Anyone who travels the mountains long enough eventually realizes that nothing is guaranteed. There are a variety of factors that can contribute to it, but one of the major themes here is weather. Even with all the tools and experience, every now and then it throws a curve ball our way.
I had dreams of spending the night atop Mt. Sill–a 14er located in the Eastern Sierra region called the Palisades. I've traveled and summited nearly every square inch of this region. And yes, I realized early on why they often get labeled as the "Talusades." But more importantly, it is California's most alpine region and houses a number of glacier including our largest one--the Palisade Glacier.
Back to Mt. Sill. While Sill is by no means an easy mountain to climb, It is, by its easier routes, the simplest of all it's nearby northern 14ers from a technical standpoint. So spending the night on Mt. Sill was not an unfamiliar task considering I had done it on some of its much more difficult neighbors like Starlight Peak.
Why do this? Because it allows me to combine amazing light and vantage points for a photograph like no one has ever before gotten. That inspires me, and I hope the raw beauty inspires you.
Day 1 went fine. Though we noticed a stint of thunderstorms rolling through during the afternoon. Sierra weather is fairly predictable, but every now and then it manages to surprise me. We timed the thunderstorm, and expected something a little bigger tomorrow, and around the same time. So far so good. As long as we allowed ourselves a few hours to get to the summit, we felt fine about waiting out tomorrow’s storm.
As expected, day 2 rolled around with a larger storm. It hung around until about 4:00pm. It’s hard to keep two guys sitting still the whole day who get their kicks through adrenaline rushes. Ross (a friend and professional mountain guide) and I waited anxiously to get moving. Finally the storm kinda went away. But it never really went away. It seemed to comeback occasionally. But we started our ascent anyway. As we approached the glacier, I remember looking east and seeing pouring rain that seemed to be moving west and therefore getting closer to us. After reaching Gayley Camp, we put on our helmets and trudged across the talus fields skirting the Palisade Glacier. The route eventually leads up to what’s known as the “Glacier Notch”--this is the beginning of the L-shaped colouir. The main entrance to various routes that lead to the summit of Sill.
The Retreat from Sill
Just as we began to approach the Notch, Thunder begins to echo across the mountains. I stopped in my tracks and asked Ross “Was that what I think it was?” We both looked up and saw extremely dark skies that had moved in from the South and were now coming into view. We stood there with our heads toward the ground thinking how did this happen? As the storm continued to grow again we quickly retreated back to Gayley camp. We’ve both seen too much to know that storms are possible at night. And the last place you want to be is a 14000 ft summit.
Returning to Gayley Camp was an adventure in and of itself. Hail, rain and a glacier tend to move rocks. Big rocks. I was nearly crushed by a boulder larger than me as it began to come unhinged. Ross also had issues. I heard the rocks moving around him, then him yelling “Cheese n' Rice!” The same thing happened to him.
His legs were almost smashed between a set of massive boulders that had moved while he traveled over them.
So not only were we talus hopping through hail, rain and still in danger of lightning, but now we’re contending with rockfall to a level we had never seen before. Oh boy, this played some big mind games with me. You feel trapped. Literally. Physically you don’t want to move because the slightest disturbance seems to send massive boulders in motion in our general direction. And mentally it’s difficult to come to a solution that is guaranteed to work.
We kept going and eventually made it back to camp. Though Ross had one more encounter with a boulder. A little guy that looked stable, but ended up rolling on him. Ross fell down and yelled “You tricky bastard!” at the rock. For whatever reason, under skies of doom, I laughed so hard. Partly because he fell so slow and awkwardly. And partly because of him yelling at the rock. Regardless, it put me in a better mood.
The storm eventually cleared for good, and we were treated to an amazing sunset that night. It stung though. To be that close and not make your goal hurts. It always does. This is not something new to us in the mountains. And even though we would make the same call 100/100 times, you inevitably feel like a failure. For me, both as a photographer and mountain climber. I’ve experienced enough to keep going after that feeling happens, and make the most of what I have. We camped near the Palisade Glacier at about 12000 ft with stunning views everywhere and amazing light. They aren’t the shots I planned, but they’re still awesome. Sill served as a reminder of the importance of learning to roll with punches.
Reality Sets In
However even after all this, I could help but feel like the fire died a little. Climbing and photographing mountains was a way of life for me for so many years. Much more than a hobby. It fueled a purpose in my life. Like the exploring and photographs were a window into the greatest story ever told–our beginnings. A spiritual renewal each time out and reliving them in the photographs. But something happened. It wasn’t that this time. The fire was quenched.
As we approached the L-shaped couloir on Mt Sill, I stood looking at the summit. Feeling a sense of emptiness. What’s going on with me? Moments of excitement came through, but overall it was very tempered. I became okay with not camping on the summit. Potentially getting nighttime views of the Northern Palisade traverse likely never before photographed.
As I mentioned earlier, it always stings not making your goals in the mountains. And by all means we made the right call to retreat from the summit. But the sting of failure was different this time around. I wasn’t mad about not making the summit. That’s part of the gamble each time. What was more concerning was the contentment I had in knowing that I wouldn’t be climbing the mountain or getting the photographs I had in mind. Perhaps this was a sign of maturity in being able to move on from failed attempts. But it was more than that.
After the days had passed, I kept trying to get to the root of the cause. It finally hit me. I didn’t mentally prepare for this trip. I never saw it all the way through. I knew the potential of amazing photographs from Sill’s summit. But I just assumed I would figure it out while up there. When I don’t see the trip all the way through in my mind, failure doesn’t seem like failure because the standard was really never set initially. And when failure is not a real thing, standards of success get lowered.
Not seeing trips all the way through has happened before. Rarely to be honest. But it happens. The main influence of this tends to be distraction. Whether from work or news, etc. Mine was definitely work related. Trying constantly to get everything done before leaving tends to be an exercise up to the last minute. This leaves practically no time to prepare for what’s ahead.
As the weeks passed, I was disappointed, and that familiar feeling of failure became real again, but also hungrier than ever to get back out there and prove the fire hadn’t died for good.