Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Visit to the South Fork

... of Big Pine Creek ...

Hi all,

Only rarely do I get away from the wild and lovely North Fork American, yet last week I joined Ron Gould for an expedition to Middle Palisade, a fourteen-thousand-foot peak on the Sierra crest south of Yosemite.

We drove east and south, passing by Lake Tahoe, and reaching Highway 395 at Carson City. I remember so fondly the vast open spaces around 395, south of Carson City. Now new houses are perched upon ridges, and entire subdivisions have sprouted along what can only be regarded as one of the most scenic roads in North America.

Pausing at Bridgeport to examine some fine hot springs on BLM land, it seemed to me that use of the area had increased a hundred-fold since the good old days in the 1970s. From the springs, one can look across the great flat meadow of Bridgeport to the Sawtooth Ridge peaks, along the north boundary of Yosemite. Spectacular.

Then south, past Mono Lake and Mammoth into the Owens Valley proper, where we turned west into the Buttermilk Country, just south and east of gigantic Mt. Tom, rising 9000' above the valley floor, near Bishop. Deeply weathered granite outcrops into clumps of egg-like boulders, some the size of houses, with sagebrush and rabbitbush (in bloom!) sparsely clothing the gently sloping desert. We camped beside a small creek with some great "view" eggs close by, from which Mt. Humphrey and many other jagged peaks along and near the crest could be seen to the west, and the White Mountains to the east, across the Owens Valley. Ron's friends, Dave, Brian, and Mark, met us there, and the next morning it was on to Bishop and a humble cafe for breakfast.

Driving south to Big Pine, and then up to Glacier Lodge at 7800', we assembled our gear and stashed our cars and finally finally were on the trail, holding to the left where the more popular trail up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek leads away right, towards the Palisade Glacier, largest in the Sierra.

Cottonwoods and willows grew along the South Fork, and a scattering of groves of red-trunked Jeffrey Pine, but our trail stayed high and in the sun, through the usual sagebrush and rabbitbush, with some interesting gnarled ancient Desert Mahogany bushes along the way. Here in the North Fork we have Mountain Mahogany; this was the eastside, desert version.

We had glimpses of the high peaks and glaciers ahead, mainly Mt. Norman Clyde, with its sheer cliff-like eastern faces.

A couple miles brought us to the first big step in the canyon. The trail switches back and forth up a talus field to one side, and, crossing a ridge, suddenly our goal was in view. Middle Palisade. The east-face route we intended to climb led from a ridge dividing two lobes of the Middle Palisade glacier, up to a certain gully or couloir, which one followed to the summit. From our vantage point, this couloir looked quite steep, nearly vertical, but one usually finds that such things look steeper than they actually are.

We were troubled, tho, to see abundant snow from the storm of the weekend before, slathered all over the east face of Middle Pal, and extending down to the terminal moraine below the glacier. In particular, our couloir was half-covered in snow.

This changed the complexion of the climb rather drastically, and when we reached Brainard Lake, at 10,300', with an even closer view of Middle Pal, it did not take much discussion to agree to give up on the climb. We had ice axes, but the snow would be too thin for the axe. It would only be just right for making an already steep climb, very slippery.

We were, in any case, in a rather wonderful place, one of the most alpine and scenic areas of the Sierra, with peaks rising to 11, 12, 13, and 14 thousand feet every which way, glaciers clinging to their northeast faces, and many lakes and tarns. Most of the rock was granite, some with enough in the way of the darker minerals to be called diorite, some almost white. Across the canyon to the north a small pluton of this white granite made a peak between the two forks of Big Pine Creek. This unnamed peak had interesting horizontal bands of krummholz (stunted and wind-twisted pines near timberline), up around the 11,500-foot level, where, apparently, severe west winds had allowed new trees to grow only to the lee of an existing tree. Some of the krummholz bands may have been a hundred feet long.

East of this Krummholz Peak was Temple Crag, a 13,000-footer, and between the two was Contact Pass, where the white and dark granites met. People cross between the two forks of Big Pine Creek through this pass, at about 11,800'.

Vertical joint planes seemed to dominate in all the granite, and the planes were closely-spaced, leading to the development of innumerable pinnacles along the ridge crests, even along the minor spur ridges of spur ridges. Through all this varied granite a system of dikes had intruded, of some very dark, mafic, iron-rich rock, almost black if not black. The dikes inhabited the system of vertical joint planes and could be traced for a mile at a glance, sometimes.

Interestingly, there was also a system of light-colored aplite dikes, such as one very commonly sees in granite; these may have been fed by the white pluton of the horizontal krummholz, but in any event these white dikes were youngest, cutting the darker granite and the black dikes both.

We camped at Brainard, and enjoyed a moonlit hike onto glacially-smoothed granite ribs, above the lake. Despite the moon, the stars were many. Sagittarius was setting over Middle Pal.

No tents, perfect fall weather, not a cloud in the sky, and we all woke up once or twice to glare at a too-bright moon or, later, to marvel at how many more stars appeared, once the moon had set. Before sunrise I was up and brewing instant coffee and rushing to get my camera as "rosy-fingered dawn" lit up Middle Pal, beyond a shadowed granite ridge across the lake.

With Ron and his friends there is a long history of climbing and skiing in the High Sierra, and a sort of ritual is followed. Apparently a portion of the ritual involves making an incredibly slow and deliberate start to the day. The morning was on the wane before we set out cross-country, holding to the more eastern side of things, above Brainard Lake. Two pater noster lakes were on massive steps in the canyon above, and we crossed from the higher lake into another canyon still farther east, below a high ridge studded with perhaps hundreds of pinnacles.

A large moraine-like ridge occupied the center of this canyon. I believe it to be an example of a "rock glacier," in which what appears to be a ridge of sand and angular boulders hides a core of flowing ice. At the head of the canyon is Southfork Pass, a little notch above a regular, albeit small, glacier, with its own bergschrund, the crevasse at the very top of a mountain glacier. A rather sheer peak called "The Thumb" rises above this canyon on the south.

We determined to climb the ridge beside us and look for a pass, hoping to traverse around high and make for the Middle Pal glacier. We found a pass too low for our purposes, and followed the crest west, over large blocks of granite and talus, well over 11,000 feet. As we climbed above 12,000 feet, the ridge narrowed to a near knife-edge, with cliffs to either side, but an almost sidewalk-wide flat summit made for easy going.

One tried to not look down to either side, howsoever easy the footing might be. No sense in getting dizzy. Wrong kind of place for dizziness.

Then the ridge narrowed and a massive peaklet or pinnacle sprouted from its summit, ahead. It looked as tho our "easy traverse" could be had only by surmounting this pinnacle, which looked not at all easy. We carried no ropes. So, we were stopped. But, no worry, the views were awesome. To our south a white, frozen lake was cut right into the Southfork Pass glacier. To the north, a lovely round lake with water a milky turquoise from glacial "flour," and a smaller, half-frozen lake above it. Middle Pal rose above us, so close, to the west. We retreated down the ridge and found a set of ledges which zig-zagged down and north to the half-frozen lake, directly below the south lobe of the Middle Pal glacier, where we followed a low granite rib back down to the east, towards our blue-green Milk Lake.

After resting above Milk Lake, we continued down to Finger Lake, at 10,800', a long and narrow lake inhabiting a genuine chasm, with cliffs plunging into deep water in places. Extremely scenic, just below timberline, and often used for camping, by climbers on their way to Middle Pal.

Two of our party had already split off and found their own ways back to camp at Brainard. We three found the "use" trail from Finger to Brainard and soon joined them. The sun was still up, yet we had made a moderate loop of a few miles, much above timberline, and enjoyed truly tremendous and intimate views of many peaks, including Mt. Sill, another fourteen-thousand-footer.

The next morning we made the usual ritually slow start and had quite an easy time of it, walking the five miles back to Glacier Lodge, arriving around 2:30. Then it was time to pack up the cars and return, some to the Bay Area via Tioga Pass, one to San Diego via 395, and Ron and I back north to the North Fork country.

It was a great visit to the High Sierra.

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