Kings Canyon National Park High Point Trip Report
"Redemption on the U-Notch"
Date: October 2001
Author: "Dingus Milktoast"
The Fall from Grace
I am a goal-oriented climber. I climb for the love of
it, but often my climbing requires a purpose. It may
be the successful completion of a route, a freeing of
a difficult line, a first ascent of some kind, the
bagging of a summit, whatever. My climbing needs a
start, a middle and a finish. And when I fail to reach
that finish I have great difficulty counting the climb
a success. It may be a fault of sorts, this desire to
complete what I start. It may point to deep character
flaws of conquest and possession. It may be all of
that and more. Doesnít matter. Itís who I am. Itís how
A few years ago Burl Guido and I set out to climb the
North Palisade in the Sierra Nevada. It is located on
the high Sierra crest 10,000 feet above the Owens
Valley, west of Lone Pine California. The Palisade
group spans from Split Mountain in the south to Mt.
Aggasiz in the north. According to Steve Roper in his
Climberís Guide to the High Sierra, Simply stated,
the Palisade group contains the finest alpine climbing
in California. R.J Secor calls the North Palisade
THE classic peak of the High Sierra. It is striking
from a distance, and it has routes that will challenge
climbers of all abilities and preferences.
The largest glacier in the Sierra flanks the northern
Palisades and offers numerous ice climbing
possibilities. The U and V Notch couloirs are
justifiably famous not only for the excellent climbing
but also for their rich history. The likes of Norman
Clyde, Don Jensen, Doug Robinson and Ivon Chouinard
have played prominent roles in the development of the
climbing routes. They also made significant
contributions to the advancement of ice climbing
techniques in the process. Anyone aspiring to climb
one of these routes is following in some large boot prints.
Burl and I attempted the U Notch on a late autumn day
from Sam Mack Meadow. Our decision to camp at a lower
altitude and below the glacial moraine cost us the
route. We left our bivi in the predawn darkness,
thinking ourselves clever for the alpine start. We
learned a bitter lesson. It took us a couple of hours
to reach the toe of the glacier and another 3 long
hours to approach the route and get ready to climb.
The bergschrund that year was a formidable obstacle.
In a fit of righteousness, I climbed the intimidating
wall of vertical ice and negotiated an overhanging
traverse with what was, to that date, one of my best
alpine ice leads ever. When I reached the first belay,
above all of the serious difficulties of the climb,
I was stoked in a major way.
Burl quickly followed and then promptly announced that
he was cold, tired and it was too late to continue (it
WAS noon at the time). He felt certain we would be
knighted on the descent if we continued.
Intellectually I knew he was right, but I refer to the
first paragraph in this tale for an explanation of the
ensuing events. I argued we had plenty of time. I
reasoned that a full moon would give us plenty of
light should the sun set before we got down. I said
that weíd come this far, humping huge loads miles up a
wilderness trail and that turning back now was just
plain stupid. I pleaded till I was blue in the face.
It was all for nothing. Burl wouldnít budge.
So I cajoled him into leading a pitch just so he could
strike tool to ice. I hoped that the vigor I felt upon
leading that first pitch would be transferred once
Burl tasted the joys of the sharp end. He flew up his
lead placing one screw in the process. When I joined
him at the next belay he stated flatly he was climbing
no higher. Again I argued, cajoled and pleaded. Again
he turned me down. So I insisted upon leading one more
pitch. Now my tactic was base as it was obvious.
I tried to get him into an unstoppable simul-climbing
situation. He saw through me like a pane of glass.
As I left the belay he reiterated in a flat, resolute
voice he was climbing no higher.
So when I called down to him I couldnít reach the
belay he knew I was lying. He refused to untie and
move up a few feet so I could get to a higherstation.
Reluctantly, with crushing disappointment and
no small measure of anger, I down climbed to the
proper station, pulled the ropes and rapped.
We descended from the route in silence. We didnít climb
together again for quite a while.
Well, hindsight often brings wisdom and in my case
eventually eased my mind. Between you and me, Burl was
right all along. We WOULD have been knighted. We did
start too late. It was too cold. And he was right to
insist upon descending. Still, the defeat rankled in
my soul like an old turd in an unflushed toilet. I
hated being that close, having gone so far, only to be
turned back by what I then self-righteously labeled an
uncommitted partner. The fact that this partner was
also one of my best friends complicated things. The
fact Iíd done a similar thing to someone else in just
the previous month was salt in the wound. I didnít
have the right nor the inclination to shout, and I had
no business harboring hard feelings. I simply had to
swallow the defeat and plan a comeback.
Burl and I return to the Palisades with a vengeance.
Weíre back to do the U Notch and bag the summit of the
North Palisade no matter what. A local conditions
report confirms the couloir is all iced up. I bring
full on ice gear; two technical tools and rigid
step-in crampons. To my surprise Burl sports a
general-purpose ice axe and strap on flexible
crampons. He has a single technical tool.
Iím seething. How could he do this? Our entire climb is
jeopardized from the start! All to save a couple of
pounds on the ten mile approach. What was he thinking?
I have my mind fixed on this climb. Iím going to climb
it if I have to drag him up it. Now I have to lead
every pitch. Amen. Iím ready. Nothing is going to turn
me away. Not difficult ice, not bad weather, not
I build the rack of 4 cams, 8 nuts, 6 screws, 8 runners
and just enough neutrino biners to handle it all,
alpine doubles for ropes. A megamid tent and light
sleeping bags help with the load, as does my super
lightweight stove. But still, our packs are staggering
when we leave the car. Just the trivial matter of a 10
mile approach and 5000 feet of elevation gain with
which to contend.
The last bit of the approach wanders up slabs and
through boulder fields skirting along the edge of what
surely will be the terminal moraine of the dying
glacier. Itís already dark when we reach this final
stage of the hike. I do not expect water at the high
camp. So when we find a fairly clear trickle a few
hundred feet lower, and an accompanying bivi spot, we
make the snap decision to camp. Fortuitous, others
later confirm. Climbers camped at the glacier have to
go through the hassle of descending the moraine to a
dirty pocket lake at the foot of the ice. We have
water about 50 feet below our tent. And as a bonus
weíre out of the incessant wind that scours the
glacier. We pat ourselves on the backs, quite pleased
with our cleverness. Too clever by half we decide
Burlís alarm rouses us long before the sun. Weíre on a
timely track to do the route. We cross paths with
another party camped at the glacier. They confirm the
water situation. They ask me what we intend to climb.
Seeing no threat, not really thinking about it, I
answer them. Burl tells me in a sharp voice this was a
mistake. I shrug it off. I really donít see the
Later, crossing the glacier, I glance behind. A fast
moving party is gaining ground at an alarming rate!
Itís clear what is happening. Theyíre trying to steal
the climb! Burl angrily accuses me of giving away the
store and for a few minutes I believe him. We end up
in a race. Talk about ludicrous. Burl is in better
shape than I and lives at high altitude. I have no
hope of keeping pace with this demon coming up below.
It turns out neither does Burl. This SOB is clearly
the fastest man alive on the Palisade glacier today.
But it becomes apparent they are not trying to nab our
route. Theyíre simply trying to protect their own.
When they turn away and head up toward the V Notch I
breath a sigh of relief.
I catch up while Burl waits just below the couloir. He
immediately apologizes for snapping at me. Sorry to
be so crabby with ya Dingus. I tell him itís OK.
Youíre always crabby these days Burl. Iím used to it.
I love you anyway. I do that because heís my friend
and Iím no peach myself. But you should hear the tone
of my voice. Iím pretty sure Burl takes hears the
violence lurking beneath. He tones it down for the
rest of the day. I pass him by without further comment
and climb up to the base of the schrund. By the time
Burl joins me I have one of the ropes out and am
rigging my harness.
Faced with a blunt tipped axe, flexible crampons and
the reality of alpine ice Burl is pale and subdued.
You want me to lead this pitch Burl? I ask with mock
cheerfulness. The way his face relaxes when I relieve
him of this particular anxiety is solace for his
I lead the pitch through like Iím climbing a mound of
cold butter. Dingus Milktoast is back to settle a
score. The payback Iíve been nursing for 3 years is
readily seen in the commitment with which I climb. I
use two screws to surmount the bergschrund. 50 feet of
steep ice leads to a ledge. A traverse is followed by
a short vertical section and then a moderate run to
the first belay in the couloir proper. 10 minutes
start to finish. The ice is sweet. I mean itís primo
alpine ice and I climb with confidence. Swing a tool
and it sticks. Trust it. Gently tap in the front
points and commit. I flick my wrists like Iím casually
throwing darts in a warm, cozy pub. And I move up like
a rock climber, not like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Burl struggles to follow. Thatís what happens when you
confuse snow-climbing gear for ice tools. I watch
without pity as he flails and hacks his way up the
rock hard ice. To make matters worse, heís got the
leash on his axe way too short and he canít even swing
the thing properly. Itís all I can do to keep from
laughing out loud. Itís a testament to his character
that he never complains and never asks for quarter.
He never suggests quitting and never seems to entertain
the thought. Heís one tough hombre!
You want this lead Burl? I throw the dog a bone,
knowing the answer before I ask. I could have told him
at the car.
No way Dingus. I canít lead any of this on this gear.
Can you do it?
Burl, I can lead every pitch, no problem. Be happy to.
Iím feeling better about the climb, about Burl,
about us. Itís not a superiority thing. Itís a
straightforward confidence, an ability to first
visualize and then realize the future. Itís a sense of
absolute certainty. We are really going to climb this
thing this time. We really are.
Off I go, up the next pitch. The couloir is solid ice
from bottom to top. No frozen snow anywhere.
The quality of the ice is pretty much sterling, perfect.
Iím climbing with absolute poise. I almost levitate.
At 14,000 feet I find this amazing. Iím breathing
normally. Iím well hydrated. And Iím climbing like I
was born to in the mountains. Yup, things are finally
going my way.
After 4 pitches Burl gains enough confidence in his
gear to simul-climb. That speeds things up
considerably though we pile on the risk in the
process. We top out at the U Notch at 5 minutes before noon.
Our earlier trials now seem irrelevant. We rest
for a while and then Burl starts up the Le Conte route
to the summit. I was hoping to solo most of this. We
end up using the rope all the way up and back down again.
We simul the last few ledges and boulders to the top
of the North Palisade. The world drops away beneath us
in stunning relief. I finally put my sulking aside and
accept Burl for who he is; my good friend and trusted
partner, someone I can count on. We sign the register
and take in the view. Weíve agreed to tag the summit
and descend quickly. We both feel the commitment of
the long rope at the end of which we have placed
ourselves. You really get the feeling that the climb
is but half done standing atop the North Palisade!
The amount of dangerous work facing us is daunting and
takes the edge off any euphoria we may want to feel.
The Sierra Nevada is spread around us in a wild
confusion of peaks, canyons, lakes, cliffs and ridges.
Southward the Palisade group includes Polemonium Peak
and Mt. Sill. I was caught in a storm on the V Notch
last year. We made an impromptu decision to rap the
couloir and abandon the walk down descent from Sill.
A fortunate guess I see now. You have to climb about
halfway up Sill to gain the proper drainage. I didnít
know it and likely would not have found it.
Farther south the Sierra remains wild and formidable
along the Sierra front. Still farther the Muir Crest
rises in the culmination of the range, Mt. Whitney.
To the west we face the beginnings of Kingís Canyon and
the upper reaches of Dusy Basin. The Great Western
Divide parallels the mighty ridge upon which we stand.
Farther to the northwest we see the Evolutions with
their dark rock, so appropriate of the men for whom
they are named.
To the north we see Mt. Humphreys, Bear Creek Spire
and dozens and dozens of peaks we have neither the
time nor the maps to identify. Still farther I can
clearly see Ritter and Banner and still beyond, the
peaks of the Yosemite region. To the east is the great
Owens Valley, the Inyo mountains and more desert
ranges than a man can count. Lone Pine simmers in the
heat fully two miles beneath us.
Puffy clouds dance around peaks both near and far.
A long line of thunderstorms appears to be dumping rain
on the Great Western Divide and to my mind is coming
our way. I want off this peak before it gets here!
With regret tempered by the desire to stay alive,
I down lead the ridge in two long pitches,
occasionally placing a piece for Burlís protection as
he follows. A long rap down the Clyde Chimney puts us
back at the U Notch. A very scary down climb on loose
scree saves us at least two rappels. It also elicits
some complaint from Burl and seriously disturbs the
hair on the back of my neck. I down climb some more
absolutely insane 4th class to gain a rap anchor.
I save Burl the same risk by rigging the rap alone and
tossing the ropes over to his stance.
6 raps later we land on the schrund. As we pack up
Burl pukes yellow bile all over the snow. Normally Iíd
have the common decency to avert my eyes. But this
time I just watch him like heís a science experiment
going south in exactly the manner in which I expect.
Some of the bile even splashes on my boots. I drink
the last of my water as he retches in the cool
We are DOWN! Now that weíve managed the worst of the risks,
now that weíve settled the debt, our moods
improve immensely. We smile at one another frequently.
We congratulate one another, over and over.
We compliment each other, call each other friend. Life is
good and so are we! As we descend the glacier in the
dying light of day our worries leave us. Prematurely,
as it turns out.
Itís dark when we regain the glacier col. A few
hundred feet below lies our camp. Weíre only 10
minutes away and not a moment too soon either. Weíre
out of water. Weíre tired and hungry. Iím finally
starting to run down after a long day in the
mountains. I make a fateful decision to swallow 3
ibuprophen without the water to go with them, thinking
Iíll be tanking up in a few moments.
WE CANíT FIND OUR TENT!!!
I mean we canít find our tent.
We made camp in the dark. We left camp
in the dark. And now we fail to find camp in the dark
once more. With increasing anxiety and deadly
resignation, we wander the slabs up and down in the
dark, thirst raging in our throats. We hope and pray
to unacknowledged, nonexistent or long dead gods that
we find it over the next rise. First we look together.
Then we look one at a time. Two hours later I return
to find Burl in complete defeat.
Dingus, Iím cold. Itís no use. We might as well wait
for light. Iím sleeping here. Heís huddled on some
rocks beneath our solitary space blanket, his feet
shoved in his pack. I feel like death. I get the
impression he doesnít care one whit what I do at this point.
But I donít have anything to bivi with Burl,
I reply with immense self-pity. Iíd laugh at myself if
I didnít feel so miserable, helpless and weak.
He generously offers to share his blanket. We both
know going in this is a sacrifice. I toss and turn
even in the most benign circumstance. By letting me
share his crinkly space blanket, heís setting himself
up for a sleepless night. I apologize continuously as
I try to settle in, spreading an 8 mil rope out as a pad,
covering it with my rain jacket, sticking my
booted feet in the pack, wrapping the blanket over my
down jacket. Weíre lying on a pile of rocks. I have a
bad cough and though it died down during the climb, it
comes back with a vengeance. Every coughing fit makes
me sweat, so I have to move. Every time I move the
blanket makes a bunch of noise and lets in cold
draughts of air. Burl mutters at me and I guiltily
apologize. Talk about a sour turn of events!
Just two hours ago we were happy and carefree climbers
headed for a cold drink and a warm dinner. Now weíre
bedded down on a pile of rocks beneath a starry Sierra sky,
wondering when the shivering will start. Iím so
thirsty I could cry. My throat feels as though Iíve
swallowed gravel. Itís stuck to my tonsils and
grinding against the back of my throat.
And then I realize Iíve forgotten to loosen my boots
after the climb. My swollen feet hurt like demons from Hell.
I wrack my brain for a way out of this
predicament. I vainly wish for a late climber to
stumble by and offer us water. I dream or fantasize
our friend Bob flies over in a helicopter and radios
the location of our tent! I silently and slowly and
over and over circle the realization that morning and
morning alone will release us from our torment.
And then only through an ordeal.
Burl contentedly snores beside me. I am so jealous
that even my pain and discomfort fade for a time.
And then, miraculously, I too fall asleep. Later Burl
stirs and checks his watch. Midnight. Jeez, an
eternity has passed and yet 7 hours to daylight remain.
He gets up and declares heís cold and going to
find his sleeping bag. Good for him I think.
He comes back once and says another late party just
returned to their camp at the glacier. I ask him if
they have water. He tells me to give him a break.
Off he goes again. And much later, after I sleep in agony
for a while, I hear him again.
Dingus, get yer stuff. Weíre going home. Praise the lord;
my good friend and partner had the stomach and
backbone to lead the crux pitch of the day. Burl Guido
has found our tent! The climb is over. A few minutes
later, we water up at our little creek. I drink as
much as Iím able but the urge to puke is powerful. Iím
shriving and coughing and gagging in the dark. We fall
into our tent and Burl eats for a while. I canít even
think about food and can only stand a few sips of
water. I visit the sleep of the dead.
The next morning we reassemble our lives. My cough is
worse than ever. I have no urge to urinate despite 2
liters of water and 3 cups of coffee. Yet ironically I
feel strong enough. We pack up and begin the long
march out to the trailhead. At Sam Mack Meadow we
stop, eat a bit, the first food Iíve managed since the
summit of the N. Pal, and brew up the last of our
coffee. Finally I pee, a nearly brown, stinking stream
of caustic, acidic liquid that burns on the way out
and hisses on the ground. Yup, I messed myself up
something fierce with that vitamin I.
Much later we take our final rest at a small creek
beside the trail about 1/2 way between Lon Cheney's
cabin and 3rd Lake. Everyone stops here, I'm sure you
know the place. Anyway, up the trail comes an old
geezer, wearing a monster pack, knit cap on his head
despite the heat of the noonday sun, coiled rope over
his shoulder for good measure, bent over and clearly
laboring under his load. I know who it is
immediately. As casually as I can,
"Hey Fred, how's it going?"
As unbelievable as it may seem, Fred Beckey is hiking
up Big Pine Creek! We chat for a few minutes.
He quizzes us about what weíve climbed, what the glacier
conditions were like, did we use tools and screws in
the couloir, etc. When we ask him what heís doing...
nebulous as ever. Won't say!
Heís accompanied by Eddie Joe... aka E C Joe. Eddie
and I know one another. Fred mistakenly takes this to
mean Iím one of the boys or something. Asks me if I
know a few people. Then off they go. Eddie says they
plan to camp at 3rd Lake and "check out some stuff" on
Temple Crag. Burl and I are immensely pleased. Burl
says itís like spotting a 10 point buck. Even rarer,
is my reply.
The dude is what, 80?! He did the 2nd ascent of
Waddington in 1946!!! 55 years later he's still got
that gleam in his eye. I've heard a lot about this
legend, read even more. But seeing him in the flesh,
several miles from a trailhead, battered pack towering
over his head, heading in to surely to attempt a first ascent,
in the company of a prolific and famed Sierra
first ascent artist; it makes my heart sing! Iím proud
to be a card-carrying member of his tribe. I think
fondly of the few Fred Beckey routes Iíve managed to repeat.
My step is light and full of joy for the rest
of the hike out.
Burl Guido is my trusted friend and partner.
Our ancestors walk among us.
And the North Palisade is ours.