We started hiking up the North Fork Big Pine trail last week in the late afternoon and stopped at First Lake (~10000') for the night. Neither of us is particularly good at acclimatizing to altitude, so we went for the liesurely approach. It being a low snow year there were reports of early ice in the couloir, so we also schlepped ice tools, steel crampons and some ice screws in addition to a spartan rock rack and skinny rope.
Next morning we started before 8am, headed up past Temple Crag to Sam Mack meadow (~11000') and finally stumbled up the slabs to Gayley Camp (~12300'). We were pretty beat, and after taking some pictures decided to basically nap until dinnertime.
As we worked on our sumptious meal, a couple of guys returned to their campsite and related their experience in the notch: eminently soloable, with a nice but short pitch of blue ice at the top, a little steeper than 40 degrees. Hmm, maybe we didn't bring all this gear for nothing after all.
I've always found Gayley Camp to be a little breezy, but our summit day forecast called for wind. We got a lot of it overnight, glad to have guyed out the tent and brought earplugs :)
Rob kicked me awake at 4:15am, and we scurried about our morning rituals. The wind was cold and ominous clouds had gathered over the crest. Another party had arrived late the previous day, intent on doing the north face of Mt. Sill, and they got an earlier start.
We dragged ourselves out onto the moraine, and marched up the Palisade Glacier. The low snow year made small crevasses more apparent.
We happened to notice the V-Notch still looking mostly snowy. Might be good later in the season, hmm..
We stopped at a sunny spot near the base of the U-Notch and got out our screws, rock gear and ice tools, then headed up the right side of the bergschrund without incident. The snow had some nice steps kicked. Soon we encountered ice: aerated gray stuff, featured and easy to climb. The angle was pretty relaxed, making for a fun cruise up the couloir.
The main route up the couloir jogs left around a large rib of rock, which offers an escape from the ice, should one desire it. Instead, we headed up to the last 60' of blue ice, and belayed on screws. We'd brought 'em; might as well use 'em.
I took the lead, mainly because I was getting cold and wanted to keep moving :)
In the notch we were somewhat sheltered from the SW wind. We could hear it blasting like the sound of a jet engine. While planning the trip I'd thought about maybe tagging Polemonium while we were at the notch, but the idea of heading out into that wind lost its attraction for some reason :) We stowed the ice gear, and looked up at the chimney. We'd brought rock shoes, but it was still pretty cold so we just climbed the thing in boots.
Rob headed up past the two-piton belay mentioned in Porcella & Burns and belayed on gear about 180' up. I think my lead was ~30' from there, ending at some more ancient pitons and a rap station on the ridge, where we left our rope for the return.
We were back in the sun, but as we made our way along the ridge, the SW wind blasted us. At times the gusts knocked me off balance, and despite wearing a balaclava I was getting cold.
We probably should have dropped down further into the SW bowl below North Pal and then traversed around, rather than staying as high as we did. We were maybe within 100 vertical feet of the summit, but getting cold and tired. The wind did not let up. At one point I stopped to snack on a chocolate bar and realized my chewing muscles were almost too cold to function. It was an easy choice to bail, and we made our way back along the ridge.
Two raps took us down the chimney (which had now gone into the shade) and back to the notch. We descended loose class 3-4 rock back to the gray ice, where I downclimbed to the 'schrund and the glacier. Rob elected to rappel the couloir instead, and it seemed to work out well for him.
Back in the sun on the glacier around 5pm-ish, we snacked and marveled at this amazing place. The large talus on the moraine always tires me out at the end of the day, but it was worth it. We slept in the next morning and hiked back to the car by noonish.
Driving back over Tioga Pass I noticed how windy it was .. should have stopped off at the resort for some pie :)
8.1mm x 60m rope
4 ice screws (22cm, 19cm, 2x 16cm)
6 alpine draws
one double-length sling
WC zeroes #5 & 6, green/yellow link cams, WC tech friend 3.5
WC rocks #1-8
We saw a couple v-threads on the ice in the upper part of the couloir, but didn't use them. I packed out one that had mostly melted out.