The Palisades are the main glacial basin in California. They are dramatic and hold amazing ski terrain. There’s 4 ‘main’ lines that draw skiers are
- the North Face of Middle Palisade,
- the North Couloir on Norman Clyde Peak,
- the U-Notch and V-Notch Couloirs on Polemonium,
- and the North Couloir on Thunderbolt Peak.
The approach into the Palisade Glacier basin is a long walk, so linking up as many of the lines as possible was a pipe dream of mine. I knew that Middle Palisade was probably not going to be realistic to add in, since it’s on the east side of Norman Clyde Peak with little access to connect over the drainages, but the other lines seemed possible to connect (given the fat snow year). The trick was going to be the entrance to the north couloir on Mt. Sill…some years there is a rock wall near the top. Nick, Lane, and I figured it was worth a try to go a look. We would start with Norman Clyde’s north couloir, then traverse west towards the L-Shaped Snowfield on Mt. Sill and check out the North Couloir. If that went, we’d check out the couloirs off Polemonium…then depending on energy and stoke continue on to Thunderbolt.
Given the long day, we opted for an early start for north facing terrain: 5 AM. The sun wasn’t really going to be doing much to the lines we’d be skiing, but we wanted to leave the door open for a long day.
Lane and I started the 1.5 mile road walk from the road closure at Sage Flat campground towards Big Pine Creek campground. There was spotty snow until the bridge across Big Pine Creek, but once across we were easily able to start skinning west towards Norman Clyde. Nick, being the speedy Wasatch boy he is, started an hour after us and planned to catch us on the climb up to Norman Clyde.
Lane and I continued along through the post-glacial terrain towards Norman Clyde. The travel was quick given the firm snow and we were able to skin to the base of the couloir without incident.
We heard on the radio from Nick that he was about 30 mins behind us as we neared the base of the couloir. We figured he’d catch us as we neared the top. Booting up the couloir we found chalky powder turn to actual powder?!?! It hadn’t snowed in almost a month! Crazy…
Sure enough, Nick caught us just as we crested the top of Norman Clyde’s north couloir. Good timing! Damn that boy is fast. We were excited for skiing actual powder! I was bummed to have brought my 85mm underfoot skis for the day.
The couloir was delightful…consistently steep and great soft snow! If only I had my fat skis!!!
We skied down the north side of Norman Clyde to a bench around 11,000′. From here, we would wrap west on glacial benches towards the L-Shaped snowfield below Mt. Sill. The vast glacial terrain was reminiscent of the North Cascades. For a moment, it felt like Washington.
Our buddy John was skiing the L-Shaped Snowfield and radioed to us that he peeked at the North Couloir on Sill and it looked firm and icy. We had a rope with us, in case a rappel was necessary; we figured we’d go take a look anyways. It might soften by the time we got over there…or we’d just bail and ski the L-Shaped Snowfield in corn back to the car.
There was a whipping wind on the shoulder of Sill as we climbed the L-Shaped Snowfield. When we crested the shoulder and peered into the north couloir of Sill we almost laughed…it looked trivial! It was such a fat snowpack that the line was super wide, not that steep, and while firm, it definitely wasn’t ice. It would be heads-up skiing, but our hopes of skiing into the basin beneath U-Notch and V-Notch was going to work!
The north couloir was definitely firm but went fine. We were beneath U-Notch and V-Notch and peered over at the lines.
V-Notch looked to be in very bad shape. It had a double bergschrund and many skiers had either sideslipped it or scraped down any snow that was there. It didn’t look very appealing.
Given the bergschrund weirdness, we didn’t opt to try V-Notch. Looking over at U-Notch looked much more promising. It’s not as ‘steep’ and it’s much wider…but it’s still a proud line.
Nick, Lane, and I were stoked to give U-Notch a try. We skinned up to the base of the booter that numerous parties had set up it. Getting over the bergschrund was easy on a good snow bridge.
Once across the bergschrund, it was a pretty simple bootpack to follow to the top. The snow was firm and not as soft/powdery as Norman Clyde. It would be slower skiing, but still ski okay. The top of the couloir steepened to 45-50 and had been sideslipped by a number of people before. It was going to be ego vs. brain skiing.
Lane styled a jump turn at the top, making Nick and I feel obligated to make turns. Nick followed and made it look a little more difficult (sorry Nick). I opted to side step a little bit and then make a turn. Perfectly fine admitting that. After the first 20 feet, the pitch mellowed to 40-45 degrees and then sustained for the remainder of the run. The snow was firm, so it was heads up and slow going.
Crossing the bergschrund on the way down went smoothly, and we re-convened after a quite exhausting ski with many jump turns. We were 10k’ into the day at this point, with the north couloir on Thunderbolt Peak right around the corner. “Well, do we go take a look?” We each knew that if we went to “look” we’d end up skiing it. “Well, we’re here…”
We ski traversed around the corner of Thunderbolt Peak and stared up at the broad north face/couloir. There was a booter up it…we were going for it! I turned on some music to get our juices flowing, ate some food, and up we went.
We found a good rhythm climbing up Thunderbolt as the day ticked away. Near the top the snow turned soft and faceted and I had to downclimb a short section after Nick and Lane had kicked off all the snow on a short rock crux. I hustled to make it up to the summit with them. Skiing down was some of the best turns of the day in faceted soft powder that quickly turned to chalk! The line down the north face zig-zags a bit through some rocks, but then turns to a very wide couloir.
The exit out the North Fork Big Pine Creek drainage wasn’t very fun, but wasn’t the worst. We had to skate/skin a few of the flat lakes, then ski isothermal mush back to the Big Pine Creek campground. It took a while, but was otherwise uneventful. A small troll toll to pay for a great day of skiing.