Sunday, June 12, 2011

The U-Notch, Class III, AI2, Palisade Glacier, 06/08/2011

Palisades 2001, Part I

I love the Eastside. Sierras, that is. Have ever since I summited Mt Whitney with the Boy Scouts when I was 13. Since that time I've revisited the Whitney region more time than I can recall. About 8 years ago I made friends with Mr Davi Rivas and we've been hitting the Eastside every spring since. After attempting Mt Darwin and a successful ascent of Mt Ritter we turned our eyes to California's 15 fourteen thousand foot peaks.
Several years back we slogged up to the Palisades (above Big Pine), set up on the glacier, climbed the U-Notch route, got pinned down at 14,000' and had to bivouac for 16 hours through a snow storm before a weather window opened that allowed us to escape the mountain. Quite a night, and the failure to reach the summit was assuaged only by being warm and alive. We avoided the Palisades for several years after, hitting other fourteeners. We even got kicked out of the near-by Middle Palisade and Clyde Glacier by a whole week of sub-zero spring storms before returning last year to finish what we started. That was our scenario going into 8 days in the Palisades this spring. High expectations tempered with the ashen residue of defeat.

Did we know that the forecast for our week looked initially terrible? Yes, we did. Were the weather reports right? Yup.
On our first day we started cold, under graying skies. Whatever. We expected to spend the whole week in the snow anyway, what matter if it falls out of the sky too? We were laboring under the twin burdens of 90lbs packs and adapting to the elevation. We first began encountering snow at 8,500 ft, which is uncommon for this time of year. Our best effort in these circumstances netted us only 7 miles, still 2 very difficult miles to go before we could establish a real base. We set up a comfortable bivouac at 10,500', between Second and Third Lake.

Rivas and I spent the following day riding out this weather system that seemed to last forever. We ate, slept, did more of same. The weather kept being weather: snow, hail, and lots of wind. We stayed out of it.
The following morning, day 3, dawned cold with a light snow shower. We were back in the saddle. After packing up we began an arduous, meandering route up to Sam Mack Meadow. This is a place that I remember being very afraid of from my first experience there, which involved falling through snow into fast flowing water. I led us to the meadow, which, as if to confirm my fears, had been baking in a hot alpine sun for several hours. I couldn't really get a sense of what was old snow, new snow, and rotten snow so we just went for it. We crossed the snow bridge which spanned the "death creek" without incident, and I heaved a huge sigh of relief.
After Sam Mack it was all work. We post-holed, trudged, cut steps, and ultimately cramponed up out of the meadow and up to the glacial moraine below the Palisade Glacier. We established our base camp on some rocks 200' below the glacier. We've experienced the wind that comes off that glacier before. It's not a place I'd love to camp at again.
Our bivy had easy access to the glacier, a bit of a wind shadow, and we were able to either melt snow or collect melt-water. We set up with an eye to being there for several more days, and our attention to detail saved us numerous later discomforts that would have plagued us had we been a bit higher (namely the solar glare off the glacier).
The following morning Davi and I hiked up to the glacier with a spotting scope and some lunch. We were curious about the snow and ice conditions on the various routes that we've committed to memory. Of course, what looks totally feasible from afar can look very different up close, but we knew that. We had our sight set on a ascent of the V-notch (the left hand couloir of the V in the photo below. Our summit objective was to climb Polemonium Peak (the peak on the left rim of the U-notch which is the large couloir to the right of the V-Notch).
After our brief recon from the Glacier we headed back to camp for a nap, some food, and organized gear for the AM. we racked out early. It was going to be a long, strenuous day.
The next day we woke at 02:30 and were clipping on crampons by 03:20. We began the long slog up to and across the glacier in the dark. A true "alpine start". Things were looking really good for us as we approached the bergschrund. An explanation: a bergschrund (or just schrund) is probably the most dangerous feature of climbing snow/ice routes in the Sierra. The schrund is a gap between the ice hanging on the mountain and the ice of the glacier. Crossing a schrund is, or can be, as scary as crossing a glacier full of cravasses. They're about the same thing but you always know where to find the burgschrund on a sierra peak (in photos of the mountains, the schrund is the horizontal crack at the bottom of the ice chutes).
All was going well until we reached the bergschrund of the V-Notch. It looked like the scrund wasn't going to be a problem because it appeared to be full of snow. Cool. We could just climb over it. And that's when Davi stuck his foot and most of the rest of him through the ice. The gaping maw of the schrund became a very real problem at that instant. We hemmed, hawed, debated, tried again with the same horrifying result, and ultimately decided that trying to get across this thing and onto the actual route was just too damn dangerous. We switched gears on the fly and decided to go after Polemonium Peak via the easier U-Notch.
We traversed over to the U-notch without difficulty. This time it was me that nearly died in the schrund when I went through and nearly grew instant wings to get out of the mess I was in. Yes, this did indeed suck.
We both took turns at rock climbing around the "chasm of death". Neither of us got very far in crampons, with packs, and wearing mountaineering boots. Finally we put Davi on lead and he managed to flail his way across and up the schrund to a safe belay. From there he brought me across the schrund. Out of danger now we stowed the rope and went to work hauling our asses up the U-Notch. {the next 6 pictures document our 2 hour fight with the schrund}
Finally, something we could sink our boots into. We went to work motoring up the untracked couloir. The snow, unfortunately was inconsistent, at times ideal, but in places it was more that 2ft deep of snow that acted like granulated sugar. I found myself leading a rather meandering course up the notch in order to stay on the quality stuff. As we neared the top of the notch we were forced off the snow and onto the rocks to the right. Above loomed a rather unstable looking cornice. The kind that waits for tired climbers to sit down under them so that it can then kill them in a small avalanche. No thanks, man. We both found ourselves in difficulties on the rocks but those were soon sorted out and we were standing on the notch.

At this point we had been on the go for about 10 hours. We had a decision to make: what next? Do we stick with plan and try to get Polemonium Peak? I thought it was still in the cards. We got out the rock gear and flaked out the rope. I tied in and climbed a scary, icy, exposed, and frankly terrifying pitch up the broken face of Polemonium. I remember climbing an over-hung and iced up chimney. I remember doing no-feet mantles over blocks with a pack and boots. Davi didn't like it. He really didn't like it when I handed him the rack upon belaying him up to my ledge, "Your lead, dude."
He wasn't feeling warm or fuzzy about any of it, and he made the right call. We were exhausted, behind schedule, and still had the down-climb and hike back to base to complete. Because Davi was honest with me about how he was feeling and where his mojo was, we were able to descend the U-Notch and head back to camp in a semi-coherent state. He was telling me he was done, which would make me a very stupid and selfish person if I had continued to prod him to the summit. That's when bad things happen.
We rapelled off Polemonium and continued into the notch with two more brief rapells, after which we downclimbed our steps, rapped over the schrund (I fell in again, gave myself a bit of slack and was able to claw my way out), and plodded back to camp. I don't like to lose, but I kept my emotions in check and was able to realize that we still had the rest of the week to get a "Win" under our belts. Davi collapsed on arrival, me not long behind him.

A hard day of mountaineering without the summit. Bummer. Don't worry folks, there's more to this tale on tap.


  1. Our attempt to cross the schrund at the V-Notch was my first indication that despite the fact that we hauled all of our crap to the glacier, the true difficulties on this climb had really just begun. Climbing the recently fallen snow on the coulior was like trying to climb a hill made of bean bag stuffing. Not pleasent. We could have set up a belay and had a go at the right hand wall of the V-Notch but we figured that considering the quality of the ice we had encountered so far, we would be in for some desperate climbing as the route got steeper toward the top of the notch.

    AS we ascended the U-Notch, we saw a pair of AT skiers down below on the Palisade Glacier. Later that day we discovered that those guys somehow got themselves some distance up the V-Notch and skied down the thing, over the schrund and down the glacier and out through Sam Mack. Crazy mofos.

    Mountain climbing is very dangerous. Very risky. No matter how good your training is, how fit your are, your quality equipment or even your experience and expertise, you will never eliminate risk. Under these circumstances, the smallest thing can set off a chain of happenings that can lead to a accident. It is imperitive that the primary objective of "staying alive" never come second to "victory". Its not worth it.
    There is a reason Dave and I have never suffered serious injury in the mountains; One of us will come up with an idea to do something and the other comes up with 5 reasons not to do it. And there we go, back and forth, wadeing through our ego and stupidity until we arrive on the safe/smart course of action. Sometimes safe and smart dont go together, ie. the smartest thing is not always the safest thing, but at least the dialoge is always open between us.

  2. I dont feel bad about bailing on the Polemonium attempt. There are a few options to reach the summit from the U-Notch, all of which are scary and exposed. Theses routes have stumped other climbers in the best of conditions, so all things considered, having bailed off the route a pitch and half up, was just one of those tactical decisions climbers make when things arnt going quite right.