Fresno County High Point Trip Report

North Palisade (14,254 ft)

Date: August 19, 2000
Author: Edward Earl

In a wonderful team effort, we reached the summit of the 14,254' North Palisade, which crowns an incredibly jagged, heavily pinnacled section of the crest of the High Sierra. The Palisades, as this area is called, represent much of the finest alpine climbing in the Sierra, and North Palisade itself is often described as "THE classic High Sierra peak". It is one of the most coveted alpine peaks in the state for this reason as well as being the highest point in Fresno County. Most of the peaks in the Palisades require some rock climbing skills to negotiate, and North Palisade is no exception. With a fourth class mountaineer's rating, it is indisputably the hardest county high point in the state of California.

Last year I attempted to climb North Palisade. We made it as far as high camp, but our summit attempt was thwarted by an alpine thunderstorm with snow and graupel.

This year's team consisted of myself, Adam Helman, Andy Martin, and Guy Cloutier. We convened at Four Jeffery Campground several miles from the South Lake trailhead, where we began the spectacular lake-adorned hike to Bishop Pass. At Bishop Pass we left the trail and headed on a cross-country traverse of the upper reaches of Dusy Basin. After a couple of miles of increasing boulder travel, we reached Thunderbolt Pass and, after a brief conference, decided to pitch camp a short distance above a small lake 1/4 mile south of and 400' below Thunderbolt Pass. The weather, which had been partly cloudy during the day, cleared in the late afternoon and we watched the last crimson sunlight fade from the towering pinnacles above us against the backdrop of a cobalt blue twilight sky. I went to sleep with renewed confidence that the weather would not be a factor in the next day's summit attempt.

We set off for the summit at the crack of dawn, scrambling over slabs and boulders across the Palisade Basin to reach our route's scree and talus entrance chute between two cliffs. We soon reached the first critical feature of the climb: a famous ledge that traverses an otherwise untraversable sheer wall to another chute. Thankfully, no one in our group required rope protection for this delicate maneuver one foot away from a 100 foot drop-off.

After several hundred feet more scrambling, we reached a narrow slot that harbored some snow (not a significant factor) along with the crux of the climb: a pair of chockstones wedged between the walls. I bypassed the first by climbing the left wall, then I set up an anchor on a large rock horn to belay those who required protection.

The second chockstone required some teamwork. Andy bent over and offered his shoulder to support my climb up the wall on the right side, which had a good foothold about 7 feet up. I could reach the top of the chockstone with my hand, but I wasn't quite comfortable trying to pull myself up it unprotected. So Andy handed me the rope and a camming device which I secured into a small hole beside the chockstone. I clipped into the protection and then Andy belayed me while I confidently pulled myself up on top of the chockstone. Nothing to it! I set up anchor here to belay everyone else. We hauled up each person's pack one by one.

With the crux of the climb behind us, we could feel the summit in our adrenaline. The route eased up to a basin bounded by two perpendicular ridges with the summit at the far corner, according to the topographic map. There were several high points on the ridges above us, but which was the true summit? All were guarded by huge boulders and would take a while to investigate. None of the guide descriptions provided much help as to exactly which way to head up the bowl. Andy explored to the right and shook his head, then I checked the topographic map and explored a branching gully to the left, which crested on the wrong ridge. The true summit is the largest mass on the ridge, and it appears due north near the center of the sprawl of the ridge above. The correct way up the basin is to gain the main ridge just to the right of the true summit, then climb up the large boulders to the highest point. Andy and Guy arrived first, where Guy discovered that a slot between boulders would bypass an exposed pull-up to the final summit platform. Adam and I both found this secret route to be very useful.

The summit weather was immaculate: not a cloud in the sky, mild temperatures, and a relatively light wind. The new brass benchmark, planted at the very apex, showed a year (1996) and an altitude (14254'). Assuming this information is the latest available, North Palisade gets a 12 foot promotion that displaces White Mountain as the third highest in California.

The descent was uneventful. We used the rope to rappel over both chockstones, and everyone except me rappeled a steep class 3 section below the slot. We returned to camp near dusk to find our food raided by a pika. Fortunately no one went hungry since we had packed in an extra day's food in case of bad weather. The return hike to the trailhead was uneventful except for a side trip by Adam to successfully climb Chocolate Peak (11,658 ft).

The trip owes its success to admirable teamwork by all members. Andy Martin was an especially important asset because his climbing skills complemented mine quite nicely.