In an effort to be better prepared for our June 3-5 Mt. Whitney trip, our intrepid band of "mountaineers" decided to make an assault on Mt. Silliman on May 16th and 17th. The idea was to get practice carrying the packs, walking in snow, perhaps using our ice axes and crampons, and also setting up and managing camp, as the Whitney trip will be over two days and these skills will be required. In any case, that was my reasoning for taking the trip - the rest of the crew are more experienced backpackers than me, so their motivation was probably more along the lines of "let's climb a big hill and stand dangerously near the edge!" In any case, the trip was agreed upon and we assembled, from across California, at our staging ground.
Our intended route was to follow the Twin Lakes Trail for a couple of miles until it crossed Silliman Creek. We would follow Silliman Creek for another few miles until we reached Silliman Meadow. We would then go around a ridge and face a set of granite friction slabs that led to Silliman Lake, where we would camp. On day two, we would rise early, get up to the summit in the morning, then break camp and head back down. We figured we were playing it extremely safe by doing it over two days rather than in a dayhike, plus it would give us a chance, as mentioned, to work on some of our snow and camp skills. As backpacking plans go it was pretty simple and sounded quite easy. Things often sound easy when you're sitting at your kitchen table looking at a map.
The members of the crew were as follows (from left to right in this picture): Nate, Dave, Corina, and Steve (your not very humble narrator). Note Nate's sexy shiny pants and my extremely stylish hat. I felt that it was extremely important to look good on the trail. Nate evidently did not.
About five minutes after my depanting maneuver we reached the top of the aspect, the trail turned into the forest and vanished into the snow. This was unexpected - we had expected to follow the twin lakes trail all the way until it crossed Silliman Creek, when we planned to go cross country. I was not pleased with this development. Nate, however, got a "ooh wilderness experience" gleam in his eye at the notion of having to find our own route through the forest. However, we were lucky enough to find a set of ski tracks. Apparently, this trail is quite popular among cross country skiiers.
We left the trail and began to follow the ski tracks, figuring they were going in the same general direction we were and they must have found a decent path through the trees. They had, and it was easy going for a few minutes. Unfortunately, we discovered that heavy boots and burdened packers put quite a bit more pressure on the snow than do swift skiiers, and we were soon introduced to the wonders of the posthole. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the posthole is what occurs when your foot is too heavy for the snow, and breaks through the surface, sinking until it finds firmer purchase. Frequently, that purchase is not found for anywhere between six inches and three feet. This leads to cold legs and snow-filled boots, especially when you have recently depanted. Both Nate and I were too stubborn or too excited about the trail to be bothered to repant, and so we postholed for a solid half hour in our shorts. My legs got a tad scraped and my feet a tad wet, but this was of little concern to me because I was enjoying the hike. The novelty of the posthole was to wear off considerably over the next eight hours, though.
We soon reached the first creek, which we needed to cross in order to continue on to Silliman Creek. We crossed a bear's tracks, then recrossed them several times. I suggested that the bear probably knew a better route than the skiiers, but I was rebuffed by Nate, our poor man's John Muir.
It took us another thirty minutes after the meadow to reach the base of what during the summer must have been the granite friction slabs we had heard so much about. It was here that I began to be disillusioned about the whole trip. i had expected the "slab" section (between meadow and lake) to be a few hundred vertical feet. Now, as I stood looking up, it was evident that it was much higher than that. How much higher, I did not yet realize. Nate immediately began fibbing, proclaiming that the lake was "just over this ridge." That statement would be repeated for about the next forty ridges. We have very few pictures to document our experience on this section of the trip, as everyone (well, Nate, he being the only one with a camera) was too tired or focused or hurried to take any. I'll have to describe our progress.
We progressed in single file, with Nate or Dave generally being in the lead. Now, it should be pointed out that the leader had by far the most difficult job to do. Because the snow was so soft, the trail had to be broken and each step was a misery. People coming behind the leader were able to step in his footprints and thus avoid the worst aspects of the posthole. I led for about five minutes before realizing that this was not for me, and let someone else back in front. Corina also had a very difficult time of it in the back, because her legs were substantially shorter than ours and so our steps were not well placed for her to use. The terrain got very steep in spots and we had to create our own switchbacks on the way up. There was, fortunately, minimal danger of a bad fall because the snow was so soft and deep. Even if someone did fall, they would have stopped after a few feet, and in any case when each step lands you a solid foot into the snow, it's very hard to fall over. There was more danger of a broken limb from an awkward posthole, but luckily no one had this problem. So anyway, it turns out that the "slabs" are only one section of the climb, and because the snow covered the entire climb it made little difference to use whether we were on granite slabs or some other kind of terrain. It was all just soft snow climbing.
As it turns out, the climb from the base of the slabs to the lake was 1,200 vertical feet, and less than a mile horizontally. Physically it was very difficult because of the soft snow conditions and because we were not at all acclimated to the elevation. I haven't been higher than 8800 feet in probably 15 years. Nate and Dave had recently done Mt San Bernadino so they had more experience with this but also had not been acclimated on this particular trip. Mentally it was very difficult as well because we could not see our destination - all we could see was mini-ridge after mini-ridge. We would push through and reach the top of each ridge, only to see that we still had further to go. We soon reached the point where the leader would push ahead for 30 or 40 steps and then stop while we all rested. We tried to go from tree to tree, to give ourselves good resting points, but that wasn't always possible so at times we just stood stationary on the side of the vertical slope. I am quite afraid of heights but that wasn't really an issue on this occasion, for reasons mentioned. In any case, it took a solid three hours to go that last 3/4 of a mile to the lake. It was definitely one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because of the altitude and the conditions. Dave was a real trooper, leading the group for the last several hundred vertical feet when it seemed like we'd never make it up.
Coming up the final ridge and seeing Silliman Lake (well, seeing the flat section of snow that evidently was on top of the frozen lake) was one of the more satisfying moments I've had in my short climbing career, right up there with reaching the top of Half Dome. We could see the next day's target, the summit of Mt. Silliman, from our camp. Reaching it seemed quite insane at the time, because we were so tired, but we were confident that we'd feel better in the morning.
Now, it was time to re-water and get dinner. We found a water source over a small hill - it was quite interesting, because it appeared to be higher than the lake itself and must have been snowmelt. It was quite rapid and only about 30 feet long before it ducked under the snow again, so we had to be very careful getting water from it. One slip and it would have been big, big, cold trouble for someone. We set up a system whereby I handed Nate water bottles and held his collar while he leaned over and filled them up. I then passed the bottles back to Dave who poured them into his eight liter water bladder (an external bladder!).
Yes, you guessed it, there are lots of clouds in each picture. When we all finally got into our sleeping bags around 8:30 PM, though, the sky above was blue and our prospects for the morning climb were bright.
Allow me a quick word about camping on show. Apparently, it's not very comfortable. There is the bottom of your sleeping bag, then the tent bottom, then the tarp, and then snow. That adds up to about one thirty-second of an inch of insulation between the sleeper and the four foot layer of snow (which quickly becomes ice as you sleep on it). It's not a comfortable situation. Dave cleverly brought a therma-rest which provided him some insulation. Corina put her snow clothes between her sleeping bag and the tent, and I did the same. That provided a small (very small) measure of relief from the cold; however, it wasn't much. We were very cold even before the storm hit. Anyway, add the cold to the altitude-sickness induced headache and insomnia, and it makes for a long night. Add a driving hail atop that, and it makes for a very long night. Add a three-season tent to white out conditions, and it's hell. The wind caught our tent side like a sail on a frigate and quite nearly blew the tent over. As it was, our bodies inside the tent were the only thing keeping it on the ground. We had done minimal staking, as mentioned. Nate eventually braved the storm and came over to our tent, ice-axing a couple of corners into the ground. This prevented the tent from rolling, but it didn't prevent the top from blowing over at an 80 degree angle, making it quite unpleasant for those of us inside. For four hours Corina and I lay inside the tent with the side of the tent (cold and heavy from the condensation and the hail/sleet/slush) essentially lying atop our bodies. Unfortunately it was too dark and too horrible for any pictures of this night time excitement.
Eventually Nate had had enough of worrying that Corina and I were going to end up in - or on, depending on ice thickness - Silliman Lake. He proposed that we all move into his much sturdier tent and use my worthless tent to store the packs and boots. This seemed wiser to me than laying on our backs crammed into an eight-inch-high (because of the wind) tent. As soon as the weather cleared slightly we made a dash for it. Here is a picture of the "clear" weather during our changeover:
We ate breakfast at around eight or nine and then began to discuss our options. Climbing Silliman was out of the question - for one thing, the storm showed no signs of slacking, and for another, that much fresh hail on a steep rocky climb made the climb infinitely more dangerous than it had been the day before. The real question was, would the storm calm down in time for us to make it down that day? Nate suggested that leaving by three would be the latest, estimating that it would take us half the time to get down that it had taken to get up, four hours. There wasn't much else for us to do at that point than to wait. Corina was the most desperate to get down that day, having to work on Tuesday morning, but I think none of us was at all pleased about the notion of having to sleep in the cramped conditions in the tent. Plus, we knew that if we didn't get down that day someone would probably call the rangers and we would end up having emergency rescue crews looking for us the next day. We had enough food, but just barely, and it wasn't pleasant. Keeping a close eye on the storm, we relaxed and waited. There wasn't much in the way of entertainment - no one had thought of cards or a book, so we really only had each other and the food packet labels (I am not joking) as entertainment. Being, evidently, quite boring people, the food packet labels won out. Oberto "OH BOY!" beef jerky has fascinating packaging, as Dave and I can attest. Eating the Chocolate Cheesecake Decadence dessert that Corina had insisted on was probably the highlight of this portion of the trip. There weren't many such highlights.
We existed in those conditions for the next seven or eight hours. Periodically someone would go out to relieve himself (I say himself because Corina decided to hold it that whole time - I don't blame her!) and see what it looked like - usually, bad. Occasionally the sleet would stop, but the fog remained. Then the fog would clear up briefly and it would start sleeting again - but usually both at once. We began to seriously contemplate having to spend another night there. At around 1:00 PM it cleared long enough that Nate and I got our boots on and headed out to look down at our route. It was still too foggy, and we could easily get lost or take a wrong step and end up in the creek or falling down some of the exposed granite spots.
At last, at three o'clock, we saw our first glimpse of blue sky since the day before. It was quickly gone, and the fog returned, but then a few minutes later the sky peeked out again. With our hearty agreement, trip leader Nate (aka Magellan) decided that it was time to pack up and go - the way he described it, "If I am in my bedroom and someone is turning the lights on and off, I can make it out the door." This made only a moderate amount of sense to me, since the biggest risk in stumbling around your room is a stubbed toe, whereas out here death was on the horizon (in my mind, anyway), but since I was anxious to get the heck out of that smelly tent I concurred - not that it mattered - I was a passenger on this ride, and that was for the best. Nate actually knows what he was doing (forgetting the weather report notwithstanding!) whereas I would have had us lost and possibly eaten by a bear within hours. We packed up camp, surveyed the scene, and headed down the mountain.
It was significantly faster going downhill than up (this is not surprising to anyone familiar with gravity), and so we cleared the granite slabs in 45 minutes. The conditions were bad, and Nate was very worried about avalanches, but we made it down without incident. It was a lot of jumping, sliding, postholing, and a small amount of glissading. Glissading was to be the highlight of our trip down, minimal though it was. It was usually steep enough for normal snow conditions, but the powder was too deep so only the very steepest sections here were actually glissadable.
Once we reached the bottom of the slabs, the trip was relatively uneventful. We got slightly lost (well, I claim we were lost. Nate says we weren't. He was leading. I was grumpy.) between Silliman Creek and the trailhead, but we eventually found it and scrambled down. My feet and legs hurt like crazy, but it was very satisfying to be down.
Once we reached town, I checked my voicemail. It was my dad telling us that he had checked the weather report and that it indicated a storm was coming. Go figure. We had pizza in Reedley. It was good.