By: Nile Sorenson
Our objective was the 4th highest peak in California, the magnificent North Palisade. Our team of 6, Tony Pond, Patty Rambert, Ali Aminian, Ron Norton and I followed as Tom McDonnell led the way up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek on Friday morning. Reaching third lake, we were faced with a decision. Do we cross the outlet of third lake and go straight up the snow slope toward Gayley Camp or continue on the trail through Sam Mack Meadow and then on up the moraine toward our camp area. The cross-country route from third lake is very direct, but steep with no trail requiring some talus negotiation with full packs. We chose the trail through Sam Mack. We had a nice lunch break near Sam Mack Meadow and continued on into snow patches on the moraine high above the meadow. By early afternoon we found a nice camp area at the toe of the moraine just under the looming Mount Gayley. The Palisades were before us with five, 14 thousand foot peaks (Mount Sill, Polemonium, North Pal, Starlight, and Thunderbolt) delivering a spectacular, giant ridgeline as we looked from the east to the west—not to mention Temple Crag and Winchell as bookends.
Our intended route was the “U” notch. We could see the large bergschrund from camp that we would need to cross. While anyone with any sense lounged around camp Friday afternoon, I couldn’t control the ants in my pants and decided to hike across the glacier and inspect the bergschrund. It was in very bad condition. There was a high upper wall with very irregular and rotten ice. Crossing this would be a challenge. Reporting this to Tom, we decided to start a little earlier the next morning. Saturday morning we started off with headlamps. It was daylight by the time we reached the upper portion of the glacier. We poked around for about 15 minutes inspecting the bergschrund along the entire base of the U notch couloir. There was really only one area to cross. It would be an ugly pitch. Tom led the pitch on belay by crawling up an ice ramp under a roof of ice. Clearing the roof he finally could stand up and get his ice axe in. Further up he set a belay so everyone else could cross the bergschrund. It took an hour to move the 5 of us across. The remaining climb up to the notch was uneventful without ropes. The chute was in the worst condition I have ever seen it. Not very much snow and very icy. We made good progress, however.
At the top of the notch, we had some lunch and flaked out the ropes. We were going to climb the classic Clyde Chimney—two pitches of 5th class climbing. The first pitch a 5.1 and the second a 5.4. Tom led both pitches in his climbing boots!! We had two ropes and used one on each pitch. This maximized the time since we could belay climbers up both pitches individually. A telephoric (I’ll never know how to spell that one) method of moving each climber was used which eliminated throwing the rope back down in the wind. This went smoothly. We left the ropes at the top of the chimney and scrambled for about a half hour over the backside to the summit. Ron scouted several approaches to the summit block that we finally found after an awkward move over a large bolder. A fine view! While standing on the summit, we heard voices directly below and discovered our friend Doug Mantle and Damien just below us ascending the starlight buttress. We joined parties in the descent.
This union of groups gave us a total of 4 ropes. This became a great advantage going down the U-notch couloir. The afternoon was waning and the snow was hard and icy. Tom worked with Damien setting up belay anchors. With 4 ropes we set up 3- full length- 60-meter single rope rappels one after another. Doug and I brought up the rear by tying the fourth rope into each successive single rope for a full-length double rope rappel. Then we pulled the rope through and retrieved each. We then would shuttle the pulled single rope down the string of descending climbers below where Tom and Damien would set it up for another full-length rappel. This leapfrog technique worked quite well. We rappelled nearly the entire U notch and through the bergschrund without incident. By the time we were all down on the glacier, it was quite cold and everyone was hungry. We made camp in time for a nice dinner before dark. We had conquered a nasty bergschrund, ascended the U-notch when it was in bad shape, and Tom had led the classic Clyde Chimney. A successful day and wonderful climb! Sunday morning, we arose at leisure and descended the trail to the cars. Tom did a remarkable lead of a classic climb in getting a group of 6 climbers to the summit on this route. Thanks to Ron Norton for kicking a lot of steps. It also helped that Patty, Tony and Ali were so experienced with all the rope work.
Moving a group down the U notch on belay really works much better with at least 3 ropes and 4 is better.
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