“I like short approaches,” said Steve.
In my mind, six miles and 3,500 feet of gain, most of it on a good trail, qualified.
“No problem. This is a nice, short approach.” I replied.
I was forgetting that my partner had done most of his climbing at places like Joshua Tree and Yosemite. When he said “short approach” he meant a ten-minute walk from the car on flat ground. Oh, well.
We met in Big Pine at 1:30 pm, as previously arranged. After some discussion of route selection over a fat, juicy burger at the Country Kitchen restaurant we headed up to the trailhead.
It had been more years than I care to remember since I had been in this drainage, but the North Fork of Big Pine Creek seemed to welcome me home. I couldn’t stop taking pictures as Temple Crag came into view. Every few yards seemed to bring an even better view of this magnificent peak.
In what seems to have become our pattern, I eventually gave up on waiting for Steve every half mile or so, and just blasted on up to camp. Our plan was to bivvy at the fabled campsites to the south of Third Lake. The instructions in our Supertopo guide made it all seem so simple: just cross the outlet stream at the east end of the lake, climb to the top of the moraine, cross some talus, and bingo, you’re there.
Yeah, right. When I arrived at the top of the moraine I ran into another guy who asked me if I’d ever been here before.
“Sure,” I said, “many times.”
“So where are the camp sites?”
There was nothing but huge boulders as far as we could see. I shrugged my shoulders.
He needled me ever so subtly. “I thought you said you’d been here before.”
“Yeah, well, it’s been a few years.”
After a desultory search we both went back across the stream to try our luck there. This wasn’t as easy as it might have been, had there not been so many people. I know it’s a free country, but couldn’t all these fishermen find somewhere else to go, so we climbers could find a decent campsite?
I eventually found a primo site atop a rock promontory. I was feeling pretty good about that, when I remembered I’d told Steve we’d meet on the other side of the lake. Damn.
Off I went in search of my partner. After about fifteen minutes I was starting to feel pretty bad about misdirecting him. It was getting dark. He had the tent. And the stove.
I beginning to feel even worse about it.
Just when I resigned myself to a miserable headlamp search of the boulder field I’d sent him off into, he popped out of the trees.
“Dude, I was just about to call in the SAR.”
“I’m tired. Where’s camp?”
Steve is a really good-natured guy. He busied himself with setting up the tent while I started dinner. We checked out the route as the alpenglow slowly faded. If you ask me, Temple Crag is one of the most amazing and complex mountains in the entire Sierra Nevada. With each change in light, every shift in vantage point, new aretes and chutes seem to appear and disappear. Dominating the view is the massive north buttress, a 2,500-foot high series of towers and knife-edged ridges that is deceptively foreshortened from where we sat at Third Lake.
But we were not there for the north buttress. We had set our sights considerably lower. For Steve’s first long Sierra route we had chosen the Venusian Blind Arete, so named because Don Jensen, who lead the first ascent in 1969, saw Venus rising over it early one morning. We washed the dishes, packed our sack for the next day, and turned in.
We set out the following morning at 6:30, our standard half-hour behind schedule. Twenty minutes into the approach we discovered the campsites Supertopo talked about. They’re about three tenths of a mile south of the lake, and invisible until you’re almost on top of them. It’s a good thing we didn’t persevere the night before. There was no water there. I checked Supertopo when we got back home. It does kinda mention the lack of water in late season, but I doubt McNamara’s estimate of ten minutes to walk to the nearest water.
We groveled another thousand feet up loose rock and scree until we reached the small snowfield at the base of the face. This proved to be rock hard. We had left the crampons at home. I tested the friction while Steve toiled his way up the last hundred feet of scree. Not bad. I’d never friction climbed on snow, but it seemed like it would go.
Steve didn’t think so. I offered to lead up and belay him from the rocks above. He nodded his assent, and off we went.
Another party, the guy I met the night before and an extraordinarily attractive woman, was now hot on our heels. They skipped roping up, and passed us on the third class ledges above the snow. Just as I was starting to feel inferior, they headed straight up into the steep walls overhead. I chuckled. Steve and I passed them by as they fiddled around with this off-route adventure.
But our triumph was to be short-lived. They were faster than us up the third and fourth class terrain below the start of the climb proper. And so it was that my race to be first on the route, thereby avoiding the chance of rocks being knocked down on our heads the rest of the day, was lost.
Their plan was to simulclimb the whole route. Steve and I had discussed this, but decided against it because we hadn’t really gotten this technique down as a rope team. Following the other party on the first five pitches, it seemed our decision was justified. They didn’t move any faster than we did, and their position seemed more precarious at times. Higher up, the simulclimbing approach definitely kicked butt on our strategy.
Supertopo advised us to “stick close to the topo” on the middle part of the climb. This would prove to be as effective as following its directions to the campsite the night before. I kept my print of the topo safely tucked in my pocket most of the day, where it could do no harm. In Chris McNamara’s defense, Temple Crag is an enormously complex mountain. His guide probably does about as well as anyone could in describing the route. But I have to say that the only landmark I was able to positively identify was the “Death Diving Board” on pitch 9. We climbed whatever route seemed the most fun.
Once at the top of the first tower, you don’t really need a guide. Just follow the arete. When things look absurd straight up, deke right and you’ll probably be okay. Or maybe left. It depends.
Steve said he liked my route finding, so I got to lead most of the route. I like leading, so that was okay with me. And if I don’t like the leader’s decisions, it doesn’t lead to a fight between my partner and me; just a lot of muttered expletives.
I muttered a lot of expletives after the first tower. I passed up an awesome belay spot for a crappy anchor thirty feet above the notch behind. And that was the good part. Once I started my descent into the notch the rope drag became incredible. I had to plant both feet and yard away with both hands to pull it up behind me. To climb out of the notch, I pulled about twenty feet of slack up, and basically soloed up to the belay.
I repeated the mistake after the second tower. Seven million years of human evolution, and this is the best I can do? If AAJ ever put out a joke issue, I bet these two leads would have a better than even chance of making it in.
I brought Steve across the last interesting traverse on pitch 13. This isn’t nearly as scary or poorly protected as Supertopo might lead you to believe. The principle technical difficulty, once again, was rope drag. The route forces you to weave all over the place, and even double length runners didn’t completely solve the problem.
At this point, we’d completed the technical part of the route. We decided to forego the last couple hundred feet of horizontal ridge scrambling, and bailed into the gully on the left. By the way, the rappel opportunity at the end of pitch ten is everything Supertopo says it is. If the weather is sketchy, darkness is falling, or you’re just plain ready to get off the mountain, by all means, avail yourself of this. No fixed pins, just a bomber flake. BYO rap sling, though. There’s a bunch of manky tat there I wouldn’t trust my boss’s life to. Sixty feet down to easy scrambling. Just remember to go up, not down. Otherwise you will have an epic.
We topped out below the summit about six hours after we first roped up. We ate the last of our sandwiches, and drank the last of the water, and started down.
It had indeed been a long time since I had gone this way. I remembered only enough to know that if you went the wrong way above Contact Pass, you’d regret it. I hadn’t actually taken the wrong way before, just heard about the epics suffered by those who had.
So now it was my turn to follow in their footsteps. I could blame my partner, but that would be bogus. Steve caught up to me as I stared down a slope that seemed to roll off into nothing, and an inviting chute to the right.
“Which way?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“I like this.” He pointed down the chute.
I shrugged. Might as well. How bad can it be? Besides, we’re climbers. We can handle anything.
We were four or five hundred feet down by the time we realized we had definitely gone the wrong way. The chute turned and headed away from Contact Pass, and it got steeper and narrower. Finally, we decided to rap past a short face that would have been awkward to downclimb. One rap lead to another. At the second rap station we found the telltale poot slings that told us we were not the first to screw this up. Sun-baked loops of nylon festooned a large flake like Christmas tree garlands.
We removed these, and set up a fresh anchor. The descent steepened to the point of overhanging, and our 60 meter rope barely reached a third class ledge above safe ground. Our relief at being on relatively flat terrain was soon tempered by the realization that we were now several hundred feet below the pass.
We did our penance up the scree back to Contact Pass, where the correct descent route seemed so obvious. But we were too thirsty to care. We turned on the afterburners, and high tailed it back to camp.
Two liters of water and a good meal later and the whole thing took on a new perspective. Once again, we watched the alpenglow fade from the mountain. The beauty was as staggering as ever. We began to talk about returning.