Fri, Apr 25, 2008
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I parked the car between two RVs (it's almost funny seeing the tiny Miata squeezed between two 30-foot RVs), then headed out. I had crampons, axe, snowshoes, poles, and a few warm layers should the day turn cold. It would not. In fact, it would be almost ideal. It had gotten below freezing during the night, so the snow was hard and firm, but not icy. The snow piled up in the parking lot and across the bridge over the Marble Fork gave way to barren earth as the trail climbed the southwest-facing slope out of the canyon. There was hardly any snow for the first mile at all, then - poof - nothing but snow after that. Where the trail turns north towards Silliman Meadow, the whole landscape abruptly changed to full snow coverage. I had heard that a boot path was beaten into the snow up to Silliman, but I found that hardly the case. I had a good deal of trouble just following the trail to Silliman Creek, losing it several times, but finding it by following a few wayward prints. Only in a few sunny places were there any prints more than a quarter inch deep, mostly it looked like folks had walked on top of hard snow, much as I was doing now. There were no reflectors on the trees or other signs to help indicate the trail as I've seen elsewhere when they are open through the wintertime. I came across a trail junction where no trail junction was indicated on my map, about 1.6mi out of Lodgepole. The signs looked of more recent origin.
When I got to Silliman Creek I turned right, following the creek up on the right side. The creek had cut steep embankments within about 20 yards of each side, but above that the going was easier through the trees, and though it was fairly steep in places, there wasn't much sidehilling. It was really a pleasant walk. It may have been just as easy to follow a line on the north side, but I stuck to the snowier side since it was fairly easy. The 7.5' topo shows the creek making a hard right turn where it meets the base of the long West Ridge of Silliman, but this is a bit misleading. In fact the creek forks at this juncture, the left side going to Little Lakes, the right fork to Silliman Lake. I followed the right fork because that was the route I had drawn on my map, but also because I expected the South Slopes of Silliman to be easier (class 2-3) and had no idea about the NW Face which rises above Little Lakes.
The sun was out brightly now as I climbed the steep slopes, mostly barren of trees, below Silliman Lake. I had put the crampons shortly after starting up Silliman Creek and they were just the ticket. The snowshoes I carried with me would remain strapped to the pack all day as it never got soft enough to need them. I found Silliman Lake frozen over, though the higher unnamed one above it was just beginning to thaw. From the unnamed lake I followed a snow slope NNW up to a notch in the West Ridge. At this point I took off the crampons and scrambled on dry rock and sandy slopes the remaining distance to the summit.
It had taken almost 3.5hrs to reach the summit. The distance had been short (less then 5 miles), but the gain was more than 4,000ft making it feel like a good workout. As my first visit to the peak, I was thoroughly impressed with the sweeping views. I could just make out Mt. Ritter to the far north, but could easily see Goddard, the Palisades, Split Mtn, the Silver, Monarch, and Great Western Divides, the Kaweahs, and a host of peaks surrounding Mineral King to the south. The view west was obscured by a layer of haze that reached to about 4,000ft elevation, blocking out the Central Valley and the Coast Ranges. According to the register, the last visitors had been two weeks prior. There had been four our five parties to visit since the beginning of the year. I found Matthew Holliman's barely legible entry from four and half years earlier - the longest time gap I know of for me following him on a peak.
From looking at the map, I had entertained the idea of descending the North Ridge, but that was not going to happen. I walked up to the edge of ridge, expecting to see a steep, blocky way down, but saw nothing but air. Lots of it too, probably a 70 to 80-foot drop straight down. The map had shown the ridge to be steep, but not so precipitous. It would probably make for a fine rock climb, but for those far more skilled in the art than I. My back up had been arranged on the last bit of climbing to the summit when I noticed a steep chute leading down off the Northwest Face. Much of it was snow-free, and with some spicy class 3 scrambling to avoid the steepest sections, I managed to use it to get myself down to the broad snow bowl below. After putting on crampons and wielding my axe (I only used it for ten minutes all day, but I was glad I'd brought it), I descended the first 100 feet of the bowl facing into the mountain, finally getting down to where the sun had softened things a little and the slope not so steep. I was then able to turn facing down the mountain, and fairly romp my way down to Little Lakes a thousand feet below.
I followed the drainage from Little Lakes for a mile and half, down another 1,200 feet to join back up with my ascent route at the fork in Silliman Creek. The rest of the descent was similarly pleasurable - quick, easy on the legs, the snow just soft enough to cushion the steps without postholing. At Silliman Meadow I noticed a long avalanche path that had slid sometime in the last few months. Some small trees with trunks up to five inches were among the debris spread out along the way. It was clear that there were no mature trees in the path, evidence that the slope must avalanche at least every five years or so. Somewhere in the vicinity of Willow Meadow, shortly after re-finding the trail, I came across a couple out for a hike. They were having as much trouble keeping to the route as I, and we were both happy for the momentary validation that we were going the right way. Had I lost the trail altogether it wouldn't have been a big deal - I had checked the map to see that Silliman Creek crossed the highway about a mile west of the parking lot - so I had merely to follow the creek down and then return on the road if I had been unable to locate it. But of course the trail is easier. I came across no other hikers on my way back, returning to the Marble Fork and the car around 12:45p. That was about an hour faster than my initial estimate, and it seemed I would be able to get home in time for dinner with the family. A short, but very enjoyable outing.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Silliman
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