Norman Conquest: Norman Clyde Peak

25 Jul 1999 - by David Ress

The Big Dr. Duck and I climbed Norman Clyde Peak via the Twilight Pillar last Sunday, 7/25/99. Read on if you want the details.


Norman Clyde Peak (14000'-) is that darn nice looking piece of granite just N of Middle Palisade; the Twilight Pillar is the direct line of ascent up its east face to the summit. We took 3 days to do the climb, hiking into Finger Lake the first day, doing the climb on the second, and exiting on the third. Total elevation gain of 3200' to the summit made for a long (5.5 hours) and arduous approach to start of climb. The last few hundred feet of the approach was class 3-4. The climb itself was remarkably short, requiring only four 50-m pitches of technical rock climbing. Each pitch required some 5.9 climbing, but the crux sections were short, and the majority of the climbing was less severe. We used 5 hours to complete these four pitches. We descended the NE face, a long and very tiring endeavor featuring a seemingly endless sequence of loose-rock covered class 3-4 ledges. It took us abour 4 hours to reach class-2 terrain again, just at the moonlit nightfall. Bumbling about the boulder fields back to camp took yet another exhausting 4 hours.


The description of the route provided by Secor's new edition was by far the most accurate, except as regards the final "four pitches in a trough" which seemed to be only one pitch in length. Rack up to a #2 Camalot. We used a pair of 50-m 8.5-mm ropes, but the climb and descent might be easier with a single 60-m rope, for we never needed to perform a double-rope rappel.

Approach. From Finger Lake we climbed up a ill-defined subordinate ridge that connects to a saddle below the NE face of the mountain. This was a typical talus/scree slog, mundane alpine travel. From the saddle, we scrambled up increasingly steep terrain on the fringe of a permanent snowfield. The technical climbing begins at the base of a prominent R-facing dihedral on a convenient ledge.

Pitch 1. I took the first lead, and, not liking the confines of the dark dihedral, began on the face just left of the dihedral. About 80' of pleasant and occasionally 5.9 face climbing brought me to a point where the difficulty exceeded 5.10, but here it was easy to traverse back into the dihedral. Some stemming and a brief 5.9 leftward traverse to exit the dihedral completed the major difficulties of the pitch. There were many possible belay positions now available, but stretch the rope out if you want to complete the climb in four 50-m pitches.

Pitch 2. Dr. Duck took (or got stuck with) this lead, the crux pitch of the climb. The vertical extension of the RF dihedral of the previous pitch had now become a broken crack. Climb this steepening crack past an awkward bulge. Pro placement options are excellent here, but small cams are useful to mitigate the awkward stances. The Duck managed this crux in excellent style; I think that he somehow gets a footwork advantage by rolling his webbed feet into those itty-bitty climbing slippers. Beyond the bulge, the difficulty eases somewhat, but still involves some awkward mixed jamming and stemming. Stretch the rope out to a good belay ledge.

Pitch 3. This was the cream of the climb, one of the finest alpine pitches I have ever done. Begin by climbing toward the right side of the pillar, surmounting two blocky steps (5.8). Now, avoid the impulse to continue right into the easier-looking but much less aesthetic gully/face, and instead traverse back to the left and up directly onto the now quite narrow prow of the Twilight Pillar. This "delicate move," as described in Secor, was a short bit of 5.9. Once on the prow, the climbing was truly marvelous, a long sequence of mostly 5.7 moves up a solid vertical arete broken only by small edges and cracks. This kind of exposed position is what I really love most in rock climbing, with a 1000' of exposure below one's feet and nothing but air to both sides. After about 100', the arete became more blocky, and there were several options for a comfortable belay ledge.

Pitch 4. The terrain above now became broken and blocky, and I thought that the difficulties were basically over. I was wrong. Dr. Duck once again did a marvelous job of leading us through a sequence of overhanging blocks that required more awkward 5.8/9 jams and stems. By stretching the rope again, he was able to reach the summit ridge. When I arrived, I had only to scramble up a few feet to find myself on the summit of Norman Clyde Peak. We were soon both quacking for joy! (Hanging out with Dr. Duck brings out my fowler aspects.) There were only five other ascents of Norman Clyde this year, mostly by the Twilight Pillar. In the previous year, one entry stated "solo up Eagle Face in six hours from car." A later entry parodied "...Twilight Pillar. Two weeks from car in swim fins." That was worth another couple quacks!

Descent. We were immediately able to change into mountain boots. We went west along the summit ridge until just past the Thunderbird Ridge, where a rappel station exists. A single rope rappel brings one past a short steep section and onto the broken N. Face. Then followed a seemingly endless process of wandering down from ledge to ledge, periodically requiring exposed 4th-class moves. The length, exposure, and endless supply of loose rock on this route made the descent tiring and unpleasant. We encountered several additional rappel stations, but made use of only one more single-rope rappel on this face. The relatively low angle and broken character of this face made rappelling problematic and time-consuming. It was better to simply grit one's teeth and continue downclimbing whenever possible. Were I to do it over again, I might be inclined to rappel the route rather than take on this dirty and monotonous face.

Upon reaching the aformentioned saddle, we chose to descend immediately to the slabby terrain immediately NE of the Middle Pal glacier, rather than reverse our steps. We hoped that this would save time and energy, for it was nearing dark, and we were dismally tired. This required finding some break in the headwall that forms the saddle, and we were only partially successful. One more single-rope rap was needed to reach the gentler, class-2 terrain below. By the time we got this final rap undone, it was dark. We were safely past the climbing difficulties, but still had 2 miles and 2000 vertical feet of talus and scree to descend back to camp. It was shadowy moonlight dark, and we were very, very tired. To make matters worse, the Duck was by now in a particularly fowl mood, and I, as always, am thoroughly lame.

This wasn't the first time I had been caught out after dark, but I used to have more functional joints. Chronic pain is very disruptive of proprioception, so in the dark, my balance is very bad. My ambulation success rate was probably no better than 99% during that long staggering march through the moonlit rubble piles, meaning that I fell over about ever 2 or 3 minutes. By now, I think I could qualify for stunt-man duty. I frequently adopted an odd, quadripedal locomotion scheme, feeling alternately ape- and spider-like. The Duck's mood continued to deteriorate, and he would occasional explode with a series of epithets against the route and the universe in general. But, there was nothing to do but stagger onwards. It was past midnight before we finally arrived back at our camp.

We sat for a few minutes drinking water at the outlet of Finger Lake. There is a remarkable peace that comes from reaching safe haven at the end of a long ordeal. Sitting there amidst the moonlit massiveness of the Palisades, the rushing glittering stream of water, the lush green grass, I felt utterly fulfilled.

My Thermorest had a hole in it that night, but it didn't matter.

Butch Suits adds:

Congratulations on climbing the Pillar. I was intrigued by how different your description was from my experience of this climb last year. I think my partner and I did find the shallow "trough" that is mentioned in the route description. We climbed the dihedral on the prow, then midway through the second pitch, entered the trough by traversing right perhaps 15 feet (instead of continuing straight up through a small roof).

Your description also explains why we didn't encounter what another friend referred to as the "house of cards" pitch at the top. That sounds like the overhanging blocks that you mentioned near the summit. We topped out after 5 pitches perhaps 20 feet to the right of the summit. The first pitch was 5.8-5.9, the others were between 5.7 and 5.8. I mention this mainly to assure people that there is an easier way up, though perhaps not as spectacular as your route.

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