Mt. Sill 2x P300 SPS / WSC / PD / CS
Apex Peak
Mt. Gayley 2x P300 SPS / WSC / CS

Thu, Aug 14, 2003

With: Michael Graupe

Mt. Sill
Mt. Gayley
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
Mt. Sill previously climbed Sun, Aug 6, 2000
Mt. Gayley previously climbed Sun, Aug 6, 2000

2003 Sierra Challenge - Day 6


Mt. Sill was the highest peak on the list to climb during the Challenge. We expected it to be a hard day, and planned a 5a start to help ensure success. When the alarm went off at 4a, we began to stir and get ready as usual. After rising, Matthew decided his knee was bothering him, and decided to forgo Mt. Sill and take a rest day. Back to bed he went, leaving Michael and I to carry on the day's adventure.

Michael and I were the only two setting out from the Big Pine TH shortly after 5a. We needed our headlamps for only the first 20 minutes our so as we climbed the headwall rising up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. As the sky brightened behind us, we switched off our headlamps and shortly entered the John Muir Wilderness. Temple Crag is the first significant peak to come into view, the sun having just risen on its northeast flanks. We came upon First Lake, Second Lake with Temple Crag rising behind it, our first views of the Palisades, and watched the moon set over the Sierra Crest. It was a glorious morning and a very scenic hike once the lake region was reached. It took us two hours to reach third lake, and another 45 minutes to get to Sam Mack Meadow. Some campers at the meadow were taking in the first rays of sun to reach their camp. Evidently climbers, they had their ice tools and other climbing gear neatly arrayed on the rocks as if in display, but likely to let them dry. When we came back at the end of the day the gear was all just where it had been in the morning. Maybe they took a rest day, or maybe they were having a camp gear sale.

Then the long climb up the Glacier Trail, and a cairn-lined scramble route to the foot of Mt. Gayley. We found three campsites here, two of them still filled with sleeping occupants. The third was a solo climber who was already making his way towards the Palisades Glacier. As we hiked the immense boulder field on Gayley's west side, we soon grew weary of the tedium. We looked up at the West Face, looking for alternates to the boulder field, glacier, and loose gully up to Glacier Notch. We took special note of the talus pile that rises high near the middle of the face, wondering if we could find a way off it. It looked possible from below but impossible to be certain. We weighed our disdain for our chosen route for the disdain if we had to climb back down the talus pile. We chose to maintain the course (later I found a trip report that describes a class 3 route up the West Face). At the edge of the boulder field we stopped to put on our crampons.

The Palisades Glacier was much like the Thompson Glacier from the previous day - in terrible shape, icy, and melting fast. The bergshrunds at the U-Notch and the Underhill Couloir were gaping. Crevasses were opening up on the glacier, though none threatening. On the glacier we caught up with the lone climber and found his name was Dan. He planned to climb to Glacier Notch and maybe climb Gayley as an acclimatization exercise. When we told him our plan, he decided to join us for a climb of Sill's North Couloir.

We made short work of our walk across the glacier and then climbed the loose class 3 to Glacier Notch. In our haste to get off the glacier (icy near the top) we were a bit too far to the left, finding ourselves on sloping slabs loaded with sand, gravel, and dirt. A bit spicy, but better than the glacier, we reckoned. Once at the Notch, it was a short walk over more boulders to the bottom of the North Couloir where we put our crampons on once again. Normally, even in late season, the snowfield here is L-shaped, reaching high up to the thin saddle between Mt. Sill and the lower Apex Peak to the northwest. We found the upper part of the "L" lopped off, and most of the climb here was on loose rock due to diminishing snow conditions. At the saddle, I chose to climb to Apex Peak while the others went ahead to the class 4 section. Apex is less than a ten minute diversion (but a fine view of North Pal and vicinity), and I was soon back behind the others on the west side of Mt. Sill. The climbing is enjoyable but not too hard, and when we reached the Southwest Ridge Michael turned and jokingly asked where the class 4 stuff was. We had harder class 3 when climbing Thompson and Gabb, we decided.

The three of us reached the summit at 11:25a, 6h10m from the trailhead. Easier than Thompson by just a few minutes, but considerably more enjoyable. We signed into the register, took in the views (E - S - W - NW), ate some food, and rested - the usual summit activities. After about 20min we headed down. As we climbed down the Southwest Ridge and were about to drop down to the class 4 section, Dan decided to try the traverse to Polemonium. It would have been fun to join him as I've yet to do that part of the Palisades Traverse, but it would've taken too much time I figured. Instead, Michael and I headed for Gayley. On the downclimb of Sill's North Couloir, Michael went for the maximum snow route (tired of the loose talus), while I clung to the rock under Apex Peak to see if it was possible to downclimb without putting on my crampons again. I managed to get quite a ways down, only about 60 yards of snow remained below me, but the angle was too steep and the snow too hard for glisading or plunge-stepping, so I ended up putting on the crampons and getting out the axe anyway. And the extra time it took me on the rock meant Michael was down well before me.

We walked back to Glacier Notch to drop our packs before heading to Gayley. We saw two climbers down on the Glacier wandering around. They called up asking if we were at Glacier Notch, to which we responded, "Yes." They changed direction, heading towards us, while Michael and I set out on the Yellow Brick Road (the rock is orange-yellow colored, so the Southwest Ridge seems aptly named). The route looks long from below, but really takes little time at all. We weren't racing or resting on our way up the fun class 3, and I timed our ascent from the notch as 23 minutes. It was interesting to find the exact same time in the register under my name when I climbed it three years earlier. I seem to be very consistent!

Mt. Gayley is climbed much less frequently than Sill, and the register dates back to 1975. We saw entries from fellow SPers Bob Pickering and Greg Faulk. There were many entries from climbers doing long traverses starting on Temple Crag and heading to Sill, North Palisade, or all the way to Thunderbolt Peak. Mt. Gayley offers perhaps the best up-close views of the Palisades, including Norman Clyde Peak, Palisade Crest, Sill, and the peaks arcing above the Palisade Glacier. On the return we stayed on the ridge as religiously as we could to spice the climbing up to class 4 in places. That was very fun, especially when I would have expected us to be more lethargic by this time. We arrived back at Glacier Notch an hour after we'd headed out.

As we started down from Glacier Notch we found that the two climbers we'd seen previously were off the Glacier but standing near the bottom on some difficult rock. They seemed to be struggling. We climbed down towards them, keeping our rockfall out of their line as it was almost impossible to prevent some rockfall in the loose chute. Near the bottom we noted another climber was coming up on the other side to our right, the same route we'd taken on the way up. He was setting up an anchor and trailing a climbing rope. His party of three was doing a roped climb of the class 3 Glacier Notch. It would have seemed silly except we remembered the loose debris that covered the granite slopes. We helped the party of two to easier rock and left the five of them as we descended, got our crampons on again at the top of the glacier, and beat it out of there before the inevitable cavalcade of rocks started to come down.

It was a long, long hike back to the trailhead, arriving at 5:50p, 12h15m total time. We had high clouds covering most of the sky which was a blessing to keep the sun from beating us into submission on the return. This was the end of the adventure for Michael, who left the Challenge to head back home. Six days was all he could sign up for, all six successful, with four bonus peaks to boot. I was sad to see him go really, he'd been the most consistent partner I'd had on the Challenge in the last three years.

I drove back to Big Pine where I met back up with Matthew. He'd gotten a few more hours of sleep, then decided to climb White Mtn Peak, another California 14er, 15 miles in five hours. That was Matthew's idea of a "rest day." Following dinner, I went to bed shortly after 8p for another early start for Norman Clyde the next day.


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