Saturday, July 30th, 2016

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Wandering the Northern Palisades


My original plan for the weekend was to head down to the Whitney region to climb the East Ridge of Mt. Russell. If it’s not on your list yet, it will be after reading this Sierra Descents trip report.

Getting into this area requires a North Fork Lone Pine Creek permit obtainable at the Eastern Sierra Interagency office in Lone Pine. They hold on to a dozen or so for walk-ins like me. I’ve had some success in the past doing the walk-in thing. Alas, I was out of luck this time.

So… on to plan B. How about a trip into the Palisades area? That sounds good, I thought. I’ll make camp at the glacier and chat with climbers as they come and go. Maybe even hook up with a group and score the U-notch or Swiss Arete.

Let’s check in with the guidebook. Oooh…. There’s a good 3rd class ridge climb on Mt. Winchell – the East Arete. That sounds perfect, let’s do that instead. So, I got a permit for the North Fork Big Pine Creek (much easier to get a hold of than the Whitney zone) and away I went.

I picked up some grub in Big Pine, drove west to the trail head, parked, packed up and started hiking around 11 am or so. The first 4 miles up to First Lake are a bit tedious. It was hot, hot, hot, that day and there’s not much in terms of shade along the first part of the trail.

You’ll pass three lakes named, appropriately, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Lake. That’s about 6 miles or so. Then you climb some switchbacks into Sam Mack Meadow, a gorgeous high alpine meadow with a meandering stream coming down direct from the glaciers above.


1st lake on the North Fork of Big Pine Creek.


Sam Mack Meadow on way to Palisade Glacier.

I arrived at Sam Mack Meadow with plenty of time left in the afternoon (and plenty of sun). I set up a little lunch area with an ultra-light waterproof tarp from Brooks-Range Mountaineering. It’s a lovely piece of gear with endless uses. This trip I used it as a sun shelter and ground cloth – sun shelter for lunch, and ground cloth for sleeping under the stars. It could also be adapted to provide rain shelter if weather threatens. It could be a bivvy sack. Who knows what else…


Shady lunch spot with Brooks Range tarp.

I made myself some dinner, lay down early and watched the stars come out. The Perseid meteors were very active, and it was a moonless night. I drifted off to sleep and woke at 7 am.


Dinner in Sam Mack meadow.

The plan, as I mentioned, was to climb the East Arete on Mt. Winchell. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Never, ever underestimate how easy it is to get turned around in the mountains – even when route finding should be straightforward.

The approach to this climb is a pain-in-the-arse. It’s miles and miles of seemingly endless bolder hopping and scree scrambling along glacial moraines.

I had gotten into a real zen-like zone as I hopped from bolder to bolder. So much so, that I went right past the base of this climb and all the way into the cirque to the southwest of the climb. In my meditative state I zoned in on a high point in the cirque that I unquestioningly assumed was the summit of Mt. Winchell.

I made it halfway up this sub-peak (on some pretty decent 3rd/4th class rock, by the way) before realizing, “Wait a minute, that’s Winchell waaaayyyyy over there.” Oops. So I climbed to the top of the aspect I was on, peered over into the next basin and those endless views from the top of the Sierra.


Endless scree fields and glacial morraine on approach to Mt. Winchell.

It was already noon by this time and the thought of navigating more scree on the approach to the real base of the route sounded unappealing, to say the least. So I sat on the top enjoyed the sun and the views, had some peanut M&Ms, then started down…

And back, once again, into the endless scree fields. Then, finally, back down to Sam Mack Meadow, where, as I past some small ponds in the meadow, dozens of small, beautiful frogs leapt into the water as I passed. Upon further research, I believe these are Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs. It’s good to know that even with the well-documented environmental pressure on amphibians of late, that this species is alive and well in the high sierra.


Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog in one of the ponds in Sam Mack Meadow.

I sat in the meadow grass, dipped my weary feet into the stream, then packed up and headed out for the 8-mile trip back to the trailhead. Hot, dusty, long. Why does the way out always seem longer than the way in?

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  • Andy


    If you dayhike Russell, you apparently don’t need a Whitney dayhiking permit, or at least you didn’t last time I asked. Though this is probably one of those questions where every time you ask a ranger you’ll get a different answer. :)

    • Sierra Journal

      Yeah I was really looking to do an overnight. I like to sleep under the stars when I get the chance…