Stalwart 7 Successfully Summit North Palisade

10 Jul 1996 - by Peter Maxwell

North Palisade is, according to Secor, the peak to climb in the High Sierra, and on the July 4 weekend seven of us set out to do it by the classic route - the U-notch. With 007 people, we had a license to kill all thoughts of failure. The "magnificent seven" were Debbie Benham, Brian Boyle, David Harris, Kelly Maas, Peter Maxwell (organizer), Paul Scheidt and Joe Stephens.

Due to some people waiting at the wrong trailhead, we didn't start hiking until 9:15 am. Progress was further slowed due to Paul's suffering the aftereffects of eating bad food the day before. Voracious mosquitoes were everywhere, requiring copious amounts of bug juice.

Second Lake was as far as we got for lunch, and we didn't arrive at Sam Mack Meadow until sufficiently late in the afternoon that it didn't seem worthwhile trying to go higher. "Leader's privilege" meant nothing on this trip. After having set up my bivvy bag in what I thought was a very nice location, Kelly shamed me into moving by using the argument that I'd claimed one of the few tent sites. Suitably humbled, I found a spot nestled among the rocks, but neither of us was aware of the palatial ballroom that Joe found a short distance away. We were above the worst of the mosquitoes, but there were still enough around to require bug juice to repel them.

Friday morning saw us reasonably efficient, in that we were up at 6 am and left camp at 7:30. From the meadow at 11040 feet we hiked up to 12200 feet, where we made camp on snow on the flat top of the moraine about 50 feet up from the little lake where the Palisade Glacier terminates. Were it not for the snow we would have had a hard time trying to find flat spaces for the three tents, since the ground was basically rocks. This was a campsite with a view! We were surrounded by the Palisades, starting from Gayley on the left and ending with Agassiz and Robinson on the right. The luxury was added to by discovering a large pool of water by a boulder in the middle of camp. This avoided the necessity of having to melt snow.

We arrived around 9:30 am, and noted that already there was a party of four climbing up the U-notch. More on this later. After setting up camp, David, Kelly and Paul went off to climb Sill, Joe (who claimed he was out of peak bagging mode now) and Brian stayed at camp, and Debbie and I went out for a "stroll" to the ridge between Gayley and Temple Crag.

In the Sill group, David appeared to have been shot out of a cannon as Paul and Kelly lagged behind. At Glacier Notch they met a gal named Kelly, whose friends were off climbing Polemonium. The softening snow made the ascent of Sill's northern snow field a real trudge, but Paul was miraculously rejuvenated by the nearness to the summit. The traverse to Sill's west ridge was the usual dicey affair, which was class 3 except for one move that was proclaimed class 4. A short scramble then put them on the summit at 1:00. One amusing register entry by Reinhold Hardman told of obtaining the summit via a Tyrolean Traverse from Mt. Alice. His elapsed time from the trailhead was 1:38:43. David dropped the register down a crack, then went in head first, up to his knees, to fish it out. Further register reading indicated that this stunt had been performed previously!

By mid-afternoon those of us at camp were starting to wonder why it was that no-one who went up the U-notch ever came back. There was the original party of four we saw, and two more guys who had come through our camp around 10 am. Eventually these two did show up and turned up back at our camp around 5 pm. It turns out they were day hiking North Pal, having started from the carpark at 6:30 am! They didn't have any ropes or equipment with them, either. The other four finally appeared around 8 pm, but didn't make it to our campsite until 11:15 pm! They were shining their lights everywhere and talking, "Oh, people are camped here".

Next morning we were up at 5 am, in temperatures just cold enough to put a thin layer of ice on my bivvy sac. We eventually left camp around 6:20 am, making the 1000 foot climb to the bergschrund by 7:30. We were lucky to be able to step over it at the far right hand side (one large step up onto a snow bank), so one potentially really challenging task was easily accomplished. From there to the top of the couloir took us until 8:45, which wasn't too bad. Much of this was in the shade, which was perfect for energetic climbing, and it kept the snow in pristine, hard condition, perfect for cramponing. We kept to the right hand side as there was quite a lot of rockfall evidence on the left - some larger boulders had fallen down, slid down the snow and leapt the bergschrund. Just before quitting the snow for rock we encountered some ice, but it wasn't enough to cause any problems. The final scramble up very loose rock was definitely a concern, and it was just as well that we had spread out a bit by then.

At this point, apparently most climbers descend the other side a little to do the easier Clyde variation, but we were intent on doing the classic chimney variation, which goes up two pitches of a 5.4 crack (Roper calls this class 4, but it's definitely not). With seven of us climbing, teamwork was essential, and we set up two ropes, one for each pitch. These enabled people to be climbing in parallel and really shortened the time required. Kelly led up the first pitch and then belayed up Joe and Paul. Joe stayed to belay the rest up the first pitch while Paul led up the second pitch, then belayed people up there. We finished this grand exercise at 11:45 and were then faced with exciting class 3 ridge scrambling to reach the summit by 12:30, just in time for lunch.

After leaving the summit at 1:30, the descent was pretty quick, rappelling down each pitch. Everyone but I had figure-8 descenders, and my method of pitons crossed over a carabiner was met with amazement and polite scoffing. I had to explain that when abseiling (one doesn't rappel in Australia) down canyons into pools of water, one doesn't want to have to disconnect the descender from the harness in order to unclip from the rope - one slip and the descender disappears into the murky depths. Once over the bergschrund it was possible to glissade down the rest of the steep snow, which was in perfect condition. It was then an easy downhill walk back to camp, where the last of us arrived at 6:30.

Next morning, Joe was packed and ready to leave at 6:30 am, the time the rest of us were waking up. David left before the rest of us, accompanied by another person who had shared our campsite with us. He agreed to carry both ropes for us on the condition that we have lunch in Bishop regardless of the hour.

True to our promise, we all joined together for lunch at Sizzler, followed by the most dangerous challenge - the drive home . During the course of conversation it came out that Paul, like myself, brews beer, so for much of the time we were exchanging experiences, talking from one end of the table to the other.

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