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.