By: Tom Bowman
What’s the deal? My legs look like I led a trip through E-barbed wire, not one of the classic Sierra rock climbs up Palisade Crest (13,520’). Yet, the legs of co-leader Larry Tidball and participants Susan Livingston, Paul Morash, and Patty Rambert look normal. I only fell in one stream, after all, and I only sank into mud halfway up to one knee, and only one willow flicked my sunglasses into a bog. It was fine, fine leadership: just right for a provisional E lead, and just perfect for evaluation by none other than the Chapter Safety Chair.
It turns out there are reasons why our ascent was the first of the season and why so few people attempt Palisade Crest in any year. The hike to Elinore Lake (10,990’) is one of them: it departs the South Fork of Big Pine Creek at Willow Lake and turns downright nasty. How many approaches combine boulder hopping, bushwhacking, and backpacking into a single, simultaneous experience? This one does, but the intricacies are not described in many places. Along the south side of the drainage, a use trail hugs the cliffs, but heaves up boulders and willow thickets along the way. The north side is pure talus and sunshine, with use trail here and there, if not throughout. Getting to Elinore Lake is plain old hard work, even when participants carry the ropes. It’s a talus sandwich, but the payoff is a soft sandy campsite with extraordinary views of the Palisades.
Climbing Palisade Crest opens with a second helping of talus. A quick trip plan suggests a 2,500’ summit day, but my altimeter counted 4,100’ and my watch recorded thirteen hours. The hike up to Scimitar Pass (13,451’) climbs onto a permanent snowfield by way of talus slopes, short talus descents, talus traverses, more talus ascents, and finally loose moraine, which some leaders avoid and, unfortunately, others don’t. The snowfield is not steep, but this year it was all frozen sun cups. Exiting the snowfield onto more talus, the route climbs more steeply to the pass, which is really just a low spot on the crest that is accessible from both sides.
At this point, things get more interesting. The route traverses the slabs and flakes along the crest and eventually descends onto a pair of chock stones wedged into a bridge across a deep notch just below the summit pinnacle. You can see the chock stones from Elinore Lake, and the blue sky under them as well. Picking the class 3 route went easily, with Larry’s memory from many years ago coming in handy at various points. The class-3 moves seemed self-evident most of the way, yet we never really found an easy route all the way down into the critical notch. We came up a little bit short and rappelled about 15 feet to save time. The final move onto the bridge is almost a jump, and it felt a little awkward, given the exposure. We tried an alternate route on the return leg, following a few ducks, and it went well, but I sure would not have considered it class 3 going the other direction. I doubt the participants would have been willing to down-climb this route to the notch, and I would have been pretty unhappy too, so the reputed easy class 3 descent remains a mystery to this group.
In contrast, the 160’ class 4 slab that leads to the summit area felt like a vacation. It was a real pleasure after traversing the crest; the 45° slab has excellent traction and loads of cracks running everywhere. This kind of climbing is pure, low stress fun. Placing a few safety chocks along the way was easily done, but the climbing never felt difficult. The real trick was having two 50m ropes, which were just long enough for the pitch, so that a time-consuming intermediate belay/rappel station could be avoided. The final summit pinnacle is easy class 3 climbing. Amazingly, Tina Bowman says she spotted us at the belay anchor (she did a killer day hike of Temple Crag and Gayley on Saturday and spent most of the night driving home while we enjoyed happy hour and watched the moonrise).
In spite of all the hard work, the endless, endless talus, and the need to keep the group moving on the long summit day, Palisade Crest really is a spectacular and engaging climb. The crest and summit pinnacle combine good class 3 climbing with breathtaking views and the scenery surrounding Elinore Lake is extraordinary too, especially in the moonlight. Perhaps that’s why the group returned in such high spirits, somewhat relieved after a long and challenging adventure.
Still, I doubt any of them is as relieved as I am. If this trip passes muster, I will have completed all the many steps toward an E rating, and I am waiting for the sense of liberation to sink in. Perhaps that sensation will replace the nicks and cuts that remind me of the talus and brush. Larry says one forgets the talus. That’s a good idea because everything else about Palisade Crest is extraordinary.
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