Unfortunately, Most of My Best Adventures Start Like This…
After a long drive, we got to the Baker Creek Campground at 10:00 pm. I blew up my air mattress, found a flat spot, and climbed into my bag. The plan was to be up at 3:00 am for a 4:00 am start at the Big Pine Creek Trailhead. It was 80 degrees that night, which made it hard to sleep. Added to this were the loud, drunken campers nearby. I just couldn’t stay asleep. I’d nod off for 20 or 30 minutes, then wake again in a seemingly endless loop. Finally, at 2:45 am I awoke to the sound of a large animal moving through the bushes next to me. I looked up at something I couldn’t quite identify and heard a loud, low growl. “Get out of here,” I yelled. The coyote ran off, but I knew I was done sleeping.
“Get out of here,” I yelled. The coyote ran off, but I knew I was done sleeping.
Three weeks ago, Thomas posted a Middle Palisade hike on Facebook, and since this Sierra Peak Section peak has been on my list for a while, I told him I was interested. We set a date and three more of his crew came along: Nik, Jose, and John. They had all hiked together for years and I met them for the first time on this trip.
This adventure would be tough on a good day. But with almost no sleep, I wondered if I had it in me to make it up the 6,800+ feet of elevation to the 14,000′ summit of Middle Palisade. I ate my first Clif Bar of the day as we drove to the trailhead. A thought occurred to me: I think I hate Clif Bars.
We started out with a pretty strong pace in the dark. This group likes to go a little faster than I do. I remember thinking I hope I’ve got enough gas in the tank to keep up with them.
7:00 am: Dropping Packs at Finger Lake
As the sun came up, we entered the basin of lakes that included Brainerd Lake and Finger Lake. On the map, the lakes are close, but getting to Finger Lake from Brainerd Lake is a different story. There is at least 500+ feet of elevation gain to reach Finger Lake and most of it is steep loose talus and scree. When I finally saw Finger Lake, I was relieved to drop my heavy pack, set camp, and take my much lighter day pack to the summit.
We spent an hour at the lake. The guys set up their tents, but I decided to go with the simplicity of cowboy camping. The weather looked good and there were no mosquitoes. I ended up having a snack and getting a 30-minute nap in before heading toward the summit. From Finger Lake, the route ascends up steep boulder fields and slabs. The route then tops out on top of a large buttress. After crossing the buttress, the route leads to a large moraine at the base of the Middle Palisade Glacier.
11:00 am: Arriving at the Middle Palisade Glacier
Smoke from a nearby fire rolled in as we reached the Middle Palisade Glacier. We got water and I had some dizzy spells. This was not unusual for me, but it was concerning. My blood pressure normally runs low and so does my pulse. Combine this with a little dehydration, no sleep, and rapid elevation gain and dizziness becomes something I need to actively manage. When I stood up after filling my water bottle, I almost blacked out. I didn’t tell anyone, but I kept in my mind the possibility that I might not be able to make it to the summit.
I almost blacked out. I didn’t tell anyone, but I kept in my mind the possibility that I would not be able to make it to the summit.
12:00 pm: Starting Up the Red Rocks Shoot
We made our way above the glacier and saw the beginning of the Red Rocks Shoot. This was our route to the summit. A couple of climbers went ahead of us up the shoot. We gave them a 15-minute head start so we would not be in the firing line of rockfall. I overheard one of them say to his partner, “That looks scary as hell!” The other climber nodded with a concerned look on his face. The same thought crossed my mind, but I decided not to overthink it. I have found that, from a distance, some terrain looks terrifying. But when you are actually on that terrain, it’s often not as scary as it seemed. The presence of danger is best diagnosed with a relaxed thoughtfulness, not with initial impressions. As soon as the first pair of climbers cleared the first shoot, I started up with Jose.
I heard one of them say to the other, “That looks scary as hell!” The other climber nodded with a concerned look on his face. The same thought crossed my mind…
Once we started climbing, I instantly loved it. I felt a rush of energy. Being in that place in that moment was incredible.
When Jose and I made it to the top of the first shoot, we entered a larger shoot that went all the way to the summit. The rest of the team quickly caught up and we all climbed in tandem. It was steep class 3 for ~2,000 feet. Despite great handholds, there was loose rock on the entire route. We all kicked a few rocks down, yelling “ROCK! ROCK! ROCK!” every time it happened. At one point, I kicked a few medium-sized rocks that almost hit Thomas in the face. Thank God he ducked.
At one point, I kicked a few medium-sized rocks that almost hit Thomas in the face. Thank God he ducked.
2:00 pm: The Middle Palisade Summit!
The weather was perfect, so we decided to stay on the summit for an hour, resting, eating snacks, and taking pictures. We chatted with the two climbers who went ahead of us, then gave them a 15-minute head start so they would not be in the firing line of rockfall from our group. There were five of us, so a little rockfall was hard to avoid.
A Much Longer Descent than We Had Hoped For
The descent was long. It took meticulous care for all of us not to trigger rockfall. John and I decided to descend the side of the shoot on climber’s left, while Nick, Jose, and Thomas took climber’s right.
I felt great on the downclimb. I was meticulous about my foot placement and didn’t kick any rocks, but when I got to the moraine, the fatigue caught up with me. The moraine was one of the largest, most unstable boulder fields I had ever been on. Every foot placement moved a large boulder. Given my level of fatigue, I lost my footing and fell a number of times on the uneven boulders. After I sprained my finger and bloodied my hand, Thomas told me to stop and rest, so I did.
I have a rule that I always backtrack my ascending route on the descent. Every time I break that rule, it goes badly and today was no different. Thomas and I decided to take a more direct route to camp that followed the runoff of the glacier back to Finger Lake. Bad idea. While we did get back to camp before dark, the route descended a series of steep boulder fields for miles. This was the very thing we hoped to avoid. We made it to camp, exhausted, by 8:00 pm, about an hour after the rest of our crew.
I’m Never Too Tired for a Sierra Sunrise
As exhausted as I was, I thought I would have slept better. It was a warm night and I found myself either sweating or chilled, in and out of sleep. To make matters worse, I ate too much for dinner. I was trying to make up for lost calories and gave myself a stomachache. Just before 5:00 am I was relieved to see the faint glow of first light. As crappy as I felt, catching the first faint rays of the sun against the mountains seemed to erase all of my fatigue. I walked along the banks and caught one of those sunrises you never forget. As bad as my body felt, I was so thankful that I got to be in that place at that moment.
I was a little nervous about going with a group I had never hiked with before. They were all a little younger and fitter – and they knew each other pretty well. I wasn’t sure I could keep up or that I’d feel like “one of them.” Fortunately, they went out of their way to include me. I had a blast getting to know each of them on this little adventure. Thomas and I drove up and back together and you tend to get to know someone pretty well after 10+ hours in a car. These guys are all total studs and I am hoping to do a lot more adventures with them in the coming years.