Deep within the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, bordering the Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, lies a group of steep and rugged mountains known as the Palisades and climbing them can present some notable mountaineering challenges. Mount Sill is no exception. Its 14,153 foot peak soars over Big Pines Lakes and the the Palisade Glacier to the north east while all of Kings Canyon can be seen to the west. The views from its summit have been described as some of the best in the Sierra range most likely due to it being located on a sharp turning portion of the Sierra Crest. On June 11th, 2017, I had the pleasure of climbing Mount Sill in winter conditions and witnessed only a fraction of its grandeur as lingering storm clouds swallowed the mountain whole just before I made the summit, creating a complete white out. The conditions, however limiting in visibility, only amplified my overall presence during the climb making it an unforgettable experience.
For about a month and a half before this trip, we had planned to climb Split Mountain's St. Jean Couloir. As the date arrived, we had reached out to a few other climbers whose efforts to summit were thwarted by poor snow conditions caused by warm weather. Our group discussed other options until our very own Victor Jara was able to speak to a Ranger, confirming our suspicions that Split Mountain should probably be avoided. We were able to snag a few last minute backpacking permits for Big Pine Lakes North Fork, where we knew that trekking in just six miles would allow us to assess conditions for climbing either Sill, Cloudripper, or Temple Crag the following day. We were essentially playing the entire trip by ear.
UPPER SAGE FLAT CAMPGROUND
David and I had arrived at 11:30 PM on Friday to a quiet campsite. Although it was apparent from the warm ash in the fire pit that Victor (who had driven up separately) had only recently gone to sleep. We knocked back a couple of night caps and followed suit. The morning was spent speculating on trail conditions and packing in leisure since we knew we were just a few miles from the trail head and our entire day would only consist of trekking six or so miles by foot. We even opted to pay an additional $5 for overnight parking near Glacier Lodge instead of taking the Logging Flat Trail, which starts at a separate free parking area and includes an additional 3/4 of a mile and 200 feet of gain over exposed dirt trail. We weren't missing much.
BIG PINE CREEK TRAIL HEAD
Glacier Lodge Road | Elevation 7,832 Feet
June 10th, 2017 -- By 9:53 AM we'd begun hiking on the Glacier Lodge Road which runs parallel to and eventually meets up with the Big Pine Creek trail. Within a quarter of a mile, we had come to a bridge that runs over the cascading waters of North Fork Big Pine Creek. The gushing water left us in awe, and yet the feeling followed with a mental image of the slushy slopes to come. After crossing the bridge there is a junction that separates the North and South Fork at which point we kept right toward a bunch of switchbacks following the creek and crossed another foot bridge over First Falls. The trail continues north west in a partially shaded dirt road. It eventually moves away from the creek and onto the northern slope blanketed in chaparral for a long switchback through the exposed hillside. A four way intersection follows which brings all of the previously described trails together, while the sound of the running water will once again pull you in the north west direction of finally entering the John Muir Wilderness.
LON CHANEY'S CABIN
At roughly mile two, we passed the wooden John Muir Wilderness sign, but not before giddily taking out our cameras for a quick touristy photo shoot. If you are impressed by the beginning of the trail, everything past this sign is like stepping into another world completely. The hints of Aspen and Jeffrey Pine that preceded were now flourishing. Small spillways of water trickled from one side of the trail to the other, continually feeding the stream with fresh snow melt. At mile three, we had come to a large Forest Service cabin that once served as Hollywood Celebrity Lon Chaney's summer home and was designed by Architect Paul Revere Williams in 1929. Although, at first glance you'd probably have never guessed it to be nearly a century old building. The cabin served as a perfect opportunity for a break, and we spent nearly thirty minutes relaxing under the shade of its massive patio to watch the stream.
CAMPING AT THIRD LAKE
Photo by David Richard (@drpeak2peek)
After briefly discussing potential group campsites over a map, we started moving toward our final destination for the day. I decided that it would be a good idea to try and pass a few more hikers on the way up to lock down a good site for our group. From this point on, the trail is much more straight forward, having only one marked trail junction (mile 4.5, 9985 feet elevation) prior to reaching first lake. This junction serves as an alternate route to Black lake, but even backpackers heading in that direction are better off hiking the main trail to enjoy the remarkable views of vibrant glaciated Lake water surrounded by beautifully forested landscapes and Temple Crag's monumental northern face as its centerpiece.
I pressed on toward the subsequent Lakes, at first focused on the goal of reaching camp. With each clearing in the trees came a hypnotizing view of my surroundings. My pace progressively slowed and soon, what was a march of intent became a casual stroll through the woods. After wandering an entire mile further I was granted another lakeside view of Temple Crag and suddenly my relaxing walk had come to a perplexing halt. The lakes were so close together that I had completely lost track of which one I was passing. Within a few minutes, a day hiker was able to confirm my location as Third Lake and I parked up against a comfy rock to relax.
Victor had arrived shortly after and to my surprised, David had slipped passed me hiking up half a mile further before turning back. I felt much better knowing that I wasn't the only one experiencing difficulties navigating and even more so when Victor reminded me of the Cannabis infused chocolate covered espresso beans we had eaten back at the cabin. We left our packs near the trail and started looking for a good place to make camp. Strong winds were expected throughout the following day and everything we were looking at was exposed. We eventually settled on one because of its proximity to a snowy mound that we could use to keep our beer cold. It was perfect. We enjoyed some dinner and decided to call it an early night since we had a 3 AM wake up call. Our goal was to start early enough for the snow pack to be firm throughout our climb.
At 3 AM, after spending most of my night laying awake listening to the incessant flapping of my tent fly, I rolled over and fell back to sleep. Two hours later, I forced myself into my gear and out of my tent to check on the others only to find that they had slept poorly as well. The winds followed me back to my tent where I again fell back asleep in full gear to wait out the cold. This was not going well.
REACHING THE PALISADE GLACIER
Finally at 7:25 AM, the winds died and we started for Sam Mack Meadow, a gorgeous grassy glacier spillway nestled below Sam Mack Lake. Just under a mile from camp, we came to another seemingly impassable river crossing and followed the creek further north to get across. In late summer and fall, a series of switchbacks bring you up to the meadow where the trail to the Palisade Glacier continues up the Southern moraine. In our case, the entire slope was covered in hard packed snow. I took the direct path where I was presented with a steep slope while David and Victor opted for the traditional route in order to check out the meadow.
We met up at the top of the ridge where behind us was an overhead view of the collective lakes, a perspective that emphasized the historical glacial activity in this region. Looking ahead, we were finally able to see Mount Gailey, Sill and other portions of the Sierra Crest peaking out from above the glacier's terminal moraine. We discussed taking a long break at the Palisade Glacier to relax and possibly call it a day if the conditions up to Sill looked rough. After walking a bit further I noticed a hiker coming toward us and yelled, "Guys! BETA!"
Approaching the climber, I noticed he was wielding two technical ice axes and wearing a climbing harness; attached was a Trad Rack. I asked where he had been. His intention was to climb Mount Sill and check out conditions to traverse the ridge to Polemonium to the west with two others, except one had fallen and dislocated his shoulder on the steep ascent to Glacier Notch. He asked us if we had any medical experience and we shook our heads. The others descended toward us and it was very obvious which one had fallen. The rest of the groups day would consist of a long slow walk back to the trail head while splitting their gear between two.
Photo by David Richard (@drpeak2peek)
Before they walked away, I asked the climber if he thought we could make it to the Peak. He said the snow was rock hard on the way up and he barely had any use for his ice axe, but that on the way back it started to soften up suggesting that it was possible and the conditions were likely getting better. It was at this point that any tip-toeing around the idea of not making summit completely left my mind. I was going for it.
Victor jumped up ahead and began the descent toward the Glacier. All I could think of was how much time and effort that would add to a climb in which I had no idea what to expect. I turned toward David and told him that I would follow the tracks that traversed along the bowl and ascend toward Glacier Notch. We both knew that my knowledge of the route was limited, so turning back at that point was pretty likely. We parted ways and my pace immediately quickened. The thought of my climbing partners waiting on and even worrying about me was not one I had intended to instill.
I moved south across the bowl before coming to the steep chute straight up to Glacier Notch. After only three steps, I was completely out of breath. The elevation was getting to me and this stop-and-go trend would persists throughout the rest of the ascent. Just fifty feet from the notch was a slew of large boulders to my left and after a 500 foot ascent of pure ice in new mountaineering boots, my feet welcomed the opportunity for a good rock scramble.
I had reached the notch by 11:30 AM after climbing 3200 feet in just over 3 miles from camp. I could see the ridge to Mount Gayley and the upper lakes of South Fork Big Pine Creek. Thick clouds hovered over the Sierra Crest to the West taunting me with the chance of white out conditions while the tracks I had been following before had started to disappear. Mount Sill's North Couloir hid eloquently behind the ridge to Apex Peak. I moved toward the base of the chute where I was faced with another 300 foot climb in about 1/5th of a mile. This was definitely the steepest snow ascent I had ever made, but I realized very quickly that there were no rocks or cliff faces below, so losing my footing really only meant that I would have to climb more. I was mostly just happy that I didn't need to deal with the talus field that likely existed under all the snow.
By 12:10 PM I had made it to another Notch where the view of the Sierra Crest was starting to dwindle. I noticed a small spur called Apex Peak to the right, but I had no idea that it was named at the time. Strong gusts of wind and the incoming clouds pressed my focus back toward Sill. I peaked over the saddle to see a fairly exposed ledge followed by some Class 3 boulder scrambling; in the center was a cairn. I traced the best potential route and made way across the upper portion of the ledges. From the end of the ledges, I continued directly up the ridge through some solid Class 3 granite. At about 13950 feet, I finally decided to remove my crampons making note of the sawtooth rock they were near. The gusts were more and more frequent, and it started to snow, but I was so god damn close.
MOUNT SILL SUMMIT
At 1:00 PM, the ridge scramble gave way and I knew I had finally made summit. I looked around for the register and found it nestled between two medium sized boulders. While examining it, I realized that I was now in a complete white out with maybe 30 feet of visibility. I lost all interest in sticking around and started back down the ridge. I would have to come back and see those gorgeous views R.J. Secor promised me another time.
After descending roughly 100 feet, I started looking for the nearest saw tooth granite slab to pick up my crampons and didn't see them anywhere. I immediately started to question the idea of placing them on the rocks instead of packing them. I tried to retrace my steps and within a few moments (that felt like an eternity), an opening in the clouds presented the top of the Palisade glacier off in the distance allowing me to orient myself. I was climbing down the wrong side of the mountain.
I traversed across to the next ridge and found my crampons near a similar looking saw tooth slab. As I finished attaching them to my boots, the wind whipped across my face. "Alright, I'm movin'. I get it!", I said aloud. I shuffled down the ridge and back to the notch. Getting down to the snow was such a relief. I had three major sections to descend, all of which consisted of steep hard snow. Of the three miles back to camp, I managed to glissade and self arrest for for about half that distance. I learned that a 250 foot sustained self arrest is almost as difficult as running down a snowy slope and twice as stressful.
Descending the long snow field below Temple Crag placed me on the South side of Third Lake. I took a few minutes to change my layers for the twentieth time and made for the highest point on the hill to get a visual on a potential route where I found a few cairns.
As I crossed the creek, there was a break in the clouds. Calmly falling snowflakes filtered the view of Third lake and the forested slope above while I could hear the muffled sound of rushing water underneath the ice. Back at camp, David and Victor were packing. I told them about my adventure and they congratulated me with the last remaining beer David had packed.
Total Distance (from trail head to summit) : 9.5 miles
Total Elevation (feet): 7,117 feet
Trail Difficulty: Hard.
- Class 1-2 marked trial for first 8 miles up to Palisade Glacier in the Summer (little to no snow).
- Steep class 2-3 talus and rock scrambling for everything up to 13,750 feet.
- Class 3-4 solid granite rock scrambling to Mount Sill summit (final 500 feet)