Superstition in the High Sierra

Superstition in the High Sierra

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jul 11, 2009
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Big Wall
Seasons Season: Summer


The superstitious types have a tough one on their hands; For everyone who believes that those clichés of historic perseverance hold true each and every time, here is a story to befuddlify the wisdom of “taking a hint,” or reading too much into “signs.” And as fitting as this story is to accomplish such an un-defining of superstitious woe, isn’t life truly meant to try us all? Isn’t life for the making of one’s character and for the understanding of truth, and not for the complacencies of weakness and superstition? Given the latter, I’ll choose the former, ‘tough as it may be.’ This outing report is just a subtle wave in the flow of a river, yet the type of wave that can reflect defining light or cast doubtful shadows.

That was weird…on to the trip report. We were driving through the Southern California suburb called Rancho Cucamonga. “Can you think of anything we might have forgotten?” Once over the Cajon Pass, turning back on the freeway is a major time constraint. So wanting to obtain any final insights that might help us on our way, I posed that question. The answer was a simply straightforward question: “Did you bring your rope?” Luke asked.

The problem wasn’t answering a question with another question. The problem wasn’t even being asked the question period, other than the fact that the leisurely response resembled an ever-present air of sarcasm. Even worse was my answer: “No” I said. In that overly sarcastic moment, “Yes” would have been a more truthful answer.

The problem with sarcasm is that sarcasm is intended to distort a truth. And in that air of sarcasm, neither of us realized that neither one of us were really being sarcastic. 18 hours earlier, I misinterpreted a statement as “Leave your rope at home.” Certainly, a pessimistic doom and gloom shadowed even us on that beautiful 83-degree-in-Devore moment, but we couldn’t detect even a glimpse of it, and so we drove on up the Cajon Pass and four hours later to the Big Pine Trailhead without even the mere hint that either of us was actually serious about our question and answer 300 miles back in Rancho Cucamonga.

It all exploded as we pulled our packs out of the trunk and Luke asked “Didn’t you leave the rope out of your pack?” My nerves shot light and heat to all sensors of my body as I replied “I left it out of everything I brought with me; I thought you brought your rope!”

The air was full of bad (not filthy) language. And as long as I’m qualifying the aspects of that moment, I must add that an unexpected element of comical relief probably saved Luke and I from being distortedly upset. Tears of laughter were at the threshold several times over, and I won’t mention the probable speed record I may have set on the plunge back down Big Pine Creek-Canyon-Road, but I made it to Wilson’s Eastside Sports in Bishop in about 30 minutes give or take. Wilson’s is a well equipped store with everything from A to all-in-one-spoon-spork-knives, of which we purchased two. Oh, and a rope. Don’t forget that! Luckily, the Beal 60 meter rope was on sale, and the financial damage was reduced by about 25 percent. Without much more ado, we got back on HWY. 395 and headed back south to Big Pine, and back up to the trailhead. The elevation differentials were already making me dizzy and I hadn’t even begun the hike in to base-camp yet.(For those of you unfamiliar with most Eastern Sierra approaches, they are steep….like my Subaru can’t do it in 4th-gear-steep, and don’t lose your breaks or you ARE going to die-steep.)

The remainder of the evening was filled with such obviousities as “Did you bring the water filter,” “Did you bring your brain,” or “Did you bring a stove?”…HA ha ha ha…We tempted Karma all evening long as we began our trudge up the sage-covered hillside.

Having hiked this trail three times prior to this trip, my gut told that I would like this stretch of trail better this time. And yet I was proven wrong. I once heard an angry house-builder state while bitterly ranting about poor craftsmanship: “No matter how much you polish a turd, it’s still just a piece of …… dung.” To say that I could like this section of trail better would imply that I ever liked it at all, which is absolutely false. It’s ONLY potential redeeming value is the fantastic views of the Middle Palisade region of the Sierra Crest, which is also plainly visible from the two-lane paved roadway paralleling the trail 200 feet below. As a result this long, dusty, hot, exposed, and moderately steep beginning section of trail really has no unique redeeming value and is therefor permanently disqualified from the list of places or memories that I (and Luke?) hold dear to my heart. Of course Luke didn’t like it; he was a good 200 feet in front of me with his after-burners going. The superstitions were trying to say “There’s nothing here for you, go home,” to deaf ears connected to a head filled by a brain that knows better.

At last refreshing meadows full of blooming flowers, Aspen, Lodgepole, and Ponderosa provide more than ample relief. An often thunderous North Fork of Big Pine Creek reminds you that water is in no short supply and the possibility of sustaining life is realized. We hiked quickly, making it 5 miles to our base-camp at around 7:30 PM. Excitement began to ramp up as views of Temple Crag became more and more frequent and of better and better quality. Alas, it was larger than I remembered.

We approached our base camp by crossing the North Fork of Big Pine Creek between 2nd and 3rd lakes. Here the mosquitoes were more numerous than air molecules, but at least they were just localized. At camp our belongings were strewn about on the coarse sand and rocks amidst the last stand of snow-stunted trees above Second Lake, but below the mighty Temple Crag. We melted snow to cook dinner with and to fill our bottles with drinking water for the next day. Darkness ensued and we finally went to sleep having organized our gear and supplies ahead of our anticipated 5:00 AM departure for the Sun Ribbon Arête.

“Cameron, we need to get up, it’s 5:00, the alarms didn’t wake us up.”
After a night full of waking up and turning over and noticing 6 million stars and hearing rocks falling from nearby mountains, I didn’t understand how we missed our 4:15 alarm….AND our 4:30 alarm. However, we are growing accustomed to such occurrences as they present themselves such as one year ago when we attempted Gannet Peak, Wyoming’s high point. Unfortunately for that adventure, the missed alarm was a real deal-breaker, a heart-breaker at that.

Today, however, and despite the “sign,” we have plenty of time to quickly wake and get moving. We were hiking to the base of our climb by 5:50 up steep talus and eventually steep boulder-fields of semi-stable one-ton chunks of Temple Crag. Finally the steep bouldering becomes steep snow leading 200 feet or so to the dark vertical granite of the Sun Ribbon Arête. The snow field was the path of least resistance until it steepened further into a 50 deg angle chute, below which we parted ways with the snow and ice and made friends with granite foundation upon which Temple Crag's many spires sit. Luke’s shoes seemed to bite the snow better than mine, and we lost a little more time while I had to chisel some minimal toe-holds using nature’s tool, a rock. After crossing the snow, we were, technically speaking, climbing the arête which at this point consisted of block ramps of loose rock; ‘choss’ as Luke continually referred to it. In our last attempt, we un-necessarily roped up for this section; This time it was each man for himself. We angled up and across until reaching the base of the climb. To this point, the approach (besides the ice) is Class 3/4.

Pitch 1 of Sun RibbonLuke enjoying the thrills of Pitch One - Sun Ribbon Arete!
By 7:00, we were beginning our technical Class 5 ascent. Kindly words of encouragement were exchanged in an effort to remind each other of time constraints and the path (if you can call it that) ahead. “Luke, you brought the rope, right?” A little laughter drifted out into the 200 feet of exposure already present at the base of this climb, and …we’re off.

Pitch one had been on my mind since our previous attempt which was “rained-off.” It just so happens that Luke and I both conceded that this was a good thing, realizing that at the time of our first attempt, we would have been up a creek without…a boat, much less a paddle. Back to pitch one, the first move up the massive dihedral is easy, the second move is easy. The third move (third of about 1000 ahead) is proving (once again) to be difficult, and is definitely the crux of the first pitch. I give unasked-for advice, but it is taken into consideration and dismissed. After some contemplating, we give the superstitions a piece of our mind, Luke pulls the move followed by a rapid pace to the top of the first pitch, some 120 feet over my head. On top rope, I struggle with our heavy pack, but I quickly resorted to hauling the bag over the crux after I climbed it and I re-iterate Luke’s moves on the thin holds. After the crux, I get the pack back on, and fly on up to his belay ledge. At this point we are already higher than in our previous attempt and we can feel the superstitions backing down from their high and mighty attempt to turn us back. Luke led as we scrambled up some easy, but well exposed 4th class terrain to the base of pitch 3. The exposure is great (if you like exposure) and the careful photographer can get some great shots with 2nd and 3rd Lakes in the background.

I had the fortunate opportunity to lead pitches 3 and 4, two of the finer pitches of the whole route. I had recently adopted the habit of placing better pro. Really! I mean, why not? The point of it is to protect one in case of a fall, so why not make it the best pro conceivable. I placed cams and chocks with restrainers so that they don’t shift as I climbed above. The climbing went quickly up a mix of good hand and finger cracks and slabs; all under beautiful skies and amidst the distant echoes of climbing gear and “climber communications” caused by the broad and steep face of the Moonlight Buttress to our left (southeast).

I enjoyed the challenge of dealing with the exposure; leaning and reaching for good holds while trusting my instincts despite the massive drops below me required minor inner-convincing, but provided much greater inner gratitude and confidence once accomplished.

Luke led a solid pitch 5 with a gnarly step-around move which I avoided. The top of this pitch landed us atop the first gendarme and the location of the barely optional “Tyrolean Traverse.” To this point, “good signs” are far outweighing “bad signs,” in case anyone is keeping tally.

From this vantage point, one is clearly humbled by the towering precipices of the North Buttress and of the Moonlight Buttress. North Buttress is to climber’s right while Moonlight is to climber’s left. The Sun Ribbon arête shoots the gap between them flanked by steep slabbish gullies, all parallel, all steep, and all pointing skyward.

I had bet Luke that it would take 10 attempts to sling the obvious horn on the opposite side of the traverse. The karma gods just laughed and laughed at us as we threw, missed, threw, missed…A few times we slung it but not to satisfaction; If this rig were to fail for some reason, it would be a 40 foot bounce followed by a 200-300 foot bounce followed by….I couldnt’t see what else is down that far, probably just more air. After dealing with the karma gods by thinking “If at first you don’t succeed…” we slung the horn on the tenth attempt, and tied it up. I ventured across the gap with the backpack on, retrospectively to the dismay (and wisdom) of Luke. Had the crossing gone as planned, the pack would not have been an issue.

Unfortunately, the opposite was true. Un-anticipated slack on the back side of the horn manifested itself while I went more at a 45-degree angle down the ropes instead of the expected purely horizontal route.

Tyrolean TraverseJust hangin' out a couple of feet lower than I'd big deal.
There I hung. “Uh…didn’t expect that” I calmly stated. But my presence of mind began to slowly melt away as I hung from the tyrolean traverse for a few minutes. I couldn’t pull myself and the pack across and the up the steep incline of rope, especially since one side of the loop had totally pulled itself tight away from the other half, causing an increasing gap between the two segments the farther across the gap I went. After 2 or 200 (it seemed) minutes, it was becoming increasingly difficult to stay upright in my harness to the point that my arms hurt from holding myself up. It was like doing a pull-up for five minutes.

Realizing the backpack was causing me all my issues, I called for a caribiner to take the pack instead of me. This transition went smoothly enough and as soon as the pack was off of me, I felt tremendous relief even though still hanging from the sky. Luke, from his better abode and calm perspective reminded me of the process of creating a “Prusik” knot which is used for ascending rope. This worked like a charm and after another minute or two, the pack and I were on the opposite side of the tyrolean traverse. Out of the kindness of my heart I reset the line for Luke, san-slack, and he enjoyed a much less eventful crossing. I later felt like a photographer-retard for having misfired while I thought I was taking photos of him during his crossing; apparently all I was doing was focusing the camera. Well, there’s always next time, right?

The next two pitches were more over than up. But that did not stop the adrenaline from flowing. Prior to these two pitches, I tossed a rock laterally from our sidewalk in the sky and counted: “one….two….three….four….five…..bang…..” Let’s see, (32.2 ft/sec) squared. That equals something between 800 and 900 feet that the rock fell before hitting a steeply-pitched ramp down below. For a few minutes after that, I could not look upward because vertigo was making me lose my balance. The sensation lasted until we were moving along the horizontal pitches toward a notch which required a minor rappel of about 12 feet (Yes, I thought this was annoying too).

Realizing our shortness of time, Luke and I quickly conceded that the crux pitch of the climb was going to take too long and that a bypass was a better option. While several options look feasible, Luke led a pitch mostly upward around the difficult and exposed 5.10A to a respectable 5.7 bypass which I led until gaining the arête proper once again.

By this point ‘vertical’ finally didn’t matter anymore. I often tell others that after 100 feet up, it all looks and feels the same. In this case, having exposure not just on one side (to the climber’s back) but instead on all but one side (directly in front of you), including to the left and to the right, we were both feeling the danger of gravity in a very new way. It took until this point in the day, or this reach of the climb, to understand and control the effects of the exposure.

The next few pitches were uneventful but nothing short of amazing. The rock continued to flow upward from planet earth, and all we had to do was follow the path of least resistance along the arête. We had to get more careful the higher we went because of loose rock. The granite is exposed to such elements up here so as to cause only the core of the rocks to remain while their connections to each other often weather away. The echoes off Moonlight and North Buttresses were waning now…because we were gaining elevations higher than the tops of those features. We were slightly disheartened at the site of a necessary rappel of about 60 feet, elevation that would have to be made up. Luke led a tough lead up the steep face on the opposite side of the rappel (5.8/9) and suggested that “hauling” the bag on this pitch would be a good idea; I wasn’t going to argue after the tyrolean incident.

The day had been great fun and adventure to this point. As I gained Luke’s belay ledge, I felt the need to speak, but I remained silent. Had I spoken, the words I would have said would have been “Hey, it’s getting late, and I don’t know if were going to make it to the top. We should stop here, because this is a reasonable place to do so.” There were several possible belay ledges on these upper segments of the climb, so if you are slower, bring your gear and stay the night!

Two pitches later, those words did come forth at a newer, higher location on the arête, and Luke easily agreed. The Sun was straight out from us setting over the land of liberals, San Francisco. No, we couldn’t see the city (thank goodness), but we knew it was there all the same. Some rather interesting cloud forms took shape; semi-lenticulars amidst alto-stratus, all lit up in an array of yellow, orange, pink, purple, grey, and black. Strong south winds reminded us that our accommodations were going to be
Range Of Light!Departing Daylight and Mt. Agassiz in the High Sierra Palisades.
less than comfortable, aside from the limited space and uneven surfaces. Knowing that the National Weather Service had mentioned a brief chance of light showers that night, I crossed my mental fingers in hopes of waking up (each foreseeable instance) rain, snow, and hail-free, especially at 12,800 feet. Though clouds floated over all night, the moonlight was always highlighting peaks in the distance or up close, but not both at the same time. The silvery light over the granite Sierra made for some very unusual yet beautiful images which are only in my mind, and I will probably never forget. Mt. Agassiz (13,890’) dominated the northwest-looking view with its impressive triangulated geometry and symmetry. The lower terminus of the western hemisphere’s southern-most classified glaciers fed fissures in granite slabs which led to streams which fed lakes which shed bigger creeks which eventually confluence and become the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. This year, the status of “River” was probably more appropriate due to a late snow-melt and an abundant winter. The roar of the ‘creek’ filled the entire basin enclosed by the northern end of the Palisade Crest and the Inconsolable Range, and even at 12,800 feet high on Temple Crag. The only hindrance to the river’s monotony was the occasional bursts of wind, some of which filled my sleeping bag like a balloon despite being shut by draw-string. Other than three or four such occurrences, I slept warm. To say I slept is a bit of a stretch, though I definitely lost consciousness 20 or 25 times in between observing the unusual sleeping setting. This night, I did hear a rock fall, but I didn’t have to worry about it falling on us since we were at a high point. Ahh…the silver linings in life! The superstitions were running out of tricks to try out on us, they must be getting desperate.

The night ended, and even morning came unexpectedly. I had expected a gradual lightening of the sky. I was nearly startled to wake up and find darkness away from all but the deepest cracks of rock on the mountains before me. The sunrise was refreshing and welcome. Some minor clouds obscured the rising sun, but when it shown through, I was reminded why the Sierra Nevada is known (especially to photographers) as “The Range of Light.” The combination of a low-latitude and a near-Pacific location and high vertical walls of color-reflecting granite make these mountains capture light and color uniquely better than most other places. Add to that the often absurd cloud forms that develop here as moisture roles off the Pacific, and some real photographic opportunities expose themselves.

Luke complained about the sleeping conditions. I agreed. Yet we both admitted that the night went by much better than expected, each of us accusing the other of having snored at some point or other. The comical and sarcastic bond we share is unmatched; I could make fun of him for having to sleep with his head right next to my butt, and he can wittily answer that if I wasn’t so selfish, it might have been the other way around. Either way, many layers of clothes and sleeping bags prevented any too-awkward moments.

Feeling refreshed after a breakfast of 6 M&Ms and 5 gummi-bears, I led off for the next three pitches. Luke is super-amazing in that having the heavy pack on doesn’t deter him too much from his abilities to climb. Since the pack was causing me some nerve problems which would prevent me from ever flipping someone off, (a numbness and loss of use of the middle finger), he graciously let me lead these pitches and I tried to repay him by giving him ample protection for “down-climbing” tricky towers and blank sections, for which he later expressed his gratitude. The first pitch ended quickly as rope-drag was the limiting factor caused by weaving in and out of the blocky arête. The second pitch stayed mostly on one side of the arête and was a full 59.5 meters of lead (Our new rope was 60 meters). As Luke carefully maneuvered the final tricky moves of the second pitch, I wondered what was ahead. Feeling adventurous, I offered to lead to the ridge overhead and beyond, if needed, around what could be more tricky gendarmes and down-climbs.

Climbing the ramps leading to the ridge, I thought to myself that I felt good to climb all day again despite having only eaten 600 calories in more than 24 hours. When you get into a groove in anything in life, you’re content to just ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ So I was actually slightly saddened to find the top of the ridge was the end of technical climbing and the start of a 4th class rock-hop and scramble to the summit some 100 feet or so higher. Joy soon replaced the minor discontent I had as Luke pulled his way up and over the ridge and we realized we could take off our climbing shoes and proceed unabated by rope drag to the true summit about 10 minutes away.

Even the summit scramble wasn’t without its chilling exposure as the north face of Temple Crag drops 100’s of feet abruptly. As Luke climbed using ‘all fours’ ahead of me up the sloping south side, he let out a sudden ‘WOW!’ as he popped his head over the final ridge to the summit and found its northern side to be nonexistent until unexpectedly far below. Moving with an added measure of caution, we both scurried along like slow ants on a tiny twig of a bush. But it was easy, and I knew the karma gods had nothing more to offer.

Atop 12,999  Temple CragThe early morning top out shows North Palisade and Mt. Galey in the back ground.
At the top, the Sierra Club registry was intact and we both signed. Someone had piled a few rocks on top of each other at the highest point of the summit. The same person was probably also the one responsible for crossing out “12,999” on the summit registry cover and writing “13,000.” I sympathize with him…whoever he is. But I didn’t have the desire to move any large rocks around the way he did. After the ceremonial photos, we began our descent. All of our “uphill” efforts and environment disappeared in one and a half short hours. As we walked into basecamp, clothes wet from ‘glissading’ down snow fields, thirsty from lack of water, we stared upwards with an entirely new appreciation of the vertical realm of Temple Crag, of the perspective that is so easily misunderstood in plain view, or so easily lost in photos. We imagined ourselves back up there, realizing now that we could decipher the various gendarmes and understand their true size, which in turn added new emphasis to the real size of Temple Crag itself. Some climbers passed us on their way up to a camp, one of them was overheard saying “Ahh Temple Crag. Much more impressive than Half Dome, if you ask me.”

It was then that I further realized the basis of why I love climbing.
When I wander through nature, I see things that attract my curiosity. I see trees or rivers, or great mountains and canyons which cause me to ponder my relationship to them. When I see mountains, I get impressed easily by vertical rock that stays intact while gravity pulls on it downward, endlessly. I marvel at the fins of rock that endure the wind, the snow, and the ice. Part of this marveling requires understanding. Part of understanding requires physical examination and exploration. At some point, after exploring and examining, true perspective is better understood. I can understand the enormity of an overhanging precipice. I can compare one mountain to another. And I go to these places to understand my relationship to them, to feel humble, and to feel scared, to realize that there is something much bigger than me out there; for something much more powerful and mighty than that mountain had to make that mountain. Though I merely climbed to the top of it, how limited is my understanding of it’s perpetual defiance of gravity, or it’s being out of place in a world that is mostly flat, or the effects it has on so many other systems of life, or weather, or of light? How can I understand how it came to be, how the elements of nature combined to create such a lasting monument unto that higher power? Climbing, as a form of exploration, leads me to these and other answers which undeniably end with an affirmation of the beauty and amazement offered by this place we call home, Earth. To an even greater extent, I am led to the appreciation that One Almighty would give someone such as me so much to appreciate and enjoy in this life; from family and friends to mountains, I know His hand is in play. And that is something I don’t have to be superstitious about because His hand is very real, and very active, telling me that I can feel confident about doing something so basic as climbing a mountain.


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