Palisade Traverse 2011
Thunderbolt → U-Notch Traverse
This trip had an unusually long incubation period. Patrick, PT, and I were the three core participants in a planned Thunderbolt to Sill traverse. The dates, and the 4th person kept changing for weeks in advance. Eventually, Patrick, PT, Jon, and I (Kedron) ended up going from 6/24 to 6/26.
We had decided to hike in over Bishop Pass, and camp at Thunderbolt Pass, largely because of Patrick's and PT's conditioned fear of the bergschrund on the north couloir route. This had the additional benefit of a trailhead at 9,800 feet, although this was largely negated by the undulating traverse from Bishop Pass to Thunderbolt Pass. We got a lazy start around 11:30 on Friday morning, and got to camp around 6. Having had dehydration problems on Mt. Russell a week ago, I set and achieved a goal of 5 liters of water on the approach.
After a remarkably bad night's sleep, Patrick woke me up at 3 in the morning. I ate a nauseating quantity of cookie crumbs for breakfast, and was soon ready. We left around 4, and we made quick progress up the icy snow in the Southwest Chute. I noticed myself being nervous on the low angle snow, which seemed like a bad omen. Later my crampon came loose, which did little to further my confidence. Fortunately, I was fairly well acclimatized, and the chute didn't feel nearly as painful as steep hikes at elevation usually do for me.
At the top of the chute, the group made a rather lengthy negotiation of a trivial chockstone. PT then showed us the 4th class way to the base of the summit block, which he had discovered on a previous trip. Unlike last time I was there, I didn't even attempt to man up and climb the summit block, but instead joined forces with Patrick to throw a rope over it. I prusiked up, and set the rope through the carabiners. Patrick and PT forwent the summit block in the interests of time, which made me feel like a bit of a douchebag for wasting ~1/2 hour to tag a summit I'd already been to.
Jon hadn't been mountaineering for a while, and was feeling the altitude, so he decided to go down from the top of Thunderbolt. Patrick, PT, and I continued along the ridge. The down-climb from Thunderbolt to the top of the Underhill couloirs was surprisingly easy for something which I had imagined was going to be one of the harder parts of the trip. This gave me a brief, but pleasant feeling of overconfidence.
This feeling was quickly dashed when, following a picture from the internet, I climbed up into a chimney that I couldn't figure out how to top out of. Somewhat irritated and embarrassed, I climbed down, and followed the others up the crest of the ridge. We soon reached a place with rap slings, that lead down into a snow-filled gulley. Still a bit unhappy by the thought of snow, I convinced the others to climb a bit further up the ridge. This was some of the best, most exposed scrambling of the day, although probably took more time than rappelling and dealing with the snow.
This lead to another set of rap anchors, which we used. We then scrambled up to the headwall just below the summit of Starlight. Here the route seemed non-obvious. I watched another group pass us, easily going across a traverse I backed off of. They then soloed up a set of cracks that looked quite 5th class.
PT thought he saw a route up some frighteningly steep blocks in a recess. It turned out to be harder than he had expected, and he wasn't too keen on down-climbing. Patrick belayed me while I climbed the pitch. It was rather exhilarating – strenuous, but fairly secure-feeling, except for some loose blocks. It went at 5.7 for about 60 feet. I anchored the rope for PT to climb up on a prusik self-belay, and went to scout out the route to the milk bottle. Having found an easy route, I took a HUGE dump. With this piece of business taken care of, I went back to see how PT was doing.
PT was not doing especially well as it turned out. He had tried the route in hiking boots and fallen on his prusik. Fortunately, despite my misgivings about prusik belays, it held, but he wanted a real belay. After a long struggle, and an ice-axe which came loose from his pack, PT got to the top. Patrick followed, admirably quickly, given that he was carrying my boots and PT's ice-axe.
The Milk Bottle was definitely the highlight of the trip for me. Having wimped out on the last two summit-blocks I'd tried to free climb, I was pretty nervous about this one. I tried half-heartedly to convince Patrick that he might want to give it a shot, but his sense of self-preservation held strong, so soon I found myself on the sharp end of the rope. The climb was surprisingly easy, particularly since someone put a 4 foot long sling on the anchor which I clipped before doing the final moves to the summit. I did have some misgivings when I discovered that the anchor consisted of one thin bolt with a rusty hanger. After doing the obligatory nervous summit-stand, I lowered off, and it was Patrick's turn. PT photographed Patrick's much more glorious summit-stand.
We then took two rappels to the notch between Starlight and North Palisade. We knew that somewhere along this ridge was a scary notch that we were definitely going to have to rappel across (although Stephen apparently found a way across unroped). We traversed to a rib on the west side of the crest, and did a short, but very nice 4th class scramble on great rock up this side-ridge back to the crest, where the gap lay waiting for us.
I had been getting nervous, as everything was taking longer than I had expected, and the prolonged exposure was getting to me. This gash in the ridge looked terrifying. I threw the rope, and watched it get blown almost horizontally off to the east by the wind, which had been increasing throughout the day, and was greatly amplified in the sharp notch. The actual rappel, and jumping across the gap on rappel was kind of fun.
A short scramble led to the top of a slab, where we saw the 4th class route on the east side of the summit covered with snow. Patrick went and explored, and thought there might be a 4th class route across the east face, to what we hoped would be easier ground on the other side. We tried seeing if we could find a route to the 5.5 chimney that was supposed to be on the north side of the summit. My feelings on the subject of snow not having moderated during the day, I was quite glad when we found that we could easily reach a moderate looking climb up to the summit. I climbed the chimney, and then tagged the summit, while Patrick followed on prusik belay. Once I'd belayed PT up, we took the only group picture of the trip, on top of N. Pal. It was now 4:30.
PT knew the way down towards U Notch, but due to some combination of slow scrambling, incompetent rope management on my part, and some snail-paced rappelling from PT and Patrick, it was 6:30 when we reached U Notch. I was cold, unhappy with the pace, and just generally ready to be in my sleeping bag for a really long time, and I think the others were feeling the same way, since no one protested at the idea of bailing. We had read that the chute on the west side of U Notch was loose, and had a 4th class section. We found that it was mostly covered in snow, so the looseness wasn't an issue, and the 4th class was really 2nd class aspiring to 3rd. We were soon in the Palisade basin, walking into the sunset, back to our camp.
After 12 hours of sleep, we got up, ate a bit, slowly packed, and hobbled out, reaching the trailhead at 5 PM. Patrick and Jon swam in a ½ frozen lake on the way down. I stood at the edge, contemplating the idea of going in, but decided it was too cold, and contented myself with skipping stones across the water onto the ice shelf. Two groups we passed on the trail professed themselves impressed with Jon and Patrick's swim.