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Epiphanies on Mt. Sill

Posted by mountainroad on Jul 12, 2007 3:34:00 PM

The three of us (Nate Ricklin, Albert Lin, Gil Weiss) left the San Diego area at around 6am in Albert's new shiny red Mazda hatchback. We scarfed an IHOP breakfast somewhere on I-15 and managed to make it all the way to the Mojave Desert before getting pulled over by an officer of the law. As soon as the cop stepped up to the window, Albert unloaded every possible excuse he could think of, from, "I just spent all my money on this Turbo charged red rocket," to, "We're poor grad students." The cop let us off with a warning and 2 hours later we filled out a permit at the ranger station in Lone Pine and hit up the local market for some final supplies. Albert decided to eat a hard-boiled egg, which might have been a bit past its prime to say the least. There was only one thing that could counteract the rotten egg and settle Albert's gut enough to hit the trail; a shot of whiskey. So we moseyed on into the local saloon where some locals were celebrating 1pm with highballs. The bar tender was nice enough to fill up our water bottles. She told us she preferred beer to water and called us all "honey." From there, it was another 30 miles to the trailhead West of Big Pine, which we reached around 1:30pm. There we were greeted by the Miss USA of park rangers. She was a goddess in Khaki and the last woman we would see for 5 days.

We Followed the North Fork of Big Pine creek (click here to view the map) through sweet smelling pine forests dotted with granite boulders. Mountains of scree and talus dominated the view at points where the forest opened up. We reached a flat area between Second and Third lake around 6:30pm. There we set up our first camp about 200 feet from the trail and within earshot of the creek. I soon discovered that I had left my sleeping bag at home and would be spending the next 4 nights shivering. Albert and Nate went to catch some fish for dinner and I took the camera and explored the area up-river towards Third Lake.

Third Lake sits below the west side of Temple Crag, which boasts the longest sustained vertical walls in the Palisades Region. That night we picked at some under grown fish which Albert caught with his fly rod. After the nearly full moon had come out and drenched our campsite in moonlight, I read aloud from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and then snuggled inside my bivy sack for a long, cold, sleeping-bagless night.

I awoke to the sound of Albert and Nate preparing their breakfast. I was happy to feel the warm sun thawing my frozen body. After some coffee and soupy oatmeal, we packed up our stuff and began to hike to our high camp. As the forest petered out, we caught glimpses of the massive rock and ice amphitheater that is the Palisades. We took a break in Sam Mack Meadow, which is a little more than a mile from the edge of the glacier which rests in the enormous bowl beneath the Palisade crest. The meadow has a wide, slow-moving stream of freshly melted glacier water. I soaked my feet in the frigid shallows and admired the way in which water and bedrock had conspired to create this all too perfect resting spot. A light breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay long enough for me to doze off slightly in the warm sun. After an hour we hit the trail for the final hike and scramble up the ridgeline of the moraine which was marks the farthest edge of the now receding Palisades Glacier, the largest in the Sierra Nevada. Here we found an area which we believed would be blocked from the winds and set up our camp at around 4pm. There were several small pools of melt-water in the surrounding rocks where we could collect water for the next 2 days and there was, what at first seemed to be, a perfect wind-blocked ledge which we could use as a kitchen. It turns out another person had used our new kitchen as a bathroom and had left a scantily rock-covered turd, which Nate stepped in and then dragged through the snow that was melting into our drinking water...yum.

From the talus ridge which separated our campsite from the glacial basin, we could see the entire Palisade crest from Mt. Sill at the Southern end to Thunderbolt Peak at the North. Below this 2 mile ridge of 13000-14000ft peaks was the waning Palisades glacier. The glacier is clearly receding and even though it was still early in the season, areas of exposed rock could be seen all over...scars of global warming. At the base, there is a lake of murky turquoise water, rich with minerals carried from the rocks by the melting rivers which flow under the glacier.

Camping above tree line in the Palisades without a sleeping bag can test the limits of the body even in the relatively warm Sierra summertime, but before the evening chill sets in, nature puts on a stupefying light show which makes the cold dark night seem like a very small price to pay for a chance to witness such wondrous sights. Shadowsbegin to creep up the glacier and consume the base of the range. After the sun disappears from sight behind the westward horizon, its light continues to illuminate higher peaks, giving the impression that they are glowing on their effect known as Alpenglow. Even after the last peak is cast in dark silhouette, light from the setting sun hits the bottoms of clouds, and on the night before we set out for the summit of Mt. Sill, the sunset flooded the evening sky with a psychedelic blanket of colors.That night I read aloud from The Martian Chronicles. As Albert and Nate listened to Bradbury's fantastic descriptions of Mars' bare rocky mountains and dusty plains, images of the High Sierra surly helped to fill their imaginations. I finished reading at around 10pm and we soon dosed off to the sound of creaking ice and nippy mountain breezes rustling our Gore-Tex housings.

We awoke at 3am and ate breakfast under the pale glow of a full moon. The snow which lingered throughout the Palisades reflected the moon's rays and clearly defined our planned path to the summit. By the time we began moving at 4am, the moon had set below the Palisade crest and forced us to move by headlamp over large rocks which constantly shifted, threatening to slide down the slope on which they balanced and bring us down for the ride. After about 1/4 mile of this tedious travel, we reached the glacier, strapped crampons to our boots and donned ice Axes. By the time we reached the Bergshrund, sunlight was bathing the tops of the surrounding peaks and pushing the shadowy curtain of night downwards. The Bergschrund was about 10-15ft deep but we found a solid snow bridge over which to cross. This put us on some 3rd class rock which we climbed for 20 minutes to gain the ridge between Mt. Gayley to the east and Mt. Sill to our west. We put our crampons back on for the final stretch of steep snow and ice before moving on to the Swiss Arête which is the prominent east ridge that leads to the Summit of Mt. Sill.

It was 7am when we took the 60 meter rope from my bag and put our climbing shoes and harnesses on. Donning a traditional rack of rock-climbing gear, I began to lead the first pitch of the Swiss Arête. I lead the first 2 pitches of the climb which were relatively easy and consisted of 4th class scrambling and sections of 5th class climbing that I would rate from 5.5 - 5.7 in range (Yosemite Decimal System). Nate lead the 3rd pitch including the infamous "step-around move" while Albert and I huddled on a small, exposed ledge from which Albert belayed. The "step-around" move involves rounding a corner with about 1500 feet of open air below and although the move itself is not very challenging, the exposure is enough to get the butterflies flowing in your gut. Albert lead the last 2 pitches and we emerged onto the summit of Mt. Sill at 830am.

The top of Mt. Sill is a blocky ridge which drops to the North and ascends back upwards to the Summit of Mt. Polemonium and the other peaks on the Palisade crest. In the mountains as in life, pinnacles often pale in comparison to the route which leads to them. This is not to say that the summit of Mt. Sill was not impressive...quite the contrary. The entire breadth of the Sierra could be glanced by simply turning my head, with its myriad ridges, seemingly bottomless canyons, deep blue lakes, influential rivers, and daunting peaks. But there was something anti-climactic about standing at the top of that mountain. There is nothing specific I look for at the top of each mountain I climb, but I always end up finding the same thing; more mountains to climb. The actual climb had satisfied my urge for the time being, but seeing the vast Sierra Nevada fueled an insatiable hunger that might never be satisfied. Suddenly my life felt like that U2 song, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Perhaps mountain climbing has become a way for me to recover all the beautiful things I have lost. Perhaps it is the manifestation of my search for truth. Perhaps I expect to find a clue which will lead me towards the meaning of life, but all I ever really find are more mountains to climb.

The route off the Summit of Mt. Sill seemed far more perilous than the climb up. Ledges of loose rock and vertigo inducing exposure categorized our trek back down to the snowfield. We followed another climber who had ascended the mountain via a different route and apparently knew the way down, because we sure as hell didn't. We got back to our camp sometime around 2pm. The sun, which by this time had become "the death star" had dehydrated us and tanned our exposed hides. I crawled into the shade of Nate's tent and slipped into an afternoon daze. I slept in the tent that night to avoid the wind, and dreamt of my next adventure.

The next morning we woke early and after a hearty breakfast, leisurely hiked to Fourth Lake. Here we set up camp no more than 30 feet above the dark water (this lake is fed by snow melt which has a lower mineral content than glacial runoff and is therefore clearer and darker) on a dry rocky outcrop. We spent the day recounting our adventure, fishing for rainbow trout, and climbing the walls around the lake. That night we warmed ourselves with the last of our whiskey and passed around the victory pipe. I once again read aloud from The Martian Chronicles and then we lay on the ground in silence, making up our own constellations in the cosmos and letting our minds wander farther than our tired feet could ever carry us.

The next morning, the Palisades was perfectly reflected in the still mirror that was Fourth Lake. After much oooing and ahhing, we ate breakfast and hiked back to the car. As Albert sped south along 395, I watched as the Sierra Nevada receded into the Mojave Dessert and thought about adventures past and those yet to come. There is no greater metaphor for life than climbing mountains, and in my opinion, there is no better way to spend your free time.



Gil Weiss

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Member since: Jul 12, 2007

There's no greater metaphor for life than climbing mountains. These are my experiences. They're tales of friendship, climbing, and the search for truth and beauty. Click on the links to see pictures and learn about places and terms.

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