U Notch Attempt Becomes Sil & Gayley Via Glacier Notch

  • Updated: July 01, 2013
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

June 28th & 30th, 2013
Mount Sill (14,153')
Mount Gayley (13,510')

The Palisades are a collection of rugged peaks are somewhat of the crown jewels of the Sierra Nevada.  In addition to the emblem peak of North Palisade there are a number of other peaks all of which are challenging by their easiest route.

This weekend we were aiming for something particularly interesting hoping to get North Palisade vie the U Notch.  This entails a snow climb amid rockfall followed by a 5.6 rock climb up top and 6 rappels on descent.  We'd originally planned the weekend assuming an average snow year only to end up with the second low snow year in a row.  As a result of this and a warm weather trend we knew we were likely a bit late.

This trip was being linked with the big 4th of July Shepherds Pass peakbag the following weekend so the initial fly back to OC, grab all my gear, and run like hell for the Sierra was going to be a little more chaotic.

While I'd been out a lot so far this year this was by far the heaviest pack with a full sized rope, crampons, ice axe, and helmet added on to the usual backpacking gear.

Jack and I drove up Thursday night as usual and stayed at the Glacier Lodge campground.  Big Pine is one of a few trailheads where I usually stay in the campground instead of bivying since the ground spots are somewhat limited at the overnight lot.  (Not to mention I once accidentally loosed a scorpion up there that had crawled into my boot in AH and stung me)

We woke up and headed over to meet Neal and Dave who had driven up earlier the previous day.  It was already hot when we got started at 8 am.

Shouldering our unpleasantly hefty packs we took off up the trail.

The north fork of Big Pine trail is a rather pleasant climb and I've been there several times before.  We moved at a good pace and after taking a brief break at the Lon Chaney cabin we continued on and made Sam Mack up at 11k a little after 3 pm.

I'd been to Sam Mack twice before but always camped there while climbing Mount Winchell and Robinson.  It's a pleasant little meadow, fairly high, and has a number of established camps.  It also tends to be a bit on the popular side.

Since we were doing something a little more aggressive we wanted to camp as close as possible and took the trail up for the higher camps.

It goes up the ridge above the meadow and you can find a few campsites up there though the water sources are limited.

We exited the trail around 11,560' and headed up a ridge.  It was easy going for a bit until it dumped us out in the moraine.

From here the going wasn't pleasant to say the least.  Loose rocks and dirt + heavy packs.  Next time I'm up there I plan to stick on the more solid rock ridge.

The weather was also starting to look increasingly threatening and we were all quite happy to quickly throw up our tents when we arrived at Fischer Camp.

Fischer Camp is one of two main sites I know for setting up below the Palisades the other being the lower Gayley Camp.  Fischer is located on a rock outcropping and had a number of flat spots semi protected from the wind.  When we followed the ridge up to the U Notch the following morning we found a few more bivy spots higher up but they were a bit on the rough side.

Water was our main concern.  Outside of a glacier melt lake a ways below we could hear water but wern't finding a whole lot.  Finally Dave found a small amount of water running through some shallow rocks below camp.

We set up our tents (or bivy in my case) and Jack and I ran down to the water to filter.  (I don't usually filter but this was stagnant with a fair amount of slightly less than appetizing looking floaters so I made an exception)

The rain started just about then and quickly proceeded to sleet / hail with thunder and lightning boiling over the crest directly for us.  We hurried.

Back at our camp I frantically shoved gear into trashbags and dove into my bivy.

It was a rather enthusiastic thunderstorm.  But I was also hungry.  As soon as I could manage without letting a deluge of rain into my bivy I started cooking.

Things taste better at 12,400'.  The storm blew itself out after an hour or two as these things tend to do in the Sierra.  Everyone was tired and we had a pre dawn wakeup so we had an early night.

Saturday - Rockfall, Abort, and Two Contingency Peaks

We woke up Saturday morning at 4 am and were packed and moving by 5.  We didn't have a real long approach just heading up the ridge we were already on and jumping on the snow.

I'd been concerned about the snow quality after the last several weeks of post holing and slush but we actually had good crampon snow.  Spikes on we headed up the U Notch.

Slopes tend to look unclimbable from a distance and then easy once your closer.  Our biggest concern besides general snow conditions was we'd heard the bergstrom was wide open requiring a rock climb to make it into the chute.

As it turns out that beta was incorrect and there was a snow bridge on the right hand side giving easy access to the chute.

However, the quickly melting snow and high temperatures the last week had caused another problem.  Before we even made a snow bridge and barely after dawn we started having significant rock fall.  I called out one that was headed straight for Neal and I.  We managed to dodge it but the thought of coming down hours later made us reconsider our plan.

After some pained discussion we reluctantly decided we'd missed our window by about a week and switched to plan B.

We'd watched another group camped over at Gayley Camp approach the V Notch.  The bergstrom there looked significantly worse and we saw them bail off and head the same direction we'd been planning if things were undoable.  Glacier Notch.

Glacier Notch gets you up on the ridge between Sil, another significant 14'er, and Gayley which is a fun 3rd class peak.

I didn't think Glacier Notch was that bad.  We walked up the snow with crampons, did the rocks without, then put on the crampons again for the L shaped snow field up top.

The snow past glacier notch started off nice enough but turned to slush about 2/3 of the way up forcing us over to some unpleasantly loose rocks.

We ran into the two climbers we'd seen bail off the V Notch sitting up at the saddle.  One was from Oregon and the other was from San Diego.  They decided to tail us up the next section since they didn't have route beta with them.

We dropped one of the ropes and most of the snow / climbing gear here and continued up.

Credit to Neal Robbins for identifying the route
The next bit was the crux of the route.

Basically your going to be doing some exposed moves no matter what way you go.  About half the way up we ran into a move that required you to boost up on a downward sloping boulder and decided to go left.  This turned out not to be the best decision as we quickly got into some fun but extended 4th class bits.  We yelled down to the two guys behind us (who were waiting below smoking cigarettes) and they went right and kept things much more reasonable.

We found an exit and cut right to meet the 3rd class route.  From here it was an easy scramble to the top.

U Notch to Mount Sil Traverse!  Well, kinda...
We hit the summit with clear skies and awesome views.  We all signed in to the register and Jack took a brief moment of meditation on the rocks below.

After the afternoon storm the day before we didn't dally too long up top and soon headed down.  Polomonium was visible just down the ridge and looked like an easy jaunt across but I wasn't getting much interest.

Dropping back down towards the cruxy bit we decided that A) we weren't wild at the thought of down climbing the route we'd taken up and B) since I'd carried the damn rope all the way up we might as well do a rappel.

The full length rope was a waste (remember we'd been planning on the U Notch which is why we had it)  We probably could have managed with my 30m rope or even just down climbed with a bit of exposure.

Once everyone was down we went over to the nearby saddle and did the quick scramble over to Apex Peak.  It's an insignificant bump off to the side but gives a damn nice view.

Going down the L shaped snow field was suitably unpleasant.  I ran down the loose rocks to the side while the others did a very loose wet glissade (I didn't feet like getting a prostate massage from one of the rocks sticking through)

Back at Glacier Notch we again dropped the climbing gear and took off at a fast clip towards Gayley.

The route we took up is known as the Yellow Brick Road.  It's 3rd class and not real challenging but a fun scramble.  We could see clouds building up again behind the Palisades and so made our best speed.

The route up took longer than it appeared it might from Sil.  We topped out, caught our breath, signed the register (an old California Alpine Club box), and headed down.

Sure enough the clouds were getting darker and we could hear thunder coming from behind Sil.  We still had the loose decent down Glacier Notch to deal with and wanted down that before the weather broke.

Surprisingly the weather held other than thunder in the distance and the occasional spray of rain being blown in by the wind over a distance.

We made it back to camp and went about getting water half expecting another repeat of yesterdays storms.  Instead the storm was centered over the drainage to the south giving us a show but not hitting us.

Sunday - And Out.  Or Not

The group plan for day 3 had been to just hike out and drive home at a decent hour.  Except since I was going in for a 5 day two days later for once I wasn't really in a hurry.

I accompanied the others back down as far as the trail junction below Sam Mack and then said goodbye.

I wanted to camp under Contact Pass and made the mistake of shortcutting over between 2nd and 3rd lake.  There's a reason they build the trail with the bridges below 2nd.

I'd woken up feeling good and ready to climb but after some sketchy stream crossing and yet more boulder hopping with a heavy pack my knees were screaming.  Still, I set up camp and headed up Contact Pass.

Contact has a trail, I'd been able to see it from Sam Mack.  It's just not much of a trail.  The bottom half of the pass is a sandy mess and the increasingly vauge trail eventually dumps you off on...wait for it...more loose boulders.

I was 1800 ft below Temple, based on the weather the previous days I only had a few hours before I'd be dealing with potential lightning, and the route was sucking.

I bailed, enjoyed the view down the canyon, and headed back to camp.

This did give me the opportunity to do something I'd missed out on so for this year, lake swim!  And since I'd been sweating in the same set of clothes for the last 3 days it was a walcome opportunity to do laundry.

The weather never materialized which left me kicking myself for not pushing on.

I woke up at dawn the next day and headed out.  As I mentioned before the trail that runs below Second Lake is ridiculously nice with bridges across every stream crossing.  Live and learn.

I hauled out without a break and make straight for real food.  Country Kitchen in Big Pine wasn't quite up to the standards of the lauded Alabama Hills Cafe but it hit the spot.

And then, off tow Rovana for two days and then the Sheperd Pass 5 day!

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