Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Palisades

It seems the weather has been plotting against us lately by dumping snow during our time off when we want to be skiing bigger lines.  Conversely, during our work weeks when we’d appreciate frequent refreshers, it always seems to be high and dry.  On my iPhone, I keep tabs on the weather in various mountain communities throughout the west.  I have icons for Leadville, Bishop, Lee Vining, Golden, Jackson, Moab, Aspen, and Anchorage.  Fortunately, we have friends in some of these towns that can tell us what the conditions are like on the ground but sometimes we have to rely on what the computers tell us.  Last week, with mostly unsettled weather throughout the west, there was one area of strong sun, mellow winds, and amazing mountains - the Sierra Nevada.  

By the time we tidied up our work responsibilities and got the OK from our lady friends, our adventure window had shrunk to a mere 36 hours.  Being foolish and possessing innate truck driving abilities, we decided to make a pilgrimage to the Sierra to see how much we could ski and see in one day.  We left Salt Lake at 3:30 in the afternoon and while I drove, Tom and Jason hit the internet hard to try and find a suitable objective.  I peppered them with requests to find out which roads were open into the range, to check the current snowpack percentages, and to do research on certain lines we wanted to ski.  In the end, we decided to either head into Whitney Portal or go explore the Palisades.  We’d sleep on it and decide in the morning.  

Speaking of sleep, our options were a roach motel, sleeping out at the yet-to-be-determined trailhead, or phone a friend.  We chose the latter.  Graham Kolb is a former climbing partner who now resides in Bishop with his long suffering gal, Anne.  He still crushes the juice from granite crimpers, and while I haven’t climbed with him in years, I called and left a message saying we were rolling through town.  He called back and also left a message saying that he didn’t recognize my voice but that since I knew his name and that he lives in Bishop, we were welcome to crash at his house.  What a guy!

With their deluxe pad to launch, we hastily packed and set the alarms for four hours later.  

In the dark, at about 7400 feet, we started hiking on dirt in our ski boots.  That was the first of many mistakes that would come back to bite us later, Tom most of all.  We tried to follow the South Fork of Big Pine Creek but were quickly entangled in the densest, thorniest, brush imaginable.  Jason lost his Julbos, and having experienced snow blindness once before, halted to find them.  Eventually, we broke through the briars and started linking up small patches of snow before switching to skins after an hour of hiking.  We had gained maybe 500 feet by this point.  

We kick turned our way up a headwall, excited to get a glimpse of our main objective for the day.  We had hoped to climb and ski the NE face of the Middle Palisade but our hopes were dashed when at first glance.  

Our desired line definitely wasn't "in". 
Fortunately, the Palisade region is dense in worthy ski mountaineering objectives and part of our goal for the day was to familiarize ourselves with the terrain anyway.

At this point, we took a relaxed approach to the remained of the still young day and decided to just hike around and ski whatever appealed to us in the moment.  Heading north toward the Palisade Crest and up the Norman Clyde Glacier, we saw a nice looking chute that drew us in for a look.
There were dozens of sweet consolation prizes like the North Couloir on Norman Clyde Peak.

JD nearing the top of the Norman Clyde Chute
Photo by JD

Photo by JD

TG dropping in and delighting in the surprising Sierra powder.
Photo by JD
Little JD
We were completely surprised by the cold soft powder and pretty psyched that we weren't sweating and getting sunburned as we thought would be the case.

Once out of the cold north chute, the good feelings didn't last long.  Stripped to T-shirts and with sweat stinging our eyes, we made a navigational error and cliffed out while trying to traverse over to Mount Sill.

We sat down and actually ate lunch.

Eventually, we became motivated to continue exploring so we backtracked and skied sloppy corn before traversing over toward Mount Sill.  With the day getting on and a long drive ahead of us, we made hast of the climb and got a look down onto the Palisade Glacier and its surrounding peaks.   High on the North Face of Sill, we found a rocky sneak into the North Couloir.  The skiing was mediocre but the setting sublime.  

Booting up Sill.  Photo by JD

Photo by JD

Photo by JD

Photo by JD 
We debated for a few minutes trying to blast up the V Notch but it was already 4:30 Mountain time and I had a hard deadline of being home by 5 AM.  It was already going to be close so we decided to save the Notches for another trip.

On the way out we added about a dozen other lines to the list.  We also found out that I'm the only one with balls in the group as the others walked around the clearly frozen albeit slightly slushy lake.
Photo by JD

This one would lure us back...
Since we were making a loop, we didn't know the North Fork exit which led to a few wrong turns before finding the trail.  We also didn't have shoes for the three or four miles of dirt.  It wasn't that big of a deal, except Tom's carbon boots were apt to break and being a size too small, were crushing his feet.  
Tom is starting to hate life by this point. 

On the approach in the dark, we somehow managed to get lost in the only patch of trees up this wide open basin. 

Ultimately, we made it home at 3:15 AM with plenty of time to spare!  

Total time was just under 36 hours door to door and it was completely worth it.  The Sierra just might be the best range in the lower 48 for ski mountaineering.