Reaching a GoalAt 1 am on 9/26/08, Mike Brooks and I left Las Vegas heading to Big Pine, CA to attempt my final two California 14ers, Mts Sill and Split. A month previously we had done a highly successful trip to Dusy Basin and climbed three of the most difficult peaks in the Palisades and it looked like this could be the final chance to reach my goal before winter hits the mountains.
We reached the trailhead for Mt Sill at Glacier Lodge about 6:30 am after stopping and securing a campsite nearby and headed up the N Fork of Big Pine creek. Since we were attempting to complete the climb as a day hike, this approach seemed the most likely to result in success.
The traverse to the Glacier Notch is strenuous due to the talus fields and as we got close to the base of the notch there was a lot of ice just barely covered with scree. We had no problems climbing to the top of the notch taking care with the loose rock, but as we ascended the north couloir, we encountered nearly invisible verglas coating most of the rock surfaces starting about 100 feet below the notch between Apex peak and Mt Sill. This was mainly a problem on the northeasterly sections where it was shady. With an abundance of caution, we continued and found the conditions better where the sun was hitting.
We reached the summit and found the Sierra Club register box to be broken with both hinges gone. After a few summit photos, we were anxious to start back because of the concern that the verglas might get worse and that we might have route difficulties. Sure enough, as we descended and looked for the saddle we had come up, we missed it and found ourselves heading across the ridge toward Polemonium. A quick course correction and some additional climbing put us back in position to work across the face toward Apex peak and the saddle we were looking for.
Once we descended toward the Glacier Notch, we were relieved to be back on rock that was not slick and we retraced our path back to the trailhead. We made excellent time down the trail and reached our car in just under 12 hours elapsed time. We were both exhausted and put up our tents and forced some food down knowing that the lack of hunger had to be ignored. We were looking forward to attempting Split Mountain also, but after this effort, it seemed unlikely that we could do it in the morning. We agreed that we would sleep in and then head over to try to reach the trailhead in the afternoon and dry camp there so we could have an early start the following day.
I woke up from a nearly sleepless night about 6 am and quietly made some breakfast not wanting to disturb Mike. As noted, we had decided that a day for recovery would be in order. However, to my surprise, when I got up I could still walk and was feeling pretty normal. I waited until Mike arose on his own accord and after inquiring as to his health, asked if he would be interested in breaking camp and heading to the Red Mountain trailhead and up to Split Mountain. We considered the pros and cons, including the excellent weather that morning and the ever present uncertainty in the mountains this late in the season. After he had some breakfast, Mike agreed that we probably should give it a try since he also was feeling fairly decent after our climb of Mt Sill. We estimated the climb would be about 14 – 15 miles although it also promised over 7,500’ vertical gain. We quickly broke camp and headed down to the rough dirt road that goes about 12 miles to the trailhead. Mike’s main regret was that we were getting a late start, but we started hiking about 8:40 am and soon learned what an ugly trail it is that takes you to Red Lake. It does not show much sign of any maintenance effort and grinds through loose sand much of the way as it gains almost 4,000’ to Red Lake which is about 10,469’ elevation. We were in the sun almost the whole way and an earlier start would have indeed been welcome.
The last ¼ mile to the lake, Mike hit the wall and said he was not going to be able to do the peak this trip. We tried slowing the pace and I hoped he might regain his rhythm and get past this sinking spell, but when we reached the lake, he said there was no way he could do another 3,500’ up the N Ridge route this day. I was still feeling OK and was really motivated to reach this, my final, California 14er summit. I considered how hard the trail had been to this point and the ugly dirt road leading to the trailhead, and wanted to avoid ever repeating either.
Mike agreed to wait for my return and he was good for his word when I got back in about 5 hours. It had taken me exactly 2 hours to get back to the lower lake from the summit, so somehow I had been able to reach the summit in a bit less than 3 hours. It was a struggle, but I used my altimeter to set small goals and see them eventually reached until there was only about 400’ remaining and I was nearly crawling to gain each one.