May 1999
Palisades - Middle Pal Attempt
Christopher Jain

When the starting day of my new job was pushed back a week, I knew exactly what I was going to do with my extra time--go climbing! So just as soon as I finished finding myself an apartment, I threw my gear together and headed off to the Palisades.

My plan was to bivy up in the South Fork and climb Middle Palisade on my second day. If conditions were good I would climb Mt. Sill on Day three. The weather forecast was good and the East Side avalanche forecast was "moderate". I left the trail head late in the afternoon on Tuesday. Unfortunately I initially followed a fishing trail, and ended up wasting a lot of time crawling through thick brush before I found the real trail.

The first mile and a half or so was free of snow. On reaching the snow, I found it to be very slushy. I was sinking in about a foot with each step and would frequently posthole up to my thighs or waist. Although I packed crampons, I did not take snowshoes as I had found the snow on University the week before to be well-consolidated, and in general have not found snowshoes to be useful at this time in the year. In any case, snowshoes would not have been very useful as the snow cover was not continuous. I quickly accepted that I wasn't going to get anywhere fast. I was a little troubled at how soft the snow was, but it's not unusual for the snow to be soft in the late afternoon, and I was counting on it to refreeze overnight.

Instead of following the trail and dropping down into the drainage from the first small pass, I traversed the side of Kid Mountain to Brainard Lake. The steep loose rock, and interesting third class scrambling I encountered, led me to believe that I had just discovered the dumbest, slowest, and least efficient way to reach Brainard Lake. (This was disproven by subsequent events. :-) It was getting dark when I reached the lake so I bivvied there.

I knew things were not going to work out, when it stayed warm all night. I don't think the temperature even approached freezing. Even in the early morning hours, I could hear running water from the snow-melt. But I headed up towards Middle Pal just in case - snow conditions often improve higher up.

I was pleased to find a decent crust at first. As I approached the base of the climb, however, the sun was rising higher into the sky and the snow was quickly softening. The couloir looked like a beautiful class 2-3 climb, and I was naively hoping that the northeast orientation of the route would protect it to some degree from the sun. The bottom two- thirds was mostly continuous snow with mixed rock, and snow on the top third.

Just as I approached the base of the climb, a slope on the East Face of Middle Pal released, about 200 meters directly in front of me. The wet slide cascaded over the headwall onto the glacier. Luckily, I was near the lateral moraine splitting the glacier, and thus not in the avalanche's fall line. Nothing came closer than a hundred feet from me. A few minutes later, I noticed that another wet slide higher up on the mountain was flowing down the couloir that I had been planning to climb. Then, only a minute or two later, the other half of the slope that had produced the first slide released, creating another spectacular cascade of snow.

At this point I suddenly remembered that I had an urgent appointment at Keogh Hot Springs and headed back to camp. Given the snow conditions, Sill was clearly out of the question. As I was breaking camp, a large slope released high up on Mt. Jepson, which is directly across the valley from Brainard Lake. This avalanche was much larger and more spectacular than any of the three I saw on Middle Pal. It flowed over the cliffs like a huge white waterfall, and its roar reverberated throughout the valley.

The hike out was a slush nightmare. At times I felt I was more swimming than hiking through the snow. (In retrospect, I decided that my traversing the side of Kid Mountain on the way in had been brilliant. :-)

A short time later, I was sitting in the soothing waters of Keogh Hot Springs.

Christopher Jain


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