Mount Sill is a 14,153-foot (4,314-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It is considered a highly sacred mountain for the Northern Paiute Indians, who named it Nen-i-mish, meaning “Guardian of the Valley”. It is also sacred for mountaineers for its offering of classic alpine routes as well as arguably the finest summit view in the entire Sierra Nevada. This bold claim is rooted in its unique position directly on a significant hinge in the main range, where the crest turns sharply to the west. The chain of dark jagged peaks extending westward from – and including – Mount Sill is called the Palisade massif, and represents the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in the Sierra Nevada. The sheer northeast face of Mount Sill harbours the largest glacier in California.
The easiest route to this amazing summit is via the southwest aspect, where a handful of parallel-trending snow couloirs permit a non-technical, though still alpine, approach. This remote side of the mountain is reached from Palisade Basin by traversing around East Polemonium Peak and then crossing the near-extant Polemonium Glacier. From there, the aforementioned couloirs extend 700 vertical feet upward to the base of the summit block, which can be surmounted by a choose-your-own-adventure class-3 scramble on high-quality granite.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Sill with Max and Giselle in late June of the year 2015, during our 50-day northward romp along the main crest of the Sierra Nevada. Having descended from Mount Wynne in a torrential hailstorm, we reached the base of the Palisade massif on the seventh day of our ten-day stretch between the towns of Bishop and Independence. The three of us climbed up and over Cirque Pass and made camp by Glacier Lake. The following day saw our ascent of Mount Sill (via the southwest chutes) and subsequent descent into the main Palisade Basin. This was the first of our three objectives in the Palisades, the others being Starlight Peak and Mount Agassiz in successive days.
30 June, 2015
Giselle and I arise in the morning and hike a few miles of the John Muir Trail to Mather Pass. Max snoozes a bit and tells us he’ll catch up later in the day. This section of trail climbs gradually through Upper Basin, a vast alpine tundra host to a prospering marmot population and guarded by soaring granite peaks on all sides.
The last ~half-mile of the climb to Mather Pass is a steep grade of unrelenting switchbacks, a veritable traffic jam of hikers vying to get over the 12,080-foot pass as early in the morning as possible. When we pass a JMT hiker in a slightly ridiculous straw hat, the man asks us worriedly, “how do you guys stay motivated to keep walking?”
“For me, it’s the chance to travel among such beautiful mountains and climb to their peaks for the awesome views,” I reply (or something to that degree).
Giselle and I reach Mather Pass sometime around noon, when the sun is high in the sky. We’ve been catching glimpses of the majestic Palisade crown for a couple weeks now, and finally have come face-to-face with it.
Disappointment Peak reaches up, but falls short of Middle Palisade while the crest arcs to Norman Clyde Peak, dips low and then rises again to Palisade Crest, composed of Twelve Hobbits and the highest one’s Gandalf Peak, I swear, and then there it is: Mount Sill, the guardian of the valley, touching ever-so-slightly the soft bottom of a fluffy cumulus cloud while the crest hinges almost fifty degrees, drops and then rises to North Palisade, that sinister castle, so evil and brooding compared to Sill, which itself is thrust to the sky like a Ten Commandments slab itself. But the crest drops so sharply at that end and all that’s left there are the granite slablands.
The dreamscape rapidly deteriorates to a nightmare when unforgiving dark clouds come and unleash a vicious hailstorm upon the slablands. The hilarity of passing under-prepared JMT hikers while stomping down the slippery, hail-battered slabs in full rain gear is wonderfully entertaining, and we march along with Max presumably behind us.
The hailstorm ceases at 2:30, right as we reach the shore of Palisade Lake (10,600-ft). The two of us relax and eat lunch for a while on the lakeside slabs, and soon we see Max mobbin’ down the trail toward us. We swap stories of our experiences in the storm and then continue along the trail to the end of the lake.
In order to access the main Palisade massif, we must climb up and over Cirque Pass. It takes us nearly two hours to heave ourselves up the grassy ledges and polished slabs to the 12,100-foot saddle.
Standing atop 12,100-foot Cirque Pass is a monumental time for us because we are now at the foot of the most fearsome cliffs in the Sierra Nevada, the Palisade massif that we have been walking for so long to reach. Turning back to the south, we would be able to see the John Muir Trail were it not so far down in the forested valley. Its a liberating moment to be leaving behind the mundane and greeting the exceptional.
The three of us select our preferred campsite from this aerial view before starting our slabby descent into Glacier Basin.
Posting our tents on the south shore of Glacier Lake (11,676-ft), we spend the rest of the day relaxing in that grand landscape. The jagged Palisade Crest, directly above us, hosts twelve distinct summits that are all named after a different hobbit – the highest pinnacle is called Gandalf Peak. Across the lake stands the sinister fortress of North Palisade, with dark cliffs rising swiftly to the sawtooth ridgeline.
The serene afternoon gives way to a captivating pink sunset, with the jagged form of Palisade Crest reflected in the near-motionless waters of Glacier Lake.
1 July, 2015 (CANADA DAY!)
When I crack my eyes open in the morning, there’s a wicked storm raging outside our tent. We stay warm and comfortable inside, reading from John Muir’s journals and drinking instant coffee.
The skies clear at 9:00am and we’re free to begin our mountaineering work for the day, starting with a 600-foot scramble up to Potluck Pass.
The clear skies are short-lived; rapidly advancing rainclouds cause us to doubt our chances of reaching the top of Mount Sill today. Gradually we are familiarizing ourselves with the abnormally fickle weather conditions that prevail in the Palisades region.
We drop our rucksacks at Potluck Pass (12,270-ft) and plan our approach to Mount Sill, which completely obscured by the great lump of talus that makes up the lower slope of East Polemonium Peak. We decide to tackle this 700-foot boulder field directly, aiming for the lowest point along the East Polemonium crest.
Looking back from the 13,400-foot ridge of East Polemonium, the weather appears quite unsettled. Low clouds sift in and out of great valleys in mystical fashion, while patchy grey clouds overhead give cause for concern.
But now we finally have a full view of Mount Sill, with the southwest chutes displayed clearly. The three of us discuss our options, deciding to contour the steep, blocky mountainside in front of us in order to reach the base of the chutes.
Surprisingly it takes us less than half an hour to complete the mountainside traverse. We find ourselves at the base of the pathetic Polemonium Glacier, which currently clings desperately to the rocky slope and drains enormous amounts of meltwater through the talus at our feet.
Giselle and I apply our crampons in order to cross the lower part of the glacier, while Max follows in our footsteps. Options abound on the southwest aspect of Mount Sill, with a number of chutes and ribs extending up to the small band of cliffs below the summit. Max decides to scramble up one of the loose rocky ribs, but Giselle and I (with handy crampons) opt to climb the chute containing the most snow, allowing us to kick-step 700 vertical feet on soft 40° snow. Giselle leads this section, carving a fine path up the slushy couloir. She wisely steers us away from rock islands and instead up the most sensible path with the most solid snow.
Not so wisely, I’ve left my sunglasses at camp and end up badly scalding my eyeballs on the blinding snow. Lesson learned: even when the morning conditions show potential for a rainy day, always bring sunglasses for a snow climb.
The top of the snow couloir is truncated by 250 vertical feet of class-3 granite blocks. We make quick progress on the solid terrain, venturing into class-4 sections just for excitement. When we reach the 14,153-foot summit, Max is already dangling his feet off the edge in a meditative trance, really feeling the spirituality of this great mountain. His spontaneous prose describing the beautiful grace of this mountain in stark contrast to the evil presence of neighbour North Palisade sends chills up my spine.
The view west from the summit of Mount Sill encompasses the most rugged alpine terrain in the state of California. The pitch-black wall of the main Palisade massif is crowned by the pinnacle of North Palisade and bookended by the two southernmost glaciers in the United States.
To the south stretches a seemingly endless sea of bare granite mountains. Although we were able to clearly identify Mount Sill from every mountaintop to the south, it seems we are unable to pick out more than a handful of the peaks in this great ocean, and perhaps this is part of the unparalleled glory of Mount Sill.
And how wonderful to celebrate Canada Day on this grand mountaintop!
The main Palisade crest extends to the east as well, punctuated by the incredible peaks of the Middle Palisade massif and terminating at the bulky South Palisade (aka Split Mountain) massif.
The three of us spend a full hour soaking in the summit views before starting our descent back down the southwest chutes. We choose a different chute – one with less snow and more scree.
In about one hour we find ourselves again at the Polemonium Glacier, drinking the meltwater directly from the source. After making the short crossing of the lower section, we elect to skip the climb up and over East Polemonium Ridge, instead taking a direct path down into the uppermost reaches of Glacier Basin. A sizable band of cliffs seems to show no weakness, but we take it one step at a time, resigning ourselves to the possibility of having to execute sections of class-5 downclimbing. I lead us down a system of ledges, always unsure of where each ledge would lead us, and amazingly find passage all the way to the bottom without anything life-threatening.
At 6:00pm the weather is officially no longer an issue, and we turn our focus to bumbling across the snowy boulderfield of Glacier Basin.
We scramble back up to Potluck Pass, where our rucksacks (and dinner!) are awaiting us. The only item left on our agenda is the descent into Palisade Basin, where we intend to make camp and prepare for the next two days climbing Starlight Peak and Mount Agassiz.
FINAL VIEWS: On our subsequent ascents of Starlight Peak and Mount Agassiz, we are rewarded with excellent views of Mount Sill posted at the far eastern end of the main Palisade ridgeline. While the cluster of black pinnacles around North Palisade resembles the fortress of an evil villain, Mount Sill stands strong as the Guardian of the Valley.