Andy and Tessa came back for more. Last winter, as part of a shared California Alpine Guides/Sierra Mountain Guides winter mountaineering course, they got the basics down. They then went out for a year and bagged peaks in the Sierra, the Cascades and Peru. This February, taking advantage of uniquely non-wintry weather and conditions, they hoped to put it all together with a winter ascent of North Palisade. North Palisade, from any angle at any time of year, is a proud ascent. From the U-Notch, in February's short, cold days, it's world-class! World class in strenuousness, aesthetics, and objective difficulty. Andy and Tessa have above average fitness and skills. Conditions and access and weather would be our biggest uncertainty. As the dates approached, the weather forecast gelled into a somewhat typical windy pattern. In an unfortunate twist of fate, the windiest time was forecast for the relatively narrow summit window we had built into our 3 day trip.
We approached from the Glacier Lodge parking, walking initially in bare boots and eventually on snowshoes, to Sam Mack Meadow. Clear skies, warm temperatures, firm snow underfoot, calm air: We couldn't have asked for more that first day. With the forecast wind kicking up that afternoon, we pitched our tents as well as we could and hunkered down. We optimistically set the alarm for early on day 2, but screaming winds only increased through the night. Before sleeping, we discussed options and criteria by which we would implement these various alternatives; better to discuss contingencies when fed and warm and happy than to make rash decisions half-awake in the dark and cold of an early wake-up. The consensus was that, if we woke to the forecast morning winds, we would forego the avalanche prone U-Notch route, sleep a little longer, and move camp higher for an attempt at another summit in the morning of the 3rd day.
Knowing the beauty of a high and sunrise-lit campsite, we chose to move camp to Glacier Notch. Now, camping at Glacier Notch is not part of your typical Palisades endeavor, but it should be! What a spot: One can look north into the entire Palisade Glacier cirque and southeast into Death Valley national park. The sun rises over the glacier and hits tents square on with the most orange alpenglow you can imagine. The East Face of Mount Sill looms to the west while the red ridge of Mt. Gayley waits just a few minutes north. With the previous day's strong SW winds loading snow couloirs on all the 14ers, we chose Mt. Gayley's SW ridge as our 3rd day, early morning, "consolation" prize. Andy and Tessa, like all good mountaineers, adapted readily to the change in plans. The journey became our destination. We scored a winter ascent of a large and remote peak, but the most memorable portion will probably be that campsite at Glacier Notch.