Each summer for four years now I have spent a fair amount of time at the Palisade Glacier. That zone is, hands down, my favorite place to climb mountains. I love the Palisades. I have also made a career of managing risk in the mountains. All mountains present inherent risk to their visitors. The peaks and routes of the Palisade Glacier area are no exception. We will never, thankfully, remove that risk from our pursuits. The risk, the unknown, the cliche'd "adventure of it all", is a huge part of why we go. That being said, none of us are psyched to charge out blindly into risky environments. We do our homework, accumulate skills and collect appropriate gear, all to stack the odds in our favor. Given sound preparation, there are still times and situations where risk is considerably higher than others. Dangerous situations that can be easily managed or avoided are a great arena in which to considerably reduce one's overall exposure. I believe that the way in which the bulk of suitors approach the Palisade Glacier is one of these types of hazards. With a little new knowledge, and by taking what is arguably a more efficient path, a great deal of risk can be eliminated.
First, the status quo. For a variety of reasons, of those that approach the Palisade Glacier (and its climbing routes that start between Glacier Notch and Thunderbolt's East Prow) the greatest percentage approach via the Glacier Trail and "Gayley Camp". Getting to Gayley Camp is fine. There is a "trail" of sorts and a short section (~100 yards) of talus boulder hopping. Gayley Camp has water nearby and flat sandy spots for a number of tents. However, getting from Gayley Camp to the Glacier in summer conditions, whether traversing to Glacier Notch or descending to the Glacier surface is, in my opinion, miserable and overly dangerous.
Allow me to elaborate. First of all, it is between .1 and .5 miles of large boulder-hopping. Second of all, most climbers to traverse this section have reported those same large boulders moving under body weight. Let us forget for now the annoyance of talus and moraine travel. After all, that is often unavoidable in the mountains, right? One might suggest that shifting talus and moraine is an unavoidable reality also. That would be a mostly valid assertion. However, I wish to make the case that this particular chunk of mountain terrain is far more prone to unstable stacked rocks.
This article assumes at least the reader's rough familiarity with the region, and continued overall retreat of the Palisade Glacier. The article at this link summarizes fairly well a rough outline of the Sierra's largest glacier and it's behavior. Another concept that is fundamental to understanding my forthcoming theory is the idea of talus formation and "angle of repose". In short, a talus slope in the mountains is formed when rocks fall, singly or in larger events, from a steep cliff and accumulate on lesser-angled terrain below. The accumulation of rocks at the base of that cliff, due to the initial and dramatic settling of those rocks and the ongoing and subtle forces of frost-action, reaches and maintains an equilibrium in overall slope angle and stability of individual rocks. Of course, some of those individual rocks will wobble in place a little bit. However, lacking a significant disruption, talus slopes are remarkably stable. This link gives further information on talus and "mass-wasting". I would like to propose that the "retreat" of the Palisade Glacier is providing a significant destabilizing force to this particular talus slope. Read on.
|View across (looking E) the Glacier at the talus slope in question. Photo 7/2012|
The pair of pictures below show a far over-simplified "cross-section" of that area. Imagine our viewing location is somewhere beyond the toe of the glacier and we're looking east-southeast with x-ray vision. The process of destabilization that I am suggesting an explanation for here is far from a step-by-step process. The drawings below merely represent two theoretical snapshots in time. However, I think they make my point.
|Historical situation. Palisade Glacier surface height at "equilibrium". Rocks fall from Mt. Gayley, come to rest and reach their angle of repose with the lower support coming from glacial ice.|
A few disclaimers: All this applies in the summer, under predominantly dry conditions. All this is exaggerated in drought years and less problematic in big snow years. Ideal approaches and campsites will vary in winter and through the transitional spring and fall seasons. The entire content of this article is merely my personal opinion, not endorsed by my employers or the Forest Service or anyone else. My first trip along the red line marked above relied on information gleaned from the late, great John Fischer. John used the campsite we have now informally named after him as a less-crowded alternative to Gayley Camp. Nothing is ever new.