Starlight Peak is a 14,200-foot peak in the Palisade region of the Sierra Nevada, California. Its uniquely-shaped summit spire, accurately dubbed the Milk Bottle, stands only a few hundred yards northwest along the main Palisade crest from North Palisade itself.
In July 2015, I climbed Starlight Peak with Max Burke via the Starlight Chute. This route is primarily class-4 with the occasional section of low class-5 terrain, namely on and around the summit block. We did not use any ropes or protection, except for a fixed rope that we encountered in the lower NW chute.
JULY 1, 2015
Late in the day, following our ascent of Mount Sill, we retrieve our rucksacks from Potluck Pass (12,270′) and begin descending to the largest of the Barrett Lakes in the vast Palisade Basin.
We set a base camp below the imposing west wall of the North Palisade massif. The skies are clear, and the calm air gives no hint toward the apocalyptic thunderstorm brewing just beyond the granite battlement.
The first lightning flashes illuminate the sky just as we are laying down to rest. Hurriedly we cover our gear and batten down the hatches for an extended thunderstorm. Bullets of hail relentlessly bombard our tent between earth-shaking thunderclaps. The storm persists with remarkable strength for the better part of seven hours, thoroughly drenching our poor camp in the process.
JULY 2, 2015
We awake in low spirits, discouraged to discover the extent of water damage on our camp, and spend all of four hours drying our gear. The skies remain unsettled and we expect another storm to strike upon us at any time.
To our relief, we begin to see blue occupy the sky above North Palisade. Now is our chance to launch an attempt on North Palisade via its easiest route, the class-4 SW chute. With positive vigor, we start up the class-2 talus leading up to the entrance of the chute.
The weather window proves to be unfortunately short-lived; we’re not even at the mouth of the SW chute before the onslaught of hail commences. We take shelter beneath a house-sized boulder and cook food, lamenting our bad luck with weather. After an hour of pitying ourselves, we decide to abandon the SW chute route and evacuate the Palisade Basin.
On our way across the Palisade Basin, the storm lets up and once again blue skies take over. There’s enough time left in the day for us to make another attempt on the peak, but the easy SW chute is now too far behind us. On a whim, and lacking limited route information, we decide to head up the NW chute, which joins the famous Starlight Chute and climbs to the notch between North Palisade and Starlight Peak. Giselle decides to stay behind at the 12,600′ level, leaving me and Max to tackle the ascent by ourselves. We scramble into the narrow, snow-choked couloir and begin improvising an upward path.
We climb up and over a short class-4 chockstone, thus gaining entrance to the NW chute. Past this obstacle, we are able to easily scramble over class-3 ledges to a massive headwall. Part of this section is equipped with a fixed rope, which seems unnecessary but fun anyway.
At the headwall, we turn right and clamber up a series of low-angle slabs to a notch that drops dramatically down to Starlight Chute.
From the notch, we must find a way in to the main Starlight Chute, which we presume leads to the top of the Palisade crest. We do so by means of the famous Wright Ledge, a narrow class-3 horizontal ledge with stomach-churning exposure. The rock is a tad slippery due to the recent rains; we try not to think about the prospect returning along this perilous ledge in the event of another sudden storm.
The first obstacle presented to us in the main Starlight Chute is a 60-foot sheer waterfall, bounded on top and bottom by thick mushy snow. The only viable option for us is to climb the rock wall on the right side of the cascade, which involves a section of sustained class-4 maneuvers on the slick, exposed granite face.
Just as we’re starting to get outrageously high on the sheer wall, we locate a crumbly ledge that allows us to return to the safety of the couloir.
The perspective from the heart of the steep couloir is most impressive. We look down the narrow slot, bound by thousand-foot cliffs and closed off at the bottom by a triangular headwall. The feeling of “passing the point of no return” threatens to overwhelm us as we delve further into this keyhole labyrinth.
The final 400 vertical feet of the Starlight Chute consist of broken class-4 and class-5 ledges, which we ascend with only small difficulty. On the way up, we pass a number of slings and anchor stations for parties who choose to ascend with proper technical gear. Thankfully we’ve got hiking boots and brash confidence.
We gain the main 14,000-foot Palisade crest at a deep notch between North Palisade and Starlight Peak. The true summit of North Palisade stands only a couple hundred feet above us, but there appears to be no safe route up it.
We split our efforts: Max climbs directly up the ridge, only to encounter a wall of blank rock. Myself, I descend into a chute on the northeast side of the summit and attempt to climb it. Soon I find myself on difficult class-5 terrain; I also find a piece of trad gear (a single Black Diamond stopper) left in the rock. The two of us retreat to the notch in order to reconsider our options.
We come to the decision to climb to the top of 14,200′ Starlight Peak in order to gain a view of the North Palisade summit block. I spy an exposed north-facing slab with a thin ledge that appears climbable, though freakishly exposed. Instructing Max not to “freak out” when he sees me on the ledge, I pull myself onto it and begin the delicate traverse.
The thin ledge leads directly to a sharp arete, which we climb in direct fashion. Behind us, the sacred 14,153′ tower of Mount Sill rises tall above the Palisade Glacier, the largest ice field in the entire Sierra Nevada.
The going gets progressively more difficult and scary as we approach the top of Starlight Peak. We traverse an airy class-5 ledge and pull a small roof – the crux of the entire climb for us – up to the final knife-edge crest.
The true summit of Starlight Peak is a thin 15-foot tower of rock. Accurately named the Milk Bottle, it is equipped with an anchor sling at the cap. We opt out of the challenge (going at 5.4 free-solo), instead seating ourselves at the base where the summit register is bolted to the rock.
Inside the summit register, a previous climber has placed instructions for the technical traverse of the full Palisade ridge. Not only do we learn that most parties utilize roped belays from the notch up to the summit of Starlight Peak, but also that to reach the summit of North Palisade from this side requires a pitch of 5.6 face climbing.
Satisfied with this information, we relax on the summit and enjoy fine views of the most rugged alpine terrain in all of California.
It’s taken us two hours to climb the Starlight Chute all the way to the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak. We take this summit as a consolation prize, agreeing that North Palisade will have to wait for another day. Besides, we have our work cut out for us to downclimb the class-5 crux back to the notch.
From the notch we descend back into Starlight Chute, realizing that we have no other option for descent other than to “sack up” and pick a careful path down the class-4 walls of the couloir. Far below in the valley we see a smoky haze of forest fire, undoubtedly the doing of last night’s electrical storm.
I take out a dinky 20-foot rope with the hope that we can use it to descend the waterfall – not recalling the full extent of the 60-foot drop. So this option is cancelled; we are forced to descend the slick class-4 wall on the right (now left, looking down the chute) side.
The wall is easier than we remember, and we find ourselves at the bottom of the falls in hardly any time. Now we must return along Wright Ledge and over the notch to the initial NW chute. Far below in Palisade Basin, the lakes glow in aggressive brilliance.
Over the notch, we return to the lower reaches of North Palisade’s northwest chute. With ease we scramble down the class-3 slabs to the base of the grand western wall.
Back at the packs, we reunite with Giselle and altogether march over Thunderbolt Pass, descending to make camp in the upper Dusy Basin as violet dusk descends upon the Palisade region. Although we did not succeed in reaching the summit of North Palisade, Max and I feel accomplished in our ascent of Starlight Peak.