TR: Middle Palisade Attempt on 9/29/2019

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TR: Middle Palisade Attempt on 9/29/2019

Post by rs44 » Tue Oct 08, 2019 3:06 pm

I had a fortunate work excuse to expense a flight to California and naturally made the most of the opportunity with a late-season trip to the Sierra and attempt to climb my second fourteener, Middle Palisade.

The plan: Drive to Los Angeles from San Francisco on Thursday, head to Bishop after a quick detour at the Whitney Portal on Friday, hike Mt. Agassiz on Saturday, and then climb Middle Palisade on Sunday before returning to LAX for a red-eye back to Chicago.

Unfortunately, weather waylays even the best laid plans. While the week had calm and near balmy weather, shifting and powerful winds drove down the temperature to single-digits with a -10 wind chill on the summit and last thousand feet to it, according to Mountain Forecasts.

I woke at 3:45a in the comfortable Bishop AirBnB and hurriedly packed my things and drove the 40 minutes to the Big Pine Creek trailhead at the end of Glacier Lodge Road. Reaching that point is easy: Turn onto Crocker Road from US-395 and follow until it dead-ends.
The creek still roared with continued melt from the high snow year. Wind didn’t howl – the trailhead being somewhat protected in a valley – but coursed through the trees. It was 32 degrees at 5:10, not too bad but definitely felt colder.

I began the hike at 5:30, half an hour later than hoped (I would want those 30 minutes back as the day wore on). The hike’s beginning confuses a lot of people, if other trip reports are representative of the community. But it needn’t be.

The day hike parking lot at the road’s end marks the trail’s beginning. Immediately at the end of the lot, by the double outhouse, a gate blocks the road. (It’s possible in the summer months this gate stays open. Regardless of its state, the road narrows and is no longer paved, so it’s clear when you’re on it.). Skirt the gate and begin hiking.

There’s a bridge to the left of the day lot. Don’t take it. You’ll have to ford the creek to regain the trail. Follow the road and then signs for the trail. It leads across a lovely bridge over some small cataracts in the creek and continues through the forest. Soon it deposits hikers into a meadow a bit to the ascender’s right of the Big Pine Creek, replete with high grasses.
An obvious fork splits the trail between South Fork and North Fork. Stay on the South Fork for Middle Palisade.

The only point of potential confusion comes around 0.75 miles in when a road bisects the trail. Don’t turn onto it. The Big Pine Creek South Fork trail continues just past it, though not exactly straight from the intersection.

I paused a bit too frequently to enjoy the tapestry of stars woven into the night. With no competing moon, the Milky Way shone beautifully and I reveled in a beautiful sight always hidden by Chicago’s light pollution.

My dying headlamp only cast its beam some 10-15 feet ahead of me. Though I did have extra batteries I felt no need to use them. I could see enough and enjoyed the edge of darkness near me from which the outlines of magnificent pines emerged. High ridges guarded the trail and protected from the worst of the wind.

After meandering through the meadow from whose vantage I could look back at a group of hikers who preceded me to the parking lot but hit the trail after me (though it didn’t initially look like it, they ended up taking the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail), the trail drops back to the creek whose call had never left.

About 1.5-2 miles into the hike, the trail crosses the creek. Other trip reports indicate potential difficulties in early season climbs or lacking infrastructure to make one’s way across. I experienced no such difficulty. A makeshift bridge of three sown together logs spanned the creek and while this bridge looked tenuous, it proved surprisingly stable. This crossing leads to another meadow that soon comes across the first headwall and significant elevation gain.

Up until that point, elevation gains slowly. It’s a great opportunity to crank out 20-23 minute miles and save some time for the harder parts of the climb.

I reached the switchbacks after an hour or so and still hoped to make Brainerd Lake after two hours of hiking, though I hadn’t been overly satisfied with my pace thus far.
Snow, which had collected just in the ruts on the trail’s side, now dusted and soon coated the path. Though forecast for less than an inch overnight, it had graced the Palisades with 3 inches on their lower flanks, 4-6 inches on the higher approaches, and nearly 12 inches in the chutes. This made the bridge crossing a little more precarious and would present obvious difficulties later.

One lone hiker had succeeded in getting an actual early start and I followed his footsteps through the switchbacks. The sun’s rays rose before it and drove the stars back. I had turned off my headlamp on approach to the switchbacks. Had I made better time – or started earlier – I would have seen remarkable alpenglow on the snow-covered Palisades, but I still enjoyed the sentinels around the valley catch the first beams of light.

The switchbacks took me longer than they should have. Too heavy a pack and inadequate acclimation slowed me, as did the biting wind that channeled through this one gap to the valley floor.

By the time I broke the headwall, passed the turnoff for Willow Lake (no mosquitoes bothered me thanks to the cold), and took time to answer nature’s call, I knew I wouldn’t make Brainerd in two hours.

Snow made the trail a bit difficult to follow at times, but overall route finding remained obvious. I reached Brainerd around 8:00, 30 minutes behind a schedule I hoped to beat in the first few miles. Huddling behind a rock to avoid the wind, I rested and ate some breakfast.
Plenty of cairns guide hikers up the 300 or so vertical feet to Finger Lake. They really aren’t needed. Almost any route will do so long as you keep boulders in front of you. This turned out to be the easiest climbing of the day and I reached the plateau to Finger Lake by 8:45.

I went down to its shores and, with high expectations for Finger Lake, felt immediate disappointment. It underwhelmed in an early dawn light that muted colors.

Finding its northern terminus, now the most common place to cross and begin the arduous ascent to MidPal, was difficult in the snow. I traced the right and wrong steps of the earlier hiker and found the crossing boulders after only a couple of wrong turns.

From that point forth, hikers scramble over boulders en route to the rib that cuts in half the Middle Palisade glacier. The previous night’s snowfall coated the rocks and left many icy underneath the white layer. Tricky and unpleasant climbing ensued.
Boulder scrambling, for me at least, is weird. Time elongates. Each hundred vertical feet – and the many breaks – seem to take hours but clocks say otherwise. It’s reassuring to know what feels like a slow pace isn’t actually horrendous.

I progressed slowly, slipping many times despite using my hiking poles to test for slick surfaces and rock instability. Between the snow/ice and not truly measuring whether a rock would support my weight, I navigated with too much caution – and still managed to fall and bruise my shins on many places.

There’s no obvious route here, at least that I could find. Haphazardly placed cairns lead no where and boulder mounds block good visibility. I think I climbed too high too fast and should have stayed lower and to my left to avoid the biggest boulders and move quicker to the glacier’s base.

Climbing high does open another route. It reaches the glacier above its lower moraine and makes for a straightforward traverse to the rib. Peaks for Freaks followed that route. Given the Middle Palisade glacier has few, if any, crevasses, it is safe to cut across the glacier given the right equipment.
With the snow hardened into smooth ice, I didn’t want to cross the glacier and traversed the boulder field laterally and down a bit to cross to the moraine just below the glacier. Again, I should have stayed lower throughout this scramble and saved the elevation gain for later.

At this point, I paused for much too long, deciding whether to strap on my crampons and make a direct route across the Middle Palisade glacier or continue working across the snow-accumulated boulders. The wind had noticeably picked up and any exposed pause decreased my willingness to continue hiking. Noting the concerns mentioned above, I continued along the base of the glacier to the rib.

I reached the rib at noon and dropped my pack heavily. At this point I knew I wouldn’t make the summit. Weather had slowed me – I couldn’t zip across the boulders as I hoped – and I myself by lugging too heavy a pack. My decision: Continue hiking to the base of the chutes for recon’s sake or backtrack and hope to leave a bit ahead of schedule.
My initial goal had been 7 hours up and 5 hours back. I also had an extra hour in reserve should I need it. It was an audacious goal given Middle Palisade has taken day hikers up to 26 hours, but I figured I could do it (if weather permitted).

I had reached 6.5 hours and figured at very best it would take 90 minutes more to be near the summit – and that was a guess without knowing the chute conditions. It didn’t add to a successful summit day.

Not reaching the summit – or coming particularly close – sucks. A lot. It gave me flashbacks to the failed attempt on Mt. Shasta in May. Feels of obscene disgust and disappointment flowed through me and I kicked myself in anger at everything I could have done better. Should have woken up earlier. Moved faster on the flatter parts of the trail. Taken fewer and faster breaks on boulders. Packed lighter. Better cardio. And so on.
The wind didn’t make me feel any better. I’m guessing the raw temperature had fallen to the teens with a wind chill near 0 when it gusted between 30 and 40 mph. So in the face of bad weather and guessing I wouldn’t make up too much time, I turned around in Middle Palisade’s shadow at the base of the rib.

Hating myself, I began to trudge down the boulders, taking the occasional long snack break as I had no rush to return. Scrambling had long grown old. Streams had frozen with water gurgling under a layer of ice.

I made the same mistake coming down to Finger Lake that I made going up. Though I tried to follow cairns, their trail inevitably dried. Rather than downclimbing fast and then staying low and skirting the edge of the boulder field on what looked like relatively flat and smooth rocks, I kept elevation over the field and actually came close to a frozen tarn almost due west of the middle of Finger Lake. I should have been lower.
This led to some awkward downclimbing on steep and icy rocks, naturally further slowing progress. Eventually I regained some cairns and cut across the some other boulders that led to an obvious use trail to the base of Finger Lake.

Cairns led me a bit astray here into some Class 3 maneuvers that could have been easily avoided. Everything to this point had been straightforward Class 2. I backtracked, knocked down the cairn, and plopped to eat some bagel.

At that point, I heard tramping behind me and, startled, looked back as the person whose footsteps I had been chasing burst into the opening.

We stopped and chatted for a bit. He started some 30-40 minutes before I did and, unlike me, had made it to the chute. As with many Middle Palisade climbers, he tried to find the main chute off the glacier’s left but couldn’t identify the rock formations that indicated the ledges that entered the chute.
He then backtracked and cutover to the red rocks, or Secor, chute. He followed that chute to the gendarme before turning around because of dangerous conditions.

Snow piled nearly a foot high – in some places more – throughout the Secor chute. That meant stepping and clinging onto dangerously unstable rock without the benefit of sight. Blind steps and Class 4 maneuvers into a snow and ice bank.

At that point he turned around, recognizing the dangers didn’t outweigh the rewards of a frozen mountaintop. Clearly he made great time coming down.

He was obviously a better climber than me (this was his first 14er where he had to turnaround), so our conversation rejuvenated me and instantly wiped out all negative thoughts. I had made the right decision in turning around and kept myself from a dangerous climb. No reason to feel so much self-hatred 🙂
He left and we would alternately pass each other for the next 30 minutes before I took one long break to enjoy a final view of Middle Palisade and he descended in a hurry.

Finger Lake looked beautiful in the afternoon light. Its turquoise waters glistened and rippled in the wind; the perfect setting to look back on the Palisades. It truly looked like the Sierra gem everyone describes, unlike in the morning.

The remaining climb went smoothly and relatively quickly. After passing Brainerd and before descending the switchbacks I took a long snack break to enjoy the last views of Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak.

After zipping through the meadows – and seeing some dear – I returned to the trailhead at 4:10 for a total trip of nearly 11 hours. I had made up some time on descent and probably could have trudged up the rib, but I didn’t regret the decision. It saves extra adventure for next time.
What I Learned on Middle Palisade
I way overpacked. Knowing the weather would descend to negative wind chill, I crammed my bag full with polyester layers, a windproof jacket, puffer jacket, extra leggings, socks, and gloves. I even carried around my neck heavy snow pants.

Couple that with a hearty lunch, crampons, first aide equipment, a helmet, and ice axe, my pack burdened me beyond reason.

In the future, even when hiking in cold weather, I will cut down on the extra layers knowing that so long as I have a fleece windproof outer layer, I’ll likely be fine. One extra layer would have been enough.

Same thing with the snow pants. I didn’t need them. An extra legging layer was all that would have been necessary.

I carried 3 water bottles and only worked through 2 of them. I probably can cut out one – especially as 2 our 32+ fluid ounce hydroflasks. Given the cold, though, I didn’t want to refill freezing water, hence the extra bottle.

Next time, I will also start an hour earlier. With longer daylight, that should easily give me 15 hours to hike Middle Palisade. A lighter pack and better weather should make that sufficient.

Lastly, I needed a better acclimation plan. My lungs definitely hadn’t fully adjusted to the elevation.

Unlike Mt. Shasta, where I acclimated by going to Shastarama Point and Shastina on the two preceding days, I had only hiked the previous day when I attempted Mt. Agassiz.

That hike, up to 13,300 (short of the summit) from around 4,000 in Bishop, resulted in bad altitude sickness. One extra day to hike to 12,000 feet before Mt. Agassiz would have solved this issue.

Time Splits
Began hike: 5:30a

Switchbacks: 6:30a

Split to Willow Lake: 7:30a

Brainerd Lake: 8:00a

Finger Lake: 8:45a

Base of Rib: 12:00p

Finger Lake: 1:30p

Brainerd Lake: 2:00p

Switchbacks: 3:30p

Trailhead: 4:10p

More pics here: ... e-palisade
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Last edited by rs44 on Sun Oct 13, 2019 1:34 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: TR: Middle Palisade Attempt on 9/29/2019

Post by c9h13no3 » Tue Oct 08, 2019 3:53 pm

Knocking over bullsh!t cairns makes me so happy.

I was climbing Whorl on the 28th, and passed attempting anything other than sitting in the hot springs on the 29th. Smart move to call it off.
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Re: TR: Middle Palisade Attempt on 9/29/2019

Post by thegib » Wed Oct 09, 2019 8:52 pm

On the 29th, at 8am, at South Guard lake (11550'), my watch read 15F. That, and the painfully cold wind, was enough to change my summit plans too.

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Re: TR: Middle Palisade Attempt on 9/29/2019

Post by CAMERONM » Thu Oct 10, 2019 11:20 am

Thanks for the report and thoughtful observations. I was hoping for a run on middle palisade myself this fall but couldn’t break away. At my age I wouldn’t attempt a trailhead approach. Regardless of age, progress does slow down appreciably above 11k. Perhaps an overnight at the finger lake next time?

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Re: TR: Middle Palisade Attempt on 9/29/2019

Post by rs44 » Sun Oct 13, 2019 1:37 pm

Thu Oct 10, 2019 11:20 am
Perhaps an overnight at the finger lake next time?
I've always tended towards long day hikes rather than camping because it lets me squeeze in an extra summit or hike, but definitely might camp there next time I attempt MidPal to make sure I have all the time needed to reach the summit.

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