A failed attempt of the Palisade Traverse
September 4, 2016
My first attempt of the Palisade Traverse was two months ago, over Fourth of July weekend. My plan was to take three days:
Day 1: take the North Fork of Big Pine Creek trail to the Palisade Glacier and bivy.
Day 2: ascend Underhill Couloir and do the traverse from Thunderbolt to Sill, bivy again at the base of the glacier.
Day 3: hike out.
In the parking lot I met a much more experienced climber than myself who was keen on joining me for this adventure (he had a basecamp set up at the foot of the glacier for 9 days of exploring the area). I was relieved to find a willing and able partner.
I hiked up to the glacier, set up my bivy, made an early dinner, and went to bed around 7 PM. I wasn't able to sleep very well as a headache slowly built up; the altitude was affecting me. The mosquitoes were out in full force, so I had hiked up rather fast because every time I stopped for even a second, the little buggers were on me. Being early in the warm summer season, there was lots of melting and rockfall throughout the cirque, including a large landslide that fell into the glacial pond. Around 230 AM, right around our scheduled wake-up time, I vomited and decided that I would pack up and descend as soon as the predawn sky was light enough to allow me to navigate the talus fields. Sometimes the mountains win. The hike out as the sun rose was beautiful.
Fast forward to Labor Day weekend. With dayhikes of North Palisade and Thunderbolt Peak recently ticked off my list, I was ready to give the Palisade Traverse another shot. My regular partners Julian and Sarah wanted to do the usual start on Saturday at 2 AM, but that didn't jive with my schedule. I drive up to the mountains on Fridays and get there late, running on only a couple hours sleep doesn't work for me. I connected with Julian's friend Jodie, who was willing to work with my itinerary. And the day before our trip began, Calvin (who is going for the tallest 100 peaks in the lower 48 in 100 days) posted online about looking for partners for the Palisades. We slept at the Big Pine trailhead and early Saturday morning, Jodie drove us all to the South Lake trailhead. I took a 125 mg Acetazolamide (Diamox) at 10 AM and 10 PM on Friday. I'm not happy about this, but AMS has been kicking my ass all season and I don't have time to properly acclimate.
Day 1: Start at South Lake, summit Agassiz and maybe Winchell, bivy at Thunderbolt Pass.
Day 2: Thunderbolt to Sill, also bag Peak 13962 (Barrett Peak), 0.3 miles SE of Polemonium Peak, bivy where needed.
Day 3: Hike out to Big Pine trailhead.
Calvin and I had an extra objective for the day: Mount Agassiz, so we hit the trail with the plan to meet Jodie at our bivy spot on Thunderbolt Pass. The weather forecast for the weekend was sunny, clear, and windy, with chilly temperatures. It was pretty accurate, though there were some clouds and even a few minutes of flurries on the highest peaks.
We make good time up to Bishop Pass and took a food/water/power-nap break before continuing up Agassiz. The west slopes of Agassiz have many chutes to choose from, all are loose class 2 affairs that look about the same difficulty. We bagged the summit and headed to Agassiz Col to check out the potential ascent for the northwest ridge of Mount Winchell. It looked like a lot of difficult fifth class, so we dropped down the chute and contoured over to Thunderbolt Pass. This was a good call - I later read Secor's guide grades the NW ridge 5.8 IV.
We met back up with Jodie shortly before Thunderbolt Pass - she wasn't feeling well, so she generously unloaded some of her delicious food on us and set back out for South Lake. Calvin and I set up our bivies and got into our sleeping bags as the sun set. I talked to a couple who were heading back to South Lake, they had completed Thunderbolt to Sill, going car-to-car in a day!
The night wasn't as cold as I expected, and I thought I slept pretty well at 12400 feet. We woke at 0315, packed up, and found a sheltered spot from the wind to eat a quick breakfast. The wind was funneled right up Southwest Chute #1, by the time I got to the top of the notch, I was shivering, my hands and fingers were numb, and the altitude was upsetting my stomach. I vomited, got onto the east side of the ridge, and we wiggled into our sleeping bags to warm up as the sun broached the horizon. My numb fingers gripped my thighs to thaw out. I popped another Acetazolamide.
We napped for an hour and I felt much better. I suggested we keep going up; I was feeling much more confident than the first time I climbed Thunderbolt. I led, and roped Calvin up for a short segment from the notch to the ledges above. We scrambled over to the summit block and it took us about ten tries to lasso it. The wind kept blowing the super light rope away. I knew the moves and felt good climbing to the summit on top rope (I would lead it in climbing shoes). How do free climbers downclimb this thing?! Calvin lowered me and I belayed him up.
I didn't read the beta that I brought, and we rappelled down the east side of Thunderbolt. After the first rappel, I pulled the rope and it got stuck. I had to climb back up a fun crack, placing two cams, to retrieve the rope. We rapped a second time and made it to the Underhill Couloir. We had to climb about 50 feet up this loose, sandy chute to the top of the notch. The chute here down the west side is SW Chute #2. With not much info on the best route to Starlight, we scrambled along the ridge and I ran into Sarah perched on a ledge, dressed like a burrito in a sleeping bag and emergency foil sack. What a surprise to see her! I figured she and Julian would've crushed the traverse the day before. Julian had tagged the summit of Starlight and was heading back over to us. He gave us some great route beta and we continued on our way. The traverse from Thunderbolt to Starlight was longer than expected. There was a fun half-pitch "chimney" along the way. I was uncomfortable free climbing the milkbottle in my trail runners, so we tried unsuccessfully to lasso it. Running out of daylight, we decided to forego the milkbottle and head back down.
We downclimbed our route back to the Underhill notch, and rappelled down the Underhill Couloir. We did 6-7 very inefficient rappels as the sun set. My new rope doesn't have a middle marker so we had to pull the rope, flake it, run it through the rappel sling, and re-flake it - a time consuming process. On the second to last rappel, I thought it had gotten stuck, so Calvin went back up to inspect it. It turned out to be a lot of friction going around a rock to the sling and back down.
Before our last rappel, we traversed northwest in an attempt to avoid the glacier ice. I was worried that it would be slick and require crampons. It's so deteriorated that there is a melted out section of rock one can cross to get down the glacier. We didn't traverse far enough, so we rappelled onto the glacier over a shallow bergschrund. Fortunately, this was no problem, as the ice was quite grippy. We cruised down past the pond at the foot, where I filtered some water, and continued down the talus field toward Third Lake. About halfway down, we separated. I wanted to get on the established trail as fast as possible, and Calvin was content talus hopping down. I warned him that many people make this mistake and end up getting cliffed out and doing some bushwhacking. Well, I didn't find the trail so easily and ended up doing a little bit of schwacking through pine trees and some class 2 downclimbing. Around 11000 feet, I crossed the creek coming down from Sam Mack Meadow and got back on the trail. I had no idea where Calvin was. Before we split up we talked about bivying and I suggested Third Lake or Sam Mack Meadow. I knew he was lower and further east of Sam Mack, so I kept descending. I was getting tired and didn't feel like going five more miles to my car, so I bivied in a great spot right off the trail by Third Lake. I only slept for three hours, but felt great in the morning. I packed up and hiked down to my car. I figured Calvin had bivied and would be along soon. I ate a bunch of food and relaxed in the back of my car. A few hours later Calvin showed up and told me about his bushwhacking, talus hopping, awful cross country travel. He bivied near Third Lake as well.
We drove down to Big Pine and got huge lunches at the delicious Copper Top BBQ.
0817 Start at South Lake
1110 Bishop Pass, break for food and filtering water
1210 Begin hiking up Agassiz
1406 Summit Agassiz
1523 Agassiz Col
1645 Take a break, meet back up with Jodie
1731 Thunderbolt Pass
0315 Wake up
0412 Start up SW Chute #1
0630 Nap and warm up at top of chute
0800 Resume climbing
0930 Thunderbolt summit
1206 Notch between Thunderbolt and Starlight
1420 5.4 chimney climb up Starlight
1530 Summit Starlight
0348 Bivy off trail by Third Lake
0700 Wake up
0748 Resume descent
1012 Finish at Big Pine trailhead
Photo credits to Calvin & Sarah
July 4 bivy area at the glacial pond
View south from the South Lake trail
View north from the South Lake trail
View of Palisade Glacier (left) and Thunderbolt Glacier (right) from the summit of Agassiz
View of Agassiz Col and Mt Winchell from the summit of Agassiz
Looking down to Bishop Pass (pond on left) from the summit of Agassiz
Me on Agassiz
Mt Winchell from Agassiz Col
Looking south from Agassiz Col
Clouds quickly blew over the tall peaks
Our first cowboy camp spot on Thunderbolt Pass
Sunset over Dusy Basin
Calvin on Thunderbolt
Me buckling up for our first rappel off Thunderbolt, Starlight in the background
Starting the first rappel
Starting the second rappel
Julian and I on the ridge to Starlight
Calvin coming up to us
Me on the ledge (lower right corner) getting ready to lead the 5.4(?) chimney
Starlight summit block
Rappelling down Starlight
Rappelling Underhill Couloir
Rappelling in the dark
Morning view of Third Lake from my bivy spot
Morning view of Temple Crag from my bivy spot
Potential ice-free route down the glacier