It certainly looked like a palisade. Above the rolling, wild Sierra high country stood the final line of defense barring passage into western California – a wall of impenetrable granite the color of bleached bones. The sheer face of the Palisades was rippled, with ridges that looked like the upright logs of a wooden stockade. Breaching those battlements would take more than just a grappling hook, I warranted. A prolonged streak of fearlessness would be required as well.
I had hoped a summer of conditioning myself to 14,000-foot elevations in Colorado would serve me well against the Sierra Nevada’s finest. But compared to the highest peaks of Colorado, California’s Fourteeners had a greater proportion of vicious edges, and several were impossible to summit without ropes and technical gear. The 14,012-foot Middle Palisade had one or two points of weakness where a climber could scramble past its formidable cliffs, which was why I’d chosen the mountain for my final solo adventure.
Every good castle has a moat surrounding it, however, and the Middle Palisade had a frozen one. The southernmost group of active glaciers in the United States fringed the Palisades, protecting their upper reaches from reckless explorers like myself. Because the glaciers were active, their slow creep down the mountainside created stress fractures that widened into deep crevasses. The easiest route to the summit, I had read, could be reached by climbing to the highest point on the Middle Palisade Glacier. There, a secret path left the ice and transected a band of cliffs, arriving at Secor’s Chute, which provided a steep but manageable means of accessing the top of the mountain. All I had to do was keep from falling into a crevasse.
Unfortunately, because of the 5,000-foot climb in elevation to reach this point, I had made the irresponsible decision to leave my heavy metal crampons behind, so my shoes had nothing with which to grip the icy surface. I skirted the bulk of the glacier by walking on the rubble of a small moraine, but I could not avoid crossing thirty feet of slanted ice if I wanted to reach the apex and the hidden pathway. Gingerly, I tested several routes, using the melted, uneven surface to my advantage as I hopped from one depression in the ice to another. If I lost my balance and stepped onto a patch that was too steep, I would probably tumble down the slope and disappear into one of the fissures. My hiking poles would be a poor substitute for an ice axe in that scenario.