Friday, September 9, 2011

Trip Report: Mt. Sill, North Palisade, & Polemonium Peak, August 29 - September 01, 2011

Two months ago, I attempted the Palisade Traverse from Thunderbolt to Sill, but was only able to bag Thunderbolt and Starlight Peak. North Palisade, Polemonium Peak, and Mt. Sill remained unfinished and were the last of the California 14ers that I have yet to complete.
Mt. Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight Peak, Thunderbolt Peak, Mt. Winchell, Mt. Agassiz, and the Palisade Glacier
Mt. Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight Peak, Thunderbolt Peak, Mt. Winchell, Mt. Agassiz, and the Palisade Glacier
Last week, I headed back to the East Side and made another attempt at these peaks. Before then, I have spent much time pondering which approach and which route I would take. I decided that this time, we would approach the Palisades from the glacier side instead of the basin side from Bishop Pass. We would then ascend Mt. Sill first via the North Couloir and return back down to camp and then bag North Palisade and Polemonium Peak via the U-Notch the next day. That was the plan. We didn't know how long it would take us, but we allowed 3-4 days for this trip.

Day 1 (First Falls Walk-in Campground)
We left the Bay Area around 10AM and headed for Bishop to get our permits for the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. There are 10 permits available for walk-ins each day and we didn't have any problems getting a permit for same day or next day. We then ate dinner and headed to the Big Pine Creek Trailhead.

As I mentioned previously in my Middle Palisade Trip Report, there are two Big Pine Creek Trailheads. Since we are taking the North Fork this time, we started from the trail at the hiker parking lot. This trail leads you straight to the First Falls Walk-in Campground and then onto the North Fork.
Big Pine Creek Trailhead by the hiker parking lot.
Big Pine Creek Trailhead by the hiker parking lot.
The First Falls Walk-in Campground is approximately 1 mile from the parking lot and is a great place to stay if you are arriving late your first day or want to acclimate at ~8,300 feet. It is a free campground with picnic tables, fire rings, a bear locker, and pit toilets. You can also get water from the creek right next to it. We spent our first night here arriving at about 7:30PM.
First Falls Walk-in Campground.
First Falls Walk-in Campground.
Our campsite for the night at First Falls.
Our campsite for the night at First Falls.
Day 2 (Mt. Sill)
We knew this day was going to be be a long day covering approximately 10 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. So we started hiking at 5AM and headed for the Palisade Glacier. From the First Falls Campground, you will notice that there are two trails leaving the area, a high trail, and a low trail. Both trails will eventually join, so it doesn't really matter which one you take, although I prefer and suggest taking the high trail.

This trail will then take you past the Second Falls, First Lake, Second Lake, and Third Lake. After the Third Lake, you will eventually make a left and head south onto the Glacier Trail, which takes you straight to Sam Mack Meadow and the Palisade Glacier. From First Falls, it took us ~3.5 hours to get to Sam Mack Meadow and another 2 hours to get to the Glacier. There are many bivy spots right before the Glacier, so we made base camp here. Water was scarce, but luckily some other climbers pointed out a source underneath boulders that we could use to refill with.
Third Lake and Temple Crag in the background.
Third Lake and Temple Crag in the background.
Creek crossing by Sam Mack Meadow.
Creek crossing by Sam Mack Meadow.
Our campsite before the Palisade Glacier.
Our campsite before the Palisade Glacier.
After making camp and refilling our water bottles, we headed for the North Couloir of Mt. Sill. We started at about 11:30AM and made the summit at 3:00PM. The route was fairly straight-forward and crampons were definitely required. Although we brought along our ice axes, we did not need to use them. The snow ended at Apex Peak and the rest of the climb became a class 2/3 scramble. Some online resources have rated this section to be class 4, but I did not find it very difficult at all.
Our approximate route from the Glacier to the summit of Mt. Sill.
Our approximate route from the Glacier to the summit of Mt. Sill. We had to put on and take off our crampons several times.
The North Couloir, Mt. Sill (left) and Apex Peak (right).
The North Couloir, Mt. Sill (left) and Apex Peak (right).
Our approximate route to the summit after passing Apex Peak.
Our approximate route to the summit after passing Apex Peak.
3rd class climbing on the North Couloir.
3rd class climbing on the North Couloir.
We spent about 45 minutes at the summit, the longest we have ever stayed on top of any 14,000 peak. The summit register placed by the Sierra Club is no longer bolted to the rock and has broken latches. It also appears that the last person to summit dropped the only writing tool (a pencil) in between some rocks and didn't put it back in the register. Therefore, when we summited, we had nothing to write with. I ended up signing the register with an Ibuprofen until I found the pencil.
Mt. Sill summit register.
Mt. Sill summit register.
Signing the register with an Ibuprofen.
Signing the register with an Ibuprofen.
Me at the summit of Mt. Sill.
Me at the summit of Mt. Sill.
We descended Sill via the Northwest Face, which appeared to be an easier descent with more consistent snow, meaning we didn't have to put on our crampons and take them off during dry patches. The bergschrund was not open the entire way, so it was easily passable. From the summit, it took about 3 hours to return to camp.
This is what the Northwest Face descent looks like.
This is what the Northwest Face descent looks like.
The bergschrund on the Northwest Face. You can easily pass this on the left-hand side (not visible in photo).
The bergschrund on the Northwest Face. You can easily pass this on the left-hand side (not visible in photo).
As soon as we returned to camp, the winds started to pick up. Sleeping in our tent proved to be difficult and we had to wake up at 3AM the next day. After attempting to sleep in our constantly flapping tent for 2 hours, we finally decided take it down and move into a sheltered bivy spot enclosed by rocks and boulders. This ended up being much better and we were able to get at least a few hours of sleep, for our toughest day was yet to come.
Our sheltered bivy spot that we moved into.
Our sheltered bivy spot that we moved into.
Day 3 (North Palisade & Polemonium Peak)
Some climbers may tell you that North Palisade is the most difficult 14er in California. I would have to say that's quite accurate as it's certainly not a hike up. The West Chute is the easiest route to the summit, but even then it's 4th class and technical climbing abilities would be helpful if not required. Since we approached the Palisades from the glacier side, the U-Notch would be the easiest route up.
This is the entrance to the gully leading up to the U-Notch.
This is the entrance to the gully leading up to the U-Notch.
I've read several trip reports stating that it took 12 hours just to summit North Palisade from the glacier. After bagging Sill, I watched some climbers descend the U-Notch during sunset and they were moving very slow. Someone else stated that they watched a party take 3 hours to climb half way up the gully from the bergschrund. That's roughly 100 feet per hour! I became quite puzzled and a bit concerned as to why it would take so long, but nevertheless I remained confident that we could complete these remaining peaks.

We agreed upon a 4AM alpine start. It wasn't easy getting up after only having a few hours of sleep and waking up to a cold and windy morning. We were slow getting ready and started closer to 4:30AM. We made the bergschrund by 6AM and put our harnesses on, roped up, and watched the sunrise behind us. Climbing the bergschrund was a new experience for me and it turned out to be a lot of fun. You can definitely avoid the bergschrund by climbing the 5th class rock to the right of it, but it didn't look as interesting and we wanted to avoid taking off our crampons.
At the bergschrund and getting ready to climb it.
At the bergschrund and getting ready to climb it.
Me roping up.
Me roping up.
Alpenglow on Thunderbolt Peak. Sun rising behind us.
Alpenglow on Thunderbolt Peak. Sun rising behind us.
Almost over the bergschrund.
Almost over the bergschrund.
Jacquelyn following and climbing over the bergschrund.
Jacquelyn following and climbing over the bergschrund.
The gully leading up to the U-Notch is normally an ice climb in August, but this year, it was mostly a snow climb, which made it very easy to ascend. Hiking or climbing up firm snow in a 40 degree gully was nothing new to us. We remained roped together and simul-climbed, but it certainly wasn't necessary.
Hiking up the gully.
Hiking up the gully.
Looking back down at the Palisade Glacier from the gully.
Looking back down at the Palisade Glacier from the gully.
At about 200-300 feet below the U-Notch, the firm snow suddenly became solid ice and our pace slowed significantly. Now I can understand why some people took 12 hours to summit this peak. If the entire gully was ice, it would have surely taken forever to get up to the U-Notch. As I do not have any ice climbing experience and our snow axes weren't ideal for this situation, we decided to avoid the ice by scrambling up the 3rd/4th class rock on the right-hand side. After 2.5 hours in the gully, we finally made it to the U-Notch and the 5th class chimney climb awaited us.
Doing some ice climbing before deciding to scramble up the rocks.
Doing some ice climbing before deciding to scramble up the rocks.
Scrambling up the 3rd/4th class rock in the gully leading to the U-Notch.
Scrambling up the 3rd/4th class rock in the gully leading to the U-Notch.
We left our crampons, ice axes, and other gear we didn't need at the base of the chimney. The chimney variation is a 2 pitch, 200 foot, climb and has been rated as low as 4th class to as high as 5.6. I say it's low 5th class. It took us about an hour to climb it. The gear we brought with us included a 30m 10.2mm dynamic rope, medium sized stoppers/nuts, .3, .4, .5, .75 Black Diamond C4 Camalots, 6 alpine draws, ATC belay device, and a bunch of slings. I think I only used a .3 C4 on the first pitch of this climb. The second pitch had some pitons and other fixed protection that I used.
Here's what the 5th class chimney climb looks like as viewed from the U-Notch.
Here's what the 5th class chimney climb looks like as viewed from the U-Notch.
Looking back down at the U-Notch from the top of the chimney climb.
Looking back down at the U-Notch from the top of the chimney climb.
Once you top out the chimney, it isn't very obvious where to go. After the belay/rappel station, we climbed a little bit higher and towards right side (north) of the ridge. We then traversed a short slab section and then stuck to the left side (south) of the ridge. This is where you will drop down a bit and climb back up on easier terrain. We did not rope up at all on the ridge. The last section before the summit involved many exposed 4th and maybe even 5th class moves. There may have been an easier way up, but we didn't find it. It took us about an hour to traverse the ridge and gain the summit.
Our approximate ascent and descent routes.
Our approximate ascent and descent routes. I decided to take the right hand side on the way down just to see how difficult it is and it turned out to be quite doable, but is still harder than the left hand side. You do avoid the loss in elevation though.
Me at the summit of North Palisade.
Me at the summit of North Palisade.
North Palisade Summit Plank.
North Palisade Summit Plank.
From the summit, it took the same amount of time to return back to the chimney and then another 30 minutes to rappel back down to the U-Notch. Since we only had a 30m rope with us to save weight, we brought along 30m of 6mm cordage to use as a tagline or pull-line. Tying the two ropes together allowed us to have full 60m rope length (100 feet) rappels.
This was our rappel system. 30m of 10.2mm dynamic climbing rope and 30m of 6mm cordage (tagline) tied together.
This was our rappel system. 30m of 10.2mm dynamic climbing rope and 30m of 6mm cordage (tagline) tied together. It allowed us to save weight and avoid the bulk of a 60m rope in our packs.
Rappelling back down to the U-Notch from the chimney.
Rappelling back down to the U-Notch from the chimney.
Getting to Polemonium Peak from the U-Notch quickly started off with a 4th/5th class traverse and climb towards the right. After that, you can see the obvious line you will want to take to gain the summit. It's mostly 3rd class until 50-100 feet from the summit where it becomes 4th/5th class. It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the summit from the U-Notch. We brought the rope with us, but didn't use it until the descent.
Our approximate ascent and descent routes going to Polemonium Peak.
Our approximate ascent and descent routes going to Polemonium Peak.
Jacquelyn almost at the summit of Polemonium Peak. Palisade Basin in the background.
Jacquelyn almost at the summit of Polemonium Peak. Palisade Basin in the background.
Polemonium Peak summit register.
Polemonium Peak summit register.
Me at the summit of Polemonium Peak.
Me at the summit of Polemonium Peak.
From the top of Polemonium Peak, we down-climbed a short bit towards the U-Notch taking the path of least resistance until we were able to find a clean rappel line. We made two rappels and were quickly back down to the U-Notch. From the U-Notch, we made about 4 rappels into the ice chute until we were back onto the firm snow. You also have the option of rappelling off the rock on the right-hand side, but it appears to be more dangerous as there are an abundance of loose rock that can fall on you while you rappel. Once on the snow, we were able to down-climb and hike back down, which went much faster than rappelling. We got back down to the bergschrund in 2.5 hours, about the same amount of time it took to get up. One last rappel got us over the bergschrund and another 1.5 hours later, we were back at camp at almost 8PM, nearly 16 hours from when we started. What a long day. We made dinner and went to bed. It was yet another windy night, but it didn't bother us as much as it did the night before.
One of the many rappels we made off the U-Notch.
One of the many rappels we made off the U-Notch.
Back at the bergschrund and preparing to rappel over it.
Back at the bergschrund and preparing to rappel over it.
If I had to do this all over again, I wouldn't descend the U-Notch. Instead, I would have done the traverse from North Palisade to Mt. Sill and descend off the Northwest Face of Sill. It would have been much easier and faster as well. Rappelling is very slow and if your rope ever gets stuck, you waste a lot of time.

Day 4 (Back to the car)
We finally got out of bed at 7:30AM and started hiking at 8AM. It was just as cold and windy during this time as it was at 4AM the day before. We didn't waste any time and just headed straight back to the car. It took about 3.5 hours to get back to the car and we were in Bishop by 12PM. We enjoyed lunch at the Mobil Restaurant in Lee Vining and then headed home.
Waking up in our bivy site to a cold and windy morning.
Waking up in our bivy site to a cold and windy morning.
BBQ Chicken Sandwich and 1/2 lb Cheeseburger from the Mobil Restaurant in Lee Vining, CA
BBQ Chicken Sandwich and 1/2 lb Cheeseburger from the Mobil Restaurant in Lee Vining, CA
It took us a little more than a year, but we finally bagged all 15 of the California 14ers. We are done! Now I wonder what's next?

More Photos


1 comment:

  1. You're tutorial will come in very handy. I'm planning to do The North Palisade, Polemonium Peak, and spend the night on Mount Sill. I've done sill before but I haven't done the North Palisade. After I did Mount Humphrey's last year w/o a rope, I figured I was ready for some bigger climbs. I've got a 60m twin rope for the double rappel and I'm sure it will come in handy. Here's the pictures from Mount Humphreys and Mount Darwin. The approach on Darwin is 1+ days easy...http://hikenhi.smugmug.com/Davids-Hiking-and/Mount-Humphreys-via-Piute-Pass/25203199_W5kZRB#!i=2073736772&k=PQcLMW5 http://hikenhi.smugmug.com/Davids-Hiking-and/Mount-Darwin-Mendel-and/25615715_gV3b4g#!i=2132019590&k=9rRfC4s

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