| Patron in the Palisades
Mount Sill 14,153'
Swiss arete - Grade III 5.7
day 1: TH to Willow Lake ~5 miles; 2000'
day 2: Willow lake to Elinor lake ~3 miles; 1000'
day 3: Elinor to summit and back ~4.5 miles; 3000'
day 4: Elinor to TH ~8 miles
After back-to-back technical climbing trips last summer with my friend Dan from Davis CA, we agreed that a manly mountaineering trip was in order. What better place than the High Sierra? We centered our sites on the Palisades area, which is home to many rugged, strikingly beautiful mountains in the 13k-14k range. North Pailsade, Norman Clyde Peak, Mt. Sill, Jepson and Gayley were all possibilities. We were looking in particular at Mt. Sill and the Swiss aręte, a moderately rated climb starting at the base of the aręte and following its dramatically exposed spine roughly a thousand vertical feet from glacier notch to the summit at 14,153’.
I flew into Sacramento on May 22, a Wednesday afternoon, and after Dan picked me up we blazed east and in a couple hours we were at his cabin south of Tahoe. The next day we were driving south on 395 past Bridgeport, Mono Lake, Mammoth and through Bishop - where we stopped for supplies, and finally to Big Pine where it was time to start bidding a farewell to civilization. We drove up Glacier Lodge road to the hiker’s parking lot (about 8000’) and geared up, stuffing our packs to the gills. Our plan was to approach the Palisades area via the south fork of Big Pine creek and set up a base camp at 11,000 ft at Elinor lake, thereby avoiding the more crowded and longer route via the north fork and Sam Mack meadow. A well-defined trail leads from the end of the road (which is gated for resident cabins) up some grueling switchbacks, over and back down a bit to Willow lake (10k ft, about 5 miles from the TH) where, due to a late start and heavy packs we decided to camp for the night. No mosquitos, no wind and mild temps made our coal grilled steak dinner that much more enjoyable.
Above Willow lake is where the trail ends and the route finding begins. The next morning we made our way over a couple of stream crossings to the north side of Big Pine creek, and onto talus fields for some fun boulder hopping. After more stream crossings, some snow fields, a bit of bush whacking through willow, more talus fields and some mellow rest time in a nice shady area we reached our high camp at Elinor lake. Elinor was mostly ice, but a good portion was melted to reveal crystal clear (and frigid) water. This portion of the approach was approximately 3 miles and another 1000 feet of elevation.
The view from our 11k fat cat camping spot at Elinor was nothing short of outstanding. It’s like being in a giant amphitheater with the most gnarly, jagged and pointy peaks dominating the view all the way from the south to the northwest. It was a relatively leisurely day so we had plenty of time to set up camp, hike around for some evening photos, and settle down to discuss the options for the next day. The weather had been in question this week as a big low pressure system was descending over northern Cali bringing high winds and precipitation. Apparently the system did not reach us because our skies stayed mostly clear, although the temps may have been a bit low for the area time of year. Still, it didn’t get much below freezing at night.
We dragged ourselves out of warm sleeping bags after first light and took a few minutes snapping photos of the aforementioned peaks bathed in warm morning glow. Then it was time to get down to business. We packed our climbing gear and grub and set out for glacier notch at 13,000 feet. We started out following some rock ledges on the northeast side of the basin to sustained and well consolidated snow fields above. Another series of rock ledges and more snow fields brought us to 12k and the high lake at the base of Mt. Sill. This lake was completely frozen but we managed to get some water by smashing a hole in the blue ice. Another thousand feet of steepening snow brought us to glacier notch where we took a short break to eat, hydrate and get out the crampons for the final steep snow climb to the base of the aręte. The weather looked good, and although the hour was getting somewhat late, we decided to go for it, knowing we would need to move quickly and efficiently if we were to get through the 5 or 6 pitches it would take to reach the summit. Game time! The first couple pitches immediately thrust you onto some steep and very exposed blocks balanced alongside the sheer east face. More steep and wildly exposed climbing led to what could be considered the crux – a step-around move onto an overhanging and exposed block was necessary to move upwards. There were definitely some other tricky moves to make on the climb including some vertical cracked blocks and a giant flat block balanced on top of other boulders that seemed to tower overhead and made for some struggling and somewhat awkward moves to overcome (this climb was originally rated 5.4 in an older guide book by Steve Roper, but has since been updated to 5.7). Overall, Dan didn't use a whole lot of pro besides a few cams and a hex nut or two since there were a lot of flakes and boulders to sling. The wind gusts seemed to increase and the temperature dropped as the climb progressed but we were in the sun at times, and managed to top out cold and tired around 4PM. Since it was late, we were still in business mode at the summit. There was scant time to scarf down some energy, change back into mountaineering boots, take a few photos, organize gear and find the way down off the north side of the mountain. I don’t think we were there for more than 20 minutes. Gigantic cracked and shattered blocks leading to broken cliffs smattered with snow and ice made for an exciting 4th class downclimb. We avoided a time-consuming rappel and stuck to the cliffs and made our way down to a catwalk ledge. A bit more downclimbing brought us to the snowy apex of glacier notch. We were home free and happily plunge-stepped our way back down the snowfields to camp. I was dragging major ass by the time we reached lake Elinor, and I’ll tell you what: Ramen noodles never tasted so good! We had a great time sipping Patron silver and talking about the excitement of the day before crashing heavily into our sleeping bags.
The next day dawned bright and our spirits were high as we packed up camp and shouldered our food-depleted, not-so-heavy loads for the 8 mile hike out to the car. We hadn’t seen another human being in 4 days but there were several couples and small groups making their way up to the steep switchbacks below Willow lake on our way out. At the TH, we weighed our packs. Without food (or water) mine was 35 pounds and Dan’s 45, meaning between the two of us we hauled almost 100 pounds of gear and supplies to make this trip a success. We had great luck with the weather and our overall physical and mental health (appetite, sleep, and Dan was fighting off a cold to boot). Definitely it was a climb I’ll never forget…the whole experience was centering and fulfilling in many ways. If you ever get a chance to visit the Palisades, I highly recommend it. It’s a truly beautiful, wild and awe-inspiring place to experience, and as always, I'm indebted to Dan for leading every pitch and for capturing some of these unforgettable photos. I'll be soaring for some time after this trip, and it will not soon fade from my memory.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):