After much convincing and “encouragement” I “agreed” to join Kam on a trip to the Sierras. This was largely because our friend Michelle wanted some company on the hike up to Middle Palisade with someone who was, like her, not all that hellbent on the summit. I was injured, out-of-shape, tired and grumpy, so that suited me just fine. Which is to say, I had no intention of going until I was gently beaten into submission. Imagine yourself being pummeled by adorable little teddy bear fists.
On the way up to Big Pine on the 395, we passed through Olancha at sunset and the sky was on fire. Well, something was on fire. Smoke poured out of the Sierras in a dark plume back-lit by the setting sun. By the time we drove back on Sunday, the fire was out but the Valley was still full of haze.
Kam, Michelle and I pulled into the campground just outside of Big Pine where Leah had kindly made reservations. It was not exactly scenic, but it was flat and clean and there were no marauding bears. There are actually never marauding bears, which is both disappointing and comforting. Like democracy. Leah and TJ were already asleep when we arrived (just after 8pm), so we quietly got our camp on, set alarms for too-damn-early, and went to sleep. Well, we lay down. Sleep…not so much.
We started the hike from the Big Pine campground at 3:30 am. Our goal was to hike and scramble some eight miles to the top of Middle Palisade, one of California’s twelve fourteeners, so that Leah could tick this one of her peak list. Kam had already climbed the peak, or so she claims, though as usual she had no memory of the experience. I just wanted to get some exercise or take a long nap by a lake. TJ, whom I had only met once before, was an experienced climber but had never been higher than 11,000′. Michelle was, wait, where was Michelle?
“Michelle!” My god, what if the bears got her? “Michelle!”
But there was only silence. We never saw her again.
Anyway, we made pretty good time up the switchbacks, through the swampy bits and up some rocks under a waning gibbous moon. Dawn cast deep red light on the faces of bare granite above us, which made everyone go to the bathroom. It was a lovely, bonding moment.
Somewhere in here Leah decided we needed a team name and decided to go with Team Jingo because she’d been listening to too many historical podcasts and wanted us to sound like a bunch of white racists plundering the American wilderness. Again, I mean. TJ suggested Team Flatulence because sugar, altitude and, as it turned out, personal preference. I suggested Team Marmot because they’re cute and not smelly bigots.
Just after dawn, we arrived at the campground near Finger Lake where six or eight surprisingly well rested twenty-something guys told us they had tried and failed to climb Middle Palisade the prior day due to a massive Bergschrund at the top of the glacier.
I was going to tell you a Bergschrund is an adorable dog breed often mated with Dachshunds to create Shrundhunds, but they’re actually giant chasms formed when the top of a glacier pulls away from the mountain face. If you fall into them, you slide under the glacier and die. So, not cute dogs.
This may have deterred a lesser group, but Team Farty Prejudiced Mini-Mammal was determined. We continued across the stream below Finger Lake (How many fingers does it take to make a lake?) and up rather confusing talus slope in the general direction of the lower Middle Palisade Glacier. A few hundred feet up we came across what looked like an old campsite with old torn-up gear, a backpack, stove and other detritus. It was kind of haunting, and we had to wonder why someone would leave all their gear in the mountains.
“Maybe it was Michelle’s?” I asked. Kam slapped me. Too soon, I guess.
At the base of the glacier, Kam and I put on microspikes while Leah and TJ donned crampons. This took a while. I wandered up the glacier while we waited. The entire surface was covered in deep suncups that made walking awkward but gave the snow a beautiful dimpled texture.
As we got near the rib that split the glacier in half and provided access to the face of the peak, I saw a spider ambling across the ice. It had a green body the size of a Tic Tac and long striped legs. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a spider on the snow before, and I took twenty really terrible pictures in an attempt to capture its tiny little majesty. None turned out. It was either a vampire ice spider or I suck at wildlife photography. You pick.
While I was distracted, Kam took the lead and beat me to the top of the glacier. It’s like she had it planned all along. Like Michelle’s disappearance. So devious.
Off the rapidly softening snow, we transitioned onto some really terrible scree and loose rock. I traversed back to the north to see if the non-standard “red” route might be accessible. I say this as if I had some idea what I was doing. I didn’t. I just happened to get there first so I wandered around and tried to look useful.
Once Team Name-To-Be-Determined reassembled at the base of Red Route One, we stared up the rust-colored chute full of loose rock and scree and discussed how we should stagger ourselves to avoid rockfall. I apparently took this as a sign to start climbing and was halfway up the chute before I realized I was supposed to be planning or listening or something. Life lesson? Whatever. It was steep, loose and highly exposed, also a lot of fun. Onward!
Did I mention I was feeling like crap? No? Well, I should mention that. I hadn’t actually thought I’d get much further than the glacier, and I was surprised as anyone that I was still moving. A few hundred feet above where the red chute transitions to white and then doglegs left around the north face of a massive fin-like granite gendarme, I took a seat to wait for Leah and pray for death. I was feeling weak, lightheaded and slightly nauseated–and this was before Team Flatulence started earning its name.
Fortunately, it seemed like everyone except Kam was feeling a bit wonky, so I wasn’t slowing anyone down. TJ was all smiles even as he sucked wind, noting that every step was higher than he’d ever been before. Great attitude. Not sure he belonged on the team.
We carried on up the face toward the leftward chute above, alternating between low class-five climbing and exposed third- and fourth-class scrambling. I got to the top of the chute and leaned over expecting to see a path to the peak, but instead faced an endless drop-off ending in a pile of broken stone bodies.
“Fuck!” I said, loudly.
“What’s wrong?” Leah called up.
“Cliff,” I said.
“Go right,” she said. So I started down-climbing while she headed up the right pinnacle of rock to the peak. Leah au chevaled to the top and declared victory. I looked left and noticed that the other pinnacle was higher than we were. I pointed this out. Leah may have sworn at this point. I’m not tellin’. Yeah, she swore.
Sufficed to say, our little navigational error resulted in a Kam-TJ victory. They traversed left and then right to reach the peak. When we were all together at the top, we celebrated and took an inordinate number of selfies with the Palisades as background. There was a good deal of posing, some unexpected nudity and a brief attempt by my stomach to liberate itself unto the mountainside. This was not related to the nudity, but rather the aforementioned wonkiness. Plus, I was out of water. Waaaaah.
That was me whining. It was really quite beautiful.
A short while later we started the down-climb. It was slow, but that bad other than it being impossible to avoid knocking rocks down the chute and onto imaginary climbers below us. Seriously, it was some unconsolidated crap and I’d never want to be anywhere near it when other climbers were above or below; there’s almost no way to avoid getting pelted by pebbles and rocks.
While Leah and I waited down by the gendarme, I looked up to see Kam resting and TJ moving back and forth across the top or a large boulder. I thought he was doing some kind of marmot pantomime, which was awesome. Kam made her way down, but when I looked up TJ had barely moved below the boulder. He was moving very slowly, and I thought he was just being cautious or trying not to kill us with all the loose rock. As he got closer, I could hear him hyperventilating.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” he called out between heavy breaths. He said some other stuff. Then, “I’ve been on steep rock and bad screen but never on steep, crappy rock like this. Every move is potential death. I keep imagining my body cartwheeling down the chute and taking everyone out as I fall past.” Or something to that affect. He was very articulate between heaving grasps for breath. I was impressed by how candid he was–how many of us would just pretend we weren’t scared until it was too late–and bummed we hadn’t stayed closer to him to help out.
From that point down, Kam and I stayed close by him. Leah led down, Kam stayed with TJ to coach him through the tougher parts, and I brought up the end. By the time we reached the top of the lower part of the down-climb, he was moving fine. And Leah was, well, where the hell was Leah?
Not again, I thought. First, Michelle, now Leah. Blood bath on Red Route One!
“Hold on.” I passed by TJ and Kam and headed right down the flank of the lower gendarme where I thought we were supposed to go, whereas Leah had angled further left. Sure enough, I got to the top of the white chute and called for Leah. She was a few hundred feet off course and heading toward a cliff-out over the glacier. It wasn’t that sketchy–she knew she was off course and was able to traverse back without any problem–but I’m glad TJ didn’t have to do the extra work.
At the bottom of the red chute, I tried to nurse some drinkable fluid out of a tiny stream of melt-water and waited. It was a sad effort, but soon we were all back together and heading toward the glacier.
The snow had softened so much, I didn’t even bother with the Kahtoolas. Yeah, I fell on my ass once, but what of it? Huh? Huh? At the top of the glacier proper, Kam put hers on and followed in a fun little glissade to the middle of the snow pack while Leah and TJ did the safer crampon descent. I froze my butt. Kam fell into a few suncups and laughed as she floundered her way out. You could hear water running under the glacier in a low elemental mumble. It was awesome.
After filtering water and eating at the base of the glacier, we started down the giant mound of rocks and talus above Finger Lake, having roughly 14% success following our prior route back down. It didn’t matter, really, as there was never any danger of getting lost, but I’d hate to do it at night. Leah put this eloquently:
“I’d hate to do this at night.”
Back at the Finger Lake campground, a nice kid asked us for beta about the route, and we said useful things. Well, Kam and Leah did. I made the mistake of smelling my armpit and staggered around in circles a bit trying not to pass out. TJ farted. It was not a good showing for the manpart of Team Marmot. Yes, I said manpart.
We passed several parties coming up the trail after Fingered Lake, all of of whom seemed determined to climb the red route on Sunday. It was going to be a busy day, and I was grateful we were not going to be there to count falling rocks. One, one concussion! Two, two contusions! Muah ha – hey, that hurt!
The descent down on the trail was largely uneventful except Leah decided to rest in the middle of a swampy area that was like ground zero for the local mosquito population. I nearly bled out in seconds. Then we climbed up a lot. A lot. I had no memory of all this non-descending from our climb up that morning, but it was disconcerting. Then the blissful if long switchbacks led us back to the swollen stream we had crossed that morning (I may have forgotten to mention that, but it was way less of a thing then we had feared during trip “planning”) and, at long last, back to the campground.
I felt pretty good. It was weird.
It didn’t last. After some noodles and beer, and I was nearly comatose. I settled into my tent for a night of mosquito wack-a-mole (wack-a-squito?) but not a lot of sleep. Outside, I could hear the balance of Team Marmot McFarty Bigotstumble laughing the night away with Michelle and Monica.
Oh, yeah, Michelle didn’t die. She spent the day hiking up Bishop Pass with our friend Monica after sleeping in that morning and was all kinds of perky and loquacious on our drive back to San Diego on Sunday.