Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Palisades, the Sierra's proving grounds

This photo refers to these peaks as part of a traverse, and of course they can be done that way, but with the exception of Polemonium Peak which we did with Mt Sill, we've climbed these as individual peaks from the ground up. Click any image to enlarge.
Last Saturday I bid adieu to the Palisades, a region of glaciers and cirques and towering peaks of upthrust granite. I, and my best brother Davi Rivas, have spent nearly five weeks of our life under and on these peaks. We have endured bitter spring storms, lashing winds, sub-zero temps, and scalding UV to climb these peaks. On our first trip up, Davi and I got stuck in a freak snowstorm on the U-Notch at fourteen thousand feet for 16 hours. We have experienced all four seasons in a day here, probably because we've always gone in June. The place builds character. 

Well, we've won and we're done with the big guys in the Palisades, except maybe Norman Clyde Peak, or the Mendenhall Couloir on Temple, or... but those aren't fourteeners. I still have to knock off three more fourteeners elsewhere before that chase is concluded. Next spring we'll be rock climbing on Russel and Whitney and Muir, which would leave only Shasta.
This photo is from our successful summit of Middle Palisade in June 2010.
Ah, the Palisades. Home of the gods of Sierra alpinism: Clyde, Le Conte, Dawson, and Starr.  This range boasts six fourteen thousand foot peaks, and an additional fourteener nearby. The Palisades are a pair of mountain cirques, each sitting above a glacier whose run-off meet at the confluence of the North and South Forks of Big Pine Creek. Take the south fork and one climbs to Finger Lake lying under Middle Palisade and it's not-quite-a-fourteener sister, Norman Clyde Peak. Take the north fork and one climbs endless miles past 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Lakes, under the jagged mass of Temple Crag, and eventually one surmounts a complex stair of rocky ledges and talus moraine which terminates on the Palisade Glacier under the uncaring gaze of five giants: Mt Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight Peak and Thunderbolt Peak

We begin our trip, as always, with gear thrown about. This time we'd gotten lucky and managed to hang on to a site that was reserved for someone else, which incidentally is the best site in all of Glacier Lodge for throwing one's gear about. See, the campsite is actually the well constructed foundation of a large creekside cabin that burned down in the remote past. Your gear makes a more satisfying sound when thrown about on a concrete slab than it does on the dirt of an ordinary campsite. This site has all the convenience of a shop floor without the hassle of a roof. 
Davi, sorting gear.

The winter and spring were unusually warm and dry which meant that we could save some pounds on clothing and calories, and I was able to find ways to pare down to the most essential essentials. The net result, with all the climbing gear, a weeks worth of short rations, and all the gear needed to stay alive and not uncomfortable in a truly alpine environment: an 80 pound pack. Ughhh. Davi came in around the same. He said "Ughhh" as well.  A quiet and restful night was passed and we were at the trail and struggling into our packs at sunrise.

First Day Blues. The flesh is soft, the lungs unaccustomed, the trail only goes up, and the packs are are ridiculously heavy. First Day Blues. 
The north fork trail of Big Pine Creek is steep, direct, and scenic. For most of it's mileage one either hears the roar of the rushing creek, or enjoys views of the three lakes passing to the left. The massive hulk of Temple Crag rose into view as we ascended, climbing above the aspens and willow, then into piney forests with lush undergrowth speckled by alpine lupen, daisys, lilys and iris. We hauled our packs past 1st, 2nd, and 3rd lakes, each uniquely beautiful, each reflecting a milky, mineral rich turquoise (see photo below).  
Obscure M. Python reference, "-the many lovely lakes. A moose once bit my sister."

Temple Crag.

By afternoon we had climbed well above third lake and decided to take a long break before humping the packs, which by now had become a locus of misery, up the last step to a small, idyllic bench which lies at the tree line below the massive moraines of the Palisade Glacier, called Sam Mack Meadow. This last grassy refuge is the starting point for many attempts at the Palisade Peaks. It is also a wind tunnel. The day had started out windy and the wind had only intensified as we'd gained elevation. Now at the end of day one, we were obliged to find a low and sheltered bivy where we could manage an evening meal and a decent night's sleep. At sunrise we were back at it, climbing the last miles to the glacier where we would establish our base camp.
Sam Mack Meadow. Until this trip we had, quite literally, never laid eyes on the place. On prior trips this way we'd only viewed the meadow as a snow bowl.

The downstream view of Sam Mack Meadow.
Davi, high on the talus moraine, ascending from Sam Mack Meadow to the Palisade Glacier.
Davi and I ascended a winding, rocky, and steep trail up ledges and through talus of all size. Similar to the meadow below, we'd never seen more than bits and pieces of the glacier trail, as it has always been under snow when we've been up here. We were very pleased to actually have a reasonable path through the moraine. As we crested the moraine under Mt Gayley I was completely shocked by the appearance of the Palisade Glacier. Never before had we seen anything other than a broad and rolling sheet of ice and snow.  In front of me now was a vast, but rocky and dirty field of snow with it's own pond. Of course we immediately noted snow and ice conditions on the peaks and their various chutes, but it was the glacier which really grabbed me. We descended into this glacial bowl at 12,000 feet, found a workable place to establish a base camp, dropped pack and went to work creating our home for the next seven days. 

Our base camp. The tibetan prayer flags have blown their prayers our way for many years now. We wouldn't consider going without them. And yes, mountaineers are a superstitious lot.
The site we chose rested several hundreds yards above what we started referring to as the "Palisade Pond". Nothing, literally nothing on a glacial moraine is truly flat, and creating such a site would require and army of ancient egyptian slaves. We located the best existing bivouac site near water and set about upgrading the stone walls. Over the years we have taken a page from Ray Gardine and we've gotten good at using an ultra-light tarp (Integral Designs Sil-Wing) to augment a yurt style shelter (Sierra Designs Origami 2). This method is easily adaptable and perfect for this environment. We soon had a snug shelter with far more room than a standard tent provides, and on the "porch"  we'd created a nicely shaded kitchen area with a raised stove platform and an adjacent captain's chair, meaning the cook never had to move from his seat. Convenience is a must in an environment where everything requires effort. 

Speaking of conveniences, we've gotten good at being parked in an alpine environment. I'll give some examples. We use a collapsable 5 gallon water bladder, heavily reinforced with duct tape. This means we only have to go for water every other day or so, and we are free to drink as much as we like without the concern for having to go down and refill, which is a chore. We bring a solar charger for various electronics and amusements, such as the base-camp boom-box and i-phones. Long ago I learned that nothing can make a base camp more bearable than having a decent seat.  I owe serious loyalty to my Crazy Creek, which unclips and can be slid under my sleeping pad to cushion those bumps and dips. This year, because nylon does an inadequate job of deflecting solar radiation (Ever been in a tent at high noon on a hot day? It ain't exactly relaxing.), we used a mylar reflective drop cloth, shiny side out, to protect the interior from the lancing sun of a thin atmosphere. It worked quite well, extraordinarily well. Rookie innovation of the year.

Palisade Pond and the Palisade Glacier. V-Notch at center, U-Notch at center right.
As I say, we were both surprised by the condition of the glacier. Thanks to conditions that more resembled the height of summer than mid spring, we were able to experience the glacier in a new light. And it sort of made me sad. During the week we were there, the glacier changed in numerous ways large and small. During our ensuing days travelling the glacier we saw more and more glacial fissures, seemingly evolving overnight. These fissures would likely enlarge as crevasses on a more mobile ice sheet. All week we were serenaded by constant rockfall along the receding edge of the ice. The most dramatic changes to the glacier occurred on it's leading edge. Twice in our week the glacier shed large sheets of ice. We'd come down from a mountain and find a host of new mini-bergs breaking up, melting, and migrating with the wind.

Above and below, various iterations of the Palisade Glacier.

I took a quick recon up to the glacier, a 25 minute walk around the "pond" to get a better look at snow and ice conditions on the U-Notch.
The glacier, and the rocks around it, became our back yard and we observed passing parties of climbers, the rising moon, and rockfall with equal interest. Base camp life, and specifically rest days, require the ability to slow down and watch the hours go by without doing much. This is harder than it sounds, and any break in the monotony is a diversion from the seemingly endless task of just letting the day go by. We spent our rest days tending to gear, laying around, taking in endless fluids, drying clothes, and up-grading our command center. As for the climbing, I'll have to adress those peaks as individual posts.

Yard Sale!, The shedding, drying, and stowing of gear became an every other day thing, which of course means that we'd been climbing. This week, every mission was a crowning success.

As the week passed, and we started chalking up successes, our food supplies dwindled and we got tougher. We developed a far away stare to accompany our long silences. We drank coffee and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while gazing at the next peak on our list with the lean and hungry stares of the single-minded. We each played out route scenarios in our heads during these quiet hours, trying to quell worries, anticipate unknowns, and pysche up for the next peak. Our 3am starts on climbing days started cold and huddled, battery lantern lit, the sounds of metal gear and the scrape of crampons over the low roar of the stove. Zippers and straps, the creak of leather boots being stretched over cold feet. The steam from the coffee cup mingling with the odor of sweat and nylon and smoke. An alpine start is almost always, awkward, shaky and fumbling, it is an exciting moment between partners, the embarkation of something grand.
Moon rise over Mt Sill.

Our week on the glacier, though always a necessary side-note to the actual climbing for which we were there, was pretty easy as far as living at altitude goes, certainly the best base we've arranged in this neck of the woods. The weather, after a few initial days of high winds, settled down in the later half of the week and we were able to spend much of that time in shorts and a tee.  Not to say we weren't 100% ready to depart when the time came. On our exit day we were literally out of food. I ate one of my two remaining gels and groused that I was out of coffee. We saddled up and got out of Dodge. We celebrated our week in the mountains with a bath at the Keohe Hot Springs, chow at the Bishop Denny's, and a quick drive home. A fantastic week, and the real meat of this story is coming in the following days
Davi, takin' us out thee mountains. Above 3rd Lake.
Middle Palisade, 14,040',. From the North Fork Trail.
Click this link for Palisade Mountaineering 2012 on Vimeo

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