Ascent of North Palisade on 2016-08-20

Climber: Rich Stephens

Others in Party:Joel Brewster
Date:Saturday, August 20, 2016
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:North Palisade
    Elevation:14242 ft / 4340 m

Ascent Trip Report

This was a successful trip to the top of North Palisade from the west side using the LeConte Ledge route. After reading multiple trip reports, carefully studying the route, and determining the expertise and equipment needed, I felt confident that this could be done with only Joel and me. We were unsuccessful in coaxing anyone else to come with us anyways.

We did not have permits already in hand. These would have to be obtained by getting walk-in permits. The forest service in Bishop suggested that I go to the Lee Vining forest service station to have a better chance of getting walk-in permits. On my drive down from northern Utah, I stopped at the station in Lee Vining at 0800 hours on the day before our hike in and was first on the list. Permits are issued at 1100 hours each day so I had 3 hours to kill. I visited nearby Mono Lake. At 1100 hours, I returned to the station and was able to successfully get two permits.

We started from the South Lake Trailhead (TH). Even though parking is plentiful at the TH area, not all parking is for overnight (something that the Forest Service needs to change). There are signs pointing out overnight parking and day-use only. There are other signs that direct you to overflow parking down the canyon a mile or so from the TH. We decided to risk getting a citation by parking in the so called "day-use" area adjacent to the overnight parking lot. Fortunately, I believe that the FS understands the parking problem and no citations were given to us.

We originally thought about doing this as a day hike. We figured it would be a long day hike of approximately 22-24 hours. We would have had to start in the dark and end in the dark, and we would have missed the scenery going up through Bishop Pass. This didn’t seem logical so we decided to backpack in and camp at Palisade Basin.

We trekked up the well-worn trail from the South Lake TH, through the beautiful wilderness and up to Bishop Pass. We then left the trail and carefully worked our way across the rocky terrain of the Dusy Basin. We took aim for a small pass (at the base of Thunderbolt Peak) that divides the Dusy Basin and the Palisade Basin. From here, we dropped about 400 feet to find a level camp spot (37.09327, -118.525467) close to water. We had a clear view of the summit of North Palisade.

From the TH to the camp spot was about 6-7 hours. We left the TH at 0730 hours and still had plenty of time at camp to lounge around and enjoy the day and look forward to a making a bid to the summit the following morning. The weather was sunny and a little breezy.

I started out from the TH with 3 liters of water. It was sufficient to get to camp. This was good because we didn’t see much water to conveniently pump from since before Bishop Pass.

To get to the summit from camp, I used the fairly useful description compiled by Gerry Roach at I actually printed this, laminated it, and read it as we scampered our way up the mountain. Part of this description is provided here:

"The LeConte Route starts up the broad, talus-filled gully to the southeast (right) of the Southwest Buttress. This is the middle and widest of the three gullies between four white buttresses, and it is called the Southwest Chute. This major chute goes all the way up to the U Notch, which is between North Palisade and 14,100-foot Polemonium Peak. Ascend the Southwest Chute to 13,200 feet, and look sharp to the west (left) side of the chute.

The key is a narrow, hard-to-see ledge that crosses the otherwise near-vertical cliff, and grants you passage out of the Southwest Chute into the next gully to the west. There is a black water streak on the cliff above the middle of the ledge that may be frozen early in the morning. Find, climb onto, and descend this exposed escape ledge.
Go around a corner, scamper west to the base of the next gully, and scramble up this gully to 13,600 feet.

Climb a 100-foot, Class 4 pitch on clean rock, then scamper up to the first of two famous chockstones, which are the route’s crux. To further complicate your ascent, there is often snow below both chockstones. Bypass the first chockstone on its left side (Class 4), and bypass the second chockstone system on its right side (Class 5.3).
Above the second chockstone, scamper 100 feet up and slightly right to a small, 13,800-foot saddle.

Cross the saddle and enter a large gully to the right of the chockstone gully. Ascend this gully on loose rock and dirt, climb past yet another chockstone on its right side (easy Class 3), and continue up until the gully widens into the summit bowl.

From here, you can see North Palisade’s summit rocks above you to the left.

Climb toward the summit ridge running east of the summit, but do not go all the way to the ridge. One hundred feet below the ridge, find a ledge system with a white streak of rock in it, and follow this ledge up to the left for 100 yards.

When a steep, 15-foot-high, east-facing wall blocks easy progress, leave the ledge and climb up to the right.

Climb straight up for 20 feet then continue angling right toward the summit ridge up a steep, V-shaped weakness.

From an unlikely stance, zig 10 feet downhill to the left to the top of an overhanging boulder. Wiggle 5 feet up a one-foot-wide crack to avoid a more exposed route.

Go west toward the top through a roomy opening between huge rocks. Climb five feet up to a nice one-foot-square platform, then take a big step up onto a banister-like boulder. The last 20 feet to the summit boulder are easy!"

I didn't think that that LeConte ledge was that hard to find. As we headed up the main southwest chute, we came to a high, shear wall on our left. I scanned the cliff for a walkway and found one with at least two cairns on it. Joel confirmed that it was the correct ledge by pictures that he had seen of it. I found that the ledge had lots of handholds and is relatively safe to travel on. Once we finished the ledge walk, we were granted passage into the next gully.

The next part of the route contains several tricks including some immediate class 4 (relatively safe) climbing and then the famous chockstones. Everything that I had read about these chockstones was correct. First, they both had small patches of hard, icy snow at their bases. No need for crampons or ice ax here though. I just kicked a few steps in the snow and this was sufficient to approach each chockstone. The first chockstone was overcome by climbing a small, class 4 route to the left. Then once this was complete, the second chockstone was overcome with a small, lower class 5 climb on the right. It’s a little awkward to climb this section because there really isn’t any great footholds, especially with wet outer boot soles from the snow. Despite this, I worked my way up this pitch (approximately 12-15 feet total) and topped out on the rock. I then set up a belay and a hand-line for Joel to use. I had brought a few anchors just in case this section was going to be nasty but I didn’t end up using any of them. My 30 meter glacier rope, along with a few caribiners, harness, helmets, and belay devices is all of the rock pro that we used for this trip.

Once the chockstones were complete, we slogged our way up according to the route description and eventually came to the summit bowl where we only had just a couple hundred feet left. This is where it became very interesting. We did according to the description by climbing “…toward the summit ridge running east of the summit, but do not go all the way to the ridge. One hundred feet below the ridge, find a ledge system with a white streak of rock in it, and follow this ledge up to the left for 100 yards. When a steep, 15-foot-high, east-facing wall blocks easy progress, leave the ledge and climb up to the right.” At this point, we only had about 20-30 feet left to climb but we couldn’t find the “V-shaped weakness” and we definitely couldn’t find the “overhanging boulder”. So we split-up for a few minutes to find an obvious route to the summit. I came across some large slabs of granite and I climbed on top of one of the slabs. I could then see that I was then only about 30 feet south of the summit and approximately the same height with two other large slabs of granite between me and the summit and some pretty large gaps of space between them. Two other climbers (we had met these two the day before on the trail) were already on the summit and I asked if there was an easy way to go from here to there. They pointed out that I needed to drop down off of one slab and climb up this other slab and that would be it. This all seemed pretty obvious but with high amounts of exposure on one side and being so close to the summit, I didn’t want to screw up these last few moves. Once at the summit, I yelled to Joel and directed him to the top. We soon found ourselves standing on the summit of North Palisade.

The two other climbers were actually traversing the ridgeline and had already completed Thunderdome and Starlight Peak that morning. Now they were on North Palisade and were getting ready to work their way over to Mt. Sill. This was definitely an impressive feat.

Joel and I worked our way back down the mountain and rappelled in a few obviously needed places. Existing slings were found in these dicey areas and it made it convenient to rap off.

From tent door to tent door, it was approximately a 9 hour climb. This was basically without any major issues or huge time delays. It is hard to believe that a climb that is only 2200 feet above basecamp took this long.

Once at camp, we packed up in preparation to make it back to the South Lake TH. Joel discovered that a likely mouse had taken his unwashed spoon and carried it off. We both believed that this mouse did this out of spite because we had teased the mouse the day before.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4442 ft / 1353 m
    Round-Trip Distance:18 mi / 29 km
    Route:Southwest Chute/LeConte Ledge
    Trailhead:South Lake TH  9800 ft / 2987 m
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Time:12 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Time:10 Hours 

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