Arun planned this trip 6 months ago with rosy dreams of following a friend up Sill's 5.5 Swiss Arete, on the east side of the Palisades. Two weeks before the trip the friend dropped out and Arun had to content himself with our company and Sill's North Couloir. Lucky for me - I got the spot and this was one of the nicest trips I've been on.
We zoomed out of the Bay Area Friday night in Stephan's rolling bordello of an SUV, mysteriously encountering no holiday traffic whatsoever. Reached Mammoth a little after 1am and caught a few hours of sleep off of Glass Flow Road. Croissants and lots of coffee at Schatt's, and onward to the Glacier Lodge trailhead where we hoped to run into Kelly Maas and party, allegedly attempting Middle Pal the same weekend but nowhere to be seen; walking at 9:30.
The weather was hot and clear. We wended our leisurely way up Big Pine Creek's North Fork trail and then south towards Sam Mack Meadow, climbing past tiers of lakes and increasingly stunning mountain views - excepting poor Alice, looming over the approach and identified by Arun with characteristic lyricism as a 'festering maggot- ridden heap of slag'. We made it to Sam Mack Meadow by about 4:30pm due to Arun's heroic navigation skills (it helped that there was a fine trail with only two branches). After luxuriating awhile in the lush, crag-cradled green of this alpine oasis, we crossed the stream and headed southeast up the Glacier trail. We hoped to camp near the east edge of the Palisade Glacier, where indeed the next day we found excellent campsites. An hour out of Sam Mack Meadow, however, the wind rose and one of our number was feeling a touch of altitude sickness, so around 6pm we found a slightly protected spot near a pool of snowmelt and camped at around 11,500'.
[The altitude sickness sadly persisted throughout the weekend, and as a result the travel times listed here are generally slower than a typical PCS pace].
I probably should have posted this to GEAR... Dinnertime turned into a windy adventure when both MSR stoves (a 10-year-old Whisperlite and a new Shaker Jet) and the two of the three pumps between us malfunctioned. We fixed the one that was just leaking through dry seals (bring your mineral oil, it's dry there) and got by. When Karon unzipped her flapping tent, humped up the hill by Stephan, she discovered a headlamp left there by her last tentmate. But if you hear Stephan grumble about hauling the Coleman lantern Karon sneaked into his pack, it's not true. It was only a Petzl Micro.
The wind gusted wildly all night, leaving a thick skin of ice on the pool and inducing drowsy hallucinations of shredded tent flys. Between the racket and the brilliant moonlight, we didn't sleep at all. We stumbled bleary- eyed out of bed, questioning the sense of an ascent in the gale from a vantage high above camp while debating which shade of rose-gold Gayley's rugged pyramid and Sill's regal, towering profile would turn at the sun's first rays. But the wind died down and we hit the trail at 7am.
The Glacier trail hugs the northeast edge of a two-lobed moraine, and turns into a duck-marked scramble up to a ridge bordering the glacier's northeast edge, then a tedious boulder hop to the glacier itself which was the first real snow. Still in the shade, the surface was icy enough to merit crampons but otherwise easy going. The bergschrund, pronounced everywhere else around the glacier's upper edge, leaves a good path to Glacier Notch (we also heard there was still a weak bridge allowing access to the U-Notch and North Pal). We reached the notch at 11:45, which Arun celebrated with his latest selection of Cliff bars direct from Whole Foods, featuring the For Women Only 'Lemon Luna Bar'. He extolled its superiority over the dozen or so in his lunchbag, and we decided that the principal difference being the shape, we would refrain from suggesting a sex change but refer him to a marketing focus group.
Stephan and Noriko elected to rest awhile and enjoy the already-impressive spectacle and then attempt Gayley (class 3), while Arun and Karon went after Sill. The plan was to do both and we weren't sure of the difficulty of the route up Sill, so we figured we'd try it first while we were fresh. Secor calls the North Couloir Class 4 (also the North Couloir Descent Route, although these look like the same thing to me), but others had told us it was hard Class 3. Climbers on their way down reported one tricky spot where we might want a rope.
We quickly climbed up the L-shaped couloir between Sill and Apex to its north - ice axe but no crampons. As we neared the saddle between Sill and Apex, we eyed Sill's north ridge and guessed at the route and the nasty class 4 move. As it turns out, we were looking at something that was probably in the low 5's; the North Couloir route isn't visible even from the saddle. When we turned south on the saddle and climbed a few feet, an actual trail materialized along a ledge to our right, on Sill's southwest side.
The trail soon dies out, but the route remains clear through lack of options - it is mostly a fun class 3 scramble that circles and rises counterclockwise more than 180 degrees around the mountain and finally comes out on the summit ridge. Some slings hung in one spot on the southwest rib, indicating that some people rap down through this spot, and we wondered if we would have trouble on the way back. We summited one hour from the Sill-Apex saddle. Arun whistled at the orange spot on the rocks below which was Noriko's parka, but got no response. The day was clear, and all I can say is that Secor's claim that Sill has the best view from any summit in the Sierra may be right on.
We hurried back down, having no problem on the class 4 section (no rope required, a good thing since we didn't have one); and reached Glacier Notch three hours after leaving it. Stephan was on his way back from a try at Gayley; at 1/3 of the way up he determined it was better completed with friends nearby. Arun and Karon decided that Sill was so satisfying we didn't need Gayley either, and we all dived off the Notch and glissaded down the glacier to the dread boulder field and back to camp. Along the way we met two groups who had done North Pal (one pair hiked all the way from the cars in plastic boots, ouch) and decided we wanted to do it next. After a scenic detour when we missed the exact point where the Glacier route goes around the moraine's eastern lobe, we reached camp at 7pm.
We found it swarming with mosquitoes, and missed the wind of the night before. Stephan and Arun got to perform some class 5 moves after all, undoing the knots Karon tied when she hung the food in the trees. Arun's couscous wouldn't cook and Karon's water filter (a Pur) stopped working (dry seals again). But we slept like babies. We left at 7:45 the next morning, to Sam Mack Meadow in 30 minutes and the parking lot by noon.
However, the adventure had only begun. On the road out of the park, just before hitting 395, we found ourselves on the front line of a brush fire, cheering on heroic firemen and water trucks and helicopters. After half an hour, we were advised that it would be a while and there was a back way' we led our caravan back up the road, where there was a roadblock and, uh oh, a Winnebago just turning onto the perilously rutted jeep trail. With dread we followed its swaying, hesitant progress for a mile, past a paddock crammed with alarmed and staring cows - evidently their first RV - and finally out to the road.
Yosemite was uneventful, but just east of Oakdale we drove through another forest fire. And the crowning oddity: in a roadside pen outside Escalon, a ten-minute- old calf wobbled to its feet trailing umbilical cord and maternal slime.
Home at 9pm, delightfully mystified once again by the total absence of traffic.