Patty Rambert was planning to accompany us on this trip when she was tragically killed on Mt. Mendel on May 31. All three of us have climbed with Patty and greatly admired her for her strength in the mountains and for her warm and loving personality, and we extend our condolences to all who knew her.
When we planned this trip, we thought there'd be a mix of snow chutes and rocks or talus. Little did we know it would be almost entirely on snow (except near the peaks) in mid-June! For almost a week we saw no other people, no tents, not even tracks in the snow. We were alone in the High Sierra, climbing challenging peaks and staying above 12k in an ocean of snow. (An overall map and waypoints are below.)
On Friday June 16, Daryn picked up the permit (good thing, too, because there were volunteer permit-checkers monitoring the trailhead) and we got a late start up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek. It was warm but not unbearable. Soon we crossed the (new for me) log bridge and started up the switchbacks. There is a lot of trail maintenance going on here, and the top of the switchbacks (before the saddle to Willow Lake) was still covered in snow. The big surprise was only one mosquito bite in a place that is often Mosquito Central.
We turned off the trail where it drops to Willow Lake (waypoint BEFORK), going up the drainage to the left instead. A bit of boulder hopping and/or step kicking got us to the valley east of Brainerd Lake, where the walking is great. We camped at the second lake above Brainerd (waypoint UBRAIN, east of the southern tip of Finger Lake) with plenty of time to acclimatize and nap in the shade before the sun went down. It was mostly snow for the rest of the trip, until we got back near Willow Lake via Scimitar Pass.
Going over Southfork Pass (waypoint SFORKP) was a lot easier than the last time I did it: no bergschrund, no dirty ice, no steep glacial mud, just crampons and full packs on a 40 degree slope. This time we took the east branch since the west branch appeared to have a steep drift near the top. Normally the west branch is less steep but has a bergschrund. I spent a little time showing Daryn some steep snow techniques but no one wanted to do real (roped) ice axe arrest practice. Too bad. It would have been ideal for testing our real limits.
Looking up and down the east side of Southfork Pass:
We dropped our packs at the pass and traversed in snow to a chute leading onto the slopes of The Thumb. Boulders led to a great summit, where we relaxed and decided not to try a second peak that day. (I think this is the best route to The Thumb, if not shorter it is at least more aesthetic than via Birch Lake.) Back to the packs for a short hike through increasingly soft snow to our camp at the lakes NE of Point 3761m (waypoint BALCMP). We found a low wall to block the persistent wind and settled in for another afternoon of dozing and acclimatizing.
Oh, and I jumped in the partly-frozen-over lake - that was refreshing!
The next day was our easy-climbing-but-long-grunt day, going up the drainage north of Bolton Brown, over to Birch Mtn and back, then directly up the NE face of Bolton Brown in mid-calf snow. But back to Birch for a moment: From the saddle nearest Birch, we stayed on the right side of the ridge for a while, then crossed to the left side. If we strayed too far from the ridge itself the rocks because loose and dangerous. Just a boulder hop - I much preferred the route I took last time: a long snow chute that goes from near Birch Lake almost to the summit. This chute was once again continuous snow and avoids the risk of moving boulders.
So we hung out on Birch for quite a while, then retraced our steps toward Bolton Brown. By now the snow was softening considerably, and we angled to get off the snow face and onto Class 2-3 rock on the ridge NW of the summit. From here we had the best panorama of the entire trip, from the entirely snow-covered Upper Basin (south of Mather Pass) to the spires of the Palisades. There really was an amazing amount of snow! From Hwy 395 it looks like a normal spring, but once over the crest the backcountry was still buried. Edges of lakes and some parts of streams were melted out, but mostly it was all snow.
The slog back to camp started with an 800' glissade down the face of Bolton Brown. When I had mentioned this option on the way up there was much doubt among the ranks, but after seeing how soft the snow got and watching me cut a track we all got wet going down fast.
Day 3 saw us headed up the snow slopes of Balcony Peak before the sun reached camp. The Class 4 chute leading from near the summit of Balcony down to Disappointment had snow at the top and was mostly snow below the chockstone. A half rope would have been plenty to get down to the snow in the chute, but since we had a full 60m rope we fixed it at the top and rapped down most of the snow sans crampons. We left the rope fixed in place for the return. Another 50' or so got us around the corner and soon we were climbing the rubble chute toward the Balcony-Disappointment saddle.
Jim lead us right up the ridge from the notch to the summit, which is different than the way I went before. We had various reactions to the exposure and difficulty of this route, but only Jim thought it was easier/safer than going out on the SW ridge and cutting back across the face into the rubble chute. Other experienced climbers have used a rope to descend this way, and I nagged to go down the SW ridge/face instead. Either way you approach the summit there is a narrow (3-4 ft wide) airy section: Class 2 walking (hands not needed) with Class 5 exposure (death if you fall) is very hard to rate, and feels quite different facing down than facing up.
Climbing from the last notch to Disappointment, and our counter-clockwise route as viewed from Balcony:
Going back we cramponed up the snow, climbed around the one real obstacle (the chockstone which had somewhat frayed Daryn's new rope as we rapped over it going down), and scrambled back to the saddle. One critical hold by the crux move was loose. Jim said here what we would say many other times on this trip: "This one's loose, but it will hold some weight." Sure enough, it did. But I was glad to have a Ropeman ascender on a fixed line as backup! (Daryn went up the opposite side, avoiding the loose rock, but that looked much tougher to me.)
Then we climbed Balcony just for fun - I had forgotten that it also has an airy summit ridge:
Back in camp around 2-3pm, we relaxed for a while and decided we should move camp. Two nights here had been enough. Besides, all we had to do was traverse mostly level around the corner to a lake below Norman Clyde, right? Sure. Getting around the south ridge of Balcony/Disappointment looks easy on the map, but the map is dead wrong. Where the topo lines are smooth and parallel there are in fact many large buttresses cutting down to 3700m. Below that there is a serious cliff band which doesn't show at all on the map. The terrain was getting tougher and tougher, and finally Jim let loose with a rant about cliffing out. He was right! But we hadn't seen a way through the cliff band, and I wasn't eager to talk about scrubbing the rest of the trip and going back over Southfork Pass.
So we dropped our packs and scouted around. It turns out there was a ramp dropping through the cliffs (somewhere near waypoint CLIFFB), next to a wet spot and east of the buttresses, so we dropped to 3650m and did the traverse we thought would go 100m higher. Whew! I had a GPS waypoint on the first significant stream we would cross... but again the map was totally wrong. There is no stream here. Not even a gully. (This supposed drainage is not shown as seasonal, and drops from SW of Disappointment all the way to the valley floor. Supposedly. But it's not there.) About half way from the missing stream to Lake 3600m we found a rocky outcropping flat enough to camp on (waypoint NCCAMP), with snowmelt running nearby, and called it a day. This is probably the drainage the map shows, but it's about a quarter mile from where the map has it. The wind had died down and it was much warmer here, not to mention the really cool sunsets.
We spent some time studying the south face of Norman Clyde. We had all been up the standard route on the north side, and I had heard that this side was easier... but Secor's first edition said it was Class 4 so we took a rope. The old description was OK to get started, but quickly went wrong! The second edition lists that description as a Class 4 variation, but it's not clear why anyone would choose to climb to the lower NW summit over harder terrain. Here is our description, which involves no Class 4 and no serious exposure (somewhat of a miracle on such a big, steep mountain).
We climbed basically the red line in this picture:
WARNING: Secor's second edition has a picture with a line to the WRONG PEAK (page 224) - this line is right!
From the bowl directly south of Norman Clyde, and making sure you're really looking at the right peak, climb NW toward the inside of the buttress/ridge that curves west and then south from the peak (waypoint NCBASE at 3860m). From the bottom of the correct chute you can see a 2' wide defect going in a straight line NE to the ridge chockstone. This defect is the center of the 50 degree main gully. Up until mid-summer, this chute may have snow or ice and require ice axe and crampons, but Daryn proved (by descending it) that the rock on the SE side is entirely Class 3.
Climb this 50 degree chute most of the way up, staying right as the chute branches. (Going straight leads you to a headwall where the gully narrows and leads to a chockstone at the ridge.) From below it looks like you're going to go behind a small tower on the right. Traverse right in what could be considered a broad right branch of the main chute to cross the tower rib. The upper part of the first chute is the crux of the route. It's only 30' or so to another rib, where you have to drop slightly on a friction section to keep traversing on easier terrain. Go across a chute with a cirque above it and cross a rib on an outside corner: This is where you lose sight of the terrain you've been on and first see the summit.
Now ascend about 100' (this is about the 4th gully, if you're counting). Go almost all the way up to a light smooth face, then level out again and traverse right over two more ribs. You're probably still within 100 yards of the tower, and the summit is also 100 yards away, so this section shouldn't take much time. As you come to a major chute (which, as Secor says, drops to the south) you can see both the false/lower NW summit and the twin summit towers of the true summit. This final chute forks up and left. You can drop 30' to go below the fork, or you can traverse level over 10' of Class 3 and then go up to cross the pinnacles of the cleaver. Either way the forked chute (which some might consider a bowl) is all Class 2 once you're in it. Go up and right to the base of the closest summit tower, then traverse left around it and climb the right side of the highest summit tower.
We hung out a long time on the summit of Norman Clyde, enjoying the view and the variety of this route compared to the standard route. Our descent was uneventful except for a few postholes in the afternoon slush. Naps were the order of the day (from 3-7pm) as we decided it was better to move camp on crampon snow in the morning than to struggle and wade without snowshoes. Each day the suncups were growing larger and the afternoon snow was softer.
Sure enough, it was an easy crampon stroll over Chimney Pass to the base of Scimitar Pass. (Chimney Pass is not the place described by Secor, which would be cliffs on both sides, but the REAL pass which is immediately NE of Point 3862m - it's lower elevation AND lower slope.) We switched to day packs and started the airy and exciting traverse to Palisade Crest. Jim soon decided he'd had enough and headed back to climb Jepson. Daryn and I pressed on until the area where you drop to the final notch (below the Class 4 face). We just didn't see anything that looked Class 3 and somehow our motivation wasn't as high as it had been in town, so we ate lunch and made some phone calls and called it a day. The mountain will be there later. (Daryn did take a belay to do some exploring, but it didn't pan out.)
This one is loose, but it will take some weight:
The east side of Scimitar is amazingly steep, with 60 degree snow at the top, but slushy enough that I managed some sort of plunge-step-glissade while the others took a more sane route on the rocks.
We joined up in a field of Satan's Suncups (now more than knee-high, still growing daily) and decided to pick our way down the cliffs of the Norman Clyde Glacier instead of the normal route past Elinore Lake. It worked, but did involve climbing over a gnarly tree and getting sprayed by a waterfall. In our excitement to be dropping in great snow, we forgot that mosquito season was upon us. During our week at altitude, Willow Lake had assumed its normal character and we ate dinner wearing goretex and headnets.
On Thursday morning, we got up at 5 a.m. to flee the mosquitoes, and after a challenging stream crossing near Willow Lake, arrived at the cars at 9:30. Soon we were celebrating with showers at the store in Big Pine, followed by a nice brunch at Jack's in Bishop.
MAP OF OUR ROUTE: (leaving off Birch)
WAYPOINTS: Download the Waypoint+ data below as a GPX file for your GPS.
Datum,North America 1983,GRS 80,0,-1.6E-7,0,0,0 Waypoint,D,BOLTON, 37.0461599827,-118.4408199787,03/27/2001,22:53:13,BOLTON BROWN MT Waypoint,D,BIRCH, 37.0624500513,-118.4190200567,03/27/2001,22:53:13,BIRCH MTN Waypoint,D,THUMB, 37.0714800358,-118.4458899498,03/27/2001,22:53:13,THUMB THE Waypoint,D,DISAPT, 37.0679299831,-118.4673800468,03/27/2001,22:53:13,DISAPPOINTMENT PEAK Waypoint,D,MIDPAL, 37.0703999996,-118.4690500498,03/27/2001,22:53:13,MIDDLE PALISADE Waypoint,D,BALCON, 37.0674400330,-118.4663399458,03/27/2001,22:53:13,BALCONY Waypoint,D,BRAINL, 37.0915100574,-118.4564499855,04/17/2002,01:12:33,BRAINERD LAKE 10.3K Waypoint,D,SADDLE, 37.1028000116,-118.4546799660,09/02/1998,23:26:57,TRAIL SADDLE 9.8K Waypoint,D,UBRAIN, 37.0836399794,-118.4534599781,04/17/2002,01:16:55,UPPER BRAINERD 11K Waypoint,D,SFORKP, 37.0676300526,-118.4526699781,04/17/2002,01:17:13,SOUTHFORK PASS 12.5K Waypoint,D,LK3589, 37.0592299700,-118.4523600340,04/17/2002,01:17:48,LAKE 3589 11.8K Waypoint,D,BISHOP, 37.3614407778,-118.3958463669,05/12/2000,16:45:56,395 JCT 168 IN BISHOP Waypoint,D,BIGPIN, 37.1661000252,-118.2894333601,03/17/2003,16:13:34,395 GLACIER LODGE RD IN BIG PINE Waypoint,D,BEFORK, 37.0959000587,-118.4568500519,05/22/2006,07:36:17,BRAINERD DRAINAGE EAST FORK Waypoint,D,LK3600, 37.0666999817,-118.4811166525,05/22/2006,07:48:36,LAKE AT 3600M OR 11800FT Waypoint,D,NORMAP, 37.0741167068,-118.4734166861,09/02/2005,14:31:54,12_9 NORMAN CLYDE PEAK 13855 Waypoint,D,PALCRE, 37.0814833641,-118.4896333218,09/02/2005,14:31:54,12_10 PALISADE CREST 13553 Waypoint,D,JEPSON, 37.0888333321,-118.4951000214,05/22/2006,07:58:15,MT JEPSON 4081M Waypoint,D,SCIMIT, 37.0852500200,-118.4911500216,05/22/2006,08:07:25,SCIMITAR PASS Waypoint,D,ELINOR, 37.0963000059,-118.4796166420,05/22/2006,08:07:42,ELINORE LK 11K Waypoint,D,NSPARK, 37.1278166771,-118.4273833036,03/17/2003,16:13:34,NORTH AND SOUTH FORK PARKING 7700 Waypoint,D,NSFORK, 37.1251499653,-118.4369666576,03/17/2003,16:13:34,NORTH AND SOUTH FORK TRAILHEAD 7800 Waypoint,D,NCBASE, 37.0722413063,-118.4772561789,06/28/2006,20:26:53,BASE OF CHUTE TO NORMAN CLYDE 3860M Waypoint,D,CLIFFB, 37.0599116087,-118.4662988186,04/17/2002,01:21:05,CLIFF BAND SOUTH OF BALCONY Waypoint,D,CHIMNY, 37.0720497370,-118.4932703972,05/22/2006,08:07:00,CHIMNEY PASS 3800M Waypoint,D,NCCAMP, 37.0633249283,-118.4774205685,06/28/2006,20:26:53,CAMP BELOW NORMAN CLYDE Waypoint,D,BALCMP, 37.0608406067,-118.4574766159,04/17/2002,01:20:29,CAMP BELOW BALCONY