Galina and I are slowly working through summiting California’s 14ers, and Middle Palisade stands on its own, requiring a different approach than the other Palisade 14ers- calling for a separate trip to scramble it. At 15 miles round-trip with 7,000ft of elevation, it seemed doable as a day trip- albeit a big day!
Leaving the trailhead at 6:30, we cruised up the trail along the South fork of Big Pine Creek, admiring the morning light on the path up. At Brainerd Lake we briefly lost the trail, finding the signs of use again as we moved up towards Finger Lake.
Finger Lake took my breath away- an aquamarine so brilliant that it seemed to have been freshly squeezed from the glacier, and the glimpses of the Palisades above. Two other mountaineers were there, women who had just summited Middle Palisade and who chatted with Galina while I took photos of the lake. By the time I got back, Galina had yogi’d a helmet for the day, in anticipation of the steep 3rd class above.
Above Finger Lake, we were in our element: slabs, talus, and routefinding in the high alpine, loving every moment amongst the wildflowers and endless granite expanses as we arced closer to the glacier.
The loose terrain around the glacier brought a bit of testiness, as we let ourselves get separated out of earshot by different opinions of the best route. Reuinted, we pushed onwards towards the glacier, trying to match up the guidebook route descriptions with the terrain above. We watched two climbers ahead of us get shut down by poor route selection, wandering back and forth across the glacier as they tried to find an entrance to the terrain above.
Vowing not to repeat their mistakes, we overshot in the other direction- relying on photos from the internet and mistakenly believing that there was an entrance above the glacier, rather than in the chossy chute to climber’s right.
Exhausting our other options, we finally gave the chute a try- and despite the loose rock and dirt, it actually went. Hands shaking, I emerged from the 4th class loose rock to find myself in a wild granite gully scooped from the mountain, leading endlessly upwards in a series of worn steps. Steep enough to be thrilling, easy enough to allow for fast passage, it reminded me of Laurel Mountain by Convict Lake and was the perfect terrain to make fast progress towards the top.
Grinning with giddy excitement, lungs bursting with the exertion, we found ourselves at the top- and had our breath taken away by the exposure. While we had been impressed by the exposure to our northeast, the view to the south was unrivaled- four thousand feet of vertical relief to the Palisades Lakes below, where the John Muir Trail wound its way through the slabs and wildflowers.
To have previously hiked down there and gazed up at these peaks, and now to be joyfully walking along their tops was incredible. The enormity of the scenery and the beauty of the Sierras came together, in a summit that was just the high point along an incredible ridgeline that stretched to both the north and south. With just a single peak, we were completely captivated by the Palisades- their size, their prominence, and the incredible steepness of their sheer faces. Laughing, I told Galina “These are what I always dreamed mountains would look like!”
I wish that we could have stayed on the summit forever, but we forced ourselves to turn back in recognition of the advancing hour. Though I had been fearing that the exposure would be vertigo-inducing, the downclimb was surprisingly smooth, and the loose chute was even much less intimidating this time.
A refreshing dip in Finger Lake was the perfect reward on the way back- racing the sun for the last bit of warmth to dry off. The golden glow of the setting sun matched our beaming smiles as we headed back to the car, for a 13-hour round trip and a blissful moment on the most enchanting summit I’ve ever stood on.