Before the trip
I (Hakan Yalcin) and my friend (Cenk Caliskan) had previously made two attempts to climb Mt Sill, once via North Couloir and later via Scimitar Pass. Both attempts were done in three days or more. Due to a number of reasons including inexperience and lack of planning, we had never made it to the summit, although each time we climbed some other, lower peaks instead. This time we wanted a more certain way of climbing this peak, but wanted to do it as a day hike. One week ago Cenk had made a backpack trip to Dusy and Palisade basins from South Lake and reached as far as Potluck Pass. He got familiar with the terrain, so we decided to try the route from the "back", which goes via Bishop Pass, Knapsack Pass and Potluck Pass. Cenk wasn't in favor of the shorter route via Thunderbolt Pass along the western base of North Palisade because of the large fields of boulder and talus that had to be crossed. Admittedly our route via Bishop/Knapsack/Potluck Passes is a very, very long route (in fact 30 miles roundtrip) with tons of elevation gain and loss along the way (rough estimate 8000+ feet). Though many people do Mt Sill in a day from the Big Pine trailhead, we had never seen a report of a day hike of Sill from South Lake. Our route is normally listed as a 3-day trip--and for a good reason. It seemed pretty crazy doing it in a day, but we thought we had a good chance if we start at midnight.
Start of the trip: South Lake to Knapsack Pass
On Saturday evening (August 19, 2006), we reached South Lake at 11pm after a 6-hour drive from the Bay Area. We rested in the car for 1.5 hrs, and then at midnight 12:30am (Sunday) we departed from the trailhead (about 10,000 ft). We made good time and reached Bishop Pass at 3am (12,000 ft). We left the trail here and headed in a straight path into Dusy Basin and towards Knapsack Pass. However routefinding got a little tricky in total darkness. We could only see 10 feet or so with our flashlight. That night the moon was nowhere to be seen. At one point we went by a tent which we couldn't see. I was startled when someone yelled from inside. After exchanging a few sentences and telling him our plan, the guy said to us "you guys are crazy." Well, he was right. We pushed on, trying to use some intermediate waypoints I had downloaded in my GPS. But it wasn't easy to find the waypoints. Dusy Basin is full of ridges, hills and lake basins, making it difficult to navigate in total darkness even with a GPS. It wasn't possible to follow a straight path without having to climb over hills and rocky ridges, which we were trying to avoid. Eventually we found the lake below Columbine Peak where Cenk had camped before. From there we made a traverse to Knapsack Pass. By this time there was enough daylight and we could actually see around us. To reach Knapsack pass, we had to go over and around talus and boulders, and even do some bushwhacking, in the process gaining about 500 ft of elevation. When we were finally at the pass (nearly 12,000 ft), it was about 7:00am. We could see Palisade Basin and Barrett Lakes, above which rose the Palisade peaks. We took a few pictures and pressed on to get to the next intermediate point, Potluck Pass.
Knapsack Pass to Polemonium Bowl
We descended Knapsack Pass for several hundred feet and aimed for the nearest of the Barrett lakes (11468). We contoured around this lake, and climbing some more reached Upper Barrett Lake (11623). Hiking through the talus-strewn landscape of Palisade Basin we eventually crossed it entirely and arrived below Potluck Pass around 9am. At this point we saw three people climb the sandy slopes of Potluck Pass. The route to Mt Sill doesn't actually cross Potluck Pass. Instead it climbs the southeastern ridge of Peak 13962 above Potluck Pass. Once you reach about 13,200 ft level, you turn east and descend into the Polemonium bowl whose eastern wall is Mt Sill. In fact it's not before this turn that one can actually see Mt Sill (some 11 hours after the start.) Ascending the ridge of Peak 13962 was relatively easy at first, but got much more difficult later on as the talus cover thickened and rocks got bigger. We saw the three climbers go down a chute to one of the lakes on the eastern side of Potluck Pass. After a tough climb and some searching, we saw the ducks on the ridge at 13,200 ft making a right turn towards the Polemonium bowl. We felt relief when we finally saw Mt Sill for the first time and believed that we could actually get there. The descent into the bottom of the bowl wasn't easy either as the whole terrain is covered with large talus or loose rocks, or a combination. This descent (about 300 ft) is much more painful on the way back.
Polemonium Bowl to Summit
It was 12noon when we took a short break at the bottom of Mt Sill and ate lunch. I took a smaller pack and headed for the first chute. The southwest side of Mt Sill has several chutes and one can choose any one of them. All chutes are supposed to be Class 2, though some Class 3 or even few Class 4 moves may be necessary near the top. We went up the easternmost chute. We tried keeping more to the east to climb over the more comfortable talus instead of loose rocks. We made good time going up. At one point we noticed that we were climbing higher than Sill's eastern subpeaks. As we neared the top we realized we needed to climb across a gap to reach the actual summit. Fortunately there's a short section of the gap with almost no exposure. Here one has to do a Class 4 move, after which some more Class 2-3 climbing brings one to the summit. At 1:30pm we thus reached the summit after 13 incredible hours of climbing. Shortly afterwards we saw a party of 3 people climbing near the summit. We signed the summit register, took lots of photos and had some snacks. We enjoyed the spectacular scenery -- Mt Sill is supposed to offer the best views of any Sierra peak according to RJ Secor. We especially enjoyed the closer views of North Palisade, Polemonium, Starlight and Thunderbolt peaks. We spent half an hour at the summit and then left the summit to go back.
Our return was uneventful, as we hoped it would. Rather than explore a new route (as I had previously entertained the idea of going back via Thunderbolt Pass), we thought we would simply retrace our steps and go back exactly the way we came. However, the return trip involved some climbing as well. First we had to climb out of the Polemonium bowl to get back on the ridge of Peak 13962 at 13,200 feet. There was strong wind near the top of the ridge and we had to work really hard to get there. Eventually we crossed the ridge. From there we went down and then marched across Palisade basin, enjoying the downhill part of the route. At Lower Barrett Lake we met two people who said they were planning to climb Mt Sill the next day. We told them our route and gave information. They kindly offered soup but we had to rush to make use all the daylight left in the day.
At about 7:30pm, a short time before sunset, we climbed back up Knapsack Pass and were on our way to Dusy Basin. We could now see Dusy Basin much better, and decided on a straight path towards Bishop Pass. We first descended Knapsack Pass, and then traversed across towards the middle of the basin. From here we went straight up using Mt Agassiz as landmark. Gradually it got darker. Along the way we had to go up and down many small basins just as we did early that day in the reverse direction (except we could now see where we were going). We were really tired and were hiking much more slowly compared to the fast pace we had most of the day. At last we found the trail at Bishop Pass at 9pm. We turned our flashlights on and started going downhill on the long trail (over 5 miles). At times we almost fell asleep while hiking. But we managed to continue walking. The trail seemed infinitely long. When we finally got back to the car it was 11:30pm -- 23 hours after our start. It was a record for both of us to have hiked 23 hours. We didn't actually know it would take this long, perhaps we didn't want to think about it. If we had planned this trip carefully, we would probably have never done it. Indeed "crazy" is an understatement for this trip. In any case we were glad to make it back without any incident. We immediately drove to Bishop, got a motel and crashed.