Half-full Palisade Traverse

Palisade Crest silhouette


The term “Palisade Traverse” usually refers to a crossing of California’s most rugged fourteeners, between Thunderbolt Peak and Mount Sill; this is a fairly popular route, seeing dozens of parties every summer. However, this is just part of a much longer ridge. The longer section between Southfork and Bishop Passes has come to be called the “Full Palisade Traverse,” and has been completed by only a dozen or so parties ever. Even longer traverses, extending north through the Inconsolable Range, northwest across the Evolution Ridge, or south over Split Mountain (formerly “South Palisade”) to Taboose Pass, have been done once or twice, if at all.

I was leaving the Sierra when I received a last-minute invitation to join Vitality and Ryan, two erstwhile mountain partners, for some version of a longer Palisade traverse. Carrying food for four nights, a rope, and a small rack, this was not my style of climbing. However, I have long been interested in exploring the unfamiliar parts of this ridge, and it is good for me to occasionally venture beyond my familiar path. I broke up the drive back south by riding Ebetts, Monitor, and Sonora Passes, summiting some peaks near each, then met the others, threw together an overnight pack, and rode up to South Lake to begin the traverse.

Sill and Winchell from Agassiz

It began with the familiar slog up Bishop Pass, which fortunately passed largely by headlamp. Unused to the cold of a high trailhead, I had neglected to sleep with my water bladder and headlamp, so the water hose had frozen, and the lamp’s batteries were weak. We filled up at a stream below the final headwall, then left the trail just short of the pass to climb Agassiz’s standard route. This is normally a class 2 boulder-hop up a gully, but the rock-hard early-summer snow forced us onto the class 3 ribs instead. Finally reaching warmth and sun just below the summit, we dropped our packs to sign the register, then contemplated the start of the real traverse.

Agassiz from Winchell

Another climber had mentioned that many people skip a tower called the “Sharkfin,” and the ridge crest between Agassiz and Winchell looked jagged and time-consuming, so we descended a choss-gully to an azure snow-lake, then returned to join Winchell’s standard east ridge partway to the summit. We had fortunately decided to bring minimal snow gear — two pairs of crampons and an axe for the three of us — because although the snow had been baking in the sun for several hours, it was still hard enough for Vitality to take a stylish but unplanned glissade. I had climbed the east ridge for the Sierra Challenge many years ago, and the rest of the route was the fun third class I remembered.

Improbable ledge off Winchell

From the summit, we contemplated the jagged ridge behind to the north and ahead to the south. As I had noted from previous outings across the valley, Winchell stands alone, with wide and deep gaps separating it from Agassiz and Thunderbolt. Realizing that we might have “cheated” by skipping some of the best and/or hardest climbing, we decided to stay on the ridge for the next stretch, the long traverse to Thunderbolt. The descent from Winchell was wild and suspenseful; we often reached a point where it seemed we must cliff out, only to find an improbable downclimb. One of these was a bit desperate, and while I nervously followed Vitality’s lead (he is a much stronger climber than I), Ryan opted for a short rappel.

Reascent after Winchell

After traversing over a sharp intermediate tower (perhaps the “Sharksfin?”), we started up the long climb to Thunderbolt. This was time-consuming but substantially fun, with many sections of the good kind of Palisades rock. At their best, the Palisades consist of solid black rock flecked with white, which forms sharp edges and knobs. The climbing is steep and exposed, but secure, making one feel like a better climber. This alternated with the bad kind of Palisades rock — shifting choss on sloping ledges — but such is the nature of this traverse. We eventually reached Southwest Chute #1, and were back on the familiar Thunderbolt to Sill traverse. As expected, this seldom-climbed section had taken a long time, but we still had plenty of daylight left.

Vitaliy leading Thunderbolt

We scrambled up to Thunderbolt’s summit block, and rather than simply lasso it, Vitality decided to lead it with a pretend belay: he would hit the ground and probably break something if he fell, but at least he would be attached to a rope as he lay wedged between boulders. A few slow, cautious moves later, he reached the summit and was lowered, then Ryan and I both toproped it. I had soloed the block in running shoes in 2012, but lassoed it on both of my subsequent trips. As before, I found that while the free climb looked difficult, it was reasonably secure. While I was glad to have a rope, it is something I could now confidently do without one.

Ugh, that pack (V)

Having done it four times now, I expected the traverse to Sill to be straightforward, but the ridge is complicated and relentless, and I had never done it in early-season snow, nor carrying an overnight pack. I felt like my old self when I dropped my pack to scramble Starlight’s “milk bottle” (or more aptly “giraffe”) summit block, but was tentative and awkward otherwise, even rappeling once on a section I had easily downclimbed between Starlight and North Palisade. I scrambled through the sharp notch and down the Clyde Variation into the U-notch, but it all felt harder than it should have, eroding my normal confidence on moderate and familiar terrain.

First bivy before Sill (V)

It was late by the time we reached the talus beyond Polemonium, now covered in slush suncups. We could have continued, but there did not appear to be any flat, dry ground on the way to Sill, and we had to melt snow for three people’s water on two stoves. We eventually found a bivy spot large enough for three people to sleep uncomfortably, and spent the remaining daylight turning snow into dirty water for dinner and the next day’s consumption. It was the highest I had ever slept in the Sierra, and cold enough to make me unhappy, with my hands always on the verge of aching. I ate as quickly as possible, shoved my water bladder, headlamp, and gloves into my bivy, and put on a podcast while trying to sleep on my slowly leaking pad on the non-flat ground.

Our bivy spot fortunately received early morning sun, so we were able to get moving at a respectable hour. The snow was pleasantly solid, with a crunchy, grippy surface, making the traverse to Sill much easier than it would have been the previous evening. The final shady climb was frigid, but the summit plateau was fairly warm, promising a good day on the ridge. We scrambled over the two towers south of Sill, where I managed to tweak my ankle while playing around, then dropped down to avoid some annoying-looking terrain on the way to the saddle with Jepson. I briefly lost the other two on a detour for running water, finding them again as they pondered how to return to the ridge.

Me about to fail (R)

Jepson is a surprisingly difficult obstacle: while it is a simple talus-hop from Scimitar Pass to the south, the connecting ridge to Sill is sharp on both sides, with steep steps along the crest, and a long south ridge with a sheer west side extending some 1000 feet down toward Glacier Creek. After crossing a bit more snow, we connected ledges and broken terrain back to the ridge. I vaguely remembered descending this ridge unroped on a scouting mission, but that was with a daypack and later in the season. I had probably followed a line generally west of the ridge, but that was now shady and held a fair amount of snow. This time we stayed closer to the crest, roping up for one pitch for psychological reasons, and another for legitimate reasons just below the summit. Vitality nervously led up a pair of cracks below a roof. I followed and almost made the necessary moves, but failed at the top, partly because of my pack, but also because I am a mediocre climber. I fell once, then gave up and pulled on a cam to put this embarrassment behind me. While I have my pride in some things, climbing is not one of them.

Palisade Crest slab

The long boulder-hop from Jepson to the start of Palisade Crest was a welcome respite. We glanced at snowy Scimitar Pass, surprisingly high on the south side of the Jepson-Palisade Crest col, then soon found ourselves back in serious terrain. The “crux” of the first Palisade Crest summit, a.k.a. “Gandalf,” is a striking, exposed slab to its left. However, as I wrote in the register after my first climb many years ago, the ridge leading up to it is far more tricky and thought-provoking. After a wrong turn where we nearly resorted to a rappel, I found a line of cairns bypassing the final bump along the left side. It was standard fare — chossy and exposed fourth class — about which the others did not seem enthusiastic. I was not overjoyed, but at least I was back in my element, traversing to the slab, then cruising up the well-featured face to the summit pinnacle. A short, steep, but positive scramble led from there to the small summit.

Along Palisade Crest

Now it was time for more unfamiliar, and very intimidating-looking, terrain. In my past experience, Sierra ridges are usually easier than their official ratings if you take the time for some careful route-finding. Both the Kaweah and Evolution traverses are rated 5.9, but I found them no harder than 5.5 and 5.7, respectively. Since Palisade Crest is offically 5.5, I did not think it would cause much trouble. Boy was I wrong: while there may be a 5.5 path with perfect route-finding, the climbing is relentless, and the ridge allows few options. The west side is often near-vertical and smooth, while the east is steep and frequently loose. The north sides of the twelve towers are also steeper than the south, making it particularly intimidating in our direction. This would normally have been my type of terrain, but mental exhaustion and a heavy pack with an ice axe and two sets of crampons to catch on things spoiled the fun. Climbing some loose exposed rock to rejoin the others, with the rope coiled around my neck, I lost it for a bit, screaming “why am I doing this?!” before putting my head back on straight. This had stopped being fun for me.

Ultimate bivy (V)

We had hoped to get at least as far as the notch beyond the Crest, but by 6:00 we had only climbed a bit over half of the towers, reaching the first flat spot that we had seen in awhile large enough to sleep three people. The others were reluctant to waste daylight, but I thought it unlikely we would find another good bivy by dark. I think everyone was a bit mentally fried at this point, because it did not take much to convince them to stay here for the night. While Ryan and I cleared off rocks on the platform, Vitaliy rappeled down the east face to gather snow for water. Afterward, we went through the usual time-consuming process of melting snow and cooking dinner, then watched the light fade from one of the most amazing bivy spots imaginable. The narrow and serrated Palisades ridge extended north and south of our platform, while the sun set on Palisade Basin, the Devil’s Crags, and countless other Sierra peaks to the west. Sleeping right on the Sierra Crest, we received both last and first light, and the weather was pleasant and almost windless, even above 13,000 feet.

Me on the Crest (V)

With only a few towers to go, we were hoping for faster going the next day. After a rappel east with a scary (to me) overhanging start, we traversed around a headwall, then scaled some fun fourth class back to the ridge beyond a small, vertical tower. Vitaliy then led an intimidating but positive pitch along the crest to the next tower. Things were going better, staying generally on or east of the crest and finding fun, positive rock, but it was still slow and exposed through the final towers. A good night’s sleep had restored my mental energy and head for scrambling, but Ryan still seemed to be suffering.

We eventually reached the end of the Crest, and were dismayed to find hundreds of feet of sheer-looking rock dropping to the south saddle. I thought I saw a feasible line of 2-3 rappels down chossy terrain to the notch, but Vitality wanted to find something shorter and/or cleaner, and traversed east along a ledge. While we had seen sporadic webbing anchors all along the traverse, we found none here, suggesting we may have been off-route. Vitality eventually found a clean line down from a large horn somewhat east of the spine, and Ryan rappeled into the void, eventually finding a platform near the end of the rope.

Vitaliy led the next rappel, trying desperately to angle back toward the notch before giving up on the sheer wall of the couloir to its east. We discussed our options a bit, but I was privately done with the whole business, and had no enthusiasm left to bring to the group. I could not think of a good way to get across the gap short of going down to the snow and around, my ankle was bothering me a bit, and I lacked the energy to regain 1000 or more feet on chossy fourth class rock. We downclimbed east, then made a rappel to the snow, which sucked until it became lower-angle.

There was some fun boot-skiing getting to the lake northeast of Norman Clyde, then an endless hike through mosquito-infested woods to the South Fork trail, where I put in my headphones for the slog of shame. I bashed my ankle again for good measure, limped to the parking lot, and threw my pack down at the gate. Fishing for my keys, I found that my olive oil had leaked all over my sleeping gear. Joy. I needed some time alone, so I did not mind walking the mile down the road to the overnight lot to fetch my car. It was a bit awkward cramming two people into my filthy and disorganized “home,” but they did not complain on the drive around to South Lake. Ryan kindly volunteered to fetch the other car, and I pulled into one of the flatter spots in the overnight lot to sleep in the high, cool air. I had seen most of the unfamiliar terrain about which I was curious, but it still felt like failure.

6 responses to “Half-full Palisade Traverse

  1. It’s great to read a transparent report rather than just see some social media photos with little context. Bummer it didn’t go so well, but at least you made sure to bash your ankle again for good measure on the way out!

    Perhaps my situation of being perpetually disgusting in the 100+ degree heat wave and getting eaten alive by mosquitos in the night isn’t as bad as I thought. I could be pointlessly wearing myself down in life threatening terrain!

    • Hah! I’m amazed my body is still holding up as well as it is. This one put me in my place, and kicked my ass in multiple ways, something I probably had coming.

      You should really give the cooler eastside another try sometime. There are trees for shade, no mosquitos, cool nights, and plenty life-threatening terrain in the Minarets.

  2. Awesomeness, as always, even in failure. If you want to discuss fail look no further – I’ve been in the Sierra 28 days so far this year, not once getting beyond 10,000ft.

    Some typos: “connecting ridge to Agassiz is sharp” should be Sill, I believe.
    “north side extends some 1500 feet down toward Le Conte Canyon” should be Big Pine Creek, I believe, unless you meant to say south side.

    • Thanks for keeping me honest, Bob — will fix. Agassiz was a think-o. I meant the South or SSW ridge on Jepson, which only costs you about 1000 feet, but is a really annoying obstacle if you try to get at Sill’s easy SW side via Scimitar Pass. Not recommended!

      I haven’t exactly been racking up the summits in the Sierra, and am getting tired of the mosquitos and postholing — there’s a reason I’m usually elsewhere this time of year. I’m not sure of my later-summer schedule yet, but I’ll try to make at least a couple days of the Challenge.

  3. Pam Fabricius-Olsen

    Sean~
    I bet you’ll be over your feelings of “failure” rather quickly as you begin your next adventure. You make many of us feel most lazy and inadequate~but we root for and live vicariously through YOU, my adventurous friend!! Take care.
    Pam

    • Thanks, Pam! I’m glad you enjoy reading about my adventures, even if I’ve been writing less so far this season. I knew this one was tough going into it, and it proved much tougher than I had anticipated. Take care as well, and maybe see you this fall.

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