Starlight Peak (14,200′) via Starlight Chute (Class-5 Scramble)

Looking west along the crest of the North Palisade massif from the 14,153-foot summit of Mount Sill.

Looking west along the crest of the North Palisade massif from the 14,153-foot summit of Mount Sill. Starlight Peak stands just to the right of North Palisade, the highest point on the crest.

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.

Descending to the Barrett Lakes, Palisade Basin.

Descending to the Barrett Lakes, 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.

Approaching the base of the west wall of the North Palisade massif from Palisade Basin.

Approaching the base of the west wall of the North Palisade massif from Palisade Basin.

The west wall of the North Palisade massif viewed from just west of Potluck Pass in Palisade Basin.

The west wall of the North Palisade massif viewed from just west of Potluck Pass in Palisade Basin.

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.

Drying our gear after a vicious overnight thunderstorm.

Drying our gear after a vicious overnight thunderstorm.

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.

Navigating the talus fan below the main SW chute on North Palsade.

Navigating the talus fan below the main SW chute on North Palsade.

Leaving the Palisade Basin below as we climb into the main SW chute on North Palisade.

Leaving the Palisade Basin below as we climb into the main SW chute on North Palisade.

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.

At the base of the main SW chute on North Palisade.

At the base of the main SW chute on North Palisade.

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.

Entering the NW chute on North Palisade.

Entering the NW chute on North Palisade.

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.

Using a fixed rope to ascend a 3rd-class section of the NW chute on North Palisade.

Using a fixed rope to ascend a 3rd-class section of the NW chute on North Palisade.

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.

Easy class-3 slabs on the way up to Starlight Notch on North Palisade.

Easy class-3 slabs on the way up to the notch above Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

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.

Traversing the narrow Wright Ledge to access the main Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

Traversing the narrow Wright Ledge to access the main Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

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.

Bypassing the 60-foot waterfall in Starlight Chute via the class-4 face to the right.

Bypassing the 60-foot waterfall in Starlight Chute via the class-4 face to the right.

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.

Climbing the class-4 right wall of Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

Climbing the class-4 right wall of Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

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.

Looking back down Starlight Chute from 13,650 feet on North Palisade.

Looking back down Starlight Chute from 13,650′ on North Palisade.

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.

Probing around on a puzzling section of the main North Palisade ridge.

Probing around on a puzzling section of the main North Palisade ridge.

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.

Traversing an exposed east-facing slab on the summit block of Starlight Peak

Traversing an exposed east-facing slab on the summit block of Starlight Peak

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.

Scrambling up a sharp arete on the summit block of Starlight Peak with Mount Sill towering behind to the east.

Scrambling up a sharp arete on the summit block of Starlight Peak with Mount Sill towering behind to the east.

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.

Only a short class-5 section away from the summit of Starlight Peak!

Only a short class-5 section away from the summit of Starlight Peak! We traverse right and climb the wall of broken rock on the right side of the photo – low class-5 moves, the crux of the ascent for us.

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.

Traversing the crest of North Palisade en route to the Milk Bottle (seen behind), the unique summit pinnacle on Starlight Peak.

Traversing the crest of North Palisade en route to the Milk Bottle (seen behind), the unique summit pinnacle on Starlight Peak.

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.

Looking west from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Looking west from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Max kicking back on the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Max kicking back on the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Looking north at the Palisade Glacier from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Looking north at the Palisade Glacier from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Unable to locate the supposed class-4 route  from the top of Starlight Chute to the summit of North Palisade.

Unable to locate a safe route from the top of Starlight Chute to the summit of North Palisade.

Looking east at Mount Sill (left) and North Palisade (right) above the Palisade Glacier from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Looking east at Mount Sill (left) and North Palisade (right) above the Palisade Glacier from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Panorama looking east at Mount Sill (left), North Palisade (center), and the Milk Bottle (right) from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Panorama looking east at Mount Sill (left), North Palisade (center), and the Milk Bottle (right) from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Looking south over a sea of Sierra peaks from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Looking south over a sea of Sierra peaks from the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

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.

Downclimbing a dicey class-5 section below the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

Downclimbing a dicey class-5 section below the 14,200-foot summit of Starlight Peak.

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.

Crossing a snowfield above the 60-foot waterfall in Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

Crossing a snowfield above the 60-foot waterfall in Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

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.

Looking south over Starlight Notch on North Palisade.

Looking south over the notch above lower Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

Traversing the narrow Wright Ledge to Starlight Notch.

Traversing the narrow Wright Ledge to the notch above Starlight Chute.

The silhouette of Max in Starlight Notch on North Palisade.

The silhouette of Max in the notch above Starlight Chute on North Palisade.

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.

Within the western buttresses of North Palisade.

Within the western buttresses of North Palisade.

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.

Crossing over Thunderbolt Pass at dusk to access the upper Dusy Basin.

Crossing over Thunderbolt Pass at dusk to access the upper Dusy Basin.

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