North Palisades, Polemonium Peak
By: Douglas Bear
After a 13 -year hiatus, Nile Sorenson and Doug Mantle led the first SPS outing to North Palisade via the U-Notch Couloir on July 17-19, 1998. This is one of the classic climbs in the High Sierra.
The trip began at 6:30 AM Friday July 17th at the hiker parking lot near Upper Sage Flat, elevation 7,600', above Big Pine, CA. We (Nile, Doug, and I) exchanged greetings, as well as ropes and gear, and started up the North Fork trail at 7:00. The weather had been quite hot in recent days, so it was nice to tuck into the shaded canyon above Second Falls. Wildflowers were blooming everywhere, and runoff from the big El Nino winter was in full swing. After a bit we met two guys who claimed to have lost over $2,000 worth of mountain gear to thieves in the vicinity of Second Lake. Evidently, they hid the gear, instead of packing it in and out each time they visited the area. The moral of the story: don't stash gear under snow, because it melts, and don't leave $2,000 worth of gear unattended for a week in a popular area. But it is still very unfortunate that they were ripped off. At 11:00 we had a lunch break just above Third Lake, elevation 10,300'. Above was a 2,000' snow climb to Gayley Camp. At noon we headed up the immense snow slope/chute and reached Gayley Camp (12,300'+) at 2:00 PM. This last 2,000 feet was very arduous. Gayley Camp was deserted, so we were able to choose a nice campsite out of the wind, and get those big packs off our backs. The view from Gayley Camp would delight the heart of any mountaineer - the gleaming Palisade Glacier, largest in the Sierra Nevada, and the awesome Palisades, perhaps the most rugged stretch of mountains in California, towering above. I was agog. We organized camp, found water nearby, then prepared daypacks and set off under the cobalt blue High Sierra sky to reconnoiter the bergschrund. The circuitous hike to the 'schrund was strenuous due to soft snow and sun cups, and the glare was intense. It took about an hour to reach it, and to our delight, a snow ramp on the right provided secure passage to the 40+ degree couloir above. The bergschrund itself was quite interesting, and we took several photos of each other posing inside it. Late that afternoon we returned to camp, had dinner, and settled in for the evening. It had been a tough day with nearly 6,000 feet of gain (as promised in the trip sheet!).
Saturday morning we arose at 4:30 AM and set off for North Palisade at 5:30. As the first rays of light touched the eastern ramparts of North Palisade they began to glow softly. I found that stopping for photos made it difficult to keep up with Doug and Nile. At 6:30 we reached the bergschrund and caught up with High Sierra Guide John Fischer and four clients. He graciously said "play through, gentlemen." The 'schrund was easily passed on the right, and we ascended the 40-45 degree couloir for several hundred feet to a point where a scree section branches to the right. We avoided this, and instead front-pointed directly up 50-degree rock hard snow. At 7:30 AM we reached the top of the U-Notch Couloir (13,880'+). After a brief respite, we sorted gear and prepared for some rock climbing. This trip was an "E" Provisional for Nile, and he certainly demonstrated his knowledge, skills, and abilities. First he cruised (led) a 5.0 rock pitch directly up the wall of the U-Notch, followed by a harder, second one (5.4) up a crack/chimney system. After belaying Doug and me up, Nile left the rope at the top of the second pitch, and we began a nice class 3 traverse to the summit blocks. The final move to the summit is strenuous and awkward, kind of a chimney/mantle combination. We reached the 14,242' summit of North Palisade at 9:59 AM. It was a very nice climb, and Nile did a great job leading it. Of course, Doug Mantle did an excellent sweep, and 1, the sole participant, reaped all the benefits! We spent about 45 minutes on top enjoying the awesome view, and then returned to the top of the U-Notch. En route we met John Fischer's group who was closing in on the summit after ascending the Clyde variation. We rappelled twice, and reached the top of the couloir at 11:45 where we had lunch. While climbing North Pal we had been eyeing 14,080'+ Polemonium Peak. An ascent was inevitable! After lunch, Nile led a class 4-5 pitch up the other wall of the U-Notch. Doug and I followed, then we did a class 3 traverse to Polemonium's S.W. Arete. Again, Nile cruised a short, but strenuous, and heinously exposed pitch (5.4) up the arete, which Doug and I followed. Subsequently, the angle of the arete lessened, so we climbed the last 100 feet unroped (class 3). We summited at 1:45 PM, and the weather was still very good. It was a fine climb of this unlisted Fourteener, and Nile remarked that the steep section he led on the arete was his favorite of the day. We gazed over at Mt. Sill, which scarcely one week earlier had been climbed by Doug and Nile via the Swiss Arete. After signing the nice register book, we descended to the rope, and rappelled back to the top of the U-Notch couloir. The descent of the couloir itself was on very steep, soft snow, and we got down and out of it quickly. We caught up with Fischer's group on the march back to camp, but we purposefully kept his clients ahead of us (to break the snow trail!). We arrived back at Gayley camp at around 4:00 PM -- what a day!
Sunday July 19th we awoke early (4:30 AM) and started for Mt. Sill at 5:30. This was the "original" climb listed on the trip sheet, but seemed anticlimactic after the previous day's adventure. We utilized the snow trail that led out of camp for a bit, then headed directly up to Glacier Notch (class 2, loose). The weather had been changing overnight, and the deep blue Sierra sky had been replaced with ominous clouds. It appeared that a tropical event was setting up. From Glacier Notch we ascended the steep (35+ degree) snow couloir for several hundred feet to the col between Mt. Sill and Apex Pk. We then traversed southwest a bit, and began climbing up on snow and rock. A short, dicey traverse (class 3-4) across an icy, wet section brought us to good, solid rock which we climbed to Mt. Sill's S.W. ridge/slope. From there it was a I 0-minute scramble to the 14,153' summit, which we reached at 7:5 8 AM. We still had a long hike out to the cars awaiting us, so unfortunately, we could not linger. After Nile placed a register book and completed a register report for the mountain records, we down climbed our ascent route. Nile protected the wet, dicey traverse with the rope, and after much glissading, we returned to camp at 10:00. We hung out for awhile, then packed up and began the long hike out. The first 2,000 feet down to Third Lake went quickly, but due to icy chunks of snow, the glissading was a real pain in the ass. The clouds that had been rolling in provided welcome shade and even a few sprinkles, so the hike out wasn't too hot, and went quickly. We reached the cars at 2:45 PM. The trip was a total success, and I would like to thank Nile for the great leading, and Doug for an excellent assist on these delightful ascents of three of California's finest 14,000-foot peaks.
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