Fresno County High Point Trip Report

"Redemption on the U-Notch"

Date: October 2001
Author: "Dingus Milktoast"

The Fall from Grace

I am a goal-oriented climber. I climb for the love of it, but often my climbing requires a purpose. It may be the successful completion of a route, a freeing of a difficult line, a first ascent of some kind, the bagging of a summit, whatever. My climbing needs a start, a middle and a finish. And when I fail to reach that finish I have great difficulty counting the climb a success. It may be a fault of sorts, this desire to complete what I start. It may point to deep character flaws of conquest and possession. It may be all of that and more. Doesnít matter. Itís who I am. Itís how I think.

A few years ago Burl Guido and I set out to climb the North Palisade in the Sierra Nevada. It is located on the high Sierra crest 10,000 feet above the Owens Valley, west of Lone Pine California. The Palisade group spans from Split Mountain in the south to Mt. Aggasiz in the north. According to Steve Roper in his Climberís Guide to the High Sierra, Simply stated, the Palisade group contains the finest alpine climbing in California. R.J Secor calls the North Palisade THE classic peak of the High Sierra. It is striking from a distance, and it has routes that will challenge climbers of all abilities and preferences.

The largest glacier in the Sierra flanks the northern Palisades and offers numerous ice climbing possibilities. The U and V Notch couloirs are justifiably famous not only for the excellent climbing but also for their rich history. The likes of Norman Clyde, Don Jensen, Doug Robinson and Ivon Chouinard have played prominent roles in the development of the climbing routes. They also made significant contributions to the advancement of ice climbing techniques in the process. Anyone aspiring to climb one of these routes is following in some large boot prints.

Burl and I attempted the U Notch on a late autumn day from Sam Mack Meadow. Our decision to camp at a lower altitude and below the glacial moraine cost us the route. We left our bivi in the predawn darkness, thinking ourselves clever for the alpine start. We learned a bitter lesson. It took us a couple of hours to reach the toe of the glacier and another 3 long hours to approach the route and get ready to climb. The bergschrund that year was a formidable obstacle. In a fit of righteousness, I climbed the intimidating wall of vertical ice and negotiated an overhanging traverse with what was, to that date, one of my best alpine ice leads ever. When I reached the first belay, above all of the serious difficulties of the climb, I was stoked in a major way.

Burl quickly followed and then promptly announced that he was cold, tired and it was too late to continue (it WAS noon at the time). He felt certain we would be knighted on the descent if we continued. Intellectually I knew he was right, but I refer to the first paragraph in this tale for an explanation of the ensuing events. I argued we had plenty of time. I reasoned that a full moon would give us plenty of light should the sun set before we got down. I said that weíd come this far, humping huge loads miles up a wilderness trail and that turning back now was just plain stupid. I pleaded till I was blue in the face. It was all for nothing. Burl wouldnít budge.

So I cajoled him into leading a pitch just so he could strike tool to ice. I hoped that the vigor I felt upon leading that first pitch would be transferred once Burl tasted the joys of the sharp end. He flew up his lead placing one screw in the process. When I joined him at the next belay he stated flatly he was climbing no higher. Again I argued, cajoled and pleaded. Again he turned me down. So I insisted upon leading one more pitch. Now my tactic was base as it was obvious. I tried to get him into an unstoppable simul-climbing situation. He saw through me like a pane of glass. As I left the belay he reiterated in a flat, resolute voice he was climbing no higher.

So when I called down to him I couldnít reach the belay he knew I was lying. He refused to untie and move up a few feet so I could get to a higherstation. Reluctantly, with crushing disappointment and no small measure of anger, I down climbed to the proper station, pulled the ropes and rapped. We descended from the route in silence. We didnít climb together again for quite a while.

Well, hindsight often brings wisdom and in my case eventually eased my mind. Between you and me, Burl was right all along. We WOULD have been knighted. We did start too late. It was too cold. And he was right to insist upon descending. Still, the defeat rankled in my soul like an old turd in an unflushed toilet. I hated being that close, having gone so far, only to be turned back by what I then self-righteously labeled an uncommitted partner. The fact that this partner was also one of my best friends complicated things. The fact Iíd done a similar thing to someone else in just the previous month was salt in the wound. I didnít have the right nor the inclination to shout, and I had no business harboring hard feelings. I simply had to swallow the defeat and plan a comeback.

Redemption

Burl and I return to the Palisades with a vengeance. Weíre back to do the U Notch and bag the summit of the North Palisade no matter what. A local conditions report confirms the couloir is all iced up. I bring full on ice gear; two technical tools and rigid step-in crampons. To my surprise Burl sports a general-purpose ice axe and strap on flexible crampons. He has a single technical tool. Iím seething. How could he do this? Our entire climb is jeopardized from the start! All to save a couple of pounds on the ten mile approach. What was he thinking?

I have my mind fixed on this climb. Iím going to climb it if I have to drag him up it. Now I have to lead every pitch. Amen. Iím ready. Nothing is going to turn me away. Not difficult ice, not bad weather, not recalcitrant partners.

I build the rack of 4 cams, 8 nuts, 6 screws, 8 runners and just enough neutrino biners to handle it all, alpine doubles for ropes. A megamid tent and light sleeping bags help with the load, as does my super lightweight stove. But still, our packs are staggering when we leave the car. Just the trivial matter of a 10 mile approach and 5000 feet of elevation gain with which to contend.

The last bit of the approach wanders up slabs and through boulder fields skirting along the edge of what surely will be the terminal moraine of the dying glacier. Itís already dark when we reach this final stage of the hike. I do not expect water at the high camp. So when we find a fairly clear trickle a few hundred feet lower, and an accompanying bivi spot, we make the snap decision to camp. Fortuitous, others later confirm. Climbers camped at the glacier have to go through the hassle of descending the moraine to a dirty pocket lake at the foot of the ice. We have water about 50 feet below our tent. And as a bonus weíre out of the incessant wind that scours the glacier. We pat ourselves on the backs, quite pleased with our cleverness. Too clever by half we decide even later.

Burlís alarm rouses us long before the sun. Weíre on a timely track to do the route. We cross paths with another party camped at the glacier. They confirm the water situation. They ask me what we intend to climb. Seeing no threat, not really thinking about it, I answer them. Burl tells me in a sharp voice this was a mistake. I shrug it off. I really donít see the problem.

Later, crossing the glacier, I glance behind. A fast moving party is gaining ground at an alarming rate! Itís clear what is happening. Theyíre trying to steal the climb! Burl angrily accuses me of giving away the store and for a few minutes I believe him. We end up in a race. Talk about ludicrous. Burl is in better shape than I and lives at high altitude. I have no hope of keeping pace with this demon coming up below. It turns out neither does Burl. This SOB is clearly the fastest man alive on the Palisade glacier today. But it becomes apparent they are not trying to nab our route. Theyíre simply trying to protect their own. When they turn away and head up toward the V Notch I breath a sigh of relief.

I catch up while Burl waits just below the couloir. He immediately apologizes for snapping at me. Sorry to be so crabby with ya Dingus. I tell him itís OK. Youíre always crabby these days Burl. Iím used to it. I love you anyway. I do that because heís my friend and Iím no peach myself. But you should hear the tone of my voice. Iím pretty sure Burl takes hears the violence lurking beneath. He tones it down for the rest of the day. I pass him by without further comment and climb up to the base of the schrund. By the time Burl joins me I have one of the ropes out and am rigging my harness.

Faced with a blunt tipped axe, flexible crampons and the reality of alpine ice Burl is pale and subdued. You want me to lead this pitch Burl? I ask with mock cheerfulness. The way his face relaxes when I relieve him of this particular anxiety is solace for his earlier abuse.

I lead the pitch through like Iím climbing a mound of cold butter. Dingus Milktoast is back to settle a score. The payback Iíve been nursing for 3 years is readily seen in the commitment with which I climb. I use two screws to surmount the bergschrund. 50 feet of steep ice leads to a ledge. A traverse is followed by a short vertical section and then a moderate run to the first belay in the couloir proper. 10 minutes start to finish. The ice is sweet. I mean itís primo alpine ice and I climb with confidence. Swing a tool and it sticks. Trust it. Gently tap in the front points and commit. I flick my wrists like Iím casually throwing darts in a warm, cozy pub. And I move up like a rock climber, not like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Burl struggles to follow. Thatís what happens when you confuse snow-climbing gear for ice tools. I watch without pity as he flails and hacks his way up the rock hard ice. To make matters worse, heís got the leash on his axe way too short and he canít even swing the thing properly. Itís all I can do to keep from laughing out loud. Itís a testament to his character that he never complains and never asks for quarter. He never suggests quitting and never seems to entertain the thought. Heís one tough hombre!

You want this lead Burl? I throw the dog a bone, knowing the answer before I ask. I could have told him at the car.

No way Dingus. I canít lead any of this on this gear. Can you do it?

Burl, I can lead every pitch, no problem. Be happy to. Iím feeling better about the climb, about Burl, about us. Itís not a superiority thing. Itís a straightforward confidence, an ability to first visualize and then realize the future. Itís a sense of absolute certainty. We are really going to climb this thing this time. We really are.

Off I go, up the next pitch. The couloir is solid ice from bottom to top. No frozen snow anywhere. The quality of the ice is pretty much sterling, perfect. Iím climbing with absolute poise. I almost levitate. At 14,000 feet I find this amazing. Iím breathing normally. Iím well hydrated. And Iím climbing like I was born to in the mountains. Yup, things are finally going my way.

After 4 pitches Burl gains enough confidence in his gear to simul-climb. That speeds things up considerably though we pile on the risk in the process. We top out at the U Notch at 5 minutes before noon. Our earlier trials now seem irrelevant. We rest for a while and then Burl starts up the Le Conte route to the summit. I was hoping to solo most of this. We end up using the rope all the way up and back down again.

We simul the last few ledges and boulders to the top of the North Palisade. The world drops away beneath us in stunning relief. I finally put my sulking aside and accept Burl for who he is; my good friend and trusted partner, someone I can count on. We sign the register and take in the view. Weíve agreed to tag the summit and descend quickly. We both feel the commitment of the long rope at the end of which we have placed ourselves. You really get the feeling that the climb is but half done standing atop the North Palisade! The amount of dangerous work facing us is daunting and takes the edge off any euphoria we may want to feel.

The Sierra Nevada is spread around us in a wild confusion of peaks, canyons, lakes, cliffs and ridges. Southward the Palisade group includes Polemonium Peak and Mt. Sill. I was caught in a storm on the V Notch last year. We made an impromptu decision to rap the couloir and abandon the walk down descent from Sill. A fortunate guess I see now. You have to climb about halfway up Sill to gain the proper drainage. I didnít know it and likely would not have found it.

Farther south the Sierra remains wild and formidable along the Sierra front. Still farther the Muir Crest rises in the culmination of the range, Mt. Whitney. To the west we face the beginnings of Kingís Canyon and the upper reaches of Dusy Basin. The Great Western Divide parallels the mighty ridge upon which we stand. Farther to the northwest we see the Evolutions with their dark rock, so appropriate of the men for whom they are named.

To the north we see Mt. Humphreys, Bear Creek Spire and dozens and dozens of peaks we have neither the time nor the maps to identify. Still farther I can clearly see Ritter and Banner and still beyond, the peaks of the Yosemite region. To the east is the great Owens Valley, the Inyo mountains and more desert ranges than a man can count. Lone Pine simmers in the heat fully two miles beneath us.

Puffy clouds dance around peaks both near and far. A long line of thunderstorms appears to be dumping rain on the Great Western Divide and to my mind is coming our way. I want off this peak before it gets here! With regret tempered by the desire to stay alive, we depart.

I down lead the ridge in two long pitches, occasionally placing a piece for Burlís protection as he follows. A long rap down the Clyde Chimney puts us back at the U Notch. A very scary down climb on loose scree saves us at least two rappels. It also elicits some complaint from Burl and seriously disturbs the hair on the back of my neck. I down climb some more absolutely insane 4th class to gain a rap anchor. I save Burl the same risk by rigging the rap alone and tossing the ropes over to his stance.

6 raps later we land on the schrund. As we pack up Burl pukes yellow bile all over the snow. Normally Iíd have the common decency to avert my eyes. But this time I just watch him like heís a science experiment going south in exactly the manner in which I expect. Some of the bile even splashes on my boots. I drink the last of my water as he retches in the cool mountain air.

We are DOWN! Now that weíve managed the worst of the risks, now that weíve settled the debt, our moods improve immensely. We smile at one another frequently. We congratulate one another, over and over. We compliment each other, call each other friend. Life is good and so are we! As we descend the glacier in the dying light of day our worries leave us. Prematurely, as it turns out.

Itís dark when we regain the glacier col. A few hundred feet below lies our camp. Weíre only 10 minutes away and not a moment too soon either. Weíre out of water. Weíre tired and hungry. Iím finally starting to run down after a long day in the mountains. I make a fateful decision to swallow 3 ibuprophen without the water to go with them, thinking Iíll be tanking up in a few moments.

WE CANíT FIND OUR TENT!!! I mean we canít find our tent. We made camp in the dark. We left camp in the dark. And now we fail to find camp in the dark once more. With increasing anxiety and deadly resignation, we wander the slabs up and down in the dark, thirst raging in our throats. We hope and pray to unacknowledged, nonexistent or long dead gods that we find it over the next rise. First we look together. Then we look one at a time. Two hours later I return to find Burl in complete defeat.

Dingus, Iím cold. Itís no use. We might as well wait for light. Iím sleeping here. Heís huddled on some rocks beneath our solitary space blanket, his feet shoved in his pack. I feel like death. I get the impression he doesnít care one whit what I do at this point. But I donít have anything to bivi with Burl, I reply with immense self-pity. Iíd laugh at myself if I didnít feel so miserable, helpless and weak.

He generously offers to share his blanket. We both know going in this is a sacrifice. I toss and turn even in the most benign circumstance. By letting me share his crinkly space blanket, heís setting himself up for a sleepless night. I apologize continuously as I try to settle in, spreading an 8 mil rope out as a pad, covering it with my rain jacket, sticking my booted feet in the pack, wrapping the blanket over my down jacket. Weíre lying on a pile of rocks. I have a bad cough and though it died down during the climb, it comes back with a vengeance. Every coughing fit makes me sweat, so I have to move. Every time I move the blanket makes a bunch of noise and lets in cold draughts of air. Burl mutters at me and I guiltily apologize. Talk about a sour turn of events!

Just two hours ago we were happy and carefree climbers headed for a cold drink and a warm dinner. Now weíre bedded down on a pile of rocks beneath a starry Sierra sky, wondering when the shivering will start. Iím so thirsty I could cry. My throat feels as though Iíve swallowed gravel. Itís stuck to my tonsils and grinding against the back of my throat.

And then I realize Iíve forgotten to loosen my boots after the climb. My swollen feet hurt like demons from Hell. I wrack my brain for a way out of this predicament. I vainly wish for a late climber to stumble by and offer us water. I dream or fantasize our friend Bob flies over in a helicopter and radios the location of our tent! I silently and slowly and over and over circle the realization that morning and morning alone will release us from our torment. And then only through an ordeal.

Burl contentedly snores beside me. I am so jealous that even my pain and discomfort fade for a time. And then, miraculously, I too fall asleep. Later Burl stirs and checks his watch. Midnight. Jeez, an eternity has passed and yet 7 hours to daylight remain. He gets up and declares heís cold and going to find his sleeping bag. Good for him I think.

He comes back once and says another late party just returned to their camp at the glacier. I ask him if they have water. He tells me to give him a break. Off he goes again. And much later, after I sleep in agony for a while, I hear him again.

Dingus, get yer stuff. Weíre going home. Praise the lord; my good friend and partner had the stomach and backbone to lead the crux pitch of the day. Burl Guido has found our tent! The climb is over. A few minutes later, we water up at our little creek. I drink as much as Iím able but the urge to puke is powerful. Iím shriving and coughing and gagging in the dark. We fall into our tent and Burl eats for a while. I canít even think about food and can only stand a few sips of water. I visit the sleep of the dead.

The next morning we reassemble our lives. My cough is worse than ever. I have no urge to urinate despite 2 liters of water and 3 cups of coffee. Yet ironically I feel strong enough. We pack up and begin the long march out to the trailhead. At Sam Mack Meadow we stop, eat a bit, the first food Iíve managed since the summit of the N. Pal, and brew up the last of our coffee. Finally I pee, a nearly brown, stinking stream of caustic, acidic liquid that burns on the way out and hisses on the ground. Yup, I messed myself up something fierce with that vitamin I.

Much later we take our final rest at a small creek beside the trail about 1/2 way between Lon Cheney's cabin and 3rd Lake. Everyone stops here, I'm sure you know the place. Anyway, up the trail comes an old geezer, wearing a monster pack, knit cap on his head despite the heat of the noonday sun, coiled rope over his shoulder for good measure, bent over and clearly laboring under his load. I know who it is immediately. As casually as I can,

"Hey Fred, how's it going?"

As unbelievable as it may seem, Fred Beckey is hiking up Big Pine Creek! We chat for a few minutes. He quizzes us about what weíve climbed, what the glacier conditions were like, did we use tools and screws in the couloir, etc. When we ask him what heís doing... nebulous as ever. Won't say!

Heís accompanied by Eddie Joe... aka E C Joe. Eddie and I know one another. Fred mistakenly takes this to mean Iím one of the boys or something. Asks me if I know a few people. Then off they go. Eddie says they plan to camp at 3rd Lake and "check out some stuff" on Temple Crag. Burl and I are immensely pleased. Burl says itís like spotting a 10 point buck. Even rarer, is my reply.

The dude is what, 80?! He did the 2nd ascent of Waddington in 1946!!! 55 years later he's still got that gleam in his eye. I've heard a lot about this legend, read even more. But seeing him in the flesh, several miles from a trailhead, battered pack towering over his head, heading in to surely to attempt a first ascent, in the company of a prolific and famed Sierra first ascent artist; it makes my heart sing! Iím proud to be a card-carrying member of his tribe. I think fondly of the few Fred Beckey routes Iíve managed to repeat. My step is light and full of joy for the rest of the hike out.

Burl Guido is my trusted friend and partner. Our ancestors walk among us. And the North Palisade is ours.