Destination Series

California's 14,000ft peaks

The Palisades Traverse - Between Polemonium Peak and Mt Sill
© Andy Hyslop Rock + Run


Our original plan was attempt an extended traverse of the Sierra Nevada in California from Sonora Pass in the North to Mount Whitney in the South. Watching CNN news at Jonathan's sister's house the night before we were due to fly out of Manchester on 13th September '01, it seemed unlikely that we would get to the US as soon as we would have wished. With the images of the disaster burned into our memory we took the first leg of our journey to Paris and opted to spend a few days in the Pyrenees. A week later we were on a packed flight to San Francisco.

With only 3 weeks before our return flight, our original objective was unfeasible. We needed something challenging, vaguely do-able and a project that we could get inspired about. Bearing in mind that our rack consisted of a 50m twin rope, a few slings and half a dozen nuts, this project would have to be no more than YDS 5.9 (UK HVS).

We were both aware that Hans Florine (of 'Nose Record' fame) had made a couple speed attempts at climbing all the California fourteen thousand foot peaks consecutively. On his last failed attempt he was working on an 11-day schedule.

So, what kind of lightweight, high altitude, running, climbing, driving challenge was this?

Most of the 14s are situated relatively close together in the Southern Sierras. The town of Bishop is a pretty good base. There are two fourteeners outside the Sierra Nevada: White Mountain is close to hand on the east side of the Owens Valley and just behind Bishop. Mount Shasta is a tiring 10hr drive north to the Cascades Range. In terms of difficulty, the peaks ranged from casual walking to remote technical traverses with long approaches. The Split Mountain trailhead would only be accessible with 4WD. One thing was for sure, the only way we were going to achieve our objective would be by adopting a light and fast approach.

Our acclimatisation days were demoralising. After a week in the Pyrenees we thought that we might have gained some altitude fitness. A day of exhausting ridge traversing in the Rock Creek area followed by a night in a desolate 'Afghanistan' - like valley and another night below Bear Creek Spire was cut short by an autumn storm. Two nights at 12,000 feet barely seemed adequate but it was all we could afford. It was time to head south on Route 395 to Big Pine and our first fourteener.

East Face of Middle Palisade
© Andy Hyslop - UKC

The first half-dozen

Mount Langley is nothing more than a walk, but has a long approach. By the time we got back to the hotel in Big Pine, I was totally thrashed. Trying to put the day in perspective, we worked out that it was like running from Windermere to Kendal and back (20 miles) with Ben Nevis in between, and all at above 10,000 feet. The prospect of getting up the next morning a 5am to do something similar was not something we were looking forward to.

Inevitably, we headed back up 395 in the pre-dawn of the next day to reach the trailhead for Middle Palisade. We would have preferred to do Split Mountain that day but the 4WD approach was not possible, even with a hire car. The view of Middle Pal's East Face from the Glacier Lodge road is gob smacking. It is easily confused with Clyde Peak but once you identify the line of the route, it's difficult to imagine that it could only be 4th Class (UK Mod – Diff).

Jonathan - "Should we take the rope?"

Andy - "Bloody right we should!"

The approach to the foot of the route is long and navigation is tricky. We didn't use the rope but situation on the East Face was impressive and I was glad we had it with us. After a 9-hour+ day, it was time for a rest.

Mount Tyndall had been weighing on our minds. Not because of any technical difficulty but because the approach was 14 miles (28 miles round trip) with the trail starting at under 6,000 feet and a 1000 foot height loss en-route. We started walking at 6.20am and reached the summit at 12.55pm. This is a place were you can really appreciate how much there is to go at in the Sierra. We had been walking for almost 7 hours and all we could see to the West were endless ridges, pointed peaks and big granite faces. With 30 million people living within a few hours drive of these mountains it is astounding, and refreshing, that there has not been more development. We got back to the car at 5.40pm.

Next day, by way of a rest, we opted for the easiest fourteener, White Mountain. It's a bit of a drive, but the trail head is above 12,000 feet and you can reasonably bag the peak in 4 or 5 hours round trip – a very easy day in comparison to the other fourteeners.

The Russell, Whitney, Muir loop was our first enchainment. The spectacular East Ridge of Mount Russell is little more than a scramble, but the tricky down-climb into the huge chute leading to Russell/Whitney saddle is something you definitely don't want mess up. The North Slope of Whitney adds a big chunk of ascent, whilst Mount Muir is a mere Class 4 diversion off the well-trodden tourist path. Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the 48 states and this trail was the only part of the whole trip where we saw more than one or two people – typically carrying huge packs and being sick. We were starting to really motor by now and this was relatively "relaxed" nine and a half hour round trip.

Jonathan Lagoe reaching the Thunderbolt Summit Block
© Andy Hyslop Rock + Run

The Palisades Traverse

The only efficient way to climb the fourteeners between Thunderbolt Peak and Mount Sill is to do the 'Palisades Traverse'. We struggled to find anyone in Bishop who had done this traverse, although it seemed to be on everyone's hit list. Eventually we talked to Galen Rowell who gave us some beta on the 5.9 summit block of Thunderbolt. He had climbed it with Peter Croft the previous season and left some slings on the top to aid his descent.

We opted to camp at Bishop Pass the night before the big day. A pre-dawn start got us to Thunderbolt Pass by first light. After the endless South West Gully the wildly exposed summit monolith lived up to its reputation and we were truly thankful that Galen Rowell's slings were still in place. Starlight Peak has a similar summit, but at 5.7 it's much easier. Fantastic ridge traversing led over North Palisade followed by a couple of abs down to the saddle at the head of the U Notch Couloir. Some 5.6 cracks to the summit of Polemonium Peak followed by easier traversing to the summit of Mount Sill meant that we had bagged 5 fourteeners in one day. The descent and long traverse back over two cols was exhausting. By the time we got back to the tent, we had been out for 12 hours. We decided to walk out the next day.

Jonathan had developed tendonitis on White Mountain and long tramp back from the Palisades Traverse was the last straw for his battered limbs. With just two fourteeners to go, he was forced to get some treatment at the hospital in Bishop.

End in sight

Split Mountain went without incident apart from the 4WD drive approach. I persuaded a Bishop local to give me lift in for $60. He was late coming back to meet me at the trail head after I had bagged the peak and I thought that he had probably thought better of a return trip. Walking out was unthinkable but I set off anyway. To my relief he turned up after I had walked a couple of miles, armed with beer and roll-ups.

A couple of days later and 14 days after we had set off to climb Mount Langley, I was trying to stand up on the summit of Mount Shasta in gale force winds and freezing temperatures. The jet stream had dipped south and winter was coming. I was at the top of the final peak.

The California 14s: Route Basics

Andy Hyslop and Jonathan Lagoe on the Polemonium Peak Summit
© Andy Hyslop Rock + Run
You can jump to any particular section:

Mt. Langley 14,027ft: South Slope

Get your running shoes out for this one. Beautiful Sierra scenery, a high start and easy terrain.

Approaching Mt Langley  © Andy Hyslop - UKC
Approaching Mt Langley
© Andy Hyslop - UKC

Base town: Lone Pine
Trailhead: Cottonwood Lakes 10,050ft
High Point: Mt Langley 14,027ft
Total Height Gain: 4,000ft
Grade: Class1/2
Distance: 21 miles
Time : 6-9 hours

Middle Palisade 14,040ft: East Face

An awe-inspiring face, which turns out to be steady Class 3/4. Once you leave the marked trail at Brainerd Lake, navigation needs care to avoid losing time.

Base town: Big Pine
Trailhead: Glacier Lodge 7,965ft
High Point: Middle Palisade 14,040ft
Total Height Gain: 6,075ft
Grade: Sustained Class 3/4
Distance: 14 miles
Time: 8-12 hours

Mount Tyndall 14,015ft: North Rib

The low altitude trailhead and long walk-in make for a brutal though non – technical day, but the trail is spectacular and the scene grandiose

14 miles from the road - Mount Tyndall  © Andy Hyslop - UKC
14 miles from the road - Mount Tyndall
© Andy Hyslop - UKC

Base town: Independence
Trailhead: Symmes Creek 5,950ft
High Point: Mt Tyndall 14,015ft
Total Height Gain: 9,065ft
Grade: Class 3
Distance: 28 miles
Time: 12 - 14 hours

White Mountain Peak 14,246ft: S. Face

This can be a very easy day, with the drive in and visit to the Bristlecone pines en-route being more interesting than the hiking; or a very tough one, up the 9000ft West Ridge climb from the valley.

White Mountain
© Andy Hyslop - UKC

Base town: Big Pine
Trailhead: White Mountain Road locked gate 12,500ft
High Point: White Mountain 14,246ft
Total Height Gain: 2,000ft
Grade: Class 1
Distance: 14 miles
Time: 4-6 hours

"Mt Whitney Horseshoe"
Mt. Russell 14,086ft: E. arête
Mt Whitney 14,495ft: N. Face
Mt Muir 14,015ft: W. Face

A great day out, taking in one of the best ridge climbs in the range and the highest peak in the 48 states.

Jonathan Lagoe on Mt Russell S.Face
© Andy Hyslop Rock + Run

Base town: Lone Pine or camp at Whitney Portal
Trailhead: Whitney Portal 8,340ft
High Point: Mt Whitney 14,495ft
Total Height Gain: 8000ft
Access: You need a day-hike permit for this trip. Mt Whitney Ranger Station in Lone Pine (760 876 6200)
Grade: exposed class 3 (2 short sections of class 4)
Distance: 17 miles
Time: 8-12 hours

The loose SW Chute on Thunderbolt Peak
© Andy Hyslop - UKC

"The Palisades Traverse"
Thunderbolt Peak 14003ft: SW. Chute no.1
Starlight Peak 14200ft: NW. Ridge
North Palisade 14242ft: NW. Ridge
Polemonium Peak 14200ft: From U Notch
Mt Sill 14162ft: W. Ridge.

A magnificent outing with an exposed, committing traverse of five 14'ers, complex route finding and a 5.9 boulder problem at 14000ft. You need to be going well and with a good weather forecast to do this in a day. Thunderbolt Peak is well named and the ridge is no place to be in a storm.

Base town: Bishop
Trailhead: Start South Lake 9800ft
High Point: North Palisade 14242ft
Total Height Gain: 7000+ft
Grade: Once on the crest, continuous Class 4 & 5 with a couple of 5.9 moves
Distance: 23 miles
Time: 14-18 hours

Mount Shasta 14,058ft: Avalanche Gulch

This impressive volcano is the most southerly peak of the Cascades. Despite the route being SW. facing, you may need an axe and crampons for this one unless it's dry year.

Mount Shasta
© Andy Hyslop - UKC

Base town: Mount Shasta
Trailhead: Bunny Flat 8,500ft
High Point: Mount Shasta 14,058ft
Total Height Gain: 5,662ft
Access: You need a summit permit for this trip. $15 Self register at the trailhead
Grade: Class 2
Distance: 14 miles
Time: 6-9 hours

Mt Williamson 14375ft: West Face

Not climbed on this trip due to access restriction (see below). Best combined with Mt Tyndall, as two trips up Shepherd's Pass are not to be contemplated!

Base town: Independence
Trailhead: Symmes Creek trailhead 5950ft
High Point: Mt Williamson 14375ft
Total Height Gain: 10,000ft
Access: Currently Williamson is closed from July 15 to Dec. 15 to protect Bighorn sheep. Check with Ranger Station in Lone Pine for latest information.
Grade: Class 3
Distance: 29 miles
Time: 10 - 14 hours

Mount Whitney  © Andy Hyslop - UKC
Mount Whitney
© Andy Hyslop - UKC

Equipment notes

Ideal would be Scarpa El Cap and Sportiva Hyperguide boots, light, but precise enough to rock-climb in. On one or two of the peaks trail running shoes would suffice, but the terrain is very hard on footwear. I wore right through the soles of a brand new pair of Scarpas in 14 days.

Shorts or lightweight trousers,
Capilene, polyprop. base-layers.
Very lightweight fleece e.g. Patagonia R1
Light hat and gloves.

Lightweight e.g. Marmot Precip and Lowe TriplepointThis is a fairly minimalist approach and occasionally meant wearing everything we had and keeping moving to stay warm.

thumb(11255, TRUE, "right")]Technical gear:
Carried on Palisades traverse and Middle Palisade only:
-50 metres of 8mm twin rope – very light and versatile
-a few Spectra slings
-4 or 5 wired nuts
-pair of rock shoes – not essential but makes it more pleasant on Palisades.
-harness (optional)

It's best to be competent at around 5.8 or UK HVS at least, if you're going to be able to move fast enough and with a margin for error.
Class 1 - walking
Class 2 - rough walking and boulder hopping
Class 3 – scrambling, hands and feet, can be very exposed. Some may want a rope.
Class 4 – Sierra class 4 is pretty much rock climbing - expect UK grades up to V.Diff, UIAA iii/iv. Many may want a rope.
Class 5 – Definitely rock climbing. Notable pitches are graded using the Yosemite Decimal System. Most people will want to rope up.

Further reading:

"Climbing California's Fourteeners" Porcella & Burns ISBN 1-57540-006-5
Essential reading. This is a reasonable, though occasionally inaccurate guide which is strong on history - less so on route descriptions.
"The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails"; R. J. Secor ISBN: 0-8988-6625-1
The Bible. Covers a huge area in overview and inevitably leaves route detail to your sense of adventure.

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