When I crossed Mather Pass on the PCT, a snow-spotted wonderland opened up before me. Monstrous peaks in the distance towered over a valley where the Palisade Lakes were hidden. In that moment I dreamed about climbing those distant mountains while resigned to the thought that such an endeavor was beyond me.
This past weekend, I found myself driving to the Sierras once more with Mugwort (@anthonyottati). Now that I’m back in California, I want to experience as much as I can and make up for lost time. Despite living less than two hours away from the mountains for most of my childhood, I hardly ever visited the Sierras or did anything outdoors for that matter. Instead I wasted my youth in front of computer monitors, pouring hours upon hours everyday into reddit, manga, and video games. But I’m no longer who I was back then, and I have a chance to not repeat my mistakes. Furthermore I have a new goal – to climb the California 14ers.
Mugwort and I left Friday afternoon for the long drive over to highway 395 and the eastern Sierras. But we weren’t starting in the Sierras; since both of us live near sea level, we decided to first acclimatize by climbing White Mountain – a 14,252-ft peak that is the only 14er in the lower 48 states outside of the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, and the Rocky Mountains. White Mountain’s trailhead is found at 11,700 feet, way high up in Inyo National Forest. To get there you follow the winding White Mountain Road from the valley, climbing thousands of feet on paved and dirt road while driving through the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We arrived at 1 AM exhausted but ready to rest and soak up the elevation. Although I wanted to invest more time in astrophotography, I learned from Mugwort that we were already past the optimal time when the core of the Milky Way would be lit up, so night gave way to sleep.
The morning came quickly, but neither Mugwort nor I were in any rush to leave. Saturday was for acclimatization, and our target destination, Middle Palisade, was saved for Sunday. Instead we slept in until nearly 10 AM before getting on the road. White Mountain Peak is arguably the easiest 14er, certainly the easiest in California. The trail follows a dirt road closed to the motorized public all the way to the peak, and the grade was thus reasonable.
But a 14er is still a 14er, and none should be underestimated. Shortly after setting off, my head was ringing in pain and nausea plagued me with every step. I was gasping for breath despite walking at a crawling pace up a shallow incline. Was I always this out of shape, or was the elevation making things tougher than I anticipated? Once we passed the White Mountain Research Station just two miles into the hike, we decided Mugwort would better hike ahead. With the way I was feeling, I was uncertain if I’d even be able to reach the summit.
Fortunately things got better from there. The trail started a flat and downhill section where my body finally started adapting, and I followed a couple minutes behind Mugwort while slowly getting back up to what I considered a reasonable pace. Two hours later, we summited to the third-highest point I’d ever reached, just short of Quandary Peak in Colorado and Mt. Whitney. Although objectively the terrain may have been “easy” for a 14er, White Mountain made me earn every step with its long, high-altitude approach.
The view from the top of White Mountain was stunning as expected. The clear day gave us a pristine overview of Sierra’s eastern front, showing countless peaks along the range as it towered over the valley below us. Then to our east, we could see deep into Nevada and the harsh desert that stood, arid and inhospitable to living things. And then a surprising view came into sight – someone was walking their bike to the peak.
Jeremy, a beast of a cyclist, rode from Badwater, the lowest point in Death Valley and the United States, up to the White Mountain Peak – from -279 feet to 14,252 feet. Not only was this the lowest elevation to highest elevation publicly accessible by bike, Jeremy completed the ride in just under 23 hours setting the Fastest Known Time for the trip. Read about his previous attempt here.
We departed from the peak after chatting briefly with Jeremy. The downhill still emptied my oxygen stores, but I was able to proceed much quicker with help of gravity – albeit not as quickly as Mugwort who seemed to be flying down the hill. In total, we hiked the 15 miles in under 6 hours including an hour’s rest at the peak. Nothing in comparison to Jeremy’s accomplishment, but a solid hike for my legs which have remained mostly stationary for the three weeks following the PCT.
But now we were ready to tackle our real challenge – Middle Palisade.
To a non-climber like myself, Middle Palisade certainly deserves its designation as one of the Mountaineer’s Peaks on the Sierra Peaks list. To approach you must hike 7 miles from Big Pine Creek trailhead, ascending some 4500 feet over steep inclines and boulder fields. With our trail legs still partially intact and the altitude conditioning from White Mountain, Mugwort and I flew up the trail starting at 4 AM. We hiked under the light of headlamps until the morning sun lit up the mountains, giving the mountain crest a beautiful alpineglow. Even the boulder fields were fun as we hopped from one large boulder to the next passing just under the Middle Palisade Glacier.
But that much was the easy part. The approach ends after you cross the moraine splitting the two halves of Middle Palisade Glacier. At the base of the mountain proper, we were received a vertical wall that seemed insurmountable to us as non-climbers. And that would only be the beginning of a near 1500-ft class 2-3 scramble to the peak of Middle Palisade. Mugwort and I learned later of an alternate class 3 route up around the gendarme. However our ascent was made with the recklessness only present in those as young and willingly dumb as us. We each blazed our own routes up to Secor’s Chute over perilous drops that guaranteed serious injury if not death. The climbing itself may not have been difficult from a rock climbing perspective, but neither Mugwort nor I were experienced climbers. An experienced rock climber may have thought my route a walk in the park, but I felt like I was hanging on for dear life as I made my way up, with luck allowing me safe passage to the chute.
But somehow, twenty minutes later, the two of us met up again near the bottom of Secor’s Chute. We were relieved and proud to have finished what we hoped would be the hardest part of the climb. But we still had another 1400 feet of elevation to gain.
The remaining climb up felt easy compared to climbing the ledge. Progress was slow and strenuous as the air continued to thin, but we never had to worry about a steep fall. When we were 2/3rds of the way to the top, we passed a group of three climbers – two of whom had just completed all 15 California fourteeners with their ascent of Middle Palisade – on their way back down. Fortunately they informed us about the red rock alternate which we took on our way back down. We clambered our way to what we momentarily thought might have been a false summit before seeing the blue sky before us. And then – a couple minutes later (and an avoidable move that was necessary after I took the wrong route) – we reached the peak.
Three months after passing through on the PCT I found myself overlooking the same landscape albeit from a very different perspective – atop one of the very mountains I thought impossible just months prior, the 14,019-ft Middle Palisade. The Sierras look very different late in summer, but there’s still little that compares to their majesty. Once we arrived, we had no choice but to savor the moment, the views, and the incredulity that we had successfully summited Middle Palisade. Mather Pass looked like a tiny hill out in the distance to the point where I had trouble believing it was the same pass I traversed previously with great difficulty.
As much as I wish I could say the descent was uneventful, that wasn’t the case. The climb back down was slow, as we had to watch every step with the steep decline. Furthermore the rock was loose enough where many a step would send a shower of gravel and pebbles flying down. We found our way down to the Red Rock alternate which proved a much safer descent then trying to downclimb either of the routes Mugwort and I took on our way up. And from there we reached the boulder fields.
While traversing up the boulder fields was fun, going back down was miserable, as each step had to be taken with care to ensure that the boulder didn’t wobble or unbalance itself. I wasn’t careful enough and ended up on my butt a couple times. For a while I thought I got away with solely bruises, but my right knee – which already felt weird from the outset of the hike – grew increasingly sore. Once I finished the boulder fields and reached the trail proper, I already had to avoid fully extending my right leg. The final descent back to my car proceeded much slower than expected for a trail of gentle downhill slope, and my knee pain grew with each downhill step. By the time I reached my car, I was hardly walking with my knee at all, instead opting to keep it fixed semi-bent while most of my movement was generated through my hips.
I hope my hiking and climbing season doesn’t end with this injury, since now is the perfect time to get back into the Sierras. However I’m glad I got to climb White Mountain and Middle Palisade. Not only were they both challenging and exhilarating, they helped reaffirm that peakbagging was something I’d enjoy and can continue to pursue in my free time. I’m now at 5/15 California 14ers climbed. Here’s to hoping I can finish the rest in due time.