Here’s a fun story I put on Supertopo I wrote about climbing Middle Palisades East Face, an easy scramble. The ‘unroped’ part is an inside joke referring to a series of hilarious, hubris-driven trip reports written recently.
It all started when I was born. Much later I went to climb Middle Palisade.
I spent the previous evening in Bishop, out in the Buttermilks. I love desert camping in summer, if the temperatures are reasonable. The sky is just a bit prettier, and I had a chance to try my new pastels. I had thought about learning to draw, or paint, or sketch or whatever. Sitting in my camp chair with thirteen dollars worth of art supllies, trying to figure out how the f*#k to draw a bush… not really what I had in mind. I think I understood why so many people just smear things around and infer objects, because pastels have the feeling of drawing with crayons while drunk.
I completely slept through my alarm. That’s the problem of having a habit of not only using your phone as a morning wake-up but also a stereo to lull you to sleep. Somewhere in the middle of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack my battery died, thus leaving any quick morning plans up to local birds (and how annoying they are). Unfortunately for me, the CHIRP-CHIRP-CHIRP didn’t arrive ’til almost dawn.
Well, who needs an early start? This was a speed(ish) ascent!
You see, I’ve been a runner long before I’ve been a climber, and though I dedicate myself to climbing much like the sky is dedicated to being blue I can’t help but know I have this other thing that I do. This other sport that is kinda sorta nothing like the other but I have to keep doing it, or I won’t be able to do it well and get frustrated. It’s a weird relationship – just like climbing, there are ups and downs with running big trails. The middle chunk is always so fun – the crux pitch, the smooth and flat meadow you hit at 10k…. but it’s the parts on either end that you kinda sorta push out of your memory.
There’s a great bit Mitch Hedberg used to do about eating an apple and being left the core to deal with. Well, whatever, I learned to just deal. Whether it was High School cross country practice or hauling a heavy pig up some grainy slab that somehow constitutes as a trail, we have to pay a price somewhere to find our little perches.
Climbing is f*#king hard. Go to any major sport climbing crag and throw a rock and you’ll find someone that can out-climb me. Same with running, as I am still a long ways away from my high school mile time. Of course, 5 days a week of training pulling muscles isn’t the most conducive to a good foot turnover, but I digress. I am not that great at either sport for a guy who does little else.
Lucky for me, the venn-diagram of runner-c#m-climber is just a thin little slice. Put the two together and I can do some pretty cool stuff. As someone who was fairly recently 200+lbs, it’s hard to describe how awesome it is to prance along a slabby buttress in the evening light. Even more so when, only a handful of years ago, that same buttress was an all-day epic ending in headlamps and promises to never return. Regardless of what I’m sorta built for, I think because I just enjoy the hell out of moving fast through easy terrain. It just doesn’t get any better sometimes (well, home baked cookies…).
So anyway, back to the mountain of many souls, or whatever.
A few days before I had climbed the West Ridge of Conness with mama. We backpacked in to young lakes before climbing the 12,000+ foot peak, so combined with a week camping in Tuolumne I figured my acclimitization to be pretty good. It’s hard to look at a topo and try to get a scale for how fast you should, or could, move through the terrain. Some gnarly drainages might contain beautiful and gradual switchbacks, and just as likely a flat field could in turn become a swamp.
The best bet to plan your day is always to go by elevation gain, not mileage. ESPECIALLY on the East side of the sierra, where a few puny miles can get you on top of fourteen thousand foot ridgelines. So let’s see, 6k feet elevation gain,
7+miles out, ummm…. shitload of energy bars and aqua mura drops.
The snowball effect exists in big walls, but in big runs too. Go a bit faster, finish a bit sooner, take a lighter shell and less food. That last part I rarely skimp on, as being caught way out calorie deprived feels demonstrably shittier than carrying an extra thousand calories. Let’s not forget, too, I used to be a fatty. Any excuse to pack on the snickers is fine by me!
Quick and sweaty selfie!
I hit the trail head at a less-than-ideal 5:45AM. The nice thing about my start time was watching the sunrise light up the sage and wildflowers low on the approach was pretty stellar. Days are so long, especially in summer, but you just can’t beat the beauty of that early morning sunrise. I had a Patagonia Piton Hybrid Pullover on over a Mountain Hardwear Elmoro shirt, which was a layering system I liked using in situations where I might not want to stop to pull off layers. That’s one thing I always notice about moving fast, it has to do more with efficiency sometimes than that extra mile in training. Putting on sunscreen while hiking uphill and changing music while you pee… THAT’S the way!
The first few miles of the South Fork of Middle Palisade are gentle bumps along a creek amid that high desert chaparral that covers the entryways into the Eastern high sierra, some of my favorite terrain to run in. You can tell because of how many wonderful pictures I took (hint – there are none from this section).
As the trail flattened, I could kick hard and move fast, and in the slight uphills I would alternate fast hiking with a bit of jogging. I had pegged my day as possibly up to 11 hours total, based on the mileage and gain, so knew I had to chill out a bit and go easy because I had a long day ahead of me. Of course I didn’t listen to my brain, but my brain isn’t so smart sometimes anyway. What does he know?
The trail is absolutely stunning up to Finger Lake, heading up improbable looking gullys and drainages and along gorgeous and flower carpeted creeks. In a bit less than 2 hours I arrived at Finger Lake, and the start of my decision that this ‘speed ascent’ was grossly miscalculated. I move pretty good through talus, and on a dare might even race some quick people. However it is a game of attrition. At some point I mentally check out and go autopilot, foot-foot-foot on blocks regardless of their stability or size. A bit of a bad habit, and a bit slower going, but I’d rather put on headphones and drone along sometimes then try to focus on a game of hyperactive hopscotch.
Unfortunately for me, this game of try-not-to-snap-an-ankle would be the overwhelming majority of my day. Passing the awesome fjord that finger lake is I started to pick through gullys and up along ridges. Avoiding snow was not a bad idea, though my Five Ten Guide Tennies were waxed to all hell. Mostly I wanted to avoid the looser scree and sticky rubber allowed me to climb fourth and low fifth whenever possible.
Eventually I popped up to the last water source as noted in Croft’s book. The views behind as I sat and waited for my aquamira droplets were stunning.
I was always a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, I remember being rather irked when people complained about the ending of the third one. If you didn’t know the story, the movie would keep tricking you into thinking it was over. Just as some friends were reunited or a lull was hit, the screen would go black and play softer music only to then re-open onto yet another scene wrapping up some loose end. This continued for probably 45 minutes in the film, until the fake LotR fans could finally see the credits at the end of the tunnel. THAT’s how the moraine before the snowfield felt to me. I didn’t know what was ahead, and every bump I would think “oh, is THIS where I get to stop sliding all over the f*#king place? Nope. Nope another 10 minutes. Ok NOW???? DAMMIT!” To those who didn’t fully enjoy the ending to the Middle Earth saga, I sympathized before but now I empathize.
The combination of the slog, my quick elevation gain and probable insufficient hydration smacked me in the face right about the time I started to get to the glacier at the toe of the NE chutes. I’ve been prone to AMS, even getting it in the Tuolumne meadows campground, so I’m used to dealing. What was a speed ascent, turned into an ascent, and now a hobbled ascent. Well, that ain’t half bad I guess, besides look how pretty!!!
A dude at Wilson’s Eastside told me about the start of the route, and to look for a left-to-right ramp above some steep rock. I found it easily enough, so big thanks! That section was, I’d heard, the crux. However like many high sierra routes, the most difficult moves you do that day and the crux are two different things. There was some loose rock and an eerily deep ‘schrund, but class 3 would be the highest I’d give it.
Moving right past cairns got me onto the East Face proper. It’s so improbable, that this huge gully is so featured and ledge-y. To add to the enjoyment, the better rock is off to the left along a spine in between the east face and the face above the glacier. Having a good sized headache and feeling a mite bit shitty I opted to take it easy and slow right on the ridge. To make it even more awesome-sauce there were little bouquets of Sky Pilot every 5 or so yards to come across nose-first.
That’s the thing about mountains. If you poop out on a long road run, you are stuck with oil smells and drivers clipping your elbow. Up here I could just become a rock climber, or a photographer, or a tourist and just enjoy the scenery!
The route flabbergasted me with it’s length. Yes, that’s my new favorite word. It kept going… and going… and going. By staying Left I’d avoided the looser stuff, but every now and again I’d end at a section a bit blanker, or steeper, than I’d like and have to weave around it. But before too long I found the other side of the sierra, and felt wayyyyy too shitty to take a picture of it. I plodded up to the summit blocks, and too lazy to hike around and look for the ‘easy way’ I just jammed my hands in the first crack I saw that led to the summit, then turned and sat in the little saddle seat on the block itself.
10:35AM, 4:50 after leaving the car. I was pretty happy about that, all told, though I felt that maybe pushing myself so quickly on the first ~3/4 bit me in the ass. There’s a weird ennui with summits I sometimes get, where you are so happy to be ‘done with the up’ and enjoying the vistas, but soon have to deal with some more bullshit – in this case descending thousands and thousands of feet through moraine, talus and blistering trail. Wee…
At some point I willed myself to leave the summit and downclimb. I spent a good 10 seconds looking for other options before deciding to head down the handcrack I came up on. Sometimes face-in, sometimes walking, I absoutely went the easiest way possible. Looking down onto the terrain instead of up at it, I think I might have scoped out a 2nd class option on the route. Go a few dozen feet, stop, dry heave, repeat….
“one more pitch to the summit!”
“after this rappel, we just downclimb the ridge!”
“the ridge is almost over, we just have talus back to the trail!”
“This talus is going to end soon right…”
I started to play that game, where the day gets slightly easier but you get demonstrably more crapped out. By the time I finished picking my way down talus and bullshit moraines, it was a foot-in-front-of-the-other shuffle affair. The symptons have turned into full-on nausua and headache. I was hung over next to awesome lakes. Really, not too bad.
It’s like, now I’m just hiking. I just have to hike. It’s so easy it’s stupid, but it f*#king sucks. The sun is blasting on me, I can’t keep down fluids and I’m shuffling down on switchbacks I’d just earlier ran up. Arg. Well that’s why we have those zen places to go to, to think about the best quiche ever or listen to some dance music and remember that one girl at the party the other day. Something. Something other than dusty walking.
Some time later, days eons who knows, I came back to the flat sage covered trail. Very little elevation loss left, and only a handful of miles. Tried to run, head said NOPE. So… more walking. Suddenly the symptoms dropped. After going from 14k to 8k, I was back in business – even hydrated. Alright, let’s do this! So, I ran and ran and ran… for about 7 minutes. Then I saw my car.
Well, at least I could drive home feeling decent.
So, I got my ass kicked. But it was fun. Weird.
Total time 10 hours on the dot. It took me 20 minutes longer to descend than to climb the peak. One of those days….
Relaxing by First Lake last June