Palisades Crest Tour

I had signed up for this awesome Palisades Crest tour which was scheduled for March but because of some issues we had to reschedule it to first week of May and since I couldn’t find anyone else to join me it was going to be a private 1 on 1 trip. It mean’t me shelling out some extra moolah but seasons like these don’t come often in the Sierras so I decided to make the most of it.

I spoke with Peter Leh who was going to be the guide and we decided to meet at SMG office in Bishop at 7.30 am and then drive over to the trailhead. When I got there, I didn’t know about the plan to do a car shuttle to Birch creek which would be our exit point and that took longer than expected. We didn’t get going until 11.30 which mean’t that chances of going over contact pass will be almost impossible but that was never our plan. We didn’t want to push ourselves too much on the first day so we were planning to go only half way up the south fork.

The snow levels were relatively low and after around 15 mins of hiking on the trail we were able to put on our skins and some tricky crossing of avy debris led us to the lake bed and further into the canyon. We found a good camp site on top of a small hill and pitched the hyperlite. We decided not to have an early start tomorrow and were planning to leave around whenever we woke up since the other side of contact pass needed to soften up. It was fine with me since I am lazy and love to sleep in though in hindsight we should have gotten up lot earlier.

We got up at first light, had breakfast, packed up and started heading towards contact pass, the initial part was steep and firm so we put on our ski crampons and I had some difficulty getting over it but it wasn’t that bad. After about an hour of skinning we got to a much steeper section and decided to boot up to contact pass. We were on top of the pass at around 11 am and Peter decided to film me as I skied down. He used coaches eye app on his iPad to record me and we went over the footage at the end of the trip. I need to work on my pole plant and opening up my legs during the turn initiation. My pole plant is almost a foot above snow and the legs form A with my knees instead of opening them up, minor details that need to be corrected over time and something for me to work on.

Skiing Contact Pass

The slope was steep around 45 degree but to my surprise, I skied better than expected. I wasn’t falling into the backseat or getting thrown off, I was pleasantly surprised. We took a brief break and now it was time to skin up to the Palisades glacier, it mean’t a gain of 2k in sweltering heat. I trudged along slowly following Peter and in about 3 hours we reached the top of Palisades glacier. I would have liked to camp on the glacier closer to the couloir we were planning to ski and possibly closer to the col but Peter decided that the end of west shoulder was a good place to camp and everything was only 10 mins away. I wasn’t super happy about it and just rolled with it. For some reason, I wasn’t really thrilled to eat Ramen again for dinner and didn’t really finish it which wasn’t a smart thing to do.

Palisade Glacier Couloirs filled with snow

We weren’t sure about the names of the couloirs but we came across a solo skier who gave us some beta and we knew the couloir right in front of us was calling our name. It looked really steep to me and I wasn’t sure about skiing it but I decided to roll with it. U notch seemed more attractive but the snow was supposedly firm plus it sees sun later in the day and we had to get going so waiting for it to soften up wasn’t an option. I was under the impression that we were going to spend another night at the same campsite but that wasn’t the case.

The previous night I didn’t sleep well due to cold and my sinuses were super clogged making it difficult to breathe through the nose, I was hoping that wasn’t going to be the case again. The wind picked up as the sun went down and the tent kept on flapping. My sinuses didn’t clear that much but I did manage to sleep better than previous night and was glad that it wasn’t going to be an early morning though I wouldn’t have mind it. I was glad that Peter decided to sleep outside again as I didn’t want to bother him and keep him awake with constant blowing of my nose trying to clear my sinuses, It was annoying and frustrating.

First light on the underhill couloir

With our day packs I figured it would be lot easier and that indeed was the case and we booted all the way to the top of Underhill couloir, found the name after the trip, in less than couple of hours. Peter insisted on short roping me even before the actual couloir climb started. His rationale was that if I felt uncomfortable on the steeper slopes it would be tricky getting me on rope in the steeps even though I knew that I would be totally fine without being roped in the couloir.

Once we got to the top as expected the top section was definitely steep, Peter used an app which gave the slope angle as 54 degrees, It was easily one of the sustained steep ski runs for me so we decided that it would make sense for me to be on belay while skiing, why not. I side stepped into the couloir and executed my first turn and went slightly up hill losing one of my poles in the process, luckily it didn’t go that far and I side slipped down to it. We had a short 6mm rope so I had to find a good spot and wait for Peter to rappel down to me. We skied another 2 pitches on belay and after that I was completely comfortable skiing without any ropes. The belay wasn’t really needed but we used it for peace of mind.

Our tracks in Underhill couloir

The snow had softened up quite a bit and skiing nicely but I managed to trigger a small point release in which I got caught but it was nothing to worry about and I was able to recover. We skied back to the camp and we had taken it apart so it didn’t take too long to pack it up and get going towards Gayley-Sill col. We had to climb the col and then ski all the way down to Lake Elinore which was going to be our camp for the day.

We got to the base of the col and for some reason Peter didn’t ask me to put on boot crampons, I was totally comfortable with following in his steps but it slowed us down a bit since Peter had to kick the steps really well for me to step into. We navigated some tricky rocks in middle of the col and were finally on top of the col after an hour or so. Again, I would have liked to camp little higher so that the climb next day over Scimitar pass would be easier/shorter but that wasn’t the case. We skied all the way back down almost to our camp for the first night and then about half an hour skin back up took us to Lake Elinore, it would have been nice to at least ski all the way to our camp but oh well.

I was pretty beat up physically and mentally little tired and was in two minds whether to continue or not, It was getting little frustrating with the camp site selection, decision making etc but I kept those thoughts to myself. I kept looking over at Scimitar pass and was like holy crap we have to go over that thing, the only reason I decided to continue was because I really wanted to go to the other side of the palisades. I figured, Let me take it one step at the time and roll with it, after all tomorrow was going to be a new day :).

Sunrise at Lake Elinore

Since the pass gets sun first thing in the morning, the snow softens up really quickly and it would get difficult booting up the pass so we decided that an alpine start made more sense and to save time we didn’t pitch tent. Peter dug a snow shelter for me under tree to spend the night and it worked out ok. My sinuses were starting to get less clogged so that helped and I did get a good nights rest.

Peter woke me up early in the morning and we got going when the first light hit and we booted up all the way to the first section from where we had to traverse over to the main slope under scimitar pass. We put on our skis and started skinning up and it was fairly easy going though slow but then as we got to the final steep section things changed dramatically. We decided to put on our boot crampons on and try to boot up the slope but the snow was really soft and we were post holing quite a bit. I got stuck where I sunk up to my thighs and couldn’t even move my leg, Peter had to dig me out. We put our skis back on but it mean’t executing lots of kick turns on a steep slope, few of my turns were really awesome but most of them I had to use my pole to bring the ski up and the fact that I was tired didn’t help either. Somehow I managed not to fall and get up the pass where it was windy and it felt good with the sun scorching us.

Under Scimitar pass

The other side was wind swept so we couldn’t ski right away and had to descend, It took me a few steps to get the muscle memory back on how to descend a slope with my crampons on and after that I was totally comfortable. It took a little bit of route finding to the lake below but it wasn’t too bad and the skiing was really good. Of course this lake wasn’t our camp site and we had to skin up and then ski back into the palisades lakes valley to establish camp for the day.

It took another hour and half to get to the col which led us to the palisade lakes, this ski run is supposed to be awesome in the right conditions but it had warmed up quite a lot. The rocks were really heating up and we had to be wary about wet slides. It took some time to find the right route to ski right in to the valley and on top of Palisades lakes. Once again my preference would have been to stay higher and traverse along instead of skiing into the valley and then skinning to our camp site. It could have saved us some skinning and possibly do a longer ski run.

Palisade lakes valley, south side of the Palisades Crest

We skinned over palisade lakes and continued along upper drainage of the lakes to find a good camp site with some rock to lay out our gear. Once again for an early start we decided not to pitch the tent and sleep out in the open. My sinuses were getting more clear and I was definitely sleeping well which was a good thing. It was a clear, windless day but there was a storm coming in next couple of days so we had to keep an eye out for that.

For the next day I was under the impression that we would go over the pass to the thumb and camp at Birch lake but after an hour or so of skinning the next day we decided to camp and then do some skiing around in the area. Disappointment Cleaver was an obvious choice and so we dumped all our extra gear and headed over to climb the Cleaver. Next day we would go over the pass to the thumb and ski all the way to our cars, I was totally fine with the plan since it mean’t not skinning too much today.

As we were heading over to Disappointment cleaver for some reason I totally crashed, I completely boinked and didn’t have any gas left in my tank and was really hungry. I had to ask Peter to take a long break and get some calories in me, I must have consumed at least 1000 calories in less than half hour, I didn’t feel super good but we trudged along slowly. I wanted to stop earlier but with some encouragement and push from Peter I managed to get to the saddle to enjoy some views of the other side of the crest.

The ski down was totally worth it and really awesome, for a moment we decided to go for a second run but I didn’t want to push it and I wasn’t really sure If I was feeling better, it felt weird. It was around 11 am and a nap and just chilling for the rest of the day sounded like a great idea so we headed back to our stuff which was laying on the rocks.

Our tracks on Disappointment cleaver

I ate some more and took a nap which felt great, the plan was to sleep outside on the rocks but the storm clouds started gathering and it drizzled a bit. We packed our stuff in a hurry and pitched the tent just in case there was a thunderstorm which never came but it was nice to sleep inside of the tent. It was the first time Peter slept inside the tent and I was glad that my sinuses had finally cleared up so that I didn’t have to blow my nose every 15-20 mins like I did on the first night.

Our lightweight shelter

Once again it was going to be an early start since we had to go over the pass and then do some 3rd class scrambling to get to the snow before our long descent out. We ended up on top of the pass little more to the right that it was required and it mean’t that we had to do lot more scrambling, even though time consuming it was actually fun and the rock was solid. After about half hour of scrambling we reached a section where we could setup a belay to get on the snow on the other side and ski under the thumb. It mean’t that we wouldn’t be as high as we could have been but oh well, I didn’t want to be lowered and would have been more comfortable down climbing in the soft snow which I ended up doing anyway. The traverse brought us about 400-500 ft below the thumb and the snow was in ideal conditions so I wanted to drop our packs and skin up. Peter figured it would easier to boot up so we started doing that but after 5 mins he thought it wouldn’t be worth it so we skied down all the way to Birch lake.

we had to scramble a bit to get over the pass to the Thumb

The snow had already softened up a lot and It felt that It was an opportunity lost to ski it in ideal conditions due the fact we didn’t pop over the crest at the right point and spent all that time traversing/scrambling. I didn’t want to think about it and wanted to get to the car to get it over with and once we were done skiing it took another hour or more hiking to get back to the car which didn’t help much but I got over it quickly.

Overall, It was definitely a good trip and I learned a lot from it. Next time in this area, I would like to do a shorter trip but spend more time in the Palisades Glacier skiing all the awesome couloirs in the area. Ideally ski over Contact pass, spend a day or two on the Glacier and then ski back out from the Gayley-Sill Col.

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