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 Mt Sill

July 30 – August 3, 2008

Success on Mt. Sill and Attempt on Polemonium Peak

Those present:  Adrian Crane, Ray Kablanow, Mark Richardson, and Deborah Steinberg.  We were joined part of the way with Lewis Ase and his girlfriend Carey Pivcevich and their dog Bruno.

Pictures on Flicker

 Although for this trip we had originally planned to climb North Palisades and Thunderbolt Peaks in the Palisades Range, a last minute strategic decision was made to leave these two peaks until later.  Instead we decided to attempt Mt. Sill and nearby Polemonium Peak.  The Palisades Range is a very beautiful range of mountains southwest of Bishop, but poses the most challenge of all the 14,000 ft peaks in California, having very steep assents/descents, being prone to rock fall and home to steep cliffs, nasty talus, and melting glaciers - all adding up to make it very physically challenging and very thrilling when summit success is gained!

 Thursday morning we picked up a wilderness permit, did some last minute shopping at the mountain shop in Bishop, finished packing our gear in our backpack, and  set off at about 10:45 am from Big Pine Creek Trailhead for North Fork.  It was decided since Mark was the strongest one, we would give him most of the weight:  Mark carried our enormous 4 person tent, while Ray and Adrian each carried a bear canister full of our food.  Deborah wanted to unload some of her other gear onto the guys, like her ice axe and crampons, but didn’t have the heart.  We met up with Lewis and Carey and set off at a very brisk pace.  Just when we were patting ourselves on the back for our amazing progress over the last 3 miles, we stopped for a water break and discovered the loaner boots Mark were wearing were delaminating in the heel of each boot.  Just before we discovered this Lewis and Carey and Bruno the dog set off without a radio at super-speed pace towards our intended camp at Sam Mack Meadow (about 11,000 feet elevation), about a mile south and 500 feet higher then Third Lake.  Knowing there happened to be another pair of boots in our vehicle; Mark dropped his pack and ran back to Ray’s van.  In the meantime, parts of his pack were re-distributed to Deborah, Adrian and Ray.  So much for our plan to have Mark carry all the weight! 

 From that point forward we all moved pretty slowly up the trail, and the four of us finally re-grouped at the fork of Black Lake trail and Numbered Lakes trail.  We all wanted to give Mark a really hard time about making us carry all this extra weight, but he looked pretty tired after hiking a rather brisk extra 6 miles, so we decided to give him a break  Lakes 1 through 3 were a chain of beautiful turquoise opaque lakes filled with glacial flour saturated mountain water.  We stopped to admire the views and take some photos.  We finally arrived at Sam Mack Meadow at 5:45 pm at least a couple hours behind Lewis and Carey and set up camp.  Sam Mack Meadow was a narrow green patch bordered by rocky slopes and divided by a shallow but wide stream.  Since she has few other talents, Deborah has been put in charge of procuring food for our trip.  She had been instructed about 6 times before the trip to purchase very lightweight food by Ray, who on our prep trip 3 weeks ago had been relegated to carrying a block of Swiss cheese and a whole container of peanut butter.  After our Mountain House “add-hot-water” meals had been consumed, Mark broke out the Gran Marnier, and Adrian was first in line with his cup. 

 Adrian laid out our strategy for next day’s summit attempt, and we set our alarms for 4:30 am.  Unfortunately, no one slept well because our slumber was punctuated by the sound of either thunderstorms or distant rock falls.  This debate continued well into the next day as we witnessed two impressive rock falls near the glacier, but were reminded of the frequent thunderstorms that occur east Hwy 395.  We start out with our summit packs towards Mt. Sill with only 1 ˝ liters of water apiece, deciding that we should be able to pick up glacial melt streams along the way.  Unfortunately once on the glacial moraines we saw no chance of water, and had to descend a very steep loose rocky moraine to reach the lake at the toe of Palisade Glacier. Most of the rocks in this area were loose and treacherous, and we decided that many of the rocks had recently fallen based on their instability.  Spooked, Lewis and Carey head back to camp. 

 Attempting to avoid as much talus as possible we climb the wide arc of older moraine rock around the northwest side of the lake and head up to the Palisade Glacier.  Interesting conversation abounds in the difficult terrain.  Ray, Adrian, and Mark debate the benefits of Gu, NUUN, and Shot Blocks while Deb breaks out the Oreos, since she believes Oreos are the best low-tech energy food around for ascending steep rocky gullies.  Since we are now well above 12,000 ft. it is decided that we are not to believe what anyone says, since the altitude is getting to us.  It is also decided that since Deb must not be a princess to be out in this territory, she must be a brat (only that is not the exact term that was used). 

 Eventually we reach a point in the route where it appears we are to traverse the vertical exposed north face of Mt Sill, and we all take a collective gasp debating whether we are over our heads with this climb.  Eventually, we scout out a route that although precarious in places, is doable with rope during the exposed sections.  Deb debates the merits of being a princess instead of out here where she has to consciously not look down.  On the way Adrian drops his trekking pole that bounces 100 vertical feet into the gully. 

 We manage to reach the Summit of Mt. Sill at 11:45 am.  Deb signs the Summit Log, which is the first entry in five days, and leaves Kristin Machado’s St. Mary medal, Richard Barasch’s airline ticket, and a STOP CANCER pin in the Summit Box.  We eat a lunch of LIGHTWEIGHT Ritz Cheese & Cracker, Sandwiches and dried fruit, and are joined by a solitary climber on his way from the South Side of Sill.  We read the guidebook and debate for 20 minutes which peak in our view is actually Polemonium, since some of our Google maps are incorrect. 

 At 12:45 we leave the Summit of Mt. Sill and descend talus to Polemonium Glacier.  We slog up-glacier, most of us ready to bonk, except Deb who has been eating Oreos.  At 3:30 pm we stand at over 14,000 + ft on top of Polemonium’s false summit and stare across a gully to the actual steep exposed spire that is Polemonium Peak only 100 vertical feet away.  Deciding that this was no place to train in Class 5 rock climbing, we vow to take a clinic as a team, and leave Polemonium Peak for another trip.  So close, and yet so far! 

 We descend back to camp, scouting out better routes, and rappelling down others.  We pick up the faint trail following cairns back to Sam Mack in the steadily decreasing light.  We arrive in the dark back at our campsite at 9:15 pm after 14 hours of climbing.  We sleep in Saturday morning, and Deb makes coffee.   Adrian is first in line with his cup out.  We break camp at 10 am Saturday morning, and pack out, arriving at a shady lunch spot where Mark fishes and Ray and Adrian take a nap.  Just as we leave, Deb decides she will catch up with the guys since she has to “use the facilities”.  She accidentally leaves her trekking poles along the trail, then passes the location where the guys are pumping water and waiting for her, and heads down the trail at a fast pace, thinking that the reason the guys are so far ahead is the “horses smell the barn” affect.  A mile and a half down the trail, Deb realizes she forgot her trekking poles!  She berates herself about how long the guys will be waiting for her down at the van, drops her pack, and runs uphill in hiking boots with feet that have massive heel blisters.  On the way up she runs into a solitary female hiker, who says, “Are you Deborah?  Your three friends are looking for you.”  Uh-oh.  Deb re-unites with Adrian, Ray, Mark, and her trekking poles and takes a lot of manure from the guys about how she could possibly miss the guys in such an obvious location 100 feet from her bathroom spot.  Ray states that Deb should wear an electronic shock collar should she ever wander that far off again.  We arrive back at the trailhead at 4:30 pm, Deb realizing she still has a few Oreos left.  We drive to Mammoth Lakes to meet up with Shadow Chase Running Club and get hot showers at last!  Deb decides that being a princess after a hot shower is sometimes nicer than the alternative.

 Deborah Steinberg

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