Climbing Middle Palisade Peak
Doing Middle Palisade is just that.
Doing. Not running.
If you’re looking for a great trail running experience, you might refer to our book or some of the other runs we suggest in our posts here.
If you’re after an adventurous day to summit one of California’s 14ers, with some big vert, decision making requirements, route finding, and scrambling with consequences, then read on.
Since I hadn’t done Middle Palisade since 2001, I had to do some investigation. The internet revealed the usual mess of results. One report said to take ropes and gear, another to do it expedition style, and still others arguing over which gulley to start in.
This is another addition to that mess. Let’s hope that the status of this site and experience of the contributors is enough to establish a more solid beta -at least for mid-October 2022. As always, conditions make a huge difference.
How to Climb Middle Palisade Peak
We set off up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek with our belly’s full of donuts from Hing’s in Bishop. I’d been craving a donut for months so when I spotted Hing’s open at 5:30 a.m., I hit the brakes. A Buttermilk Bar with an Old Fashioned chaser never tasted so good while speeding south to Big Pine. After inhaling the donuts, I nervously waited for the inevitable stomach ache. None came.
The mid-October air was cold as we ran the opening miles through sage. Once we’d gained some elevation after the initial set of switchbacks, our pace slowed to walking and we settled beside Brainerd Lake at just above 10,000 feet. There, the trail begins to dissolve into talus as you climb to the fjord-like Finger Lake. Thankfully, most of the talus is of the good variety all the way to Middle Palisade. (Good and mostly stable, as far as talus goes).
Above Finger Lake, the Palisade Crest finally comes into full view with Norman Clyde’s proud East Buttress and Middle Palisade’s sweeping Northeast Face high above. The route continues towards Norman Clyde, traversing a hillside towards the massive talus field below the Middle Palisade Glacier. Here, the critical rib of dry talus that splits the Middle Palisade Glacier and leads up to the Middle Palisade face is clearly evident a bit further south. Aim for that!
We took a high, traversing route that passed beneath the glacier and found a lane of clean rock that allowed for a quick dash beneath what’s left of the glacier.
After gaining the rib, we headed straight up, on trail, to the base of the wall. We never touched glacier.
Immediately at the base of the wall, it’s apparent that you are not at the start of the route. It’s too steep. We opted for the red band start, which is actually down about 100 feet to the right (north) and is an obvious steep gulley of chossy red rock. Alternatively, there is another access to the gulleys higher up and left, from the glacier. We did not bother with this as we didn’t want to deal with a possible bergschrund.
The red band gulley went for about 200 feet before reaching a wider gulley with more solid rock. This is your route to the top.
But first, we had a surprise. From below, the face appeared bone dry, but light snowfall the week before left the slabs we needed to climb covered in patches of slippery snow. Suddenly, our running shoes were wet and cold, and climbing required real focus.
The gulley requires a continual zigging and zagging to find the best line. A helmet is a very good idea, especially if you find yourself with other climbers in the gulley.
After about 1000 feet, you reach a notch with highpoints on either side. The summit is the left tower. We climbed out of the gulley to the base of this tower, crossed beneath it on the east side, then accessed the summit from the south side of the tower.
Summits typically involve snacks. Kim dug into her goods with great enthusiasm, but I just sat there, still burning donuts. Normally, for big days, I eat a lot. In fact, for Middle Palisade I’d packed an entire veggie burger, fig bars, Trail Butter and a sack of Tailwind Endurance Fuel. I hadn’t touched any of it, I’d just taken it all for a big walk.
Donuts. Not only was I still full, but also in a great mood all day. Additional research is required to determine if they truly are the perfect mountain food. Remember, you read it here first.
Descending the same line proved easier than we’d thought since going down allows you to see exactly which zig to take to avoid loose or snow-covered terrain. Nevertheless, it was slow crab walking. For non-climbers, this is surely not a relaxed outing.
Finally, off the wall, we resumed talus navigation back to Brainerd Lake anxious to step foot on trails. There, we finally switched back into being runners and enjoyed curvy trail running all the way to the car.
By Dan Patitucci
Middle Palisade Beta
- If you can comfortably climb exposed 3rd and 4th class, a rope is not needed and will only cause rockfall in the gulley. Know your skills.
- Helmets suggested. The gulley’s are big, featured slabs, criss crossed with ledges, and covered in smaller rocks.
- You should have Sierra climbing experience for this. Route finding is not always obvious and a bad decision can result in a very bad day.
- Car to car is not especially big by the numbers. It’s 7200 feet of gain in about 15 miles of distance. But, the terrain is slow and the gulleys require caution. Take a headlamp and be off the wall, better yet, off the talus, before dark.
- Consider a pre-dawn stop at Hing’s Donuts for fuel.
Trailhead : South Fork Big Pine Creek
|Distance: 15.5 miles||Vertical : 6920 feet||Difficulty : Difficult, Class 3|