On the weekend of July 20th, 1996, four of us (Greg Faulk, Wilk von Gustedt, Bob MacKay and myself) climbed Mt. Sill from North Fork of Big Pine Creek.
Four of us plus two of Wilk's friends, who had just arrived from Germany the day before, met at Livermore Airport at 2:45 pm, and started our drive to June Lake. After eating dinner in Lee Vining, we found a camp spot in Oh! Ridge campground in June Lake.
Morning at June Lake was surprisingly cold, as I could tell from the frost on my sleeping bag. But the totally clear sky was guaranteeing a fine weather for this day.
After driving to Glacier Lodge trailhead, we set off for our trek, leaving Wilk's German friends behind,who would spend the next couple days at Mammoth Lakes. We started at about 9:30 am. The North Fork trail was very well maintained and was easy to walk, but it just felt long as we sweat under the cloudless sky. At Third Lake, we debated if we should abandon the trail and start going up the gully as Allan Bard's guidebook recommends. The debate was shortlasting since none of us really wanted the expected boulder hopping in the gully route. I certainly did not feel energetic enough to do that with my pack on.
Thus we followed the trail which led us to the beautiful Sam Mack Meadow. The trail (which is called "Glacier Trail" after the meadow) now turned 90 degrees to the left in the meadow. For a while the trail was marked well, but eventually it disappeared in the rock and snow fields. This was not a problem since it was obvious that we were right below the ridge which lied between us and Palisade Glacier. We decided to stay on that place since there were several very nice camp/bivy spots. I did not recall when we arrived at that spot, but it was a long day for us.
I had a headache until around 4am, but when I finally woke up at 6 am, it was completely gone and I felt good about the climb. After eating small breakfasts, we set off at 7:15 am. It was a totally "non-alpine" start, but the sky was so clear again and it seemed there was very little chance of a thunderstorm.
After walking on the edge of Palisade Glacier, we went up a loose class 4 section to Glacier Notch. This part made me concern about the descent from the notch, but later we would find that we were off route in the morning and the correct route was a much better class 3 scramble. At Glacier Notch, we could see the whole Swiss Arete and the snowfield which completely filled the chute from the saddle between Sill and Apex Peak (L-shaped snowfield). I've seen pictures of this chute without any snow, but right now, it looked much nicer with a beautiful white coat.
After crossing the snowfield, we sorted our rock gears to get ready for the climb of Swiss Arete. We decided that Bob and Wilk, Greg and myself would be rope teams and that both teams would swing the lead. We skipped the very bottom part of the arete since it seemed low angle. We started our climb around 9:30 am. Bob first started to lead the first pitch and as soon as Wilk started to follow Bob, I started to lead the pitch for the second rope team. First pitch seemed about 5.5 to me which was interesting enough. My coworker John Feder, who climbed this route about ten years ago, had told me that Swiss Arete was very easy for them (he said it would be like 5.2) and that they mostly simul-climbed in their leather boots. Well, at least I was much less experienced than John, and this seemed like a right amount of thrill for me with my climbing shoes on. this was not a route for me to do simul-climb.
Second pitch was also 5.4-5.5 and very nice. Then there came the third pitch. I saw Bob going up the hand crack on the left side but it did not seem easy. Wilk did not make it look easy either even though he usually climbs 5.10 range and was a better climber than I. Bob told us that he thought he took a wrong turn and the correct route should be on the right side. Then my turn came. After a few moves, I arrived at that crux-ish section. Following Bob's advice, I first tried to go up the face right in front of me. I tried a couple of moves and it seemed doable. But the move seemed like 5.10a and I was feeling that there was a chance of taking a fall with my capability. Since I did not find a pro placement to protect the move, I decided not to take a chance and moved to the left to go up the same crack where Bob and Wilk went up. Well, the crack was not that easy either (5.9ish?), but at least there were good pro placements which made me feel relieved. After this crux section a few easy moves led me to our belay station.
The fourth pitch was relatively easy. So was the fifth pitch, although if I remember correctly, there was one or two 5.6ish move. When I got close to the belay station, I heard Bob saying "It's the top!" but I did not really think it was what he meant. Well, we had not seen the "impasse" on the fifth pitch wher we were supposed to traverse to the right. And we had not encountered the "chimney" on the seventh pitch which would be tough with a pack on. (Both Greg and I were carrying our packs.) And most of all, the climb was supposed to be 7-8 pitches. But the way Bob and Wilk were acting finally convinced that they were at the top. Even though I set my belay station lower than theirs, I knew that I was right below them and thus I must have been just 20 feet from the summit.
Quickly, Greg appeared from below and I told him that the summit was there. "No way." he said. "You gotta be kidding." Well, but it was the summit. At that point, we realized that the 5.9ish crux section must have been the "impasse" in the guidebooks. Since we started a bit higher than the start in the books, and also probably since we ended up using almost full rope length for all the pitches, our pitch counts were off. This solve the mystery of "impasse" section, but we never could figure out where we missed the "chimney".
It was 12:30 pm and there still was no cloud. Beautiful sky and outstanding view. This was the very first trip to the Palisade region for three of us (Greg, Wilk and me), and we were totally impressed by the great view.
After lunch, we started leisurely around 1:30 pm for the descent. We were not in a hurry since the weather was so nice. Descent to the saddle between Sill and Apex Peak was class3-class4 but route finding was easy since the cairns always showed us the correct route.
At the saddle we removed our rock shoes to get ready for the descent on the snow. Bob and Wilk decided to walk down and started slowly. Then, Greg "the garbage sack master" just took off as usual and dissapeared out of sight very quickly. I also wanted to glissade, but chickened out a little bit and just did the bottom half. The snow condition was perfect and it was a very very pleasant descent.
Walk off from Glacier Notch was much easier that our ascent in the morning since we found the correct route this time. Eventually, we slowly crawled back to our camp site, packed our tent/bivy sacks and started our descent to Sam Mack Meadow. For me this part seemed long since I started to feel tired. Well, total hat off to the people in the 1930s. I read that after the first ascent of Swiss Arete, Ruth Dyer (her first major ascent in the Sierras) came running (and maybe dancing) back to Sam Mack Meadow because she did not want other people to think that she was tired. Well, I guess she was more than ten years younger at that time than I am now, but I certainly did not have a desire to run and dance.
Camping at Sam Mack Meadow that night was certainly pleasant. It was such a beautiful place. Flowers (columbine etc.), creek, peaks (views of Sill, N. Pal and Wintchell), and then the stars.
We strolled around the meadow in the morning. Since the trail did not go through the whole meadow, we ended up walking some off trail section to reach the end of the meadow, which made me feel guilty. I've hiked a lot in Japan and over there, there were so many places which used to be beautiful marshes but now were just mudfields because so many people had walked on. As a result of that, many high marshes in Japan have trails made of logs so that people don't have to walk directly on the fragile plants. well, I just hope that Sam Mack Meadow will not be a mudfield when I visit there ten years from now.
Around 10 am, we finally left the meadow. The walk back to the trailhead was so much easier this time. It was a nice day again. We stopped at the creek for a while to enjoy the water and got back to our cars around 2 pm. Very nice mountain, very nice weekend.