I first laid eyes on Mt Silliman last fall during my hike up Lewis Creek and was struck by its complex and distinct summit. Since then I’ve been interested in a spring ski ascent of the peak and have been keeping an eye on the weather for a good opportunity. Unfortunately my attempt last week was interrupted by a flat tire, but this time I managed to make it to Fresno with no car issues!
The alarm went off at 3 am this morning, as I was hoping to start the hike in twilight, knowing that every minute of sun exposure counts and could rapidly destabilize the snowpack on the southern aspect I was planning to climb. An unexpected delay in packing (which should have been predictable) as well as an unplanned detour to San Francisco meant that I didn’t hit the hay until nearly midnight, and it didn’t take much consideration for me to hit the snooze button. I managed to start the car and head out of Fresno by 6:15 and arrived in Lodgepole around 8. The road wasn’t open past the visitor center, so I abandoned my plan to follow a marked trail out of the campground to Silliman Meadows. I needed to cross the Marble Fork Kaweah somehow though, and it’s a big enough river in Lodgepole that I didn’t bother looking for a snowbridge. Instead at 9 am, I shouldered my skis and hiked back to CA 198, crossing the river before putting on my skis.
I was a bit disappointed to find that an access road cut across the hill not twenty feet upslope of where I’d started my climb. So, I hopped down onto the pavement and gingerly skinned across and started the climb in earnest. I quickly came across some small cabins and was impressed by the snow depth — many of the electrical lines were completely buried!
The snow was icy from last night’s freeze, but the climb was pleasant. Cedars mingled with the pines, brightening the forest with their brilliant orange bark. I crossed a recent set of large bear tracks just before cresting the hill and meeting with the trail.
Despite being marked on my Forest Service map, I wasn’t really expecting to find the trail. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be well blazed for winter travel, but it was! I decided to take advantage of the easy route finding and follow the trail for as long as it headed in the right direction. I lost the trail somewhere around Willow Meadows (at a point where two adjacent blazes pointed in opposite directions), but it seemed to have gotten me through the densest part of the forest. From here I followed the east bank of Silliman Creek which would lead me most of the way to the summit.
Where the bank got steep I occasionally crossed from one side of the creek to the other. I was starting to regret my decision to sleep in as the snow baking in the sun was warm and slushy and starting to clump to my skis. I had to stop a few times to scrape the snow off my skins and hoped that the steeper slopes above would be colder and less gloppy. As I climbed higher and the forest waned, towering granite spires came into view in all directions.
I followed the creek on a sharp right turn and entered a large glacial canyon. High above rose the west spur of Mt Silliman. Silliman Creek ran down the far side of the bowl, mostly concealed, but occasionally making an appearance. Most impressive was the enormous number of glide cracks on the slope, indicating that the entire snowpack was moving downhill in a slow motion avalanche! The canyon must comprise huge granite slabs!
The snow in the canyon was indeed firmer than that along the creek. Trace amounts of snow lay atop a supportable crust and the route was too steep to climb directly, so I equipped my ski crampons (although I probably waited too long to do so and ended up slipping and bloodying my hand while putting them on). After a few hundred feet of climbing the slope eased up again and I planned to head to the highest tree in the canyon to stop for lunch and give my skins a chance to dry. However, as I climbed higher, the wind began to pick up. I had spotted some spindrift higher up the mountain earlier, but now, there were several tornados on the ridge rocketing snow hundreds of feet into the air. Every couple of minutes, a strong blast came through the canyon, too, transporting what little loose snow there was. I abandoned my plan to head for the highest tree and instead headed towards a dense patch of trees I hoped would serve as a wind break.
After a brief lunch, I started uphill again. After my experience on Mt Rose a few months earlier, I was wary of gaining the ridge in a windstorm. Although the wind was occasionally gusting upwards of 40mph, I had hope since the tornados seemed to indicate swirling wind more than a coordinated gale. Soon I was at Silliman Lake, situated in a beautiful and severe cirque.
Looking above, I was uncertain of the route to take. High at the head of the canyon rose a tall rocky peak which did not look easily climbable. To the left, a small icy forest sat atop a ridge which, according to the map was the true summit, but it seemed impossible that it was taller than the other peak from this angle. I had been planning to more or less climb directly to the summit, but from here I could see that a direct route would put me uncomfortably close to some large cliffs. I was also concerned that the wind might pick up as I climb higher but I did not see much indication of snow on the slopes above. I opted to climb the left side of the canyon a few hundred feet before traversing to the forest and finishing the climb.
All along the climb, I was still unsure that I was heading to the correct highpoint, but I trusted in the map. I began to notice around 1 pm that clouds were building in from the west and had a sense of urgency to reach the summit before they did.
I noticed so many beautiful lines that I would love to come back and ski someday!
I made my way through the forest and the slope eased up. I kept looking to my right at the other peak, thinking “there’s no way this is the summit!”
At 2 pm it suddenly appeared that I was at the top, but I was sure that it must be a false summit and the true summit would soon come into view! Right until the last ten feet, I still thought the other peak was higher but, now on the summit I could see it was barely taller. And what a view!
Far to the north I spied the high peaks of Yosemite as well as Mts Banner and Ritter! Mt Goddard rose high and lonely in the northern reaches of Kings Canyon National Park. The 14ers of the Palisades and Split mountain rose high in the distance, and more closely to the west, the Great Western Divide! To the southwest, peaks slowly dissolved into the clouds and to the south, nothing was visible beyond Silliman Canyon.
The clouds to the south were especially disappointing because I’m planning to climb Alta Peak tomorrow and was hoping to be able to scope the peak out before the hike. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to be surprised tomorrow — hopefully the clouds cooperate and I’ll have more views to the south!
There wasn’t the slightest hint of a breeze on the summit and the sun was warm, so I laid out my skins and glove liners to dry while I perused the register and had a luxurious lunch. This is what Sierra summits are all about!
The summit register only went back to 2016 but it had a lot of entries for a peak with no trail to the top! This was my first opportunity to sign a register so far this year and I was excited to see that mine was the first (registered) summit of the year! In 2018 it seemed that there were no winter summits, with the first entry occurring in late May, but in 2017 I was quite surprised to see that Jim had climbed the peak in March, one of the snowiest months in the history of the Sierra! There were too many entries for me to read them all, and when I saw some political arguments going on, I decided to stow it and enjoy my lunch.
After about half an hour I decided to head down so that I would have some daylight to dry off at the car. The snow was slushy and pleasant but the clouds grew denser as I descended.
The light was flat for final descent back to Silliman Creek, but not terrible, and I found that it was still good skiing — if the sun were out, it might actually be too warm!
I skied the rest of the way out along the creek, trying to follow my track where possible. Eventually the terrain flattened out quite a bit and I had to do some sidestepping and skating to avoid deep tree wells. I found the winter trail in just about the spot where I’d lost it on the way up and started to follow it. It led to a bridge crossing Silliman Creek, covered with over 8 feet of snow, and I realized I was following the trail in the wrong direction.
After a bit more sidestepping I made my way back to the steeper slope above the Marble Fork and made a speedy descent. I arrived back at the highway and hiked back to the car, arriving around 3:30 pm. Five hours up, and one hour down — this is the way mountaineering should be!
- Full snow coverage
- Stable snow bridges across all creeks
- Trace new snow atop firm snow
- Active transport of snow observed, although not much snow available for transport
- Slushy conditions below 10,000 ft
Elevation Gain: 4,800 ft