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Middle Palisade

Daniel Arnold, author of Early Days in the Range of Light (2009), has reenacted many early first ascents in the High Sierra, using the original gear. In this photo, he says, he was retracing a climb by Clarence King (1842-1901), “using a wool blanket as both my backpack and my bed.” [Photo] Daniel Arnold collection

A tense conversation high on the steep west face of Middle Palisade: Ansel Hall had just escaped a rotten chimney, a vertical gizzard full of big, grinding stones. After climbing out right to avoid the flying rocks that Hall knocked loose, Francis Farquhar had joined him by way of a fingertip traverse above vanishing footholds and empty air. They conferred on a ledge and agreed to bail. But some strange mental judo surprised them both. “We had had about enough,” Farquhar wrote, “and definitely decided to go down…. Then…we both began to climb up.”

The year was 1921. The two men had no ropes or other gear, just their fingers and boots, and some food in their pockets. Farquhar was an accountant, and Hall was Yosemite’s park naturalist–happy guys, not flint-eyed desperadoes bent on heady soloing. But all California climbers of the era were soloists, apart from a few who used the rare lasso or hand-line. Those newfangled Alpine roped techniques–belaying and rappelling–didn’t make it to California until 1930. For seventy years prior (and longer, if you include Native Americans, who left hints but no written records), men and women had been climbing ropeless in the Sierra. The mountains were just too bewitching, the stone too perfect in the hand. The razor summits and pretty faces and infinite ridges hypnotized the early climbers, calling them back to spend a week or a month or the rest of their lives. By the time Robert Underhill taught the body belay to the Sierra Club in 1931, most of the major Sierra peaks had been climbed.

I caught up with Farquhar and Hall on Middle Palisade in 2006. I’d been following the original Sierra climbers for three years, from John Muir’s tale of fear and deliverance on the north face of Mt. Ritter to Norman Clyde’s first ascents on the couloirs and spires of the Palisades. I retraced their routes without ropes or modern gear, at times bivying in a wool blanket. The mountains became my time machine to an age when sunrises were miracles of light and heat, when letting go wasn’t an option and storms went right through to the skin. I came to think that by carrying nothing, climbers like Farquhar and Hall heard more of what the mountains have to say.

Ansel Hall–lucky kid–was born into the Muir era. Between summers spent running from peak to peak with a notebook and a pocketful of bread crusts, Muir filled the mountains with poetry and possibility in his books, most of which hit print during Hall’s first twenty years. When Muir wrote, “We little know until tried how much of the uncontrollable there is in us, urging across glaciers and torrents, and up dangerous heights,” he could have been speaking directly to Hall about climbing Middle Palisade. From early on, Hall was “inoculated,” as he told Farquhar, “with the Sierra Nevada fever.” Hall grew up making boyhood pilgrimages to Yosemite. In 1917, at age twenty-three, he hired on as one of two park rangers for Sequoia National Park and its 250 square miles of mountain wilderness. That summer, he was turned loose with a horse, a mule, a rifle and some tools. He called this time “one of the most glamorous” of his life.

Farquhar had roots in the East and a Harvard degree, but one look at Yosemite was enough to settle him in California. At his house in Berkeley, he escaped to the Sierra through his basement library, where he’d compiled an immense collection of books, letters, documents and maps, which together narrated the natural and human history of California’s mountains. He and his wife, Marjory–an ace mountaineer herself, and a better pure rock climber than Farquhar–hosted parties there. In 1975, in Farquhar’s American Alpine Journal obituary, one of his friends wrote: “Probably more expeditions, first ascents, and other escapades were hatched in the Farquhar library than in any other incubator of American mountaineering. When two climbers met in some remote mountain area… the password often was, ‘Remember me? I met you at the Farquhars.'”

Middle Palisade’s west face, by which the peak was first summited in August 1921. Farquhar and Hall followed the Southwest Chute (4th Class), the rightmost of three prominent gullies on the face. [Photo] Steve Porcella

In 1921 Middle Palisade dominated Farquhar’s mental horizon. “A magnet seemed to draw me…,” he wrote, “and I confess that I willingly submitted to its influence.” He’d spent the previous summer studying the mountain, first broadside on, across Palisade Creek; then down the axis of the range from atop North Palisade. Farquhar knew that another Sierra climber, James Hutchinson, had his eye on Middle Palisade, too. Across the range, few of California’s tallest mountains remained unclimbed, and few mountains of any kind had Middle Palisade’s wild geometry. The mountain was a blade of rock jabbed at the sky, one sharp ridgeline running north and south, and two steep, fluted faces to the east and west. Farquhar couldn’t keep his eyes off it.

Up high on Middle Pal, alone but in good company, I had two revelations: the mountain was just as steep as it looked–maybe steeper–and the climbing was technical. Fingerlocks, jams, armbars and chicken wings, I used all the Yosemite tricks. Which means Farquhar and Hall knew how to do those things, too. The Sierra climbers were learning, taking instruction from the mountains and their partners. Lacking climbing gear, they gained pure climbing technique. Their hands on the stone were their belay.

Recovered from their moment of doubt above the chimney and full of rebound courage, Farquhar and Hall raced up the remaining distance. The rock turned into clean mountain bone, dense and solid. I followed behind, switching out of dead-end crack systems, traversing across oversized pleats of white granite. Right below the top, I climbed a near-vertical crystal wall covered in buckets and rails. I imagined Farquhar and Hall, wide-eyed, cackling into their beards, staring straight down past their boots while the mountain spilled out below them.

On top, Farquhar and Hall found their empty summit, a graceful knife-edge hung on a curve. They shouted at the sky and drank in the view. A few miles up-range, North Palisade and Mt. Sill loomed out of a sea of densely knit peaks. Remnant glaciers and canyons and stone-bound lakes filled the ground below. The two men moved carefully around the summit–the big drop was right there on both sides, and loose gargoyle-blocks looked ready to tip off into space. I joined them, and the first thing I saw was a Clark’s Nutcracker perched on the ridgeline, feathers blowing in the wind. It took one look at me and dove off the east face, dropping a thousand feet before spreading its wings and flying away.

It was Farquhar’s best climb. In the decades that followed, he became better known as an organizer, mentor and recorder. Through his connection to the Harvard Mountaineering Club, he brought Underhill to the Sierra to teach local climbers the ropes, the singular event that ushered in the modern era of climbing in California. And as the routes became more vertical and visionary, as Eichorn climbed Higher Cathedral Spire and Robbins climbed Half Dome and Harding climbed the Nose, Farquhar filed away their stories in his library.

Propped atop Middle Palisade, I could all but see those threads of influence stretching from mountain to mountain and climber to climber. Beginning with Muir and Clarence King, the original prophets, the lines branch across the range for seventy years until they merge in Yosemite. And from the walls of Yosemite, the lines radiate around the world. In the Sierra, the mountains look so fresh and pure they could be brand-new, but the stories are all there, written on the stone hold by hold, each generation adding its verses.

[Farquhar wrote about the climb of Middle Palisade in the Sierra Club Bulletin vol. 11 no. 3. Nicholas Clinch’s obituary for Farquhar is in the 1975 American Alpine Journal. Hall told Farquhar about his Sierra inoculation in Farquhar’s 1958 oral history held by the Bancroft Library. Muir wrote about the uncontrollable in The Mountains of California.–Author.]

[Photo] David Stark Wilson

This week, we’re publishing the four essays from the Palisades Mountain Profile, including Joan Jensen’s thoughts on “The Nature of Memory” and Cam Burns’s retelling of his “backside” adventures with Steve Porcella. Daniel Arnold tracks the histories of the Palisades’ early pioneers while Peter Croft does what Peter Croft does best. We’re also publishing a bonus essay by Steve Porcella about his quest for the “remote, barren, trailless, treeless, oxygenless and peopleless,” where he finds out what it is to really know a mountain range. CLICK HERE to read the essays as they progressively become available, or purchase a copy of the entire issue in our online store.–Ed.