After a sweet summer in Squamish, it didn’t take long for me to find myself back in the high Sierra. With a month and change before the winter would be rolling in, I figured I should bag some peaks before the season ended. The obvious choice for my first trip was Sill and Polemonium, the last two California 14ers I had yet to complete. I rallied up to South Lake on a Thursday night, slept in the van to get some semblance of acclimatization, and was off around 7:30 a.m. the following morning.
Having done several trips to this area before, it felt like a true welcome home to California as I tramped up towards Bishop Pass. Once there, I headed off trail over Thunderbolt Pass. Eventually I made it all the way across to Potluck Pass, where I’d been before on the Sierra High Route several years ago. My loose plan was to camp down at the lake below the pass, but seeing as it was barely past noon, I figured I may as well go for the summits that day.
The approach never gets old
And so the long slog up to the foot of Sill commenced. After an hour or so navigating loose scree and large boulder fields, I made it to the base of the peak. From here there were four ambiguously described chutes I could choose from to ascend. I sat for a few minutes, trying to figure out which one looked the best, and eventually settled on the far-left chute, as it seemed to be the widest, hopefully offering the most options when the going got hairy. I wasn’t too worried about making the right choice as R.J Secor said “all chutes go” on Sill.
The climbing was surprisingly quick and straightforward. Loose sandy steep sections gave way to beautiful solid granite offering fun and secure scrambling. I felt more confident scrambling than in years previous; maybe all the floundering about on rocks in Squamish had helped after all. The summit of Sill was beautiful, offering striking views of Owens Valley and the Palisade Crest. A smoky haze was present to my South-West from one of the many fires burning through the state, but it seemed far away enough for comfort.
Polemonium Glacier looking small
Many chutes to choose from, I opted for the one kind of in the center of this photo
The ridge to Polemonium seemed quite a long way and it was about 3:30 in the afternoon at this point. Not sure if I had time to bag the second peak, I set an alarm on my phone for 4:30 as a hard turnaround time if I wasn’t at the famous Knife-edge Ridge by then. Fortunately, the ridge appeared longer than it was, and before long I was about a hundred feet from the famous Knife-edge Ridge I had seen so many photos and videos of. I navigated my way down a small chute, and picked my way carefully back up some solid California class 4 sections to get to the base of the ridge itself. I laced up my climbing shoes, threw on the chalk bag and tossed my SPOT satellite phone in my shorts (not that I could hit the SOS button after falling 3,000 ft…).
I made a few moves up the granite face to attain the ridge itself. From there I followed a nice rail up another 10 feet, passing some old pitons and other pro, and stared down the next sequence of moves. I made a couple moves that didn’t feel super secure, and with that my confidence dwindled markedly. My technique was there, but my head wasn’t, so I reversed my moves and called it a day. I’d live to see another day and could always come back with a rope and some gear to bag the summit.
The smoke started rolling in as I descended back towards the lake South of Potluck Pass. I decided to cover as much ground as possible before sunset to escape the smoke early the next morning. Despite the Sierra being bone dry, my sleeping bag managed to accumulate an impressive amount of moisture overnight which froze and kept me quite cool…how lovely. I set out early the next morning, and made it back to the parking lot by noon. Mission somewhat accomplished. One more 14er down, one more to go…next time with a rope.
Smokey sunset over Barrett Lakes