Routes: Northwest Ridge, South Slopes via Scimitar Pass
Elevation Gained: 6,511'
RT Distance: 13.5 mi
RT Time: 10hr 50min
Trailhead: Big Pine
Summit Elevs.: Palisade Crest: 13,553' Mt Jepson: 13,390'
Rating: Class 4
When climbing in extremely exposed terrain there are several rules one must abide by to be able to deal psychologically with the exposure:
Don’t ruminate about one’s fears beforehand.
Don’t imagine oneself falling along different points along the route
Don’t look down more than you have to
I broke all of these rules when attempting the summit of Gandalf Peak along the Palisade Crest. The night before, I began to be overcome with a feeling of dread. I had seen photos of the route beforehand, and it was awesomely exposed. By climbing with a rope, I knew that it would be exciting, but we were going to free-solo the route. It was only class 3 along the most exposed part, and the class 4 ramp at the end was reportedly easier to deal with than the class 3 traverse. I was excited to be climbing such as awesome peak, but this feeling that something bad was going to happen kept getting worse. After experiencing minor injuries in a fall on Basin Mountain 3 days earlier and narrowly escaping a monster rock slide on Mt Wallace 2 days before, my nerves were a little tense for good reason.
Like the day before when we climbed Mt Winchell, we were departing the Big Pine trailhead at 5:10 am. Today Bob, Michael, Matthew, Joe , Daryn, and I were the only ones attempting the Palisade Crest. This time we headed past the first set of switchbacks and straight up the south fork of Big Pine creek. Soon we began a tedious series of switchbacks winding up a 600 foot headwall. This ascent went by easily and soon we reached flatter ground again. The sun was just rising and a beautiful alpenglow washed over Middle Palisade and the Palisade Crest. This lasted only a moment before it was gone and we continued on our way. We descended a hill and then left the trail to begin heading up a western spur of the south drainage to reach Elinore Lake. The going soon got tough as the trail disappeared. We wound our way through tall grasses, crossing the myriad of streams snaking through the flats before finally reaching class 2 boulder hopping on the north side of the stream. Bob had disappeared, but after climbing up the boulders a few minutes we spotted him a little behind us, on the overgrown south side of the stream. Apparently we had picked the better route this time, and Bob hopped over to our side.
A while later we parted company with Bob and Matthew – they followed the stream all the way to Elinore Lake, but Joe, Michael, and I opten to take a shortcut up a dividing ridge. Daryn continued up the drainage since he had decided to climb Mt Gayler and Temple Crag from the south instead of joining us on the Palisade Crest. The shortcut worked nicely as the ground was mostly clear of vegetation and we were able to scramble straight up to the shores of Elinore Lake, reaching it just as Bob and Matthew came around the corner. We hopped along the granite boulders along the eastern shore and then began climbing some steep class 2 slabs. They reminded me a lot of Bob’s aptly named ‘Slabs ‘O Plenty’ we crossed on our way up Mt Lyell 5 days earlier. We aimed towards the end of a spur coming off the crest. The spur stuck out dramatically, like the bow of a huge ship driving its way through the rocky valley below.
At the subtle saddle at the end of this prow, we crossed over to the south side of the ridge. From there we had a full view of the impressive east face of Norman Clyde Peak, dropping over a 1,000 vertical feet straight down to the Norman Clyde Glacier. A ways over was the Palisade Crest, although I couldn’t tell which peak was Gandalf Pk yet. We scrambled up some ugly loose sand and scree composing a moraine of some unnamed glacier, and then traversed above the glacier, angling up towards a break in the impediment of cliffs known as Scimitar Pass. For some reason this name seemed very fitting to me, due to the lethally rugged terrain surrounding it and the brutal cross country approach required to get to it. By just reaching the pass we covered more ground than one would need to climb a Sierra Peak!
After surmounting a short class 3 headwall, we were at Scimitar Pass. Now all we had was a relatively short scrambling traverse to reach Gandalf Peak! Joe announced that he was going to split off from the group to climb nearby Mt Jepson and then head down. He felt that the exposure of the climb up Gandalf Peak would be too much for him and he didn’t want to get in over his head. This was perplexing to Matthew and Michael, since Joe could climb 5.10, well above their abilities, and yet he was too scared to attempt a class 3-4 route without a rope. Of course climbing proficiency and acceptance of risk don’t necessarily correlate, so it made sense to me.
As Joe headed north to Mt Jepson and Bob, Matthew, and I took off up the spiny ridge of the Palisade Crest.
Bob soon disappeared in the lead, and as the exposure increased and I became more nervous, I fell about 50 feet or so behind Matthew and Michael. The scrambling was thrilling, but it was also barely within my comfort level. We dropped repeatedly to the east, and then climbed class 3 rock back up to the ridge. At one point we walked along the spine of the ridge with big vertical drop offs on both sides. The rock was flat, about the width of a sidewalk, and angled at about 15 degrees towards the 60 foot drop off to the West. At a notch in the sky high sidewalk Michael and Matthew just hopped over the gap. I was sketched out enough that I climbed into the notch and up the other side – I’d really rather not risk the consequences if I tripped on my landing on the far side. As the exposure increased I became increasingly worried, and I kept thinking of different scenarios of falling off of the ridge.
Then we reached the route finding crux of the ridge. The class 3 scramble dropped us down onto the +1,000 ft high east face as it headed toward a prominent notch in the ridge. From there all we had was the class 4 ramp that wound its way up the backside of Gandalf Peak. The summit block was amazing. The rock was shaped like a sagging wizard hat – a very surreal shape to see on a mountain top. This silhouette belonged in cartoons and claymations, not in real life! The summit was named after the elf, Gandalf, in J.R.R Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, and apparently the other 11 spires on the ridge were named after other characters in his stories.
At this point the class three scrambling was intermixed with sandy class 2 ledges covered in loose scree. The looseness of the rock added to my anxiety – while the terrain was easy to walk and scramble through, it seemed very easy to slip or fall as the loose rock gave way, as it did on Basin Mountain and Mt Haekel. I climbed down the ledges facing into the hill, and I made the mistake of looking down. As I down climbed I could see the unnamed glacier we had passed over earlier peeking between my legs, over 1,000 feet below. My sense of vertigo increased and I stopped to recompose myself at a sheltered notch and chock stone along the east face.
Michael and Matthew were having a difficult time route finding, and the cairns scattered around didn’t help much. The kept climbing farther down, closer to the precipice, and were slowly making progress to the notch. I could see Bob standing atop the ramp beyond. I took some photos and then re-evaluated the situation. This last 150 ft before the notch was the last of the most exposed scrambling on the ridge, and it really wasn’t too bad, apart from the ‘splat’ factor. I could probably make it across. Then I looked down again, and my vertigo worsened. I could probably make it across, but it would be hell coming back! As much as I desperately wanted to summit, I just couldn’t bear the though of having to retrace all of this terrain, and I froze. Matthew and Michael had found the route by then and beckoned me to follow. I knew that I was too scared to continue climbing safely, so I reluctantly told them that I was turning back. They insisted that I climb just a bit further, but I declined and headed back along the ridge.
I was pissed that I had turned around. I really wanted to climb Gandalf Peak and it was easily within my climbing ability. I just couldn’t handle the exposure as a free-solo. It was embarrassing having turned around on a class 3 route, and I resolved to return with a rope and complete the climb. I knew that the ridge traverse was rated 5.5, so I could do the traverse for more enjoyment and as an excuse to have a rope for the sketchy parts.
(Note: In 2010 I unsuccessfully attempted this traverse. In 2013 I completed it. It was much harder 5.5 - more like 5.8. It was a spectacular climb: Trip Report)
I made my way back along the ridge slowly, but easier than when coming. I felt defeated, but I didn’t want this long approach to be a waste – I decided to climb Mt Jepson before heading down Scimitar Pass.
It was at about this time that I heard a noise behind me. I turned around to catch Bob trying to sneak up on me. I waited for him to join me and told him regretfully of my choice to turn around, and my intent t at least bag Jepson. He was up for that and we headed toward the peak. Then we heard more voices.
Like sirens luring us off the cliffs, two mysterious ladies appeared over a bulge in the talus slopes below. Were we hallucinating?! Who would be coming up to Scimitar Pass from the West?! We greeted them and chatted for a while. Actually, Bob chatted and I just sat there. I was still a little shaken up from the Palisade Crest and couldn’t think of anything to say. Apparently these two ladies had been backpacking in the High Sierras for the past 10 days and they were hiking out over Scimitar Pass to pick up a food cache at the Big Pine trailhead before returning to the backcountry, passing back through Scimitar Pass. Quite the detour!
We wished them well and parted ways. Bob and I scrambled up the class 2 slopes of Mt Jepson and were soon on the summit. From there we had some very nice views of the Palisade Crest to the south and the backsides of Mt Sill and Mt Polemonium to the north. We happily signed the register and laughed at Joe’s entry. He had made it here earlier and had written a very strange entry in the summit log. Then we headed back toward Scimitar Pass, reaching it at about the same time as Michael and Matthew.
We happily told them of the sirens we had encountered, but they were skeptical. As we headed down Scimitar Pass we took to some glissading on the glacier to avoid the class 2 boulders on the side and were soon at the moraine. The ladies we had met earlier were also at the moraine, having lunch. Now Michael and Matthew were convinced. They all chatted for a while, and I remained awkwardly silent since once again I couldn’t think of anything to say, and then we parted ways again.
Back at Elinore Lake our group paired off again to take our respective routes down to the drainage, and once again ended up there at about the same time. Daryn met us there too, having just come down from the summit of Mt Sill, and we all headed down together. The terrain was tiring, but much easier on the downhill. Once we reached the meadow we found the proper use-trail through the area and had an easy time getting back to the main trail, and in no time we were back at the cars.
Sadly this was the last day of the Challenge for me. I had originally planned on attempting to participate for the entire 10 days, but Dirk Summers had tempted me into joining him and Gordon Ye in climbing the 5.6 North Arete of Matterhorn Peak. While it would have been fun to climb the rest of the peaks in this year’s Challenge, I was more interested in getting more experience on technical alpine routes. After having my last dinner with Bob and the gang, with the new arrival Heyning Cheng making some ‘interesting’ conversation, Heyning gave me a ride back up to Bishop to meet up with Dirk for my next adventure in the Sierra.Note: I came back in 2010 at an attempt to do a traverse of the ridge with Dirk Summers. Lightning chased us off, but I wouldn't let go of the idea, and in 2013 I returned with Steph Abegg and did the traverse, FINALLY summitting Gandalf Peak, along with the rest of the Palisade Crest summits. These climbs are covered in another trip report.