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Mt. Sill later climbed Thu, Aug 14, 2003|
Mt. Gayley later climbed Thu, Aug 14, 2003
Day 3 of our Palisades climbing adventure. We arose at 6:30a and got the water going on the stove under clear skies, but a very cold morning. Today we would focus our attention on Mt. Sill, the East Guard of the North Palisade group. From below, it stands out prominently from the other four Fourteeners which are clustered closer together. Mt. Sill is also the easiest peak to spot from the town of Big Pine far down below in the Owens Valley. The top 800 feet of the peak are shaped into a massive block, giving it a distinct appearance from its neighbors, allowing it to be more easily identified from other peaks many miles distance.
The easiest routes up Mt. Sill are class 2-3, making it one of the easiest of the group to climb. From the Palisade Glacier where we were camped, the easiest route is class 4, following a snow/ice couloir up the prominent Northwest Face. The route that interested us was the Swiss Arete, rated 5.6, which follows the north buttress of Mt. Sill. Mark first brought it to my attention during the planning stages weeks before, as it has been described by various parties as one the "classics" of the High Sierra. Of the five persons in the first ascent party, three were novices. Two of these never climbed again after the ascent. Hmmm... The difficulty lies halfway up where one needs to make a traverse to the right on "an exposed outside corner". This would be interesting indeed. And the most challenging climbing yet for either of us.
As we went about our morning preparations, We noticed several other climbers approaching from below, across the moraine. As usual we wondered as to their destination, and whether we would have a traffic jam on our planned route. As they approached closer, we recognized one of the climbers as the leader of a threesome up Polemonium Peak two days ago. He had only one of his companions with him today, the other taking a rest day, as he explained to us. They too, were planning to climb the Swiss Arete. Further, he relayed to us that a third party of three was also planning the same route, and were currently approaching the moraine high up, closer to Mt. Gayley to the east. Yikes! Three ropes on the same route seemed certain doom. Or at least lots of waiting and frustration. Our previous two days' climbs had taken us all day as it was, without any waiting. Add a few hours of wait time and we might not make it back before dark. As we were almost ready to go, Mark and I stepped up our packing and headed out shortly after the others had left us.
It was 7:30a as we started across the last 1/4 mile of moraine between our campsite and the terminus of the glacier. When we reached the glacier and stopped to put on our crampons, we were clearly the furthest behind of the three parties. The one party (whom we'd talked to briefly earlier) were halfway up the glacier, heading to the saddle between Mts. Gayley and Sill (called Glacier Notch), but going slowly. The other party had just reached the glacier as well, but were situated at an elevation higher up since they had approached from the lateral moraine on the Mt. Gayley side. Just our luck that all the parties out this morning were all headed for the same route on the same peak. Mark and I didn't know exactly what the etiquette was for this situation. Clearly if two parties are at the base of a climb, the first party there would have first climb priviledge. But what about on the approach? The approach up the Palisade Glacier is wide open. There are no pre-cut steps, and no single-file necessary. The snow was quite firm in the early morning, and one could choose any route one liked. If you pass another group during the approach and race to get to the base of the climb, is that poor etiquette? It seemed the answer is, "That depends." If one races ahead in the last 100 yards, clearly that could be considered rude, unless one stops to discuss the situation with the lead party. It's probably true that in most cases if you're faster on the approach, then you'll be faster on the climb, and so the lead party may not mind you "playing through." In the case of Mark and I, however, that isn't really true, since most of our experience is on the non-technical scramble, and we still had relatively little climbing experience. It was entirely possible that if we passed one or both groups on the approach, they'd likely turn out to be faster than us on the techical section. What would Miss Manners advise in this situation? I'd never seen this discussed in one of her columns...
We decided to climb now, worry later. I headed up, axe in hand, with Mark close behind. After about 30 minutes, the slope had become noticeably steeper. The lead party was not far in front of me, and I had just caught up to the leader of the second party. One of his party had dropped his axe accidently back on the moraine earlier, and was a good 15 minutes behind the other two, having to retrace his steps to retrieve it. Mark was maybe 5 minutes behind me, so it seemed like we had taken over the second party spot. The lead party had taken to tacking back and forth up this steeper section of the glacier to ease the angle of ascent. I was feeling pretty strong, and kept a heading straight up the slope. It allowed me to gain on the lead party at the expense of additional strain on my calf muscles. In another 15 minutes I passed the second climber of the first party as she was about 30 yards to my left at the turning point on her tack. I caught up to the lead climber shortly thereafter who was walking slowly, waiting patiently, and offering various words of advice and encouragement to his second. We talked briefly. He explained that she had been having trouble with her crampons slipping off, and they had stopped several times to adjust them better. He had also decided that they might just climb up the North Couloir rather than the Swiss Arete, to avoid what he thought was going to be a cluster-f**k (his words). I didn't mind his change of plans, of course... Mark was about 10 minutes back, just about even with the leader of the second party now. I was right near the top of the glacier now, and had about 100 yards to climb over loose rock up to Glacier Notch. It's a fairly narrow gully, and not a good place to wait around due to the loose rock that is easily knocked down by someone above of you. I decided to climb up to the saddle and wait for Mark to show up there.
I packed away the axe and crampons and headed up the last part of the notch. At the top I was treated to the warming rays of the sun once more (it had been pretty chilly in the shade for the last 75 minutes), and a great view of Mt. Sill and the Swiss Arete. I continued past the notch and over the large boulders that brought me to the base of the L-shaped snow/ice couloir that leads to the North Couloir. I dropped my pack and found a nice flat rock to sun myself while I waited for the others. The sun was quite bright. Not a cloud in the sky, and I was at just over 13,000 feet now. This was not a good place to work on a suntan. I lathered up while I waited, ate some granola bars, and checked out the route ahead. About 15 minutes later, I was surprised to see Mark as the second person up. He had apparently passed the others and was looking quite strong. The advantage of camping at the toe of the Palisade Glacier rather than further down towards Sam Mack Meadow was clearly evident.
Mark rested a short time (I'm sure he'd have liked to strangle me when I started getting ready to leave as soon as he arrived), and then we donned the crampons again for the traverse across and up the snowfield towards the start of the Swiss Arete. The others arrived at the snowfield shortly after we headed off. They would likely rest before heading out, and it seemed we would probably have at least 20 minutes on them by the time we got across the snowfield. It was fairly easy to pick out the start of the route. The left side of the couloir was mostly a series of steep cliffs shooting up towards Mt. Sill's summit. Just below the cliffs was a short class 2-3 section that allowed relatively easy access over rocks to the ridge that mark the start of the climb. As we approached the end of the traverse across the snow, we found that actually getting off the snow and onto the rock was a bit trickier than it had seemed from afar. In places the snow/ice had pulled away from the adjoining rock leaving large gaps and icy conditions. I found myself skirting across a steep, icy patch that gave me the willies when I realized how poorly my crampons were gripping. I repeatedly tried to plunge my axe into the snow above me to provide a reassuring anchor, but the snow was too hard and my axe just bounced off as if it had hit rock. Wisely, Mark chose to exit the snow at a different location, a short distance below me, but even that had its difficult moments. We did finally manage to get ourselves onto solid footing under rocks, where we once again packed away the crampons and axes before scrambling up to the ridge.
It was 10:30a now, having taken us 3 hours for the approach. Once on the buttress, we scrambled up as far as we could (not far) with class 3 or below difficulty. At the obvious starting point for the climb, we got out our rope and gear, and prepared for the next part of the day's adventure. Mark was happy to give me the lead, and I was happy to take it, so after roping up and checking each other's gear, I headed up. The first pitch wasn't very difficult, maybe 5.4 or less. There was more horizontal distance than vertical, and the biggest problem was managing the rope drag over the rocks between Mark and myself. I placed only a few pieces of protection as the vertical portions were short and not easily protectable (more exactly - I felt more comfortable on the rock than the trouble was worth to find suitable protection). At one point I ran into a small impasse, but found a way around by dropping off the ridge to the east for a short distance to get around the blockage. I placed a sling around a horn while climbing an exposed crack here, only to have it fall off and slide merrily down the rope after I had surmounted the difficulty. This did not offer Mark, who had spotted the wayward sling from below, any real assurance that I knew what I was doing. While the climbing did not seem too difficult, the exposure was stunning. The rocks drop off sharply on either sides of the buttress for hundreds of feet. In many portions of the pitch, a misstep was simply not an option.
It was fortunate that we had our radios with us, as Mark was below and out of sight. On a few radio contacts, Mark gave me estimates of remaining rope, which prompted me to look for a belay spot before I ended up in another exposed locale. As it turned out, I overshot what was probably the "regular" belay spot by 15 feet or so. Oh well. I decided to make due with where I was, and set a few pieces of pro to comprise the belay anchor. When I was done, I radioed to Mark to come up. The one party had indeed headed up the North Couloir route as they had indicated they might, and were still a good deal below us vertically, making slow but methodical progress up the snow/ice ramp. They were now three, not two, having picked up one of the third party's members. As we found out later, this guy had started the morning solo and had latched onto first one, then the other party. The other party had continued on to the Swiss Arete, and were ready to climb as soon as Mark took off. From discussions with them earlier, we had found that the leader of this other group was an experienced climber. We expected that he would blow past us given the opportunity. His partner had less experience, but we didn't know if it was enough to slow the team down - certainly the stronger of the two could do all the leading, and if the second was comfortable following, we'd be no match.
My plan, then, was to let the second party pass us at this first belay should they desire. With the larger belay spot I'd left earlier open for the others to use, there was plenty of room in this section to let them pass us. Mark came up slowly, hesitating at the places where the exposure was greatest. He wasn't at all convinced that this pitch was less than 5.6, and was probably wondering just how much harder it would get when we got to the 5.6-rated crux. Progress was made, the rope brought in accordingly, and in time Mark made it up the last difficult spot. I was surprised that the other lead climber was not behind Mark, but as Mark explained to me, the leader had chosen to belay from further down. So we didn't really have an idea how far behind us they might be. Rather than waiting for them, it seemed more prudent to continue our own climb. We still had a long ways to go, and the first pitch had taken us a bit over an hour.
I re-racked the gear mark had cleaned out on his way up, swapped out of the anchor with him, and took the lead again. I tried to climb the 15-foot wall directly up from the belay spot but found it surprisingly tough and had to come back down. I found an easier route around to the right (I can't count the number of times I fail to check out all possibilities before choosing a direction and running with it) and continued upwards. This pitch seemed a bit easier than the first, possibly only because the exposure was less. I still had 20 yards of rope left when I hit the obvious impasse that marks the end of the second pitch. I briefly checked out the route around to the right, only to confirm that it matched the description of an exposed outside corner. I didn't have an anchor in yet which would allow me to lean out around the corner and get a better look, but no matter. This was a good spot to belay Mark up to allow us both to scope out the next section.
As Mark followed up on the second pitch, he noted that the other party had already quit the climb and were bailing out to the west into the North Couloir. In one sense that made us feel better about our own climbing since we had at least made it another pitch further along. As we found out later it was the leader of the party that called it off when he noted his partner was having difficulties with that first pitch. Mark came up with little difficulty, and joined me on our sloping belay ledge. Still on the rope, he lowered down to get a view around the corner and most decidedly didn't like the look of it one bit. We swapped places, and I rappelled out and around so that I could see up to the 5.7 crack that follows the 5.6 outside corner. That first move on the outside corner looked to be the toughest of all, mostly because the drop under ones feet goes straight down in a hurry for a hundred feet. Thinking about it, it didn't seem that bad. That first move was actually a few feet below our belay spot, so I couldn't fall very fall even if I missed it. Mark, on the other hand, wasn't liking the looks of it one bit. I suggested that I would be happy to lead the next section, explaining my reasoning, but Mark wasn't buying it. I think he'd had a more difficult time with the first two pitches than I had realized, and this was just asking a bit much.
We talked it over for only a minute. There was no way I wanted to get Mark to do something his inner voice was strongly rejecting. Each climber has there own level of risk that they are constantly evaluating, and it serves no purpose to cajole someone into doing something they don't want to do. In fact, it seems a recipe for disaster. I wanted to let Mark know that I felt confident about continuing on, but would accept his decision to quit the route. Mark didn't debate with himself very long, and the decision was made to abandon ship.
It was 12:30p, and we still had plenty of time to climb Mt. Sill by the easier North Couloir. The trick would be to drop down into the couloir losing as little elevation as possible, since we would have to immediately regain anything we were to lose. First thing was to set up our rappel abandoning only as much gear as necessary. Fortunately there was a great horn right at the difficult move by which we could loop a sling over and rappel down the very steep section below. It looked like we might be able to traverse out into the couloir once we reached the end of the rope from this first rappel. I went first, and as usual had that momentary case of the willies as I took my hands off the rock and committed my full weight to the rope. It was a very steep rappel, but quite enjoyable after those first few seconds. Near the end of the rope I pendulumed to the right in order to find a better place to detach from the rope, as the area immediately below did not look nearly as inviting as it had from above earlier. I found a small ledge that I thought I might be able to traverse out of. I relinquished the rope to Mark who began his descent. I noticed a white sling about 20 feet below that had been used by a previous party to continue the rappel for a second pitch. While Mark was coming down, I started downclimbing from my position, but found the rock very loose and quickly ran into difficulty. I tried several ways to no avail. Mark meanwhile reached my position, and I suggested he head down further on the rope as far as possible. He managed to go about 10 feet beyond the rappel sling I had spotted but found no other sling further down, and worse, no chance of downclimbing from his position. I climbed back up to where I had started and reattached myself to the rope. I then rappelled down to the white sling where we agreed I would thread the rope for a second rappel.
I was perched a bit precariously on the rock at this second sling, but at least had a lifeline connected to the rappel sling while I detached the rope and brought it down. Due to the vertical drop and smooth granite, there was no problem with the rope getting stuck as we had found on Thunderbolt. The previous party had used a carabiner as a rappel ring on the sling which seemed a bit unnecessary. I removed the carabiner (adding it to the found "treasure" collection), and threaded the rope through the sling. The sling was attached to the rock at two places by pitons. The anchor was old even if the sling was quite new. This rappel anchor had certainly been used more than once. Not surprising, considering where we began our rappel is the most likely place for bailing on the Swiss Arete. I made sure the rope was threaded in such a way as to prevent a fall should one of the pitons pull out, the most likely failure mode in this anchor.
Mark attached to the rope again from below and continued down to the end of the rope. I followed and pulled the rope down, again without incident. Unfortunately we had rappelled nearly two full lengths or about 180 feet, twice as far as we had hoped. When we had started we were above the saddle between Mt. Sill and Apex Peak (a small point on the west side of the North Couloir). Now we were well below it, and had a steep ice/snow climb to retrieve our lost altitude. The other party that had bailed earlier was another hundred feet below us, just returning to the couloir themselves. The first party was well on their way to the summit and far out of sight. We packed the rope and gear away and prepared for the climb up the couloir. It had taken us an hour to make the descent, and was presently 1:30p.
Our crampons on for the third time, we cautiously stepped out into the couloir. The left side where we were was very steep and very icy. I could not get my axe to stick in at all, and only the crampon points held me in place. Giving up half my security to make the next step required a bit of faith in crampon technology - who would have guessed that a few steel points sticking less than a quarter of an inch in the ice would be enough to hold one's weight on a 50+ degree slope. The slope lessened as we moved closer to the center and right side of the couloir, to maybe 40 degrees. There was less ice and more snow, which made us feel much more secure as we climbed up. We arrived at the top of the couloir in half an hour, and found that the earlier summit party was on there way down, traversing around from the southwest side of the peak. They had three ropes in a somewhat complex running belay setup, but they made good time. The leader was very precise in his ropework, calling out to the others when they needed to do something (or stop doing something); it was obvious that he'd much practice in this sort of thing.
Mark and I left our crampons and axes at the top of the couloir (no need to take them to the summit) and waited a few minutes for the other party to finish the traverse before we went on. The traverse is at most class 3, but a bit exposed in the middle. Mark and I decided to go unroped through this section, by now feeling more comfortable on class 3-4 rock. As we neared the end of the traverse the lead from the first party shouted out Rock!! in a booming voice that very nearly made me wet my pants. I thought the whole mountain was on its way down. In an exposed position, we crouched up against the cliff as tightly as we could, waiting for the avalanche to thunder down. But there was no other sound. I never heard whatever it was that the leader had, and forgot to ask Mark if he did, but whatever it was stopped before it reached any of the climbing parties. The adrenalin levels subsided, and we went about the task of climbing the next section.
It's a short pitch up to the southwest ridge of Mt. Sill, really no more than class 4. We probably could have climbed it without the rope, but since we had the gear with us it seemed prudent to take the time to provide the extra margin of safety. Mark, having followed on the two pitches of the Swiss Arete, took the lead on this one. As he climbed up and I fed out the rope, I saw the third party across the traverse now, making preparations to come across. They joined me at the base of the climb just as Mark was topping out, so the timing was pretty good to minimize the wait time. When Mark was ready I followed on up, climbing quickly over the comparatively easy rock. In fact the limiting factor was how fast Mark could take the rope in, not an easy task when every foot has to be pulled hand over hand through the belay device. When I got to the ridge, Mark was another 20 yards further up what was now class 3 rock. He wasn't sure if it was this easy the rest of the way, so he had just kept climbing until the rope had run out.
I checked out the route another 10-20 yards ahead, and indeed it seemed a straightforward scramble the rest of the way. We packed the rope and gear into my pack, left it here, and began the last scramble of a couple hundred vertical feet. The route we were taking is the standard route up the North Couloir, which then spirals around to approach the summit from the south. Where the southwest ridge meets the south ridge, we were presented with remarkable views to the southeast as far as Mt. Whitney. The scramble was quite challenging, and rather enjoyable. We stayed on the ridge the whole way, working out several problem areas that presented momentary impasses. I would take one way, Mark would take another, as we braided our way up over some rather large slabs and boulders. It was a bit more than class 3 in some places, but only for short sections. At 3p we reached the summit! The weather had held up beautifully, the third day in a row, and the views outstanding. Immediately in front of us the north were the series of peaks we had viewed from below during the hike in from the trailhead - Mt. Gayley, Temple Crag, and Mt. Alice. Behind them we could see Bishop to the north and Big Pine to the northeast and the White Mountains out even further across the Owens Valley. Looking along the spine of the Sierra Crest to the northwest, I could just make out pointy tips of Mts. Ritter and Banner near the Yosemite Border. The other 14ers of the area commanded the view to the west, and immediately to the south was a great view of the Polemonium Glacier, the only east-facing glacier in the Sierra, I believe. Most intriguing of all were the views to the east, comprising the Palisade Crest, Middle Pal and the surrounding peaks, and Split Mountain further still -- these would have to be visited on a future adventure. Mark found the register in a lovely aluminum box, placed by the Sierra Club quite a few years ago. The most recent entry was from the first party that had summited ahead of us. The solo climber that had joined up with them had an entry that filled an entire page, describing his adventure as some sort of mystical experience. It made me doubly glad he had not joined Mark and I for the day.
We had eaten little since since breakfast, so Mark broke out the lunch bag from his pack and we munched on crackers and Nutri-Grain bars, and gorp. After about 15 minutes, the leader of the third party reached the summit and we sat around and chatted. A short time later we heard a voice coming from below, on the south side. The other party member had wandered a bit off towards the east and was in a small fix trying to find his way up. Surveying the terrain from above, I suggested he continue going east a ways further before attempting to climb up to the summit. We went back to our lunch, and about 10 minutes later the other climber joined us as well.
While it was still on the early side, I didn't want to stay too long on the summit. I had been harboring the desire to climb Mt. Gayley on our way back down, and wanted to make sure there was plenty of time left for it. We packed up our stuff, said goodbye to the others, and headed back the way we came. It was easier going back down, partially because it was downhill, but also because we didn't have to spend any time route finding. The other party had left their rope at the top of the pitch to be used for rappelling on the way down. They had invited us to use it, and we accepted graciously, as it would save some time getting our own rope out and packing it away. When we got to the top of the rappel, I decided I wanted to downclimb instead, so I left the rope to Mark and headed down. It was a different route than we had climbed on the way up, a bit more to the west, and easier as well. It was easy enough, even with a pretty full pack on (I had the rope and climbing rack in addition to the usual assortment of clothes, water, and other stuff), little more than class 3. Mostly I wanted to see if I would feel comfortable in the future climbing Mt. Sill without a rope in tow. I descended without incident, and Mark joined me a minute later, coming down the rope. We then retreated back across the traverse and returned to our gear we had left at the top of the couloir.
It was now 3:50p, the couloir was softer than when we had climbed it, and we debated the merits of a glissade. It was a very long way down the couloir, 300-400 feet, and particularly steep in the highest section. The safer way down would have been to use our crampons and axes and back down. The faster way of course would be to slide on our butts the entire distance. I really didn't want to go down the slow way, so I went about convincing myself that it was a reasonably safe glissade. Axe in hand I carefully stepped out onto the slope as I had no crampons (they aren't very safe for glissading). The snow was reasonably soft, but it was only a thin layer before it was icy below. It was a straight shot down the couloir, with little chance of careening into the rocks on either side. I knew the snow would be much softer down below, and combined with a lessening slope should provide a good runout area.
While Mark was still hesitating about the wisdom of this choice I decided to give it a go. I promptly sat down and immediately started to slide, even while Mark was still talking. I held my axe off to my left side, had my right hand on the shaft and used my left hand on the head to drive the pick into the snow. I was immediately aware that the axe was not biting in as well as I'd hoped, and so I tried to compensate by applying as much pressure as possible with my left hand. I picked up speed quickly, snow and ice chips spraying up in front of me obscuring my view. Within ten seconds of starting down, I recognized I was out of control. At this point I should have rolled over onto my axe to force an arrest, but I didn't. Perhaps the thought of rolling over and having an axe blade bounce into my face was too disturbing. More likely, it just didn't occur to me, and long after the event, it's hard to reconstruct what I was thinking at the time. In any case, I kept trying to jam the head more forcefully into the slope, so much so that I was also pushing my left elbow hard into the snow as well. Fortunately I had a long-sleeve T-shirt on, or I would have drawn even more blood than I managed to. It was also fortunate that I had two pairs of gloves on, protecting my bare hands from the beating. I remember trying to stay upright so I could use my feet in front of me to steer and dig my heels into the slope. This of course sprayed even more snow into my face, but that was a good sign that I wasn't merely sliding down a sheet of ice. It occurred to me how insane this must look to Mark far above me, and I wondered if he thought I was about to kill myself. The speed had increased to the point where I was bouncing fairly hard as I hit the irregularities in the slope, and I was saved a beating on my back by the pack I was wearing, although my butt took the brunt of it. I was just hoping that I wouldn't begin tumbling and bouncing uncontrollably as that seemed an easy way to start breaking bones and other valuable things that I needed to get down off the mountain.
After about a 150 feet the ice gave way to more snow and the slope eased to the point where I was able to regain control and actually enjoy the ride. The adrenalin subsided enough for me to begin to feel the burning pain in my elbow as I realized I was slowly peeling the skin off where it was making hard contact to the snow. My feet were now sufficient to brake controllably, so I lifted the axe (and my poor elbow) off the snow and held it in front of me. In less than two minutes I had managed to slide the entire distance to the base of the couloir, where the snow ends and the boulders begin. I stood up and immediately began pulling snow out of all my pockets and from behind my back lest it should soon begin melting and dripping down into my clothes. After this I turned around to see if I could spot Mark, expecting that he would learn a quick lesson from my recklessness and walk down the slope more safely. Instead, I was surprised to see Mark screaming down the slope not far behind me, using the same groove my seat had worn in the slope.
When he caught up I asked him if he knew I was out of control, to which he responded, "Yes." That didn't seem to stop him however, as he more or less repeated the stunt. He did have the presence of mind to go into a self-arrest when he got out of control, which worked quite well to stop him solidly. I made a mental note to try to remember the self-arrest. It was 4p when we reached Glacier Notch. It had taken only 35 minutes to descend what took us 4 1/2 hours on the ascent.
Having reached Glacier Notch on our descent from Mt. Sill, Mark had decided that he would rather head back to camp below instead of joining me for a climb of Mt. Gayley. Mt. Gayley sits just north off the Pacific Crest, overshadowed by its taller neighbors. Probably because its height is well below the lofty 14,000+ feet elevation of the surrounding peaks, it gets much less attention, although it did have mine at the moment. I still had some energy to burn today, and I had been itching to climb Mt. Gayley all day, when we were done with Mt. Sill.
It is less than 500 vertical feet from Glacier Notch to the summit of Mt. Gayley at 13,500 ft. The southwest ridge has been called "The Yellow Brick Road", and from Glacier Notch the name appears appropriate. There is a band of light yellow-brown rock that runs just to the right of the ridge nearly the entire distance to the summit (In this photo taken from Mt. Sill, you can just make out this colored section running from the summit down towards the lower left corner of the photo). It doesn't stand out sharpy, but is definitely distinct.
While Mark headed down to the Palisade Glacier, I left my pack at the notch and headed up right at 4p. I noted the time accurately as I wanted to see how long it might take me. From the looks of it I guessed about 30 minutes. I always find it interesting to estimate times while hiking and climbing. Typically, I underestimate times for technical sections (by a lot), and overestimate times for scrambles. The ridge directly up from the notch looked difficult with large blocks and steep sections that would make the going tough. To get around it, I bypassed a small snowfield on the east side of the ridge by traversing down and around it for a couple hundred yards. The going here is mostly tedious, clambering over unsettled medium to large blocks (tedious because one had to pay close attention for blocks that moved). This brought me back to the base of ridge and the beginning of the Yellow Brick Road. From this point the climbing was excellent. Solid rock, interesting route-finding, mostly class 3 the entire way. I had to backtrack in a few places where I got in a pinch, but it was never too difficult to find an easier way. 23 minutes after I started, I had reached the summit, not far off my original estimate.
The summit register was in a nice aluminum box, similar to others found on the more pronounced peaks. This is the first I'd found that was not placed by the Sierra Club, this one having been placed by the California Alpine Club, an organization I hadn't even heard of before. The summit provides a great view of the 14ers on the Pacific Crest, particularly of Mt. Sill. It also provides a better view of Temple Crag and Mt. Alice than does Mt. Sill. On Mt. Sill's North Couloir, I could see the last party descending from Mt. Sill, the same party that had joined us shortly after we had summited a few hours earlier. Rather than the questionable glissade that had brought Mark and myself quickly to the bottom, they were taking the safer route of walking slowly down this 300-foot section. I wondered if I would be able to return to Glacier Notch before they reached the bottom of the couloir. I stayed on the top only eight minutes, as I was eager to start heading down. I followed my same route on the way down, returning to the notch in 18 minutes. It was interesting that the ascent took only five minutes longer, probably because the class 3 requires a bit of care while climbing in both directions. The other party was just beginning the traverse off the glacier towards the notch, maybe 10 minutes behind me.
It wasn't quite 5p when I shouldered my pack to head down the gully leading to the Palisade Glacier. I had originally hoped to get back to camp before 7p, but now it appeared I would be back much sooner. When I reached the top of the glacier ten minutes later, I decided I didn't need the crampons as the snow was quite soft now in the afternoon sun. This side of the glacier gets quite a bit of sun, particularly in the afternoon, unlike the more protected North Couloir on Mt. Sill. After I put on my rain pants (which make great glissading pants) I used the pre-fabbed steps (from earlier descending parties) to get past the dicey edge region of the glacier and away from the rocks until I had a clear shot going downhill. Axe in hand, I threw my butt on the snow, and away I went. After 40 feet my path converged with the narrow halfpipe left by previous glissaders, and I picked up a bit of speed with the reduction in friction. Mostly in control, I remembered that there were a few crevasses that needed to be negotiated on the way down. At first that might sound crazy, but the crevasses were only inches wide, and presented no danger of falling in. They did, however, provide an inverted "speed bump" that momentarily got me airborn as I bounced in and out of them. I never did need the axe as I was able to use my feet to maintain control, and eventually slowed to a halt as the angle ran out (and the snow got softer) some 400 feet lower down. It only took a minute to descend what had take over an hour on the way up!
After I skated and slid the remainder of the glacier to the moraine, I had only the 20 minutes of boulder hopping to return to camp. On the way, I realized that I was going to get back at 5:30p and started plotting what I'd do with the remainder of the daylight. Certainly relaxing wasn't the first thing that came to mind, and there weren't any other nearby peaks that could be climbed in an hour and a half. When I returned, Mark was lounging about, a soon-to-be victim of my restless plans...
We had originally planned to stay at our campsite four nights, the fourth tonight. We had climbed four of the five fourteeners, having left Starlight Peak and its "Milk Bottle" summit block for tomorrow. The route we were planning to take was the Starlight Buttress, rated 5.6. An alternative would have been to take the Underhill Couloir (class 4), but we had taken that route during our descent of Thunderbolt the day before, and neither of us really wanted to redo that section. As we talked about it, we guessed that the difficulty on Starlight Buttress should be similar to the Swiss Arete on Mt. Sill (also rated around 5.6-5.7) which we had bailed on earlier in the day. I asked Mark to access our chances, and he responded that it didn't seem probably given today's effort. With that opening, I suggested a couple alternatives (leading towards my preferred plan). One, we could pack up and head down to Sam Mack Meadow while it was still light. That would get us home several hours earlier the following day. Or as a second idea (here's where I put all the cards out), we could hike all the way out tonight, and get a motel room in Big Pine with a hot shower. The shower was key to my plan, as I was hoping it would entice him as much as it had me while I had thought about it on the hike back to camp. Those first few seconds were crucial as I watched Mark's reaction. I half expected an incredulous look and something like, "Are you joking?!!", which would have killed the idea in its tracks. We had been hiking and climbing for the last 10 hours, so I should hardly have expected otherwise. But fortunately Mark has hiked with me enough to know I was serious, and has also done some hike-marathons on his own to give the idea some consideration. As he mulled it over a few seconds, I offered some more incentive:
"We could get some real food..."
"But I don't think we'd get out before 10p"
"That's ok, we could get fast food in Bishop. Burgers, mmmm...."
"Well, I don't know if I'll make it all the way out, but we could give it a try..."
That was all the room I needed. "Let's do it, then," I replied, and immediately we began to break camp. It took a bit of time to take down our tents, roll up our bags and pads, and pack away all our food, cook gear, and climbing gear. Shouldering a 45 lb pack wasn't something we were looking forward to, but at least we could tell ourselves it was all downhill. It was 6:30p before we began heading down over the moraine. The first mile or so has no trail, so it was important to get it completed before we ran out of daylight. The route follows the edge of the moraine on the eastern side, and it is marked spottedly with a number of cairns. I was in front from the start, moving quickly over the jumble of rocks, eager to get back at as early an hour as possible. I was hoping to be able to get a good night's rest, and then talk Mark into climbing in Yosemite the following day. I didn't bring up this other agenda item initially, as I could tell Mark had little interest in discussing possible exertions the following day without first getting through this one. Mark for his part was making slow but deliberate progress, not eager at all to push himself to accident and injury while already tired. I would wait for Mark at various points where the route was uncertain or he was a bit out of view behind, and then Mark would join me a few minutes later. I never told Mark to hurry up, and Mark never told me to slow down, as we had an unwritten agreement to take things at our own pace and not be pressured by the other (mainly me). This forced me to work on my patience a good deal, but at least I got a lot of rest along the way.
As we neared the bottom portion of the moraine, we ran out of cairns to mark our way, and found ourselves in some unfamiliar territory. This was a bit unsettling as we realized we had descended too far before picking up the trail around to the north side of the moraine heading to Sam Mack Meadow. I felt particularly bad about this as I was in front doing the leading (or lack of, as in the present case). Depending on how badly we were lost, it might be necessary to camp nearby which would instantly have dashed all my (hastily constructed) plans. We paused a good while to take stock in where we were, checking the map and looking for clues to our location. It occurred to me that we probably missed the route by at least 100 vertical feet, and I didn't relish having to tell Mark we'd have to climb back up to find the trail again. We traversed a bit over some tricky class 3 rock before ascending upward again. Thank goodness it was only a hundred feet and not more. I found several cairns and recognized the route again, so were safely on our way again after floundering about for 20 minutes.
We repeated with regularity now the part about me going ahead, waiting, Mark catching up, and continuing. Mark was brilliant really, in maintaining his own pace irrespective of what I was doing. It was near 8p when we reached Sam Mack Meadow. I rested in the soft grass by the creek for about 5 minutes before Mark joined me. The sun had set about 15 minutes earlier, and it wouldn't be long before it would be dark. Mark was rather tired. His pack was too heavy to continue further, but he knew I was itching to keep going. "What if I took some of your weight?" I offered. Mark didn't want to do that, feeling it unfair to burden me with his load. I explained that I'd rather carry more weight if it meant we might make it out tonight. Mark felt better then, and so we transferred the rope to my pack. The extra 10 lbs was noticeable, but not overwhelming, as I hadn't packed very heavily to begin the trip. Still, I was mighty glad I was carrying the 55 lbs or so downhill rather than the other way. Mark had some renewed enthusiasm, too (or maybe just less dread), and after a short rest we left the meadow and continued down.
It was getting noticeably darker now, but we held off breaking out the lamps. Might as well save those for when we really need them. There was a crescent moon above that would help some later, the air was still and cool, excellent weather for hiking. We had about 5 miles to go, so it seemed plausible that we might reach the trailhead by 10p. By the time we reached the trail junction up to Lakes 4-7, it was dark enough that Mark broke out his headlamp. I probably should have as well, but I have this odd sense of adventure that has me stumbling about over rocks and tree roots testing my night vision rather than using a flashlight. Not surprisingly, we passed no one on our way by Third , Second, and First Lakes, which are normally quite busy with campers and hikers. Ahead of Mark by some distance, I continued to resist using my flashlight, telling myself that as I got past First Lake, I would be out from under the trees and it would be much easier to see in the moonlight. That turned out to not be true at all, as there were plenty of trees between First Lake and Second Falls that I had failed to remember during the hike in. It isn't just stupidity that keeps me from using a light (although that does play a part). There is something quite magical about hiking at night in the wilderness by moonlight. One feels connected to the wilderness more, another one of the creatures that roam these parts by night. As soon as you turn on a light, there is a solid connection to civilization and you feel more like an intruder. I have happened upon many a deer grazing openly at night under cover of darkness, often without them detecting me as I pass by. With a flashlight, the eyes adjust to the brightness of the beam, and much of the night vision is lost outside of what falls in the beam. Under forest cover, it can be so dark that one must spend every ounce of concentration staring at the trail immediately ahead so as to not trip up on a rock, root, or step in the trail, and so the "oneness with the surroundings" is lost anyway. After a couple of stumbles that nearly landed me in a creek, I decided I wasn't going to hike out the entire way safely, and broke out the flashlight.
I stopped to wait for Mark sometime before Second Falls. It was a nice open meadow area along the trail, a great place to rest with the flashlight off and enjoy the moonlit scene. Mt. Alice, that great rubble heap, rose darkly to the south, silhouetted by the young moon. The only sounds rose from Big Pine Creek rushing along a short ways below the trail. The beam of Mark's headlamp came into view after about 5 minutes to break the stillness. He wasn't full of life at this point, but he seemed to be in a groove, and there was little doubt we'd make it out the last couple of miles. I went off ahead again, descending below Second Falls. The canyon here was shrouded in darkness, as the shadow of Mt. Alice cast itself across the lower half of the hillside, covering the trail to well beyond First Falls. It was a beautiful view, with the upper hillside lit brightly and the lower half in darkness. The contrast made the moonlit portions appear even brighter, almost like daylight, even though it was only a quarter moon.
Descending below First Falls, I had two new views to enjoy. The lights of the cabins and resort down at Big Pine could be seen to the east, and as I got down a bit further, I had a great nighttime view looking up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek with Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak eerily visible far in the distance. I had thought that the trail might end when I had gotten to the cabin lights, but that turned out to be a small disappointment as the trail continues for a good half mile past the first cabin lights. The moon was poking around now from the south of Mt. Alice, just over the horizon. It would set in another 20 minutes or less. I recognized the stables as I approached them, and the upper parking lot that signalled I had only a hundred yards to go. I arrived back at the car at 10:30p, and was never so happy to remove a pack. I didn't have the key to Mark's car, so I just laid the pack on the ground and used it as a pillow as I lay on the asphalt, staring up at the stars. I had put on my light jacket which was sufficient in the cool, but not cold air at 7,000 feet. I stared at the stars and watched a number of shooting stars streak across the crystal clear skies.
Mark joined me just before 11p, looking no worse for the wear, really. Over 15 hours on the go today, ascending 2,500 feet, descending almost 7,000 feet. We quickly packed the car up and headed down to US395. Nothing in Big Pine was open this time of night, not surprising, so we drove up to Bishop where we found burgers (Burger King), fries, Coke, Motel room, and hot showers, roughly in that order. It was after midnight before we got to sleep, but what a good sleep it was...
In the morning I finally worked up the courage to ask Mark if he'd be interested in climbing in Yosemite, but he had zero interest, no matter how enticing I tried to make it. "How about Cathedral Peak? We could do that in half a day, and still get home before it was late..." I knew Mark had wanted to climb Cathedral, but he'd been too battered to be able to seriously consider it. Oh, well, I tried. After a hearty breakfast at Jacks in Bishop, we headed out on our long seven hour ride back to San Jose. A rather successful four days of climbing in the High Sierra -- five peaks, four of them over 14,000 feet.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Sill - Mt. Gayley
This page last updated: Wed Dec 30 16:53:05 2009
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