Friday, July 26, 2013

The Palisade Traverse

In 1931 Robert Underhill, one of the best climbers in the country, was invited to California to teach Sierra Club members proper rope and belay techniques. Afterwards he and the top students toured the range, making many first ascents. This group of heavy hitters included Norman Clyde , Jules Eichorn, and Glen Dawson.

They spent 6 days in The Palisades that August, the most rugged and inspiring region in the Sierra Nevada. Amongst their climbs was the first ascent of Thunderbolt Peak, the last California 14er to be climbed. The climbers were surprised on the summit by a thunderstorm and, with lightning striking all around, barely escaped.

This story came to mind frequently during the last days of June and early July. The Sierra was experiencing record high temperatures and violent thunderstorms were happening every afternoon. Jim and Bob signed up for a Palisade Traverse trip starting July 4 and fortunately this spell of thunderstorms was showing signs of abating that day.

The three of us set out from The Big Pine Creek Trailhead. Conversation carried us up the trail to Sam Mack Meadow, and a few miles beyond to Fischer Camp. The afternoon was cloudy and we heard thunder from time-to-time, but our objective stayed out of the clouds. The High Sierra is filled with fantastic ridges and the classic Palisade Traverse, from Thunderbolt Peak to Mount Sill, is arguably the best. Climber and guidebook author Peter Croft says, "This magical mystery tour of five 14,000 foot peaks has got to be one of the very best and most popular traverses in the United States of America".

Creek Crossing in Sam Mack Meadow.
On the second day of our trip we woke early, left our camp behind, and headed out across the Thunderbolt Glacier to the Northeast Couloir of Thunderbolt Peak. An unexpected but really fun pitch of alpine ice got us across the bergschrund and snow slogging took us to the ridge just north of the summit. The day was far from stormy, and we were making good time. The summit of Thunderbolt Peak is tiny, and the moves to gain it probably the crux of the route. After taking turns on top we descended to the south and took a lunch break in a sheltered spot, watching another party climb the peak.

Next we climbed Starlight Peak and its summit block, The Milk Bottle, named for its appearance. Beyond Starlight we passed an unnamed gendarme, moved through some exposed sections, and climbed to the top of North Palisade, one of the more commodious summits on the route. We were stoked, three 14ers in one day! A short rappel off the summit block left us at one of the best bivouacs in the range. After a hot meal and some chit-chat about the fun we'd had that day we were off to a well-earned night's sleep.

Sleeping over 14,000 feet on the second night of a trip is never notably restful, but we all managed to get some sleep. After being warmed by the sun and stimulated by hot coffee (thanks guys) we resumed our southward course on the ridge with two rappels into the U-Notch Couloir. Crossing this, we climbed up the other side and quickly found ourselves on top of Polemonium Peak. The summit register has been missing for several years, but we made do with photos.

Documenting the summit on Polemonium Peak.
Bob, Jim, and I descending Polemonium. Starlight Peak is in the foreground, we're the three specks on the bump in the distance. Jed Porter photo.
Some fun and exposed climbing put us onto the slope between Polemonium and Mount Sill. This is the easiest stretch of the whole traverse - merely rough hiking - and we were happy to unrope for a while. Arriving at Sill we ditched our packs and scrambled to the summit. Five 14'ers in two days!

We descended the quickly melting L-Shaped snowfield to Glacier Notch and from there to the Palisade Glacier. We crossed this, with a quick stop to drink fresh glacial melt, and were soon at our camp, a little tired but happy and successful.

Click here for more information on the Underhill Camp trip to the Palisades (including photos).

--Ian McEleney, Instructor and Guide

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