North Palisade (14,242 ft) via U-Notch (~5.6)
June 2-3, 2017
Eric and Matthew
I flew down to San Jose Thursday night, and we were soon driving off into the mountains. After a quick dinner stop at Subway we reached the Eldorado National Forest around 11pm and found an excellent spot to camp at 5,000ft.
The next morning at 5:30am we drove up through an 8,000ft pass and saw spectacular snowy mountain scenery. Unfortunately the Tioga Pass road is still not open, so we had to drive farther north to get across the Sierras, adding at least an hour.
We dropped down to the eastern Sierra, and drove south to Bishop to pick up our permit. We were lucky enough to reserve a permit online in advance for the North Fork Big Pine area. Somehow now all the reservable permits for the whole summer for that area are already taken!
With permit in hand, we drove to the end of the road and parked at the Glacier Lodge trailhead. According to the rangers, this trail was one of the few in the area that was melted out of snow, since it faced south. We packed up and started hiking up the dusty trail by noon.
The snow started around 9,000ft, shortly after we passed a ranger cabin. It was interesting how the trail would either be completely dry, or covered in several feet of snow. Soon we reached first lake, and the trail was continuous snow. We were treated to excellent views of Temple Crag and the surrounding mountains. I’d done a trail crew hitch in this area back in 2005, and remembered building a few bridges and waterbars. Unfortunately they were all covered in snow, so I couldn’t check out how my work had been holding up.
We ascended a snowy ridge past Sam Mack Meadows and camped on a rare bare spot around 11,500ft with views of the top half of North Palisade in the distance.
The next morning we left camp shortly after dawn and hiked on firm snow up to the base of the U-notch, our planned ascent route. The U-notch route has a few pitches of mid 5th class climbing and isn’t the easiest route to the summit, but it is the closest approach, and had a trailhead that was plowed. There’s another 4th class route up the back side of North Palisade, but it has a much longer approach and the road was still not open.
The U-notch becomes a WI2 ice climb in late season, but luckily for us it was a pure snow-climb up moderately steep slopes. We took out the ice axes and I kicked steps up as Matthew followed.
We soon reached the notch, and got a good look at the rock climb ahead. I lead up the first pitch, a fun lower 5th class chimney-crack system to a good belay ledge. I was testing out a new pair of mountaineering boots, and they worked well for climbing. The next pitch was a little steeper, and I ran out of gear just below the ridge. In hindsight, I had enough gear to get to the top, but stopped to belay Matthew on a good ledge.
I then climbed the next 15ft to the ridge and belayed Matthew to a big snowy ledge. From here we simulclimbed on snow down the south side, across an easy bowl, and up some 3rd/4th class rock to near the summit. I built another anchor and Matthew belayed me up the last exposed bit to the summit block.
On the summit was a big snowy flat area, with the true top an exposed pointy block. We took turns belaying each other up the block for summit pictures.
The simulclimb down was a bit more exciting, and we soon made it to the upper rap anchor. It was pretty solid with 8 loops of webbing, and Matthew led the way down with me following. We soon reached the notch, and put the rope away. By now the snow was nice and slushy, and we easily plunge-stepped down the gully and back to camp, arriving at 3pm.
We quickly packed up and hiked back down to the car, passing a handful of groups who were camping out at the lakes. It looked like we were the only ones climbing that weekend. We had enough time to drive through Mammoth Lakes to check out our old trail crew apartments, then headed north to a good campsite at Obsidian Dome.
Sunday we drove all the way back to San Jose and I caught my flight back to Seattle, while Matthew packed up for his flight to Europe the next morning.