American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Sierra Nevadas, The Middle Palisade—First Ascent from the North

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 1931

The Middle Palisade—First Ascent From the North

One of the noblest peaks of the Sierra Nevada is the Middle Palisade. From the south it presents a couloir-furrowed rampart surmounted by numerous serrate pinnacles; from the north it is even more imposing when viewed either from the deep gorge of Big Pine Creek or from nearby mountains. Among California mountaineers it enjoys the distinction of being one of the most difficult peaks in the range. Until the past summer all of the few ascents made had been up the south face, and the opinion was current that the summit was in all probability inaccessible from the north, that side having an appearance of forbidding sheerness.

For several seasons the writer had surveyed this formidable front of the mountain, speculating as to whether it might not be scaled. But partly on account of its negative aspect and partly on account of the difficulty of access to it (there being nothing more than a suggestion of a trail in the gorge of Big Pine Creek and none whatever in the upper basin), I had indefinitely deferred any attempt on the mountain from this direction. Early last June, however, I decided to make the venture.

Leaving a lodge at an elevation of some 8,000 ft. above sea-level, I knapsacked up to a lake at 10,500 ft. and there made camp. The following morning I began to trudge up a steep slope to the south of the lake and in the direction of the Middle Palisade. Soon I came upon a long, narrow and remarkably straight lake, shut in bysteep bluffs and still mostly frozen over. After flanking it, I made a “diagonal” up snow-clad slopes to the southwest. Presently, however, I began to pay the penalty of a late start by breaking through the snow-crust, sometimes to my knees.

Upon coming within full view of the Middle Palisade towering high above the glacier at its base, I paused for a few minutes to study it. The highest point lay apparently about midway along the jagged summit ridge and below it an arête descended between two couloirs, eventually terminating in a buttress above the glacier. All along the base of the mountain ran a steep wall several hundred feet high and in most places evidently unscalable. However, at the end of the buttress and on either side, north of a couloir above the initial cliff, it looked favorable. At first sight the most vulnerable, but not the most advisable, point, as developed later, was a snow-fan directly to the right of the buttress.

Having made these observations, I trudged at a wide angle across the glacier to the foot of the snow-fan and then up its steep acclivity. When part way up, I began to realize the danger of a snow-slide falling on me from the upper couloir, as the sun was shining directly on snow lodged on the steep face of the peak above. The fan had obviously been formed by such slides, but being averse to returning, I continued upwards. Near the top I came upon a frailly-bridged bergschrund, usually the only crevasse of consequence in Sierran glaciers. Crossing, however, to the left, I began to make my way up a wide chimney ending in a notch on the upper rim of the cliff, apparently the only feasible route at that point, although forming the path of occasional snow-slides. Nevertheless, I proceeded, picking my way along the sides of the chimney when possible, but at times cutting steps up its ice-covered floor. Having surmounted the cliff, I walked a few rods to a mass of sedimentary material imbedded in the prevailing granite, and while examining it, a fragment of ice struck the back of my neck. I turned around and saw a snow-slide perhaps fifty yards in length, swishing along the couloir and pouring over the notch through which I had just come.

The couloir obviously being dangerous, I scrambled up to the arête bounding it on the south. Although occasionally obstructed with loose snow, this afforded excellent and only moderately difficult climbing. The sun shone from a sky of purest blue, and the silence of the mountainside was broken only by the notes of rosy finches as they darted by, and once by a clatter of falling rocks in a nearby couloir. Near the top of the mountain the masses of snow became larger and more frequent, some of them obliging me to feel my way along with the ice-axe. Occasionally I flanked them by detouring towards the bottom of the couloir to my right or by contouring along shelves on the more precipitous drop to the left. Just below the crest, a heap of snow larger than usual was encountered. Partly by floundering through it, partly by goingaround it, I got above and hoisted myself to the top where, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself facing the cairn erected on the highest point of the mountain, 14,049 ft. above sea-level.

The narrow knife-edge, with a sheer drop on west and south and a very precipitous one in the face which I had scaled, combined to render the summit a rather thrilling eyrie. The sharp west peak of the Middle Palisade across a great chasm in the summit arête, the broad-faced pyramid of Mt. Sill, the Gothic spires of the North Palisade and beyond the latter to the right, the ruggedly symmetrical peaks of Mts. Winchell and Agassiz, formed an assemblage of superb mountains capable of arousing enthusiasm in the most blasé. The eye followed the axis of the range for over a hundred miles— from Mts. Whitney and Williamson in the south to Mts. Ritter and Lyell in the north.

As the wind rumbled in the couloir on the south face and blew strongly across the summit, I took shelter in a little coign east of the crest. There I remained for half an hour lunching and watching the rosy finches playing about the rocks, apparently enjoying the mountain tops as much as do mountaineers.

In the descent I followed the crest of the same arête as much as possible. It was without incident until I neared the brink of the cliff above the glacier. In view of the morning’s experience, I was not especially eager to descend to the snow-fan. After a pause, I decided to continue over the arete to the margin of the cliff with the hope that it would afford a route down to the glacier. This came to pass, and I was soon standing beside the bergschrund. I hesitated to make a leap, but eventually I shot across, alighting on firm footing. Continuing, I again encountered the schrund beyond a rocky projection, but cleared it with a bound and proceeded then northward across the glacier. I plodded through soft snow for a while, but finally indulged in a long glissade to a basin not far from the south end of the long, narrow lake encountered in the morning. Not relishing the prospect of climbing over the bluffs enclosing the lake, I walked across the ice and although it was somewhat rotten, gained the farther end, without experiencing anything worse than a pair of wet feet. Hastening down the declivity beyond, I soon arrived at the lake where my camp lay. The ascent had been a most excellent one. Later in the season, with less snow on the face and particularly in the couloirs, very little risk would be run by competent climbers. It ranks among the finest rock-climbs available in the Sierra Nevada.

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