"Planarians avoid strong light, hiding by day under objects in the water. After dark they come out to feed on live or dead animals. Often they can be attracted by placing small pieces of meat on the bottom."
(Sierra Nevada Natural History, An Illustrated Handbook) (1)
Temple Crag, a 12,999 foot peak located in the Palisade region of the California High Sierra, is a complex mountain whose aretes and buttresses provide enormous potential for high quality backcountry climbing. Two routes, highlighted in the guidebook "100 Classic Climbs in the High Sierra," (2) have seen skyrocketing popularity in the past decade. These routes, Sun Ribbon Arete and Dark Star, are regularly the scene of unplanned bivouacs by parties seduced by the challenge of the immense vertical landscape presented by this peak.
Em Holland and I climbed Sun Ribbon Arete in July of 1998. On the approach, we chanced to meet Bob Harrington, whom we had previously known only only through e-mail correspondence and by his reputation for cutting-edge first ascents in the Sierra backcountry. As our trip progressed, and as we added our own unplanned bivouac to the list of epics seen on the Sun Ribbon, I dismissed the meeting with Harrington from my mind. Little did I know, as Em and I were shivering on the summit ridge waiting for the first rays of sunlight, that I would return to Temple Crag later that summer with Bob to try something far different in magnitude and difficulty...
Lurking in the shadows to the right of Dark Star is the route Planaria, which follows an enormous, shallow dihedral. The first attempt on it was made by the talented climber Chris Fredricks, who lost interest when he was unable to free the entry to the corner, encountering a huge, rightward traversing roof (3). Planaria was eventually climbed in 1977 by Jay Jensen and Gordon Wiltsie, who used aid on the initial pitches (4).
High in the cold shade of the dihedral, the pair encountered a towering, detached flake bearing a striking resemblance to the flatworm after which the route was named. Bordering the pitch-long flake were two cracks: One an offwidth in the main corner, and the other a zig-zag wide slot through several roofs out on the wall to the right. Jay took a long fall out of the offwidth in the corner, and the pair switched to the crack on the right side of the flake to complete the first ascent, descending an easy couloir from the top of the lower buttress.
The route, and the dihedral, became "shrouded in an aura of mystery and respect" (5) when information from the first ascent leaked out. Tales of pitch-long sustained offwidth cracks, horrendous falls, and difficult roofs provided some fireside entertainment, but little inspiration for another attempt.
Twenty-one years passed before two climbers with the requisite lack of common sense teamed up to attempt a second ascent: In August, 1998, Bob Harrington and I (during our first climbing trip together) settled into a Spartan bivouac below the route, and proceeded to terrify ourselves by guessing at the difficulty of the climbing on our respective leads.
Our ambitious plan was to establish, via thin crack and face climbing, a free variation which ignored the first two pitches of aid; to ascend the yet-unclimbed left side of the flatworm; then to continue along the serrated upper ridge to the summit of the crag, completing the second ascent, the first free ascent, and the first entire ascent of the route to the summit register.
The following morning, Bob and I jostled for position and Bob, being younger than I, ended up on the sharp end of the rope for the first lead. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a pleasant and entertaining 5.9 crack, which Bob completed in short order. Smirking, he passed the sharp end of the rope to me. Soon I wandered about the loose, lichened face in confusion and fear, desperately seeking a pathway through crux difficulties which would not include a visit to the coroner, stopping every hour or so to place a two-finger piton (the number required for removal) or to drill a bolt. Nearly half the day was gone when Bob finally joined me at the belay, the new, free variation to the climb below our feet.
Next came a touch of adventure. At one point, Bob popped off the rock, to be stopped just above an ankle-breaker ledge. Having zippered all but one of his pieces of protection, (a shallow stopper in a flared slot) he looked up at the load limiter dangling from the marginal piece, all but a few of its stitches blown.
"I think I'm starting to like these Yates screamer things."
The next few pitches were uneventful save for my anxiety gradually increasing to the level of outright panic as, looking upward, I contemplated yet another crux: The Flatworm.
The Offwidth looms above. I am already retching in fear as I follow Harrington's pitch up to the stance at the base of the flake. As I reach the belay, I briefly consider trying to wrest the stance from Harrington, and send him up the lead, but it is obvious that he is prepared for this maneuver, having established himself in a tactically superior position in the dihedral like a crab in a shell, so, in between horrendous coughing fits (to gain sympathy) I resort to what I know will be ineffective whining, begging, and desperate groveling.
"Quit slobbering. There's a ledge halfway up that crack that even a sniveler like YOU could bivy on."
"ohhh! what a clever comeback THAT was!"
40 feet of straightforward arm-bars and heel-toes leaves my last protection far below. Soon I arrive at the afore-mentioned "ledge" to find a useless shelf sloping downward at an angle of 60 degrees. Alternately gasping like a beached beluga or trying to cough up a lung, I swing a limp, wasted arm around, the limb flopping in a feeble, uncoordinated attempt to transfer a #4.5 camalot from rack to crack.
Below, Bob lounges on the belay ledge, casually inspecting his fingernails. "WATCH ME?" I beg.
"No problem, I gotcha." He glances briefly in my direction out of courtesy, then resumes his inspection.
Time to move. Wrestling, struggling... Some offwidths succumb only to power, finesse, elegance, and gymnastics including inversion and Leavittation. Such climbs are beautiful, resembling sport climbing like the Indianapolis 500 resembles drag racing. Others, like Planaria, are nothing but a desperate, terrifyingly brutish struggle for survival, the demolition derby of climbing. Bob's reasons for his choice of partner become clear.
Snapshot images burn into my neurons: A jumbled, tilted talus slope, nestled in the morning shadows at the base of this huge wall, so far below that its huge boulders are grains of sand sweeping beach-like up to the rocky promontory of North Palisade; Third Lake a sunlit emerald; Azure roof of the heavens; puffs of cloud drifting above a vast and distant horizon; Sweat and tears blurring my vision as blood leaks from my raw meat arms into the gullet of the silver-grey granite in this cold, shadowed corner.
Somewhere, thirty feet above my last piece, my neuromuscular system slowly morphing from meltdown to vapor-lock, finding a small hold on the overhanging left wall, stemming beyond the limits of my screaming hamstrings, I eek out a half-rest for my spent, burning muscles before the layback exit into the squeeze chimney. The first, gilled creature to crawl out of the Paleozoic sea and gaze upon the land, I at last ooze on my belly up to the belay ledge, confused by this new turn of events, uncertain of the evolutionary course from here into the future, feeling like the victim of a high-speed collision. "Your lead."
-- Later that day --
The cruxes are far below us now. We are simulclimbing the sawtooth spine of the mountain, marveling at its exposed crystalline bones. Out of water, we stop briefly to scoop snow from a bank for Gatorade snowcones, to munch a bit of food. Then onward, racing congealing clouds.
Fat drops of rain splatter into the snowfield around me, as I dodge a projectile kicked off Moon Goddess Arete by a retreating party of five. Bob, demonstrating his skiing prowess, is far below, almost at camp, the parallel tracks from his standing boot glissade mocking me, as I execute an inelegant butt-slide from suncup to suncup down this last stretch of the descent, using a #5 Camalot as a self arrest tool. There comes a sound of distant thunder.
I pause on the last bit of scree into camp, where the ground tilts upwards and dives under a liquor-store-snowbank, to dig out our last two cans of ice cold Heineken. Below, on the flat sand, awaits a sumptuous celebration feast: the menu includes fresh veggies, brownies, and Zinfandel.
Above, the evening sky swirls in a mosaic of grey, blue, white, and gold Volkswagen- and crableg- clouds. The storm is breaking up, the darker shadow of rain slashing through the high mountain air having moved east, over Big Pine. We may not get drenched tonight after all.
1. Sorer, Tracy, and Usinger, R.. Sierra Nevada Natural History, An Illustrated Handbook. Univ. of Calif. Press, 1989.
2. Moynier, John and Fiddler, C.. 100 Classic Climbs in the High Sierra. Chockstone Press, 1993.
3. Personal communication between John Fisher and Bob Harrington, June 1998
4. Secor, R.J.. The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails. The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA 1992.
Somewhere, thirty feet above my last piece, my neuromuscular system slowly morphing from meltdown to vapor-lock, finding a small hold on the overhanging left wall, stemming beyond the limits of my screaming hamstrings, I eek out a half-rest for my spent, burning muscles before the layback exit into the squeeze chimney.