Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Palisade Excursion

In 2006 I went up the East Side Sierras to the Palisade Glacier. As always, Dave Rivas was equal partner in the venture. The goal was simple: climb four 14,000' peaks in 5 days. The execution was more complicated, and had the weather cooperated, we would have succeeded. We gave it more than just the "college try".

Things went well the first two days, which were spent backpacking and snow-slogging up to the glacier. I'll never forget coming over this ridge and seeing this most incredible cirque of magnificent peaks: Mt. Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight Peak and Thunderbolt Peak. Four of those come in at over 14,000'. That night we found a sweet spot on some rocks above the glacier. We set about preparing ouselves for the glacier traverse and subsequent climb up a 45-50 degree chute called the U-Notch. From the notch we would have a couple hundred more feet of technical rock to climb up to achieve summit ridge of North Pal. Looking intently at the route we would take, it occured to me that there was nobody within miles of us. I started wondering if we were tackling this a bit early in the climbing season, but remained undeterred.

Crossing the glacier and the bergshrund was uneventful, and we started up the notch, cramponing on clean, hard snow with the sun rising at our backs. That was just a beautiful climb, but I did notice the wind picking up, gusts flying down in our teeth. The weather deteriorated rapidly. With the temperature plunging, the wind gusting strong enough to be a real hazard, and a gritty kind of sleet blowing straight into us, we paused for a quick consideration of our options. We had summitted the U-Notch and the weather had become so dangerous that descending would be hazardous, even though we had the gear and rope to rapell the 800' to the glacier. Also, neither of us were ready to concede the idea of at least climbing a couple of these summits. What if we descended back to base camp and the weather was fine the next day? What if we bivouacked on the U-Notch and the weather was good enough to keep climbing in the morning?

Given that neither of us were showing any signs of quit, we hunkered down for a thoroughly miserable night. We had chopped some body sized-ledges into a patch of snow that clung to the north wall of the notch. Dave and I crawled into our bivy-sacks as the weather went from bad to hideous. We spent that night at nearly 14,000' kicking each other, trying not to slip off our ledge, and trying not to think about sunshine and cold Coronas. All night the wind just ripped down on us and over a foot of snow blew into the little crevices around us. It was a long, bleak night.

Dawn was hazy and cold. the wind seemed worse that ever and fresh ice and snow had blown into any available surface. There was no way we could climb in these conditions. Time to call it a trip and descend. The trip down went pretty smoothly for a while until it became obvious that we had best be on a rope. On the third rappel, nearing the gaping bergshrund, the old fixed pitons we had anchored to just blew out. I didn't know what had happened until I was falling. As I was throwing all my weight onto my ice-axe I saw a big cube of granite go sailing past me and screamed out a warning to Rivas, who was below me. Looking back on it, I don't remember even giving that fall much thought. The rules were simple: warn your climbing partner, self-arrest your fall, untangle yourself from the rope, and keep going down.

When we got to the bergshrund, we were able to get out of the wind, and the schrund protected us from falling rock. I don't think Dave believed it when I fired up the stove and set to making coffee. We were reasonably safe now, so it was time for coffee and a joint. I think we handled ourselves with considerable skill on that peak. We didn't quit. We had to be kicked off it.

We spent that night drying out on the moraine below the glacier. We drank all the vodka and smoked lots of cigarettes and pot. We ate like refugees. The following morning we were hiking down the forest when we ran across some folks who had gotten stopped by the storm. They looked at us with incredulity, and something like respect, written all over their faces. That scene was replayed all the way down that trail. Apperantly the storm had been the real deal. Folks were talking about it in Bishop. And there we were, chin up, glued to that icy mountain at 14,000 feet. It was time to hit the Keohe Hot Springs.

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