Friday, June 17, 2011

Polemonium Peak, 14,080', Class V, from Mt Sill, 05/12/2011

Palisades 2011, Part III (end)
"You guys aren't fishermen, are you?"
Robert, Manager of Bishop Denny's

Davi Rivas and I had just completed a difficult ascent of Mt Sill's North Couloir, and what a good day it had been for us so far. Next up, Polemonium Peak.
We down climbed Sill's rocky shoulder and proceeded to traverse this stretch of the Palisade Crest. Before us lay roughly a half mile of ridge-line. To the right was the sheer drop to the Palisade Glacier, interrupted occasionally by towers and gullies. To the left, a less severe slope, and the expanse of the Sierra back country. I kept my line at least 30' back from the true crest. No need to add walking on cornices to today's menu. Later in the summer this route will be a rocky ridge-run. For us it was a fairly straight forward snow slog with some rocks sprinkled here and there to mess with us, at altitude. We just kind of motored our way over to the Polemonium Glacier, passing the top of the V-Notch. I did not feel intrigued enough to take a look down it.
East Side Fun Fact:
You probably already knew that Mt Whitney and Death Valley are the highest and lowest points in the continental United States respectively, but did you know that about 80 miles north of Whitney are the largest glacier (the Palisade Glacier), and the highest glacier (the Polemonium Glacier) in those same United States? Our base camp was on one and we were trudging up the other.
We finally ran out of any place to keep trudging. We were staring at the summit of Polemonium Peak just 70 feet away. There was a problem. Between us and the summit was a bunch of air and a choice. I had a mini-meltdown then and there. My brained just f'ing bonked on me and for about 30 seconds I issued forth a fount of expletives and bad ideas. I might have said some things about this mountain, all mountains, climbing mountains, and people who climb mountains. I know I wasn't ranting about having a bad day on the back nine.

Allow me to explain the "air & choice" thing. The time of year that normal people do this route, the way is usually to descend a couple hundred feet of Class IV couloir and then ascend the fifth class ridge to the summit. This was not a happy prospect. The couloir in question was a hideously snow-choked luge of death. This is why I lost my mind, in brief. I looked down that chute and did not have the slightest inkling how I was going be able to pull that off without ending up in Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2011.

Well I was thoroughly stumped. What the hell do I do now? I calmed down and started looking around and realized that there was another way. A relatively easy way. I threw a sling around a rock, added a rap-ring, ran the rope through the ring, tied the ends together and tossed it off the edge of our immediate problem. I explained to Davi what we were going to do as I leaned back over the drop. Seventy or so feet of mostly free-air rappelling dropped me on a narrow apex of snow parting the east from the west. The rocky face of Polemonium was was only 15' away. Dave got down, we yanked the rope. I tied in and proceeded to slug it out with about fifty vertical feet of 5.6 or better. I was presented with the well-known "straddle and follow through" move that most people who've been there will remember. I was soon belaying Davi up to the uncomfortable summit. The wind had picked up, we were hammered, and had a long way to go yet, many things to worry about (that whole "most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent" thing). We didn't stay long. I shivered our names into the summit register, snapped a couple quick pictures and started looking for our way down.
Below: Read Davi's mind. I think he's thinking that if he sits down he ain't never gonna get back up again.
Davi located a shitty old rap anchor which we reinforced before once again pitching the rope overboard. As I rapped down I was able to locate our hasty rap station from two days before. Man, we had been so close to the summit the other day. At the time it looked as far away as the moon. Now it was our recent ad-hoc rap station that looked just about over the horizon. It was below us alright, the only problem was that it was way over to the left. Crap. Not ideal, but there it was, the U-Notch and the way down.
I ran out most of the rope on that rappel before fixing a quick belay on a snowy ledge. When Davi joined me and the rope had been pulled I began a hybrid between down climbing and traversing on rappel. This can be an interesting way to move across a mountain. The farther off-center one is on rappel, the bigger the swing if the climber comes off. Upping the ante, so to speak. Why not have the climber get smashed up on a few outcrops of jagged rocks as he arcs through that parabola? What fun! Yeah, so I was on my toes going down that pitch. I made it back to our old station without having a nervous breakdown. After I had freed the rope from my belay I took both ends and tied them in a big figure-eight. I gave Davi about 10' feet of slack and clipped that knot into a cam I had sunk. Now the rope was basically running diagonal to the fall line, and it's probably a good thing I remembered that big-wall trick because Davi sure enough went airborne before he came tight on both ends of the rope. After bouncing around out there for a bit he was able get his feet under him and resume controlled progress. One more quick rap and we were parked on our butts in the U-Notch. GU & water. Breathe baby, breathe. GU & water.
After we partly recharged it was off the U-Notch back to home base for us. We scrambled over to our cordelette and ring for the other day and I was headed down. Out of the rocks and onto the shaded and unpredictable snow of the notch, we stowed the rope and went to work. I led us down using a single axe tethered to the belay loop on my harness. I'd sink the axe at chest level and kick deep into our old steps. Much of the time we pulled down a bunch of snow with every step. A stable spot to rest was a luxury. We got ourselves down by using a variety of standard mountaineering techniques including, but not limited to: falling, unintentional glissade, kicking, clawing, spitting, etc... We did not stop and savor the moment, smell the roses or take a snap-shot, if you get my drift.
I didn't fall in the bergschrund this time, I had my old crater to guide me (below). We were just about all in, cooked, finito. We glissaded straight off the schrund and into our old tracks. Davi and I managed to stagger a few hundred yards into the sunlight. Here we dropped for a while. I knew we had a 45 minute "walk" back to base so I chugged the rest of my water (4L total). We picked a time and assured ourselves that we'd be home by 18:00, a nice 16 hour walk in the woods, so to speak. We forced ourselves back to base...that's really all I can say . That we got there. I remember post-holing to the waist any number of times. Those holes are a bitch to get out of, and exhausting. There was a lot a glare and falling down, getting up, "moving ever foreward" kind of crap. Lizard brain stuff. And then we were home.
We stumbled around for a bit, shedding pack and harness and boots. Wet socks off, feet dry. Imperative! Dry clothes, things are looking up. Coffee's on, or is it cider. Who cares? I'm in a daze and Davi manages a weak grin when I ask him if he actually knows anybody who could do what we did today. No. Not bad for a couple of forty year old guys from sea-side SoCal. Fade to black. Was it coffee or cider?
I woke to a Denny's sign in my brain. Double Cheebee & rings, with about a gallon of iced-tea sounded pretty good. Davi and I forced (again) ourselves to an upright, bipedal position. We muttered something about being responsible husbands and doing what we said we would, which was that we'd be home tomorrow. Oh, man. The body said no.
Breaking down our camp and packing all that crap away was less brutal than I thought and we were creeping down toward Sam Mack Meadow by 09:00. There was no trail. There wasn't even our old trail to go by so we just winged it. In the end, we rode on our butts about halfway into the meadow. Davi and I had come to a slope that was too steep to negotiate by any other means. We pitched our packs off the double-black diamond run, a crash test dummy sort of thing. Both of us marveled at our packs going airborne for 50 feet at a time, flipping end for end faster than I could count. Right. Do it. Just don't do it like your pack did it.
At the eastern edge of Sam Mack our snow bridge had melted away revealing a more substantial structure. We were headed to Denny's and that Cheebee. Only nine miles of jackhammer downhill to contend with. By now we were both about as tough and banged up as we ever get. I mean we were bone and jerky. We just motored down that goddamn nine miles. Heaved our packs in the bed of the truck, put it in drive and turned the wheel towards America's restaurant.
I would like to make sure you all know that any trip like this is a collaborative effort and I'd like to acknowledge Davi's contribution to the photos you've seen in this 3 part essay. For all the photos, and the whole trip really. Because I wouldn't be up there doing this if he wasn't going. So it's like that. I'd also like to add that both Davi and I have, for 8 years now, been going out on these Sierra trips, and the only way we've been able to do that is with the support of our spouses. Jerrica, thank you for letting Davi out. I know the pictures are scary. To my wife Ruth, well, that's between us and not you. Suffice it to say that I am beyond grateful.


  1. Alot of people who know Dave and I outside of climbing think that we are brothers. Though not biological brothers, we are bound by brotherhood and friendship. Friendship based on mutual respect and trust forged in the high and scary places in the Eastern Sierra, is the best kind.

  2. The palisade glacier IS the biggest glacier in the great Sierra Nevada, but not in the lower U.S... Not by a long shot. Glaciers on rainier, Shasta, baker, and in the wind rivers are larger with more ice mass.