Mt Sill (14,153 ft) via the Swiss Arete (Grade II, 5.6/5.7)

4-6 Jul 2004 - by Arun Mahajan (view roster page)

It had taken us about 6 hours on Saturday to slog up to Sam Mack Meadow with packs that were heavy since they included climbing regalia. The accumulating clouds had darkened and there was thunder and the crest of the Palisades was obscured. We were about to call off our attempt on Sill by the Swiss Arete for the next day by camping right at Sam Mack when two parties, Doug Nidiver and two clients (the Nidivers) and Chris Jain and Michelle Park (CM) of the CMC came up. They convinced us to take our chances for the next day. So we followed them. It was an additional two hour grind but we got to some fantastic camp sites at Gayley Camp. The general idea is to stay left and to head towards the NW corner of the glacier staying on boulders, to get to Gayley Camp. The camp site is ideally located for those wanting to get to Glacier Notch and is high above the tarn of the Palisade Glacier. Here we also met the occassional PCS'er, Hakan Yalcin, who was climbing in the region with his friend.

We were walking at 5.45 am, Sunday. The others had started earlier. We put on crampons right away to traverse the glacier and reached the top of Glacier Notch just after 7am. The weather was looking perfect. In the distance, we could make out CM. They had gone up part of the way on the L-shaped snowfield between Sill and Apex Peak and were 3rd-classing their way up to the Swiss Arete towards a level part of the ridge. The Nidivers meanwhile had roped up much below, maybe just a little above the level of Glacier Notch itself (Roper describes this, 'proper' start). They were at a platform just below a right tilting obelisk which looks the bottom part of a clothes-iron. We decided that speed was of the essence as we were still afraid of the potential afternoon storms so we followed the route of CM and topped out on the level portion of the ridge by going accross the snowfield quite high up. We accessed the ridge via an easy 3rd class ramp which angled left.

At 9am, we got our turn on this beautiful arete. The sun was on us and the weather was perfect and the rock, solid. We ended up in doing five belayed pitches with twin-60m ropes. Scott [Kreider] led pitches 1, 3 and 5 and I got to lead 2 and 4.

It was 12.45pm when we topped out. The Nidivers were getting ready to leave the summit. Chris and Michelle, who had kindly waited for us to come up, joined us in the descent. In the distance we saw clouds building and regretfully decided that it was time to go. We so much wished that we could have stayed longer to drink in more of 'the finest view in the Sierra (Secor)'.

To descend, we went down on the ridge towards NPal and then found the duck marking the hard right for the drop down. We saw some rap slings on our right and just below us, Nidiver was lowering his clients. We decided to down climb this class-4 section. This can be intimidating and sometimes there could be snow/water but we did not need a rope this time. Then, a short upclimb on a sandy ramp got us to the notch with Apex peak. Glissading and plunge-stepping on the L-snowfield got us back to Glacier Notch where we met Hakan's party returning from Gayley. We cautiously downclimbed the short, lousy section from the notch to the glacier and then traversed the glacier without crampons as the snow had softened.

We were back at camp a little past 4pm to make it a ten-and-half hour day. We were walking by 8am on Monday and were down to the cars in four hours. In retrospect, from our starting point on the arete, we could have made it in four full pitches (60m rope). We certainly skipped the two early pitches that the Nidivers did.

We referred to Secor, Fiddler-Moynier and the reports of Rick Booth and Zenta Tsuchihashi. Conversations with Rick, Ron Karpel and Bob Suzuki also helped us a lot. Thanks, guys. Also many many thanks to Chris and Michelle who convinced us that we should come with them to Gayley Camp when we had just about thrown in the towel because of the intimidating weather on Saturday.

Gear: See Rick's report. A cool thing about this route is that it provides many opportunities for slinging horns as well. Extra slingage recommended. Scott adds: I would also HIGHLY recommend taking a PB (poop bag) to keep Gayley camp clean.

Chris Jain adds his perspective:

N. Fork Palisades Conditions as of July 4th weekend:

Although Michelle and I summited Mt. Sill last July 4th doing the Sill to Thunderbolt traverse, we ended up skipping the Swiss Arete in favor of the North Couloir. Gasping up the L-shaped snowfield with our heavy packs, the North Couloir was the more attractive option at the time. We returned to do the Swiss Arete with a friend this last Memorial Day weekend but a slothful start, bad conditions and cold weather caused us to bail near the beginning of the route.

Five minutes after leaving the hike we met a friend, Samantha Olsen, hiking out after having done Mt. Gayley. We also ran into Arun Mahajan and Scott Kreider who were coincidentally also climbing the Swiss Arete that weekend. We first saw them at the Bishop ranger's station picking up a permit but then met them again at Sam Mack Meadows, just as we were hit by a nasty thunderstorm. I'd climbed with Scott before at Lee Vining on one of Rick Booth's trips. I'd never met Arun in person before, but after reading his trip reports and summit register entries for years, not to mention a few email exchanges, it was like meeting an old friend. We ended up joining forces and agreeing to camp together. The thunderstorm was was extensive enough to look like more like a storm front instead then an isolated squall, but we decided to take hope for better weather for our summit day and continue up to the Gayley Camp.

Doug Nidiver and a couple of clients were also hiking up to the glacier and we met his group a number of times on the hike in. They ended up camping about halfway between Sam Mack Meadows and Gayley Camp.

Saturday morning, Michelle and I left camp at 5:00 AM and started the approach to the route. Michelle and I usually don't bring a stove in the summer and just eat cold food. This saved time and let us start a bit ahead of Arun and Scott. As we left camp we could see the headlamps of Dougs group rapidly approaching up the slope to Gayley Camp.

Doug's group passed towards the end of the approach but they opted for the lower start so we ended up ahead of them. As Arun, mentioned Doug's approach added two pitches to their climb. We obtained the ridge-top about a pitch above them but then continued up un-roped on Class 3-4 terrain until the big vertical step where we roped up.

Doug scrambled up the route like he was jogging downhill. Also, he belayed both of his clients simultaneously with a gi-gi. So they moved much faster then your typical party of three and rapidly caught up to us as we were climbing the first pitch.

Using a 60 meter rope, Michelle and I climbed the route in 4 pitches, although the last pitch was only about 20 ft. long and could have been avoided by lengthening the 2nd pitch a bit. The weather couldn't be better and we wore t-shirts for the entire climb--a pleasant contrast to our experience on Memorial Day weeekend when we were shivering even with all our warm clothing on.

We reached the summit just before 11:00 AM and spend a lot of time lounging around, chatting with Doug's group as well as enjoying the beautiful weather and amazing view.

I read through the summit register, finding lots of entries by friends and other familiar names. Of particular note was an entry by Galen Rowell in 2001. He'd soloed up the Swiss Arete reaching the summit 4 hours and 5 minutes after leaving the trailhead--amazing! There were also a number of entries by Jack McBroom (current record-holder in the Califorina 14ners race, having climbed all the 15 14ners in 4 days, 11 hours and 19 minutes). There was also a photocopy of the original Sierra Club register with entries from the 20's and 30's.

We hiked down the N. Couloir descent route with Arun and Scott. The weather stayed consistently good even as thunderstorm time came around.

Monday, we hiked out, stopping only for lunch and brief swim at Second Lake (cold!). Arun and Scott passed us while we were swimming but we bumped into them on the final stretch a mile and half or so from the trailhead. So we all hiked out together and then had lunch together at Whiskey Creek in Bishop. Real food sure tasted good after 3 days of miscellaneous cold snacks and junk food.

Leaving Bishop for the long drive back to Orange County, we noticed massive thunderheads over both the Sierra and White Mountains. So in retrospect we were lucky to enjoy a window of good weather on our summit day.


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