Norman Clyde Peak

29-31 Aug 2003 - by Jim Ramaker

As a devotee of challenging class 3-4 Sierra peaks, I had long had Norman Clyde Peak (13,855') on my list. Judging peaks by their easiest route, it's one of the hardest peaks in the range, and as Secor says, referring to the NNE Ridge route, "many outstanding climbers have been defeated." The trip reports for this route are all over the map -- with Ron Hudson reporting a trouble-free climb that was done at 3:30 p.m., and others describing epics that lasted until 10 p.m. or even ended in forced bivvys.

Bob Suzuki and I agreed to try Norman Clyde on Labor Day weekend, and Ron Karpel joined us. After a pleasant night at Deadman's Summit, Bob and I met Ron at Schaat's Bakery on Friday morning, drove down to Big Pine, and finally left Big Pine Creek trailhead (7800') about 10 a.m., our packs weighed down by two 50-meter ropes and a good-sized rack of climbing gear. We toiled up the beautiful trail over the unnamed pass at 9800' and up through the forest to Finger Lake (10,800'), where we arrived about 3 p.m. We camped in a small meadow at the far end of the lake, with Ron managing to find the exact flat spot where he had slept on the Middle Pal trip that he had led back in June.

We tried napping, but the narrow, fiord-like valley made the sun feel hot, until it dipped below the canyon wall at 4 p.m. and left us in pleasantly cool shadow. By 6 p.m. we had cooked and eaten, and by 7 we were in our bags, expecting a big day to come.

Saturday we were up at 5:30 and rolling at 6:30, heading up the gully to the alpine lake above us along with a party on the way to Middle Pal. From there we could see the magnificent NNE Ridge or Norman Clyde, rising steeply, more like an arete than a ridge, to the summit. We toiled up a long boulderfield onto the long, nearly level ridge that leads northeastward from the peak at the 12,500' level. Ron bailed out at this point with altitude sickness -- he was feeling weak and didn't want to slow us down. Bob and I arrived at the sharp 40-foot notch in the ridge visible from below and were surprised to find no rappel point, until we located a circuitous class-3 crack leading down over to the left.

At 10 a.m. we reached the point where the ridge suddenly steepens, and we scrambled to the right onto the north face. As with Clyde Minaret, it's important to memorize this spot for the descent -- looking at it from the north face, the crossing point has a small scree shelf with a lightning-bolt shaped crack in the boulder above it. The face looked impressive -- a vast expanse of steep slabs, cracks, and ribs with no major distinctive features -- and the two route variations in Secor and the half dozen or so trip reports on the Web all seem to describe a slightly different way up it.

We traversed right about 100 feet until the slabs above us looked doable unroped, then headed up, with a discontinuous steeper buttress on our right. The thing that makes this route fascinating is the continual routefinding choices and the sustained steepness -- it's a real challenge to weave around and find the easiest holds and cracks so that the climbing stays more class-3 than class-4. The angle can get disorienting -- at one point higher up, I was studying some smooth interconnecting ramps above and was heartened to see that they seemed quite easy and no more than about 45 degrees steep. Then I turned around to look out at the horizon and reorient my brain, and realized that they were much steeper than that.

At about 3/4 height, the face steepened slightly and became pretty much continuous class-4, and after Bob led up a smooth little dihedral, I asked him to lower a rope. I followed the pitch of 100 feet or so, and then, since we were roped up, we decided to just head more or less straight up instead of searching around for the easiest way. Bob led two more similar-length pitches, and then headed up a near vertical crack on one last pitch to the summit ridge. Belaying on a ledge around a corner, I couldn't see Bob, and I started freezing my butt off in the deep shade of the north face as the rope stopped moving for almost 30 minutes. This on a day when it was close to 100 degrees down in the Central Valley!

Bob called down that he just couldn't get a piece in to protect a hard move with loose rock just above him. Some rocks cascaded down past me as he struggled with it, refusing to give up. Finally, after taking a short fall, he gave in to my pleas to downclimb a bit and try another line to the left. A few minutes after that he was on the summit ridge, and I soon joined him there, grateful for the sudden warm sun and the tremendous views. We belayed a little ways leftward on the ridge, then unroped and continued along the airy, blocky ridge, with a 50 foot drop on our right and some really big air above the Eagle Face on our left. Around 2 p.m., we were up. What a great climb! Views were spectacular on a beautiful clear day, especially along the airy, jagged ridge over to Middle Pal.

At 3 p.m. we rapped off the ridge about 50 feet west (left, looking down) of the NNE ridge. Two more moderate-length raps and we unroped and started carefully downclimbing. We'd been told to expect rap slings all over the face, but we saw almost none both on the way up and the way down, and so had to leave our own. No, we did not exactly retrace our complex route on the way up, though we did intersect it several times as I recognized certain cracks and holds. About halfway down the face, we were stopped by a steep slab just below us, and instead of reclimbing a bit and traversing to find an easier way down, we decided to do one more rappel. The rope stuck when we pulled it -- often a problem on a less-than-vertical face like this one, but I managed to scramble up unroped about 20 feet and free it. After that, I led down a bit more to the left (west) than on the way up, and things went pretty easily, until at long last I spotted the lightning-bolt shaped crack off to our right and a discontinuous ledge system leading over to it. At 5:30 p.m. we traversed right and ended our long adventure on the north face.

But we were not quite done with the challenges -- instead of retracing our steps along the ridge top heading to the north, Bob wanted to try rappelling down off it to the right (east), to get down to easier ground more quickly. It looked like a long way down to me, longer even than a double-rope rappel with Bob's two 50-meter ropes, but after working our way down on some ledges to where the face dropped off vertically, we found a rap station with about six slings, plus another six in a pile beside it. And 30-40 feet below that, down on some class-4 terrain, was a second rap station with another six or so slings (for those with shorter ropes). It almost looked like someone had stripped slings off the north face above and deposited them all here. We rapped off the upper anchor, and Bob, going first, had to hang in the air halfway down to untangle the ropes below him. Finally, at 6:30 p.m., I floated down onto the talus below, with the 50-meter ropes just barely reaching the ground. After a tired but happy talus slog, we pulled into camp and greeted Ron at 8 p.m., just as it was getting dark.

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