This year our group of five camped at the Big Pine campground on Friday night. This helped with an early start on Saturday. The weather was perfect and we all settled into our own pace and own styles of MP3 supplied tunes. Mine was the DVD sound track from U2's Vertigo concert in Chicago. The north fork trail is as scenic as any, but when you're humping fifty pounds you kind of zone out and drive yourself along. We ended up spreading out over the trail and somewhere between lunch time and late afternoon everyone had straggled into camp at Sam Mack meadow. The heavy winter snowfall was still hanging on and we could see we would have direct access to the slopes above by directly climbing the snow chutes still clinging to the west end of the box canyon. We made plans to climb 13,510 foot Mt. Gayley on Sunday and were pretty much asleep before the stars came out.
Sunday morning we were on the move around 08:00 and spent some time with crampon, ice axe and self arrest practice. Most of us had not been on snow for a year and Ricardo had never seen snow, much less climbed it in an alpine environment. At the southwest end of Sam Mack a snow gully heads up to the Palisade glacier. Not only is it a pretty direct route, it's a great spot to build skills or just get use to being on snow again. We made good speed and gained the crest of the moraine around 11:00. The view from here was spectacular. A heavy snow pack, a healthily looking glacier, steep summits and deep blue sky made a real feast for the eyes. If you follow the moraine west you can walk directly toward the serrated ridge of the Palisade crest. On your left is the mass of the main glacier; down on your right is the Thunderbolt glacier. At the end of this rocky rib you literally step on to the glacier. From there it was a casual forty minute walk south toward Glacier Notch, which is the low point between Mt. Sill and Mt. Gayley. There was a bit of an awkward transition from snow to rock, after which we cached our ice equipment and climbed a short bit of second and third class rock to the top of the notch. From there on the route to the summit of Gayley seemed obvious. My memory from 1991 was not as clear as I remembered and we started out a bit too far north on the left side of the ridge and ran into a dead end. A bit of down climbing and some moves to the right side of the ridge got us back on route and we were on the summit around 2:00 PM. The climb down was safe, uneventful and fast, given we could glissade parts of the snow climb up. The only downside for the day was that Brett forgot his sunglasses and after nine hours on the bright snow his eyes were pretty badly sunburned.
Monday Craig, Ricardo and I climbed the standard route up Mt. Winchell. This was my forth time on the 13,775 foot summit and it never stops feeling remote, exposed and special. We sat on the summit shooting photos and making dumb calculations about what percentage of the population would ever go through the effort to make it to that tiny summit. I guess the fewer the better, otherwise it would stop feeling special. We picked our way back down the south side of the east ridge and then were able follow snow all the way back to Sam Mack. The final gully that feeds down from the Thunderbolt glacier was fully loaded with snow and made for a fast exit route back to camp. Later in the afternoon, the cards and poker chips came out and Texas Hold'em became the game of choice.
Tuesday we took the day off and lounged around camp. A friend had introduced me to Lee Child's Jack Reacher so I spent most of the day reading. The good weather continued and as the afternoon wore on we made plans for three of us to climb Mt. Sill together. Brett's eyes were feeling better so he, Julian and I planned to go together. We wanted an early start so we retired as the stars stared peaking out, getting ready for the 04:00 wake up call. The route up Sill required the same climb up to Glacier Notch. The snow in the gully headed up to the glacier was frozen and made for good climbing, but by the time we were close to the glacier, Julian was forced to bail out. His boots had brewed up some nasty blisters and his bloody socks were reminiscent of Red Sox Curt Shilling's famous performance in the World Series. Brett and I climbed on alone and had a great climb up the steep snow field above Glacier Notch. The snow was soft enough to kick deep steps, yet firm enough to feel solid and safe. By the time we finished with the snow and the headwall traverse it was just after noon. Twenty minutes later we were on the summit of this 14,153 Palisade sentinel. We reversed our steps and made quick time getting back to the snow chute. The sun had done its work and now the snow was deep and mushy. Heel plunges back to glacier notch, down climb the class three, slog across the glacier and hustle down the last bit to the final glissade. After being on the move about eleven hours, this last bit of controlled bum sliding was quite a relief. With tired bones and another safe summit it was good to be back in camp.
The next day we moved our camp down toward Forth Lake. We camped in a developed spot that made for a good base for the next few days. On the north side of the lake is a set of ledges that are great for bouldering. The lake was full of trout which seem to be thriving pretty well despite the end of any stocking program for decades. We made this place home and base for a day hike up Cloudripper. For me this was the only mountain of the trip that was not a repeat. It was a pleasant surprise. The climbing was a fun combination of snow and pretty solid class two rock. I was expecting nothing but loose scree but we managed avoid most of that by sticking to the ledges and ribs. Craig chose a line a bit further to the west than the rest of us and made it to the summit first. At 13,525 feet and from its location north of the Palisades, Cloudripper provides a great view towards Bishop Pass and points north. This alone makes the climb worth it. I signed in, noting it as my forty-third Sierra summit. On the way down we purposely sought out the sand and scree which can make for a pretty fast descent. It clouded up late in the afternoon and it seemed like a weather change was in the making.
The next morning we awoke to clouds, which turned to rain before lunch. Three of us were equipped with only bivi sacks and we could see no reason to spend the afternoon lying in the rain. We decided to pack up our gear call it a trip. It took about four hours to get back to the trailhead. The mountains stayed socked in and for sure we missed bad weather of some sort. The silver lining though was that it gave us an extra day so we were able to fit in a side trip up to the ancient Bristlecone Pine forest to the east of Bishop.
Time flies fast. We spend months planning these trips and then before we know it another great adventure was over and we found ourselves back at the airport in Las Vegas. We said our goodbyes and before our respective aircraft went "wheels up" we were probably all thinking about the next time we'd be back to the Range of Light.