Hiking Mt Sill

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | Other California trails
Pictures of the hikes

The Palisades region of the Sierra Nevada is located west of the town of Big Pine. It includes some of the highest mountains in California, including Mt Sill (4316 m) with its subpeak Apex.

There are three main approaches to Mt Sill for a day hike:

  • From the Seven-Lake trailhead (north fork) west of Big Pine via Sam Mack Meadow and Glacier Notch
  • From the South Fork trailhead west of Big Pine via Scimitar Pass
  • From the South Fork trailhead west of Big Pine via Glacier Notch

From Big Pine's Seven-lake trailhead

Big Pine is located ten minutes south of Bishop. In Big Pine, take the only road that goes west (right), Glacier Rd. The trailhead parking lot is almost at the end of the road (before Glacier Lodge). There is a campground about 200 meters before the trailhead.

From that campground drive up the road shortly and find the hiker's parking lot on your right-hand side (there are bear lockers right at the parking lot). The trailhead is behind the restrooms. The altitude here is about 2,000 meters.

This is the beginning of the North Fork route. And this is the popular "Seven Lake" trail.

The trail goes around a huge hill and coasts three of the lakes. It takes about 2 hours to the first lake. The second lake is at 3066m of altitude. About 1km after the third lake (3 hours into the hike, 3124m of altitude), turn left into the Glacier Trail (instead of continuing the Seven Lake loop). Careful: this sign is easy to miss.

The trail climbs up a canyon and reaches an enchanting place, Sam Mack Meadow (3280m), completely surrounded by mountains and waterfalls (3.5 hours into the hike).

The trail turns left 50 meters into the meadow, crosses the creek and ascends the ridge. As you ascend, you have a superb view of all the (eight) lakes. When the lakes are not visible anymore, the trail ends, and you simply ascend following cairns up boulders and slabs, until you reach the top of the ridge, which is actually the rim of the glacier. On your right, you have a view of the lake at the center of the glacier. In front of you the Palisades: North Palisade is the one in the middle (the fourth highest mountain in California), Thunderbolt to the right and Mt Sill to the left (it looks like a closed fist). You are standing just below Mt Gayley.

The Palisade Glacier is not for the faint-hearted.

If you want to reach Mt Sill, you have to walk around the eastern border of the glacier, which may be icy, a very tiring and trying experience, and then climb the steep stairs to Glacier Notch. These pictures were taken (from Mt Winchell) in mid september of one of the driest years ever:

That's the only case in which you can hike up Glacier Notch. In a normal year the glacier extends over a much greater area making it impossible to reach Glacier Notch without crampons, ropes, etc. If you manage to get to the chute between Mt Sill and Apex Peak, see the description of the route from the South Fork that goes through the same Glacier Notch.

  • North Fork parking lot (2300m)
  • First lake 1h45'
  • Sam Mack meadow (3280m) 3h30'
  • Entering the glacier 5h
  • Glacier Notch 7h
  • Apex Peak 7h30'
  • Mt Sill summit 8h

From Big Pine's South Fork to Mt Sill

This is my favorite way, although it involves route finding, bushwhacking, boulder hopping, creek crossings, etc. If you don't wear crampons, this route is more likely to get you to the top because it is more snow-free than the northern route.

The southwest face of Mt Sill can be reached from Big Pine also by hiking the South Fork (not the North Fork). This South Fork trail starts at the Glacier Lodge (2300m) and reaches Willow Lake in 6.5 km at 2900m of elevation. Note that at the very beginning you have to cross a creek that may be impassable after a rain or in late spring when a lot of snow is melting. Past the lake (often invisible in the summer, but there is a sign on the trail) is a good place to leave the trail and head west (right) following the unnamed creek that comes down from Mt Gayley.

The nicest way to coast the creek up from Willow Lake is to stay on its southern side, after crossing the tributaries coming down from the southern peaks. Use-trails appear and disappear on that side. The northern side of the Gayley creek is all talus rock, but the route is easier to follow (so probably the best option in the dark). At the second southern canyon you should reach a little pond and then a vast meadow. This is a good point to cross over to the northern side of the creek.

There are three main ways to summit Sill from this direction:

  • Glacier Notch (by far my favorite). Head west all the way coasting the creek to the north. This involves climbing a steep sandy section towards a waterfall, then a rocky section to another waterfall, each waterfall leading to a meadow. From the highest meadow, take the chute (usually dry in the summer) to the left of the one that has roaring rapids. From this chute continue heading straight towards Sill. You have to climb down and up a couple of moraines, but nothing too terrible. When you have Glacier Notch (the saddle between Mt Sill and Mt Gayley) in front of you, move right towards Gayley and you should find a sandy use-trail that takes you to the bottom of Glacier Notch.

    Glacier notch from the east:

    The general route:

    Follow the diagonal groove and then find a class-2 way to zigzag to the top:

    If you climb above the diagonal line, you enter the very first chimney, which is borderline class-4 but takes you to the top of Glacier Notch in five minutes.

    If you don't like steep walls, there is an easier way to get to the top of Glacier Notch: before you reach Glacier Notch on the sandy use-trail, several of the chutes to the right of the use-trail lead to the base of Mt Gayley, and from there it is trivial to walk to Glacier Notch and to the "L-chute" of Mt Sill.

    These chutes are particularly helpful on the way down: getting down from Glacier Notch through its slippery chimneys is not fun.

    Once on top of Glacier Notch, head south (left, uphill) to the (very visible) "L-chute" between Apex Peak and Mt Sill (the north couloir). This chute is three things in one: solid class-2 rock to the left, loose scree to the right, and ice in the middle. Pick your favorite. I went up the solid rock to the left and came down the screen on the right. Alas, in most years you can't avoid the ice/snow because it fills the whole chute (yes, also in the summer). Brave hikers can bypass the ice/snow of the chute by climbing Apex Peak about halfway and then traversing into the chute at the higher point where the ice/snow can be bypassed.
    At the top of this chute (stunning views of the Palisades glacier), look at your left: there is a little notch that allows you to traverse to the western side of the mountain. You walk up and down over a safe ledge for a minute or so until you reach a 20-meter wall. That wall leads to the southwestern crest of Mt Sill, ten minutes from the summit. Climbing this wall is not as difficult as advertised. It is rated class 4 but there are so many handholds and footholds that you have plenty of options on how to bypass the steepest sections.

    The chute from Glacier Notch:

    The notch at the top of the chute:

    The class-4 wall to the crest:

    The chute and Glacier Notch from the summit:

    When you get to the crest, the summit is slightly to your right. It is not obvious which one is the real summit until you find the summit register. I found no USGS marker.

    • South Fork trailhead
    • Creek crossing 45'
    • Beginning of switchbacks: 55'
    • Pass: 1h 45'
    • Brainerd Lake sign: 2h
    • Meadow: 3h30'
    • Moraine: 3h 45'
    • Top of first waterfalls: 4h20'
    • Upper meadow: 4h 35'
    • Top of second waterfalls and highest meadow: 4h 50'
    • Entering the glacier: 5h50'
    • Top of Glacier Notch: 7h
    • Top of chute: 7h35'
    • Summit: 8h
  • East Couloir. Most people seem to prefer the route via Elinor Lake, although it is not the most direct. Turn left (south) into the third canyon from Willow Lake (just before the waterfall) to reach Elinor Lake (3350m). As the condor flies, Elinor Lake is about 3km from Willow Lake. From Elinor Lake hike the ledges to the west to the Sill Glacier. A more direct way to get to the Sill Glacier from Willow Lake is to follow the previous instructions to Glacier Notch: the Sill Glacier is to the left before Glacier Notch. Whichever way you came, you have to cross the glacier and head for the East Couloir. This entails some hair-rising scramble over snow/ice. The only safe way was to make quite a detour north in order to find a safe place to cross the bergschrund, and then traverse back south on dry rock. This was time-consuming and dangerous. When you finally enter the coloir, you almost miss the bergschrund: the coloir is a lot steeper than it is rated in famous books, definitely class 4 in several spots, and the loose rock is treacherous in those spots. Chances of rolling down for 10-20 meters are not negligible. The only good news is that (on a normal year) you are unlikely to be stopped by ice inside the coloir in late summer. Again, the couloir leads to the southern side of Mt Sill (to the Polemonium-Sill glacier, which is usually dry in the summer at this height). Then follow the instructions for climbing the southern side.

  • Scimitar Pass. This is sometimes described as the "easy" way to summit Mt Sill. In reality it is one of the most devastating day hikes one can possibly think of. Saying that you can hike Mt Sill from Scimitar Pass is like saying that you can travel from New York to London via Brazil: technically possible, but totally senseless.

    Following the Elinor Lake canyon in the general southwest direction, one gets (one/two hours after the lake) to a "pass", Scimitar Pass (4019m, not really a pass, just the only climbable part of the wall around Elinor Lake). Finding the right way to climb Scimitar Pass is rather tricky. Coasting the lake on the east and south, one has to follow the ridgeline above Elinor Lake. The only human way to do this is to cross over to the other side of the ridge. The ridgeline bends right (east) as it approaches Mt Jepson (4081m). This is strenuous climbing for most of the way. As the condor flies, Scimitar Pass is only 2 km from Elinor Lake, but the elevation gain is significant.

    A shortcut is to take the second canyon (not the third one) and bypass Elinor Lake altogether. As you go up this canyon, gain the ridge to the right. Eventually you will see Elinor Lake down on your left. Keep going up heading for the left side of the ridgeline.
    Scimitar Pass leads (northwest) into a saddle created by Scimitar Pass itself and Mt Jepson (4081m). You cannot reach Mt Sill directly through this saddle because the northwestern face of Mt Jepson (the face that faces Mt Sill) is a steep wall of rock. You have to descend the saddle to the southeast losing a ton of elevation. Just before the lake, turn right around the base of the ridge and ascend the canyon that is basically parallel to the way you just came down. This is as steep uphill as your descent was. When you are at the end of the canyon, hike the wall to your left that takes you into the Sill-Polemonium glacier. This is even steeper. Once into the glacier the slope is much milder. It is virtually impossible to tell which one is the top of Sill because Sill looks like a very long ridge with no clear summits.

    As the condor flies, Scimitar Pass (4019m) is about 2km from Elinor Lake (3350m) plus elevation gain, and Mt Sill another 5km plus elevation loss/gain.

    • Bridge: 30'
    • Pass to Willow Lake: 1h30'
    • Entering the second canyon (the Palisade Crest drainage) at the meadow: 2h45'
    • Top of ridge of second canyon: 4h30'
    • Crossing over to the eastern side of the ridgeline above Elinor Lake: 5h30'
    • Scimitar Pass (4019m): 8h
    • Saddle: 8h30'
    • Mt Jepson (4081m): 9h
    • Rounding the ridge almost to the lake: 9h30'
    • Base of Mt Sill: 11h
    • Summit Sill: 12h30'

    From South Lake to Bishop Pass to Mt Sill

    Mt Sill is frequently described as "easy" from the south. Nothing could be more misleading. The approach from the nearest trailhead (South Lake, trail for Bishop Pass) is enough to discourage all but the most hardcore and stubborn hiker. You don't even see your destination until the very end.

    See the description to Bishop Pass and Thunderbolt Pass. From Bishop Pass to Thunderbolt Pass to Potluck Pass the route is a parade of colossal boulders. If you think you've done bouldering before, think again. An infinite number of canyons/moraines make the route a test of will. The route contours the southern side of the Palisades. After passing the North Palisade's main chute, you see a high pass in front of you, Potluck Pass, the pass that appears to be an unpaved road.

    As soon as you can, start climbing up north (left). You are climbing the southeastern ridge of an unnamed peak (also known as Barrett Peak, 4,256m). You can head right as you go up so that you can reach the western ridge and get an idea of where you stand. If you see Scimitar Pass and Mt Jepson, you are still too low and too west: move to the left and much higher. Eventually, you will see Mt Sill appear on the northern side of the glacier.

    Find a way to get down and cross the glacier trying not to lose too much elevation. Usually this means that you have to descend the northern side of Barrett Peak heading left. In august the glacier is usually small enough that there is no snow/ice where you cross it: just boulders. Aim for the central chute of Sill. If you take the wrong chute, you might fail or even die. All the other chutes end in odd places that require exposed steep moves. (The widely-publicized southwest ridge looks deadly to me, incidentally). This central chute requires some difficult moves towards the end but is the fastest and safest way to reach the summit.

    The route from Potluck Pass to Barrett Peak to the Sill-Polemonium Glacier:

    The South Fork routes:

    • South Lake
    • Bishop Pass 2h 40'
    • Thunderbolt Pass 4h 30'
    • U-Notch chute 5h 30'
    • Start coasting the Peak 6h 15'
    • Polemonium glacier 8h
    • Mt Sill summit 10h

    View from Mt Sill (video)


Pictures of the hikes
View from Mt Sill
Palisades Weather
Hiking California