting half the night took away some of the advantages of going to bed at 8 pm.

Summit day saw us out of camp at 6:35 am, just 5 minutes later than schedule. After about an hour Larry turned back - he, too, was having stomach problems which unfortunately were not going away. Shortly after the rest of us traversed around the nose of the ridge leading up to Scimitar Pass we encountered a horrible area of steep, loose scree and rocks. It was almost impossible to avoid sending down showers of stones and rocks and we were glad we had such a small group.

Once on the top of this ridge it was evident just how much more snow was there compared to last year. It was severely sun cupped and subject to postholing so we avoided it and climbed on the rocks, avoiding also the larger permanent snowfield at the base of the ridge. The little spires of snow made a very pretty sight though, appropriate for several Kodak moments.

Once at Scimitar Pass we ditched the ice axes we'd been carrying and had a well-earned rest break. John's sobering comments went something like, "We don't want to rush this. If you fall you die". He was referring to the exposed class 3 climbing lasting all the way to the peak. The "thinking person's mountain" definitely earns the title here, with careful attention being required for route finding. Secor's description is accurate, but just gives generalities.

Initially we had to negotiate the Sierra crest to the notch separating this from the summit. The rock was exceptionally good, offering some of the best class 3 climbing I've ever done, and the take-your-breath-away vertical drop down to the glacier far below is what mountaineering is all about. Downclimbing the notch was also far from trivial, once again requiring careful attention to the route.

The class 4 section was just after the notch, being a 160' sloping slab. This turned out to be the easiest part of the climb since the slab has cracks in just the right places for climbing, and the slope is not too great. John had provided the ropes and gear, and also led this section. He had no trouble putting in protection using Friends. Other reports have hinted at difficulties on this slab - without Friends it would have been a different story. The 50m rope was barely long enough, and Arun, who was belaying, had to change position and stand up on a rock to give John the extra 2' he needed.

From the top of the slab it was a simple class 3 scramble to the summit, where we arrived at 12:45 pm. Thinking we might rappel down we carried the ropes up, then discovered there were no slings up there, so carried them back down again, being unwilling to sacrifice a sling. We didn't spend much time on the summit, it being a little cool and breezy. Instead, we took the summit photos, entered our names for posterity in the register, and climbed back down to the top of the slab to eat lunch, where it was more protected.

Going down we took the large snowfield, despite the sun cups, since it was easier than the talus, which wasn't all that solid. Ice axes were handy here for balance, although Arun proved it could be done without, thereby demonstrating that he'd carried it all the way for nothing. The main drama on the way back down was the steep loose section we had trouble with on the way up. The base alternated between loose rock, small scree and hard-baked mud, so we never knew if our boots were going to stick, slide an inch or a couple of feet or more.

We were back at camp just after 6pm, making for an 11.5 hour day. Despite a later start with dinner than the previous day, we still managed to get to bed by 8 pm. The temperature was such that Larry commented "Another tropical night". It was so warm we hardly needed a sleeping bag, quite remarkable at almost 11,000'.

The last morning was much more laid back - up at 7 am and away by 8:30. There was no sign of the mosquito infestation on our route down, adding evidence that they were very local. We messed around a long time fighting the bushes lining the main creek, trying to find a way across. One should be careful not to go too far downstream here.

Arriving at the cars shortly after 1 pm, it was into Bishop for lunch. John's desire for good beer was voted down in favor of faster service at Sizzler, where the lemonade made substantial inroads into various degrees of dehydration. John still got his beer though, as he produced an amber ale from his car shortly after we returned. "A perfect temperature for beer with taste", he said, as only someone coming from the UK would say.


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