Mt. Gayley, Mt. Winchell, Mt. Sill, Cloudripper

5 Jul 1991 - by Mike Bigelow (view roster page)

Mike Bigelow, Gilmanton NH
Jay Florio, New Hampton NH
Jason Kenerson, Belmont NH

By the Summer of 1991 I had climbed only six summits in the Sierra. This may seem trivial to many, however it's important to note that my climbing is limited by the fact that I live in central New Hampshire. My trip to the Palisades in 1991 was my second trip to the "Alps of the Sierra." In 1990 I summited on Agassiz and Robinson. I failed in a solo attempt on the west side of North Palisade. I knew I would be back!

After an evening flight from Boston to Las Vegas we drove all night drive through the desert. In the morning, Jay Florio, Jason Kenerson and I hiked into Sam Mack Meadow. It was about 3:00 PM on Saturday, June 30 when we established our camp in the narrow valley. The long hike, lack of sleep and a little jet lag drove us into our sleeping bags early. Sunday morning we scouted the passage to the Palisade Glacier. We found a snow filled slope leading gradually away from the southwest corner of the valley. By following this wide gully of snow and climbing both south and west, we soon found ourselves on top of the steep ridge of moraine. This ridge divides the main body of the Palisade Glacier from the lower reaches of the Thunderbolt Glacier. The day was brilliant and we all felt strong. We decided to cross the Glacier and climb Mt. Gayley. We followed the ridge of moraine to its end. The beauty of the day was breathtaking. The snow of the glacier was perfect for walking and soon we were scrambling up the loose and slippery gully leading to Glacier Notch. The climb from the notch to the summit is easy class 3. We stayed on the right side of the ridge and reached the summit around 1:00 PM. We hung out, shot some great pictures and then scrambled down to the glacier. Descending the snow chutes back to camp made for very easy work. We all used ski poles and managed to "boot ski" almost all the way back to our tents!

Monday was a lazy rest day. The weather was Sierra perfect. We spent the day reading, sunbathing and bouldering on nearby ledges. Tuesday was reserved for Mt. Winchell.

We started out at 9:00 AM. We climbed the North wall of the narrow canyon and followed the ridge west. In retrospect this was a bad call! If it's a good snow year like '91, you can climb straight up the narrow snow gully at the west end of the valley. This leads right to the Thunderbolt Glacier and hence to the East Arete of Winchell. We chose poorly. The ridge that forms the southern cliffs of Sam Mack Lake requires quite a bit of down climbing before you can proceed to the base of Mt. Winchell. We finally arrived at the foot of the East Arete. Rather than skirt the ridge to the south, we directly climbed the first 300 feet of the ridge. We found good class 3 climbing and some loose rock. Eventually we traversed to the left onto the broad class 2 south face of the East Arete. We climbed toward the joint of the East Arete and the summit chutes. From the bottom of these chutes, I proceeded solo. My notes on the route follow: "The steep upper part of Mt. Winchell has two chutes. Both are seen from the top of the East Arete. Climb the chute on the right about one third of the way, staying on the right side of the chute. When you can cross the chute, look for white rock on the left hand side of this chute. This leads to the top of the rib and the summit is visible...only room for two on the summit!" Tears of joy and relief welled in my eyes as I slumped onto the spectacular summit! The height and exposure of this peak are simply overwhelming! The route is moderate class 3 with little true exposure. I highly recommend this climb!

I spent half an hour on the summit reflecting upon the grand views. I signed the register, thanking my Bride for supporting me in my Sierra adventures. I left a Power Bar in the register box, which is a friendly habit I've developed, and headed down the route. I carefully retraced my steps and was soon back with my friends at the base of the summit. We descended the class 2 south face of the East Arete. This deposited us on the upper lobe of the Thunderbolt glacier where we again proceeded to "boot ski" all the way back to camp. We made the round trip in about nine hours.

By Wednesday we were getting antsy. Jay and Jason knew I was preparing for a solo attempt on Mt. Sill. This was planned for Thursday and the weather was still fine. We were a little bored so Jay offered to run back to our car at the trail head and get a deck of cards. We couldn't believe he was willing, but we accepted his offer and off he ran! Sixteen miles and five hours later Jay was back in camp! We were shocked! After his incredible trek we spent the afternoon playing cards and treating Jay like a king! Around supper time my mood shifted. I was excited and nervous about my pending departure for Mt. Sill. I knew that the route would exceed my previous solo experience and I was feeling skittish about my chances. I arranged my gear and got things set for a pre-dawn ascent back to Glacier Notch. Retreating to my bivi sack, I watched the stars slowly begin to appear. Night fell over the Palisades. I drifted into a shallow and dreamless sleep.

The high pitch beeping of my watch invaded my sleep at 2:30 AM. I dressed in the dark with the aid of my headlamp and was on the move within twenty minutes. By 3:00 I was back at the base of the snow slope leading to the Palisade Glacier. The snow was frozen and smooth so I strapped on my crampons, grabbed my ax and started up the slope. Climbing alone in the dark, with the aid of a headlamp is a strange and exciting venture. I was truly alone. The only sounds I heard were the ones I created. A breath, the shaft of my ax breaking the snow, the points of my crampons crunching the frozen surface, my universe was reduced to these sounds and a small circle of light. I climbed in this fashion for about an hour. I was careful to follow the route we had used on Sunday. My objective was the ridge of moraine that split the body of the Glacier. Unfortunately, the darkness was a hindrance and I missed a narrow snow field that leads to the top of the ridge. I discovered my mistake when the terrain flattened and I found I was near the terminus of the Thunderbolt Glacier. I started looking for a route up the cliff on my left. I knew that I had missed a turn and could only regain the rib of moraine by finding a weakness in the wall. From memory I knew the cliff must be less than seventy-five meters high. Working back in the direction from which I came, I used my lamp to find a two meter wide slanting notch. Inspecting the notch I found it to be filled with snow and dripping with water. It appeared to be a steep and broken staircase of loose rock and snow. I strapped my ax to my pack and climbed the gully, encountering only minor difficulty. Soon the angle decreased and I was climbing a gentle slope of snow and easy talus. The wet and icy rock left my fleece gloves soaked with water and I was chilled with perspiration. I was thrilled though, to be back on familiar ground.

I soon found myself on the backbone of moraine pointing directly at the jagged Palisade crest. The sky showed sign of giving up its darkness as I walked across the top of the ridge. I paused briefly and removed the headlamp from my helmet. I then drank some water and tried in vain to chew a frozen Power Bar. I again started moving and soon reached the end of the ridge where it meets the snow. I stepped from the moraine onto the Glacier and turned south. I will always remember the following moments of my life. As I crossed the frozen snow, the sky and summits went through a transformation of color. The rising sun changed the landscape from black to gray, brightening to pink and then to a brilliant orange. The sun finally broke over the White Mountains to the East, basking the glacier with the radiance of a perfect dawn. The weather was calm and crisp, and to this day I have not felt greater satisfaction or happiness in the mountains.

Crossing the glacier and climbing to Glacier Notch proceeded with pleasant exertion. By the time I reached the saddle between Mt. Gayley and Mt. Sill, the sun was softening the snow and warming the air. I proceeded directly up the North Couloir, encountering fine climbing conditions on the thirty-five degree snow. The couloir ends between a minor peak on the north and the northeast face of Mt. Sill. Turning left I climbed a steep knife blade of rock for about thirty meters. This brought me to the crux of the climb.

The Northeast face is scarred with a very steep gully that must be traversed. My immediate goal was a small platform about three quarters of the way across the gully. Rather than traverse in a direct line, it was necessary to down climb about three meters, traverse another three meters and then climb back up to a narrow ledge. The rock was solid and holds were plentiful, however I was conscious of the 1,000 foot shortcut to the glacier the gully was offering. The ledge brought me to a platform big enough for a very small tent. From there my traverse became steeper and soon I cleared the summit ridge. After ten minutes of class two scrambling, my goal was achieved. I arrived on the summit of Mt. Sill around 10:30. The view was amazing. High peaks and fields of snow reached as far as I could see to the north, south and west. I finished the last of my two quarts of water and forced the dog food texture of a chocolate Power Bar down my throat. I spent a long time reading over the summit register and finally signed in, dedicating the day's efforts to my family back home. With a firm determination to safely return to camp, I started down.

The crux traverse was much easier the second time and I made very good time descending the couloir. I met two climbers at the top of Glacier Notch and spoke with them briefly about the route. We exchanged farewells as I dropped into the notch. My thirst was becoming desperate as I crossed the glacier. I knew I would be able to find some running water as I descended towards the valley so I pushed on, moving at a slow yet steady pace. Soon after I gained the ridge of moraine, I spotted two more climbers. I paused and chatted with the other men, learning that the next day they were planing to climb North Palisade via the "U Notch". We talked about my climb and they kindly offered me some water. I wished them success and I was off, headed down the moraine. I started moving quicker, elated with the feeling of accomplishment and the knowledge that any possible danger was now behind me. I boot skied once again on the soft snow of the early afternoon and by 2:00 PM I was back with my friends. As we talked about our day, I found out they summited on Cloudripper. They described it as a "real slog up slopes of never-ending sandy rubble."

Friday morning the lure of real food was a motivating force. We packed our camp in haste and hurried back to our rented car, making the descent in 3 1/2 hours. After showers in Big Pine we hurried to the Sierra Cantina in Lone Pine to celebrate our success.


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