Sierra Mountain Center

California’s premier mountaineering school and guide service – Bishop, CA

West Palisades Climbing

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Some trips with Sierra Mountain Center seem to have seasonal popularity:  I remember doing trips into the west access of the Palisades 3-4 times a summer when I first started.  A few years ago I did a huge number of summer ice climbing trips, hiking in and out of Mt. Thompson often enough that I quickly developed a preferred route from the Treasure Lakes basin.  This year the emphasis seems to be on rock climbing.

Jeff, Cory, and Doug decided to buck fashion and asked Andrew and I to join them on a trip to the Palisades, west-side style, from 9-13 August.  Absolutely!

The Palisades are most commonly climbed from the east.  From Glacier Lodge the faces and ridges of Sill, Polemonium, North Palisade, Starlite, and Thunder come gradually into view as you hike closer and closer.  But on the western approach, they remain hidden.  Secretive.  Mysterious.  Until you gain Thunderbolt Col, and suddenly the other side of the Palisades jumps out.

If you’re a rock climber, the west side of the Palisades is where its at.  Big routes – grade III and IV – from 4th class to 5.11 stand on every ridge, arete, and buttress.  If you’re a scrambler, then the easiest lines up each and every one of these 14’ers hides in the chutes and ladders between.  That’s right:  the easiest routes up Thunderbolt, Starlite, North Palisade, Polemonium and Sill exist on the west side.   And the hike is no harder than its eastern counterpart – 6 miles of trail to Bishop Pass, followed by 2 miles of rough cross-country as you traverse Dusy Basin.  Early in the season, you can camp at the Col, but you’ll also probably need ice axes and crampons for the chutes.  Later in the season the snow’s gone, but so is the water it provided.  We finished the hike in 6:30 hours, then descended from the Col at 12,400′ to a pond at 11,950′.  This pond has great campsites, fresh water, and one of the best views of sunset alpenglow on the Palisades.

In the morning we got an alpine start to climb the SW Chute #1 on Thunderbolt Peak (14,002′).  This climb is a great introduction to the scrambling Palisade routes.  A lot of scree, a little bit of route finding, and a challenging finish, with the easiest/shortest approach/descent in the range.  It was dissapointing to discover that the summit register, a PVC tube, was shattered into pieces and the pages inside gone.  I’m assuming this was a freak act of nature, and not wanton destruction.  We were back in camp in 8-hours round trip.

climbing thunderbolt peak on sunday, 10 august / (l-r) cory, jeff, doug, andrew
 
andrew and jeff immitate marmots in the sun at thunderbolt’s
notch below the summit

Monday was declared a day of rest, and Doug decided he would like to leave early.  So we said goodbye to Andrew and Doug and made plans for the next day.  Cory and I decided to climb Polemonium Peak (14,080′), while Jeff hung back in camp and gave his back a rest for the hike out.

Another alpine start.  Another hike up through the talus by headlamp, following an approximate trajectory until the early morning light fills the Palisade Basin.  A lot of my friends ask me if this gets boring – of course it does, sometimes – this is a job after all, and every job has its moments.  But this morning it was still fresh to me, still a discovery, and I enjoyed figuring out the best way to scramble across the huge boulders to the base of our climb, the West Chute.

The West Chute us also the opposite side of the U-Notch Couloir.  Its the approach for all the different variations of the LeConte Route up North Palisade, but it also access a great 4th class finish up the back side of Polemonium, featuring several hundreds of feet of exposure tugging at your heals as you climb up a spectacular corner.  Two rappels regain the notch and the descent back the way you came.  We discovered that the register, now bolted to the summit, is in need of a new notebook.  We made our way back to camp, 9 hours after leaving that morning.

cory feeling the exposure on the summite pitch of polemonium
almost out! / descending through the talus fields back to camp

We woke up to a damp morning, and waited for the sun to dry off the dew that had coated our tent and sleeping bags.  Still the hike seemed to take no time to get out, lasting about 5 hours.  Jeff and Cory insisted that Andrew and I join them for dinner, so we had a post-trip celebration and sushi at Yamatani in Bishop.

Thanks to everyone for a great trip!

Chris Simmons is an AMGA Certified Alpine Guide and an Alpine, Rock, and Ski Guide for SMC.  More about his adventures can be found on his personal website, Climb.Ski.Run.Sleep.Repeat.
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Written by Chris

August 24, 2009 at 6:37 pm

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