Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mt Sill, 14,153', North Couloir, Class IV (in nice conditions), 06/10/2011

Palisades 2011, Part II

Way blasted from our struggle to within 200' of the summit of Polemonium Peak on and above the U-Notch we necessarily had to take the following day to rest. We both slept late, lay on the moraine in the weak morning light, and consumed mass calories. I rated my glycogen stores at about 30%. I actually felt okay, just weak as a kitten.
There's a dynamic between two climbers regarding a failure to reach the summit of a peak. Parties can choose to take it out on each other or they can pull their act together, acknowledge and accept, study on the things that could have gone different or better, and resolve to do better next time.
Our failure to reach the summit wasn't from a lack of will, effort, or nerve. The combination of attempting the V-Notch, relocating to the U-Notch and the ensuing 2 hour struggle with the bergschrund exhausted both time and energy. Frankly, given the overnite snow dump and other conditions, we did pretty good getting as far as we did.
I washed my hands of it and resolved to go back up and get a "win". We look forward to this trip all year and a single day's set-back wasn't going to hold me back from another go. As I ingested endless calories I worked out a way that would give Davi and me a fair shot at success.
Below: Let me blow my own horn for a second. Melting snow sucks, is time consuming, and generally unsatisfactory. I was looking at all these tiny rivulets of melt-water flowing down the rocks and had a lightbulb moment. I got Davi to cough up the tube from his hydration system and rigged this nice litte gravity feed to our 5 gallon reservoir. About 25 minutes later we were in water heaven.
The plan we worked out was, in theory, pretty workable (again, bearing in mind the over-all conditions). Using the handy route diagram below I'll walk you through it. We would ascend Glacier Notch, hook up and right onto the North Couloir of Mt Sill. The section between Apex Peak and the summit ridge on the right of the image is the crux of this route and is referred to in guide books as "exposed", meaning your ass is really out there. This 200' section goes at Class IV when it looks like it does in the diagram. This was not our situation. That traverse from Apex to the Ridge was going to be steep, scary, slippery and fairly dangerous. Once the summit ridge was obtained the summit of Mt Sill would be in the bag. Now, how to get down? I'll get to that in the next post. We still have to climb the damn thing.
Once again the UFO charm on my i-phone's alarm clock creeped us out of sleep at 02:30. We stuffed our boots and shell gear down to the foot of our sleeping bags to get them un-frozen. I fired the stove and got coffee going. We shivered into all the crap it takes to climb a mountain, cracked the frost off our packs, and got going.
An "O dark:30" start on a glacier is a unique experience. The crunch of crampons biting into the crust, the wind seeking to extort any warmth you can generate, frozen nose tips with snot running, eyes watering, and did I forget to mention a night sky of sparkling diamonds, the Milky Way so clear and full that it resembles a linear cloud shooting across the dark horizon. Yeah, that's our little galaxy, folks.
By false light we were zig-zaging our way up the Glacier Notch. This was easy stuff and a good warm-up for the steep climbing to come. Having cleared the notch we made our way over to the North Couloir of Mt Sill. This is simply a snow climb at about 40-45 degrees, about 700 yards of slog at 13,000', which leads to a small saddle between a nob called Apex Peak.
We took another break at the Apex saddle. I spent a good deal of time staring at the traverse/climb to come. I knew I'd be leading it and while forcing some food down my throat I got my head around that whole idea. I selected an assortment of nuts, cams, and a couple pitons for good luck. I'd be climbing in crampons (which is it's own special kind of climbing), and I chose to use a single ice axe on a short-ish leash. That way I'd have one hand free for the rocks or to throw some protection in. I tied into the rope and took the first hesitant steps onto the steeps.
This was interesting. Hard enough to do at altitude, this traverse was all messed up. It was steep with limited protection opportunities given the amount of snow on the route. This route doesn't see sun until the afternoon if at all and the snow storm we'd hacked through just to get here had deposited drifts of loose sugar in every crack and over most of the rock. I felt at times like I was just shoving snow out of the way to make room for all the snow above it. It was a battle, and though I never really felt scared, I did feel insecure on my front-points for most of it. I picked short, 2-3 move sections that I'd power through until I could at least get a hand on something solid. I sent a couple rocks down to the lower elevations, I do know that. I took most of the rope across that traverse and by the time I was set to belay Davi across the summit ridge was only a short scramble away.
Above and below: leading the traverse

Following 2 photos: Davi Rivas following the traverse from Apex Peak to Mt Sill's summit ridge.
Once Davi had made it over to me, I just had him keep going up and around the corner to the summit ridge. I soon joined him and we stowed the rope. From that point it was a 15 minute scramble up, over, under, and between the crest of car-sized blocks. I really like that kind of stuff and raced up to the summit.
Below: looking west from Mt Sill, lottsa snow in the backcountry.
What an amazing day for a high summit, just gorgeous.
After some grub and a rest we started working our way back down the ridge. We still had a bit to do this day.
The rest of our plan involved traversing the stunning Palisade Crest until we reached our next summit and eventually our descent route. Part III of our Palisade adventure coming soon.


  1. Wow!! Killer mountain adventure man. Congrats on reaching that peak. That picture from the top of the Sierra backcountry is awesome.

  2. Came across your blog when Google-ing images on Ojai hiking. I'm new to backpacking and your posts are very inspiring. Thanks!
    This will definitely be one of the blogs are read regularly.

  3. The traverse across the north face of Sill was difficult and time consuming but it was the type of climbing we came to the Palisades for in the first place.
    If we couldnt climb the ice of the V-Notch we were gonna tool our ways up something damn it!
    On the first pitch, I had to adjust my belay stance twice to give Dave the length he needed to reach the next stance. Kind of tense and sketchy but we worked it out.
    Following the first pitch I was determined to get my tools into the action. Seince all I had to do was clean and then leap-frog Dave onto pitch two, my hands were free to tool-away. Those two pitches are definately on my top five "Bold things I've done in the mountains" list.
    One minor correction; The feature that connects Mt Sill to Polemonium Peak is called the "southeast ridge of Polemonium Peak", the Palisade Crest, refers to the crest that connects Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak to their Palisade cousins (Mt Jepson and Mt Sill)to the north. The Palisade Crest has got all those little peaks taht are named after charecters from The Lord of the Rings(ie Gandalf Peak).

  4. That's a great photo of you two looking each other in the eyes and shaking hands on top of the mountain.