Ascent of Mount Sill on 2013-08-17

Climber: BMS 914

Others in Party:Joel Brewster
Collin Kamholz
BLMhikergirl Pipps
Rich Stephens -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Thomas Sakowych
Date:Saturday, August 17, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Sill
    Elevation:14153 ft / 4313 m

Ascent Trip Report

Originally scheduled as an outing to North Palisade, Collin and I changed it to Mount Sill given Collin's lack of time off from work, and the notion that Sill would be a shorter (two day vs three day) outing. So together with Joel (who only needed N Pal and Sill to finish his CA 14er list), Rich, and Thomas we planned for Sill instead. Jodie arrived with Collin at the meeting spot in Las Vegas, to my surprise. Sill seemed like more than she was ready for, but she was not planning on summiting, just going for part of the trip as a workout.

Collin had wanted to do Mount Sill as a two day backpack: up to Sam Mack Meadow with the heavy packs on Day 1, camp, then summit with light packs on Day 2, head back down to the meadow, break camp, and head back down the 7 miles to the trailhead with heavy packs.

I was decidedly NOT in favor of doing it this way. Heavy packs in exchange for a slightly easier ascent, with a difficult descent in heavy packs. To make matters worse, the trailheads for day hiking vs overnight hiking are different, and the backpacking (overnight) trailhead adds 0.75 miles each way. Rich, then Thomas wanted to day hike it too. Collin was ambivalent, so Joel agreed to the day hike to satisfy the will of the group, opening the door for Jodie to come along for some of the trip as well, as permits were not necessary for the day hike.

We arrived around 11:00 PM on Friday night, after waiting for everyone to get off work, and camped at the campground not far from the day hiking trailhead. I went to bed around 11:45 PM, but found sleep impossible, and since we were getting up at 3:20 AM anyway I didn't have a long time to wait. Our group woke, broke down our tents quietly in the starlight, and met Thomas near the trailhead at around 4:15 AM.

We began our approach hike at 4:25 AM, with Collin taking the lead in the darkness along the maintained and well-signed trail. This trail would follow the North Fork of Big Pine Creek up to Sam Mack Meadow some 7 miles, then veer toward Mount Gayley on its way to Sill before petering out near the old (i.e. outer) moraine of the Palisade Glacier.

About 150 vertical feet up the easy trail, Collin abruptly stopped near the corner of a switchback. Before I could ask him what was going on, he began vomiting. He wasn't sure what was going on, but was feeling really nauseated, and this was a bad start with a 16+ hour day still ahead. He resolved to continue, and we pressed on. But not long afterward he told me that he was still feeling terrible, and was going to head back to the vehicles. I was stunned, and felt bad for him, as we both are trying to finish the CA 14ers together, and he really wanted to do this peak. But his condition was such that he had no choice and wished us all luck before turning back.

Collin had done most of the research on the route and was playing his usual role of being the chief route-finder, and suddenly the rest of us would have to take over that role. Still, I felt pretty confident I could get the group up the correct route, and Rich and Joel had a pretty good idea of how to get there too, so we would be alright.

At length, the sun came up, and a beautiful morning replaced the darkness. Amid spectacular Sierras scenery, we made steady progress up the trail toward the meadow. We passed a group of two climbers also heading for Sill, having arrived from the Midwest (Chicago and Detroit, respectively) just to do this peak.

Sam Mack Meadow is a great place to camp. It is relatively flat, and has some wide and level fields of some sort of soft vegetation/tundra on either side of a stream of clean, cold water that runs down the middle of the meadow. The water in this area does have quite a bit of glacier flour (powdered rock) in it, so anyone relying on it for hydration might want to bring something to filter out the particulates - even some coffee filters would probably do it - if you don't want to ingest it for some reason.

The trail to Sill branches off and heads southeast immediately upon reaching the meadow, but our group hiked a little further up the continuing trail, which peters out about 0.15 miles further into the meadow. We took a break, and I located the correct turn on the topo map in my GPS. Rich and Joel wanted to simply cross the stream and head south along the valley, which is the path of least resistance. We started this way, trying to join up with the trail, which I knew would soon veer to the southeast and away from where we were. Rich wanted to head more along the valley toward the low notch to the south. After some slower going and some light Class 3 scrambling here and there, I was able to impress the importance of not getting too far south to Rich and Joel, as I had read trip reports of people doing just that and getting cut off. Just before we rejoined the trail, Rich spotted the guys from the Midwest nearing the top of the notch, so clearly they had opted to try that way.

Back on the trail, we headed up and toward a large area of moraine filled with lose talus and medium sized (nightstand) boulders. This section is apparently an older, larger moraine from when the Palisade Glacier was once more extensive. We stopped and filled our water bottles from a tiny stream, and began hiking and boulder hopping our way to a saddle marking the edge of the current (newer) moraine. Once there, the Palisade Glacier, and tarn with floating chunks of glacier, came into full view.

Someone noticed two figures appear on the far side of the Palisade Glacier. The guys we had met from the Midwest made it that far, but at last realized their mistake and that they were cut off from Mount Sill by the ice and loose rock. They didn't have crampons, though at least one of them had an ice axe. They didn't have a rope, harnesses, or other gear needed for going across the glacier. Traversing the north rim of the glacier was possible, but would take a lot of time, as it would double the length of the moraine they would have to deal with, and it was already getting late for a summit attempt. I felt bad for them as they looked at it for a while, then turned around and went back down the way they came. At the same time I was pleased that our group, even without our navigation guru Collin, had managed to avoid making that critical mistake.

From here, we had to negotiate an even rockier bowl of at times unstable talus, while skirting along the base of Mount Gayley, making for Glacier Notch (the saddle between Gayley and Sill). Rich, Joel, and Jodie elected to take a higher line here, while Thomas and I went lower aiming for the wet sand area on the fringe of the glacier. The fringe of the glacier turned out to be very difficult to negotiate. It is essentially hard, dark ice covered with a thin layer of sand. This is nearly impossible to walk on without crampons, since the sand just gets pushed out of the way by the boot soles leaving the hard ice with a thin layer of water on it. My ice axe was almost useless here, and the pick would penetrate the ice but shatter it making shallow pits. I tried in vain to use it to get up this section, but eventually gave up and headed for a rocky outcrop nearby with the idea of climbing up to the notch as much as possible. Thomas elected to go back to boulder hopping on the loose blocks.

My climbing soon turned into another misadventure. There were some nice, moderate angle slabs of granite, with open book shapes and nice cracks down the center. But the slabs were wet, and had been polished by centuries of small rocks being washed down their faces, making them very smooth. Even worse, the areas that weren't as steep were packed with wet sand. I forced a few moves, got uncomfortably committed, then got to a place were I just couldn't find any decent holds on my right side. Thomas and the others were not in sight, and not in shouting distance. I eventually had to make a sketchy toe smear with my right hiking boot onto a little nub on a wet shelf with a small bare area surrounded by sand. The handholds were small bumps and also wet and sandy, and if the boot came off it was unlikely that I could keep from falling by hanging on. The short pitch was probably 5.5 or so, but with the boots and other factors seemed much harder! It went as planned however, and after gasping in relief (and in need of oxygen, as I had been exerting in this section pretty hard at 12,700+'), I continued up. That fortunately proved to be the crux, Rich appeared just above me, and then Thomas to my right. At length, we were all back together.

The next section on the glacier was difficult. Rich, Joel, and Thomas headed up the scree/talus that had piled itself on the sand and ice. In places, the sand had been rinsed away by meltwater flowing downhill in the afternoon sun. It was still early, there was no water flowing at this point, and up they went. We put on helmets here as loose rocks were inevitable. Thomas dislodged rocks several times, nearly hitting Jodie who was 20 or 30 yards behind him, and eventually grazed her with a few smaller ones. Not liking the glacier and the rockfall, I was staying to the left of the group, climbing the Class 3 rock of Mount Gayley. Jodie began traversing left to join me after tiring of the rockfall. At one point, she got stuck on a narrow band of talus and scree between two very slick areas of ice. She felt like she would fall if she continued up, but could not move over the ice sideways in either direction, and felt even worse trying to go back down! I was helpless to aid her, and watched with more than a little trepidation as she slowly worked uphill, then to her left, somehow making it onto the solid rock I was climbing on.

The rock here wasn't too difficult, Class 3 without much exposure, but tough for the grade in a few places and sandy. Jodie struggled up, eventually joining the rest of us at Glacier Notch. It was now around 2:00 PM, and Jodie decided that she had gone far enough, and didn't want to hold the group up since we were already going to be summiting late in the day.

The North Couloir, a.k.a. the L-shaped Couloir, was completely free of snow. We left our ice axes and any unnecessary gear with Jodie, and began getting ready to hike up the steep couloir. Voices of climbers on the nearby Swiss Arête could be heard. The couloir was steep and very, very loose. Progress was slow, and made even more tiresome due to having to avoid dislodging rocks on companions, and we were grateful for our helmets. This section ends in a saddle with Apex Peak, a small subpeak/large outcrop.

From here, Rich remembered that we had to find a ledge ("the catwalk") at the base of Sill, heading over to the north face. There are actually at least two of these, some took the upper one and others the lower one. Both seem to be Class 2 with some exposure. My route, on the lower ledge, had one heavily exposed spot near the entrance, the rest was moderately exposed but much wider. Overall, the catwalk was not a big deal, and no one considered roping up here.

Above this spot, the climbing begins. Some easy Class 3, followed by one section (maybe 35') of what many term Class 4. Above us two climbers from California (one from Walnut Creek where I used to live) were downclimbing to our left unroped. They were belly-sliding and not using great technique, clearly feeling the exposure and just trying to get down any way they could without incident. We offered our rope but by then they were nearly down, but thanked us and said they wished they had it earlier. I climbed the Class 4 crack in boots and backpack. It isn't difficult, but is a little awkward as access to the crack is angled to the right. I would be inclined to call it high Class 3 normally. There is significant exposure here but not the hundreds or thousands of feet variety one might expect. Rich took a different line, more to our left, but right of the guys from CA who were still coming down. Joel followed me up, and Thomas decided he liked the look of Rich's route better and went up that one. Near the top he got stuck and asked for a belay - Rich had solved this tricky spot with a dynamic move. There are several spots in this little section with webbing anchors and rappel rings, each protecting one of the three routes. I traversed over to the middle set and top-roped Thomas up, though he was fine and didn't slip.

Once past this spot, the rest of the way is moderate Class 3 to the summit. Be sure to take note of where you top out (above the webbing anchors) as this area looks totally different on the way down and can be confusing to find. Turn around and orient yourself visually and you will make it easier to figure out on the way down. There is more climbing above the Class 4 crux than I realized. The two climbers who were on the Swiss Arête route were coming down our (walk-off) route not far from the summit. We chatted and gave them some beta on the route down, then continued, summiting at 3:30 PM.

The view from the top was of course of the spectacular variety, with North Palisade, Starlight Peak, and Thunderbolt Peak dominating the view to the west. To the southeast, large dark clouds were making their presence felt, the flash of lightning and the deep boom of thunder reminding all of us that a lengthy summit interval wasn't in the plan for our day. Joel and I both thought at one point that we felt a raindrop or two, but the clouds spared us otherwise. Apart from the lightning, the wet granite and melting ice holding everything together were a serious and more immediate concern. But just watching the pattern of the clouds as they rolled in it seemed likely that they weren't going to hit in the Mount Sill area anytime soon, which was fortunate.

The trip down followed mostly the same route as the ascent. We caught the pair of climbers we had spoke with as they were finishing their rappel of the Class 4 section. Our group also elected to rappel, so I set up on the webbing above the crack Joel and I had ascended. This anchor lacked a rappel ring, so I used one of my small locking carabiners to save wear on the webbing from rope friction. Rich, Thomas, then Joel all went down, followed by me after I had recovered the locker and rigged it up directly. I went down slowly and carefully so as to avoid cutting the webbing with any sliding of the rope. We again took different versions of the catwalk/ledge, with Rich and I going low. Going down the North Couloir was painstaking and difficult. At one point, Thomas dislodged some serious rockfall that bounded past Rich and the two descending climbers just below him. Not long afterward, the female climber slipped and took a nasty fall, injuring (possibly fracturing) her ribs in the process. We all met up at the Glacier Notch saddle with Jodie, who had been apparently having a panic attack and texting Collin, even though she had no service.

The climbers elected to try and hike back down to their camp at Sam Mack Meadow. The lady was in good spirits and not in terrible pain. She didn't think she would be able to make the trip the next day down the 7 mile long trail wearing a heavy pack, and they arranged with Joel to call search and rescue the following day for a helicopter evacuation, once we were back in Big Pine and had cell service, which he did.

The journey across the glacier and moraine that followed was extremely tedious, given how long the day had been already. We were hoping to find the trail before the darkness set fully in. In the end, we were too late for this, but using the GPS that both Rich and I had we eventually were able to get off the boulder hopping and onto the trail. This time, we took the section we had inadvertently bypassed on the way up all the way down to the meadow, which proved much easier. I was getting very grumpy on the moraine, due largely to my blood sugar being nearly depleted (I suspect). Rich gave me a spare energy gel and I felt much better minutes later, and my bad attitude went away as well. I need to remember that when I get cranky on a trip it is always due to low blood sugar!

As we hiked in the darkness down the meadow, Rich in front, and me in the back, I began to get the feeling I was being watched, and later, being followed. At first I put it down to an overactive imagination, but then I twice caught an indistinct shadow darting away out of the corner of my eye. It was not the two climbers above us on the trail, as what I was seeing was to my left, and not moving on a trail. Whatever it was finally caused some decent rockfall in a gully to my left, which affirmed it wasn't some sort of visual hallucination, as seeing it the third time and having the rockfall start in the same place and at the same time were clearly no coincidence. I never saw what it was, but decided to close up with Thomas who was getting a bit ahead of me. We took a break a short while later and related the story, and it was met with disbelief and amusement. I think it may well have been a mountain lion, as nothing else I can think of could move so fast on that terrain that would follow me. Whatever it was, it seemed to give up its game after our break, as none of us heard or saw anything unusual the rest of the way down to the meadow.

With much relief, amid the pitch darkness, we made it back to Sam Mack Meadow and the maintained trail. Rich and Joel filtered water from the stream, we all drank our fill, filled our bottles and hydration bladders, and took a nice rest. Thomas fell asleep on the springy tundra.

We began the last leg of our trip as the moon began to peek up over the shoulder of Mount Gayley. I could hear the two climbers on the trail, just above the meadow, and was glad to know they were just minutes from their camp. I told the others of the remaining 7 miles of trail, and was met with incredulous denials from everyone - they were all sure it was much less than that, more like 7 miles to the glacier, etc. I didn't argue too hard as I knew that unfortunately I was correct, and we had a good 3.5+ hours still ahead of us given how tired and slow we were. It was around 10:00 PM.

The hike down the trail was long if not particularly difficult. I had been without sleep for over 38 hours at this point, and was exhausted, hungry, and getting a headache. Jodie and Rich wanted to go faster down the trail, and we were getting well ahead of Joel and Thomas, neither of whom had a GPS. I eventually asked them to slow down, which they did. I told Jodie she could go on ahead if she wanted, but was concerned that she might take the wrong fork off the trail and end up lost. She was having difficulty staying awake walking at the slower pace, so she would take off and wait for the group at any trail forks. Eventually, I stopped to wait for Joel, with Thomas and Rich up ahead with Jodie, as I was concerned he would get lost. Joel doesn't use a GPS and is normally an excellent dead-reckoning navigator, but in the darkness and given how tired he had to be I became concerned. It turned out that it was Rich that missed a turnoff, even with his GPS in hand. Joel was concerned the others had taken the wrong route near the trailhead, and this proved correct. But we both knew that they weren't that far away and would get back on route either way, and Rich was using his GPS, though it was having some issues finding satellites this trip.

Joel and I made it back at 2:15 AM, 21 hours and 50 minutes after leaving, and again in the darkness. The others were about 10 minutes later. I found Collin sleeping in Jodie's car. He had expected us around 9:00 PM at the latest, and around 11:00 PM he resolved to go to Big Pine and call search and rescue. When he got there, he got service, and the texts that Jodie had sent earlier began coming in. So he knew that we were still high on the mountain late in the afternoon, explaining why we weren't back. He decided to return to the trailhead and wait, and made 1:00 AM his new cutoff for getting help. Fortunately, he had fallen asleep, and missed making the call.

Joel and Rich returned to the campground to sleep, while I joined Jodie and Collin in driving to Big Pine to find a motel to get a shower and a bed. Thomas was so tired he decided to sleep in his car, right under the "No Overnight Parking" sign - he was simply too tired to go anywhere else that night.

Unfortunately, in spite of much effort expended by Collin, no available motel rooms were to be found in Big Pine or in Bishop, 14 miles north. One motel operator told Collin that this time of year every room from Lone Pine to Mammoth Lakes was sold out, we would have to drive south to Olancha, or north to Lee Vining to get a room! We eventually gave up and found a campground in Bishop, and I slept like a baby in the backseat of Jodie's car as I had left all my camping gear in Joel's Jeep. What a day hike!
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:7008 ft / 2135 m
    Elevation Loss:7008 ft / 2135 m
    Distance:20.9 mi / 33.6 km
    Grade/Class:Class 4
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Stream Ford, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Rope, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Partly Cloudy
Comfortable and dry, with thunderstorms in the distance
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:6765 ft / 2061 m
    Extra Loss:422 ft / 128 m
    Distance:10.3 mi / 16.6 km
    Route:West Face via North Couloir
    Trailhead:North Fork Big Pine Creek Trailhead  7810 ft / 2380 m
    Time Up:11 Hours 4 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:6586 ft / 2007 m
    Extra Gain:243 ft / 74 m
    Distance:10.6 mi / 17.1 km
    Route:West Face via North Couloir
    Trailhead:North Fork Big Pine Creek Trailhead  7810 ft / 2380 m
    Time Down:10 Hours 32 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by BMS 914
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