Sunday, July 15, 2012

Starlight Peak 14,200ft via Underhill Couloir, Northwest Ridge 5.5 (var)

With what can I compare the Great Peak?
Over the surrounding provinces,
it's blue-green hue
dwindles from sight.

Infused by the Shaper of Forms with the soaring power of

shaded and sunlit, its slopes divide night from day.
Breast heaving as I climb toward the clouds,
Eyes straining to follow birds flying home,
Someday I shall reach its peerless summit,
And behold all mountains in a single glance.

-Tu Fu, T'ang Dynasty

Sunrise on the Palisade Glacier.

Welcome back for the finale of an outstanding week of climbing in the Palisades. We'd made excellent runs up North Palisade and Thunderbolt and today was our last day of climbing for this trip. Starlight Peak was the last of the fourteeners in the Palisades that we hadn't summited. Starlight is widely considered to be one of a handfull of "true Sierra classics". We'd climbed well and hard this week and by this point in the week we were as tough as old saddle leather and completely self-assured in our approach to this incredible peak.

Davi, mid-way up Underhill Couloir.

Once more we submitted to the electronic cock's crow, rising from the depths of a dreamless sleep to yet again don the implements of our craft. We sucked down calories and caffeine and set off through the black pre-dawn. We repeated the same route across the ice that we'd taken two days before, headed for Underhill Couloir. Our ascent of this steep gully at that time was unnecessarily athletic and we'd had a good opportunity to figure out its tricks. With the rising sun at our backs we made a quick ascent of the couloir (for those seeking my version of route beta for Underhill Couloir, see our ascent of Thunderbolt Peak).

Atop Underhill we had a bit of breakfast while basking in the morning sun. During our break we started hearing voices from above us on Thunderbolt Peak. We were soon joined on the notch by a couple of guys who were also just starting their day. James (of Santa Cruz) and Graham (of Oakhurst) had just topped out on T-Bolt and were early in the process of doing a traverse of the entire cirque over Starlight, North Pal, down to the top of the U-Notch and back up to Polemonium and across the long ridge run to Sill, ending their day with a descent of Glacier Notch. These guys were early 30's and knew what they were about. We had a good but brief chat before we all got on our way. We later watched their descent from Sill, and the following day while headed down we bumped into them. Expressions of mutual admiration were exchanged before final handshakes.

Two days previously we had gotten a really good look at our intended line up Starlight, the Northwest Ridge. In his book excellent book Climbing California's Fourteeners, S. Porcella describes this route as exceptional, with exposed climbing and many route finding challenges. The traditional way to ascend is to climb about a full rope length of Class III-IV until reaching a large, squarish face under the first gendarme (tower). Immediately under this face the route traverses a ledge to the right, then hooks left around a corner to a rappel station. At this point the party descends about 100 feet, and ascends a scree slide which switches to broken ledges and a final Class IV length after which the summit is a short distance further. This isn't quite what Davi and I did and it shouldn't really surprise anyone that we upped the difficulty a notch. We gave the young guys a head start and sort of followed them until we didn't, which wasn't long.

Starlight Peak from the summit of Thunderbolt.

Starting up the ridge from Underhill.

We ascended a strenuous ladder of blocks and ledges to the aforementioned face and continued climbing straight up without deviating from the ridge. The ridge narrowed considerably above the first gendarme and the exposure picked up. The line we were ascending, at least for a time, led us on a low-angle but seriously airy scramble up the ridge under the second gendarme. Sticking to the ridge from that point would put us in moderate 5th Class territory so we traversed right (west) around this tower and found ourselves presented with an easy but seriously exposed lateral traverse across a vertical face. Out came the rope and off I went, climbing from one buttress of the ridge, into the shadow of the mountain, and back out to a rocky point on the next higher buttress (photos below). Like I said, this was an easy lead, but the sense I got at the time can be described as, "Holy shit! I am truly mountain climbing right now!". This pitch was just a helluva lot of fun. We climbed further around the corner I had belayed Davi over from and discovered a great rappel station with some old slings which we reinforced with some 7mm chord. After a 40 foot rappel we quickly traversed a short distance into the shadows just 200 feet below the summit.

Davi, belaying me across our airy traverse.

Sling a horn so your wife won't mourn.

A short rappel off the ridge put us into the gully on the west side of the ridge, well above where the traditional line of this route would bring you into it.

Davi ascending the scree to the last pitch of the Northwest Ridge route on Starlight.

Davi and I ascended a steep slide of loose talus followed by more ledges which steered us to a vertical open book, or dihedral. This was a short but enjoyable pitch of easy 5th class and after I brought Davi up it was only a short scramble out of the shadows and onto the summit. This was a very sweet moment for both of us, the culmination of a lot of time and effort we've invested in the Palisades. I try not to get too carried away with emotive celebration on summits (it is almost certainly premature to do any celebrating before the descent is complete and bad luck to do so), but I admit to a warm feeling of self congratulation. We'd worked hard for all of the Palisade peaks and here I was, with only 3 California fourteeners left on my list, 5 for Davi. Not bad for a couple of sea-level 40 year old guys.

Me leading the 5.5 open book below the summit of Starlight. And see if you can spot James and Graham below the summit of North Palisade.

It had been a very nice morning and it was the first time this week that we'd had a calm day. We were grateful for the kind weather and took advantage of it to lounge about and really enjoy some time on summit. We sat back in the sun and watched Graham and James negotiate the obstacles of the ridge leading to North Palisade. They were a good team and it was fun to watch them progress to the near-by summit. Speaking of good team work, Davi and I had really worked well this week. There hadn't been any issues between us, attitudinal or otherwise, and I think that this week had seen the best climbing we've done in the mountains together. We'd approached this week with a seasoned and professional attitude and we've learned to communicate and problem solve so well over the years that it now comes naturally. We make a good team and this week really demonstrated the results of our partnership. This was an excellent week.

Isaac Newton said that that which goes up must certainly come down and so we eventually got going in that direction. We descended to the dihedral and rappelled a mostly free air rope-length down to the ledges, descended these and continued down to the scree slope in the steep-as-hell western chute. We descended this chute for several hundred feet until we rounded the corner of a right side buttress, the one that supports the first gendarme above us on the ridge. We turned right, climbing into this vertical ravine which narrowed to an unpleasant and looking bit of 5th Class chimney work to regain the ridge under the gendarme.

We both did a lot of rope handling on this descent.

The first of 4 times we rappelled on the descent from Starlight.

The chimney climb to get back up on the ridge was pretty physical and after a bunch of cussing and spitting we were again on the high road. We walked  the big face under the first gendarme that I mentioned before and continued down the Class IV to the notch atop Underhill. We'd done the descent of Underhill just 2 days before so this was all familiar, and two rappels below the notch we started down-climbing the scree and talus, heading back to the ice. We did a final rappel over the bergeschrund and after stowing the rope it was time for to board the blindingly bright trans-glacier express back to our base.

Davi on the way down Underhill.
Click this link to see Palisade Mountaineering 2012 on Vimeo

Davi on the low-angle rappel over the 'schrund below Underhill.

Both Davi and I had the best week of climbing together since we started doing this sort of thing a number of years ago. It was a very challenging and fulfilling week. He and I both share photo credit for all pictures related to these past four posts.
Ciao Baby.


  1. Dave,

    I definitely think you like doing it the harder way. After reading your excellent accounts, I'm glad I did it as a traverse.



  2. Tom, pleased to make your acquaintance. "The Hard Way" could be the title of the memoir I'll never write. Starlight was awesome! -Stillman

  3. Just finding out about your blog and wading through all of your epics, this is fantastic! I've done a very few 14'ers here in Cali and my mountaineering skills are several orders of magnitude below yours, but this is really inspiring stuff!