An Impromptu Ascent of the Palisades’ Mount Sill

Story and Photo by Andrew Sawyer

It was the first week of November and the high peaks of the Sierra were already wearing a substantial and scintillating blanket of snow.

At first scout, it seemed that my goal of climbing the Swiss Arete, on 14,153-foot Mount Sill, the second highest peak in the Palisades Range, would have to wait another year. Even with years of experience, I knew I was alone in winter conditions and that while attempting an ascent I would have little margin for error. But the day was spectacular. An invigorating stroll a little ways into the high country to see the Palisade Glacier and the granite spine of the Sierra Crest started out as just an innocent hike.

Known for having one of the best summit views in the entire Sierra, Mt. Sill, (originally called Nee-ma-mee-shee, or “Guardian of the Valley” by the indigenous Paiute of the area) features 10 established routes of varied quality and difficulty levels. Of these, the Swiss Arete route is the acknowledged classic, coursing its way up an inspiring granite prow.

I should have known better than to go there. By the time I made it to Third Lake, the stunning winter mountain environment had already dangerously and irreversibly lured the climber in me. I had underestimated the pull of the summit and my stubborn determination to push onwards and upwards.

Moving deeper into the landscape, the complex jumble of high peaks and multiple drainages splitting the scene confused me for a moment. I considered stopping for another rest before turning back, since it was already past noon and the altitude was wearing me out quickly.

The top called me on and it was hard to resist. I scrambled out onto the rocky moraine picking my way up, over, and around slippery chunks of snow and ice covered stone. The tedious footing made progress slow. A ways further I found myself standing at the toe of the glacier, surrounded by the noble Palisades – Mount Sill, Polemonium, North Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Agassiz. Suddenly tired, I stopped for another rest.

Walking onto the glacier itself, my feet slipped on the icy blue suncups. Soon, I stumbled to the edge of a deep, dark crevasse. This small California ice patch was as serious and perhaps as unforgiving as the massive glaciers of the Himalaya and Cascade Ranges where I had sojourned before. The frigid blast of air flowing from the crevasse shocked me into a familiar state of keen awareness necessary to survive in this unforgiving landscape. Again I considered retreating to the desert but now it was too late: I had spied the cleaved edge of Mount Sill’s east face – the Swiss Arete.

Moving across the glacier, fully aware of the crevasse’s icy chamber, I made my way to the pass separating the basins. Rising like a ship’s prow from an ocean of boulders, the Swiss Arete split the sky. Though frosted white with snow, the line of ascent showed enough rock to lure me onto the precipice, despite the late hour of the day and the fast approaching shadows. Already soaking wet with sweat, the foolhardiness of the venture I was about to commit to was not lost on me.

The climbing began with moderate scrambling up fractured slabs then quickly switched to exposed jamming and smearing. Many holds, cracks, and ledges were filled with snow. Several hundred feet above the talus slopes it became apparent that my only escape from the arête was up. The climber’s game had proven dangerously intoxicating once again. Past the point of no return, I dug deep and remained solidly focused. Fortunately, most of the climbing was easy and fun, blending a full array of smears, jams, jugs and edges that fulfill the Swiss Arete’s reputation as a mountaineer’s fantasy route.

Halfway up its height, the arête became steeper and more slender. Generally speaking, the route finding was obvious – follow the arête – but the climbing was surprisingly intricate. Finding the path of least resistance was more cerebral than I had anticipated. Several short headwalls, some with slightly higher grades of difficulty, were interspersed with ledges that allowed me to rest and warm my hands. More importantly, these ledges gave me a chance to relax my mind from the demands of climbing un-roped in such an exposed place.

A heavy shade fell onto the eastern ramparts of the range, bringing with it a foreboding wintry atmosphere. Looking above, the summit still appeared to be a long ways off. Soon I confronted the most difficult section of the climb. Standing on a sizable ledge, I had the option of negotiating an ice-covered slab with only a few reasonable holds. My other choice was stemming across a void to reach a hand crack hidden in a shallow corner. I pondered both options carefully. The critical nature of the decision added increasing pressure to the situation. The clock was ticking and I knew I had to make a move.

In an attempt to dodge the more exposed and seemingly more committing option of getting into the crack, I began working the icy slab. I quickly realized the slab was too slick, too insecure. I carefully downclimbed back to the ledge to try the stemming problem. From here I extended my leg across the gap and pressed my foot on the opposite side of the granite corner. The traction was good, but it was still too far a reach to jam my hand in the crack. I backed off and looked again at the icy slab.

Concern and fear began to grow. Far below the Owens Valley basked in warm sunshine, perhaps taunting me as my predicament took on more serious proportions. Again I reached for the crack, and once again I could not quite reach a solid hand jam. Resting, I stood on the ledge watching the shadow of the Sierra stretch across the Owens Valley like a dark curtain. My options were limited. One option was to wait for hypothermia and a slow death sometime in the night; the other was to attempt the crack again, risking a 500-foot fall to the jagged talus.

Figuring it would be better to die trying, I stemmed my foot across the gap, planting my foot more aggressively this time. Summoning all my courage I leaned out further this time, and slotted a numb hand-jam. Though I couldn’t feel the rock very well I committed to it and pulled myself off the ledge. Ten feet of near vertical crack climbing brought me to easier climbing again and a chance to breathe a sigh of relief.

The rest of the climb passed uneventfully, and I soon found myself on the snow-covered summit. Physically and mentally fatigued, I channeled all of my available emotional energy toward solving the problem of getting down safely. As I descended, I was keenly aware that too many climbing accidents happen on the way down from the summit.

Following an intuitive path, I soon arrived at a rappel station. Relieved to be on the right path, I quickly committed myself to a long, slippery chimney system. Out of food, out of water, and not wanting to stop for any reason, I eventually reached a ledge about 100 feet above the base of the mountain. At this point I knew I would survive this impromptu and foolhardy adventure. As I scrambled down the last of the technical descent, I was filled with a mixture of joy and relief.

California native Andrew Sawyer is a perennial traveler of the American West. For the past five years, he’s been living out of his vehicle, backpack or suitcase which has allowed him the freedom to ski, surf, hike, climb, and bike all over the country. He has climbed countless peaks in the Sierra, Cascades and Rockies, as well as in the Himalaya and Andes.