Palisade Crest (N#236, T#163), Norman Clyde Peak (N#237, T#164), Middle Palisade (N#238, T#165), Disappointment Peak (N#239, T#166), The Thumb (N#240, T#167)
Nathan Day 136/137, Travis Day 81/82
The Palisades are the most rugged peaks in the Sierra and boast a reputation of technical knife edge ridges, treacherous rock, steep glaciers, and difficult summits. Harrowing stories I'd heard from other climbers led me to feel intimidated by them. Their dark granite monoliths loom over nearby peaks and for the past three months Nathan and I had seen them from so many other summits. Their steep granite walls seemed impenetrable from afar, but we knew eventually we would be amongst those serrated ridgelines. Curiosity and excitement grew with every sighting. They would surely be the most difficult peaks of the project. We were psyched!
We awoke in the dark. As usual I made coffee even though I was already buzzing with energy. Stuffing our mouths with Oreos, we trotted up the trail. A loud creek flowed next to me, invisible in the tunnel of headlamp light ahead. Nathan bounced up and over rocks on the trail in front. Obvious by the way he carried himself, he was amped with excitement. Good. It's important for you and your partner to share an energy wavelength, especially in technical terrain. We had just come off of climbing 36 peaks in 13 days without rest and yet we felt more psyched than ever.
The sun rose and revealed steep granite walls around us. While impressive, they weren't our peaks. Our objectives still lie a few miles ahead. We left the trail and hiked through a convoluted system of drainages and rock outcroppings before eventually reaching Scimitar Pass, our pathway to the ridgeline. We got a glance at our mountains for the day.
From the first peak, Palisade Crest, a jagged granite ridge extends a few miles rising and falling. This ridge would lead us to Norman Clyde, Middle Palisade, and Disappointment. Still feeling intimidated, we nonetheless began our linkup with the first climb: Palisade Crest.
From the summit of Palisade Crest we quested south along the ridge.
The ridge sharpened and the terrain became technical.
We climbed up and over most of the granite towers via cracks and knobby faces, it was quite fun! Samwise Tower was the crux, a burly 5.7 wide crack. Rad! Overall, this section of ridge may be my favorite in the Sierra.
After three hours we arrived at the end of the ridge and downclimbed a massive headwall to a notch.
We hand-over-hand rappelled one steep section. While not too difficult of a downclimb, we wanted to shatter the taboo of using a rope early in the day. (We never used it again, although we probably should have!)
From the notch we figured the ridge would be a bit less technical.
We were wrong.
The climb up to Norman Clyde felt just as sustained as the Palisade Crest ridge. We tried to stay on the ridge as much as possible and found some crazy cruxes. One tower involved foot traversing along a quartz dike over 1,000' of exposure and gingerly stepping around an arete. Another section involved a hand crack corner that extended left and required a 5.8 cut feet and mantle up sequence. Wild!
It took us three hours before finally arriving at our second peak of the day, 9 hours in to our day! Oh boy!
Surely we thought the ridge would let up after Norman Clyde. Wrong again! Upon reaching the subpeak of Bivouac Peak, the rock changed from solid granite to a dark and loose structure. Although the climbing difficulty eased a bit, moving over the sharp rock required intense focus and care with every hold, lest it break and send you for a final ride. I tried to maintain at least 3 points of contact at all times. However there were a few moves where the only possible way through was to trust the rock would hold. Thankfully, Nathan and I reached the end of the dark ridge at a notch below Middle Palisade and resumed climbing on solid granite holds. This section was quite fun.
From the top of Middle Pal we countinued south along the ridge and before dropping to the east side to traverse the face to Disappointment Peak. The terrain was mostly 4th class for this section. Eventually we reached the summit, exhausted from being in technical terrain for nearly 12 hours.
We descended off Disappointment and finally reached flat ground. As much as I love climbing, I had reached my quota for the day, and it felt so good to be able to walk and think without being 100% focused on every move.
With the sun setting and one final peak to climb we tried to keep the psych high and the pace steady. The chute up to The Thumb is class 2 (easy walking) so we figured it would be chill. However we soon found it consisted of heinously steep, loose scree. We walked on separate sides of the gully to avoid pelting one another with rocks. I never wanted to climb it ever again. Eventually we reached the summit around 10pm.
We had been on the move for more than 15 hours and still had to get back to the van.
We descended The Thumb and traversed over to Southfork Pass, our passageway back to the east side of the Palisades. We picked our way down a steep dirt chute until it ended in a massive cliff. Uh oh, wrong gully! We climbed back up and found the true Southfork Pass. It also consisted of steep hardened dirt that was quite difficult to move on. The chute seemed promising until it narrowed on both sides and morphed into a death trap. Perhaps we could have carefully downclimbed it, however one slip would surely result in death.
At this point it was close to midnight and Nathan and I were exhausted. We weighed our options. Downclimb the chute or find another way. We opted for the latter and climbed back up. After consulting the map we found another exit option, back up The Thumb. Oh no. It would be roughly 8 miles and probably take 4 to 5 hours given our fatigued state. It dawned on us we would have to spend the night and wait until morning. We were benighted! It was the first unplanned bivy for both of us. Thankfully, I always carry a small bivy sac and Nathan had an emergency blanket.
We descended to a lake, grabbed water, and found a suitable flat spot among the granite boulders. We laid our packs down as pillows. My bivy bag is made for one but we both squeezed in and cuddled for warmth. I was so exhausted and all I wanted was sleep but the hard dirt ground and crisp, 13,000' air battled my drowsiness. I managed to grab a few hours but mostly just waited for the sun to rise.
When it finally rose we started zombie walking our way out. Neither of us had any food and our stomachs growled at us. Back up The Thumb we went and then descended down towards the Birch Lake Trailhead. It was quite the slog.
We had arranged to get picked up at the trailhead and shuttled back to the van. A very nice and cool guy named Peter picked us up. We headed into town and devoured calzones before he dropped us at the trailhead where we began our day before. With 7 northern Palisades peaks still to climb we packed our bags, napped by the creek, and again awoke in the dark ready for another adventure…
A huge thank you to Peter Carey for the pickup from Birch Lake Trail.
View the activity here.