Middle Palisade Pk. - the High Sierra

18 Jun 1999 - by Don Graham

On June 18th my partner, Scott, and I left Glacier Lodge near Big Pine and hiked the 5-1/4 miles along the South Fork trail to Finger Lake. The 5 miles to Brainerd Lake was pretty pleasant; the trail is "easy" except for the steep middle third section. We did have to cross the South Fork of the Big Pine River. We found a spot about 3 feet deep and 15' across which we waded; the water was freezing - ouch! The steep, off-trail hike from Brainerd to Finger was pretty strenuous and we arrived a bit beat after a total of 5 hrs of hiking.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 to climb the 3rd class "NE Face" of Middle Palisade. The weather was perfect again, actually a bit too warm: the Middle Palisade glacier was soft even at 7:30am. (Crampons were left lashed to our packs). We were camped at the north end of Finger Lake, so first we traversed the west side of the lake, staying about 50' up on a series of benches. Once past the lake we were on snow. We kicked steps for 3 hrs to reach the NE face. The setting was beautiful; we were not to see a sole the entire trip. The sky was perfectly clear, and the snow was clean and white.

We found the start of the climb approx. 100 feet up and left of the large red & white rock band that traverses the toe of the face. An approx. 8 foot wide, 3rd class, ledge diagonals up and right (almost horizontally so). You walk up this ledge; it's real easy. [If you approach the face on the moraine (or just left of it) that divides the Mid Pal glacier, you'll be positioned to find the start.] We stepped off the snow and onto the ledge and took a seat. The view was great. We decided to stash our crampons, but keep our axes, since there were large fields of snow still up on the face.

We traversed the ledge and came to a gully that we started up. It was nice to be scrambling on dry rock instead of kicking steps! Hand and foot holds were everywhere, we could climb about as fast as we cared to. This gully merged with a larger gully after clearing a huge double-peaked pillar on the right. This is where Scott and Don's 40 years of climbing experience couldn't save them from the bad description in Secor's book! We traversed into the next gully right, instead of staying in the merged large gully. We were now off-route, though we didn't know it. The climbing continued, and we steered to the left when the gully split (as described in the guides). We encountered some short 4th class sections near the top of our route, just before we topped-out on the spectacular summit ridge.

We started the exhilarating traverse to the summit. Large blocks had to be skirted left and right, the exposure to the West was huge; a slip off and you were gone! As we crossed the ridge it became obvious which gully we were supposed to ascend. We made the last few 3rd class moves to the very summit and at the top a single block sat waiting to be sat on - a great summit. We were on top at 12:30.

We descended the gully that leads directly to the summit. This was indeed less steep at the top but maybe had a bit more loose rock than our route. To hit this route, do not traverse into the next gully right as we did. When the first gully merges with the large one to the right, just keep continuing up, bearing left. Eventually the gully will split; take the left branch to the summit.

By the time we got back to the glacier and glissaded back to camp we had been moving for 9-1/2 hrs. We still had 3 hrs of light however, and we rested and dined on freeze-dried. Slowly, fatigue gave way to curiosity about tomorrow's ascent of Norman Clyde Pk.

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