Ski Mountaineering

Palisades Glacier: U & V Notch, Winchell & Gayley
May 22-23, 1999

Reiner Stenzel

This end-of-the-season SMS trip was probably the best one: We had nothing but corn snow, great weather, a spectacular terrain, skiing and climbing, and a fun group of eleven happy people. In the party were Greg Stach, Barbara Berne and Michael Waeiss from the Bay Area, Alvin Walter and Ellen Feeney from San Diego, and from the LA area Susan Loftus, Jim DeRose, Maciek Malish, Craig Connally, co-leader Keith Martin and myself. Almost half were on randonnée gear, Ellen was just in for the climb.

We met on Sat, 5/29, 6:30am, at the hiker's parking lot a mile below Glacier Lodge (7,600'). The place was bustling with climbers, skiers, hikers and fishermen. After packing and signing zillions of SC release forms we finally took off by 7:45am along the High Trail above the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. The packs were loaded with skis and skiboots and we were in for a long hike to the distant snow. After an hour we reached the falls, and by 10:30am we had another rest at the Second Lake (10,000') below scenic Temple Crag, including a 10sec dip into the ice cold lake. Beyond Third lake we ascended lots of switchbacks to reach the junction where a faint trail with patches of snow leaves to Sam Mack Meadows (11,100').

After regrouping we forded a stream on logs, hiked XC through a wet meadow, pushed through a thicket of willows, traversed a boulder field with patches of soft snow where one occasionally sank in to the hips. Finally, at about 10,500' the snow became continuous and we proceeded to climb on skis reaching basecamp just after noon. The group was widely spread out but we were equipped with four radios and kept well in touch.

After lunch, a tent city was erected which included a two-hour precision job to erect a pyramid tent with igloo-like walls. In the afternoon sun everyone relaxed. We chatted with our neighbors, Bill Straka and Dave Underwood, and RJ Secor's CMC group passing by. Barbara and Maciek enjoyed to chat in their native language, Polish, whose s-z-c-z sounds nobody could reproduce, while they heard little difference between Greg and Craig. It was hard to attract anyone for a ski tour but by 3pm, I took off to the nearby slopes and some followed to ski the 500', 35-deg chute which leads from Sam Mack Mdws to the Thunderbolt Glacier. Dinner was at 5pm. Unfortunately, the wind picked up and dark clouds moved in so that we soon retreated into our tents. Our plan for the next day was to ski and perhaps to climb a peak. In the habit of earlier Alpine starts I called for a 5:30am rise and we skied out about an hour later. Keith was concerned about the legality of climbing the frozen 35deg chute with/without ice axe and crampons, but we simply cut and kicked steps into the snow and everyone made it up safely. Ellen stayed around camp and kept in touch by radio. The spread-out group headed to the base of Mt Winchell for our optional climb. On the way up the glacier, Greg and Michael spotted a chute North of T-bolt which had a passage across the bergschrund. They preferred skiing over climbing and took off.

By 9am we gathered at the 13,000' level below Mt Winchell where the snow ended. Alvin did not hesitate to climb but Keith and I got into discussions about the legality of a cl 3 peak climb. Keith did not want to go and as leader I was not supposed to sign participants out. There were haunting similarities to the previous weekend at Bear Creek Spire: Deteriorating weather, one participant extremely eager to get the summit but exhausted, another had no ice axe arrest experience. To avoid another incident, we left the mountain to our most experienced climber, Alvin, and decided on skiing the steeps.

We proceeded to the western end of the glacier and climbed into a col in the 13,000' ridge between T-bolt and Winchell. A great view opened up between steep rock walls: Dusy Basin with frozen lakes below us and a spectacular panorama of white Sierra peaks in the background. A few jump turns down the col brought us back to the T-bolt glacier. We watched the randonnee'rs Greg and Michael coming down their chute without falling into the bergschrund. Gravity pulled them further down the glacier to a little green lake at 12,000'. The same "black hole" attracted Keith and Susan who could not escape from it for a while. Rumors of Susan's sunbathing spread over the radio but could not be verified due to lack of binoculars.

In the meantime the rest of us contoured around the NE ridge of T-bolt to ascend the Palisade Glacier. Now our fun really started. Miraculously, the clouds began to vanish and the spectacular panorama of 14,000' peaks above the glacier opened up in full sunshine. Thunderbolt (14,003'), North Palisade (14,242'), Mt Sill (14,153), and Gayley ( 13,510') formed a big cirque separated by steep chutes such as the U-notch, V-notch, Underhill Couloir, Glacier Col, etc.

At this late time of the year all major gullies were separated from the glacier by an open bergschrund. While a happy Alvin called us from the summit of Winchell, we decided to have our own fun and ski part of the U-notch.

Jim, Maciek, and I switchbacked up this 40+deg slope to the bergschrund. The sun had softened the snow in the chute but it was full of avalanche debris which meant tricky skiing. My wide crud skis were a blessing. Taking off the skins between a gaping crevasse and a 45deg slope required a careful balancing act. Then, after a deep breath, it was telejumping down the chute, an exhilarating but exhausting fun at 13,000'.

After U comes V, and with a little left-over energy I climbed into the V-notch up to its bergschrund. It was still steeper and felt marginally safe with respect to wet snow avalanches on this warm day. No falls are allowed on this one! Another adrenaline rush and in a minute of quick jumps one is down the chute and gasping for air.

We rested on the upper glacier, ate lunch, took pictures, waited for Alvin, and observed other climbers. Restless Alvin did not stay for very long and took off to climb Mt Gayley. Jim signed out to return home due to an earlier commitment. Maciek, Barbara, Michael and I decided to ski the entire Palisade Glacier down to Lke 12,165. The mile-long glacier has a gentle slope (10-20deg), was completely smooth and free of suncups and by midday was covered by virgin corn snow. I paralleled on telis with the three randonnee'rs and we left picture-perfect tracks across the glacier. It was skiing at its best! At the green-blue glacial lake it was again picture taking time. Then we called Keith for regrouping, skinned up to the 12,500' level, and skied down the T-bolt glacier toward Sam Mack Mdws. The wonderful spring snow made downhill skiing an easy dance. Only in the 35deg chute above SM Mdws we had to watch out for possible wet snow slides at 3pm.

We had now skied for nearly 8 hrs, yet it was still early in the afternoon. Since hanging out at camp was not my style, we decided to pack up and head down to the Lakes where it was warmer, we could sleep under the stars, and had a shorter hike out on Monday. I called Alvin who was somewhere on Gayley and he agreed to follow later with Ellen. At 3:30pm we skied down the earlier described obstacle course to the main trail. Craig and Michael chose their own XC route which caused us to wait, Greg to blow his whistle, but ended fine with a reunion at the Second Lake. There we found a beautiful campsite overlooking the lake and the impressive northeast face of Temple Crag. No mosquitoes, no bears, no tents, just a great night under the stars and later on the full moon. Life could not be better. In the evening, Alvin and Ellen found us as directed by radio. He did not even look tired after climbing two SPS peaks a day!

Monday morning we slept in late until the sun reached our camp. Then it was an easy hike down to the cars. We all were happy with a great weekend of skiing. We enjoyed the freedom of the mountains: Everyone could ski at their own limits, nobody was forced to march in unison between the leaders, our radios kept us in contact when spread out, experienced Alvin could do his thing without worrying the leaders or his wife at basecamp, thus we optimized the fun in a diverse group within reasonable safety constraints. My thanks to Keith for his assistance in leading and keeping everyone exactly by the rules.

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