Add Heading HereHaving just got out of school for the summer, Brian and I were both ready for some challenge. He had just earned his Master’s degree and I was burning to climb in the Sierra again. I’ll be honest – throughout finals week and the days leading to it, I spent most of my breaks between studying staring at pictures of the mountains in the High Sierra and tracing routes across their sheer faces. Now that I was liberated from exams and papers, I was ready to dangle my feet over some fresh mountain air again. So with my car low on gas and high on drive, we sped across the California desert to watch the fading sunlight creep down the horizon in the distant West.
A host of distractions consumed us in the morning – wilderness permits, candy bars, coffee, etc. and after a reasonably late start, Brian and I finally took off from the trailhead at noon on Tuesday. No longer shouldering the burdens of schoolwork, money, or a host of other mundane problems, I was very happy to feel the familiar weight of a fully loaded pack with climbing gear, food, and the various paraphernalia of outdoor life that would sustain us for the next few days.
The trek up the N. fork of Big Pine Creek is absolutely beautiful. It winds through landscapes of desert sagebrush, alpine streams, meadows and forests while being shadowed by the great peaks of the Palisade range in the background. The Palisades are arguably one of the most rugged alpine regions in the US and mountaineers around the world cite climbing any one of the six 14,000-foot peaks in this area as a significant accomplishment. Moreover, the Palisade Glacier boasts to be the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada range. Besides the numbers, size, and reputation of these peaks, the sheer beauty and presence of this area arrested my attention from the first time I gazed upon them a little less than a year ago during the 2005 Sierra Challenge.
A few hours up the trail, Temple Crag's ominous spires greeted us with a grand view. Patches of snow in the forested streams and meadows soon led us above the final slope to our campsite, Sam Mack Meadows, which is just below the Palisade Glacier. Here the snow was thick, but we were able to find a small clearing in which to pitch our tents. To bless our ambitious climb the next day, I strung a row of prayer flags to the nearest pile of rocks, prepared some dinner and drifted off to sleep.
4 am the next day saw us both very cold and scampering around for a light. We planned on an early alpine start to catch the snow at its best – firm and cold – so that our crampon points would penetrate loud and clear. As we crossed the deceptively long glacier, the air was beautifully still. Only the sound of our axes digging in the snow and our boots crunching the snow penetrated the tranquil silence. Brian couldn’t help but sport a wide grin every time I looked back – it was hard not to be having a good time.
We gained Glacier Notch and soon arrived at the base of the climb. The Swiss Arete is a sharp ridgeline, or buttress, that falls straight due North from the summit of Mt. Sill. Picture the spiny back of a stegosaurus - thats about what the route looks like. It is considered one of the finest alpine rock routes in the Sierra due to its tremendous exposure (a gentle term climbers use to denote how far one would fall before hitting the ground), and solid rock.
Brian and I stashed some gear before beginning any difficult rock, but we had a hard time deciding how much to bring. Although the sun was high and the skies clear, the wind made things very cold. In addition, we had to lug our big mountaineering boots, ice axes, food, water, rope, and climbing gear for a few hours. We ended up with one pack that was huge (roughly 25 lbs). The follower would carry the pack to relieve the burden on the leader.
The first pitch to get on the arête proper looked pretty easy – mostly 4th class with some 5th class. I carried the pack and we both free-soloed the entire first pitch. We roped up for the second pitch. Brian led this one with no problem. I led the third pitch. Rope drag in this section was horrendous as the route wandered quite a bit. As I approached the crux section, I was nearly incapacitated, so I backed up a bit and extended one of the runners. The famous step around move was a bit scary, but easily protectable. The crux move – a 5.7 inside corner, or open book had some ice running down the crack, but I was able to place a piece of protection and climb up it without much problem.
From here, the climbing got much easier and we were within eyesight of the summit blocks. Brian skillfully led a long pitch of 4th and 5th class rock to get us about 150 from the summit. Then, tired of waiting around for belays and feeling very comfortable on the rock, we decided to stash the rope and free-solo the last portion of the climb.
summit views were gorgeous. Mt. Sill is reputed to have the best summit view in the Sierra. After spending some time with our jaws dropped in the sheer beauty of the mountains, we took some pictures and had lunch. I left a brief note to my friend Patty, who passed away recently in a blaze of glory doing what she loved most – climbing mountains. Far from lamenting her death and being consumed by fear, I now find great strength and courage when I think of her because of the amazing and inspirational qualities she possessed.
The descent was a bit tricky and probably deserves some mention to aid those who wish to climb this peak. From the summit of Mt. Sill, we headed down the West Ridge as if headed towards Polemonium peak. Staying on the crest of the ridge is class 3/4, so it is much easier to stay further to the left (South). Here the climbing is no harder than class 2. The proper spot to leave the crest is well marked with a large cairn and some bright slings around a large rock. It is easiest to spot the slings.
Looking down from here, there was plenty of snow along the ledges, but hoping for a speedier descent, we opted not to rappel. The class 4 downclimb was not difficult, and we were able to avoid much of the snow by scoping out all the options. The rock in this section, however, is extremely loose and proper caution must be exercised. There was a short hanging snow slope that required extra vigilance because it was unusually icy and fell to a precipitous drop-off after about 100 feet. Some easy ledges then gave us access to the notch between Apex Peak and Mt. Sill.
From here, it was a fun glissade down to retrieve the gear we previously left behind. The warm sun left the snow very soft and it was an odd site to see mini-streams all across the rock face below the coulouir. A few hours of alternating between slogging through the deep snow, glissading, and snowshoeing put us back in the comfort of our campsite. Exhausted, we ate dinner. I celebrated with some savory swiss cheese. We spent a few moments reliving the days adventure, and drifted off to sleep amongst the fluttering prayer flags that blessed our climb.
The original plan the next day was to climb the U-Notch on North Palisade, but Brian’s right ankle was bothering him a little from a leader fall he suffered a few weeks ago in the cliffs at Malibu. How he managed to climb Mt. Sill with nary a complaint still surprises me to this day! So, instead of climbing another peak, we opted to break camp and head down-canyon to find some bouldering routes to put up a first ascent or two.
Fueled by ambition, Brian led the way and established a few really nice routes above Third Lake. It is likely that no one will care about these, given the presence of so many fine alpine rock routes in the area, but it was fun climbing routes that will probably never be climbed again.
We had also originally decided on spending another night in the wilderness engaging in other adventures, but quickly decided against it after being swarmed by an army of mosquitoes.
The final hike down Big Pine Creek almost left tears running down my cheeks. This trip had been a very emotional one for me and marked my last climb for the summer before I embarked on my voyage to Nepal to conduct research. I felt great and gained a renewed vigor for taking on life’s challenges. In retrospect, this is exactly why I love climbing – to experience this bold feeling of being alive. As Brian and I were getting drunk in great conversation on the drive down Hwy 395, we took pause and looked back at the Sierra crest – the Range of Light – as John Muir called it. I knew I would return again in a few months, a changed person, but with the same giddy spirit that grins widely every time it reaches up for the next hold.