Palisades (L-shaped snowfield and Clyde couloir)

Others climbing couloir

Mentally dead from the early morning and long day on Split Mountain, I drove back up to Glacier Lodge to pack and sleep, planning to figure out something to do in the South Fork the next morning. Sam turned out to have chosen the same trailhead, but with much more definite and ambitious plans. I made noncommittal noises about joining him, then fell asleep early. I was ready to go at 5:00 the next morning, but missed him by a few minutes, and only saw him in the distance as I skinned up to Willow Lake. I had noticed someone behind me earlier, who turned out to be John, headed up on his first visit to this excellent corner of the Sierra. I had settled on skinning up to South Fork Pass and looping over Balcony Peak, but he had other ideas, and soon convinced me to head in the other direction, toward the couloir between Norman Clyde and Mount Williams, its neighbor to the north.

Terrain below Jepson

In classic John fashion, he subsequently convinced me to head over to Gayley notch and, once there, to climb the L-shaped snowfield that forms the lower part of the route up Mount Sill. The route to the notch is probably brushy and rocky in summer, but was mostly easy when covered in snow. We skinned up a valley heading west below Contact Pass until we left the trees, then made our way through the rolling terrain below the sheer east side of the Palisades between Palisade Crest and Sill. There was one stretch of precarious side-hilling, but it was otherwise mellow, and looked like a fun ski on the return south.

Palisades from Apex Peak

We sweated our way up to the notch, where we were hit by a chill wind, then continued booting up the snowfield. The snow was a mixture of crust and chalk, promising interesting skiing on the return. From the notch, I noted that the crux of the route up Sill, a traverse leading to the west ridge, looked exposed but not particularly difficult with the snow, possibly offering single-day access to the bowl between Polemonium and Sill. Dropping our skis, we took a brief jaunt over to “Apex Peak,” a minor bump offering a superb view of the northern Palisades and the Palisade Glacier. While the glacier itself was absolutely buried, the chutes leading into it looked unpleasantly hard, the U-notch had a fairly serious bergschrund. I was glad not to be with Sam and his friend, who hoped to ski these chutes later in the day.

Short hike to Apex

Returning to our skis, we made some fun turns down the snowfield, then turned right into the short couloirs leading down from the saddle. I chose a closer, steeper one, while John took one farther down that was probably more fun. We had expected perfect corn on the generally east-facing rollers back toward the Clyde Glacier, but the snow was variable, mixing excellent skiing with patches of unripe crust. I was worried about cliffing out on the final decent to the moraine, but the mini-cliffs proved easy to avoid. In a bit of accidental good timing, we arrived just as Jason was headed out, and the irrepressible John soon convinced him to head up the Clyde couloir.

View through the notch

The snow in the north-facing valley of the Clyde Glacier had been an annoying breakable crust over an ice-hard surface when I visited Scimitar Pass, and it had not improved much in the subsequent week. We skinned until that became precarious, then switched to booting, taking advantage of another of Sam’s excellent boot-packs. I was increasingly grateful for the step as I got higher into the couloir, as the upper part was filled with genuine powder, and the pack became more of a winter-style trench. I slowly ground my way up the long couloir and, with a final awkward high-step, wallowed into the notch to wait for the others. I had expected the wind to whip through this narrow gap, as it had when I climbed Williams in the summer some years ago, but it was somehow sheltered and fairly pleasant. The walls of the other side perfectly framed a view of Palisade Basin, Observation Peak, and the Kings in the distance.


The others joined me, and we hung out for a bit before contemplating the ski down. They seemed over-concerned about the lip at the top, so I offered to go first, thinking that I would launch off and style it. In my haste and arrogance, though, I failed to lock my boots into ski mode, so as soon as I hit the surface below, I pitched forward and fell. The couloir was steep, but fortunately filled with heavy powder, so instead of anything serious happening, I merely engaged in a couple hundred feet of slow-motion flailing before I got my skis below me and came to a stop. I locked my boots, wiped off my sunglasses, and proceeded with a bit more caution, making tight turns and sliding to one side to rest out of the others’ debris as they followed.

Fun skiing on Clyde Glacier moraines

I took the wrong line higher up on the glacier below, but eventually found good corn, and sped down the valley to the base of Buck Mountain in sweeping, playful turns. The snow was turning to sticky slush here, making for a strenuous skate across Willow Lake, and had fully deteriorated below the South Fork headwall. I struggled not to get sucked into the isothermal morass on the way down to the valley bottom, then stayed as high as possible before dropping down through the summer cabins to the road. The first 3/4 of a mile from the winter closure had been plowed, and other parts higher up were rapidly melting out. We transitioned on and off skis a few times, then gave up and walked the rest of the way to the cars. Jason had to return to SoCal that evening, a drive I remembered well from my early Sierra days, while John and I had time to hang out awhile. He was, of course, thinking of things to ski the next day, but I needed some time away from ski boots and high-altitude snow-amplified sun.

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