|Never a bad day in the mountains: saving the rest of the traverse for another day|
Thunderbolt to Sill was attempted 4th of July weekend 2011 with RC and ended with a premature truncation of the route by bailing down the U-notch. We didn’t hit our time splits and altitude was taking its toll. Better to come back to finish the entire thing than risk heavy AMS, dodgy evening descents down the L-shaped snowfield and major second-guessing of decisions. It was a huge snow year in the Sierra and there was enough rap tat down the notch to cloth a small village in India: bailing down U-notch was simple, and a traverse of the ‘schrund at its base was quick and easy: We were back at camp soggy from glissading the still bountiful snowpack, happy to be sipping scotch and watching the rare display of mammatus clouds gracing the Sierra High country.
|Mammatus clouds at Sam Mack: better than any fireworks display|
Fast forward to 2012. A kiting outing on Lake Crowley Tuesday left RT and I with thoughts of doing something in the Mountains. “I haven’t done T-bolt to Sill.” “Well, I need to finish it, let’s do this.” Turns out food poisoning and familial obligations made the route infeasible for RT, so Friday morning I was looking at a basket of Lemons: “I don’t really want to solo anything, waters have been chummed to no avail, so how now?” A quick text to Andre revealed he and his wonderful wife Leah were doing the route car to car in memory of their fallen pull harder colleagues Ben and Gil. They were cool with a third, so there it was: “0130 in the Glacier Lodge hikers parking lot.” Phew…car to car routes in the Palisades make for long days, exactly what the doctor was prescribing for the first solid weather weekend to grace the Sierra in weeks.
|It's how early? And we've been hiking for how long already? Better caffinate...again|
Making lemonade out of lemons has been a theme all year. Starting with John Dittli’s appearance on the dirtbag diaries in January, it’s still a tune sung through August and this weekend was no exception. With the monsoon system finally inching out of the Sierra, it was time to start thinking bigger again: long days and many miles, and with an 11th hour admittance to the Palisade party, this lemonade was taking a turn for the sweeter.
Fits of sleep bivying in the Glacier lodge parking lot meant ~1.5 hours of semi-conscious dozing: not the best way to start out a big day, but at least it beats no sleep at all. Sure enough, Andre and Leah were ready to roll with their minimalist backpacks and trail-running attire at 0130. “I’m bringing a lot of caffine,” Andre declared. Quick mental check: I had scotch, Teddy Grahams, peanut butter m&m’s and a magic combo of Cheeze-its and Fritos. No caffine though, so hopefully adrenaline and the excitement of the route would be enough…we’re about to find out.
|Dawn, with her fingertips of rose casting alpenglow on Winchell|
|Those pink calf warmers imply she's all business|
|Hide and seek at 14k feet|
We were dancing across the house-sized boulders of the northern Palisade glacial moraine in no time, and before we knew it, Dawn with her fingertips of rose was lightening all our moods, and increasing our excitement for the day ahead. It was also illuminating the choices for our Thunderbolt ascent: Andre and I had ascended T-bolt via different means in our previous work: Andre via the north couloir, and my from the Dolphin fin at the base of T-bolt’s north ridge. Because of hardness of the snow pack, our comparably feeble Al crampons-approach shoe combo, and fond memories of the rock quality and fun on the north ridge, the consensus was the north ridge rock route. Geared up, sunscreen on and gearbox in four-low by 0710.
The north ridge is a gem, and the last vertical to gain 14k’ passed efficiently. We were pulling the summit crux by 0930. What followed along the next three summits was a recurring theme: jam, smear, scramble and jug haul up solid, gorgeous granite, stop for a minute to catch breath, admire views and snap photos, scramble, rappel…repeat. I recalled a quote from a wise fellow when I first moved to the area years ago. “Oh, you’re looking for fantastic views, and great mountains, head to the Palisades.” He was correct.
Every trip up to this sub-range of the Sierra is memorable. The mountains themselves are gorgeous, the rock is mostly of sound constitution and you’re actively positioned at 14k feet in the heart of the High Sierra. Such a position fills 270 degrees of your periphery with precipitous granite faces and deep, lake-filled valleys, which, combined with said altitude takes your breath away. You may well find yourself desiring a nap on the summit and an insatiable appetite to stare at the surrounding beauty until it’s absolutely necessary to return from whence you came…alas, there are many miles before we sleep, onward!
Memorable moments were watching Andre consume his milky white concoction on the milk bottle after squeeze-exiting [read: second-birthing] the boulder tunnel to achieve Starlight’s summit. Most poignant is just stopping periodically to take in the splendor. Spending most of my time on the ridge between Andre and Leah, I happily mimicked dual-faced Janus: watching Andre scamper ahead, Leah chase quickly and in both cases, having human foregrounds to sweeping vistas and jaw-dropping exposure. As we passed the U-notch, we witnessed first-hand the double-whammy of a low snow year and warm August afternoon: Rock and water were streaming down the couloir and their sounds reverberated with spine-cringing amplitude off the steep granite walls forming the Notch boundary. “There is no place I would rather not be than in the U-notch right now,” I voiced aloud to myself. Well, maybe Syria or the boardroom at Samsung, but I digress.
The first moves out of the notch were the only place we roped up as a team with a leader placing gear outside of the two exposed summits on T-bolt and Starlight. Only two nuts placed, the moves did not seem harder than any on the rest of the day, but I was not on the sharp end [well done, Andre]. A short scamper to the top of Polomonium brought more summit pictures and confidence that the route would be finished with plenty of time. Thinking back to the 2011 attempt, it turns out after the aforementioned first pitch out of U-notch, the route is mostly 2nd and 3rd class ridge hiking, so advice going forward is if light remains, and parties are properly prepared for descents down the L and glacier notch, gun it for Sill: It’s worth it.
|The couple still smiling on North Pal|
We made the final slog up to Sill and were high-fiving, replenishing calories and sipping vitamin G by 1530.
Alas, after some summit shots and finishing off the crunchy salt combo I had assembled, it was time to face the descent. Having done Sill’s superb Swiss arête a few weeks prior, I was concerned mostly with the descent off glacier notch. It turns out our Al crampons were needed for a short distance down the L-shaped snow field, but climbers looking to negotiate this route in the remainder of the 2012 alpine season can probably escape this by crossing from its north to southern side to stay on 3rd-4th class rock. We had lugged the crampons all the way here, why not finally use them and avoid the frivolity of leaving them in the pack all day?
The Palisade glacier was not in the best of shape: lots of running water and with all the surface snow melted, we were surfing down large piles of active tallus and carefully stepping down ice-embedded boulders to regain the safety of the moraine. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as we boulder-hopped our way back to cairn-and-trail territory 13 hours after departing. After another nip of scotch and a snack we were hamming it up with San Diego campers at Sam Mack and refilling water by 1930.
Conversation on the descent was a welcome distraction from the monotony of the aforementioned trail and only the last two miles required ear buds to get us to the parking lot. Finally…the LED reflection off license plates meant “Ocean in view, oh the joy.” It was all I could to exchange my mountain attire for more comfortable sleeping wear, devour the remainder of the Teddy Grahams [mmmm, cinnamon], and face plant on my sleeping pad. Although it seemed Andre was ready to down an espresso shot and go repeat what we just did again [but faster], I was done. Celebratory beers were even postponed for a to-be-determined delayed gratification as I stumbled back to the turbo motel.
It was 21 hours car to car: not a speed record by any means, but that was not the intention. Sure, speed is safety, so we weren’t completely lackadaisical in our efforts, but there were other motives to the day. Perfect Sierra weather begged many pictures taken, summit tomfoolery, honoring the spirit of departed friends, and establishing new friendships. I count myself very fortunate Andre and Leah allowed me to accompany them on their mission and I’m convinced every moment in the Palisades is time well spent. It was ironic that in the summit registers remaining on the peaks, we found most prevalent Ben and Gil’s entries from their full Palisade traverse in May this year. May their gumption for adventure live on, and may the 2012 batch of lemonade continue to flow with excess: all the more poignant that it is bitter and sweet, simultaneously.
- Harness and belay device
- 60m 8m dynamic cord
- five slings
- four stoppers
- 2 pro bars [thank you, Chris]
- 1 ziplock of a frito/cheeze-it combination
- 1 large deli sandwich
- 3 granola bars
- 1 bag craisins