Hike or ski up the North Fork of Big Pine Canyon, and until you reach Second Lake, views of the upper canyon are blocked by the massive bulk of Temple Crag. Then as the lake unfolds below, you can now see the broad slopes leading up to the Palisade Glacier, the Sierra's largest, and still higher yet is the area's well known fourteeners, Mt. Sill, North Palisade, and Thunderbolt. For climbers and skiers, this is certainly one of the best alpine fun zones in the Sierra; and over the recent April 19-20th weekend, 8 SMS participants turned out for an explore up to the glacier.
The upper area of Big Pine Canyon basin and the glacier offer many ski touring possibilities; but on this occasion our objective was a broad, prominent gully which falls nearly 2000' from the Palisade Glacier to Third Lake, right under the sheer walls of Mt. Gayley and Temple Crag. While just about any route down from the glacier will go, this well defined route is the most obvious, holds snow well in to summer, and it really stands out as the line to ski.
I had thought we might be on our skis lower down in the canyon, but this unique winter in which little snow fell after January required us to walk until just short of Third Lake. There we made camp in the early afternoon on a knoll overlooking the partially frozen lake. Our campsite was at the base of a long slope that eventually leads up to the glacier, and although there was a fairly good forest above us, this area has been the run out zone for some big avalanches in the past. In fact, everything west of Temple Crag is avalanche terrain based upon clear evidence of past activity. During our visit the slopes were very stable, but any earlier visits to this area should be taken with great caution.
The afternoon was spent either recovering/lounging on our camp rock, or some did partake of a short tour directly above camp, but the snow was mostly in a crusty, breakable sort of afternoon mood. One energized participant did explore the lower portion of our intended objective, and reported back that the snow was very skiable in spite of the lateness of the day. Things looked good for Sunday, but when we awoke, a strong wind was blowing and the sky was full of dark clouds.
Surely not a good sign, but since a little sun was shining on nearby slopes, we started up on hard snow, carrying skis on our packs. Thanks to unrelenting step kicking efforts by Russ Haswell, we were able to climb straight up on a 2000' white staircase. The wind continued, and seemed to blow hardest whenever there were no steps and I was forced to cling by my boot edges to the frozen slope.
Two thirds of the way up, the slope began to fall back and we could now see the lower edge of the glacier and the crags above. Until now, I was guessing that if the blustery conditions continued, the snow would not soften and it would be a rough ride down. But then, almost at once the wind died, the clouds cleared, and the snow under foot began to corn up. Soon we were at our high point looking out over the Palisade Glacier and up to Mt. Sill where a dividing line of sun and shade ran right up the Swiss Arete. Russ Haswell and Craig Hoechstefter both continued further up on to the glacier while the rest of us relaxed and enjoyed the alpine arena from our front row seats.
By 11:30 am, Russ and Craig were back with a long line of turns behind them, and we all began our descent with a short traverse and a few turns on good corn to the top of the first big drop. it was a slope reminiscent of Baldy Bowl, and although the snow was firm, almost everyone cranked turns right down the fall line and past 3 snow boarders who were still climbing the gully. Our timing seemed to be just right as the snow was well softened by the sun as reached the lowest slopes. Perhaps the earlier wind was a blessing in disguise. After several more good drops, we were able to ski right back to camp, and then back around the lake to the trail below. From there it was just a long walk back down the canyon; but at Second Lake we did pause a moment to look back and reflect upon a fine day of skiing in the Palisades.
The other participants included Mike McDermitt, Floyd Spangler, Bahram Manahedgi, Dan Richter, and Pete Yamagata.
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