I awoke at midnight and opened my eyes to an unfamiliar sky. It wasn’t my sky. It was so full of stars and smears of Milky Way light that I couldn’t pick out my “home” constellation. The narrow valley’s walls limited the view to a long east west strip.
My head was throbbing worse than when I went to bed. I got up to pee, which I figured meant my headache was not due to dehydration.
The dull ache had started on our descent of Mt. Sill about 2:30 that afternoon. All day both Erin and I had felt great, until then.
We had set out at 7am from Sam Mack meadow at 11,000 ft to climb the 14,153 ft Mt. Sill via the Swiss Arete. The climb began at tree line where just a few wind pruned dwarf lodgepole pines had created a protected spot to sleep.
The weather forecast predicted no rain for the week so we left the tent behind. With our packs pushing 60 lbs on the hike in, we didn’t need any superfluous weight. And it meant that we awoke with our day’s objective in plain view.
Carrying only our day packs with climbing gear, food and extra clothes, the first two hours flew by covering easy ground along a well marked path. When we reached the edge of Palisade Glacier the elevation and terrain slowed us.
In 2005 I had been in the same place with my riff raff crew of peak bagging friends and we had all stopped here to don our crampons and pull out ice axes. The glacier then was a wall to wall expanse of white along the North Palisade spine and extended down to Palisade Lake.
What Erin and I saw was a postage stamp of its former size, dried up and dirty. The snow covered part of the glacier no longer reached the slope below the saddle we were trying to gain, but what did remain was unlike anything we had ever seen. The 30 degree slope was a mosaic of boulder islands surrounded by an asphalt sea made of fine sand and gravel glued together by ice. Under that thin patch layer of asphalt was perfectly clear, solid, ice.
Stepping gingerly on the asphalt crust we made it across a few patches in the sea of ice. Where the crust was too thin though, our weight broke through and we went sliding down the ice until a thicker patch or boulders stopped us. This probably would have been a good place to actually wear the crampons we had hauled up, but instead of taking time to strap them on we mazed our way around and up what looked to be the most solid ground, occasionally back sliding a few feet until reaching the saddle between Mt. Gayley and Mt. Sill.
It was at this saddle, seven years before, that my group recognized that our crack of 11am start was not going to see us summit Sill and return in the light. So we instead had taken the casual route to bag Gayley and called it a day. That had always left me with the need to return and make friends with the peak of Sill.
Erin and I were hopeful that we could stash our crampons at the saddle and retrieve them on the way down until we spied another snow field on the approach to our climb. We lugged them along and again found that there was a dirty, loose earthen route right up to the base of where the technical part of our climb began.
By 11am we were roped up and on the Swiss Arete. The climbing was easy and beautiful and perfect granite. Following my usual practice of running a pitch out as far as possible, I nearly screwed Erin out of any leads after running together nearly all of the first three pitches. She ran up 20 feet of the third pitch before I took over the traverse and led up the “crux” pitch, clipping a fixed piton just for fun (because I never trust old rusty metal left who knows how many decades before).
A few hundred more feet of 4th and 5th class scrambling and we were on top of Erin’s first California 14’er and my second. Ten minutes later a man arrived up the same route, having driven from Bishop and hiked up the 10 miles that morning, free soloed the route and was returning that day. He commented on how rough it would be to go from sea level in Santa Cruz to 14k feet in two days. I assumed this was to make his day trip seem not so extreme for someone living at altitude with the mountains as their backyard.
I dedicated the climb in the summit register to my Swiss friend, MJ Coldslaw, since he’s Swiss and loves cheese and chocolate to prove it.
We carefully picked our way down the north 4th class descent chute and made it to the base of the saddle where we were part horrified and part fascinated by what had become of the frozen grimy asphalt. Rivulets had formed in the warm afternoon sun and were carrying the sandy debris downhill in chunky torrents. The only thing that remained frozen was the thick under layer of glassy ice. The top layer was a giant gravel slushy.
Erin was first to start down. She took two steps onto the slope and was instantly skating down. Her reflex to self arrest kicked in and she spun around in a flash to face the slope as she slid and in lieu of an ice axe, she clawed armfuls of gravel slush and kicked her boots in vain until a slight lessening of slope angle and a build up of rocks stopped her.
At this point we looked at each other thinking the same thing; “That was really interesting. Should I be more concerned about this situation?”
Again, crampons may have been useful, but the time to strap them on and the effort it would have taken to kick the points down in such hardened ice was too burdensome. Semi-controlled sliding would have to do. At least any resulting road rash would be simultaneously iced.
I picked my sliding zones so they would shoot me into low angle clusters of rocks. I also tried moving fast enough so that I could hop from one patch of slush to another, sliding just enough distance on one foot to make the appropriate landing with the next. A few hundred feet of this led us back to easy boulder hopping and finally the trail to camp. We were riding high- partly from the caffeinated gel shot we shared on the summit, but mostly from the joy of moving our bodies over the earth, rock, and ice, having shared a day with each other and the mountain, and reaching our goal. So why the headache? Nothing’s perfect, I guess.
The sleepless night continued with visitations from mountain mice chewing on a tea bag left out to dry. Two more vitamin I and I was knocked back out until sunrise. I dozed as long as I could (7:30) and then rose to take in the morning’s secrets. Mountains perfectly reflected in meadow ponds, Pikas barking their hoarse morning check in calls and sitting sentinel on high boulders, the last of the season’s shooting stars and columbines greeting the sun.
Today is our rest day. Leisurely morning and pack up, hike to Third Lake and relax with a paddle on the lake on my sleeping pad. Our camp has a view of Temple Crag looming in at us across the lake. It’s fucking intimidating. Like sleeping in front of Mordor- A 1000 foot black granite buttress flanked to the east and west by folding aretes with sharp towers, deep dark chimneys in the folds between spitting frozen fluvial ice sheets sure to send anyone approaching sliding towards death drop offs or shifting boulder fields. The route which ascends the central buttress is called Dark Star, and it couldn’t be more appropriately named. Our route is called Venusian Blind and is farthest to the east.
We’ve strategized and will get an earlier start. Crampons, harness, shoes, rack, chocolate covered espresso beans, check. Tomorrow. Game on.