Fresno County High Point Trip Report

North Palisade

Date: September 19, 1999
Author: Edward Earl

Last weekend I attempted to climb to the summit of North Palisade, the highest point in Fresno county CA and of Kings Canyon National Park. North Palisade, the highest point on a heavily pinnacled section of the crest of the Sierra Nevada near Bishop, is the most difficult county HP in CA and requires rock climbing equipment, skills, and experience. The party consisted of myself, Thomas (a climbing buddy from a previous job), and John (a climbing companion of Thomas). We met at John's house on Thursday 9/16 in Escondido to make the drive to Bishop, where we filled out a self-service backcountry permit (the quota period had expired) and continued to a campground at 8100'.

Friday dawned crisp and clear, and we made the short drive to the South Lake trailhead, where we sorted backcountry equipment and climbing gear. We were on the trail by 8:30 AM. The trail continued up a very scenic alpine lake basin before topping out at Bishop Pass, which we reached at 1 PM. During this time cumulus clouds began building, and by the time we reached the pass it was mostly cloudy; in fact I never needed sunscreen. We continued on a cross-country traverse across the top of Dusy Basin on increasingly rough terrain. Part way along this stretch, Thomas, whose back had been bothering him, announced that he doubted he would be able to make it. So he and another fellow whom we had met along the way turned down into Dusy Basin while John and I continued alone to Thunderbolt Pass and finally descended 400 feet into Palisade Basin where we made camp by a series of very small lakes at 11,950 feet. The weather was now totally cloudy with occasional rain and thunder, and the mountain was obscured. I wondered if the weather would permit us to make the summit climb the next day.

The night was a series of on-again-off-again spells of weather, with the first-quarter moon illuminating the tent at some times and precipitation and lightning at other times. But the precipitation picked up toward the end of the night, and by daybreak, the mountain was totally obscured, and intermittent lightning, snow, and graupel (a form of precipitation which is transitional between hail and snow and is often found in alpine thunderstorms) laid to rest any possibility of a safe summit. The possibility of lightning on the crest of the mountain and snow accumulation on the route (which would make for very dicey rock climbing) were unacceptable risks.

We packed up our camp and decided to use our unexpected free time to explore an alternate route suggested by Gary Suttle in his book, "California County Summits". Rather than returning through Thunderbolt Pass, we continued down and traversed above Upper Barrett Lake and another unnamed lake until making a climb through Knapsack Pass. Though very scenic, this route is quite arduous because of the many ledges and dropoffs with occasional dead ends. Gary Suttle says it's class 1, but I found it to be mostly class 2. Unless there's some secret, it's definitely not the more expeditious route.

After Knapsack Pass we descended toward a long, straight valley with a succession of perhaps ten lakes. A short climb from the northeast side of the valley brought us back into Dusy Basin, where we found Thomas relaxing by one of the lakes. We decided to set up camp by another lake near the trail back to Bishop Pass. There was plenty of time lounge around and enjoy the marvelous alpine scenery. The lake was very convoluted with lots of islands, peninsulas, rock outcroppings, and sidepools, which made it fun to explore.

The final day we returned to South Lake via Bishop Pass. The views down the lake basin we had originally come up provided additional photo-opportunities not seen on the way up.