Arun and I were disappointed over the cancellation of the PCS trip to Alta-Silliman in mid-June, but we were undeterred. The plan was to make use of the long 4th of July weekend and bag Alta and Silliman as two separate, extended day hikes. Bob lent a hand in the planning with his extensive guidebook collection and general knowledge of the area. Stephan and Marilyn were easily convinced to join the endeavor and rounded out the team.
A late start and threatening weather (we thought) turned us away from Mt. Silliman on Saturday the 1st. Believing that it is better to talk about your successes rather than your disappointments I'll say little more about our attempt to climb Silliman. However, we learned three important lessons that paved the way for success on Alta the following Monday. One, we needed to get started early. Two, snowshoes were entirely worthless in the packed, wet snow. Three, don't get too worried about the afternoon clouds.
On Monday the 3rd we attempted Alta. We were trucking up the Alta Peak trail from the Wolverton trailhead by 7am. In approximately a mile we saw the trail junction with the Pear Lake trail and it was about here that we started hitting snow. Soon after the junction the trail became too difficult to follow and we gave it up choosing instead to bushwhack to Panther Gap. Bob led the way and we followed Wolverton Creek up to the gap crossing the creek just before the final climb.
We saw footsteps in the snow and tents on the horizon just below Panther gap. At Panther Gap several campers were enjoying a beautiful view. The early morning sky was clear blue and excellent views of the valley and the Castle Rocks were had. Everyone agreed that the folks tenting had picked an idyllic spot. After a quick group photo we were off traversing east (once again on the trail) to Mehrten Meadow. It is quite fortunate that the trail at this point is south-facing and clear of snow. Otherwise this section of the trip would have been very challenging due to the steepness of the slopes the trail crosses. As it was we made excellent time on a perfectly clear trail until we rounded a shoulder just before Mehrten Meadow.
Between Mehrten and the base of Alta we once again lost the trail due to snow and were forced to navigate using the map. We traversed east maintaining our altitude until we hit another meadow where Tharps Rock and the lower part of Alta were in view. We could all too clearly see the size of the task before us.
This was our decision point. Regaining and following the trail seemed impractical due to snow. We debated whether to follow the general path of the trail around Tharps Rock and then upward or just head straight up the obvious snow gully to the top. I was concerned about climbing the snow gully considering that only Bob had an ice axe and Marilyn had little experience on steep snow and her Sorrel boots offered less than ideal traction.
Stephan argued that we head towards the chute and see what conditions were like. This seemed agreeable to the entire party and in the end this proved to be the right move. We angled upward through some woods and after a bit of strenuous climbing we regrouped at the bottom of the chute. From here the gully looked less intimidating and Stephan's guess that the snow would be soft due to the intense sun was correct.
Stephan led the first push up to a patch of rocks where we rested and sized up the climb ahead. It was at this point where Stephan's Swiss blood and Haute Route experience began to show. He led the way up the chute like a man possessed. Stephan made beautiful switchbacks which were greatly appreciated by those of us who followed. As we climbed the clouds moved in. We lost sight of Stephan near the top of the chute.
Scott and Marilyn hit the top of the snow chute and found Stephan perched on a rock. After some consideration we decided on what piece of rock was actually the summit (Hey!, we're amateurs.) . I headed for an outcropping of rock to get a view of the valley below. (Note: Extreme caution was necessary since the snow was undercut and overhanging the rock cliffs in places!) Stephan and Marilyn joined me to enjoy a view of the valley that was truly inspiring. None of us anticipated the extent of the airy views. Just as Stephan carefully positioned himself to get a glimpse the clouds moved in once again and the valley was obscured.
Bob came up next and headed directly for the summit. Soon after Arun hit the top of the gully and we were all impressed by how much he reminded of us of Chris Bonnington with his steady climbing style. Bob scampered up the final summit rock and signaled victory. Everyone else in turn gained the summit where we signed the register and admired the interesting artifacts contained in the register box.
The trip back was mostly uneventful with the downclimbing of the gully being the most interesting part. Bob took the express route down using his axe to glissade. The rest of us slogged down through the slushy snow chute. The afternoon sun radiated from the rock walls and we felt like we were in a solar oven. Near the bottom of the chute I took a compass bearing on Panther Peak assuming that this would likely be the last opportunity to see Panther for a long while. As it turned out the compass bearing wasn't really needed due to the collective group memory of the terrain encountered en route. We returned to the trail head just before 6pm for a round trip time of almost 11 hours.
Congratulations to Arun and Marilyn for bagging their highest summit to date!
Trip participants were Marilyn Hurley, Scott Kreider, Arun Mahajan, Stephan Meier, and Bob Wrucke. We owe thanks to Arun for getting the whole endeavor started. Thanks to Bob for his trip planning assistance and good sense of direction. Thanks to Stephan for his unfailing endurance and climbing skill. Thanks to Marilyn for putting up with our lengthy discussions of cars, computers, and the Internet.