by SMG Guide Geoff Unger
[Ed: Geoff offers the perspective of an accomplished IFMGA Mountain Guide who has recently come to explore and appreciate the Sierra Nevada as a world class destination for climbing and alpine guiding. Glad to have him on the SMG team!]
As the spring ski touring season winds down it is time to think about the possibilities for summer alpine climbing. It sure has been a great winter for those of us who enjoy sliding downhill. With all the incredible snow accumulation we can look forward to some excellent conditions for summer alpine climbing. A good opportunity to take advantage of the conditions is in the Palisades. U-Notch and V-Notch Couloirs as well as other gems of the range have not been easily climbable in the last few years due to lack of snow. The only way to reach the soaring summits Polemonium and North Palisade in low snow years was to do some poorly protected mixed climbing to pass the bare spots in the couloirs or to make an involved traverse of five 14ers! This summer may be the year to head up there for some snow and alpine ice climbing via the classic couloirs.
To get everyone excited about the summer season I want to write about a trip I did in the Palisades last summer. We climbed the classic Sun Ribbon Arete on Temple Crag and the following day completed a Sill to Thunderbolt Traverse.
In the early afternoon we started up the trail from our parking space near the site of Glacier Lodge. It was our best effort at avoiding the heat of the California sun, but the trail still seemed dusty and hot as we made our way up the switchbacks toward our camp at 3rd Lake. We heard about a great bivy under a boulder close to the start of Sun Ribbon Arete, Venusian Blind and Moon Goddess, but opted for a lower sandy site where we found running water. From our low camp we got a great view of the Dark Star Buttress looming over our heads in the fading light.
The next morning dawned clear and we made our way up to the base of the route, which involved a short steep snow climb before we exited onto the rock. As we roped up and shouldered the rack it was easy to see the path we would take. To start the technical climbing on the route we would have to engage a steep corner with a chimney! After the initial pitches were in the books we continued up through a sea of slabs, cracks, corners and towers. The ‘crux’ climbing didn’t seem that significant when compared with the tyrolean traverse used to pass a 15 foot gap blocking our way. After a seemingly endless series of towers the terrain finally eased off and we were able to scramble up to the summit with views of the Palisades stretched out in front of us.
Upon our return to the base we made a decision to move camp up a little higher to stage for the Palisades Traverse. Sam Mack Meadow had not melted out yet so we chose a spot near 4th Lake providing much easier access to the high peaks.
The next morning started early and the sun rose as we reached the base of the Swiss Arete on Mount Sill, which would be our access point for the traverse. The Swiss Arete is a beautiful route, but on our climb it seemed like it ended too quickly when compared with the enormity of the rest of our task. Once on the summit of Sill we followed easier terrain down to our first notch and then up to Polemonium. Then the traverse started to get interesting. Upon descending into a notch between Polemonium and North Palisade we were confronted by a step across into an off-width. After reading the route description we learned that there was a way around onto the east side of the peak, but we had already pulled our rope! So I stepped across then struggled and wiggled my way to the top. What a battle.
After the summit of North Palisade we moved onto the pointy summits of Starlight and Thunderbolt to complete the traverse. Even though the summit of Starlight is just a rock horn along the ridge of North Palisade the spicy, unprotected face climbing makes it an excellent challenge. Thunderbolt by comparison stands alone as a distinct peak, but has the same difficult face climbing to reach its summit.
What a relief it was to finally descend back to our camp by 4th Lake. We were exhausted but happy to have completed both of our objectives in the Palisades. Our campsite didn’t have too many mosquitos so we were able to enjoy the mountain setting as the sun cast its rose color across Temple Crag and the rest of the Palisade Range.
The Palisades area including Sam Mack Meadow, Mt. Sill, Temple Crag and Palisade Glacier make for an incredible mountain experience. Just to venture back into the basin itself is awe inspiring. If you get a chance to climb one of the peaks then you will truly experience the best the Sierra has to offer. Hope to see you out there.