Middle Palisade 2015

Middle Palisade (left) and Norman Clyde Peak (right) tower above the Middle Palisade Glacier
After managing a tough but doable day on Mt. Russell two weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at the next 14er on my list, Middle Palisade.

Looming 14,018 feet above the South Fork of Big Pine Creek, Middle Palisade poses a rather modest class 3 climb, as opposed to the copious class 4 and 5 routes that trace the crags in the Palisade region.

Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak
tower above Big Pine Creek trailhead.
Seeing as I had climbed all of the 14ers with class 1-2 routes and short class 3, I was relegated to pushing myself into the next realm of long class 3/4 climbs.

After getting some good beta from calicokat and 2600fromatari, in addition to several useful trip reports from Bob Burd, Peaks for Freaks, and Pebblecrawler. I felt that I could manage a quick overnighter to climb Middle Pal via the Northeast Face.

Though Middle Pal isn’t as high or iconic as other peaks like Whitney (highest), Williamson (cruelest), and Russell (pure genius); Middle Palisade boasts a long boulder approach, glacier travel, and a fun 1,400 ft of solid and spicy class 3. Though I’m no stranger to x-country and I have formidable scrambling abilities, according to an online contact, Middle Pal boasted both of these features in long tedious stretches. However, if I managed the climb I would be rewarded with a phenomenally exposed summit, and some of the best views in the Sierra.

Additionally, I would be awarded the personal pleasure I looking down on Palisade Lakes to the south; a place that turned out to be one of my favorite campsites on the JMT in 2011. I remembered looking up at Middle Pal whilst camped on the shores and being impressed by the verticality of the Palisades, hoping that someday I would get to climb them.

Though I expected a good challenge, I was looking forward to this climb….

Then I checked the weather report.

Throughout the week, the Palisades had a 40% chance of T-storms. If you are familiar with Sierra weather patterns, you realize that this means there is a 100% of precipitation, just 40% chance that it will dump on you.

After getting 4 hours of rain and snow (no electricity) on Russell a few weeks ago I wasn’t too keen on diving in again, but I had to try. As I got closer to Friday, my start date, the percentage jumped to 70% of T-storms, with 50% on Saturday.

I wagered that these storms would only come in the afternoon (1pm-6pm) as they had on Russell. I figured that if I drove up after work on Friday, started late and set up camp below Finger Lake, (so long as it wasn’t raining that night) I could get a few hours of sleep, start up the peak early and descend before any storm activity materialized. This way I could keep dry clothes and bedding at camp where I could ride out the weather if conditions got bad.

If I got lucky, I could break camp on descent and hike out Saturday night.

Let’s not get crazy here, I’m not that lucky so I gave myself a 15% chance of success. If not I’ll try for White Mountain Peak.

I left work in the San Gabriel Valley at noon on Friday, drove by my folks house in Santa Clarita to pick up my camping gear at 2:00 PM, and made the long drive to Big Pine.

I arrived at Lone Pine at 4:45 PM, just in time to get my permit, buy a map of the Palisades, and rent a bear can before closing at 5:00 PM.

I made it to Big Pine around 6 after stopping for food, and packing my bag. Looking southwest, the Sierra was capped in ominous black thunder clouds. I could see the higher peaks under the canopy of shadow, and it didn’t appear to be raining at the moment. I decided to go for it and ditch the back-up plan for WMP.

Trailhead at Overnight Lot
(best used for N. Fork climbs)
I arrived at the overnight parking lot on Glacier Lodge road around 6:30 PM. The light was failing fast, but the clouds were receding to the west, leaving clear twilight skies for the time being.

I can’t believe my luck. This might actually work.

After bear-proofing my car and some precautionary stretches I consulted my map. There is a bit of confusion regarding the start to the S. Fork trailhead. If one takes the road to its very end, they encounter a small day-use parking area at a locked gate (which indicates residential parking only beyond the gate). Overnight parking is only permitted at a trailhead nearly a mile down the road.

Trailhead at Day-use Lot
(best used for S. Fork climbs)
There are trailhead signs for both the N. Fork AND S. Fork trailheads at BOTH the day-use lot and the overnight lot.

If you are planning on taking the S. Fork Trail and parking at the overnight lot, the trailhead that begins at the overnight lot will lead you up 100 feet of unnecessary gain to a junction with the North Fork, and then switchback you down to the true S. Fork trail.

That sounded no good, so I started hoofing it up to the end of the road to the day use lot sometime before 8:00 PM. Past the locked gate the trail follows a paved road alongside Big Pine Creek for a quarter mile, takes you up a single switchback alongside the N. Fork of the Creek, crosses the N. Fork on a nice sturdy bridge, and after another eighth of a mile you pass the junction which takes you to the N. Fork Trail (and the hard way to the overnight parking lot).

Having successfully navigated this first point of confusion, I took advantage of the modest grade and the absence of big rocks and kicked up the pace.

Even at this low altitude I could descry Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak off in the distance to the south, with bigger peaks like Kid Mountain and Mount Alice dominating the immediate horizon.

The light leached from the horizon as I managed a delicate creek crossing, grateful for my gore-tex gaiters. Once past the creek, the last light left the sky and I switched to headlamp.

Bridge over N. Fork
The first 1.5 miles of the S. Fork Trail is purportedly hot and sun exposed, but due to the late hour and the moisture in the air I found it quite cool and serene. Beyond the first 1.5 miles, one passes the Wilderness sign, climbs a series of rocky switchbacks for about 400-500 feet. Once atop the first set of switchbacks, the trail loses about 100-200 feet in miscellaneous ups and downs. At the low point there is a junction for a short trail leading to Willow Lake, and past the low point one follows a second set of forested switchbacks over 800’ of gain to a small tarn. Past the tarn a series of ups and downs bring the trail to its terminus at Brainerd Lake.

I however, had decided to depart from the trail at the small tarn to hike up cross country to Finger Lake. I would spend the night at Finger and rise early to get a jump on the day before weather was likely to close in.

Junction past S. Fork
Trailhead Entry
Well… I planned it that way. I arrived at the tarn near 11:00 PM and desperately needed food and sleep. Thus far I was lucky to be dry, but I couldn’t risk humping my pack x-country to Finger Lake if a storm rolled in and soaked me prior to me setting up my tent + rain fly.

I also considered how I might feel at the end of the day. Did I really want to stumble an extra 500 feet downslope with an overnight load on my back? No such feelings threatened my attitude.

Darkness Ramblings
I found a nice flat spot just beyond the tarn. It was a little rocky, but had good drainage all around. I set up camp, ate an ungodly amount of salami, took some vitamins and bedded down near midnight.

I awoke to the taunt of my phone alarm around 4:00 AM.

I lay awake until a quarter past the hour. It was still dry outside, the darkness lit up by a silver moon, yet I wrestled inwardly. I was torn between getting up and giving this peak an unlikely shot, or sleeping until dawn and hiking out before the rain.

My fear of failure eventually wrested my apathy from my sense of personal drive and I pulled myself and my things together leaving camp around 5:00AM.

With a light pack, I made solid progress upwards winding in between ledges, over bluffs, and around spruce groves. I made it to the east shore of Finger Lake in 45 minutes, where I stopped to soak in the pre-dawn vibes and fill my bottles.

Midnight Navigation
I left the lake at 6:00AM, crossed to the west shore and made my way up over the bluffs at a moderate pace. Just above the first rise past Finger Lake I encountered a small tarn a few nice campsites. Further up and above the tree line I arrived in just enough time to catch Middle Pal and Norman Clyde swathed in fresh alpenglow.

From here, many people make a beeline directly towards Middle Pal. Having noticed this trend, one may have to lose elevation, or add distance to avoid the loss. I stayed low on the main rise above Finger Lake aiming for a few prominent talus blocks that would allow me to steadily gain altitude and intersect the terminal moraine of the Middle Palisade Glacier at its lowest point.

For the information of the would-be ascensionist (love that word), there are myriads of cairns across this basin. They can be helpful, but in the case of the talus field, do your best to avoid unnecessary elevation gain/loss and use your head.

Pre-Dawn Vibes at Finger Lake (The Thumb on the horizon)
This strategy worked well. Additionally, at this stage in the trek I had expected to encounter significant talus fields and moraines. I was surprised to find lots of slabs, bluffs and ledges. Much of the tedium that I fear appeared to begin at the moraine, some ways distant.
Gaining elevation above Finger Lake

I didn’t want to speak too soon, but this approach appeared to be easier to me than the sand encountered on Mt. Russell.

Once I reached the moraine I would aim for the prominent talus rib that split the Middle Palisade Glacier in twain. Once on the rib, I would have two options to gain Middle Palisade’s North East Face and the 1400’ of class 3 to the summit, the Red Chimney: a loose steep chimney, or the GlacierRamp: using some ice travel to find an elusive class 3/4 ramp to the left of therib. For now, I needed to focus on getting there.

The moraines proved to be everything advertised. Some people opt to use the glacier to ease the tedium; I however did not bring spikes. Chiefly for purposes of my own wonderment I stayed on the talus as I followed the toe of the glacier. I enjoyed the new terrain, straying on the ice every so often.

At one point I tried cheating onto the glacier for a stint when a series of boulders tumbled down the steepening ice.
Mt. Alice and the tarn above Finger Lake

I planted my feet and hurriedly unpacked and secured my helmet to my exposed head.

After 2.5 - 3 hours had elapsed from Finger Lake I topped the rib (12,600’) around 8:45 AM, and began looking for a way onto the face. I immediately noticed a series of ramps which seemed to gain the same chute that the glacier-entry route was aimed for. However, knowing that no major route existed there I dismissed the idea immediately.

Looking west, I found the widely used Red Chimney composed of sharp (and loose) red, white and green conglomerate (see large image below).

Though it looked steep and messy, it looked wholly doable.

Snow Bridge on Glacier
Sticking to the ascensionist’s left, I stayed on the solid red rock for the lower half of the chimney. Halfway up, the climbing gives out forcing you into the loose white center of the chute. If you switch to the right, you’ll find green rock with abundant handholds. This will get you to the top of the Red Chimney and onto the NE face proper.

Note: The NE Face of Middle Pal is a series of steep chutes and arĂȘtes/gendarmes that divide the chutes. The talus rib (which divides the glacier at the foot of the face) composes the bottom of a large gendarme. If you take the glacier ledge entry to the face, you start up a chute to the ascensionist’s left of this gendarme. If you take the Red Chimney (like I did) you start up a chute to the ascensionist’s left of this gendarme.

At the top of the gendarme the two lower chutes
The Red Chimney (the whitish chute to the right of the reddest rock)
converge. At the top of the face, the chutes the divide in two (almost forming a big asymmetrical “X” on the face). At the upper divergence, the climber stays left.
Looking up the Red Chimney
(note, I am in the lower half as I am staying left)

After a brief respite, I looked upward noting the top of the gendarme above me, here in the lower right-leg of the “X” the angle is steep, terminating into a cliff over the glacier below. 
However the route continues along as class 3 by means of a generous crack that takes you upward and deposits you in the bottom of the chute where the incline is less precarious.

Looking down on the gendarme
Once in the center of the chute I stayed in the bottom climbing another 100 feet above the crack to the confluence of the two lower chutes above the gendarme (about 13,300’).

Here the vistas get extra expansive. Now after an hour on the face, I start to slow a little bit. At this point I dislodged two football sized rocks which bounced from ledge to ledge gaining meteoric speed. Though I hadn’t seen anyone else for 13 hours, I shouted “ROCK!!” at the top of my lungs. After repeating my shout for safety purposes (I had a close call with a partner some years ago) and scanning the route beneath (now satisfied that I was alone) I continued upward as the boulders went zinging out onto the glacier far below.

For those unfamiliar, rockfall is no joke. A football sized rock would have no problem knocking you off-balance at a low speed, and even less difficulty braining you at medium to high speeds.

Heading upward I aimed for the leftward chute (the upper left arm of the “X”).

During this period the bluebird morning I had enjoyed, started to show her fangs. Clouds began to build and recede to the south out of sight. At a few junctures I was left in the overcast shade, a pall mimicking my own fear of a possible retreat.

Taking a deep breath, I continued on. I had set myself the turnaround time of noon. Now I was on track to summit unless it started raining early.

An hour from the convergence I found myself staring at the notch atop the chute.

In the chute about 50ft below the notch.
This is the point at which the climber
should cut leftward beneath the summit
From the top of the chute it’s hard to discern where the true summit stood. Remembering the beta, I stopped some 50 feet short of the notch and traversed leftward under the true summit. As advertised the route had kept well within the realm of class 3 (I had gotten onto some stiff 3-4 stuff when I wasn’t paying attention) the last move to get you onto the summit area is a little tricky.

I tried circling around the summit to the east… no easy way. I tried from the west… super exposed.

The best way involves either one small handhold with a sloping foothold, a prodigious mantle, or an inventive bouldering move. There is also a healthy dosage of void behind you… So don’t **** this up Joe…

Fortunately for me, I have a long reach (6’6”), and managed a nice leg-swing atop the block.

As I stood atop the summit at 11:08 AM I looked back at the little boulder trick subtly hoping that I could duplicate that move in reverse.

I turned around and hollered in triumph. I straddled the summit block like a horse (riding bareback like the maverick I am). The unlikelihood and number of instances I considered bailing out made this climb pretty sweet.

Though I had concerns regarding the earlier cloud cover, now astride this slumbering titan I could see scattered clouds in all directions, none of which posed any imminent threat to the Middle Pal area.

I took some video, snagged a few photos (especially of Le Conte Canyon and Mather Pass), signed the summit register (leaving a note for goldscott, the 14er machine).

The tricky move
I was pretty happy with my performance all things considered. I’d anticipated an 8 hour climb from my camp at Finger Lake. Though I failed to make it to Finger Lake the night previous, I had managed the climb to the lake AND the climb to the summit in 2 hours less than my anticipated pace.

All told I spent close to 45 minutes on top, enjoying the excellent views all over, eating some peanut-butter pretzel nuggets and ignoring the imminent hump out.

At noon I cinched up my pack, and performed the tricky reverse with good control, and started the long descent.
Le Conte Canyon and Lower Palisade Lake

Looking Southeast

Summit Pano Westward
Obligatory Selfie
This is for goldscott

Summit Register and Palisade Lakes
Halfway down the chute I was stopped at the sight of two climbers making their way up. Stopped in order to wait for them to exit my fall line, we chatted for a bit. I shared some beta for the way ahead, and they shared that they were day-hiking the peak (and they started “early” at 6:00 AM). We parted ways as I ceased feeling so proud of my own pace.

Oh well, such is the flow in the sewer pipe of life!

Around 1:30 I passed to the descender’s left of the final gendarme, the route that would take me back to the Red Chimney. Right around this time the rain started in a small drizzle. Looking up I noticed the other climbers had made it to the summit and returned to the same spot where we had met up.

Oof, I was moving slow on the descent too. Pausing to observe, I noticed the way that these guys climbed, where I stopped to face the incline and downclimb, these gents faced downward taking bigger steps.

Not feeling so confident with their technique, I focused on downclimbing to remain in better control.

I made it back to the Red Chimney by 2:07 PM and I made it back to the talus rib by 2:30 PM when the other two climbers caught up.

After a brief and shared break we cheated out onto the glacier (where we found a sandy alluvial fan) to carefully boot-ski (a crappy ski to be sure) to the low angled glacier below.
During this descent the other two guys passed me and I was solo once again.

Once I was safely on the moraine (you know I’m tired whenever I’m glad to see talus) I picked up the pace.

CRAAAAAAAACKKKKKKK! Five minutes into the boulder field a peal of thunder roared down the deeping coomb*. Within seconds the soft drizzle amped up into a staccato shower.

Soggy photo of hail drifts above Finger Lake
I pulled my hood over my helmet, trying to keep my balance as I stepped over huge boulders slickened with rain.

I finally exited the boulder field and cut towards the bluffs trying to duplicate my same track from earlier that day. Several minutes after leaving the talus fields several more bolts of lightning and echoing roars heralded a barrage of hail.

To this point I hadn’t stopped to remove my helmet, I was now glad to be wearing it as I felt ice pellets stinging my covered shoulders and the naked back of my hands.

To this point I hadn’t been much concerned about the weather knowing that I had dry clothes and shelter back at camp (I had planned this just in case I went hypothermic en route to camp), these back ups also helped keep my consternation at bay.

In the hail, over the 45 minute duration (which seemed longer) my spirits took a prodigious dip. At one point I slipped on the rubberized bottom strap of my gaiters. Looking downward I stopped to re-fasten it, I then realized the buckle had broken.

Nice, real nice…

Though this route around the bluffs above Finger Lake had been quite doable on the way up, my perspective of the bluffs on the return left them hidden from sight. I spent no small amount of time trying to find ways to reasonably traverse or descend these interminable micro-cliffs. On the ascent, one has plenty of time to stare at the upcoming bluffs to determine a viable route, on the return you have to down climb, sometimes retrace, and occasionally lambast yourself for making a boneheaded move.

At the end of day
At one point I found myself above a 20 ft cliff with no apparent easy way down. I found a moderate crack between a corner and a flake. I managed to drop my trekking poles, and lower my pack. Attempting an overly dramatic and unnecessary stemming move, I got wedged in a spot where my knees almost touched my face. After a fleeting moment of panic, I noticed an adjacent dihedral that promised a few footholds. Carefully extricating myself I managed two or three class 4 moves in the aforementioned corner.

Breathing a sigh of relief I donned my pack as the hail finally let up.

I made it to the small tarn above Finger Lake and after some confusing cairns and ramps (and some dangerous moves on wet ledges) I returned to Finger Lake at 5:10 PM.

Now with clear skies, I pulled off my gaiters and soggy jackets, draping them across my pack.

I drank deep from the water at the outlet, ate my first snack since the summit and started down towards the tarn.

I took a wrong turn as I looked for the path of least resistance down to my campsite, landing myself on the wrong side of a sizable talus field. I briefly contemplated the merits of the more direct route, however I still maintained a thorough disdain for talus choosing the use trail to Brainerd Lake. This choice ended up tacking on some extra distance as the sky roared in displeasure and the deluge began anew.

Almost home
I made it back to my camp by 5:40 where I found one corner of my tent in a small puddle.

Just eager to get home, I packed up my gear in the rain, soaking most of it, and threw the ill-balanced pack over my shoulder.

I think I can make it out in around three hours. Just put up with it for three hours, you can do this Joe…

At this point in the day, lightning was going off every 15 minutes, and the trail had turned into a shallow creek.

Close cropped vegetation brushed my legs soaking my socks and gym shorts.

I kept a good pace, slowing only during the short 150-200 foot gain back to the top of the last set of switchbacks.

During this climb the rain subsided to the last as the storm departed to the North East, sailing across Owens Valley sights set on far off White Mountain Peak.

The last stretch
I topped the last rise around 7:00 PM and bottomed out shortly thereafter.

I almost fell in at the creek crossing as my trekking pole sunk into a submerged crack. I spent some 3 minutes trying to get the pole extricated from the crack. After freeing myself, I sloshed across the creek with aplomb, filling my boots with water, nary a care in the world.

After a short time I found myself back at the trailhead around 8:00 PM, technically qualifying this as a day-hike (resplendent with overnight pack and nap)?

Soaked, beat, and glad to be done I got in my car and drove down to Big Pine and then Lone Pine beyond for a shower and a rest at the Whitney Portal Hostel.

Until next time...

* Can you name the book I reference? Hint: the phrasing is Old English.

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