Saturday, July 7, 2012

North Palisade via the U-Notch, II WI2 5.4 (chimney var), 14,242ft, 06/25/2012

My personal Crown Jewel in this Cal Fourteeners hunt. The North Pal summit.
There is no more spectacular peak in the Sierra Nevada,
none more alluring to the mountaineer than the North Palisade.

Norman Clyde, first ascentionist, 1932

Davi approaching the U-Notch in the pre-dawn.

It begins with the buzz of the alarm at 3am, the "alpine start". The shivering into shell gear and boots and harness. Cold feet, cold hands, eyes watery because of the cold, nose dripping in the cold. Peeing in the frozen yet windy pre-dawn darkness. Kicking rocks to warm your feet while trying not to spill precious coffee. Forcing a brick-hard bar of calories down your throat, chewing the frozen object only for as long as it takes to make it maleable enough to swallow. Finally, bumping trekking poles in solidarity, we stumble off through the black maze of moraine on our way, once again, to ascend the U-Notch.

I say "once again" because today will be the third time we've climbed the thing, and by the end of it, the fourth time we've descended the U-Notch. It's old hat, to be taken seriously of course, but we have the thing wired for conditions much worse than we'd see today. 

Davi, psyching up for the ice, on the bergeschrund of the U-Notch.
We navigated around the "palisade pond", the lake underneath the glacier by which we were based. In a complete darkness broken only by the glare of flashing headlamps, we clipped into pneumatic crampons, broke out trekking poles and resumed our travel, now on the deep hard pack of the Palisade Glacier. I led a quick and efficiently direct course across the ice, vectoring in on the U-Notch while avoiding outcrops of exposed talus and melt-water sinks. In a little over an hour we were kicking up the slope to the gaping maw of the bergeschrund. In brief, the 'scrund is a gap that separates the hanging ice on the mountainside from the glacial ice below. This treacherous crevasse presents differently every time we climb it. On this day the 'scrund was as hungry and evil looking as ever (both Davi and I have a hate/hate relationship with this particular 'schrund) but we easily navigated over the obstruction by climbing the firm, still frozen morning snow up and right of the crevasse.

The U-Notch on 6/25/12.

Ours was an easy ascent of the U-Notch, 80 minutes from the 'schrund to the top. Understand that because we have the right tools for the job, we've never felt the need to rope up for this 900ft snow and ice chute. By this I mean we use high-end ice climbing crampons, trekking poles on every snow approach, and when we climb, we use twin short ice climbing axes. I personally can think of very few tools as useless as a traditional ice axe. I liken using one to bringing a knife to a gun fight. They are too short for traversing across snow (as opposed to having two trekking poles with snow baskets on them), and they are too long to effectively wield on steep ice. Ahhh you say, what about self-arresting a fall on steep snow? Nothing is better than a traditional axe for self-arrest you say? I'll tell you what's better, not falling in the first place because you are using two friggin' axes which are uniquely suited to the job of keeping you on the ice, paired with pneumatic crampons with 2 inch toe spikes. The right tools for the right job, my peeps. It's a motto to live by.

The 'schrund. To provide some sense of scale, the ice hole in the back is about 50 feet away. And I wouldn't trust the flooring.
So the U-Notch was even less challenging than on previous occassions. On our ascent we passed through several distinct types of ice and snow. Low on the chute we had decent, but chunked up snow which evolved into a dirty and rotten type of ice called neve. Neve forms when surface ice repeatedly thaws and refreezes, and is characterized by a brittle and unstable nature. It often takes several good swings of the axe to penetrate the neve to the depth of solid water ice. Here's where you want those two axes. We passed above the neve and moved through a stretch of clean water ice after which we shifted to the steep, exposed talus on the right. We soon stood atop the U-Notch, and here's where the day hit a temporary brick wall.

Temporary suspension of play due to gale force winds.

Atop the U-Notch
We started with the wind way back at the trailhead. All that day and for the following two days the wind had blown down off the peaks. Now, at the top of the U-Notch, the wind was extraordinary. What was interesting is that we'd climbed the U-Notch with a more or less consistently steady draft at our backs. There were a few good gusts while we climbed, nothing too serious, but as we climbed higher we perceived a background roar which increased to a lashing howl the higher we got. At times, a particularly fierce blast would tangle with the jagged rock towers to either side of the Notch creating a strangely metallic whine. Try to imagine the sound that a sheet of corrugated aluminum roofing would make if it flew by you at hurricane speeds. Another interesting noise resembled the sound of a hundred scuba tank valves being cracked open at once, and just as quickly the air-jet noise would disappear. This was all a bit unnerving, and we figured that all this crazy wind above us must be blasting up the chimneys and couloirs of the western (opposite) side of the peak. We soon confirmed this atop the Notch. Very strange. We stood in the frigid sunlight on the east side of the notch with a steady, cool breeze blowing up the U-Notch, and just ten feet away on the Notch's west side the world was cold and shadowed and lashed by flesh eating wind arriving in gusts that rocked us back on our heels. We quickly retreated the few feet back into the sun and the lesser of the dueling winds. There was no "Plan B" for this scenario. It was 08:30 in the morning and what had been a direct and efficient morning had come to a screeching halt. Temporary suspension of play. We decided to hunker down in the sun on the lee side for a while. I felt that we should give the morning gale an hour or so to settle down and we agreed that whatever happened with the wind, we'd resume climbing in an hour.

The wind did not diminish or abate during the hour we sat on the Notch praying for just such an occurrence. Finally we'd just had enough of sitting around and it was time to shit or get off the pot, as the saying goes. Davi said something gung-ho and tied into the sharp end of the rope. I handed him our minimalist rack (#1,#2, &#3 camelots with a rack of nuts) and off he went up the first pitch of North Pal's notorious chimney. I say "notorious" because this chimney is intimidating and tall, dead vertical, and the exposure is legendary. I'll define exposure in the climber's sense as being able to look away from the rock one is climbing to the sudden and paralyzing realization that your ass is the farthest thing sticking out over miles of air. This is a lonely moment. We call it "airy", and this chimney is certainly that. Davi led the easier, and shorter pitch without difficulty. I enjoyed this prelude to the second, more difficult pitch above. Most of this pitch was 5.easy with huge holds protecting all the big moves which came at civilized intervals, allowing a moment to catch one's breath. 

I'll come right out and say that this chimney is an easy rock climb. Now I'd like to say that it's a very challenging rock climb in mountaineering boots, a pack, and shell gear, hands gloved, in intermittently ferocious gusts of wind, at 14,000 feet. And that's the truth.

Me, following Pitch 1 ascending from the U-Notch.

Pitch 2 of the U-Notch chimney was best rock climbing I've done in years. I do not say this in the literal sense, but in the holistic sense. Everything about that climb, the dead vertical moves, the sun and wind, the tinkle of gear, this hand jam, that toe edge, everything, all of it combined into a reaffirmation of why I climb rocks and trees and snow and mountains. I was in a very zen place while I climbed.  I took keen pleasure in ascending, in the controlled slide up to the next hold and realizing it wasn't quite as good I'd hoped, the automatic repositioning of gloved fingers and booted feet, a breath, an extension and high reach to a locker jam, follow with the feet... I placed little gear on this pitch, though when I did it was usually because I'd looked down and realized how far out from my last piece I was, and how far out there I was. Way cool. The upper-most portion of this chimney, should one not exit right high up, is considered 5.6 in some on-line circles and having done these last high moves in boots, gloves and a pack, I think they have an argument. This is a superb pitch of climbing, a nice slice of the total N. Pal package. 
Me leading the 5.4 chimney pitch. 
Davi, nearing the top of the chimney. Airy.

Davi quickly followed me up the second portion of the chimney and met me on a small ledge among a chaotic assemblage of granite. After he'd caught his breath, and after I handed him a bit of gear, he headed up and right to another, larger ledge a short distance away. A quick belay and I was standing next to him looking over the next phase of this climb, the summit ridge. We were standing on a large table of rock at the very end of this summit ridge, and from this perspective the world fell away on all sides but for the ridge before us and the permanently hanging band of snow on the steep face below us. I led off, across a broken, Class IV slab to the notch under the first gendarme (tower, see below) and once Davi was across we put away the rope and eased back onto the western side of the ridge. From this point we had to do a bit of ascending and descending as we traversed the complicated ridge. Finally we were able ID the summit block and were soon passing under the shadow of the hulking, second gendarme. A short, mad scramble and we were atop the Palisades once more.

The beginning of the summit ridge and the first gendarme.

Our time on the summit was necessarily abbreviated (remember the ice-cold wind?). It was 10AM on the dot and we were both pretty cold already without a bunch of standing around so we signed the books, shot some photos and video, and bolted back the way we'd come. I have to think that the temperature up there with the wind chill was somewhere in the low twenties. Not a friendly place to tarry.

Davi and the summit register.

Davi returning to the U-Notch chimney. The summit block is visible in the distance.

We moved quickly across the summit ridge and above North Pal's snow field. The wind and cold were beginning to irritate and we had no reason to prolong our stay up high. We soon stood atop the chimney and the U-Notch 200 feet below. There was a decent rappel station here and we ran the rope through a pair of rap rings and tossed it. I was the first to go down and I understood why this pitch had felt so exposed. This was a straight drop, and I hardly needed to kick off the wall. That high up, and with those views, it was a pretty wild ride. Another rappel down to the Notch and it was back to the sunlight (nice) and out of the unceasing wind (nicer). At this point we took a pretty nice break in preparation for the always entertaining descent of the U-Notch.
Taking a breather before descending the U, which is just a pain in the ass.

We got our act together and started descending the talus on the high, right side of the couloir. There was quite a bit more exposed talus here than on our previous ascents. This was neither here nor there and it only delayed the inevitable deployment of axes and crampons. Now strapped and "tooled up" it was time to reverse our course up the ice. Davi led off, face into the mountain, kicking and tooling down. He hugged a sensible line down a margin where a rib of rock met the ice. After a while of this he diverted to a steep outcrop of rocks and I moved out onto the ice. We met at the bottom of his outcrop and decided to utilize a rap station we found there to get us over the next 80 or so feet of dirty, rotten and brittle ice. By now we were about half way down the Notch and after pulling and coiling the rope it was back to the cautious kick/step/swing rhythm that all mountaineers know. The sinking of tooth and bite of claw. Down-climbing snow and ice is an activity that requires 100% focus and that is why most accidents happen on the descent. I was wholly in the zone, an easy place for me to be under these circumstances because I never think of myself as having climbed a particular mountain until I'm back on the ground and out of danger. It's gotta be a round-trip.

Nearing the point in the descent of the U-Notch where it's about time to hop back on the ice.

We opted to rappel the Notch in three places due to the ice and the bergeschrund.
Just above the 'schrund we set up another rappel to help us through that jagged sarlac of doom (we have a history, that 'schrund and I). Finally back on the glacier and with a coiled rope it was time for a quick glissade off the apron of the U-Notch. A short time later we walked out of the shadows and into the full glare of a bright day on a big snow field. Ouch. I've had Lasik, which makes my eyes more sensitive to bright light, and even my wrap-around polarized Oakleys were barely keeping it out. I popped to Excedrin and wrapped a bandana (that so simple necessity) around my face bandit-style and set out for base. Sometime later I was yanked out of a little day dream of Hawaiian beaches to an impressive stream of colorful and descriptive obscenities somewhere behind me. I knew it was Davi back there and I thought, "He probably just fell through the snow. I'll just wait here and see what happens." Some time later Davi emerges above a mound of snow some distance away, immediately post-holes up to his crotch in snow, and the cussing starts all over again. I turn back and keep trudging across the ice back to base. Turns out he did fall in a hole, straight through the snow, all the way to the shoulders and only one toe seemed to be touching anything solid down there. Apparently, getting himself out of that mess was "athletic".

Under the 'schrund and back on the glacier, time to stow the rope.

I had some time to reflect on North Palisade after the initial glow of success wore down and I have come to a couple conclusions about the peak. I found the climbing challenging and very, very satisfying. The combination of the the ice on the U-Notch, the technical rockaineering, and the wild exposure on both the chimney and through the summit ridge traverse set this Cal Fourteener, rightly, at the top of most Sierra peak bagger's want lists, and it's worth it.  It's a demanding peak which requires a broad and experienced set of climbing skills. Experience and skills are what got us to the summit and safely got us down, and because of those two factors we were really able to enjoy ourselves up there. North Palisade is a remarkable climb.

Davi,  on the way back to base. U-Notch in the center, North Palisade and Starlight peak to it's right.


  1. Thoroughly enjoy your blog!

    Looks like Split Mountain is one of the last 14ers left on your list. I did Split last year and the most difficult part is the hike to Red Lake, unless you plan on doing one of the east side arĂȘtes to summit. There are two approaches to Red Lake, one is a nasty bushwhack and will wipe you out before the climb up Split and there is a well defined climbers trail. If you plan on doing it Ive posted a little more detail on or shoot me an email at

  2. Look again, Dan. I did St Jean. Not really the walk-up. See the sidebar.

  3. I have followed your blog for years. The Palisades are my last 14ers. Thank you for sharing. I climb the monolith with the aid of webbing-like ladder. Quite creative climb I must say. With the approaching weather, the ladder was a good choice to climb faster. A friend and I followed this route and successfully summit Thunderbolt and Starlight.