Climb 1: NORMAN CLYDE, Firebird Ridge (IV, 5.9)
Climb 2: NORMAN CLYDE, Twilight Pillar (III, 5.9) 
Climb 3: PALISADE Crest, North to South (IV, 5.8)

TR #: 142

Category: California       Summit Elev: 13,855 ft (Norman Clyde); 13,553 ft (Palisade Crest)       Rock Type: Granite

Partner: Mark Thomas

An athletic tour of the Palisades including three classic Palisade climbs.

Steph midway along the Palisade Crest. Photo by Mark Thomas.


On this post-finals-escape-the-unpredictable-weather-of-June-in-the-Cascades-climbing-adventure, I flew south and met up with my Californian friend Mark to do some climbing in the Sierra. Our first adventure was a week-long tour through the Palisades. On this trip we climbed three of the area's classic climbs. First on the agenda was Firebird Ridge (IV, 5.9) on Norman Clyde Peak, which takes a wonderfully exposed route along the prominent ridgeline. The next day we again climbed Norman Clyde Peak, this time via the popular Twilight Pillar (III, 5.9). Then we traversed into the neighboring basin and tackled the committing and rarely-climbed Palisade Crest (IV, 5.8), which consists of twelve rugged summits named after characters in Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (note that the Palisade Crest is NOT the full Palisade Traverse, which includes the Palisade Crest along with several other Palisade summits). After a long and successful day on the Palisade Crest, we were surprised by an unseasonable snowstorm and forced to spend the day resting in the tent; when the uncertain weather continued into the next day, we decided to forgo our plans to climb the rugged Mt. Winchell and hike out to prepare for our next climbing adventure(s). 

The following page gives maps, route overlays, photos, and commentary of our "Tour de Palisade" adventures. Mark is the master of route overlays and has inspired many of my own photo annotation styles, so I've included several of his overlays (as well as some photos) in this trip reportl.


Map of our Palisades adventures.

  • DAY 0 - JUNE 18: Meet up in Oakland, drive ~6 hrs to Bishop area.

  • DAY 1 - JUNE 19: Pick up permit, plant car at S Lake trailhead, drive to S Fork Big Pine trailhead (assisted by Mark's friend Nick), hike in the S Fork of Big Pine, establish camp below Middle Palisade Glacier.  Jump to this section.
  • DAY 2 - JUNE 20: Climb Firebird Ridge (IV, 5.9) on Norman Clyde Peak (13,855 ft) (camp-to-camp). Jump to this section.
  • DAY 3 - JUNE 21: Climb Twilight Pillar (III, 5.9) on Norman Clyde Peak (13,855 ft) (camp-to-camp).  Jump to this section.

  • DAY 5 - JUNE 23: Traverse the twelve summits of the Palisade Crest N to S (IV, 5.8) (high point 13,553 ft) (camp-to-camp). Jump to this section.

  • DAY 6 - JUNE 24: Rest day below the Palisade Crest due to an unforecasted snowstorm. Jump to this section.

  • DAY 7 - JUNE 25: Pack up camp and traverse through Scimitar Pass, Potluck Pass, Thunderbolt Pass, Bishop Pass and hike out to car at S Lake trailhead. Jump to this section.


Day 1:

Pick up permit, plant car at S Lake trailhead, drive to S Fork Big Pine trailhead (assisted by Mark's friend Nick), hike in the S Fork of Big Pine, establish camp below Middle Palisade Glacier.

Holy moly, this pack weighs more than half of me.
Hiking up the S Fork of the Big Pine. Mark is on the right, and Nick (who dayhiked in with us the first day) is on the left. Thanks Nick for helping us with the car plant!
We established a camp at an unnamed lake below Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. Hauling our heavy loads to there took us about 4 grueling hours from the trailhead. We spent the rest of the day lounging in the sun, making up for the sub-three-hour sleep we had the night before due to a delayed plane arrival the evening before.
Glowing tent.

Day 2:

Climb Firebird Ridge (IV, 5.9) on Norman Clyde Peak (13,855 ft) (camp-to-camp).

Route overlays by Mark Thomas.

A thin layer of ice developed on the lake. Even in the summer, it can get pretty cold at night in the high Sierra.
Our first climb was Firebird Ridge, which is the striking ridge on the right skyline of Norman Clyde Peak. We started hiking up around sunrise and it took us about 2.5 hours to reach the base of the route and rope up.
The approach to Norman Clyde Peak involves a short Class 3 step. In this photo Mark is just before this step.
The route description for Firebird Ridge is simple: stay on the ridge crest whenever possible, and bypass difficulties by minor detours to the right.
Looking down Firebird Ridge. 
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
A short headcam clip giving a sense of the fun and airy nature of the climbing on Firebird Ridge.
Near the top, Firebird Ridge gets blockier and easier.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Firebird Ridge tops out at a subsummit of Norman Clyde Peak. The descent begins from this subsummit, so it is not necessary to gain the summit before descending; the true summit is a 20 minute Class 3 scramble to the east (to the top of the Twilight Pillar route). 

The photo to the left is looking down the standard N-NE ridge descent route (3rd/4th). Several accounts note the descent as long and tedious. Nevertheless we made relatively quick work of it and got back to camp just over 4 hours after reaching the top of the Firebird Ridge. We made one rappel from where Firebird Ridge meets the summit ridge (see photo below). Then we downclimbed zig-zagging 3rd class ledges slightly leftward (westward), following scattered cairns. Eventually we headed rightward to the base of Firebird Ridge.
This photo shows the rappel sling near where Firebird Ridge meets the summit ridge. 
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)

Our climb up Firebird Ridge took us 13:45 camp to camp (4:20 of which was the descent).

Day 3:

 Climb Twilight Pillar (III, 5.9) on Norman Clyde Peak (13,855 ft) (camp-to-camp).

Route overlays by Mark Thomas.

Our next climb was Twilight Pillar, perhaps the most popular rock climb on Norman Clyde Peak. The approach starts off the same as for Firebird Ridge, and then traverses the snowfield in the center of the photo to the start of the route.
Mark crossing the snowfield to the Twilight Pillar route. The route begins where the ridge steepens. As the snow field melts throughout the summer, this part of the approach is reportedly a bit slabby and insecure. 
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Looking up the first pitches of Twilight Pillar. Looks like climbing ahead!
Looking down the first pitches of Twilight Pillar. Despite the fact that Twilight Pillar is Grade III and Firebird Ridge is Grade IV, we found Twilight Pillar to be slightly more sustained than Firebird Ridge. It was also a tad loose, enough to keep you on your toes but not enough to detract too much from the quality of the route.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
The summit register of Norman Clyde Peak made for interesting reading. For example, here is an entry about a potential first winter ascent made by Galen Rowell and David Wilson in December 1985.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Unlike Firebird Ridge, the Twilight Pillar route tops out on the summit of Norman Clyde Peak. To get to the descent, you must traverse the ridge (Class 3) westward towards where Firebird Ridge meets the summit ridge. This took us about 20 minutes. Since we were already familiar with the descent, the descent from summit to camp took us 3:45, faster than the day before. The entire route took us 13:20 camp to camp.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)

Day 4:

Move camp to next basin over, below the Palisade Crest.

A couple of annotated views of our route as we moved camp.
(Photos and annotations by Mark Thomas.)
To get to the basin below Palisade Crest, we had to cross over the lower Firebird Ridge. This necessiated a rappel. Since our packs were so heavy we lowered them. The whole process took awhile but we made it safely into the basin. 
After the rappel, we descended/traversed some talus which dumped us onto a snowfield. We traversed the snowfield all the way to below the Palisade Crest. It took us a total of 5:40 to move our camp to below the Palisade Crest.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Camp below the Palisade Crest. 
The view of the Palisade Crest towering above camp.
The bear canister and a waterproof stuffsack were put to work melting snow. 
The suncups were pretty cool.
More suncups.
And more.
Me dancing around in the suncups.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Mark's rogue ziplock of hot chocolate and coffee slid into the crack between the snow and the boulder. He dug a sizable trench and was be to recover it. Success!
Evening alpenglow on Norman Clyde Peak from camp.
Moonlit camp below the Palisade Crest. (Exposure settings: 30 sec, f/6.3, ISO 500.)
Moonrise over camp. (Exposure settings: 30 sec, f/6.3, ISO 500.)

Day 5:

Traverse the twelve summits of the Palisade Crest N to S (IV, 5.8) (13,553 ft) (camp-to-camp).

Annotated photos of the Palisade Crest, by Mark Thomas (first one is not quite complete).

The traverse of the Palisade Crest is quite complex and requires an entire day. There are 12 summits of the Palisade Crest, each named after a key figure in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. In researching this area, Mark and I could not find any source that listed the twelve summit names, apart from references to Gandalf Peak being the highest point and lies at the NW end. So we hoped that as we traversed the Crest we would find a summit register on top of each of the twelve summits and unravel the naming mystery. But alas, we only found registers on 6 of the 12 summits — from N to S these were: Gandalf, Gimli, The Orc, Strider, __, __, __, __, __, __, Master Samwise, The Nazgul. Surely one of the unknown-named summits must be Frodo or Bilbo. 

Also of interesting note is that the last summit register entries had been just over a year before our climb. It's always fun to do a route that is not done often.
Mark racking up at dawn before setting off for our day's adventure. We brought plenty of long slings and found them to be quite useful along the traverse.
Heading towards Scimitar Pass at the north end of the Palisade Crest. With the frozen suncups, it took us about 30 minutes to get to the pass from camp.
The northern end of the Palisade Crest is the easiest part of the ridge, a Class 3 scramble all the way to the Palisade Crest highpoint.
We roped up before tackling the 4th-low 5th slab leading up towards Gandalf Peak, the first of the twelve Tolkien-named summits along Palisade Crest.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Wonderful low 5th exposure.
For the most part the ridge is pretty solid and the climbing is quite varied and fun.
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Often, the towers on the ridge looked too steep to be within 5.6 range. Part of the challenge was finding the 5.7 (or easier) route, which always existed. Notably, we never needed to do any rappels to keep the route moderate 5th class, despite the fact we did the route N to S while the more typical way is to do it S to N. 
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
A short helmet cam view from a belay ledge en route.
We called this ledge system we discovered "The Ivory Way". Hard to believe it was only 5.7ish!
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Helmet cam video taken while climbing along the exposed "The Ivory Way".
Mark on the southernmost summit of the Crest. Summit 12 of 12.
The sun was setting as we arrived at the southernmost summit. Headlights on....
The south end of the Crest is 5th class, so the descent required some rappels. It took us four single-rope rappels to get to the notch leading to the snowfield below the Palisade Crest. Finding good anchor blocks and non-leave-you-hanging-in-midair rappels is tricky in the dark, so it took us awhile to descend safely. We arrived back at camp just over 20 hours after we had started the route. Couscous feast for me, pillow for Mark.

Day 6:

Rest day below the Palisade Crest due to an unforecasted snowstorm.

A few hours after arriving back at camp after our traverse of the Palisade Crest, we woke up to an unexpected snowstorm. We were tired from the late night descent the night before, so we decided to just take a rest day.
To keep ourselves occupied we consumed logic puzzles and books.
We also consumed several snow fleas as we melted snow for water.

Day 7:

Pack up camp and traverse through Scimitar Pass, Potluck Pass, Thunderbolt Pass, Bishop Pass and hike out to car at S Lake trailhead.

Morning sun on the eastern walls of the Palisade Crest. The weather seemed to be improving, but there was still a fair amount of cloud buildup, and we decided to just hike out. 
The boulders on the other side of Scimitar Pass were coated in ice. Perfect terrain for twisted knees and ankles, so we took it slow.
The clouds and views drifted in and out as we traversed Palisade Basin between Potluck Pass and Thunderbolt Pass. 
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
Looking up towards Thunderbolt and Starlight massif from Thunderbolt Pass. 
Traversing the pleasant grass and slabs above Dusy Basin between Thunderbolt Pass and Bishop Pass. The weather seemed to be improving as the day progressed.
We had originally planned to climb the W Arete on Mt. Winchell, but uncertain weather conditions and my wimping out encouraged us to pass on by, leaving Mark to wait another day to climb this route. 
(Photo by Mark Thomas.)
The broad expanse of Bishop Pass. 
Descending the South Lake to Bishop Pass Highway to the car. It is roughly 6 miles and 2200' from the pass to the trailhead.
South Lake was looking pretty low.

Next stop: Erick Schat's in Bishop for some requisite sandwiches and baked goodies. Great way to reenergize for the next climb!