South Fork of Big Pine Creek Trail
Along the South Fork Trail
On Sept. 17, 2005, our group stepped onto the South Fork of Big Pine Creek trail to do climbs of Mt. Gayley and Temple Crag. Probably the more frequently used approach to these two summits is via the North Fork trail to the Palisades Glacier area. But the South Fork trail affords equal beauty as shown here.
The South Fork Trail of Big Pine Creek Kaweah taking a break along the trail Lake campsite for our climbs
At Willow Lake (elev. 9,600 ft.), we left the trail and headed west towards our intended campsite near an unnamed little lake at 12,000 feet elevation. The lake is about 2/5 of a mile south of Contact Pass. From there, Gayley is west and slightly south, and Temple Crag is to the northwest. Shown here is a shot of the lake where we camped as well as a shot of our canine companion, Kaweah, taking a breather on the trip in.
We climbed Gayley (elev. 13,510 ft.) the next day and I’ve posted a separate trip report.
Temple on a Sunday
View from near summit of Temple Crag
Sunday morning we set out for Temple Crag (elev. 12,976 ft.). At a moderate pace, we made it to the base of the mountain in about 3 hours. We embarked upon our Class 3 route and found it a pretty straightforward journey towards the summit. The photo here is a view from near the summit.
A Sobering Sight
Our mental attitudes changed when we got about 100 yards from the top. That is because we came upon “the Big Step.”
The big "step across" Another view of the required leap
The gap is about 7-8 feet wide and the leap is from right to left. The jump is in a downward direction and the climber will need to negotiate the gap in an upward direction on the way back. Keep in mind that, on each side, there is a straight vertical drop of about 1,500 feet. We looked high and wide for an alternative to leaping across the Big Step, but there was nothing else doable. An added excitability factor in jumping across the Big Step is that the jumping-off spot is a downward sloping surface. To make the leap you have to set your feet at the top of the sloping rock, let them slide downward, and then push off before you run out of rock. So once you start the slide on the sloping rock you are committed. The area where you land is a flat surface about 3 and ½ feet square. Did I say already that everybody was intimidated by the prospect of getting across the Big Step?
Going For It
Nobody volunteered to go first. I was asked to volunteer and couldn’t say no. Fortunately, we had some protection with us. We had 100 feet of rope, two seat harnesses, a belay device and some slings and ‘biners. We set up a belay and I tied in. I only had two pieces of protection and I set one at the top of the sloping rock. I planted my feet at the top of the rock, let them slide, and at the bottom pushed off hard. I landed with an audible thud on the other side (ommphhh!). Then I commenced to pick out a route to the summit with the best hand and footholds along the narrow ridge. I placed my second piece of protection and within a few minutes was standing in front of the summit register. What a fun route!
I then retraced my steps back to the Big Step with some trepidation about getting across in an upward direction. But I was actually able to lean across the gap and put my hands on a couple of small horns and pull myself back across with my arms and with one foothold that I found underneath the sloping rock. I untied and the next person tied in.
Summiting Five Times
Because we only had one harness for the climbers, everyone had to go across one at a time. I free soloed the route 4 more times, helping the 4 others across the Big Step, leading them to the summit, and leading them back to the Step. There, I would get across to the higher end and assist each person back across the gap by grabbing their arms and pulling them up. It took an hour and a half for the 5 of us to make the 100 yard climb to the summit from the Big Step and back. During that time, everyone but the belayer and climber was huddled below on an exposed section of ridge all the while buffeted by cold winds sweeping the terrain at nearly 13,000 feet. That day, I summited Temple Crag a total of 5 times and went back and forth across the Big Step a total of 10 times. Only one person in our group decided they weren’t comfortable enough to attempt the leap. It was an exciting day in the Sierra Nevada!
Post Script: Patty Rambert
Patty Rambert was on the September 2005 trip I have written about here. On the trip she was quintessential Patty, fun-loving, energetic, and committed to her goal of climbing all the peaks on the Sierra Peaks Section list. She got two more in that weekend. On May 31, 2006, Patty was killed in a climbing accident on Mt. Mendel in the Sierra Nevada.
Patty Rambert on the summit of Temple Crag, 9/17/05
Patty Rambert (in yellow)with other trip participants on summit of Mt. Gayley, 9/16/05