North Palisade: the U-Notch Couloir


What an absolutely amazing adventure this was! North Palisade offers the gamut of high alpine mountaineering challenges, from glacier travel to ice climbing to technical rock, making it not only one of the most challenging Sierra fourteeners, but also one of the most rewarding. I had wanted to climb this route for some time, but simply didn't have the skills or the mindset to try to solo it.

— July 7, 2008

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Robert Kieffer July 8, 2008 at 7:35 am

Another great report, dude!

I sense, today, that the climbing will not be easy.


On some trips I find I am simply strong. Thousands of vertical feet seem to pass as if without effort.

Other times, each and every step is a battle.

I expect one fundamental difference between solo .vs. guided excursions, or group excursions in general, is in how the pace is set. Alone, we are much better at listening to our body and evaluating what lies ahead against what we have "in the tank." But with two or more people, the physical and psychological tug-of-war that takes place in determining how fast you go can quickly take a person off their game.

Two people may be able do the same route in the same time separatly, but together it's unrealistic to expect to make the same time. One person may be better at scrambling over talus while the other is better at setting a fast pace on smooth trails. Expecting both people to keep up in the areas they are weakest will prove excessively tiring.

You see this phenomenon when doing long, group bicycle rides. The weakest rider will lag at the back of the group, slowing the pace down and allowing the other riders to ease up periodically. As they rest their legs, the trailing rider is exerting a bit harder to catch up. At the end of the ride, everyone feels remarkably good... except for the poor guy in the back who, by constantly trying to keep up with everyone else and never having time to rest, has completely wrecked himself. A sacrificial goat of sorts.

This effect is more acute in cycling than other disciplines, for reasons I won't go into, but I'm sure the same dynamic applies in hiking and climbing. There may have been a psychological element too. Do you think climbing with a guide you respected and admired may have subconsciously caused you to exhert yourself a bit more than you would have normally?

Howie Schwartz July 8, 2008 at 11:37 am

Andy, thanks for the North Pal trip report. Great writing! Neil told me all about it too. Wish I could have been there to share it with you both. Maybe we can get out for a ski this winter.

Excellent , well thought out comments by Robert. I have some opinions on the subject as one who has been guided (long ago), been guiding for around 15 yrs now, and does a lot of personal mountain climbing solo and with friends.

Basically, I agree that large groups lead to a decrease in safety and efficiency in most alpine endeavors. That is the main reason that so many Sierra Mountain Guides trips are offered at small guiding ratios.

As far as the assertion that solo climbing may be more efficient than small group (2-3 people) climbing goes, that probably depends a lot on the terrain, and the comfort abilities of the climber in that terrain. Soloing can be much less efficient than roped climbing if the climber is gripped. It can also be more hazardous.

There is a difference between climbing in a small group of friends/peers and climbing with a guide. Guides help find the way, determine the best strategies, and set the pace, among other jobs. These are a significant energy expenditure for the guide. To not have to do those things increases efficiency for the clients more than one might expect. With friends there is often an underlying competitive dynamic. I have seen many recreational travelers go too fast for themselves on their own, forcing too many breaks and poor time management. This leads to reduced efficiency, especially at altitude.

Everyone has a unique psychology, so I think it would be difficult to generalize about what works better or worse. Some folks might push themselves harder with a guide, some while solo, and some with their close friends. When I am solo I feel I have to really hold myself accountable for my efforts to achieve a goal. Sometimes when I have another person along, it motivates me to try harder. So maybe it also depends on the type of mood you are in...

After reading Andy's account I would suggest that any above average exertion on his part was due primarily to not having climbed much in such technical alpine terrain before in those conditions. Alpine climbing can be more physical than skiing as well as the packs are often heavy in comparison and the ground is rugged. The snow really smooths out the travel. I can generally do 6000 vertical feet up and down on skis much more quickly and easily than on foot with ropes, ice axes, and crampons. Psychologically, unfamiliar terrain can also take a physical toll over time. Other possible factors might be: that the altitude had more effect than usual, overtraining, undertraining, recent illness, etc.

From my experience, I have trouble believing that any decrease in performance or efficiency was due in any way to the hiring of a guide, either physically or psychologically. I am quite certain that Andy enjoyed a net benefit in terms of increasing his safety, efficiency, and quality of experience from his outing with Neil.

Enjoy the mountains!

Andy July 8, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Thanks for the comments!

I should note that as we progressed up the mountain, Neil (my guide) matched his pace to mine. If I walked faster, so did he; if I slowed down, he slowed down also. So pacing was largely under my control.

As for the extra effort of this trip, I do have a few observations. First of all, this was a big hike! The distance traveled and vertical gain alone were significant. Additionally, every backcountry experience is unique. I think its normal to feel stronger some days than others.

There were a few key factors affecting my sense of effort on North Pal, however. I was coming off a long hiatus (plus a double dose of flu). That made a difference. I was also learning and using new techniques (ice climbing, roped climbing, technical rock). Beginners always expend more energy on tasks than those who are experienced. Traveling outside my 'comfort zone' was mentally fatiguing as well.

Finally, my combined camera equipment weighs about 5 lbs physically and at least twice that mentally. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get good photos and otherwise fix the memories of the trip moment by moment in order to put together a vivid article. That took up a lot of energy, but I have to say it was worth it!

Gary July 10, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Outstanding trip report. What a classic, eh? We have a much abbreviated trip report at the address below if you are curious. Thanks again for the wonderful website.

Bill Henry July 19, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Nice job Andy!!! That's the best write-up of climbing North Palisade I've ever read. Congratulations.


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