Mount Sill - the Early Attempts

Contact Pass: Oct 14-18, 1992

The walk in to Third Lake was reasonably easy except for the heavy load I'd been hauling.  As it turns out I should have continued higher, but my plan is to cross Contact Pass tomorrow for an attempt at Mt Sill. My campsite selection not the best - too close to the lake, but it’s sheltered from what wind there is.  The weather is excellent with clear skies and mild temperatures. 

On the trail by 7:30 for what turns out to be a very tough day.  The distances and altitudes are hard to judge in the area. I underestimated the time and effort required by a wide margin.  Contact Pass, at an elevation of 11,800', was a real bummer with steep loose rock on both sides.  I cut the far side short by taking a series of high ledges.  My progress was far too slow to have any hope of standing below the class 4 couloir on Sill, so I settled for Glacier notch (13,000 ft+).  I had to negotiate a  difficult rock chimney to get there - maybe I took the wrong route?

Turned around at 3:00 pm and only just made it to the tent before total darkness.  Not an easy last section over boulders. I should have come back the same route as this morning.  It was great weather all day but disappointing not getting even an attempt at a peak.  Next time I’ll camp much higher and further into the range, but not over Contact Pass if I can find another way.

Glacier Notch: Apr 15-19, 1997

With Lucy, we began at the trailhead for Big Pine Creek North Fork.  Warm weather and in shorts, but carried snowshoes for snow expected as low as 9,000’, near Lon Chaney’s cabin.  At suggestion of fellow hiker we took a shortcut on the trail to Black Lake.  Much of the trail completely clear of snow until reaching 10,400’ where we set up camp.

The next day warm and windless.  Packed up and left camp early. Hiked in snow past Black Lake cross-country to the beginning of Sam Mack Meadow Trail.  Cached snowshoes and poles under log at stream.  Up snowfield to Sam Mack Meadow, traversed onto ridge to just below Palisade Glacier at approximately 12,000’.  Set up camp on a rock outcrop in protected depression with standing water close by.

Some wind as we left from camp, climbing onto Palisade Glacier.  Met skier/snowboard mountaineers camped on higher exposed rocky ridge.  Head for Glacier Notch, proceeding roped from 12,700’. Required four rope lengths to reach  the Notch at 13,100’. Scrambled up the lower section of Mt. Gayley before retreating because of lack of time.  Descended roped down from Notch to the Palisade Glacier and back to camp just before dark.

North Couloir: Sep 14-18, 1998

Lucy and I made it to Lake Elinore on the first day to setup a Base Camp near water.  A very beautiful location made all the better by the absence of other people, a blessing from the difficult access that keeps backpackers, horses and fishermen out of the area.  One expects only to find serious climbers camped at this location.  We started out next morning with a recce of the East Couloir of Mt Sill and the remote possibility of having time to make a summit bid using this route.  I was stumped by the schrund, a gaping crack across the entrance to the couloir; too wide and too deep.  So we dumped our climbing equipment at 12,700’ on the Sill Glacier and descended to Elinore for the night. 

Next morning we started at first light with good weather and great expectations of climbing Sill using the North Couloir route .  Unfortunately things were not good for me. I felt the onset of my typical mountain bronchitis as we began the day and no antibiotics in my kit to fix the problem.  Despite this, we made excellent time up to Glacier Notch, collecting our climbing gear on the way and headed up the snow field which filled the first two thirds of the couloir.  We did this short roped, moving together with Lucy in the lead.  She led well, but didn't realize until too late that we’d found ourselves front pointing up 40 degree ice below the notch that leads to the rock section of the climb.

So there we were at the notch, approximately 400’ below the summit, faced with a serious bit of rock scrambling at high altitude and a guaranteed spooky descent down the ice after rappelling off the summit rocks back into the notch - and the day was running out.  At 2:00 pm, I called off the summit attempt after a recce by me up the rock ramp to the beginning of the traverse.  I met two climbers coming down that had just ascended the Swiss Arete route - I was suitably impressed.  Our descent down the ice was harrowing which included a rappel over the worst section of ice (I’d left our ice screws below in the rocks!).  Three pitches of fixed belay were necessary before we could safely move together again.  We completed the descent to Lake Elinore just on dark with me dragging my sorry butt to the point of exhaustion.  Most of the descent from the base of the peak to the camp could only have been done safely in daylight - none of it is easy.  Lucy came to life back at camp and did a sterling job of preparing hot food and drinks while I lay stunned in the tent. 

Although we didn’t bag any summits, we sure gave it our best and as a climbing experience - we did it all.  The heavy snowfall last winter made relatively easy routes in the Sierras very difficult for this time of year.

Scimitar Pass: Oct 14-17, 1999

My third visit to the South Fork drainage of the Big Pine Creek and it doesn't get any easier, despite the slightly improved routes that I discover - generally out of desperation and utter exhaustion.  I started the trip with a handicap - a sinus problem that began four weeks before, which I’d hoped the high desert climate of the Owens Valley would disperse in a flash.  No such luck.  The combination of high altitude and cold air aggravated my nasal passages to where I was constantly blowing out small blood clots. This didn’t exactly stop me in my tracks, as with Bronchitis, but did take the fun out of the adventure.  It also influenced my decision to not attempt Mt. Sill when the prize was within relatively easy access.  But more of that later.

For once, the first river crossing was safe because of low water levels and I made it to the first basin at Willow Lake in good time.  From there I followed the route up the left side of the stream that descends from the cirque between Gayley and Temple Crag.  At the first meadow I made a 90 degree left turn and headed up the stream that begins below Norman Clyde Peak and then over the top to Lake Elinore; unfortunately missing the small pond that sits 500’ above Elinore to the south and on the route I’d be using the next day.  So I spent the first night camped on the shores of Elinore, near where Lucy and I’d been in September, 1998.  No one about, and in fact I didn’t see another human until returning to the trailhead four days later. 

Next morning I took the route from Lake Elinore up to Scimitar Pass.  I’d studied this Pass on numerous occasions: from the ground and in the books and maps, trying to figure it’s true difficulty and possible traps for a solo traveler.  As I discovered, the exposure is not extreme although the terrain is steep and difficult to negotiate, in particular a steep loose slope about halfway along the scimitar shaped ridge.  The slope closest to the ridge wall has been washed by melt from the permanent snowfield above.  Not only is this slope devoid of solid foot holds, but also is a loaded gun for rock fall - very big rocks!  Earlier in the season it’s probably covered in snow and easily negotiable with ax and crampons but at this time of year the only safe path is to swing wide to the south, accepting the steep rock hopping which is so much part of this Pass crossing. 

Above this obstacle lies a moderately sloped snowfield terminating in a steep rock scramble to the ridge at an elevation of 13,100’.  This is not really a Pass but rather a ridge crossing. The Pass low point lies to the north and 200’ below.  On the other side of this low point is Mount Jepson (13,390’).  The western side of the Pass leads down on moderate slopes to Glacier Lake.  Of course, nothing is as easy as it looks in the area. This moderate slope has a nasty near vertical bluff between the Pass and the lake; subtly hidden from view when looking down the slope.  Running short on daylight I took the direct route down the bluff, Class 5.2 and with a heavy pack - very exciting. Viewed from below, an easier route becomes obvious, a sloping ledge which leads out to the south side of the bluff.

Next day it was my intent to climb Mt. Sill from the Glacier Creek drainage (Southwest slope route – Class 3), the easiest route on the mountain but difficult to access.  The other option to crossing Scimitar Pass in order to reach this location is a 20 mile hike from South Lake and Bishop Pass.  As I lay in my tent that night I began to realize the potential predicament I’d put myself in.  A sudden snowstorm, highly possible in mid October, would trap me on the wrong side of the Palisade Crest with insufficient food and fuel to make it out through the Bishop Pass route.  Also, the option of climbing back over the Crest at Scimitar could be a daunting task if the snowfall was relatively heavy.  As it happened, my decision to abort the Sill climb and go back over the Crest the next morning was made on the basis of health.  My sinus problems during the night indicated that a day climbing Sill followed by the Scimitar Pass crossing the day after might not be possible in my deteriorating condition.  A third and final factor was a vague sense of unease, in the knowledge that being alone, one shift of fortune could easily tip the scales against my survival. 

Accordingly, I packed up early the next morning in a cold wind over a bleak landscape and hightailed it back over the Pass, but on the way past Mt. Jepson , I scrambled to the summit for a few quick moments of consolation.  It occurred to me that the ridge crossing on Scimitar Pass was more difficult than climbing Mt. Jepson and took considerable care in transiting the Pass.

It was with great relief that I reached the pond above Lake Elinore, retrieved my cache of extra food, fuel and clothing and settled in for another disturbed but more relaxed night in the tent, knowing it was all downhill to the trailhead and my vehicle.  In the morning, my worst fears about health were confirmed, now fully aware that I’d not have made it back over the Pass today had I climbed Mt. Sill as planned.  So, all’s well that ends well - without any doubt in this case.  Spent a lazy morning in the sun, recovering from the ordeal and then headed out to the trailhead to spend the night sleeping in the vehicle, eating plenty and sinking a few warm beers.  The verdict:  Scimitar Pass is a feasible quick access to the southwestern side of the Palisade range, but it’s not an easy route, particularly loaded with overnight packs. This would be helped with two or more climbers in the team, because going solo was a logistical nightmare.  Also, August or September would be more suitable than October, in order to avoid early snowfall problems in the Western drainage.


©PeterTremayne, Reno, NV 2012

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