by Seth Lightcap
Driving up the road to Glacier Lodge last March, looming Mt.Alice looked huge. Flipping open a topo map and my tattered copy of Paul Ritchens’ 50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California, I measured up Mt. Alice and our intended route. Scoffing past the, “Snowboards: Not Recommended” bit, I sought words of encouragement, and read aloud to my two partners, Nick Sovner and his dog, Max, “The circumnavigation of the Palisades is an arduous ski mountaineering MINI expedition through some of the most rugged alpine terrain in the Sierra Nevada.” I got no reply. I could tell they were both looking at Mt. Alice and the surrounding terrain. Mouths open, they stared at the vast landscape. There was nothing “mini” about it.
Arriving at an empty trailhead around 1 p.m., the air was dank. The dripping pines glistened as the sun shown through onto the fresh snow. I stretched out my pesky leg cramps and watched Max casually sniff at a pine bough in a snow drift. Perched with precision, Max shook off a drip from his coat and radiated his veteran snow demeanor. I turned back to the truck, eager to begin gearing up. Nick had already unloaded the boards and was elbow deep loading his pack. Game On!
A recent crossover from snowboarding, Nick was touring on telemark skis. True to my roots, I was piloting a splitboard. A splitboard is a hybrid snowboard that can split in half to become skis (see product review page 42). The splitboard allows the dual reality of efficient skiing on the way up and blissful snowboarding on the way down. As I had already skied about 150 total miles on my 170cm Burton with few issues, I was ecstatic about challenging my schizophrenic chariot to a true epic in the Sierras.Finessing this expedition would finally give me the ammunition I needed to crush two-planker naysayers who spout about a snowboard’s limitations in the backcountry. As far as I knew, no one had ever attempted a Palisade circumnavigation on a splitboard. …And so the journey began. Three Donner Summit snow warriors, poised for an extended journey into a massive winter Valhalla. We had all seen many nights under the winter stars, but such a journey around the Palisades would be our most committing adventure yet. Inspired by the write up in Paul Ritchen’s guide book,I had convinced Nick that this expedition was THE adventure to fill his spring break from Humboldt State. Without requiring any car shuttling, the 30 mile trip would take us up the North fork of Big Pine Creek, around the remote Western flank of the Palisade Range, and back down the South fork of Big Pine Creek. The route began at 7800 ft and climbed five 12,000+ ft passes, crossing the Sierra Crest twice in the process. I reasoned we would spend five nights in the snow.
Prepared, and giddy with energy, we hid the car key, and began mounting our skis. Max was already down the trail. The first six miles of the journey followed the North Fork trail up Big Pine Creek. Slogging through 18 inches of fresh snow and pesky manzanita, we camped in the trees just above First Lake in the shadow of beloved Temple Crag. Watching the sunset on Temple’s gothic aretes and massive pillars, we dug in our Mega-Mid tent, humbled to have just entered what we knew to be holy land. The next day Max had us up and charging at first light. We ditched the trail and took a high traversing line above Second and Third Lakes dropping back to the valley floor at Fourth Lake. Arriving aside Fifth Lake around noon, we found what would be our last open water source. Everyone guzzled the icy melt water and recharged. The first sustained steep push lay just ahead. Matching each other step for step, Nick’s telemarks and my splitboard both worked flawlessly as we switchbacked up the massive headwall that guarded the drainage below Jigsaw Pass. Stoic in the face of deadly exposure, Max scurried on top of the crust as Nick and I busted steps one at a time.
Upon reaching 11,700 ft. at 3:30 p.m. we dug in for the night. Sleeping in the trees at 9000 ft had been comfortable, so we figured digging our shelter into a four foot deep hole next to a rock might help recreate that warmth 2500 ft. higher. Two hours effort paid off, and we slept relatively
warm despite Max’s attempts to steal my sleeping pad. Awoken to bluebird skies, Nick led the rally to the Crest. The final 400 feet of climbing gave us a chilling reminder of the committing conditions that guard the Sierra Crest mid-winter. We clung to our edges and perched on our poles, as steep icy crust led us through broken exposed rock. Nick’s telemarks gripped a bit better than my splitboard initially, but upon engaging my crampons and tightening my skins I gained the crest just behind him. Looking off of Jigsaw Pass at the glorious peaks of King’s Canyon,we took a reverent break and stood in awe of the snowy serenity awash around us.
Eager to make our first turns in three days, Nick and I clamored over the rocky crest and looked down the western escarpment hoping for a powdery chute to descend. Instead we looked off into nearly 500 feet of nasty steep rock mixed with narrow tongues of loose snow. A tattered bamboo wand marked a
narrow rocky entrance. The downclimbing that ensued was by far the crux of our trip. The steep snow made for sketchy kick stepping and the loose rock made for horrible down climbing. More in touch with the rock, I zig zagged my way down intermittent rock steps. Nick’s plastic tele boots allowed him to kickstep through the crust so he moved snow patch to snow patch. Max charged down head first, running laps around us both. A stressful hour later we reached terra firma—a 500 ft. snowfield that dropped to the basin at Bishop Pass. Assembling my splitboard for the first time in three days, I took a deep breath and launched into some of the most rewarding turns I have ever made. Ripping through the shin deep, wind blown powder I felt unconscious. Nick and I milked that sweet pitch for every vertical inch. Catching a hidden rock, Nick took an unexpected fall, but even a tweaked ankle couldn’t rip off his plastered smile.
The rest of the afternoon we crossed 12,000 ft. Bishop Pass and blasted a bit further, setting camp in a drift directly below Thunderbolt Peak. The dawn of day four found us a bit cold, but still energetic. Setting a preliminary goal of a camp below Norman Clyde Peak, we had three 1500 ft. passes to climb and descend. Tackling Thunderbolt Pass with ease, we plotted our line to Potluck Pass, and dropped in for our second helping of turns. Returning to our skis and skins we traversed below North Palisade and made good time ascending Potluck Pass. Nick’s telemarks and my split skis handled the variable snow with grace.
From the top of Potluck we spied our final pass for the day, the inconspicuous Cirque Pass. Cirque Pass is a narrow break in a major ridge jutting away from Mt. Sill and gaining its threshold proved to be quite intimidating. Peering over the southern edge at almost 4 p.m. we quickly
stowed the skins, and dropped into a technical descent through fall lines that fell off into jutting cliffbands. Nick proved himself the worthy partner and photographer as he passed on a few dream-like exposed lines to safely guide himself rock band to rock band while shooting pictures. More at ease with my bulky pack, I hucked and played with every drop and constriction on my splitboard. Arriving at the basin below Norman Clyde Peak, an eerie fog rolled in and we dug out a home for our last night
west of the Sierra Crest.
That night below Norman Clyde Peak was miserable. Icy condensation rained from our tent walls with every gust of wind, leaving me no choice but to cover my face with my jacket to escape the frost. Sleeping with a jacket over my face at 11,000 ft. quickly led to hypoxia and I would awaken tearing the jacket away to gasp for breath. Everyone slept horribly. The wind died with the dawn and we finally got some decent sleep as the sun hit the shelter.
The final day west of the crest we contoured above beautiful Palisade Lakes. Traversing the rolling slopes far above the lakes put my split ski skills to the test. Spooked about slipping on the split skis, it was my turn to make the cautious traverse lines and take the pictures. Nick casually made the turns as Max chased us both. Hooking around to the east, we arrived at the base of Southfork Pass around 1 p.m. We inhaled some lunch and began our final climb. Steep switchbacking on exposed slopes gained us a narrow tongue of loose talus on which we scraped our way up the final 300 ft. to the top of the Sierra Crest.
Gaining the 12,560 ft. Southfork Pass, my eyes lit up. What lay to the east is what backcountry dreams are made of. A 500 ft. funneling chute of soft wind pack that emptied out into the massive southern drainage of Big Pine Creek. After negotiating the narrow chute exit, a descent of over 3000 vertical feet still awaited us. Before dropping into the chute we checked that our transcievers were beeping, and dug a hasty pit to get an idea as to the stability of the snowpack in the chute. The snowpack seemed nicely consolidated, so we geared up for the descent. Nursing his tweaked ankle, Nick chose a lower point to drop from. I made off with the glory turns,
punching several tight slashes right off the crest, before pointing the hole shot. Screaming out into the massive snowfield below, I once again found
religion. Floating through the countless gullies and small headwalls of the Big Pine drainage, we rode and skied for over two and a half miles. Choosing lines picture perfect for our respective styles, Nick and I frolicked as Max chased our tracks. Although we could have easily descended all the way to the trailhead that day, we stopped short and camped one last night at Willow Lake. Legs weary and souls aflame, we celebrated our achievement and slept womb-like under the shadows of the Palisades. The next morning, we loaded up, and pushed on to the final descent. What we expected to be a no-brainer down the main drainage ended up coercing us into very committing territory. Riding tree to tree next to exposed rushing water made for a fitting ending to the adventure. Snowline forced us to give up the now tic-tac descending and we hiked out the last half mile in the snow and dirt to the trailhead. The truck held clean socks, cold beers, and offered our first interaction with other people in six days. Questioned as to our journey, we spoke in tongues still unintelligible to anyone but ourselves. No one asked us a second question and we sought no more answers. The Palisades had pushed us hard, but all worry and suspicion were now gone. No technology, no guidebook, and no physical or mental limitations could take back our success.A snowboarder, a telemarker, and a dog had completed the journey of a lifetime.