I climbed from Lake Elinore, and I had gone here on a prior trip. I also went on a few prior trips to the North Fork, but the climbs were unsuccessful for various reasons. The approach from Lake Elinore is easier than from Sam Mack Meadow, but a nastier approach to get to the lake. The cross-country in the South Fork of Big Pine Creek is particularly nasty (stay to the left -- there is one very good approach but hard to describe and easily missed -- you are on track if you as you stay left, you finally approach and skirt across the right side of the large cienega -- key is to find the cleanest route across the large gully immediately before the ridge that blocks access to Lake Elinore, which starts at the end of the cienega. The right side of the valley from Willow Lake is a mess -- went that way before). Also, we stayed an extra day, and Lake Elinore is a beautiful area -- nicer than Sam Mack, although I strongly recommend a stroll (800 feet gain) to Sam Mack Lake. In fact, I would prefer to camp there is it was on the way to much of anything.
The climb up Sill from the North Col turns out not to be that difficult, which had concerned me before leaving on this trip due to my nephew's inexperience (although very capable). I had seen a lot of variations in the route description.
Gaining Glacier Pass is not much of a challenge from Elinore. It is nasty from the north side due to the traverse across the large rock-fall below Gayley and the short traverse on the glacier, and depends on the condition of the glacier which can be icy and troubling even though the slope is modest. Once you gain the rocks above the glacier (and do so as soon as possible unless you like snow/ice travel), there is a straight forward slit up to the pass. The wall on the ridge from Sill to Gayley is otherwise very difficult (I've tried it at other locations further north on one October trip when the glacier was extremely icy and my companions had no ice axes or experience).
The L-shaped snow field was nearly solid ice in 2002 due to the exremely light snow year. There was only a thin layer of rotten snow over pretty hard ice -- very dangerous. Even if the snow was in good shape for travel, it is a long and fairly steep snow slope.
But it was not difficult (although a little time consuming) to climb around the snowfield from the right side, across the top of the stem of the L, and then up the right side of the col along the extension of the L. There were not a lot of route alternatives, but there was always a clear class 3 route.
From the 14,000 saddle between Sill and Apex, the route is a little confusing, but still not difficult. Basically, it gradually corkscrews upwards to the left, and you can rarely see that far ahead. Just keep moving along, and the route is always fairly obvious. There are a few exposed class 3 moves in the upper part before gaining the ridge, but the holds were always very secure. High 3 due to exposure but not really a 4 since the climbing is easy.
Pay attention as you go up, though, because route finding on the way down can be confusing. Another party was on the mountain with us, and screwed up the return going past the easiest route, rapelling practically down to the glacier, and then had to reclimb the awful chute on the opposite side (steep nasty scree and rock)of Sill/Apex saddle to get back on track.
The basic west side routes for N. Pal or Starlight are harder.
I did not carry an ice ax nor rope (no point since I was not going to lead my nephew in a place that required one, but I was not certain the climb was possible without them before leaving). They were not needed since the snow/ice could be entirely avoided, and no point of the route is that tricky. On the north side, I have crossed the short stretch of glacier without an ice ax or crampons to reach the slit up to glacier pass, but conditions can be unpredictable on the glacier at any time. One trip to do the Swiss Arete in August with one other mountaineer, but otherwise rock climbers without mountaineering experience, was frustrated because the glacier was very icy (heavy daytime rain followed by nighttime freezing), and the rock climbers did not have proper gear and did not want to mess with the snow/ice conditions (not a trip I organized, unfortunately).
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