Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Trip Report: Middle Palisade, August 16-17, 2011

Middle Palisade at 14,018 feet is the 11th tallest peak in California. It lies within the central Sierra Nevada mountain range and is part of the Palisade Group of peaks. The easiest route (class 3) to the summit is by climbing/hiking up the main chute on the North-East Face. To access this route, you must hike approximately 7 miles from the Big Pine Creek Trailhead near Glacier Lodge.
Middle Palisade (left) and Norman Clyde Peak (Right)
Middle Palisade (left) and Norman Clyde Peak (Right)
There is no overnight parking by Glacier Lodge. You must park at the hiker/backpacker parking lot ~1/2 mile down the road. When you arrive at this parking lot, you will notice that there is a pit toilet, bear lockers, a Big Pine Creek Trailhead sign, and then another sign that indicates the trail. If you were also by Glacier Lodge, you may have seen another Big Pine Creek Trailhead sign behind locked gates with an obvious trail along the creek. So which one is the trailhead? Which trail do I follow?
Big Pine Creek Trailhead by the overnight hiker parking lot. Use this one for the North Fork.
Big Pine Creek Trailhead by the overnight hiker parking lot. Use this one for the North Fork.
Another Big Pine Creek Trailhead by Glacier Lodge. Use this one for the South Fork.
Another Big Pine Creek Trailhead by Glacier Lodge. Use this one for the South Fork.
Well, for Middle Palisade and the South Fork, I would recommend hiking along the road and entering the trailhead from Glacier Lodge. The trailhead by the overnight parking leads you straight to the First Falls Campground and the North Fork, but you can also get onto the South Fork trail with a little extra mileage and elevation gain/loss. Why are there two trailheads anyway? Makes things a little confusing.

You may also notice signs telling you that the bridge for a water crossing along the South Fork was destroyed by an avalanche in the winter of 2010/2011 and has been completely removed. I can imagine the crossing being quite hazardous if the water level was any higher than what we experienced. We waded across the creek on the way in and the water level was knee deep and very cold. There is an alternate way across that involves jumping on rocks, but it will appear more difficult to do so on the way in rather than on the way out. We ended up jumping across the rocks on the way back, but I don't recommend doing this unless you are confident in your abilities. A failure would surely result in a swim down the river.
Bridge destroyed by avalanche along South Fork.
Bridge destroyed by avalanche along South Fork.
Wading across the creek.
Wading across the creek.
This was on our way back. We jumped across the rocks instead of wading.
This was on our way back. We jumped across the rocks instead of wading.
We planned Middle Palisade to be a two day trip. The first day, we hiked up staying on the use-trail to Brainerd Lake and continued cross-country to Finger Lake and then to the first tarn (lake) west of it. The hike before reaching Finger Lake was uneventful and infested with mosquitoes between Willow Lake and Brainerd Lake. You will want to either bathe in DEET (oil of lemon eucalyptus did not work for me) or sprint through this area. The extra ~150 feet in elevation loss/gain doesn't help the situation either.
In front of Brainerd Lake.
In front of Brainerd Lake.
Once you reach Finger Lake, the scenery and mosquitoes become much better. Many hikers will choose to camp at Finger Lake, but we had extra time and there were still some mosquitoes there, so we decided to hike up a little higher and stay at one of the tarns. There were also mosquitoes here too, but we dealt with it and mostly just stayed in our tent. From camp, gaining access to Middle Palisade's North-East Face was straight-forward and easy.
Creek Crossing by Finger Lake.
Creek Crossing by Finger Lake.
The view of Finger Lake while hiking up to the tarn.
The view of Finger Lake while hiking up to the tarn.
This is where we camped for the night.
There are two main ways to gain the chute on the North-East Face, the standard route and the alternate route. I met some hikers coming down who mentioned that the standard route involved glacier/snow travel, near vertical climbing, and getting past the bergschrund. Crampons and an ice axe were essential and some parties even had a rope. Needless to say, we didn't take the standard route. We didn't even have any pointy or technical gear with us. The alternate route allows you to avoid bringing any of that gear.

The alternative route starts by staying off the glacier and snow by following the moraine. Once you reach the base of the North-East face, you want to traverse right and follow the brownish/orange colored rock up. This section is extremely loose and fairly steep. When you top out this first chute, you will eventually bear left and join the standard route or main chute. The rest of the route is also loose and steep, so definitely bring a helmet and give others some room.
Approximate route that we took on the North-East Face. This is not the standard route. We were able to avoid the snow and glacier.
Approximate route that we took on the North-East Face. This is not the standard route. We were able to avoid the snow and glacier.
The beginning of the chute of the alternate route, which has the brownish/orange colored rock. Very steep and loose.
The beginning of the chute of the alternate route, which has the brownish/orange colored rock. Very steep and loose.
Once you are 20 feet or so from the notch at the end of the chute, the summit block is a short ways away towards the left. If you climb all the way up to the notch, you may have to down climb a bit to get on easier terrain to make the traverse. I ended up climbing a short boulder problem that was in the way of gaining the summit. There may have been an easier way, but I didn't bother to look for it.
You can see the end of the chute here. Stay left of the notch to reach the summit.
You can see the end of the chute here. Stay left of the notch to reach the summit.
As with any 14,000 foot summit, the views on top were incredible. In the west, we were able to look down at the Palisade Lakes and the John Muir Trail. It's amazing to see a different perspective of the hike I completed nearly a year ago. In the south, you can easily recognize Mt. Whitney. In the north, Norman Clyde peak stood right in front of you along with Mt. Sill and the rest of the Palisade Group of peaks. White Mountain Peak was also clearly visible along the east side past the Owens Valley.
Panoramic View from the summit of Middle Palisade.
Panoramic View from the summit of Middle Palisade.
Mt. Whitney as seen from Middle Palisade.
Mt. Whitney as seen from Middle Palisade.
Norman Clyde Peak, Mt. Sill, and the Palisades as seen for Middle Palisade.
Norman Clyde Peak, Mt. Sill, and the Palisades as seen for Middle Palisade.
White Mountain Peak as seen from Middle Palisade.
White Mountain Peak as seen from Middle Palisade.
Me at the summit of Middle Palisade.
Me at the summit.
The hike back down from the summit took nearly as long as the hike up. It took us 4.5 hours to make the summit from camp and about 4 hours to come back down. We couldn't move very fast on the loose and steep rock, especially when there are other people in the chute. We had to be careful not to knock rocks down the chute and also had to avoid being hit by them. From camp, it took less than 3 hours to get back to the car, about half the time it took to get up. We did hike fairly fast to avoid being eaten alive from Brainerd Lake to Williow Lake.

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