TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013 | High Sierra Topix  

TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013

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TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013

Postby orbitor » Fri Dec 06, 2013 12:20 am

One of my training/conditioning rules is to get above 10,000' at least once every month of the year. Having not done so in November, and tired of the SoCal options, I convinced a friend to head over to Sequoia and do an overnighter to Mt. Silliman, which had long been on my radar. The weather forecast keep getting better throughout Thanksgiving week, so early on Black Friday (though not as early as some crazy shoppers) we left San Fernando Valley with the final destination Lodgepole.

We were on schedule until we finished breakfast in Porterville, at which point my friend's inability to locate his phone set us back by a good 45 minutes. It was 11:45am when I pulled into the visitor parking lot at Lodgepole, and still needed to pack...everything. The plan for the first day was to hike in to lower Silliman Lake and set up base camp. We would summit the next day and hike out. I knew that we'd be cutting it close with daylight because of the delay, but had no idea how close.

I was dismayed to see how little snow there was in the Lodgepole area. The campground was closed along with all other facilities, but the only white stuff we could see was on the north-facing slopes, and even there it clung in patches. Clearly there would be no need for snowshoes; they stayed in the car. By the time I crammed everything in my pack, it was already 12:30. I could feel the day slipping away. Still, we hit the trail with plenty of enthusiasm.

Walking through an empty Lodgepole campground felt surreal. I had stayed there for several nights in the summer, many years ago; my memories were of full sites, cars, people and noise everywhere. Everything was eerily quiet this time. Ah, winter. We picked up the Twin Lakes trail and started a gentle climb out of the Marble Fork Kaweah River canyon.

After the trail reached Willow Meadow and turned north, we finally came across some snow on the ground. It was mostly in shaded spots however, and had been already tread upon by those who had gone before us. Somehow walking a dry trail at this time of the year felt not quite right, though the lack of snow helped us cover distance. My partner was already struggling with his load and acclimatization, having not been at altitude in a while.

Right before reaching Cahoon Meadow, the trail crosses Silliman Creek. We turned NE at this point and picked up a use trail on the south side of the creek, which meandered up and down the bank while gaining elevation steadily. Snow again only in shaded areas, with patches not more than 1-2" thick. My friend was slowing down, forcing me to stop more often than I wanted to wait for him and make sure we didn't get too far apart. The sun was racing toward the horizon.

The trail petered out, so I switched to navigation mode. We got to the meadow at the base of the granite slabs around 3:30. Checking my GPS, I found the altitude to be only 8400'. Concern started creeping in. With the lake at just over 10,000', we were looking at 1600' of gain in less than a mile, with about 90 minutes of daylight left. My partner had pushed to make it to this point, and the hard part was ahead. Could I get us to the lake if darkness overtook us on the slabs? It was getting pretty chilly, so we got going without taking a break.

The slabs on the right (facing north) were covered by a thin layer of snow, under which I was certain lay treacherous ice. Even though we had crampons, I didn't feel like trying our luck. So I led to a small ridge on the left, which we gained and followed through brush until I traversed right onto the slabs facing south. These were clear of snow, so from this point on all we had to do was keep going up. The views started opening up to the west behind us, but the sun was plunging and with it the temperature. The slabs were steep, which didn't help the weight on the back. I started slowing down and getting tired myself. Somehow my partner kept going, despite having fallen behind, and me taking off as soon as I had him in my sight again.

Around 9600' I started started running into snow on these slabs as well. I weaved around them and ran into a snowshoe trail, which I followed through some significant drifts to a high slab, which looked too difficult to climb over. The other option was to backtrack a bit, then circumvent this rocky section to the north. The lake lay 100' beyond. With the desperation brought on by the incoming darkness and the cold, I pulled myself up and over the slab, a difficult class 2 mantle-shelving move on slippery rock with a 40-lb pack dragging me back.

I arrived at the lake on the last ray of sunlight, literally. I spotted a nice flat sandy spot, dropped my pack, put on a second jacket, and started yelling my partner's name. I hadn't seen him for at least 10-15 minutes. Once the sun went behind the horizon, the temps started plummeting. Getting no answer, I was torn between starting to set up the tent (of which I had half) and going to look for him. To my great relief, he finally heard me after about 5 minutes of increasingly profane yelling.

Finally reunited and at our destination, we wasted no time getting the expedition tent set up. It was incredible what a difference shelter makes. Even with barely a touch of wind, anything directly exposed to the sky was already starting to freeze, while the temperature inside stayed constant. We were both tired, sweaty and still needed to eat. We needed water to cook dinner. We went down to the lake and chopped a hole in the ice, which was about 3-4 inches thick. We filled up; by the time we walked back to the tent, the surface of of my two bowls was already starting to freeze. Cold indeed.

We fired up the Jetboil. It seemed to have trouble getting a strong flame going as the gas canisters were really cold. After what seemed like ages, the water finally got hot, though nothing seemed to coax into a boil. No matter. I fixed my pouch, then jumped into the tent to change while waiting for the meal to rehydrate. By the time it was ready I was in my sleeping bag and feeling comfortable. My partner fixed his meal, then retreated into the tent as well. It was 7pm and we were ready for bed.

Before calling it a night, I needed to get some water out of my system now to make sure it wouldn't happen in the middle of the night. I emerged from the tent under a blazing sky full of stars, more than I could possibly imagine. The Milky Way, a great white apron directly overhead. There were no clouds or moon anywhere, just millions of stars. I turned to the west and had to do a double take. Shining brightly just above the horizon was a planet, giving off an orange glow. Surely it could not be...Mars! But it was. I can't recall the last time I had seen Mars. Every Sierra trip has a magical moment. It had just happened again. After cresting a rise, the artificial lights of the Central Valley appeared far below me, in some smoggy netherworld.

Shivering uncontrollably, I returned to the tent, got in the sleeping bag, secured all the gear inside the tent, and finally fell asleep. It had been a long day. Close call in getting to camp, but we had made it. The next 11 hours were spent changing position in the tight space of the down bag.

When it finally started getting light enough to see, I decided it was time to get out. The cold was numbing at first, but as I started to warm up by exercising, it became quite pleasant. I convinced my partner to emerge, and together we chopped another hole in the ice to get fresh water. This time the cooking went more smoothly, though the canisters still powered only a feeble flame.

By 8am we were ready to go to the summit, only 1100' above us at this point. I led up and over more slabs, then followed Silliman Creek to its origin in the upper lake. Still no consistent snow coverage on the ground, even though we were at 10,400'. I could see the south slope leading up to a saddle between two peaks. It was clear of snow.

Thinking the right peak was the summit, I led us up a steep ravine above the lake, then into a sandy gully which I finally surmounted after some frustrating slogging. By this time the GPS was indicating the summit to be on the left, so I angled to the west and picked my way through foxtail pines and more slabs to finally reach the highpoint at 11,200' (the accepted value of 11,188' is clearly underestimated). Peaks, peaks and more peaks in every direction except to the west. The air was so clear, it felt I was looking through pure crystal. My partner joined me on the summit and together we enjoyed as fabulous an experience as one could dream for. We were the only beings around. Hundreds of photos were snapped. We signed the register, set up some team shots, then decided it was finally time to descend.

On the way down I took a route going through the slabs above the upper lake. We emerged at the upper lake to take some more pictures of its frozen surface, now glistening in the mild sun. Back at the tent, we still needed to break camp and pack up. Doing so took more time then expected, so once again it was 12:30 and a nagging feeling started coalescing in the pit of my stomach. Would we have to make a dash for it again? Luckily the return was all downhill...we should be ok.

Descending the slabs was time-consuming. Icy sheets from snowmelt forced us to pick our way carefully, ever mindful of the weight on our backs. After longer than it could possibly take on a normal day, we traversed a boulder field onto the brushy slope above the meadow. The brush closed in despite my best efforts to avoid it, so at one point there was no choice but to plunge straight down. Thankfully the bushwhacking section was short and we were finally down on more level ground.

The next problem was finding the use trail again. This was the same place where it had disappeared on the way up, but after placing full confidence in my GPS I finally found it. My partner was getting tired again and could have used a stop for food and water, but it was past 2pm and I was adamant about getting back to the real trail before dark, so we kept going with no breaks.

The rest of the descent proceeded uneventfully. We got back on the Twin Lakes trail by 3pm, then returned to Lodgepole at our own pace. I kept hiking quickly as I was getting cold and the pack heavy. The distance between us grew, but I didn't feel concerned as I was confident he would make his way back just fine. I reached the trailhead just after 4pm. He showed up 5-10 minutes later and we returned to the car together.

Bottom line: 13.4 miles, 4568' gain and a great not-quite-winter adventure. Mt. Silliman is an amazing summit despite its relatively low elevation. I'm happy to have it the last high peak of the year in the Sierras. Now, where's the snow?

Photos (these are taken with my camera, which suffers from too wide an aperture and the fish-eye effect, my partner's photos were shot with a Canon EOS 5D and are still being processed):

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View to north and east from summit of Mt. Silliman (180° panorama)

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View to the south and west from summit (180° panorama)

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Close-up of the Sierra Crest from summit

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Racing the sun up the slabs

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Fading daylight, not far below the lower lake

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Upper Silliman Lake, morning

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Foxtail pines on the south slope of Mt. Silliman

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USGS summit marker

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Team on summit

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Upper Silliman Lake, noon-ish

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Reflection, ice

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Tent at base camp
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Re: TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013

Postby maverick » Fri Dec 06, 2013 1:51 pm

Thanks Orbitor, fun TR. Gotta love all the stars one sees while viewing the Sierra
skies at night. Silliman is a fun peak with fine views from the summit! Really like
the Upper Silliman Lake shot.
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Re: TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013

Postby Shawn » Fri Dec 06, 2013 7:55 pm

Really nice report, thanks for posting it. I was glad to see you beat the sunset, up and down. The pictures brought back some memories from a few trips I've made to Silliman in the past. I always thought it had a great mixture of hiking; starting on a trail, leaving the trail and ascending along the creek, ascending the massive slabs, seeing a couple of great little lakes, and then climbing to the summit. Nicely done. :thumbsup:
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Re: TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013

Postby orbitor » Mon Dec 09, 2013 9:10 pm

Thank you Mav and Shawn for your comments.
I need to explore more of the Great Western Divide area.
Last edited by orbitor on Thu Dec 12, 2013 4:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013

Postby calicokat » Wed Dec 11, 2013 9:39 pm

Great trip report and photos. Really enjoyed it. I did Silliman in March and might go back this winter. Great vantage point from the summit. So much of the Sierra Nevada is on magnificent display.
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Re: TR: Mt. Silliman and Silliman Lakes 29-30 November 2013

Postby orbitor » Thu Dec 12, 2013 4:42 pm

calicokat wrote:Great trip report and photos. Really enjoyed it. I did Silliman in March and might go back this winter. Great vantage point from the summit. So much of the Sierra Nevada is on magnificent display.


Thanks calicokat! I wouldn't mind going back up there in a few years, maybe when snow cover is better so that it is a classic snowshoe ascent. Along with Alta, Silliman offers some of the best panoramas in the entire Sierra.
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