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To Know

Steve Porcella boulders on a rest day in Dusy Basin. His partner, Cam Burns, takes a break from said bouldering. The Southwest Buttress of North Palisade is behind. [Photo] Don Porcella

At the time, we knew and we didn’t know. 1989 was near the start of a new decade. Both Cam and I were poor–with uncertain futures–Bush was replacing Reagan, and jobs, well, they were hard to come by back then. I was drifting, like a boat with no rudder, and the Sierra was calling me to immerse myself among its peaks.

But a key ingredient was always lacking: a great partner. Meeting Cameron–with his intelligence, his humor, his commitment to a California Fourteeners guidebook, the fake taxidermy cat super-glued to the hood of his car, its tail wagging like a windshield wiper at speeds over 30 mph–was a miracle. I quit my job, and we bolted for our High Sierran Shangri La. We learned a critical lesson early on: If you persevere in the Sierra, great weather and opportunity will follow. That’s what the Sierra is: great weather and great opportunity.

For us, the greatest opportunity lay on the Backside of the Palisades. It’s remote, barren, trailless, treeless, oxygenless and peopleless. And the rock soars everywhere. Since our climbing binge in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when Cam and I climbed the West Buttress of Starlight, the Southwest Buttress of North Pal and gullies too numerous to count, few of the walls and aretes that abound on the southwest side of this geological mass have been explored.

Being with Cam during those years on the Backside of the Palisades was like living close to Disneyland. A connoisseur of writing, photography, ’80s-fashion, Aussie-gumption, tea drinking, vegemite recipes and optimism, Cam was never uninteresting–nor was climbing with him. We competed with each other, we laughed at each other, and we respected and backed each other up.

In 1989, we took 90-plus-pound packs for a 12-day trip into Dusy Basin, following the guidance of Master Norman Clyde’s spirit and the decade-old footsteps of Galen Rowell and Dave Wilson, who climbed the first big wall on the Backside, up North Palisade. Once in Dusy Basin, we each decorated our little rock-ringed bivies with pictures torn from the climbing magazines of our then-favorite female climbers, Catherine Destivelle and Isabelle Patissier. We extolled their accomplishments, bid them adieu on alpine starts and greeted them again at night. We routinely spoke in heavy French accents so as to mimic, in mind and body, the great French climbers of those days. Late at night, we would make Harbor Lights cocktails–half Kahlua and half 150-proof rum, lit on fire–and stared into their blue flames, wondering what our our futures might be. I consumed H.P. Lovecraft books–horror stories for the next day’s horror show of loose rock and rope-length runouts–in a personal quest to understand and per chance to master fear.

(Top) Porcella peers into a void on the Southwest Buttress (IV 5.11c) of North Palisade during its 1990 first ascent. [Photo] Cameron Burns | (Bottom) Burns on the Brea– I mean “Beast” pitch. [Photo] Steve Porcella

On the West Buttress of Starlight Peak, Cam contorted and squirmed his way up a crazy steep, body-wide offwidth that we called The Breast because of its perfect shape. During the climbing of this pitch, the name morphed into The Beast because of its suddenly intense and unremitting difficulty. I moved hands over feet up spectacularly solid, dark-grey granite and entered a section of crumbling orange quartz. Poor gear placements transitioned into fantasy gear placements with no fall-holding potential. I was trying to hurry–1,000 feet of climbing or more stretched far above. Like pulling envelopes out of mailboxes, I was pulling hand holds off the rock when something tore loose in my brain. Out of survival and desperation, I ignored my worsening situation and instead began to float up the ever steepening, deteriorating rock. In my reality, physics had become an abstraction. Topping out on a ledge, I retched at the alternative future that could have occurred.

Steve on the West Buttress of Starlight. [Photo] Cameron Burns

This new internal climbing skill, the ability to seal-off negative thoughts, to ignore the empirical laws of physics, to rely on some deep, primal instinct to get the hell up the tree from the savannah-roaming tiger, was born within me in the Palisades. It would come in handy several more times in the Sierra, but always on those rare, runout, seemingly impossible leads and only when my hope appeared all but lost.

Emerging from the Palisades, our blood syrupy from weeks spent at 13,000-14,000 feet, we would strut around Bishop like two non-anonymous, neon-clad Zeuses attempting to integrate with the mortals. Doing our best Johnny Cash impressions, we belted out lines from his radio-saturated “Ring of Fire” song. We happily waltzed into the local theater to see the movie Uncle Buck for the sixth time, our eyes still tearing up at the sensitive parts. Together, though with Cam firmly in the lead, we pushed neon, lycra and bug-eyed mountain sunglasses well into the absurd and often to the chagrin of conservative townsfolk. But why partake in such tomfoolery here? Because, throughout it all, we never took ourselves seriously.

Porcella “testing” his newly discovered levitation skills above the summit of North Palisade. [Photo] Cameron Burns

Topping out on the Southwest Buttress, under Cam’s cinematographic direction, in dwindling light on the summit of North Pal, he and I recorded a theatrical performance, in photos, of the conflict and resolution between the lotus-sitting zen “wise man atop the mountain,”–played by Cam–and the “impetuous youth” who had just conquered the unconquerable. The final photo in that graphic series is an upside-down, black-and-white image of Cam, the enlightened wise man, lying next to the summit register on one of the greatest summits of the range. In hindsight, it’s a fitting conclusion to and symbol of our time spent there. Our Sierra experience launched us into other ranges, adventures and epics, but the Range of Light also made both of us who we are today.

(Top) Wise man Burns atop North Palisade. CLICK HERE to read Burns’ memories of climbing on the Backside. | (Bottom) Evening glow on the unclimbed southern faces of the Palisades’ Backside. [Photos] Steve Porcella (both)

Some say first ascents do not matter, that in the end the stories are about ego or self. It’s a simplistic distillation that I reject. Like all things human, it’s way more complicated than that. We studied the Palisades history before, during and after our time in the kingdom. Big, new routes offer the only test I know of one’s true mental abilities. I never met Norman, Smoke (whom we named a big new route after on Middle Palisade), Ruth and John or the many other known and unknown High Sierra legends. But I think of them as brothers and sisters from the same small village. Those that have passed still exist up there. You can find them on your leads, or during your moments of doubt, or at night when you are stumbling down a moonlit trail, wearing your neon, 12 miles from your car. That is the Palisades, an eternal place, a mystical place, and a place full of experiences that can transcend others. If you go, you will know. And you will be part of those mountains as they will be a part of you forever.

[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.