Mount Sill (14,162’) Via Trail, Meadow, Moraine, Glacier and the Swiss Arete
by Penelope May
It was steaming hot in the Owens Valley when Alois and I arrived at the Bishop Ranger Station on Wednesday July 25th at noon. We were hoping for a permit from the prior day’s allotment, or at worst, from the current day’s, which would allow us to enter the wilderness that day or the following day. The rules are definitely peculiar. I assured a doubting Alois that I was a lucky charm and certainly a permit would be available. I then let him sweet talk the ladies at the counter, overhearing him “mention” that this would be his 30th trip to the Palisades. We were processed successfully!
Gleefully we drove back down to Big Pine with our permit and parked the car at the Glacier Lodge overnight lot. It was 3 pm by the time we started up the trail, in very hot sun. We suffered uphill for about 5 miles and 2,750 feet through alpine, flowering splendor complete with hundreds of mosquitoes. Finally we reached the tranquil beauty of Third Lake, vibrantly green, set amid the majesty of Sierra rock and pine. It was cooler and we were on our way to Sill: we were happy.
Next morning was indulgent: tea in bed and a late start. We reached Sam Mack Meadow, often a camping area, after about 2 miles and luxuriated in the soft green grass as we filled water bottles from the musical creek. Of course we were “going light” so a water filter was replaced by iodine and taste neutralizer pills, which were just fine. We continued up the trail until it reached the start of the moraine at which point it blended into rock piles. We picked our way another mile or two until reaching the small rocky camping area at the base of Mt Gayley, at about 12,000 feet. The magnificent Palisades Glacier surrounded with 5 spectacular and rugged fourteeners came into view: it was gaspingly beautiful.
There were about 6 other climbers there, creating “crowded” conditions. We found a secluded and walled camping area on the south side and settled in. Shortly afterwards a typical Sierra summer storm hit the giant peaks and us. It was rain, hail and thunder but no lightening, so we just donned goretex and moved our stuff under a rock or into the tent and continued to enjoy the dramatic views. After another gourmet dinner of noodles, bread, soup and mashed potato we took an early night.
When Alois’ watch beeped I cringed: it was 3:45 am. He was cavalier enough to wake immediately and make us breakfast while I struggled with sleepiness and pulling on my clothes. By 5:00 am we were sitting by the glacier putting on our aluminum crampons. We carried on upwards for about 1,000 feet and turned the corner toward Sill. From there it was a steep Class 4 cliff to Glacier Notch to another smaller but icier glacier in the North Couloir at the base of our destination. This one was tougher to cross with our aluminum gear but we skirted the worst ice and managed to reach the ledges on the opposite side. We changed into rock shoes and began climbing the wonderful Swiss Arete. This route was first ascended in 1938 by Ruth Dyar, later Mendenhall, and four friends. It is a Sierra Classic.
After about 5 easy pitches we reached the infamous “step-around”. So far the altitude had only bothered Alois who was breathing a bit hard with his 25 lb pack of bare essentials; the man is still mighty. However, as he lead the step-around, confidently wedging in some pro, I looked down the 2,000 feet or so beneath him and felt distinctly queasy. When my turn came I did my best to appear nonchalant until I realized that I would have to stretch out my legs completely in order to reach what Alois termed a step (a dent in the rock) on the other side of the corner. I danced a few times before doing it and shuffled quickly over the crux area to grab a handhold higher up, heart racing. A few feet above me, Alois sweetly reminded me to take out the cam in the rock between my legs. I clung to my balance while reaching down to wrestle with the thing. I noticed it was the booty cam which Alois had found a few pitches ago. Hanging awkwardly in this exposed and frustrated position, I immediately offered him $40 for permission to move on and leave it. As you might imagine, Alois just smiled the requirement to lower myself to the crux again and get it. I did and my desire to reach the summit was obviously the only reason for lack of a violent domestic incident.
We now found ourselves on a ledge below the real crux move of the climb, rated 5.7. It was a 15 foot vertical crack in an “open book”, which required stemming up and over. This actually presented little problem as long as hip joints stayed in place, which they miraculously did. With only one pitch left we found a mostly 4th class route to the crest, where we arrived at a rather tardy 3:00 pm. Fortunately the weather was clear and sunny with only a light breeze and no hint of thunder and lightening; the view was magnificent, a sea of peaks across the Sierra; and we had made it, my first technical biggish mountain climb. I was ecstatic and persuaded a hurried Alois (by lying about the time) to stop for photos and snacks.
Eventually we left that marvelous summit and started our search for the 4th Class descent route. In the past Alois had merely descended from the top of the West Ridge down the North Face straight down to Palisades Glacier; this time, since I didn’t fancy that, we followed RJ’s directions and slithered slowly and dangerously down the 4th Class rock route on the northwest. It was exposed and gritty and we took it very slowly. Alois kept issuing instructions to be careful: he would die if something happened to me; and, more to the point, my girlfriends would cut him up and eat him for lunch. In the face of such fears, I mastered my footsteps and we reached the notch by Apex Peak in one piece: Alois’ future survival in Idyllwild was thus assured.
Descent from there can be in the couloir, or as we elected, 3rd Class down the rocks on the far side. Eventually we reached the unavoidable section of the icy glacier in the late afternoon, so it was nice and cool and very frozen. Alois found a long sling already hanging on a rock so belayed me most of the way down until the rope ran out, after which my aluminum crampons skated a bit but I slipped safely the rest of the way down. Alois made it with his masterful snow skills although wishing for steel tips on all fours! He said that it was the first time in 20 years that he had seen such icy conditions so early in the year: such snow as had fallen this winter had melted away revealing the underlying glacier ice. From now on this year, ice tools would be required.
We then down climbed the 4th Class cliff, entering the Palisades Glacier again about 6:00 pm. It was nice and soft so we just postholed our way down, too lazy to get out our rain pants and glissade, although that looked very feasible. Hopping over the last ½ mile of talus we did start to feel a teeny bit tired, but adrenalin and thirst kept us going. We staggered into camp and the water hole about 7:15 pm, while it was still light. Looking around we saw the moon rising over Sill as the evening light started glowing on it. We hugged and laughed over our achievement and the beauty of it all. Dinner was liquid and minimal after which we could not get into the tent fast enough, exhausted. Once in our sleeping bags, I pulled out a small flask of McCallan’s 12 Single Malt and we swigged our hearts away, celebrating a magnificent day.
Next day we packed up and hiked out. On the way, Alois bumped into a Czech former climbing partner and caught up on the last 10 years. At Sam Mack Meadow the heat was beginning to radiate us. We stopped to wet our shirts and drink (water). I thought just staying there for ever was the ideal solution for my lethargic body but Alois, practical as ever, suggested we continue down just as soon as possible. We endured the increasing baking heat, stopping for water from the creek frequently. I think we must have drunk at least 3 quarts each on the descent and still were parched when we reached the parking lot, 9 miles later.
After the initial pleasures of taking off boots, sitting on a chair and drinking a somewhat cool beer, Alois pulled out several large bottles of water from the car, which were nice and warm now. He demonstrated their benefit by pouring them all over me. I stripped off as no one else was around and enjoyed the most wonderful post-climb shower I’ve ever had, both of us shrieking with laughter. Err, well, sorry, we just couldn’t help enjoying ourselves on this trip!