Snowless Winter Ascent

Page Type: Trip Report
Date Climbed/Hiked: Dec 27, 2017
Activities: Scrambling
Season: Winter

Snowless Ascent of Silliman

OK first TR. Also, first time in Sequoia NP. And first solo summit. So lots of firsts!

The mountains had been calling my name all holiday season. Because ya know, who doesn't want to escape into the wilderness after spending lots of time indoors with family... So after some quick research, I decided on Mount Silliman and headed off the day after Christmas. My plan was to camp overnight at either Silliman Meadows or Silliman Lake. Summit and then traverse the ridge North to Silliman Pass and spend a night at Twin Lakes. Then hike out via Twin Lakes trail. This plan was contingent upon the route being relatively snow free, as I didn't want to do a solo route that would require crampons and ice axe. More on that later...

I hit the trail at 1:30 PM from the Twin Lakes TH in Lodgepole. A bit later in the day than I wanted. But the use trail up Silliman Creek drainage was easy to follow, and I made good time. Arriving in Silliman Meadow with about 2 hours of daylight left. So I decided to push on to Lake Silliman, knowing I probably wouldn't arrive until after dark. In my haste, I almost pushed up the drainage towards Little Lake. The use trail seemed to keep going up that way. But when I glanced South and saw the huge friction slabs, I checked the topo and realized that was my cue to start climbing.

The right side of the slabs were partially covered in snow/ice. But the left side was (almost) completely dry, so I stayed left and made quick work up the slabs. It was a really fun scramble, and didn't require any sort of technical climbing. Only once did I find myself in a somewhat precarious position, balanced on a crack, where a slip would have meant a ~8 foot drop. About half way up, I passed a frozen waterfall. Very cool.

The Friction Slabs
Frozen waterfall at the slabs

Near the top, the slabs started to become more snow covered, so I found myself rock hopping between snow drifts. Then the slabs started flattening out and becoming more snow field with the occasional rock sticking out, so I strapped on my mini-spikes. Not really required, but they were a new toy (Christmas gift) so I figured I'd give them a whirl. Definitely made the last little push into Lake Silliman easier. The lake was situated in an icy bowl. Completely frozen over, surrounded on two sides by frozen cliffs, and lit up quite nicely by the almost full moon. Very, very cool site.

A frozen Lake Silliman by moonlight

As I made camp, I was feeling the altitude pretty bad (minor headache, sluggish, no appetite). I went to fill my water bottle at a gully with some running water, and heard some icefall come tumbling down. Realizing my tent was maybe a little too close to the bottom of the gully, I decided it would be prudent to move camp further away. So after setting up for the second time (argh), I made dinner and instantly felt my altitude sickness get better. I took some photos of the ice under the moonlight, then crawled into my sleeping bag for a somewhat restless night in the cold.

In the morning, I decided I would have to abandon my original plans. The NPS website reported "winter conditions" above 10k ft. Finding lots of snow and ice here at Lake Silliman (at 10k ft), I thought surely the conditions would only worsen higher up. Knowing how badly I suffer from summit fever, I only took a day pack. If I forced myself to return to basecamp for my other gear, I thought maybe this would help me stop myself from pushing onwards if conditions became unsafe.

The gully out of Lake Silliman was the most challenging part of the day. In the summer, this was probably an easy little scramble. And in Winter, likely an easy ascent with crampons. But in this weird dry-Winter condition, most of the chute was covered in only a thin, delicate layer of ice and snow. So I was forced to climb up the larger boulders, which were dry, and test my (novice) rock climbing skills. At one point, I almost decided to turn around. My 6'-4" height definitely came in handy here.

At the top of the gully, I was greeted by an unexpected but very welcome sight: bare granite. In a face-palm inducing epiphany, I realized the icy conditions I saw at Lake Silliman were due to its orientation and shielding by the cliffs to the south/east. The upper portion of the route was on southern facing slopes, so of course, it was less icy. I also realized that the little bowl surrounding Lake Silliman was probably one of the coldest places in the park I could have picked to make camp. But oh well, lessons learned. So onward and upward I went...

First view of the summit and upper slopes. Nearly snow free.

An hour out of camp, I reached the summit. The views were impressive. The solitude was most welcome. And the box containing the summit log book was my favorite yet.

Pano from the summit looking East. Pretty dry out there for late December :/
Summit marker, logbook, and the coolest logbook box ever

After enjoying lunch, snapping photos, and hanging out with my new droid friend, I headed back down the mountain. The climb down the friction slabs was harder than I expected. At one point, I hit a patch of ice, slipped, and started an unintended glissade about 20' down the slabs until it flattened out. I had made a point of not walking on any steep snow or ice where a slip would have been dangerous (i.e. above a slab edge). But still, I was a little shaken and stuck to rocks the rest of the way down. My quads were definitely feeling the burn by the time I got to the bottom, and I was relieved to be on flat ground once again.

I had intended on hiking all the way out and hitting up a buddy in Fresno for a beer that night. But as I passed through Silliman Meadows, the mountains were lit up with pink alpine glow from the sunset, and I was convinced to spend one more night under the stars before returning to civilization.


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