|Swiss Arete is in the profile of the prominent peak (on the left)|
First time I came across Swiss Arête (III 5.7) as a possible route to the top of Mt. Sill (14,153 ft / 4314 m) I fell in love. I fell in love with the amazing line that follows an impressive arête, and ends on the actual summit of this stunning CA 14er. There was only one problem at the time- it was May of 2010, and I had no experience with climbing trad, or climbing any 5th class routes outside my local gym. Swiss Arête was only a dream, a route I thought was possible some time in the future, maybe in two years, maybe in three. A route I had to work hard to complete. Outing that would require planning, confidence in climbing multi-pitch trad in an alpine environment, and ability to haul plenty of gear in (19 mile round trip with close to 7,000 feet of elevation gain) and out- all at high altitude.
The summer approached, and I started climbing outside. Climbed two to three times a week in the gym, got out for some awesome Sierra scrambling during weekends, and worked my way up to following 5.8s at Lovers Leap. Back in May I had no idea I would have a chance to get out so much. Every outing I treated as a way to prepare myself for my next goal. First multi-pitch alpine climb I experienced was not too far off in the future, and was located only a couple of miles away. I had an opportunity to check out the impressive arête in person-before climbing Northwest ridge of Thunderbolt Peak (5.5 w/ 5.9 summit block). The alpine glow on the arête that day was fantastic-- Sill dominated other Palisades on the ridge. I was hooked! After completing 2010 Sierra Challenge (http://www.snwburd.com/bob/challenge/2010/) I felt physically prepared, and added a couple of other alpine trad climbs to my resume before setting a date for another adventure in the Palisades.
Palisades panorama from Sky Heaven pk
The trail-head starts at Glacier Lodge, at elevation of about 8,000ft. We started our hike up North Fork of Big Pine Creek at 10:30am. Since most of my summer outings were long day-hikes, I was not excited about hauling overnight gear, rope, climbing rack, crampons, ice axe, stove, food, and a load of other crap. Day-hikes had me spoiled. Nonetheless, Bryan and I were making decent time. The day was truly perfect for a hike. It was not too hot, but sunny. On the way to Sam Mack meadow we passed scenic lakes # 1-# 3 and enjoyed a great view towards Temple Crag.
View of Temple Crag on the approach
A bit past Temple Crag the trail crosses a creek and ascends up to Sam Mack meadow-popular place to camp for most climbers. However, we wanted to make our summit day a bit easier and set our camp 1,000 feet higher. From Sam Mack we took a trail leading up to the glacier. This trail is well maintained and easy to follow for the first part. After that the trail grows into endless field of boulders, with the way marked by "ducks."
To make our life easier we decided to camp at the lake which is located at the base of the Palisade glacier (12,200ft). This lake would give us the opportunity to have a water supply directly next to our camp and some classic views to enjoy. We reached our destination at around 3:30pm. Ice-filled glacier lake looked awesome, especially with five CA 14ers rising two thousand feet above it. Bryan and I got some good rest and re-hydration during the remaining hours of light, than crawled into our sleeping bags, and attempted to sleep.
CA 14ers are towering around us
We left our tent about an hour before sunrise and made our way up and over a huge amount of boulders. Navigating through these at night wasn't pleasant, but by dawn we reached the snow field which led us up to the Glacier Notch. Moving through the snow field was uneventful. The only highlight of the approach was the alpine-glow which lit up the Palisades during sunrise. The supposedly class 3 chute up Glacier Notch was straight forward- steep scree scramble. Way up was clear, and at times even marked with ducks. After we got over the saddle there was another surprise-Bryan was extremely short of breath. I passed him some of my snacks/water as he rested. After about fifteen minutes of rest he said he was ok, and we continued towards the arête which was five minute walk away. At this point I was nervous for Bryan, and thought about turning back down due to the symptoms he exhibited. However, we crossed the L shaped couloir, and at last were gearing up at the base of the climb.
Sunrise-on the approach
As we organized our protection and flaked the rope the party of four arrived. They turned out to be guides in training, with a leader guide. Their leader confirmed that we were at the base of the route. Bryan looked better, but after asking him if he does feel better he asked me to lead a "few" pitches. I decided that bailing off the arête would be relatively easy if we had too (brought enough webbing and rap rings), and started climbing, keeping close to the center of the Arête. Climbing wasn't hard- low 5th class. Protection possibilities were there, but I did not place much due to relatively easy climbing. As I moved higher exposure picked up, and arête got steeper. I had to well-protect couple of exposed traverses during second pitch, and finally climbing became surprisingly fun. As I set up my second belay station I noticed both groups moving up closer to L shaped couloir (northwest) on 3rd/easy 4th class terrain. They were simul-climbing, their pace was obviously faster, even though surprisingly not by much. Due to rope drag I was not able to climb full pitches, and it took me four pitches to get to the harder section of the climb. The "guides" were already there and one of them started his lead up the arête. As I brought Bryan up we didn't like the picture. Guys in front of us were taking their time, and the wind added to our suffer.
Bryan climbing up to the big ledge
After freezing our butts off for an hour and a half we finally were able to start climbing. Bryan felt better and took the next pitch. The pitch before "step around" move was steep, but climbing was not difficult (5.6 or so), offered good stances, and nice cracks for placements as well. If it wasn't so windy we would have enjoyed this exposed section a lot more!
Next pitch featured the 'step around move'-one of the highlights of Swiss Arête. Right before the steep opened book the climber traverses right, and to the base of a short, but steep crack. This traverse has serious exposure, and features a VERY long step around a corner. I made sure to stay there for an extra second to take in the views and enjoy the moment. After the "step around," and another obvious climb up a crack system I was at the belay station.
Looking down towards Arete, above the crux
From this huge ledge according to most people it is 4th to easy 5th class to the summit. Bryan and I packed the rope, and decided to climb this section unroped. After climbing for about half a pitch we caught up to the guides- they were protecting these pitches. Another pitch of unroped climbing and we were at a spot with some serious exposure and a short, but vertical crack to get over. After trying to find a better way without descending Bryan decided to climb over it. I decided to skip the Russian roulette, and asked for a belay. After quickly managing over this steep crack there was another short section of formal climbing and we were finally on the true Summit!
Fantastic views towards North Palisade, and Norman Clyde peak are unforgettable. No questions to why Peter Croft included this route as one of his 40 favorite high Sierra Classics. Even wildest dreams come true when amount of work you put in matches the desire to succeed!
After the climb we made it back to our camp, packed it up, and were back at Glacier Lodge trail-head at about 10:30pm. Road back to the Bay Area led through Sacramento (Bryan's residence). Travel through the night ended back in San Francisco at 6:30am on Monday- I had to be at work in an hour. Just another enjoyable weekend in Sierra!