By: Keith Martin
Paul Graff and I occasionally like to lead a peak and still leave enough time to enjoy the High Sierra environment we are visiting. We find that doing some peaks in three days instead of two allows us a full day to do the peak climb without time constraints and a safe and leisurely hike out and drive home on Monday. Last year we did Winchell Peak (aka The Donut Peak) in three days and thoroughly enjoyed it. This year we decided to try Middle Palisade.
The group, consisting of Bill Siegal, Susan Livingston, Helen Qian, Paul and myself met at the trail head parking for Big Pine Creek at 8am on Saturday Morning. After filling out the paper work and moving the packs to the trailhead for the South Fork we got started around 8:45 am. Within about half an hour we were at the crossing of Big Pine Creek which most of us did without much incident by jumping between a couple of rocks about ten yards further up stream from the trail crossing. By 11:20 we were at the junction to Willow Lake. While resting at the junction a pair of climbers passed us saying they tried Middle Palisade and did not make it to the summit. By 2 pm we were at Finger Lake. I had a little trouble finding the use trail to Finger Lake from Brainard Lake. If we had proceeded on a more westerly course aiming at the outlet from Finger Lake, we would have picked up the use trail which stays mostly on the south side of a talus field.
At Finger Lake we were joined by Mike Seiffert and Lorene Samoska who had gotten their own permit and come up a day early. We spent the afternoon reviewing rock climbing techniques such as knot tying, belaying a group up a short pitch and coiling and uncoiling a rope. We then watched groups returning from Middle Palisade. As they passed our camp in the waning sunlight we got some good tips on the route up Middle Palisade. The first two groups had failed to reach the summit. Combining their reports with that earlier in the day we began to wonder why Middle Pal is so hard. One group said the cause of not summitting was their inability to identify the correct hump on the ridge before they began their climb. Another group seemed to say "Stay off the snow!". A third say "Stay off the rock piles!" (glacial moraines). Hmmm? Should we consider flying?
Looking at the peak from Finger Lake there appears to be three summit blocks. The right (north most), which has some cream colored rock patches directly below it, appears to be the highest of the three when viewed from the lake. This is one of the main causes for error, because this is not the high point. The true high point is the left (south most) of the three peaklets. This peaklet has a unique rock near the top which resembles an outhouse with a slanting roof.
Paul and I had decided to get the group up at 4 am the next morning with a 4:45 start. Hopeful we would be back in camp in time to have the option of hiking out Sunday afternoon if everyone was agreeable. I could not guarantee that this would actually happen. Helen, who had a business commitment which required she be back at work on Monday opted to sign out of the trip Sunday morning. In the last hours of light on Saturday, Paul and Helen checked out the departure route from our camp at the outlet end of Finger Lake. They walked along the east shore of Finger lake to the slopes leading up from the south (inlet) end of the Lake. They found it was easy hiking with a little boulder hoping and a short scramble to get over a section where there was a fifteen foot vertical drop straight into the lake.
Sunday morning we got up as planned and followed the route scouted out by Paul and Helen the afternoon before. As the first light of dawn was brightening in the east, we were at the slopes at the south end of Finger Lake. After surmounting the first of three steps in the slope, we came to a snow slope firm enough to justify wearing crampons. With crampons, ice axes and helmets on, the group quickly fell into a steady rhythm and the ascent of the next two slopes went quickly. As the sun began to peak above the horizon, we were at the base of the moraine viewing our route to the step off point from the glacier to the rock at the base of the climb. We proceeded directly, partially over moraine and partially over snow. We surmounted the glacier by 8am and were stowing our ice axes and crampons and putting on our harnesses at the bottom of the ledge which leads to the chute which leads to the summit. We followed this ledge upwards to the right about a hundred feet, bypassing the first chute which appeared after about 30 or so feet of climbing and proceeding to the second chute which appeared after about 100 feet of climbing. At the north end of this chute there is a pinnacle which divides this chute from the chute which leads directly from the glacier to a notch to the right of the summit. Climbing this chute up a few hundred feet, we intersected the chute to the summit. Proceeding up and slightly to the left, we climbed towards the notch just to the right of the summit. The route was sustained third class. It had a series of small ledges, most of which were filled with loose rocks, not unlike Black Kaweah. We kept the group close together and tried to avoid the inevitable rock fall. Wearing helmets is an essential safety precaution for this climb.
About fifty feet below the summit we proceeded to the left directly for what we assumed was the summit block. By 10:20 am we were about ten feet below the top where we reached a ten foot high step which required an exposed forth class move to ascend. The complete party was on the summit by I 1:00am, where we spent an hour enjoying the view and signing the register. While on the summit, Paul scouted out for a better route to get off. He discovered that a third class route proceeded from the chute about fifty feet below the summit to a point about twenty feet to the left (south side) of the summit. We followed this route and were soon back in the chute leading down.
As we began down climbing, we encountered two separate groups of three and two climbers coming up to the summit. We were concerned about rock fall from these groups when they began their descent. We proceeded down slowly, one of the participants having more trouble with down climbing that with the climb up. We minimized the danger from rock fall from our own group by maintaining strict control of the spacing of the group. We were back at the step off to the glacier by 3 pm. Although the possibility of getting back to the trailhead before dark was now infeasible, I was glad that we had plenty of daylight left to get back to camp. We retraced our path of the morning, taking advantage of every opportunity to glissade. By 5:30 pm all were safely back at our base camp. Most of us were in our sleeping bags by 8 pm.
I awoke at 6 am, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of hot cereal and hot coffee. Mike and Loraine opted to stay late since they had a separate permit. The rest of us, now well rested, headed down the trail at 8 am. By 10:30 we were back at the trail head. After cleaning up and changing into clean clothes, we headed for a well deserved feast at the Pizza Factory in Lone Pine.
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