Swiss Arete illuminated
Before we travel to Sill, we must set the stage…In May 2008, I participated in an 8 hour solo mountain bike race at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin at Laguna Seca. Don’t ask me what I was thinking. I was just 4 weeks away from leaving for Alaska for an attempt of the Upper West Rib of Denali and in the best shape of my life. I wrecked badly in my very first lap and suffered a concussion (was unconscious for 10-15 mins) and a broken collarbone. Although it was a clean break, my recovery was unusually protracted – I obviously missed out on Denali and I had to endure 6 month with recovery and rehabilitation from 2 surgeries and a frozen shoulder (secondary injury from all the time spent in a sling).
After the first surgery to insert a pin into the marrow of my collarbone to keep the bones together to give them a chance to fuse, I got to work rebuilding my fitness and combating the severe atrophy that had occurred. I began working out and did a moderate climb of Mt Morgan (class 2, 13.8k ft) with the Sierra Club Peak Climbing section. Slowly I built up my hiking, pack carrying and climbing strength but was still plagued by the pain in my shoulder and from the pin which stuck out of my shoulder under the skin.
My climbing partner, fellow SPer, Jeff B, was very supportive and hung with me in the climbing gym as I worked my way back up from 5.4s to 5.9s, specifically preparing for an attempt of the Palisades traverse. Jeff had dreamed of completing the Palisades traverse, having climbed North Pal and Thunderbolt Peak and saved his 2008 planned attempt for me – in fact, this was my birthday present. Now, you might be thinking with all this lead up, that the Palisades traverse might be a bit much to bite off. There were a few things working in our favor – Jeff knew the region, was in great shape, and was prepared to lead all pitches. On my side, I have a great record of doing well at high altitudes, felt confident I could follow up to 5.8 outdoors, and I am known as being the “energizer bunny”.
Approach to Sam Mack Meadow
We slept overnight in the Lone Pine backpackers lot and started off about 8:30am on Saturday August 30th. My pack weighed a cool 61# and Jeff’s an even cooler 73#. Despite our efforts to pare down, 3 days of hearty food and full climbing rack and rope were just down right heavy. We set off at a slow consistent pace to avoid over exerting ourselves on the approach. No way around it though, 8 miles and 3000ft gain with 61# (or more) on your back is tough no matter what.
I feel silly now for giggling when another climber friend of mine, John, told me about his attempt of Sill years ago where the guides used pack mules to transport their gear. I thought to myself “why use pack mules when you can carry everything on your own back?!?!” Boy, those pack mules started sounding AWFULLY GOOD around the time we hit Third Lake.
Gorgeous First Lake
After seven hours of hiking, we reached Sam Mack Meadow and decided to camp there. We figured it would be faster and easier in the morning with our day packs than to suffer up the steep trail and moraine with the heavy packs.
We made our temporary home on a nice flat sandy campsite near the glacial stream and chatted with a team of three climbers that were descending all the way. Turns out they were SPers as well led by… they were pretty beat and gave us some advice about taking extra time to get to the base of the climb as well as beta on the crux “reach around” move.
To the Base of the Swiss Arete
We knew high wind gusts up to 70mph were forecast for Sunday, our planned summit day, and sure enough, the winds began howling around midnight, blasting through even the protected Sam Mack Meadow. Sam and I roused each other around 2am. I said “how bought that wind?” He said “Let’s get up in another hour.” Ah, how that extra hour of sleep sounded so delicious!
Waking again at 3am, the wind was no better and we decided to set off anyway to check out the conditions up higher. Our day packs felt ridiculously heavy to me – caused, I believe, by my less than optimal fitness, the unavoidable exertion from the day before, and the fact that a full rack is much heavier than what I would carry for my usual forays up something like Shasta. Finally, I let my pride by the wayside and Jeff took the rope from my pack. With mine lighter and his heavier, we began to travel at the same speed and make better time.
Passing some weary climbers still stationed at Camp Gayley at the base of Mt Gayley and the Palisade Glacier, they shouted a warning that it was “really bad up there” and “we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into”. Such a strong warning shook me a bit, but like frogs in boiling water, we kept marching along getting used to the new environment we were entering. The winds gusts were sustained and very strong (50mph?) and I felt I was bordering on mild hypothermia as any break would result in shivering. We rationalized that as the sun came up and would hit us, we would warm up.
Sure enough, we overcame Glacier Notch and broke into the sunlight. This helped quite a bit, but not as much as we expected. The winds were just too strong and would cut right our layers. By now we had come so far and only the most fun part was between us and the summit. We marched forward…
Climbing the Arete
Climbing some lovely fourth class rock to access a small ledge reawakened my passion for climbing and I felt so alive and in the moment, something I hadn’t felt for nearly five months but had really craved. Jeff took the lead and I shivered violently during the first pitch but drank in the views. We couldn’t hear each other over the winds, and communication by tugs was difficult due to the rope drag, but we managed. The first few moves felt like 5.8 and only for a second I doubted whether I was up for this challenge. I also felt extremely focused as the situation began to just flirt with desperation – I needed to stay focused and get through the moves.
With the pin sticking out of my shoulder and my limited range of motion in the right shoulder, I had to be creative but always found a way to work through the problem at hand. I continued to shiver violently during the belays and then bask in the intensity of the climbing. I didn’t find the infamous “reach around” difficult at all – I felt immune to the exposure and seemed to flow over to the system of cracks that quickly came into reach.
The cracks themselves proved another matter. In fact, the fellows we ran into at Sam Mack had commented that they felt this was the true crux. The leader described it as an extended layback where it was difficult to jam his large fingers into with a perceived difficulty of 5.9. I began to layback,searching for something to leverage my small hands against inside the crack. As I shifted my weight back into my shoulders, I heard a pop and felt a searing pain where the pin sticks out of my shoulder. I took a small fall, Jeff held me, and I hung there for a moment, stunned with the intense pain that refused to fade. I was convinced the pin had broken through the skin and we now had a serious issue at hand at around 13,900 ft. I pulled it together and found my way up the cracks to some easy low fifth class climbing and joined Jeff. I told him what had happened and said I didn’t want to look at it or talk about it – I would do my best to tune out the pain and keep it together to get down safely.
Jeff leading third pitch
The final fourth pitch (Jeff was running it out) led us to the top of Mt Sill. We both had mixed emotions…On the one hand, we were both disappointed as we realized this would be the only one of the five Palisades peaks we would reach today – not only due to my shoulder but also due to the late hour – it was 2pm. But on the other, we had climbed Mt Sill via the Swiss Arete – a truly beautiful and classic Sierra climb. It’s difficult to express the high that I experienced from making it to the top of this 14er. I felt like I was back in my game and knew no matter how my final recovery turned out, I would be able to get back out there and climb.
On the summit of Sill
Epic Descent & Bivy
Our descent route
We shoved some food and water down and began a section of exposed fourth class climbing to find a descent route between Sill and Polemonium. Jeff located a break that looked like straightforward rappelling down to the glacier. Thankfully, he had brought some clean webbing so that we could sent up our own rappels as this was not a standard descent (we had no desire to suffer through the standard scree descent). Three raps down and we hit some terrain that I was very uncomfortable on. It was steep and loose and all I could focus on was the bergschrund down below. I asked Jeff for a belay to get down to the next section where we would reevaluate. Jeff scrambled down the section with no issues at all.
The bergschrund was over 12 feet wide and impossible to jump across. We did a free hanging rappel into the bergschrund which was spectacular. We walked to the end of the bergschrund and there was a 30 ft cliff. I climbed over the lip of the glacier but we weren’t out of the woods yet. There was yet another 30 ft cliff. We lassoed the rope over an ice horn (no ice screws) for a sketchy rap onto the glacier. My crampons sparked against the rocks as I slithered onto the glacier.
The sun was beginning to set and we decided to cross the length of the glacier toward Thunderbolt to reach the glacial moraine that wraps back around and down near the base of Mt Gayley. This was much longer return, but ensured we wouldn’t get stuck on a steep section of the glacier in the dark. We cruised across the glacier practically at a slow job, reaching the moraine right as the sun was setting. I LOVE scrambling, but now that it was dark, we were nearly out of food and water, and still being blasted by high winds, scrambling over car sized boulders became mind numbing and I lost sense of time.
The crux of this descent was to find where to cut left before Mt Gayley in order to meet back up with the faint climbers trail. In the dark it was impossible and ultimately I suggested to Jeff that we head back to a somewhat sheltered sandy spot to wait till first light. We found a little spot wedged between two boulders and laid down the climbing rope for additional insulation. We laid the rope bag and a backpack on top of us and kept all our layers, including climbing helmet, on in order to insulate as much as possible. No matter which way you slice it, an open air bivy at ~12,000ft is a nasty endeavour. We both shivered all night, spooning and hoping our significant others would forgive us! It truly was the longest night of my life – these words mean nothing until you have experienced this yourself.
The bivy spot
First light came after an eternity and we began searching for the trail. I was beat and my contacts were blurry so Jeff hiked ahead to find the trail. It didn’t take long and in an hour and a half we were back at camp. It was Jeff’s turn to be beat and he passed out in the tent. I still had some energy and sense about me to make some water and a hearty breakfast. I woke Jeff back up to eat and drink and then we both crashed for a few hours before facing the difficult task of packing back up and descending.
As is often the case when you are dead tired, the rest of the descent is a blurred memory. At the time it seemed to be endless, but looking back at those 4 hours I can’t remember many details. What stands out though, is when we reached the parking lot and saw the car window glass shattered everywhere. My car had not escaped someone’s wrath and my windshield was smashed in as well with 5 or 6 distinct hammer impacts.
The excitement didn’t end there as we realized they also slashed a tire (once we started to drive off). The next 24 hours included getting the tire changed, calls to insurance companies, a hairy drive through Yosemite and a visit to a body shop in Manteca that just so happened to have my windshield in stock. I took all this in stride since our descent was so epic – happy to deal with the little inconveniences that daily life throws at you!