Hiking : Middle Palisade


Elevation- 14,019

Distance- 12 miles round trip ( An estimate – the last part of the hike is off trail)

Oh Eastern Sierra, how I love thee. The only part I do not love is having to wait till 8am at the Ranger Station surrounded by pushy Mt. Whitney hikers just so I can get a permit to be in the middle of nowhere. Permits are important for many ecological and social reasons, but I’m just grumpy. I wish I would have gotten that cinnamon bun at the Alabama Hills Cafe, and a group of REI clad weekend warriors just cut us off in line. No worries though because soon enough we will be on the trail to Middle Palisade and it will end up being one of my favorite backpacking trips ever.

Many choose to do Middle Palisade in a day but for my husband’s birthday we wanted to grab a remote campsite and relax for the weekend. The trail to Middle Palisade is straightforward with only one stretch of steep switch-backs on the way to Brainerd lake. As you top out over that first steep section the whole Palisade range is glowing in the sun. We hiked on through thick forest passing small creeks and pools of alpine water. We stopped to take a break at Brainerd lake and watched the trout break the surface tension of the water with their hungry kisses. The remainder of the hike to finger lake follows a steep but well marked trail. Once we reached finger lake we took a moment to stare at its glacial blue waters. There were yellow asters growing along the banks on the lake, standing in stark contrast to the azure waters. After collecting water for the night we hiked around the western side of the lake looking for a campsite.

When backcountry camping always make sure to camp at least 200 feet from water. I suppose 200 vertical feet counts? We set up camp high above the lake on a granite cliff, this was not the place for sleepwalkers. Our only real concern was setting our bear canister far enough away that no critters would send it soaring off the cliff. We stayed near the cliff edge as we cooked dinner and took in the views. As the sun slowly set, the light played on the granite walls surrounding us. Clouds began to roll in over the mountain tops and the landscape was shrouded in monochromatic blue. Once  the sun finally disappeared the cold alpine air started to leach into our bones and it was time to snuggle up in our tent for the night.

The second day was when the real fun began. You have not experience the high sierra until you have been on talus. Talus: unconsolidated rock made up of loose VW sized boulders, moraine slopes of sliding pea gravel, and endless slopes of broken rock of all sizes. Seemingly stable boulders will flip on you; bruising shins and leaving the rocks baptized in your blood. That’s that high sierra goodness. Sadly, the Middle Palisade glacier has receded so much in the past few years that we were forced to navigate much more talus than we first anticipated. Global warming is real, and it hurts my feet.

When we finally reached the base of Middle Palisade we took a short break to find our route up. Due to the glacier separated from the rock face we wasted a good 45 minutes looking for a ramp that no longer was accessible. Thanks again global warming. We finally decided to take the “red rock” route up. After about 100 feet of questionably loose rock we made it to the top of the red rock chute. The rest of the route was fun third class scrambling with good handhold and amazing views. The top was in sight but moving at 14,000 feet always takes time. So after some huffing and puffing and a bit of route finding at the top, we finally made it to the summit. The palisade range is like a knifes edge, both sides falling away from the summit ridge. There are a few ways to get up to the ridge which do not require technical gear, Middle Palisade being one of the them. Although we did not need a rope or climbing gear the exposure along the ridge made it plenty spicy for me. After a few summit photos we started back down, retracing our steps and carefully making it back to the talus field. At this point we were both out of water and although we did carry a filter we both drank straight out of the glacier. The water tasted fresh and cold and put grit in my teeth and a smile on my face.

When we made it back to our campsite we made the decision to pack up and continue hiking back out to the trail-head. Although this was a relatively short hike that last five or so miles seemed to be endless. As it grew dark we clicked on our headlamps, and all I could do was focus on the pool of light at my feet and keep going. We were only hiking for two hours but when you can’t see your end point that two hours lasts forever. Especially when the aforementioned talus did a number on your knees, and all you want is a shot of whisky and maybe some yoga. Still any pain or fatigue I felt was worth it. Only hours before we sat on the roof of the world, looking out from 14000 feet at some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. This is why I climb mountains because no matter how much work I put in, no matter how much of my blood and sweat stains the rocks it is always worth it.

Nothing makes that view more worth it than sharing it with someone I care about. Happy birthday to my best friend and lover. You are my favorite. I hope we continue to seek out those views and when we are too old to climb we will whisper our memories into each other’s ears.


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