The NE Face of Middle Palisade is possibly the best 3rd class route in the Sierra Nevada. Ben had an ambitious goal to climb the peak in one day, a little different from SMC’s typical itinerary of 2 or 3 days. We met way-early in the morning, did a quick gear check, and took off.
The long hike up the lower South Fork of Big Pine Creek existed only in the radius of the light from our headlamps. We entered the Willow Lakes basin as the sun came up, and took our first break at Brainerd Lake. In a short time we were above Finger Lake and at the last tarn at 11910 feet elevation.
After the snowfields have melted away from the summer, I like to approach middle Palisade by a cicuitous, but more solid, route. From the tarn we hiked west up slabs, and then south, to reach the north-west corner of the terminal morain on the Middle Palisade glacier. The normal approach follows the obvious drainage to the lowest point, but that’s a sliding scree field when its dry. Instead we enjoyed a stable talus field across to the lateral morain that split the west and east lobes of the glacier and leads directly to the foot of the NE Face.
To avoid a slippery moat to the normal ramp I climbed a lower – and looser – ramp that ended only 20 feet lower in the East Chute (Sorry Ben!). We continued up the East Chute to the NE Pinacle, which marks our entering the North Chute. Here we were able to unrope and criss-cross, zig, zag, and head up the chute following broad ledges and ramps. The North Chute seemed to go on forever. We roped up again at the summit blocks, followed a corkscrew ledge to the south ridge, and then we were at the register!
Descending can be a bit more nerve-fraying then the ascent, since the exposure is constantly staring back you. So I decided to keep the rope on, and we were able to keep a more direct line down the right side of the chutes, avoiding a lot of possible rockfall hazards. Still, descending only took 30 minutes less time then the ascent had – showing how descending 4th and 3rd class terrain takes almost as much time as ascending does.
We reached the Middle Palisade Glacier with a significant sigh of satisfaction, packed the gear away, and started the descent. We turned up the pace once we reached the trail again at Brainerd Lake, cruising down down down, and broke out the headlamps again just as we reached the lower South Fork again. The headlamps’ light enveloped our world again until we reached the cars.
We had plans to meet in Bishop for beers, but while eating my first chicken fajita at my friends house I fell asleep sitting up. I rallied to finish dinner before I crawled into my sleeping bag and let the day end.
Statistics: NE Face, Middle Palisade (2000’+ ft of 3rd Class), 14012 feet. 14:45 hours car-to-car.
To see all the photos from this trip, look up 20080922 SMC NE Face Middle Palisade on my online photo archive, http://picasaweb.google.com/mtnfreak, or click here.