The Palisade Traverse

Note: I hope this inspires you to climb a mountain in your life, real or metaphoric. I’ve tried to make this account appeal to casual readers and climber’s alike. There are instances of climbing jargon that go undefined. Specifically, I mention various climbing classes and grades using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). These include descriptions such as “fourth class” and grades such as “5.10”. YDS describes the relative difficulty of moving over and up the terrain and you don’t really need to know specifically what they mean beyond the fact the difficulty increases with higher numbers. If you are interested in learning more about YDS, check out the Wikipedia page. There’s also a decent glossary of climbing lingo here if you come across other unfamiliar terms. Thanks to Ben T, Vince K, Shawn L, Jack & Henry, Lara K, Malena & Little Bird, Zane F, and Tim B for your continued help and inspiration.

I woke up yesterday at Fischer Camp, a series of high rocky bivy sites atop a mound of pell-mell granite overlooking Palisade Glacier at an elevation of about 12,500’ in the Eastern Sierra. The Sierra Nevada range towers between the final breaking of the continent by the Pacific ocean to the west and the endless desert lowlands of the American southwest stretched out in grand inhospitable vastness to the east.

Palisade Glacier is southernmost glacier of North America and lies at the foot of the Palisade Group, a collection of superlative peaks known for their rugged and imposing beauty in the luminous John Muir Wilderness. I awoke at dawn feeling surprisingly lithe for having climbed five technical summits the day before on a route known colloquially as “The Palisade Traverse”, or more descriptively as “The Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse” over a high alpine ridge in the most mountainous terrain of the high Sierra.

Fischer Camp is named for the late John Fischer, founder of the Palisade School of Mountaineering and a pioneering climber, known for his many first ascents in the Sierra Nevadas and “fastidiously artistic” lines (a “line” is the path a climbing route follows up a mountain or rock face.) Even today, Fischer Camp is less traveled and less widely-known than Gayley Camp which is closer to the foot of the glacier, below Mount Sill. Finding Fischer Camp requires some off-trail but manageable rock-hopping over the talus and boulders of the moraine. The camp is marked by a badly banged and bent metal litter atop a pile of granite, presumably damaged and left behind during a mountain rescue operation. Most interesting for me was that John Fischer, the mountaineer, was also the father of my long-time friend Zane who lives some 900 miles to the east in my home of Santa Fe, New Mexico—so our stay in a camp bearing his father’s name lent a personal aspect to the grand, uncaring arena of rock and snow. I imagined John and his students practicing the demanding craft of mountaineering, descending on rappel into the U-shaped notch in the middle of the ridge high above the glacier. I imagined the history of the region’s many towering one and two thousand foot crags (with colorful and descriptive names like “Darkstar Buttress” and “Temple Crag”). I imagined the brave first ascents of early explorers and surveyors, mapping, climbing, and cataloging the staggering number of escarpments, summits and spires with their primitive and heavy gear.

The Sierra Nevadas are massive: 70 miles wide and 500 miles long, bisecting the State of California with an imposing and impenetrable expanse. I imagined John Muir who spent more than 10 years exploring and studying the slow movement of these mountains. To Muir, it was a range par excellence and it is befitting that this wilderness now proudly bears his name. In his 1894 book, The Mountains of California, he reflects:

“…it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain-chains I have ever seen.”

From our camp on the moraine above the snow-cupped glacier we are encircled by perhaps a dozen towering peaks, many rising greater than fourteen thousand feet. Fourteen thousand feet in elevation is generally the upper limit to the carrying capacity of the Earth’s crust. Some geologic zones where tectonic plates have collided and significantly overlapped allow mountains to rise to nearly double this height (such as Everest in the Himalaya). But for most places on Earth, fourteen thousand foot summits are the highest peaks around.
The craggy summits are beautiful and intimidating. The variegated rock gorgeous and gnarled, projecting thousands of feet above us—cracked and fissured and still very much alive in a slow evolution fueled by the patient ravages of water, wind, and gravity, metered out over endless time. At the toe of the glacier we could hear a loud sporadic crack and crash echoing around the cirque as falling blocks of ice and rock evidence the continued glacial flow sculpting the land.

It’s impossible to convey the scale of such a place in human terms. Humans have no relevance in the stories told by mountains. Mountains exist in a temporal geologic theater that dwarfs even the grandest human gesture. They dance in a slow undulation with the rise and fall of the Earth’s crust, breaking and cooling as it floats on the mantle. Their dance began long before our early ancestors stalked great mammoths and its slow rhythm will persist long after our planet is uninhabitable by our final terrestrial descendants.

The peaks above us are connected by a precipitous and rough-hewn ridge that zigzags across the skyline. Over the past few years I have fallen hard in love with the austere beauty of high alpine ridges. Beyond their natural wonder they represent a grand athletic and mental challenge: do I dare to cross these jagged lines through the sky? A successful traverse leaves me feeling like a quixotic superhero, living out a childhood dream of grand adventure, part Indiana Jones, part Spiderman. The rock faces themselves take on outsized personalities of heroes and villains. Long alpine ridge traverses don’t appeal to all climbers, many prefer more easily approached and elegantly stacked pitches of unbroken rock (actual rock climbing!)—like the famous lines of Yosemite Valley some 50 miles to the north. For me though, high ridges are everything I crave. They typically require intense athleticism and focus to complete within a potentially narrow weather window, they require rapidly changing between from styles of movement and safety systems: scrambling over loose rock, traveling on snow or ice, pitches of true fifth class rock climbing, rappelling, downclimbing on exposed terrain, short-roping and body belays, route finding challenges, slab and face climbing and commitment. When climbers speak of “commitment” they are talking about sense of “being committed” to completing a route, of venturing out past the point of no return—where in many cases the only way off is completion. On many alpine ridge traverses there may be few safe options to bail. Our route had two. This can mean being marooned in highly exposed, potentially dangerous place if you make a mistake in your assessment of the weather or your ability to handle the difficulty of a route. “Exposed” or “exposure” is climber jargon to describe the feeling of being “at risk” during a climb, due to the height of a fall, lack of cover, or other environmental risk beyond your control. There is no system to definitively quantify “exposure”; it’s largely a matter of perception. Climbers studiously review mountain forecasts and daily updates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and trip reports from other climbers for insight on current conditions and route finding. Climbers refer to this intelligence as “beta”.

My own journey toward this climb began about four years ago. I was going through a period of profound personal transformation—some might dismiss this from afar as an early “midlife crisis”. It was a period of personal growth more accurately described as an advantageous course correction in the direction of my life. In addition to positively ending my marriage, I made a series of choices to put wellbeing and acceptance at the forefront: giving up workaholism, substance abuse, unhealthy eating habits, changing career paths and most importantly my approach to life. I committed to a life of consciously striving to be the best version of myself possible, vowing to live each day with the goal of becoming a powerful a force for love and courage in the world. This simple mission statement has brought me significant power and focus. I continually ask myself, am I leaning into each action with love? Am I courageous enough to remain open and share myself with the world? I’ve since felt my actions and words help other people change and improve their lives. Connecting authentically and fearlessly with yourself and the people around you creates a cascade of positive results. Though I have always been a climber and avid outdoorsman, since my childhood peregrinations in Boy Scouts, my new found footing and confidence led me to seek new challenges. In late 2016 I decided to train for an even larger mountainous traverse in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, known simply as “The Grand Traverse”. That trip was a wildly exciting experience, worth it’s own story entirely, and it was at the end of that adventure that my friend Tim, now lead guide for Exum Mountain Guides, mentioned “another big traverse” in the Sierra called “The Palisade Traverse”. Ever since then the Palisade Traverse was beckoning me in the back of my mind. At the conclusion of each major objective I start ruminating on what’s next—my old compulsive habits replaced more productively with mountaineering. I was caught by the “siren song of the summit”. An irresistible tropism toward high, desolate and otherworldly places.

About six months ago I committed to sojourning in the Sierra to experience myself against the backdrop of the Palisade Crest at the crowning heights of Muir’s “Range of Light”. Keeping an inspiring objective on the horizon is a great motivator to keep yourself in top physical shape, and that too has a cascade of benefits for mental and emotional health. I train by climbing, trail running, doing high intensity interval training, practicing yoga, meditating and some parkour-inspired movement. I have largely quit weights and traditional gym workouts in favor of bodyweight training and calisthenics. I’ve been highly influenced by the work of Erwan Le Corre (founder of Movnat) and Ido Portal (an Israeli pop philosopher of fitness), both are pioneering voices in the emergence of “movement culture”. “Movement culture” is a shift in the way we think about sport, dance, human physical activity toward a non-binary, less segmented understanding. Climbing and mountaineering fit perfectly into the paradigm of self expression through movement. I’m no great climber. I’m a marginal 5.10 or 5.11 gym climber at my best and, in a sense, I’m still recovering from 15+ years as a professional technologist, slumped behind a desk living a high stress, low satisfaction life. So coming from that background the routes I’m currently pursuing are epic and perfect.

I decided to drive to California instead of flying to save money and left Santa Fe on Thursday, June 28, 2018 stopping for a night in Flagstaff where I was graciously put up by two very sweet people I’d never met before, Malena and “Little Bird”. I got connected to them via Facebook by a mutual friend. At Malena’s suggestion I stopped at Knife City on the way, a strange outpost along Route 66 dealing in all things sharp and pointy, where I bought two throwing stars for my kids. In Flagstaff I got a good workout in by running and doing bodyweight training at Bushmaster Park, a city park with a well-appointed calisthenics training area that I unsurprisingly had all to myself. Malena, Little Bird, and I shared a delicious meal at a trendy pizzeria owned by a chef Malena knew, followed by a couple of drinks on Little Bird’s back patio. The next day I rose early and completed the remaining nine hours of hot, monotonous desert driving through the vast and barren expanse of the western United States.

Upon arriving Mammoth Lakes, California I checked the Hostel Moderne, a no-frills but clean hostel largely trafficked by foreign PCT hikers. I made a few calls to friends and walked around Mammoth, grabbing a fresh ahi tuna salad and a local IPA at a place called Toomey’s. One French PCT hiker approached me in the hostel parking lot where I was getting my gear ready and we got to talking. She said she’d lost 37 pounds so far on the trail and extolled the relative luxury of hut trips in the Alps, where you could eat freshly made cheese and milk from local dairies in the company of other alpinists and hikers. She asked about my ice axe (my piolet) and I told her about our planned route. From then on she introduced me to other denizens of the hostel as “a real mountaineer” to both my self-consciousness and amusement. A man came out and said something to her in French, to which she replied, “I am talking to a real mountaineer”. She told to me he was her boyfriend and I got the impression they were weary of hiking together. In that moment I realized that through-hiking a trail like the PCT didn’t really appeal to me anymore. The thought of months on a crowded trail without a climbing objective sounded kind of miserable. Maybe my transition from backpacker to climber was complete? My bunkmate that night was a serene young Irish woman in her late 20s just starting out on what sounded like an epic solo road trip across the US. She’d spent the day in Yosemite valley, “I’m completely knackered”, she confided. I was knackered too, so we were in bed with lights out by 21:00.

The next morning I met my guide, Ben, at a coffeehouse called the Looney Bean. Mountaineering is skilled craft with high stakes and the value of working with professionals cannot be understated. Some of my friends don’t understand why I’d hire a guide when beta on many routes is available online and climbing is free. But at 38, as an entrepreneur and half-time single dad, I don’t have the luxury of long summers living #vanlife chasing climbing projects. I have small chunks of free time that I program with precision. The knowledge and expertise I’ve gleaned from professional guides is invaluable. Mountain guides are women and men expert in managing risk—professionally weighing and balancing competing dangers in extreme environments, bound together by a deep love for wild and vertical realms. I got connected to Ben through the American Alpine Institute (one of the largest guide services in the country). I had taken a course on traditional lead climbing in Joshua Tree through the Institute in January and had come to trust their guide selection.
Ben turned out to be a really great guy and consummate professional. We hit it off that morning during a climb together at Crystal Crag, a local testpeice in Mammoth Lakes offering easy multipitch traditional climbing and ridge movement, so we could get used to climbing together before setting out on our main objective the following day. Crystal Crag itself is a massive arête with some fun 5.8 climbing and fourth class scrambling, with the largest deposit of quartz crystal I have ever seen at the summit of the crag. Ben and I readily connected, on both being within a couple years of turning 40, both being fathers to two young boys, both being ham radio operators, both understanding the attendant challenges of married life, and both sharing a deep love for the mountains. Ben is a handsome and genuine guy who escaped from the flatlands of Ohio to pursue a life working the “trade routes” of the Alaska range, the Cascades, and the Sierra. He entertained me with tales of being dropped in from helicopters on mountain rescues, teaching avalanche courses in Colorado, working various alpine expeditions, and about his life in Mammoth as a new father and part time journeyman electrician, another trade he picked up to supplement guiding.

Ben

The following morning Ben and I set out for the Big Pine Creek trailhead, about an hour’s drive to the south, fifteen miles south-southeast of Bishop, CA. The trailhead is in the Inyo National Forest above the low-lying hamlet of Big Pine, ten thousand feet and 12 miles below the Traverse. It would be 100 degrees Farenheit in the valley by midday, so I was looking forward to getting to higher ground. We drove the winding Glacier Lodge road, creeping up the seemingly endless foothills of the Sierra to the busy trailhead parking lot. The approach hike to the Traverse is about 9 miles of hiking up 7,500 vertical feet through some of the most aesthetic vistas I’ve seen. The first few miles of trail make a steady and reasonable ascent through high desert along the north fork of Big Pine Creek, not unlike the landscape of the Gila Wilderness back home. As the trail winds steeply up the canyon, the creek plummets in a loud waterfall, until flattening out as the canyon opens into a gentle ponderosa forest. An well-preserved stone cabin sits at a particularly fetching bend in the creek. The cabin, now property of the U.S. Forest Service, was built in 1929 for early Hollywood star Lon Chaney, Sr., an actor known for his “extraordinary characterization” portraying the first cinematic vampire and other colorful roles. We took a short break to rehydrate and refuel before heading on. The remainder of the approach hike leads past a series of the prepossessing alpine lakes with unbelievable teal green water laden with glacial rock dust.

Lon Chaney’s cabin

The final waypoint on the approach before the last leg of the climb toward the glacier is the fabled Sam Mack Meadow, as one blogger put it: “Sam Mack Meadow itself is what I like to call stupid gorgeous—in that particular breathtaking, ‘how is this even’ sort of way.” (link) It’s a sweet spot for sure, and high enough to be largely out of the swarms of ferocious mosquitoes we encountered lower down.
En route to Camp Fischer I saw some striking blue wild flowers blooming defiantly in the inhospitable rock. Ben explained these were called “skypilots” (aka Polemonium eximium) and that they only grew here in the Sierras above 10,000 feet. I couldn’t recall seeing a truly endemic species before and it was a treat. Once settled into our base camp at the Fischer site we prepped for an early night and an alpine start, setting an alarm for 04:30. While eating our freeze dried dinners we saw a team of two climbers descend the Underhill Couloir (one of the two possible bail points on the route) make their way across the glacier.

Our Traverse winds over five fourteeners, following the ridge from north to south beginning with Thunderbolt and Starlight, two subsidiary peaks of North Palisade, then down into the giant U-shaped notch and up Polemonium, finally across the remaining ridge to Mount Sill. After a quick breakfast of granola and instant coffee we set out across the rocky moraine toward the snow-covered North Couloir leading up the steep slopes of Thunderbolt. A couloir (pronounced koo-lar) is steep gully on a mountainside. We crossed the snowy field pocked with deep suncups (closely packed, bowl-like depressions in the glacial snow from seasonal ablation) and began front-pointing our way up the 2000 vertical feet of steep alpine snow with our crampons and ice tools. I stupidly forgot my sunglasses at camp—a mistake that earned me irritated and sunburnt eyes by day’s end. Our spirits were high as we made our way up the steep, narrow gully. I was excited to discover the route. Excited by the possibility of the unknown.

At the top of the couloir was several hundred feet of third and fourth class scrambling to the base of the jagged summit arête. Thunderbolt’s summit block is a 15-foot monolith that feels like a fairly easy, but highly exposed, bouldering problem. It requires some unprotected 5.9 climbing and is arguably the crux of the entire traverse. I got on belay while Ben lead the pitch in his alpine mountaineering boots, a feat I was not prepared to do. Once on the summit, Ben belayed me up the using the fixed bolts on top. We sat together sharing the tiny summit at 14,003’ and took in the bounty of the day and its unsurpassed beauty, spilling out in all directions below us from Mount Sill to the south to Kings Canyon in the west. We didn’t linger however—we had four more summits.

The weather report that morning indicated a 20% chance of thunderstorms which caused Ben some concern. I didn’t want to be caught out on the Crest during a storm either, but 20% chance of storms sounded a lot like 80% chance of sun to me. I was cool with any decision we made regarding how much to push today, if we needed to bail from the route at some point out of concern for safety, that was fine. Organisms that adapt are organisms that survive. That’s holds true for climbers too.

I was caught by the “siren song of the summit”. An irresistible tropism toward high, desolate and otherworldly places.

Thunderbolt Peak was the last of the California fourteeners to be climbed and is reportedly one of the most difficult. Thunderbolt is the northernmost fourteener of the Sierra. The first ascent was completed on August 13, 1931 by a team of seven including Bestor Robinson, Lewis F. Clark, Glen Dawson, Jules Eichorn, Francis Farquhar, Robert L. M. Underhill, and Norman Clyde. Only Dawson and Eichorn seem to have made it to the actual summit because an electrical storm cut the climb short, focing the party to take cover in a lower alcove. The peak was so-named because a bolt of lightning struck the summit monolith just as Jules Eichorn descended the 15 foot rock. According to their account, the lightning strike just missed him.

Leaving the summit of Thunderbolt, we downclimbed following the craggy ridge toward a spire that we bypassed by downclimbing a ledge on the east face, and eventually cut over to the right and making our way up some exposed class four slabs and on toward the 14,200’ summit of Starlight. The summit block is suitably known as the “Milk Bottle”. The Milk Bottle is famous for it’s easy fifth class climbing with extreme exposure on all sides. I told Ben I didn’t care about signing the summit register and he kind of balked at that. “I’m not climbing to sign registers”, I offered but Ben wasn’t having any of it. “How do you spell Taggart?”, he asked as he took it upon himself to sign for both of us in good-natured admonishment.

Ben signs the register!

On the descent from Starlight peak we encountered more exposed downclimbing leading to a diminutive notch in the ridge. We rapped down into the gap to a point that required a very insecure-feeling pendulum move over a hundreds of feet of air across to a flat ledge on the opposite side. From there we traversed a narrow ledge along the western side of the ridge leading to more exposed fourth class climbing to the 14,248’ summit of North Palisade, or “North Pal” as it’s affectionately called by local climbers. After a short break, snapping a few photos of the next segment, we began our way down toward Polemonium. We saw a party of three on the neighboring summit, just starting their descent into the notch heading the opposite direction.

From the summit of North Pal, a short scramble lead us to a chimney above the deep U-shaped notch cutting hundreds of feet into the ridge below. In winter when conditions are right the U-Notch couloir is itself a popular snow and ice climb. Ben used a counterbalance rappel to lower me down the first pitch to the top of the U-Notch. From there we took turns rappelling the rest of the way down. We stopped for a moment here, taking a long look at the gathering clouds in the distance. A rocky gully with loose talus dropping down a couple of thousand feet to the west—on the opposite side of the ridge from our base camp—was last relatively safe option to bail from the route. We had two options: descend the backside of the U-notch and bivouac for the night or commit to completing the traverse in a day instead of the two we’d planned. It was about 14:30 and the possibility of a storm felt real but remote. We decided to commit and finish the route. We crossed the U-Notch and once more navigated some exposed fourth class ledges, carefully moving around and over the rock on an exciting ascent of Polemonium that twisted and corkscrewed around and up the peak.

After Polemonium, a downclimb lead us to a boulder field on the western slope of Mount Sill. Sill is aptly known as “the Guardian of the Valley” by the indigenous Northern Paiute people. We rock-hopped the boulders and trudged through a large snow field to a small rocky saddle in the ridge, maybe two hundred feet below Sill’s summit. We dropped our packs here and scrambled up to tag Sill’s 14,159’ summit, the final peak of the Traverse. We had just summited a third of California’s fourteen thousand foot peaks in 12 hours! Ben and I were exhilarated by the accomplishment and joked about hauling our overnight gear and food up and over the summits for no reason. As we began the descent to our packs, our last major downclimb of the day, we heard a loud thunderclap in the distance. Ben looked at the sky and said, “Let’s get the hell off this mountain.”
Making our way down toward Apex Notch and the L-shaped Couloir our excitement wore off and tiredness set in. I slowed us down on the descent significantly because of a lack of confidence in moving on steep and exposed wet snow. I stopped to put on crampons and asked for a belay across a tight gully, both unnecessary precautions. We still had the bergschrund to contend with and had to recross the Palisade Glacier before we were done. A bergschrund is a deep crevasse formed where the glacier splits away from the headwall on the side of a mountain. Like all crevasses, it can be very treacherous so we roped up and kept significant distance between us, ice tools in hand for self-arrest if one of us were to fall. I came to the obvious line in the snow, marking the bergschrund and tentatively stepped onto it. The snow held and I walked across. With the last serious risk managed we coiled the rope and marched silently across the remainder of the glacier. I squinted and alternated closing each eye because the glare of the sun on the snow was so intense.

Back at camp we ravenously ate dinner under a breathtaking sunset illuminating the cirque with alpenglow. Ben asked if I wanted to stay and climb the next day since we finished early. I did want to stay but I was even more eager to get back to New Mexico a day early. I asked Ben what he had learned about life from being a mountain guide. He paused and thought about the question for a minute. “Living simply”, he said. “I’ve definitely learned the value of living simply. And I’ve learned that reality doesn’t matter. What people down there”, he said, gesturing toward the valley, “think of as reality isn’t really it. That reality’s bigger than our stories.” We crawled into our tent. It was so nice to lay down. Ben placed a hot water bottle in his sleeping bag at his feet saying, “that’s the only way to go to bed when you’re in Alaska and it’s minus 25.” In my sleeping bag I grabbed my phone and opened a blank Google doc and began writing some notes and details about the day. I’ll leave you with last thing I wrote that night, unedited, before I fell into a sound and untroubled sleep:

“Gratitude for the grand adventure. Gratitude for the fear and struggle. Gratitude for the friendship and minor injuries. Gratitude for tomorrow. Gratitude for the heaviness of my limbs and sunburned eyes. Gratitude for my predictably unrealistic desires. Gratitude for being.”

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