TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep 2016

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TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep 2016

Post by JeffEndicott » Sun Feb 19, 2017 5:06 pm


Back when I was unmarried and without kids and living in the DC metro area, I used to take a couple of solo trips out west each year. I’d usually fly into an area that I had never visited before, make an ambitious itinerary to visit multiple national parks and climb numerous peaks, and return to DC exhausted but fulfilled. In September 2009, I cashed in credit card points to get a free airline to Sacramento with the goal of checking out the Sierra Nevada.

I was nothing more than an amateur hiker at that point, but I had read about the grandeur of the 7 Lakes Basin area near Big Pine. It seemed like such a cool area, in fact, that as soon as I picked up my rental car at SMF, I booked it to Big Pine Creek Campground some 6 hours away, arriving well after dark.
Full of city energy, I awoke early the next day with the goal of climbing to Palisade Glacier. The day was going amazingly until I reached Sam Mack Meadow, where I started feeling queasy. I hiked up a steep drainage to what I thought was Palisade Glacier (it was actually the lesser glacier to the west of Palisade), and became afflicted with full-blown altitude sickness shortly thereafter. The death march back to the car was torture. I remember stopping on a flat boulder to take a nap because I literally had no energy to continue further. It was so bad that I skipped my next day's plan of climbing Mt Whitney to go check out the Death Valley NP, the lowest point in the US, for some serious oxygen replenishment.

Nevertheless, the area made a huge impression on me, and I vowed to come back one day and do it right.

March 2016:

Flash forward almost 7 years. I now live in the Sacramento area, having moved here after a 4 year tour in Kazakhstan. The mountains around my home in Kazakhstan were high, stark and very accessible, giving me the opportunity to gain plenty of high-altitude experience and elevation over a four year period. When we were given the opportunity to move to Sacramento and be within easy driving distance to the best of the High Sierra, we eagerly took it.

In March 2016, I reserved a permit for four days along the North Fork Big Pine River trail for September, my favorite time of the year for backpacking and peakbagging. I didn’t plan much of an agenda for this trip, other than wanting to complete unfinished business by getting to Palisade Glacier (the real one) and bagging at least one good peak while in the region.

September 15, 2016

I left Sacramento at about 6:45 am, having confirmed my permit reservation ahead of time. This is always a good idea since the USFS voids your permit if you don’t show up by 10 am the day of your hike. After a long drive across HWY 88 to 395, I arrived at the Mono Lake Visitor Center to pick up the permit at about 10:30. I waited behind an angry backpacker who’s permit “was no longer guaranteed” because he didn’t show up on time, but luckily for him, the quota for his trailhead hadn’t been filled and he was on his way. I picked up my permit and headed south on 395, arriving at the North Fork – Big Pine River trailhead at around 12:15 pm.

I hit the trailhead soon after, the goal for the day being 2nd Lake. The weather was classic September in the high country, with bright colors, temperatures in the 60s, and a light breeze – absolutely perfect. I passed the falls, the John Muir Wilderness sign, and eventually arrived at 2nd Lake about 3 hours later and found a choice spot behind a boulder on the north side of the lake. The late-summer turquoise color of these glacier fed lakes never ceases to impress. I enjoyed a quiet afternoon watching the sun set on Temple Crag, though the crowds on the lake’s east end steadily picked up. Fortunately, in my well-hidden campsite, seclusion was all around. The night dipped into the 20s and would be the coldest of my three nights in the John Muir Wilderness.
September 16, 2016

This was the day to hit Palisade Glacier. I’m still a flat lander, so there was no reason to push the envelope too much. I left my campsite at about 7:30 am and enjoyed the hike past 3rd lake up to Sam Mack Meadows. The wildflowers were considerably less than I remember from 2009, possibly an unfortunate side effect from years of drought. Nevertheless, Sam Mack Meadows was every bit as spectacular as I remembered.

This time, after having studied maps of the correct route up to the glacier, I quickly found the use trail to the east that switchbacks up to the glacier. After a bit of hiking, the trail disappeared and it was a boulder hop to the glacier. I actually topped out about 200 feet above the glacier on its eastern lateral moraine, but this worked out perfectly because it gave an outstanding view of the cirque of peaks around the glacier, including Mt. Sill and North Palisade. I gave particular attention to the U-Notch, a route that I hope to climb some day, noting that it was in lousy condition which is to be expected this late in the summer.
I trudged down to the tarn fed by the glacier, with no other soul in sight. It was a joy to take pictures of the icebergs floating in the chilly water while the sun rose over the peaks. I’d seen some awe-inspiring glaciers in Kazakhstan, but there’s something classic about Palisade; its size, shape, and surroundings are hard to beat.

After soaking up the scenery and morning sun, I made my way back down a cross country route on the west side of Palisade Glacier’s terminal moraine, eventually making my way down to Sam Mack Meadows. From there, I was able to check out my route for tomorrow, which stretched northwest towards Cloudripper.
September 17, 2016

Cloudripper (13,525 ft). This is the first peak I’ve ever climbed just because it has a cool name. I wish there were a more interesting story than that, but there isn’t. But climbing Cloudripper actually fulfilled another goal of mine; it gave me the opportunity to hike past all seven of the Big Pine Lakes, which I had wanted to do since visiting the area in 2009.

At about 7 am, I left my campsite en route to 7th Lake. 4th Lake didn’t impress much, but 5th and 6th Lakes were a bit better. Neither really compare with the splendor of 2nd Lake, in my opinion. As I moved upward, I ran into two young bucks scavenging along the trail. We stared each other down for a few minutes before they finally got bored and ambled off into the forest. Soon after I arrived at 7th Lake, the last of the Big Pine Lakes. It was quite nice, with a very pretty backdrop, and you would have to be hardy to camp here given the high elevation. There wasn’t another soul in sight.
I left the trail here and followed a few cairns northwest towards some meadows. I went a little too high at first and had to traverse a talus field towards a slope loaded with pines, but eventually made my way back to terra firma. The pass leading up towards Cloudripper’s northeast ridge was in sight. Getting to the top was a slog and quite steep in parts, but there were plenty of hours left in the bluebird day. I reached the top of the pass (which, as far as I know, has no name) at about 11 am, with an amazing view down to Thunder and Lightning Lake. I had never seen this basin before, which looks stark and inhospitable. The deep blue color of the lake was an interesting contrast to the treeless, boulder-strewn landscape surrounding it.
From here, it was an hour jaunt across the serrated ridge leading to the summit of Cloudripper. Secor rates this Class 1, and maybe I was off route, but there were definitely a few Class 2-3 sections along the way. Nevertheless, the climbing is never difficult and the summit views are more than worth the effort. There were unobstructed views of Chocolate Lakes to the west, Big Pine Lakes to the east, and the Inconsolable Range to the south. These were among the finest views of the High Sierra I’ve ever had.
After enjoying the solitary summit for about a half hour, I made my way back down, running into one other hiker about 20 minutes shy of the summit. We exchanged high fives but didn’t really chat, as it seemed he was eager to move on. I humped it back down to 7th Lake, where I washed off my dusty feet, made some energy drink and basked in the warm sun for about an hour.

On the way back, I decided to make it a loop and headed for Black Lake, which looked to have great campsites and even better fishing, according to a couple perched there for the weekend. The trail back to 1st Lake is south facing, and quite exposed to the hot afternoon sun. It’s a parched environment that was actually pretty unpleasant given my tired state, but it’s always cool to see new terrain. I was back to my campsite by 2nd Lake at about 4:30 pm, more than 9 hours after setting out.

September 18, 2016

This was my last day in the Big Pine Lakes basin, but I wasn’t ready to pack up and go home just yet. I’m a huge fan of high mountain passes, and had read about Contact Pass just to the east of Temple Crag. What the hell, I figured; let’s see what’s going on up there.

I hiked to the outlet of third lake and ambled across massive boulder fields towards the pass. This was the most tedious part of the hike. There were several boulder ravines that needed to be crossed, with cairns littering the area, none of which seemed to help all that much. Maybe there’s no good way through, or maybe I was off route. In any case, I eventually got to better terrain and hiked up talus and scree towards a flat area near the base of Temple Crag. This is where many of the best rock routes to the summit begin, and it was cool checking out all the dihedrals that make up Temple Crag’s stunning north face.
At this point, it’s a 400 foot climb to the pass. I stuck to the right (west) side, hugging the rock wall of Temple Crag, as this seemed to provide the best footing. It was very steep in certain areas, but I finally topped out at about 10 am, considerably later than I had planned. The views toward Mt. Jepson, Norman Clyde Peak and Palisade Crest were beautiful, and the descent route into the South Fork Big Pine River basing seemed much tamer than what I had just ascended. It would suck to lug a full pack up here from 2nd Lake, but might be palatable from the other direction.
In any case, I enjoyed the view and checked out the Contact Crack that is a 5.2 route up towards the summit of Temple Crag. It was tempting to try to summit the peak, which would probably have taken another hour and a half, but I was running out of time. I booked it back down to 2nd Lake, ate lunch, reluctantly packed up my things and headed back to the car. The walk back to the car was bittersweet but it had been a great weekend and a great opportunity to finish what I had started seven years earlier.
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Re: TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep

Post by apeman45 » Mon Feb 20, 2017 11:51 pm

Sweet trip report! I finally visited that area last summer. 2nd lake is just stunning even if it is a bit crowded.

Welcome to Sacramento. I live in Folsom and it's so nice to be close to the Sierra. I sometimes even bag a peak after work. Check out Ralston, Tallac, Round Top, Freel, Mt Rose and so many more that you can easily do as a day trip from Sac.

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Re: TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep

Post by JeffH » Mon Mar 20, 2017 9:41 pm

I was there about a week after you, it's a great area to visit. I camped above 5th lake, the wind was howling that night but my spot was calm. I hiked up to Summit Lake and spent a long time just sitting there enjoying the view. I went up the trail to Black Lake and past 4th lake and it is quite hot in the middle of the day!
Side view of Second Lake and also Summit Lake.
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Re: TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep

Post by scipio » Tue Mar 21, 2017 4:08 pm

Thanks for your TR and nice photos. I was up there about 2 weeks before you but didn't make it up to Sam Mack Meadow that time: ... 9&p=111942 . Next time!

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Re: TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep

Post by psykokid » Tue Mar 21, 2017 4:34 pm

Nice TR! I was planning to day hike Cloudripper on the 4th of July last year. We were car camping up at Coyote Flats and planned on driving up to the end of a 2 track road above Green Lake and hiking in. My son ended up getting a mild case of AMS so my family bailed early. A couple of friends that were on the trip ended up making the hike up. Saw pics from the summit and was super jealous. On my list for this year.

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Re: TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep

Post by Pulpit » Thu Mar 23, 2017 10:28 am

Great TR. I'll be up at Big Pine Creek with bro and 8yo & 4yo nephews. I think I'm going to try to camp at 5th Lake and make a run at Cloudripper if the route is safe/snow free in the first week of August.

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Re: TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep

Post by Lumbergh21 » Thu Mar 23, 2017 10:32 pm

Nice trip report. Second Lake is gorgeous, and I like the stark look of Thunder and Lightening Lake. One more piece of the Sierra for me to add to my growing list.

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Re: TR: Big Pine Lakes - Palisade Glacier - Cloudripper Sep

Post by exodus » Thu Apr 06, 2017 10:51 am

Went there last summer myself for my first backcountry overnight. Was such a spectacular trip! Loved the Cloudripper part as we also have gone into Chocolate Lakes many times. It's a very cool area.

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