Live to Climb Another Day

My father, Ed, and I have always had a good relationship, partially because we share many passions. One of those passions: the mountains.

My father has been climbing in the Sierra Nevada mountains since before I was born, even before he met my mother. I was too young to remember the first time my father introduced me to the Sierras, but I can remember many of the trips since. So when my parents moved back to California after years away, the first thing on our list was to go climb a mountain together.

After lots of planning and contemplation over which peak to bag, we set off for Mount Sill in the John Muir Wilderness of Inyo National Forest. Mount Sill sits right in the middle of the Palisades, one of the highest sub-ranges of the Sierra Nevadas, a mountaineer’s paradise full of steep glaciers, turquoise tairns and imposing alpine crags. A days-long approach brought us from the trailhead to our high-camp, only 3,000 feet below our objective. Reeling from mild altitude sickness and the fatigue of our ascent, we collapsed into our sleeping bags, excited for the next day’s climb.

Pre-dawn came and we were on the move, traversing across Palisade Glacier’s lateral moraine and trying not to lose too much altitude. Soon the sun was up, lighting the peaks but leaving us in the cold shadow of our mountain. An hour and a half of boulder hopping and scrambling over talus brought us to the base of our main ascent route, but also to the base of an ice wall we had not anticipated. A hard snow-climb can be harrowing, but we were prepared for as much. An ice-climb though? Quite a different danger and one that we had no protection against. Though more than 2,000 feet below Mount Sill, we had to turn back.

Failure is always hard to stomach, and I admit being more than a little disappointed by our forced retreat. Even now I think back to those moments and wonder if just a little more effort or a little more ingenuity could have brought us over that obstacle. But my father’s view rings true, “the best climbers live to climb another day.”

-Story and Images by Jackson Compean