Sunday, June 27, 2010

Middle Palisade 14,040 feet, East Face, Class III

After blowing ourselves up on Split Mountain for 3 days straight our last thoughts should be about climbing another big peak. Instead, these were our first thoughts. This was our plan, and after a quick bath at the Keohes we headed up to Glacier Lodge on Big Pine Creek for a rendezvous with the South Fork trailhead. We spent the evening at a campsite, reorganizing and compressing gear, airing out stuff, and throwing together a fine meal from the dutch oven. Clearly we were both pretty beat and the discussion around the camp fire turned on when we should take a rest day. Eventually we decided to get up to a base camp on Finger Lake (10,500') the next day and take the following day off. By the time we got to Finger, it wasn't even a question. We were battered. And then it snowed on us for about an hour as if to welcome us back to Middle Pal.The South Fork Big Pine creek trail is nice and travels out of the alpine desert, up through pines and meadows, over rocky crags, and finally arrives at a fjord-like lake. Our exhausted condition colored our perception of the wonders around us. After all, we'd been here just last year and all we wanted to do was drop pack, eat, drink, medicate, and sleep. I'd never seen Rivas this worn and I'm sure the feeling was mutual. We did not discuss anything to do with Middle Pal that night.The next morning we woke late and drank coffee while perched on a rock in the sun. Only bodily functions could move our corpses from such a place. The simple tasks of living were frequently hilarious to observe. All the creaking and groaning required to do the littlest thing was just damn funny. Later in the day we were motivated enough to climb a small ridge in order to better visualize our approach to the peak. Other rest day tasks included repairing a glove, laying in the sun by the lake, eating, a nap, more eating, more Advil. I know alot of folks who would prefer laying poolside but our pool, icy though it be, had some pretty good views.
The next morning we woke at 04:00 and went through all the AM steps: shivering, coffee, layers, cold boots, etc.. We were crossing the outlet of Finger Lake at 04:30, a good alpine start to what looked to be a beautiful weather day. A good day to climb. The approach to Middle Palisade is fairly straightforward and involves ascending a series of ledges which deposit one on the glacier. The snow on the glacier was soft and we were able to hit the gas. We picked a very direct line and by 06:30 we were just nearing the end of the snow and about to actually start the route.
Once on rock the pace slowed considerably. The first several hundred feet involved a very steep and loose transition onto the face of the mountain. Good morning! Time to get up and go to work! The route was as advertised, long, steep, and class 3 (scrambling). Many times I led us onto more difficult terrain, mostly to avoid snow/ice, loose rock, or simply to take the most expedient line. We made good time and it was gratifying to look down and see the world falling further away with each move.
The rock quality improved with elevation and with it the quality of the actual climbing. The final 300 yards were enjoyable and went quickly. As we neared the summit things tipped back into steep territory, but Dave and I both remarked, at about the same time, that every time we reached up there just happened to be a big, fat hold. You would reach up to where you would naturally want a hold and, voila, it was there. Unlike many Sierra routes, this one did not deposit us on a summit ridge. Instead, it took us right to the summit, a collection of jagged rocks reaching for the sky. And there we were. Done. Topped out. It was 10:15 and we had ascended 3,500 feet in 5:45 hours. Not bad.
On the summit we had a nice lunch (salami, cheese, pita) and just lounged around. To the north was arrayed the massive hulks of the Palisade Crest, now at eye level. To the south we could make out Whitney, Tyndall, Williamson, Russel and that bastard from just days before, Split Mountain. Less than a half mile of dangerous ridgeline away was the summit of Norman Clyde Peak, a sheer mass of granite who's namesake had more Sierra first ascents than any other mountaineer. Our plan had been to climb that peak the next day but Dave's knee was all swollen up and starting to become a real problem for him. I wanted that peak, and so did he but the reality was that with Dave's knee the way it was, and our general state of fatigue, it just wasn't gonna happen. Both of us were content with our two 14ner summits. Also, we still had a long and hideous descent to complete and who knew what shape we'd be in by nightfall.
They say you haven't climbed a mountain until you're back on flat ground. The descent was easily more difficult than the ascent, simply because down-climbing is kind of an unnatural act. We took great pains to ensure the integrity of each boot placement and handhold, especially on the loose stuff. Also, we didn't want any rockfall. Picking our way down the mountain seemed to take forever and staring downward into a background of solar reflecting glacier was giving me a glare headache. Dave was doing the best he could with his knee the way it was and I could tell it was really getting to him, but he got himself there and he would get himself down.

Once we had finished the rock stuff and transitioned onto the glacier things sped up. I had seen whole fields of sun-cups in the morning hours and had been concerned that making our way down the glacier would be treacherous at best. I was wrong. The snow had softened considerably and we were able to either glissade or slide-step down nearly all of the snow. Regardless, the descent took longer than the climb and I was very happy to be crossing the creek at the bottom of Finger Lake. I was so tired that I stumbled a couple of times on the last hundred feet into our camp, but I did manage to get the stove going and had coffee nearly ready when Dave limped in.
He was so beat he basically crashed on his bag for a while. I just couldn't stop eating and I polished off around 3 liters of Gatoraid in an hour and a half while staring with a glazed expression at nothing.

In the morning we reaffirmed our agreement to forgo Norman Clyde Peak and, since we look forward to this trip all year, we decided to just enjoy the day at camp. No need to rush home. So we just lay around watching clouds, playing chess, and dozing in the sun. It was a simple, calming, and rejuvenating day. As the day progressed a weird combination of cumulus and stratus clouds built up over the east side of the Sierra. Before long we could hear thunder and could see heavy showers to the north and east of us. It was a strange and beautiful display, made more dramatic by the relative calm at our camp. It's not been often in my experience that I could actually watch Sierra weather unfold. Usually it just pastes us and that's that, so it was cool to just watch things happen.

Late in the afternoon a father/son duo showed up with plans to climb middle Pal the following day. Okay, good luck with the weather. They were nice guys and we talked for a while before it became clear that of the four people on the mountain, all of us live in Ventura. This was a source of some amusement as one might imagine. We wished them luck and provided what info we could. The next morning we could hear them waking up for an early go when it started raining. We were snug in our shelter and had no reason to get up so we drifted back to sleep, mildly curious as to whether those guys would still attempt the peak, but when we woke up they were somewhere up there. We packed up and rolled downhill to Glacier Lodge.

Down in the Owen's Vally life was pretty good. We had a long soak in the hot springs and drove into Bishop for some supplies, then headed up to the Buttermilk's for our last evening of the trip. We grilled up fillet mignon with salsa, chips, bread, and potato salad. As evening came on we were treated to the type of light show you can only see in the Sierras and just like in the movie "Shane", our trip drifted off with the sunset.

Split Mountain,14,006 feet, via St.Jean Couloir, Class IV

On this quest to top all of California's fourteen thousand foot peaks Dave Rivas and I have chalked up another success. Split Mountain let us sign the register. This was not a "fun run" up a big mountain. Not at all, and by the end of it I had to admit that climbing Split took just about everything I had in the tank. Of course, we didn't pick the easy way to go up. A Class II hike up a peak isn't how I want to remember summiting. Dave Rivas and I want to do these peaks in the early season, ascend by a mountaineering route, and not have it just given to us. This is how we climbed Split.Dave and I set out on the 17th for Bishop. We picked up our permits for both Split and Middle Palisade, hit a couple of stores, took a bath in the Keohe hot springs, and headed back to Big Pine to rendezvous with the road to the trailhead. The drive out was interesting and the rumors about wanting four-wheel drive for this "road" are, I believe, understated. As we drove under the gaze of the Palisades, passing through sub-alpine pasture land and climbing into true desert, we got our heads around the idea that we would soon be suffering somewhere up there. The trailhead for Split was just a dirt turn-around, buggy and boring. Tomorrow the games would begin.We started hiking at 06:30 and immediately got off to the wrong start. The trailhead was poorly marked and ascended a steep hill, but we didn't know this so we just followed some trails made by fisherman and animals up the canyon, eventually linking back up with the real trail. It all worked out in the end as the path we had chosen was really no worse than the actual trail. Hiking up to Red Lake and Split is very tiring. The trail just sucks, averaging 45 degrees of angle and tipping frequently into the 60 degree range, with bugs and brush thrown in for fun. If I were to compare the Red Lake trail with other nasty ones such as Shepherd's Pass, I'd say that every bad thing about those other trails was compressed and amplified, and by late morning we were flogging it. Slogging over those last several hundred yards to Split Lake is an experience I can barely remember as I had slipped into a fugue state characterized by agony and exhaustion.
At the edge of Red Lake found a nice little site to set up for the next two nights. So far, so good. We threw together some chow, organized our gear for the summit, and flopped down for the night. At this point, I'd like to point out that Dave Rivas had just come off working 5 nights in a row, and the morning before we left I was on-call and had to go into the hospital at 03:15 and had never gone back to sleep. So, we were already operating on a sleep deficit, and waking up again at 04:00 to climb a big peak led us to bed early.We woke in the pre-dawn of the 19th, chugged coffee, and saddled up. We had to pick our way around the lake shore and up through a bit of talus before reaching the first snow fields below the peak. Staring upward it was clear that the entire route was going to be a snow-fest so out came the crampons. We picked the most direct line across up the snow and went to work.In the small bergschrund at the base of our route, St. Jean Couloir, we took a break to examine our options. From the schrund we could only see the first several hundred feet of our line, as the couloir was more of a weaving ice chute than a straight shot (this lack of ability to see the end of the chute became more than a little frustrating as the morning wore on).By the time we started kicking steps up 50 degree snow it was 08:00 and the sun was straight at our backs. We were in it for keeps. Dave and I swapped leads, trying to kick the most efficient line. This pounding, clawing scramble for elevation just dragged on and on. At times the angle was 70 degrees steep and we just kept hacking away. We had descended into the mountaineer's work-horse mentality...kick, step, sink the axe, kick, step,... Once in a while a few rocks would pinwheel down the gully, ensuring that we were awake. Kick, step...
The angle really tipped back near the end of St. Jean. I mean it got steep. I slipped once and took about 20 feet of fall before I was able to self-arrest. No big deal. By this time the snow was really soft, requiring more effort and care. We were dog tired and the summit ridge seemed so far away. Throwing ourselves back into it we busted out the last stretch of steep snow and were finally able to scramble out of the couloir.
Crampons off, we made a straight shot up the summit ridge. This is usually my favorite part of a climb but on this day, I just don't even remember the ridge. I only remember suddenly being there, looking out from 14,00 feet at the expanse of the Sierra. I located the summit register and just sat my ass down. Rivas popped onto the summit about 15 minutes later, and guess what? He just sat his tired ass down too. We were all in. Cooked. Done. Nuked. 36 hours ago we were at sea level. Now we were dead tired at 14. It was such a nice day I think we both kind of dozed on the summit for a bit before the inevitable discussion of the descent route.We had two options for the descent, down the way we came up, or walking down the standard Class II easy route which would take at least 3-4 hours. We agreed to take a look at St. Jean for a glissade descent. A glissade is potentially dangerous sleigh ride down a snow slope. Your butt is the sleigh and your axe is the brakes. I've done a number of glissades but I had real concerns about trying to ride down what was essentially double black-diamond extreme skiing territory. Rivas did not, and as I gazed speculatively down St. Jean Dave just walked to the edge, sat down, and within 30 seconds he was out of sight down the chute. Well, shit. Unless I was having auditory hallucinations, Dave was somewhere down there talking to me on the radio, so he was apparently still alive. Well, I thought, what the hell. I sat down, took a deep breath, and launched.This glissade was one of the scariest things I've ever done. Imagine bouncing down a ski slope full of rocks and chunk ice, on your butt, with the illusion of control guiding you ever downward. A couple of times I was 100% out of control, being sucked down the mountain into a terrifying well of gravity. At these times I would roll face down and put everything I had into sinking my axe as deep as I could and clinging to it for dear life. Several times I would come to a complete, jolting stop that left me dangling at the end of my axe leash. I'd have to kick back up to the axe pick, gently loosen it's hold, and then I'd be shooting down the mountain all over again. At one point I went over some rocks that had fallen from above and stuck in the snow. Several of these rocks got dislodged and went zipping down the couloir ahead of me, being chased down by my screams of "Rock! Rock!". One rock, a block the size of two bowling balls, missed Rivas by feet. He had heard my panicked cries and gotten off to the side of the chute, safely out of the way. By the time we got to the base of the peak we had descended in 45 minutes what took 7 hours to climb. Hairy. I was so beat that I went down twice within 300 yards of our campsite. It took a good hour of food, Gatoraid, and no boots to be able to perform normal tasks. We both slept poorly that night, whether due to aches and pains or subconsciously reliving the scares of the day I do not know. We woke the next day and slowly descended to the trailhead. Success! Yes! But tempered with exhaustion. As we drove out our thoughts were turning to a different, bigger mountain... Middle Palisade.