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Ascent of North Palisade on 2009-09-07

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Bob Bolton
Duane Gilliland
Grant M.
Date:Monday, September 7, 2009
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:North Palisade
    Location:USA-California
    Elevation:14242 ft / 4340 m

Ascent Trip Report

Sunday, September 6, 2009:

I was up pretty early in my room at the Ramada Inn in Bishop, CA, and while I was getting my final packing done Grant showed up to get my stove to pack. He said that he, Bob, and Duane were almost ready downstairs, so I finished up, got all my stuff together, and carried my huge pack and duffel bag of extras downstairs to Duane’s truck. We loaded everything up, checked out of the motel, and drove a couple blocks to Jack’s restaurant for a large, hearty breakfast.

Duane then drove us out of Bishop towards the Sierra on CA 168, eventually turning off on the South Lake road that wound uphill through desolate sagebrush foothills and eventually pleasant, open pine forest. It was another clear, sunny day. The road ended at a small parking area just beyond the South Lake boat ramp—it was packed to the gills, with all the cars circling around and finding no parking. We double parked, unloaded and sorted gear briefly, and I volunteered to drive the car down to legal parking and hitchhike or walk back up. The first good space I found was about a mile down the road, at a picnic area with restrooms.

After making sure all the food in the back of the truck was hidden or well bagged (the bear-proof food lockers at the trailhead were just as full as the parking lot), I locked the car and stuck my thumb out at the first car passing by. It was a friendly trail-runner from Utah who was happy to give me a mile ride up the hill. He dropped me at the trailhead, and I thanked him as he went off to scrounge his own parking.

The four of us posed for a group photo, hoisted our heavy packs, and set of up the Bishop Pass Trail about 10 AM. It was a well-used, popular, and crowded trail, especially on this middle day of the three-day Labor Day weekend. The trail passed South Lake and climbed gently uphill through forest—we were all unused to our heavy packs and groaned under the burden. After about two miles the trail came upon scenic Long Lake, set amid classic Sierra timberline picture-postcard country. We took a break here, photographing the scenic spire of Mount Goode and the pretty meadows around the lake.

The trail gradually climbed for another couple miles, past more lakes, meadows, and stands of trees. There were throngs of dayhikers we passed in both directions, plus many parties with heavy overnight packs, but no one else we saw was an obvious climber.

The last uphill mile on the Bishop Pass trail was a steep climb up many short switchbacks that had been engineered into a steep slope of rock and talus. Expecting the pass at the top of this section, we still had a pretty flat quarter-mile before reaching a small sign marking the summit of 11,950’ Bishop Pass. It was a windy and desolate landscape of talus, the hulk of 13,893’ Mount Agassiz looming above us to the south. From here our route left the trail and headed southeast cross-country towards Thunderbolt Pass.

We found a nice collection of sitting rocks and ate our lunch here at Bishop Pass, since it was about 1 PM. We had almost finished when a solo climber came by, on his way down after a climb of Thunderbolt Peak. He told us that it is easiest to lose 400 feet in Dusy Basin while traversing towards Thunderbolt Pass instead of preserving elevation gained. So we struck off, leaving the trail, and passed just southeast of the lake near the pass. Views of Dusy Basin opened up, and we soon saw the defile of Thunderbolt Pass ahead, looking far away and guarded by steep approaches.

The terrain in Dusy Basin was easy going at first—large gently sloping slabs and grassy ramps that never dead-ended in anything more than a cliff of a few feet. We lost elevation, approaching the large lake in the basin, and then started heading towards the pass directly. There didn’t seem to be a good way to go, and by going down to the lake it looked like there was a lot of nasty talus to get to the pass. Eventually we decided to not take the advice we had been given, and contour high as we neared the pass. The slabs and grass gave way to talus, which was sometimes loose and nasty, and eventually became giant car-sized blocks that were very hard to negotiate. Bob especially was having trouble circumventing some of these boulders.

After several rest breaks and route-selection powwows, we finally reached the 12,400’ Thunderbolt Pass, where we rested and gazed down into Palisade Basin. We could see our planned campsite area below—a series of alpine tarns at about 11,900’, their water glistening in the late afternoon sun. The terrain looked much easier on the other side of the pass, so we headed down the ramps and slabs. However, it was hard to tell the best route down, and Duane and I swung out from the pass down through some talus with some pretty big steps and cliffs. Grant and Bob seemed to be staying closer to the wall of the pass, but when we got down it looked like Bob had followed Duane and I, and he was having issues with some of the steps. I dropped my pack and went up to help Bob down—we later realized that Grant had found the best way down and we all should have followed him.

Regrouped, we quickly found our way to the chain of pretty little tarns and looked for a campsite. I liked some softer quasi-grassy ground, but the others found a sandy knob that had room for two tents. Since we had three tents (Grant and I both with small one-person shelters), I went back to some gravelly ground near a brook, while the others pitched their tents on the knob overlooking the lower basin. Our campsite was in the shadow of the massive crenellated hulk of North Palisade, a menacing presence in both early-morning shadow and beautiful evening alpenglow.

We cooked on rocks near where Bob, Duane, and Grant had camped, and filtered water from a little pond just below camp. Since it was now September, it started getting dark relatively early, so we soon were trying to sleep in our tents. We had agreed to get up at 5 AM and be hiking by 6 tomorrow for our big summit day tomorrow.

However, no one slept well. Aside from pre-climb apprehension, first-night-in-a-tent discomfort, and a distractingly bright moon, we started hearing loud voices from above. At around 9 PM we looked outside our tents and saw three headlamps descending a steep talus chute from North Pal. It was pretty dark, and we hoped they were OK. Much later, at 2 AM, I heard more voices (“Rock!” “Hey, over this way”), and when I looked outside I saw two more headlamps coming down the chute near Thunderbolt Pass. These guys were on awfully steep, technical terrain awfully late at night—they must have been finishing an epic Palisades traverse.

Monday, September 7, 2009:

I got up from my fitful sleep in my one-person tent about 4:45 AM, got dressed, and walked over to my companion’s tents—they were stirring, and we fired up our stoves for some hot breakfast. It was dark, but the stars were fading as dawn approached. We could tell it was going to be another bluebird day. We had hoped to get moving by 6 AM, but after breakfast and packing up it was not until about 6:15 that the four of us left camp, headed for the towering dark pinnacles of North Palisade that blocked the rising sun from hitting our camp directly.

We took an ascending traverse southeast over slabs and talus, approaching the ramparts of the peak. Our first routefinding challenge (of many throughout the day) was to find the Southwest Chute, which was variously described in our guidebooks as starting from the third or fourth talus fan between a series of white (or light-colored) cliff buttresses. I wanted to stay back from the mountain wall so we’d have a better view of the cliffs and fans, but our route took us right to their bases, where we were able to see what was going on pretty well anyway.

Fortunately, I had a photocopy of a page from Secor’s Sierra guidebook that had a photo of the face that clearly labeled the correct fan/chute, and after consulting it several times Bob and I were pretty sure we knew which chute to head towards. There was a final solid rock buttress ending just at our traverse level, and after passing below it we were free to slog directly up the loose rock and semi-frozen dirt of the Southwest Chute.

It wasn’t too bad at first, but it started getting pretty steep and the going became standard-issue miserable loose junk—no firm Sierra granite slabs here. We climbed in parallel tracks to avoid knocking the inevitable rocks on each other, or else tried to stay close together so rocks wouldn’t pick up too much speed before getting near someone else. I kept a clear eye on my altimeter, since our next key route landmark was to find the infamous LeConte ledge leading off to the left—guidebooks seemed to agree is was at 13,100’, although Gerry Roach’s trip description said 13,200’.

At about 12,900’ or so I started following the sheer wall that marked the left side of the chute, looking for a ledge, but didn’t see one for a while. I was getting concerned, since I knew my altimeter was pretty well registered and I started thinking we were in the wrong chute. At about 13,100’ the rock formations made it difficult to continue hugging the left wall, so I was forced right around a rocky bulge, following my companions. After this detour, we all saw the LeConte ledge at last—our printed route descriptions all agreed with what we saw. I think that 13,200’ is probably the best estimate of its elevation. We saw no cairns or other evidence of past human use of this route.

Bob and Duane went first up the 10’ feet of steps to the ledge, and started carefully working their way across. Grant was a bit spooked—he didn’t like ledges that sloped down and out, and he thought he might need a belay. But Bob shouted back that it was easy, with good footing and handholds, so Grant got up to the ledge and easily made his way across. I followed last. It was pretty trivial, really, as it led downhill slightly as it escaped the Southwest chute and went around a corner, ending shortly at an open area. I thought it would go on further, but Duane and I explored and found it ended at a huge cliff.

At this point we took a short rest and Bob cached his ice axe, the only one we had among us, since we had not seen one molecule of snow yet (spoiler alert: this was not our smartest move of the day). We then started up the pretty obvious chute leading upward again—this was more junky loose rock, and the chute was steeper and narrower than the Southwest Chute we had just left.

It was not long before the chute became extremely steep and narrow and we reached the infamous chockstones. There was a small snowfield on the floor of this mini canyon leading up to the first chockstone, and since the sun had not yet hit us much, it was rock-hard, almost ice. And we had no ice-axe, cached a couple hundred feet below.

Here we rested a bit and put on our harnesses. It was my job to lead the technical pitches on this peak, so I started up the snow. There was a small moat on the right side of the canyon, and I could wedge my right foot into that, but my left foot has utterly no purchase on the slick, hard snow. So I grabbed a small, pointy rock (no shortage of those around) and cut footsteps in the snow for my left foot, making about ten or so steps before reaching the top of the snowfield, just below the first chockstone. About 2/3 the way up the snowfield I put a cam and sling into a crack for use as a handline, since there were no good handholds in that area. At the top of the snow I could stand and rest comfortably.

Here I looked at the climbing up around the chockstone. It looked easy, but I thought it best to be belayed, since a fall would land me on the snow, where I could go for a bit of a slide. So I got out our rope from my pack, tied in, and tossed the other end down to Grant, my designated belayer. I then put in another cam in a crack, clipped it through the rope, and Grant now had me on belay. I climbed over the chockstone—something like hard class 4 or easy class 5—and placed one more piece, a nut, and then found myself on a small, level platform above the first chockstone but below the second. There was a very small patch of snow here that was not an obstacle at all, and a set of rappel anchor slings, but the walls on either side of the chute were pretty sheer and the chockstone itself pretty big and daunting.

I clipped the rope through the rappel anchor as another piece of protection and started trying to climb over the second chockstone. It would have been easy if there had been a couple feet of snow, but starting down at the bottom of the canyon floor was difficult. The rocks were big and blank-faced, and I could not get the right move going. It seemed that to the right, over the chockstone, was the best way, but there was no place for a new nut placement, and after a few minutes of flailing I had to retreat. Bob, Duane, and Grant below must have wondered what I was doing.

I then tried a route to my left, up the steep wall, but it was also difficult. Maybe my heavy hiking boots were not the best footwear for this, or my heavy pack was a burden, or my rock climbing skills had really atrophied over the past decade. Either way, I could not find the right moves around this crux. Gerry Roach’s generally accurate trip report called this section 5.3, but I could not find a route that easy, as least as I understood what 5.3 was.

Two of our printed trip reports mentioned that parties boosted their lead climber up on their shoulders at this spot, and this suddenly seemed like a good idea. My companions were tired of waiting at this point anyway, so I stopped farting around fruitlessly and clipped in to the rappel anchor in the platform and belayed Bob, Duane, and Grant as they climbed up the snowfield below and over the first chockstone. We were all now in the platform between the chockstones, and Duane had even cleaned the route below of my cams, nuts, and slings.

Grant then tied in to the rappel anchor as my belayer, and Bob and Duane positioned themselves next to the face of the second chockstone and used their hands buttressed by their shoulders to create a bomber foothold. I stared climbing, and, using this artificial foothold, I was able to make the first big move at last, probably putting 300 pounds of force on my poor friends. Adrenaline coursing through me, I powered up a couple class 4 moves above the crux, cursing violently to psych myself up and not bothering to place any more protection. Within a minute I was above the steep stretch to where the going was easy up a standard talus slope, glistening in the sun now that I was out of the dark, cold chute area. I had now passed the chockstones.

I found a nice sitting belay stance, anchored myself with a nice equalized system of my cordalette around a rock horn plus a cam in a crack, and then belayed up Grant next, then Bob, and then Duane. Since the pitch was only about 40 feet or so, each climber tied in to the middle of the rope. Grant and Bob had help in getting up the first step, but Duane, going last, had to get up it by himself with just my top-rope, a very impressive climbing feat.

Grant and Bob started up towards the summit rocks, and I dismantled my anchor and started pulling up the rest of the rope while Duane untied. However, the rope would not come all the way up, and I thought it was caught in a crack. I tried to free it for a minute, but it was really jammed. Then Duane remembered that it had never been untied from the anchor below after Grant finished belaying me up. No wonder it would not come up! In all the confusion and excitement while getting up this very short pitch, we had made a really stupid mistake.

Duane volunteered to rappel down and untie the rope, but we had just spent a lot of time getting up the crux of the route and we worried about wasting more time and the toughness of the step. So we decided to head up and leave the rope in place for a rappel on the way down. The four of us climbed up steep talus towards a small saddle and then towards the summit pinnacles ahead. I was last, and once about 100 feet above the rope Bob called back down that the terrain looked pretty nasty and that it might be a good idea to get the rope. I agreed that we might need it for a rappel off the summit, so I stashed my pack, extracted my Swiss army knife, downclimbed to the rope, and pulled it up as far as I could while extending myself as much as I dared. I then took a deep breath and cut the bottom 10 meters of my rope off, and returned to my pack and then my companions with a still-usable 50-meter rope.

Soon we were in a steep bowl below the summit with several pinnacles above us, and we first thought that a striking pyramid to the left was the summit of North Palisade. The terrain was very steep but relatively firm granite talus, and I kept reading our various trip reports, but they either contradicted each other or made no sense to us given what we could see. The idea seemed to be to find a ledge of white rock, which we did, and it dead-ended in very steep terrain with no exit feasible. We individually explored around, then retreated, and finally saw another white ledge, higher up. This seemed to be the right one, and we realized that a large irregular crag was the summit, not the pyramid to the left.

This second white ledge led us very close to the summit—we could see it just above us. The scrambling was now on giant blocks, and Grant, out ahead, found a route that involved crawling through a huge almost-horizontal crack, then clambering up a big step to the summit platform. He had to take off his pack for his crawl, and when the rest of us came along we also took off our packs and pushed them through (including Grant’s) as we all navigated this obstacle. I found that getting on my back while rolling through the crack was easiest. We debated leaving our packs, but we wanted our food, water, cameras, and rope up on top, hoping to find a good rappel to avoid some nasty downclimbing.

Grant helped us up the final pitch—he told us that a cam and sling in a crack of the last boulder would be a useful handline for us, so I handed one over and it did help Duane, then Bob, and finally me to get up to the top of the rock. After surmounting that, we were on the surprisingly roomy North Pal summit platform, a sloped area of several huge rocks offering plenty of room to throw off our packs, rest, and take in the view. It was 2:15 PM, and it had taken us 8 hours to get up—our routefinding uncertainty and rope management snafus probably took up well over an hour of that time.

We spent 45 minutes on the summit-- we were all a bit giddy at our accomplishment and happily and heartily congratulated each other. We ate, took lots of photos, checked our GPS units, and signed the register. It was a clear day and the views were expansive. The most impressive sight to me was the sheer drop to the Palisade Glacier below to the east.

At 3 PM it was time to head down. We had spotted a bunch of rappel slings on the edge of the summit plateau, and we decided to use them to avoid the steep terrain we had found on the way up to the summit area. We were concerned that we would be rappelling down into the unknown with a short rope as I flaked out what was left of it—measuring the rope using my armspans indicated it was now about 50 meters long instead of 60.

Grant volunteered to go first, and at the base of the rappel he found a good ledge and another nearby set of slings. Therefore, we all followed him down to the exposed spot near the northwest ridge of the summit block. The next rappel anchor had a ton of good looking slings and a rappel ring, so we didn’t even add anything to it. The entry to this rappel was difficult, though, involving getting over a sharp fin of rock, but we all did OK. For all of us, these were the highest-elevation rappels we had ever done.

At the base of the second rap we were in the area we had been earlier on the wrong white ledge, so we were able to downclimb pretty easily over the jumbled talus to a little saddle and then down to the top of the chockstones. Here I set up our final rappel near where I had belayed everyone up, and our rope took Grant over both chockstones and down to the middle of the bottom snowfield. The snow was now pretty soft in the late afternoon, so once the rappel rope gave out he was able to plunge step to the talus chute below. He also retrieved the 10 meters of rope tied to the rap anchor between the chockstones—we didn’t need that anchor for our descent.

Bob went next, and then Duane, and I came last. Instead of descending as far as the rope would take me into the middle of the snowfield, I stopped on flat ground just below the chockstone so I had a good stance for pulling the rope. Once I had the rope down and stowed, I found that the top part of the snow in shadow was kind of hard and crunchy, so I had a mildly harrowing descent until I hit the sunny, softer snow.

We next clambered down miserable loose rocks to LeConte Ledge, and we took a break to remove our harnesses and exhale after completing the technical part of this peak. The ledge was not an issue, and the descent of the main Southwest Chute was tedious loose junk—we all avoided each other’s inevitable rockfall pretty well as we maneuvered down, sometimes by butt-sliding. Duane and I found a nice line on the right side (looking down) of the chute that led down to a spur ridge that divided our chute from the talus fan to our right. Near the base of this spur a huge sloping slab led off into the talus fan, and we decided to use it to bypass the bottom of the southwest chute and more miserable loose boulders. The slab was steep and at one point got kind of slippery with sand, and once off of it we had to negotiate a ton of bad talus as we crossed the remainder of the fan. Our shortcut didn’t save us much, I don’t think.

It was not far to camp—the talus gave way to more slabby fins and meadow, and it was not long before we saw our tents and the nearby tarns. We returned, exhausted, at 6:45 PM. It had only taken us 3 hours and 45 minutes down from the summit, less than half our uphill time. Aside from gravity being in our favor, we saved time with no routefinding issues or concerns, and our rappels were pretty efficient in getting down the steepest terrain. Still, it was a 12.5 hour day tent-to-tent.

For the most part, all we did that evening was cook, eat, and crash. I did move my tent to a more comfortable location, and I slept much better. Pre-climb apprehension was replaced with post-climb satisfaction and exhaustion, and there were no more yelling climbers above us.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009:

Lying in a tent until 8 AM is considered sleeping in mountaineering, so it was nice to relax this morning. Our original plan for today had been to hike out from our North Palisade camp, drive to the trailhead for Mount Ritter, and hike in to a basecamp for that peak. But we had pretty much decided that would be too much for the day after our long struggle with North Pal yesterday. So we took our time with breakfast and packing up, and hit the trail at 9:30 AM.

Aside from being tired, our hike out was pretty uneventful. We stayed close to the ridge as we ascended back to Thunderbolt Pass, and once on the other side we had a difficult time negotiating the huge boulders on the Dusy Basin side. Bob again had pain in one of his legs and was not happy with the terrain, and our attempts to find an easy way were in vain. Eventually we found easier going across the open alpine tundra, and we all found our own best routes. We never had to descend particularly far to find easy going, once again disproving the advice we had been given two days ago.

It was longer than we thought to Bishop Pass, and we got a bit disoriented in the rolling, somewhat featureless terrain, but were there soon enough. After a rest it was a long but uneventful trip back to the trailhead at South Lake. Now that the Labor Day weekend was over, there were far fewer people on the trail. We got back to the trailhead at 2 PM, about 4 and a half hours from camp.

Once down I volunteered once again to fetch Duane’s car, quite a ways downhill. There was very little traffic and therefore not much opportunity to hitch a ride, but after about a half mile a car pulled over, told by Bob at the trailhead to look for me and give me a lift. Duane’s truck was unmolested by parking-enforcement rangers or marauding bears after the food inside, and I drove it back uphill and soon we were all heading down towards Bishop.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:6032 ft / 1836 m
    Elevation Loss:6152 ft / 1873 m
    Distance:18.1 mi / 29.1 km
    Grade/Class:YDS 5.3
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Rope, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:2 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:5232 ft / 1593 m
    Extra Loss:800 ft / 243 m
    Distance:8.8 mi / 14.2 km
    Route:LeConte
    Trailhead:South Lake  9810 ft / 2990 m
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:5352 ft / 1630 m
    Extra Gain:800 ft / 243 m
    Distance:9.3 mi / 15 km
    Route:LeConte
    Trailhead:Below South Lake  9690 ft / 2953 m
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


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