Climbing the North Face of the North Palisade

Publication Year: 1930.

Climbing the North Face of the North Palisade

Norman Clyde

THERE is no more spectacular peak in the Sierra Nevada, none more alluring to the mountaineer than the North Palisade. It rises to an elevation of 14,254 feet above sea-level among other peaks almost as high and almost as rugged. Its ascent was probably more of a problem than that of any other peak of the Sierra. Only after considerable reconnaissance and repeated efforts was a route found up its south face by Joseph Le Conte, junior. Its northern one was long regarded impossible, but eventually a way was found up a steep snow chute, over the broken wall of a cliff and along a ragged knife-edge to the summit. Often I had scanned this face of the mountain for a more direct route. Only one seemed possible, and that was dubious. It led up a narrow, snow-filled chute for several hundred feet, thence up the face of the mountain for a few hundred more and finally over broken cliffs to the summit. But there was a question both as to the feasibility of the couloir and of the face of the mountain above it: the first on account of the bergschrund below it and the steepness of the ice in the couloir; the second because of a face apparently too sheer to afford sufficient holds to permit of its ascent. Even repeated study with binoculars failed to convince me of the feasibility of either of these portions.

However, one day early in July, 1929, I decided to make an attempt. Leaving camp on the Big Pine Lakes, I proceeded across a grassy basin and over several miles of rocky acclivities above to the border of the Palisade Glacier, which, a mile in width and several in length, sweeps up to the base of the North Palisade and to that of Mt. Sill to the left and Mt. Winchell to the right.

The morning was extremely beautiful. The craggy peaks stood silhouetted against a stainless blue sky; blue shadows cast by their turreted summits rested on the snowy expanse of the glacier. Almost directly opposite was the steep chute up which I had hoped to make my way. Trudging steadily across the snow, I presently came to the bergschrund at its base. Fortunately a bridge of snow and ice lay across it. In one leap I reached its center and in another landed on the upper lip of the crevasse. Some step-cutting carried me across a strip of glare ice to a steep snow slope up which I continued for perhaps two hundred feet by “kicking in” my toes. For several hundred more I forced my way along the icy margin of the couloir and along the rock wall above it.

Eventually discovering a way up the dubious portion of the face to my right, I hoisted myself up to it. Greatly to my surprise, I found it traversed by rather numerous shelves up which I zigzagged without any great difficulty. After several hundred feet of such scrambling, I found myself forced into the icy tongue of the couloir. Cutting my way across it, I began to lift myself up the steep, but broken walls above it. There I encountered interesting and rather difficult climbing, but by veering to one side or another was able to go around every insurmountable obstacle which confronted me. But as I advanced, progress became more difficult, the way leading up short, steep chimneys filled with loose snow underlain by smooth ice. To go forward I was forced to scoop a trench in the snow with my ice-ax and cut steps in the ice beneath it. In this way I pressed forward until I was immediately beneath the summit arête and only a few rods from the top of the mountain. There, however, I was confronted by a new obstacle in the form of an overhanging rock. After trying in vain to hoist myself over it by the scanty handholds available, I threw a rope over and by the latter’s assistance succeeded in hauling myself up. A few minutes scramble then brought me to the summit.

After throwing down ice-ax and rucksack, I began to survey the marvelous panorama commanded by the North Palisade, extending from Mt. Whitney in the south to the Yosemite in the north—an amazing array of lofty, snow-clad peaks. The sky was almost cloudless and warm sunshine fell on my lofty perch. Several rosy finches fluttered about, uttering the cheery notes loved by all mountaineers. Extending to the east and swinging to the northwest was the crescent of the Palisades on whose highest and finest peak I was then sitting—Mt. Sill and the Middle Palisade to the east; Mt. Winchell and Agassiz Needle to the northwest. Beyond the latter were the rugged peaks of the Evolution Mountains, and beyond them and to the right the isolated pyramid of Mt. Humphreys. To the south I could descry almost all the main peaks of the Sierra—notably Mts. Williamson, Whitney and the Kaweahs. To the east I looked down on the great trough of Owens Valley and across to the White Mountains; to the west down the declining, canyon-furrowed slopes of the Sierra to the San Joaquin Valley.

After an hour’s sojourn on the summit I began the descent. Wishing to avoid the icy chimneys just below the top, I followed the summit-crest for a few hundred yards and then dropped from it to a snowfield on a moderately steep incline—a remnant of an ancient landscape comparatively untouched by the forces of erosion. From it I swung northwesterly toward my route of the morning. By going too low I was obliged to do some rather embarrassing traversing along shelves that dropped away to sheer cliffs, but eventually I reached the head of the couloir, crossed it to the shelves running down the steep face and then descended them to the lower portion of the chute. A considerable stream of water flowed here, sometimes underneath the ice, sometimes along its margin. By dint of a good deal of hacking with my ice-ax, I cut my way down over the ice and sometimes in the stream, being treated, meanwhile, to a generous wetting.

Presently, however, I reached the foot of the couloir, leaped across the bergschrund and glissaded down the steep upper slope of the glacier. Afternoon shadows fell across it from the North Palisade, but the rays of the declining sun shone brightly on the craggy face of Mt. Sill and an unnamed sharp peak to the north of it. I sped down over the glacier and over the moraine; down the rocky slope to the green valley and thence over the rocks to my camp by the Big Pine Lakes.