Last year I made some huge gains on my progress to summit all 15 mountains in California over 14,000' above sea level. I climbed five in one trip during the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse. I also climbed Mt. WIlliamson and White Mountain Peak in 2016. Earlier this year, I tackled one of the more complex remaining objectives– Mount Shasta.
The California snow pack in 2017 has been dramatic, and while it was fantastic for the drought, it considerably shortened the alpine climbing season in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. However, just two weeks after summiting the Grand Teton, Luis and I snuck out to bag one more big peak before we head into fall, where days are short and weather can be damning.
Luis picked me up Friday August 18th, 2017 at 7am. Our mission was to drive about 5 hours north to Big Pine and begin our approach to tick off Middle Palisade (14,019′). When we stopped to get gas in Mojave, Luis's car had some mechanical failures, and we were getting stranded in what is literally the middle-of-nowheresville desert.
We started problem solving, rolled the car into some odd truck mechanic place, they drove us 30 miles back towards L.A. to get a rental car in Lancaster (which we barely were able to get). We got in the rental, several hours behind and headed back on track to the Sierras.
At 2pm, we pulled up to the Big Pine Creek Trailhead and headed up the South Fork trail to our destination campground of Finger Lake.
The hike started off gorgeous, really mild trail and much foliage and flowers still in bloom. We had 4.5 miles to hike with 3,500' gain, pretty short and steep.
All that extra snow earlier in the year had created more dangerous stream crossings all over the Sierras. This picture doesn't do justice, but what normally would be a quick rock hop last year has become a DO NOT FALL zone this year. The streams are deep, probably chest high, and the water flow is really powerful and fast. Depending on which stream you cross, and at what time of day, a fall could result in hypothermia, or pushing you into a rapid steep down stream. We were careful and not thrilled with these obstacles, but nothing unmanageable.
A little further up the South Fork trail we caught our first view of Middle Palisade, looked gorgeous (and far away!).
Our late start and car trouble proved to be irrelevant to our schedule. We got to Finger Lake around 6 or 6:30pm. It took about 4 hours to get there. We set up the tent, chatted briefly with three others camping nearby who also hoped to summit Middle Palisade the next day, and eat some dinner. Went to sleep around 10pm.
We woke up at 5am and hiked out of camp at 5:30am. We didn't want to start any earlier because we would be needing some sunlight for all the cross country travel. One guy Matt left camp at 4am, and the other two left about 5am.
we crossed over Finger Lake and started heading up talus slopes towards the Palisade Glacier. At the top of the moraine I turned around while the sun was rising and snapped an epic photograph.
From the same coordinate just turning 180 degrees around I took the above photo of Middle Palisade (left) and Norman Clyde Peak (right) with an amazing morning alpenglow over them. They were full on rosy and pink. Just a few minutes later you can see the image below after full sunrise. A very dramatic difference.
After a couple miles from our bivy site we approached the Palisade Glacier. The above image shows our route drawn in pink. The instructions are to traverse the glacier and gain the rib of rock that divides the glacier in half. From there you take the rib to your chute of choice and scramble to the summit. Well we thought we were slick and instead of heading out to the rib we would shave some distance and gain by heading up a ramp closer to our climbing chute. The snow took us most of the way up this ramp, but when the snow ran out and we took our crampons off, we were left with a really steep, loose, and dangerous scree climb to get to the top of the rib. It was a terrible idea, and was pretty taxing mentally and physically. You can see the red 'X' on the photo, do NOT use that gully to access the rib, take the long way around where the pink arrows are pointing!
Crossing the glacier was actually pretty relaxing. It was heavily sun-cupped but still beats traveling up hill on scree and small talus. It was possible to access the climbing route without bringing crampons, but it was a good change of pace, and on the way back saved us lots of time.
The usual Secor Route is the more preferred climb to the summit. It heads up generally closer to the East face of Middle Palisade, the rock is higher quality and the route is denoted 3rd class. However with the conditions of the glacier (melting away thanks global warming) there was a huge bergshrund at the base of the route, making it too difficult to get off the snow and get onto the rock.
The preferred method to summit in 2017 is to use the "Red Rock Alternative" chute via the northeast face of Middle Palisade. The route finding is easy due to the supremely prominent stripes of red minerals in the rock. In the photo above I am standing by the red rocks and the obvious white chute is the direction of travel.
It looked sketchy and steep from afar but Luis and I just gunned right for it. When we got closer the angle looked a little more mellow, but it the rock was terrible choss and the exposure was pretty prominent. This route eventually meets up with the Secor route, but the consensus is this alternative direction goes fourth class. We didn't overthink just carefully kept moving.
We never say the guy Matt who left camp at 4am, he must have been moving fast. The other 2 guys who left at 5am were waiting and debating at the route start. One man respectfully decided not to get on the rock and headed back to camp at Finger Lake. His partner followed Luis and I to summit.
The "Red Rock Alternative" route is two short chutes that we just did not over think. That was only the beginning, we followed the obvious curvature of the mountain, stopped to review some of the generous beta I received from Suzanne, Kam and Jason (Thanks ya'll!) and made many intuitive climbing decisions to stay on the path of least resistance.
It's hard to describe the climb. While the moves were rarely above 3rd class, that YDS rating does not take into account the thousands of feet of mountain exposure. The entire climb is basically a no-fall-zone. However it would also be really unconventional and feasibly to rope up for it. There is tons of loose rock, some great rock, some ledge systems and other parts of just kinda sketchy slab. Sticky shoes and a helmet would be the uniform for this destination.
At around noon, about five and a half hours after leaving camp, Luis and I scrambled the final rock to the top! David, the gentleman behind us joined us just minutes later. Nobody else was in sight.
The summit had this bad ass registry box bolted to a slanted rock with a wingnut to keep it closed. Inside were three journals dating with signatures dating back to 1990. It was one of the better registry boxes I've seen, even caught Peter Croft's name in one of the journals!
With no more rocks above me to fall on my head, I took my sweaty helmet off and signed the books. I saw Matt's name in there. Was cool to know he made it. Only leaving 90minutes before us, he must have been booking it. We never saw him coming down because we found out later he took an alternate descent, and while he got down safely wound up in a sticky situation on that Secor route.
Here's David and Luis taking in the view just below the true summit block (the shark fin shaped stone behind Luis).
I called my wife (three cell phone bars!) and let her know we made it, but it was really difficult to enjoy the summit because the challenging of getting down was really daunting us. The climb up proved to be heavier, sketchier, and more work than we expected. The high altitude also had my stomach sour and my legs so slow. I would scramble 7 moves and take a rest breath. We were not excited to climb down but getting up is only half the trip!
I busted out my new selfie stick for one more self-portrait on the true summit and then down we went!
This was David's first successful 14er summit, and a bold choice at that! He had no crampons, axe or helmet but handled business. He also lead the descent down, which was wild without a helmet and Luis and I moving around above his head. There were many a few "ROOOCCCCK!" that was called out, but nobody got hit or hurt.
This giant gendarme serves as a major way point to get back down. We came up on the right side of it, so we traced our path back down and stayed to the right of it on the descent. Matt took the right side up and then took the right side DOWN, which is how he got confused and caught up. While you can go either way, I thought it wise to stick to the terrain that we had seen.
With the worst part left for last we down climbed the loosey goosey rock on the red chutes. Slowly and carefully we all got down at 2:30pm. Was much fast getting down than we expected and we were relieved. Too bad we still had a ton of glacier travel, talus moraine descent and a valid water crossing just to get back to camp.
It was much warmer than expected and we were out of water. We spotted an alpine water source on the way up and headed right for it after getting off the glacier. It was so cold and delicious. It was at nearly 13,000' so we didn't think about filtering it. We felt fine, but later found out all that red tinge on the snow is called "watermelon snow" and is an alpine algae that can induce gastric distress if consumed in large quantities. Interesting and now noted to self!
By the time we got Finger Lake back in sight we saw a dude in an inflatable raft paddling around and hooting and hollering. These guys were way up in the middle of nowhere at a random tiny alpine lake just partying hard, RESPECT!
We got back to camp around 5pm, round trip about 12 hours from camp to summit and back to camp. We packed up the sleeping bag and tent quickly and headed back to the Big Pine Creel trailhead. The hike down seemed endless. We got destroyed by mosquitoes and ended up hiking the last hour in the dark. We hiked fast but still didn't get back to the car til 9pm. Headed to Lone Pine and only found one restaurant open at 10:05pm. Ate dinner and drove back to L.A. I got home around 2am, and had been awake for about 21 hours, 16 of which were hiking with no breaks. What a heck of a trip!
Only FOUR more 14ers to go! Won't be done this year, but we were proud to bag Middle Palisade.