Alta & Silliman

30 Nov 1996 - by David Harris

Rich Calliger proposed a Thanksgiving trip to Sequoia a few weeks ago. After extensive discussion of participants, objectives, etc., Rich and all his initial crew did not go but Rich Leiker and I (David Harris) had an enjoyable snowy ascent of Alta and Siliman.

Leiker and I had one of the all-time worst Thanksgiving dinners (dehydrated food and cup-of-soup) at the Lodgepole campground and sheltered through a light snowstorm Thursday night to wake up Friday morning at 4:30 to a campground blanketed with an inch of fresh snow illuminated by a nearly-full moon through the trees! We met Patrick Ibbetson, a student from Davis who had heard about the trip over the PCS broadcast, at 6 am and began the approach to Siliman at first light.

We left the Twin Lakes trail at the stream flowing down from Siliman Lake and began cross-countrying up the drainage. Despite appearances to the contrary, there were never any obstructions to the route and we made good time up to the sharp bend in the creek where it ascends steep slopes toward Siliman Lake. At this point, the temperature was about 15 degrees and we could see winds sweeping fresh power over the high ridges. Our water bottles in our packs kept freezing shut. Patrick, lacking serious winter clothing, decided to turn back. Rich and I pressed on up the hill.

The snow was everywhere from about 8000 feet up. Snow shoes were never needed. Most of the snow was packed just hard enough that we could edge with our boots while bracing with an ice axe. Parts of the hill were more difficult where several inches of powder covered a harder layer below. The conditions made the climb strenuous but dropping temperatures, occasional blasts of icy wind, and approaching clouds motivated us to move steadily.

We summited at noon after about 5 and a half hours of climbing. The strong winds had miraculously ceased so we enjoyed lunch with a magnificent view of the Great Western Divide and the rest of the Sierra blanketed in white. We put on crampons for the descent which was very easy on the hard-packed snow; in hindsight we should have used them on the way up.

After another 6:30 bedtime and 4:30 wakeup, we packed up camp Saturday morning and looked for Patrick in case he had decided to drive up again from his home in Fresno for a climb up Alta. When he didn't materialize, we drove around the ridge to Wolverton and took the trail through Panther Gap. The trail had been nicely beaten down much of the way by hikers so we didn't have to break trail until past Mehrten meadows. The day was much warmer, starting in the 20's and warming up to the 30's. I wished I could identify more of the tracks in the fresh snow, but we were pretty certain we saw bear prints crossing the trail.

As Tharps Rock came into view the trail was largely hidden beneath the snow and we decided to try climbing directly to a saddle between two Tharps Rock and a lower rock instead of hiking the long way around behind. The angle eventually approached 35 degrees. Most of the slope was good hard snow for side-stepping, but parts were covered with powder and parts were water ice covering steep slabs; getting around the ice proved quite exciting and I had to use the pick of my axe and the front points of my crampons in places. Rich threw one of his crampons but fortunately was near a lower angle spot where he could put it back on; soon after he threw the other crampon and had to inch up a hundred feet of treacherous slope hanging from his axe and one crampon! Overall, the slope turned a class 1 walkup peak into an exciting climb.

We couldn't find the summit register on the ice-covered summit block, but had another lunch with outstanding views and made good time back to the car following the trail.

Alta and Siliman would have been boring walkups in the summer, but were enjoyable in the winter. The combination of easy trailhead access, moderate elevation, and superb snowy views made them great winter destinations.

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