My feet shuffle along the thin branch only a foot above the rushing black water.
I am attempting to cross the South Fork Big Pine Creek where, apparently, there used to be a bridge, every remnant of which was wiped out by avalanche this past winter. My friend and Sierra’s climbing partner, Michael (all 120 nimble pounds of him) is already on the other side, trying to talk me over the crossing as I fight my way through the upper branches of this wispy shoreline tree-shrub, performing a feat part highwire act and part game of Twister.
We had considered hopping the nearby chain of boulders, but they are angled off camber from this side of the creek and looked treacherously wet and slippery. We had also considered stripping off our trail runners and socks and wading across the adjacent, longer and more shallow crossing to the left. But we had been told by a guy we had run into while scouting the trailhead the previous afternoon that he and his buddy had “monkeyed” over this crossing using the trees. A good idea with the benefit of daylight, perhaps.
As it is, a little disoriented by the tunnel vision offered by my headlamp and the freight train noise of the creek, I step one inch further along and the branch and suddenly my feet begin an inexorable drop into the deep and frigid water. I yank frantically on the surrounding branches in an attempt to gain the upper decks of my proverbial Titanic, but to no avail. Not even 45 minutes into what would end up being my longest and most difficult day in the mountains and I’m going down. “Jump for it!” Michael shouts. Looks like them Duke boys are in a heap of trouble.
Middle Palisade (14,012’) is near the southern end of a wickedly serrated 10-mile ridge, which includes seven of the 15 California 14ers. It is accessed out of the ragtag high desert town of Big Pine and became the focus of attention for our 2nd annual Sierra’s climb after I completely flaked on the Whitney Zone lottery deadline for what would have been an attempt on the Whitney & Mt. Muir combo. Middle P looks to be exactly the challenge we are looking for: a long and scenic approach by trail and cross country, travel across and up a gentle glacier and a finish up the 1,300’ of Class 3 rock of the mountain’s Northeast Face route.
As always when it comes to climbing any mountain in the Sierra’s other than Whitney, hard numbers on the climb are difficult to come by. After reading a volume of route descriptions and trip reports and consulting the Tom Harrison “The Palisades” map that I picked up in LA the week before, best I can figure is a 16-mile day with 6,600’ of gain, the trailhead being at 7,400’.
Common practice for the mountain is to cover about five miles and 3,500’ on the approach to camp at the scenic Finger Lake the day before tackling the actual mountain the next day. Neither Michael and I are keen on lugging heavy packs with loaded bear cans that far and that high, so we decide to camp in comfort at the Big Pine Creek campground at the top of the road, which has the luxury of relative warmth, bear boxes and, most importantly, easy access to a cooler of Big Sky Moose Drool brown ale.
Ahhhh cold beer…but wait! Back from commercial break, my feet sink into the creek and in desperation I muster as good a hop off the weak branch as I can manage, reaching for Michael’s outstretched arms. I come up short, going in knee deep at the edge of the water. An awkward moment transpires as Michael continues to try and pull me out and yet I stand there, a little tweaked and despondent. Oh well, wet feet never killed anyone in the backcou…errrr…anyhow it’s warm out. I climb out of the creek, give my feet a doggie shake and we continue on.
Dawn breaks as we begin hike up switchbacks into a basin that contains a number of high lakes along the approach. Morning light floods into the northern end of the valley giving it almost a Rivendell-like feel. It is a bluebird day—not a cloud in the sky.
Into the basin we enter a verdant forest, uncharacteristic for the Eastern Sierra, and pass close to Willow Lake. In Hiking and Climbing California’s Fourteeners, Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns give fair warning about this section of the approach:
…Willow Lake is home to the breeding grounds for billions of mosquitoes. If they are in season you might want to sprint through this area to avoid being eaten alive.
Despite the fact that the guide otherwise seems completely devoid of both humor and hyperbole, I have a hard time giving credence to the warning as I a simply cannot wrap my head around the word “billions” unless it relates to national economies or stars in the universe. A few mosquitoes do tentative fly-by’s, but we are mostly unmolested as we reach a small tarn, our point to leave the trail and begin the cross-country traverse up and over a boulder-strewn ridge to Finger Lake.
Our speed drops as we begin to ascend the ridge and the ambush is sprung as a billion mosquitoes pounce from every direction. It’s a trap!! We flee up the ridge but the rugged terrain and elevation soon bring us to a heaving stop. We curse and furiously swat—a single swat kills about a dozen on the back of Michael’s leg–but there’s too many of them. I yank off my pack, reach inside to pull out a 5-year-old bottle of repellent and smear the stuff over the entire length of my body. It works and the ambushed is thwarted.
Soon we arrive at a rocky point just above the outlet of Finger Lake and sit down for breakfast. It’s a beautiful spot and has obviously served as a pretty sweet campsite. After downing a pair of cherry-frosted pop tarts and wringing out my socks, we hop boulders over the outlet and climb up another boulder field to a ridge that moves past the lake en route to Middle Palisade Glacier.
After scrambling up the beginning of the loose moraine that bisects the glacier, I pull out my virgin ice axe, as yet untouched by rock or snow, pull on microspikes and begin ascending the glacier. The snow is heavily suncupped and the going is very slow. The options are to either walk the soft rims, which often result in an awkward slide into the sometimes hip-deep cups, or to walk in the troughs, which requires some seriously arduous high-stepping.
Up high on the moraine we spot a yellow tent—the first sign of human habitation since we crossed over the creek. As we continue to ascend I look right and see a man attempting a glissade from the top of the glacier. He slides well at first but soon comes to a jarring halt on the suncups. As he begins to traverse the glacier back toward the tent, he pulls the pack off his back and lets loose a dog.
We encounter him at the tent and he tells us he has just summited Middle P with the dog—the dog walking the easier grades and riding in his pack on the more difficult sections. Wow! We ask him about his descent route as it seems far right of the descriptions and he tells us that the bottom section was loose but otherwise climbable. Maybe a good option for us to keep in our pockets if needed later.
We say our goodbyes, thank him for the intel and continue up the glacier toward the base of the mountain. This is where things get a little fuzzy as far as route descriptions go: clarifications, contradictions and refutations abound in subsequent descriptions and I’ll be honest in saying that I merely hoped that when I arrived at the scene the entry point to the actual route would be obvious. It was, I thought, as I saw a path to the right of some reddish/brown rock that stood out against the beige granite of the mountain. But after some discussion, we decide that the path looks loose and sketchy and instead make our way further up and left, soon arriving at the bergschrund.
After a few foiled attempts to gain the rock, we choose a little ramp at a spot where the bergschrund is narrow enough to allow passage. The correct ramp is supposed to lead up, over and into a wide chute that can be climbed all the way to the summit block.
We climb the steep and exposed rock and quickly find ourselves up high. This is not Class 3—or maybe it is California Class 3?—as one false move will mean an express one-way trip back to the glacier far below. Michael moves left and out of site for a time as I continue to pick my way nervously upward, testing every hold. There are a few small cairns, evidence only that someone has been this way before and not necessarily that we are on route. Besides, they are too far and few between to be of much help.
This level of scrambling this high up is new to me and I am reminded how much of an art route-finding is, as a route that seems good from below can quickly get you into, as the words of my favorite description of rock climbing purgatory goes, “spots from which both progress and retreat suddenly appear problematic.” I’m hearing these words in my head as I hear Michael uttering a series of oaths.
“This is BS!” he shouts from out of sight. “This is Class 5! If my wife ever found out…” More cursing.
I yell to him to move right, figuring that a junction with the chute is inevitable in that direction and, where there is a chute, there is life. He appears suddenly, much closer than I anticipate, shaking his head and clearly peeved but relieved to have overcome the vertical. “I kept thinking I was getting myself out of trouble but it kept getting worse!” he says, exasperated.
We tread lightly, onward and upward and rounding a large shark fin arête, we encounter the chute. It delivers with mostly solid rock. As I scramble and traverse ledges, I am reminded of The Trough on Longs Peak, but the chute is steeper and much longer. Despite this, my morale is rising with the prospect that we are finally on route and bee-lining to the summit block. I begin to traverse a narrow ledge, hand over hand, testing holds as I go.
I tug at a piece of pointed rock with my right hand and without warning, it dislodges. In an instant, with no time to react, the heavy stone comes crashing down onto my left pointing finger.
The blood rushes to my face and I inhale deeply as the sting hits. I lift up my hand: the tip of my finger is ghost white, the skin behind the tip is torn badly and the rear of my fingernail is jacked upward as large drops of blood begin to flow. Now it’s my turn to curse, and I do so, loudly and with conviction. It hurts for sure and in reaction comes the thought that this may be it for the summit attempt.
I worm out of my pack and Michael hurries over as I pull out the first aid kit. Despite the pain, I have a brief and somewhat laughable moment of satisfaction that I’ll finally get to use the thing after two years of carrying around the dead weight. Michael cuts out piece of non-stick padding as I tear some tape with my teeth. I don’t have the stomach to pull at the nail to see if it will come off and figure I’ll just cinch it down and deal with it later. I sit for awhile, teeth clenched, and am amazed as I look around to see the amount of blood that can come out of a finger-tip: on my pants, the backpack, all over the rock.
Within in the pantheon of mountaineering disasters, I have to acknowledge this one as relatively minor. I stand and suffer a brief bout of nausea. Patience. Breathe. It passes. I pull on my pack and we continue up.
Soon the chute narrows and splits. I check my GPS: we’re around 100 feet from the summit. We go left as indicated and suddenly Michael stops and holds up his hand.
“Don’t come any closer,” he says cryptically.
“What’s up?” I ask, edging closer.
“Stop!” he shouts. He’s crouching in a window at the edge of a 2,000’ cliff.
We crawl further left and have to execute several tricky moves, including a hug-around a high, exposed column. We then reach the surprise crux of the route: a tall, rounded block with a large crack running down the right side. Someone has wedged a single stone into the crack and this rock is the only foothold up onto the block. A slip up here would result in what a friend of mine once termed a Culture Club, as in, “I’ll tumble 4 ya.”
I give the block a few tries and am able to get a handhold over the top but am fully stretched out and unable to get a push-off with my legs. At this point I’ve had it, in a “I want my money back” kind of way. With burst of senseless hostility I reach up, grab the handholds and using every bit of upper body strength my scrawn can muster, I heave myself up onto the block. Michael nimbly follows and seconds later, we are astride the summit stone—literally a 1×1 square platform rising about four feet from the surrounding rock. Neither of us are tempted to mount the thing, given the air on either side, and I am more than content to touch the highest point with my bandaged finger.
After a few summit happy snaps, some food and a small handful of ibuprofen, we begin to descend and I find my energy and my morale are returning. Our plan in is head straight down the chute, very fast, and if something gets in our way, turn…right, hopefully to find the would-have-been entrance route. The middle part of the chute—the part we bypassed by going too far left on the ascent—turns to be the best rock of the climb and we make good time until things start go rotten near the bottom.
We take turns moving and zig zag our routes to avoid the shooting gallery of dislodged rock that occurs with many a footfall. Soon we are 50 vertical feet above the glacier, only a vertical wall and a gaping bergschrund between us and relative freedom. Tough choice: should we downclimb this tricky section and try and route find our way across the bergschrund? Or climb a few hundred vertical feet back up the shooting gallery and move left in the hopes of finding a more comfortable exit route? This is where fatigue can lead to admittedly dangerous rationalizations, for example: “if the guy did this with a dog in his pack, then surely…”
The last 50 feet are the most dicey bit of climbing I have ever done, where both progress and retreat are problematic the entire length. This includes one move that I have replayed in my head a dozen of times since, where I traverse several feet of a rock face holding onto a tiny ledge with all nine of my finger nails, while smearing the smooth granite with my flexy trail runners. It is the only way I can get over to a section of the bergschund that doesn’t include several foot gap into the seemingly bottomless chasm below.
Seeing my predicament, Michael yells down “If you start to slip try to jump out as far as you can, then at least you’ll land in the snow.”
This is not a comforting suggestion as I’m still about 40 feet up and I tell him that I don’t want that idea in my head. Years of bike riding have taught me that in these moments on the razor’s edge, it’s critical to visualize and focus on cooly executing only what you want to happen.
After a few more “I can’t believe I just did that” moves I finally reach a snow bridge and, after some encouragement from Michael, plant my ice axe into the far side and jump for it. Easy! Back onto the glacier and I am tempted to kiss the snow and clasp my hands in a prayer of thanks.
The return trip is mostly uneventful, other than a slightly comedic moment where, as we downclimb a section of the rocky ridge to gain the trail as early as possible, Michael shouts “I’m sick of downclimbing!!” We are harassed again by mosquitoes as we pass by Willow Lake and finally, at dusk, we are able to easily hop the three boulders to cross back over South Fork Big Pine Creek. Is it dark and more than 16 hours have transpired since the departure from our campsite. The last two Moose Drools go down very smoothly.
That night I sleep restlessly. I have several dreams that involve exposure at heights, one of which includes the particularly chilling vision of me trying to hold on to the leg of my 2-year-old daughter as she is nearly sucked out of the open door of an airplane.
Silly to think that I am suffering from some kind of Class 5-induced post-traumatic stress, but I have to acknowledge that I have dodged a bullet, one fired out of the gun of inexperience. I have been saved this day by a few surprising moves and ultimately, the mountain’s grace. I have the visions and a smashed finger to remind me that Middle Palisade has given me a new lease on life…and a warning.
Route: Northeast Face via S. Fork Big Pine Creek
Distance: 15.4 miles
Total Gain: 7,000’
Total Time: 16.5 hours
Author’s note: I made an 11th-hour decision to leave behind the 5lb SLR and use the iPhone instead. Although the images suffered I don’t regret the choice, but clearly it’s time to resume my search for a happy medium.