Scimitar Pass

Palisade Crest beckons

Back in the last ice age, Big Pine Creek was home to an enormous glacier, whose lateral moraines are obvious from the summits of the Palisades or from the air, extending into the Owens Valley toward the town of Big Pine. Farther up, the glacier was fed by two main branches lying in what are now the creek’s North and South Forks, where its current remnants cower in northeast-facing cirques. These form the Palisade Glacier on the north, and Norman Clyde and Middle Palisade Glaciers on the south. The North Fork has a trail that sees quite a bit of traffic, including some of the Sierra’s despicable, ubiquitous, anachronistic pack horses, likely because it contains a number of large glacial lakes for fishing. The South Fork is home to Middle Palisade, one of the Sierra’s fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, so the trail to Brainerd Lake and beyond is also somewhat popular. However the branch leading to the Clyde Glacier has no trail, and is not an approach to any popular peak, so it is seldom visited. At its head lies Scimitar Pass, an improbable talus-ramp leading over the Palisade crest to more trail-less and seldom-visited terrain between Barrett and Palisade Lakes.

Summer cabin

I did not have a good idea for a peak to ski after Big Kid, but wanted to get out in the good conditions, so I decided to tour up the South Fork to see it snowed in. There were patches of pavement showing on the road between the winter and summer trailheads, but I could still skin from the car. This being a weekend, there were quite a few other cars at the trailhead, ranging from the bland blobs that are the convergence of a station wagon and an SUV (e.g. the Subaru Crosstrek), to trucks and a few compacts. I started relatively late, so Buck and Split were already illuminated by the time I left the lot. The north chutes on Kid Mountain were not quite ready to ski, but they held plenty of snow, and the massive bridge of avalanche snow over Big Pine Creek was deep enough to keep access easy for a long time. The summer homes near the trailhead were slowly melting out, revealing downed phone lines and broken awnings from the hard winter.

Approaching Willow Lake

I skinned up the left side of the valley, then crossed to climb the creekbed to Willow Lake. This required some desperate sidehill skinning on the firm snow, and a bit of boot-packing in the constriction below the lake. In the summer Willow “Lake” is really more of a marsh with a stream running through it, and that stream was just starting to peek out through deep banks of snow. I followed an old skin track toward Contact Pass, which connects the North and South Forks between Buck and Temple Crag, then left them to head up the branch toward Scimitar Pass, west of Norman Clyde’s long Firebird Ridge. Palisade Crest dominates the skyline, a series of small, sharp spires that, unlike most ridges in the Sierra, are sheer on both sides.

Southeast to Big Kid

The snow was hard lower in this shaded valley, and turned to chalk over a hard crust as I climbed over the moraine. This was more challenging skinning, and promised mediocre skiing on the return, but I had come this way for the views. Two steep couloirs lead to the crest above the glacier, on either side of the unofficially-named “Williams Peak,” and I thought of skiing one of them, but lacked the ambition. Instead I traversed up and right, directly below Palisade Crest, keeping a respectful distance lest some of the lingering snow, that had been baking all morning, decide to drop on me. The traverse to the pass was uneven, with huge wind-sculpted ridges and valleys of snow, where did my best to contour.

Final Scimitar ramp

The snow softened as I neared the final ramp to the pass, and I was surprised and pleased to find a relatively recent boot-pack. The ramp catches morning sun, and had softened to a pleasantly skiable texture. I booted up to the top in just my shirt, then put on all my clothes against the west wind to admire the views. I had thought of tagging the easy nearby summit of Jepson, but the other side of the crest was scoured bare or badly wind-sculpted, so I was content to stop at the pass. From there I could see down into Palisade Creek and the Middle Fork of the Kings River, a valley leading out the west side of the range. Across it, the familiar peaks of the Devils Crags and Black Divide were buried in white. To the north, the bowl between Polemonium and Sill looked like a good ski, though difficult to reach in a day.

Dusy Basin and Black Divide

Satisfied with what I had done so far, I put my skis and boots in “fun mode” and had some good turns down the pass’s headwall. I waffled for a bit, then decided to shortcut my route up by cutting more directly toward the moraines. I knew there were small, awkward cliffs here, and nearly trapped myself, but managed to worm my way through to the valley bottom. From there the skiing improved, and I had good turns to the junction with the Contact Pass route, the traversed high to keep momentum over Willow Lake. The south-facing snow below was softening, but not yet total glop, so I made more fun, fast progress back toward the summer trailhead, then double-poled and skated my way to the car. This was my fourth consecutive day of skiing, totaling almost 29,000 feet of climbing and probably 25,000 of sliding, and my feet were tired of living in ski boots. As much as the snow beckoned, it was time for a break.

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