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"Whose hair-brained idea was this anyway?" I asked Robb as we scrambled up the snowy talus field past Dark Star
just as the sun crept close enough to the horizon to see without a headlamp. We were making good time despite the trail conditions on the approach. Sections of ice on the trail combined with plenty of postholing up the switchbacks below First Lake had slowed us down a bit, but we were still making decent time and felt good. It was only 6:30am, but already 5 hours earlier, my cell phone’s alarm had awoken us from our warm slumber in the parking lot. “You sure you don’t want to do Dark Star
?” I asked jokingly.
This would be Robb’s first Sierra route. He attempted Bear Creek Spire last summer with a group of friends, but one in the group is especially susceptible to AMS and they were forced to cut their trip short. We originally hoped to make a run up BCS, but with the road closed well before the Mosquito Flat Trailhead, the approach would be much longer. Temple Crag seemed a good alternative with the road open and Robb proposed doing the Sun Ribbon Arete. My response was “You’re F#%@% nuts.”
By 7:45am we reached the ledge at the base of the route. We each sucked down a quick snack and some water, and Robb racked up while I flaked out the 100’ rope we brought. If we were going to climb this route car-to-car in a day, we’d have to simul-climb nearly all of it. From the topo, I discerned that the rope I’d cut in half for Mt Woodson trips would be perfect for the purpose and would shave a good amount of weight from our packs. Gear consisted of a double set of Camalots from .75 to #2 and a #3 thrown in, a set of TCUs, and a set and a half of nuts with plenty of runners to make it possible to simul 300-400’ sections of the route in a push without swapping gear. Our packs weren’t especially light either with “insurance” gear like crampons, an ice tool, a small stove, bivy sacks, and extra layers.
The climbing was tough. Well actually the climbing itself wasn’t really hard, but the high altitude took a toll on our unacclimated bodies, the packs got in the way, and the temps in the teens and twenties forced us to climb with gloves on and kept our toes from feeling any of the holds we were standing on. Still, we made good progress, just not as fast as we’d have liked.
“I remember whose idea this was,” Robb said as he belayed me up to the piton anchor from which we’d be setting up the Tyrolean. “It was you.
” Last weekend after ice climbing in Lee Vining, I apparently told Robb that I’d buy him dinner if he’d go do Bear Creek Spire with me the next weekend. Well at least I can say that doing the Sun Ribbon Arete
Atop that tower was the only moment that day that the sun actually hit us. I don’t think it lasted more than a minute, but it felt great. Robb made the first attempts at tossing the rope around the block across the gap… unsuccessfully. I tried a few times, then we decided a team effort might work best. He tossed one side and I the other. After about 5 tries, we succeeded and quickly set up the system. I scampered across, then Robb, and soon we were at the base of the crux pitch.
With my toes numb in my rock shoes and fingers numb if I tried to climb without gloves, I wasn’t confident I’d be able to easily the crux pitch. On top of that it was already almost 2pm and we were only at pitch 10 of 18 or so. We decided the best option would be to traverse left into the 4th class gulley and on to the summit that way. Robb led 2 more long simul-climbed pitches up the gulley and by 3:45pm we found ourselves on the summit with clouds blowing in and a few snowflakes starting to fall. A short rest and a few obligatory summit photos later, we began our long descent.
At the cliff band above Contact Pass, we found a set of rap slings that would get us nowhere near the ground with our short rope. This was my biggest concern with the decision to take only a 100’ rope – having trouble with the descent into Contact Pass. After some wavering, we decided we’d try to downclimb the gulley to the South and skirt around the back side of Contact Pass without the rappel. As the last bit of light faded from the sky, Robb downclimbed the last difficult section to the talus just below the pass and we started our long slog back down to the trail.
The next couple of miles were the most grueling part of the trip for me. Descending from Contact Pass is a big talus and scree slog. Combine that with a foot or so of two-week old snowfall in places and it makes it even more fun. The snow varied from soft fluff that postholed easily to a nice crust you could walk right down for 50 feet, then posthole up to your hip, and even some glacial ice. Fortunately, I didn’t find the glacial ice until I had the sense to pull my ice tool off of my pack just-in-case. When I did find it, my feet shot out from under me before I knew what hit me and I slammed down onto the ice hard
. Instinct combined with fear for my life kicked in and I dug the pick of my ice tool in as hard as I could. Fortunately I was able to stop quickly and didn't pick up much speed. The ice was so hard that I’m not sure I’d have been able to get a standard alpine axe to bite well enough to stop me. Later on in the car on our way to Bishop, Robb told me he saw sparks fly from the rocks embedded in the snow hitting my pick as I stopped myself. It was scary!
We finally reached the shore of Second Lake and skirted the edge on the snow-covered ice to the trail near the outlet. Luckily some others had hiked in at some time during the day and helped reduced the amount of postholing we’d have to endure on the rest of the hike out. Still, spots of black ice threw me onto my butt multiple times bruising my ego more than anything.
The last mile of that trail back to the parking lot always seems to take forever – even more so after such a long day. The snow falling harder and harder made me glad, though, that I wasn’t still stuck somewhere on Temple Crag.
When we hit the parking lot some 20 hours after leaving the car, we each dropped our packs and sat down, not moving or saying anything for a few minutes. It was such a good feeling to be done. Eventually we scrounged up the energy and motivation to pack up the car and head down the hill to Bishop talking about the day and how we’d feel no remorse in sleeping in and doing absolutely nothing active the next day. “Next time we should do Dark Star” Robb said, half joking and half not. I just shook my head.
Owens Valley on the way back to San Diego