The Loma Prietan - November/December 2012

Outing Report

Palisade Rambles

by Jim Ramaker

The Sierra Club group atop Mt. Sill (14,160) Photo: Kathy Rich
The Sierra Club group atop Mt. Sill (14,160) Photo: Kathy Rich

A nine-person team from our Chapter and the Angeles Chapter ventured into the Palisades region of the Sierras on an August mountaineering trip, bagging Mts. Sill, Gayley, Polemonium, and Temple Crag in one long weekend. A successful and smooth trip, other than a few route-finding glitches that required some backtracking and some bushwhacking.

A late-August trip to the central Palisades with four peaks on the agenda drew nine participants from both the Chapter’s Peak Climbing Section and the Angeles Chapter’s Sierra Peaks Section, with each person free to focus only on those peaks they "needed." Participants included Lisa Barboza (trip leader), Daryn Dodge, Greg Gerlach, Sandra Hao, Corrine Livingston, Kathy Rich, Shane Smith, Bob Wyka, and me.

We met Friday morning at the Glacier Lodge trailhead for the short hike up to Willow Lake, followed by a rugged cross-country battle up the creek that runs due west.  We were aiming for Lake 12,250 southeast of Mt. Gayley, but found a wonderful camp short of there, about halfway from Lake 11,786 towards Lake 12,250.  The camp had a split-level meadow, with a sandy upper meadow for camping and a lush lower meadow with a creek for water. Late-afternoon happy hour was impressive, featuring assorted brie, cheddar, and goat cheeses; fresh heirloom tomatoes from Lisa's garden; mozzarella with fresh basil leaves; assorted French crackers; and of course a choice of wines.

On Saturday we were up at 5 am and rolling at 6, heading southwest up the talus and moraine basin toward Mt. Sill (14,160).  A broken cliff rings this basin about halfway up, and we climbed it via a rubble-filled class-3 slot that was quite unpleasant for a group of nine, especially at 7 am before our second cappuccino had kicked in. Above that the scenery is amazing, as the Palisade giants of Norman Clyde, Palisades Crest, Jepson, Sill, Gayley, and Temple Crag stretch from left to right in a vast semicircle.

Our route up Sill was the L-Shaped Glacier (LSG), which we hoped to climb via class-2 boulders on its right, avoiding the downsloping class-3 slabs on the left.

But getting to the class-2 rocks required crossing the lower arm of the L, and after much pre-trip discussion about conditions in this very low snow year, we had decided not to bring ice axes and crampons.  Lisa and I clawed our way about halfway across the icy lower arm of the glacier using ski pole tips (her) and a sharp rock (me), then realized that the entire group probably wouldn't be into this and so gave up and went over to the left-side route.  Some care and route-finding was required here, as a fall would send you sliding down the slabs and onto the glacier, though I wouldn't call it difficult or unsafe. By the way, the LSG is a mere shadow of its former self, with the upper arm of the L now just a few feet wide (you can step across it at one point).  A few more years of global warming and the upper arm may disappear entirely, leaving only the shrinking base of the L.

Above the LSG, we found the class-4 section up to the saddle with Apex Peak to be overrated—the "Variation" shown in Bob Burd's at <a href=>photo</a> is all class 3, while the lower "Normal Route" has a couple of class 4 moves near the end. After reaching the saddle, we climbed up and left on solid class-3 boulders to the summit, where we arrived at 10 am.  The mysterious scorched-earth campaign against Sierra summit registers has now reached Mt. Sill -- not only were all of the register booklets gone, but so was the classic Sierra Club aluminum box with "1935" stamped on it (see Bob's <a href=> photo</a> of it taken in 2000.)

Back down at the Apex saddle, the Polemonium team—Daryn, Greg, Sandra, Kathy, and Shane—split off, while Bob, Corrine, Lisa, and I descended the LSG and headed for the nearby "Yellow Brick Road" route on Mt. Gayley (13,510).  On the way down, we chatted with a group of five young weight-lifter types storming upwards in tank tops; you meet all kinds of nice people in the mountains.  Bob didn't "need" Gayley, so he napped on the slabs at Glacier Notch, while Corrine, Lisa, and I headed up.  We stayed well to the right of the ridge until we were about 3/4 of the way up, then eased onto the ridge crest to finish up—a very short and pleasant climb on solid class-3 rock. 

At the summit we had one of those Sierra mountaineering moments—we could clearly see our five friends a mile away on the summit of Polemonium (14,080), while the muscle-man team waved to us from the summit of Sill.  We could also see climbers on the U-Notch and a solo climber ascending the Palisade Glacier.

After a long rest on the summit, Lisa, Corrine, and I started down about 1:30.  We made a rookie mistake on the way down, staying on the ridge crest because it had nice rock, but failing to lose any significant elevation.  We soon got cliffed out and had to re-climb about 100', drop down to the left (looking down), and get back on the correct route.

After picking up Bob, we still had lots of time, so we slowly meandered our way back to camp, enjoying the scenery, then washed up and took naps.

Kathy returned around 6 pm, and the remainder of the Polemonium team wandered in about an hour later, with Daryn having climbed Gayley on the way back to make it a three-peak day for him.

On Sunday, Lisa, Sandra, Bob, and I needed Temple Crag (12,976), and we again got up at 5 and got moving by 6, while the others slept in. The east-facing gully mentioned in Secor does not seem to exist, so we took Daryn's advice and climbed an obvious short gully with a chockstone near the southeast base of the peak.

From the top of this gully, we crossed a second gully, then crossed a class-3 rib into a third gully, where there was a cliff just below us.  We climbed up this gully for 100' of class 3 until it steepened; then we crossed yet another rib, and finally arrived on the broad low-angle scree slope on the upper east side of Temple Crag.  We walked up this slope to the apparent high point, which is marked by a dark boulder with a vertical white stripe.  At this point, we suddenly encountered some really big air, with the summit about 40' away along a narrow and very exposed ridge.  Halfway across, I looked down, and 100' down the ridge seemed to be no more than 10' wide, and dropping away into oblivion after that. While the holds are very good on this section, I would not call it class 3—if you slip or if a hold breaks off, you're done for.

We topped out at 8 am, called down to our friends in camp, and then reversed our route.  Hiking out to Willow Lake, we decided to stay on the south side of the creek as much as possible, which turned out to be a mistake. At times we found good use-trails, but they always ended quickly and gave way to nasty brush, often combined with big boulders or steep slopes or both. I think the deal here is just to stay on the large talus blocks on the north side of the creek. Strenuous, but at least you can see where you're going, plan a route, and for the most part avoid the dreaded brush. At 2 pm we finally regained the South Fork trail, and by 3 we were at the cars.

Jim Ramaker has been a Sierra Club member for over 30 years and has been climbing with the Chapter’s Peak Climbing Section for about 20 years.