After a few beers and a hearty lunch, Mike and I set off up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek Trail. Our objective was the 5.7 Swiss Arête of Mount Sill—or Nenimish, Guardian of the Valley. Shirtless, with a rope and a container of sandwiches strapped to my stuffed pack, I enjoyed the mountain air and afternoon sun as we made our way passed the numbered lakes and up to Sam Mack Meadow, a soft green alpine landscape surrounded by granite and steep chutes of snow.
We crossed the stream running through the meadow, rock hopping over its cool current. We found a suitable bivouac of soft and flat ground. There was a cool breeze in the air as I climbed into Jocelyn’s sleeping bag—which I took to save some weight and for sentiment—and my bivy sack. The coiled rope was my pillow and I turned every couple of hours when discomfort woke me. Late that night we were the sounds of people descending the glacier trail above us in the dark. While not in distress, it sounded as if they were at the end of a rough day. Their shouts to each other eventually faded into the night and we slipped back into sleep.
My alarm told me it was 3:30 AM and time to get ready for the climb. We organized gear and grabbed what we thought we would need for the day and abandoning for now all else to wait for our return. We took climbing gear, snacks, not nearly enough water—we would fill up along the way of course—and made our way up the Glacier Trail.
The trail was at first clearly defined and then we crossed patches of snow and soon the trail dissipated into east scrambling until we arrived near the base of Mount Galey, well above the lake at the edge of the Palisade Glacier. At this point we thought we may have missed our chance to fill our water bottles, and the thought dehydration on the mountain left us with some ambivalence. We agreed that we could fill up with slush from all the snow and worked our way through snow slopes and loose rock on to the glacier, crampons on my feet and micro spikes on Mike’s.
Suddenly we heard the sound of trickling water and looked to see snow melt running off of a collection of steep rocks. We kicked our way up steep snow and looked for the best place to fill our bottles. I jammed my ice axe into the snow and clipped my pack to it. If it got away here it would fall far. I opened my Nalgene to drink the last remaining Gatorade and refill with water. I took a step and the ground disappeared. I was falling and then I felt the intense shift of gaining real speed as the icy slope primed my descent. I dug my crampons in and miraculously arrested the fall without flipping over just before I entirely lost control. Now soaked in sticky Gatorade and cold I carefully made my way back up to our water source and filled up under the cold drops spattering off the rock.
With full bottles we once again felt sure of ourselves and at the top of the glacier arrived at the base of Glacier Notch. “Are you sure this is the right way?” Mike asked. It’s a scramble up dangerously loose rock, and shortly after he left the glacier I heard a shout as rocks and debris of various sizes began pelting my hands which I placed on top of my head as I tucked myself in, hoping to avoid any large impact. The toaster oven sized rock landed a foot from me. I put my helmet on as the air above me grew quiet. Carefully I scrambled up the notch.
Now above the notch we could see the Swiss Arête rising from the bottom of the L-shaped North Couloir to the top of the mountain. We crossed the wide snowy couloir to a ledge at the base of the climb. We tied in and led the first pitch. It was long, but the climbing was fun and easy and brought us on to the arête where I built an anchor and belayed Mike. He led the next pitch of easy but exposed climbing across the ridge which dropped away precipitously on either side. Meanwhile I reflected on the steep system of cracks above which would be my lead and felt that mix of fear and excitement that comes with being on a big mountain. At the belay I decided not to rest, I would face the route, come what may. Back on lead I discovered firm holds and comforting jams that countered the exposure and the fear gave way to the pure joy of climbing on good rock. It was another long pitch and I led until there was little remaining of our 60 meter rope. Just in time I arrived at a wide ledge a short distance below the crux pitch. Mike arrived at the belay and immediately jumped began the lead. “Watch me here!” I couldn’t see difficulties he was encountering, but I maintained a firm awareness of the rope, ready for anything. The rope continued to feed out telling me that Mike had made it through. On belay, I followed the crux pitch. At the headwall I headed right and into the exposed step around. I stretched my right leg out and connected my feet to rock, with just enough friction and balance and worked my way up a steep crack. The crux was now behind us and I set off on the first of our last two pitches of supposedly easy class 5, but I somehow managed to find difficulties anyway and create a good deal of rope drag by the end of the pitch. Mike came up, and almost immediately started on the last rope length before we reached the summit.
At 1:30 PM we made it. The summit of Mount Sill offers some of the most dramatic views, surrounded as it is by craggy steep faces, jagged steep pinnacles, snow fields and glacier. The pregnant and darkening clouds only added to the drama. I snapped some pictures as I did not want to let go of this view. I coiled the rope and put my boots back on. We repacked and scrambled on down the boulder strewn ridge to the northwest. At the top of a steep section of loose class 4 rock, we rigged the rappel after deciding the cordelette and webbing slung to a large rock was fresh enough to be trusted as our anchor, grateful to avoid the treacherously loose down climb.
Next we plunge-stepped down the 500ft L-Shaped North Couloir in steep snow that had been softened by the afternoon sun, which deposited us at the top of Glacier Notch where we had ascended earlier in the day. Carefully we worked our way down and with a tricky maneuver down a bulging dirt covered rock we were back on the glacier. We cut across high on the snow working back towards the boulders and glacial deposits, taking care to avoid another fall as the sky darkened with grey clouds above the coliseum of charcoal looking rock faces and textured glacier. We were once again at the terminus of the glacier trail and began working our way past cairns and down hints of trail until we reached another steep section snow. Having had enough we decide to descend further to avoid and then hoped to reconnect with the trail. I descended far too low and had to climb back up a couple hundred feet before we fully realized our error and caught a glimpse of the trail.
We arrived at our bivouac site in Sam Mack Meadow, ate our sandwiches, sipped some celebratory whiskey and endured the full scale assault of the mosquitoes as ready our belongings for hike out. As we passed by 3rd Lake, a deep turquoise body of water, rain drops gave way to petrichor. As we descended into the trees, the sky began to further darken into evening. The light rain relented and the air was cool. Night came as one foot was put in front the other, and few thoughts came as I felt the increasing pain of tearing blisters on my heels. I worried that people I love were worried, and heartened at the thought of letting them know I was okay. None-the-less I enjoyed the quiet of the night, the glowing eyes of a large animal in the forest nearby, the increased oxygen to my brain and the sound of the rushing and swollen North Fork of Big Pine Creek.
It felt good to remove boots and sit we arrived at the car at 11:00 PM, 19 hours after starting out form our bivouac that morning. The exhaustion was matched by camaraderie and a sense of adventure. We tested ourselves on the mountain and accomplished our strange objective.