I thought I knew the Palisades, my home range. That is until I was deep in the process of writing a Mountain Profile about it for Alpinist 48. I had been slogging up and running back down the sandy trail along the North Fork of Big Pine Creek since I was 20 or 21, and that’s a lotta years. All those trips totaled up to more than three solid years of scrambling around those alpine peaks. I learned that little statistic about my life when Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives pressed me to actually add them up–all the days of guiding the turreted ridge-into-the-sky of Temple Crag’s Venusian Blind Arete or cramponing the U-Notch ice gully to North Palisade, punctuated by many more days of peaceful indolence propped against a granite backrest reading Jung or studying brain chemistry.
I knew some of the Palisades’ characters well, like Norman Clyde, whom I met in the sixties when he was couch surfing at Smoke Blanchard’s house. Clyde was a classically educated, literate hermit who also happened to have more first ascents, mostly solo, in the High Sierra–and especially the Palisades–than anyone before or since. Thanks to Clyde’s job as the winter caretaker of Glacier Lodge, he had enough years of skiing up into the Palisades most days to blow my puny three years right out of the water. And John Fischer, my first boyhood climbing partner who ended up owning the Palisade School of Mountaineering. But when John died recently in a motorcycle accident, I blinked with the realization that I was maybe the last man standing who knew Clyde–and one of a handful who knew Smoke. I figured I’d better write down something of what they were really like.
As the researching process unfolded, so began the parade of things I didn’t know. Like just how much the Palisade Glacier, biggest in the Sierra, has shrunk. Then there was the matter of who first climbed a steep, 100-plus-foot wall that bars the way from the top of the U-Notch to the summit of North Pal. Clyde didn’t climb it, and the first ascent boys in 1904 had to back off and find a way around. Cameron Burns and Steve Porcella’s guidebook said it was Hermann Ulrichs in 1921. Then Katie uncovered a dusty note in the 1989 American Alpine Journal about how he’d soloed it in a culmination of days of solitary rambling, surviving primarily on chocolate. Katie has a particular fondness for chocolate, which no doubt influenced the uncovering of that detail. She also had great help. My friend Brad Rassler interned at Alpinist last summer. He got great interviews (You’ll see!) from Gordon Wiltsie and Mike Graber, who came of age in the Palisades. Plus he brought to light the history of the Jensen Pack. And this part is unbelievable: Brad tracked down Joan Jensen in the wilds of British Columbia. The essay she wrote reveals, for the first time, a major facet of Palisades lore previously lost.
Now I know the Palisades as never before. Once readers do, too, I anticipate something of a renaissance of new routes out there on the “backside” of the Palisades.
This week, we’re publishing the four essays from the Palisades Mountain Profile, including Joan Jensen’s thoughts on “The Nature of Memory” and Cam Burns’s retelling of his “backside” adventures with Steve Porcella. Daniel Arnold tracks the histories of the Palisades’ early pioneers while Peter Croft does what Peter Croft does best. We’re also publishing a bonus essay by Steve Porcella about his quest for the “remote, barren, trailless, treeless, oxygenless and peopleless,” where he finds out what it is to really know a mountain range. CLICK HERE to read the essays as they progressively become available, or purchase a copy of the entire issue in our online store.–Ed.