Mt. Winchell and Mt. Gayley

19-21 Sep 2003 - by Ron Norton

Mount Winchell (13,775') and Mount Gayley (13,510') are located in one of the more "exclusive neighborhoods" of the sierra - the Palisades. With neighbors like North Palisade, Mt. Sill, Starlight and Thunderbolt peaks, it is easy to see how these fine climbs might be overlooked. As we discovered on an early fall trip to this spectacular area, both of these climbs are worthy objectives and should not be overlooked.

Friday Sept 19th

Our group consisted of Steve Eckert, Greg Jacobus, Paul Morash, Suzanne Pletcher, Susan Zaleschuck and myself. Five of us met at 7:30 a.m. and began our leisurely hike into Sam Mack Meadow (Suzanne would join us in camp later). Even with a relaxed pace and ample breaks we were in camp by 1:00 p.m. Rather than put our extra time to productive use, most of us chose to read, snooze and otherwise laze around camp enjoying the beautiful weather until dinner time.

Saturday Sept. 20th

We were up and moving by 7:00 a.m. for the day's objective, Mt. Winchell. Our route out of Sam Mack Meadow took us southwest up a steep talus slope along the small stream that feeds the meadow. As we crossed the stream near the top of the slope, we had to be extra careful due to ice that had formed on some of the rocks. We continued following this small drainage to it's source - a small lake just south of Sam Mack Lake. We passed this lake along the east shore while admiring the unique ice patterns that had formed in shallow parts of the lake. We also spotted a couple of nice bivy sites that had been carved out of the talus.

From here we meandered up and down and through the moraines until we were at the foot of the southeast face. We then followed the first shallow gully that took us northeast and towards the east arte (our intended route). Rather than following this gully all the way to the east arte, we took a more direct route by turning into a steep chute that headed northwest. This chute, which has a prominent band of white rock near the top, terminates on the east arte. Once on the arte, we enjoyed solid, 3rd class climbing all the way to the summit where we topped out around noon. We spent an hour or so enjoying the expansive views and warm weather and then headed back down. Instead of retracing our ascent route, we stayed true to the arte down to about 13,000 ft where the angle eases and the fun down climbing ends.

Others contemplating this route might want to get onto the arte as low as possible (it looked to us like it would go all the way from it's beginning at ~12,400'). While this is not the most direct route, it would be the most aesthetic.

After a relaxed hike back, we were in camp at 4:00 where we spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening watching a seemingly endless parade of climbing parties trudging into the already crowded meadow.

Sunday Sept. 21

Since I wanted to make it back to the trailhead at a reasonable hour, I was able to convince everyone that we should leave for Mt. Gayley at first light (6:00 a.m.). Mt biggest fear as we worked our way out of the meadow in the early morning light, was stepping on one of our late arriving neighbors who may have been forced to sleep on one of the last flat spots left in the area - the trail! Luckily, there were no such unfortunate encounters and in no time at all we were at Gayley camp surveying the next portion of our climb.

Our plan was to ascend to Glacier Notch via the Palisade Glacier and then climb the southwest ridge of Gayley. During yesterday's climb we'd all had a good look at the section of the glacier we would be on - and it looked nasty! Lots of rubble and rock fall - an unpleasant route at best. As we worked our way through the boulder field towards the glacier, I kept glancing at the west face of Gayley wishing a route would materialize. Then, almost simultaneously, Suzanne, Paul and I all pointed out a defect in the west face that might work - serendipity? Perhaps not, but it was a hell of a lot closer than continuing over to the glacier, so we all agreed to give it a go.

We dropped our crampons and ice axes at the base of the west face and headed up a steep (and sometimes loose) gully that angled off to the southeast (climbers right). About half way up, this gully ends and we worked our way left on a couple of short ramps until we found a steep chute that led us up to the southwest ridge (Note: we hit the ridge about midway between Glacier Notch and the summit). From here it was an easy climb along the "yellow brick road" to the summit where we arrived at 9:00 a.m. After a quick snack we retraced our route back to camp, packed up and headed back to the cars (3:15 p.m.) and civilization.

My thanks to everyone who joined me on this perfect sierra weekend for a couple of very enjoyable class 3 climbs.

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