Thursday, September 11, 2008

managing alpine expectations

I probably shouldn't complain when I say that I had to downscale my E Sierra summer climbing plans. It has been my most productive alpine season to date (26 peaks), pretty good considering I lost a month of climbing to some intestinal bug and I have been splitting time in L.A. Having a boyfriend (yet alone one four hours away) wasn't exactly in my original schedule.

Labor Day weekend rolled around and we decided to
do something a bit more ambitious. Jascha expressed interest in doing the Palisades Traverse from Thunderbolt to Sill, which I had done the previous summer. I was game, although I was hoping to solo the route this time. Last year we had roped up for the summit block and rapped a few sections. The only section I wasn't sure we could solo was an exposed notch with an overhanging boulder between Starlight and N Palisade. Rapping this notch requires a pendulum across the gap. I had received some potential beta on summitpost for this section, but hadn't heard from anyone who had actually soloed it. We decided to carry a 30m rope and slings just in case we got stuck. Our plan was to return via Potluck Pass as suggested by someone on summitpost. Most people do the traverse from the Glacier Lodge trailhead or with a car shuttle between S Lake and Glacier Lodge.

We headed out from the S Lake trailhead at the ungodly time of 4:20a. It was cold, cold enough for Jascha to notice, but I had wisely packed a hat and down jacket. The trek up Bishop Pass and over to the base of the SW Chute #1 of Thunderbolt went quickly, but I was dragging up the sloggy chute. I hoped that this was not indicative of how the rest of the day would go. As we approached the Thunderbolt summit we saw a party of three heading over to Starlight.

Our first major obstacle was the slabby T-bolt summit block. We put on our climbing shoes and Jascha let me go first. I had forgotten about the absence of holds on the top of the summit block and I paused for a moment before pulling over. I had Jascha spot me for the downclimb. If I fell at least I'd bounce off the blocks below first. Jascha found a step across method for surmounting the block, then made the downclimb look easy. We never found the register.

We picked up the pace on the traverse to Starlight and soon caught up with the party of three. They were roping up for a lot of the traverses and downclimbs. On the Starlight summit we met a guy from San Francisco, who was also attempting to do the traverse, but with a rope. He said that he was going slow and was doubtful that he would make it all the way to Sill. I told him to keep going because the traverse is shorter than it looks. Jascha and I took turns heading up the Starlight summit block. The summit register was present, but there was no pen. Foiled again.

We were on to N Palisade and the notch. The downclimbing was fairly straightforward and we
passed up the SF guy. At the notch I headed down the E side as recommended to me on summitpost. The rock was a tad bit loose but I was soon in the notch below the overhanging boulder. Jascha didn't like the prospect of exposed loose rock and found a different way down. Our options were a short committing lieback and a somewhat awkward ramp and step-across to a ledge. We chose the latter. From here it was a short jaunt to the N Pal summit.

Last year we had rapped the N Pal chimney and I recalled it looking more challenging than its 5.2 rating. When we got the top of the chimney it didn't look any easier than I had remembered. There was an alternate rap station, but I knew the route started at the top of the U-notch and it didn't look right. As we headed down the chimney we found some loose rock, but also hand and footholds when needed. Soon we were down and standing at the top of the U-notch.

I remembered the route up Polemonium, providing the last major exposure (and one of the best photo ops) on the traverse. From the summit of Polemonium we could see the final talus slog up Sill. We were doing well on time. I had wanted to get to the summit of Sill in 12 hours from the trailhead and we were still on track. Along the ridge to Sill we found a skeleton, which we later learned belonged to a deer. The trek up Sill turned out not to be as daunting as it looked and we made the summit in just under 12 hours. I knew from experience, however, that we had a long trek out. I estimated 4-6 hours to get back. Last year it took us 19 hours, 1.5 hours of which were taken up by Miguel sitting around and socializing. Little did I know just how off my estimates would be.

From the summit we scoped our our descent options. We chose one that had a series of
ramps, much more appealing than the other scree-laden chutes. Our plan was to stay fairly high and contour around the base of Polemonium toward Bishop Pass. As we dropped down we saw a series of lakes (which we wrongly decided was Palisade Basin). We passed the first two lakes and I realized we had missed Potluck Pass and we were in the wrong basin. No matter, we'd only wasted an hour or so.

As we headed up the pass Jascha was starting to slow down. I figured it was low blood sugar so I told him to eat. Knowing that we had a lot of talus ridges to navigate I wanted to get as far as we could while it was still light. The light started dwindling and the going was slow with the talus and numerous ridges. I realize in retrospect that it might have been easier to drop down to flatter ground, but at the time I wanted to stay close to the ridge given that we were trying to navigate exclusively by headlight and the outline of the peaks against the dark starry sky.

Jascha started cramping so I gave him my hydration bladder and tried to get him to keep eating. He apologized and I said no worries. I told him that I got my CO climbing partner to the finish line of Leadville 100 with completely trashed quads starting at mile 60 and assured him we'd get back to the car that night. I am still entertained when I picture Erick hanging onto trees and moaning with every step over the rooted trail. Sorry, Erick. To his credit Erick had done the MTB race the weekend prior and I DNF'd Angeles Crest 100 at mile 53 a month later. I admit that a good portion of my motivation was because I didn't want my housemate to call SAR and have us end up in Accidents in N American Mountaineering. I started getting worried when Jascha was having problems maintaining his body temperature so I tried to minimize our breaks. I had a space blanket, but didn't want us to have to bivy. Finally we crossed Thunderbolt Pass. I kept looking for the slabs below Winchell that triggered easier ground. When I knew we were below Agassiz I checked the topo and took us down a few hundred feet to flatter ground. I knew it would be hard to miss Bishop Pass even in the dark. I could see the outline of Aperature against the stars. We diagonaled NW looking for the short cliffs that border the Bishop Pass trail near the pass.

After what seemed like hours we hit the trail. We took a quick break under the shelter of a rock. I was starting to drag a bit and needed some food. Then we started the
death march back to the car. Jascha let me set a brisk pace and didn't slow or ask for a break the whole way back. In the end it took us almost 10 hours to get back to the car from the summit of Sill. We were looking forward to a shower and my pseudo Zachary's pizza, but came home to find additional house guests sleeping in the room next to the kitchen. I was unwilling to go to bed without refueling so we settled on our only option, Denny's. This week I ordered Jascha a down jacket for his birthday. Don't tell.