With my work trip to Antarctica quickly approaching, Friday Nov. 6 became Konstantin’s and my goal to climb Dark Star (V 5.10c) on Temple Crag. Watching the weather the weeks prior, we knew there would be a decent amount of snow up high, but we were disappointed to see that a high of 40 was expected at the base of the route on our day to climb – too warm for a proper “winter conditions” ascent (it was above freezing), but what the heck, off we went!
Arriving at the trailhead at 23.30, we threw our gear together and tried to sleep a couple hours next to the car before starting up the trail. After two restless hours trying to sleep, we forced down some breakfast and coffee, and hit the trail at 03.00 – urged along for all 7 miles by copious amounts of caffeine, and a strange combination of techno, German death music, classic rock and Russian folk songs blasting from Konstantin’s MP3 player which was strapped to the outside of his pack. “EH TACHANKA, RAS-RASCHANKA….”
We passed just below 3rd lake while it was still dark, stopping to re-fill our water bottles for the ascent. We had seen small, nearly unnoticeable patches of intermittent snow and ice on the lower part of the trail, and it was as we scrambled through the talus above 3rd lake that we started hitting snow in earnest. The crust which had formed on top of the snow required crampons to walk up the steeper areas, so we strapped on the steel and continued slogging towards the base of the climb – every two steps punching through the crust and post-holing deep into the snow below. The snow slowed us down considerably, and it was 7am before we arrived at the base of the climb ready to go. It seemed to me that although there was less snow on the trail below, there was more near the base of the climb than my last trip to Temple Crag in February three years prior, and the constant post-holing was tiresome – but hey, we wanted winter conditions!
7am, and just at the base of the climb with sunset due in 10 hours. “Konstantin, what do you think?” I asked “do we have enough time?” “F-it, we will probably finish in the dark, it’s no big deal, we can bivy if we have to!” (note: that was only his opinion… Robb does not like the idea of unplanned bivies! Finishing in the dark is OK though) (Zardoz says: we had an emergency blanket and our asses are quite hairy, so no big deal-KS) And off Konstantin went up the first 10c pitch of the long intimidating tower above. Grabbing holds with numb fingers, Konstantin quickly worked his way through the first pitch, and I followed with our all too-heavy pack with 2 sets of crampons, 1 ice tool, 2.5 liters of water, food, an emergency blanket, and an extra set of gloves, a thin fleece, my boots and Konstantin’s shoes – honestly not that much, but enough to make climbing for the follower rather more difficult. Konstantin led the first two pitches, and then it was my turn to lead us to the chimney.
We arrived in the chimney around 10.30 or so, and took a quick break to re-organize the gear into two separate packs so we could simul-climb more efficiently over easier terrain until the 2nd tower. Konstantin took the lead again, and off we went arriving at the base of the 2nd tower around 12.30. Here we had a hard time figuring out where the topo was telling us to go, and after a while we decided that a line starting on steep face about 50 feet to the right of where the ridge met the base of the tower. As I enjoyed our only rays of sunshine for the day, Konstantin started up, working toward the ledge that we thought corresponded with the topo, but quickly realized we were off route as the supposed 5.2 terrain felt more like 5.10. Arriving at a small stance 100’ up, he made a nice “manchor” and belayed me up, advising I didn’t try to weight the thing (That was definitely the most exciting part of the trip for me, since I new that our belay station would not even hold the weight of my khram-KS). Arriving below the stance after some steep climbing, with the pack (reconsolidated into 1 large pack again), Konstantin nicely asked for our single number 1 camalot so he could reinforce the anchor before I continued on. After he beefed up the anchor a bit, I took the lead into some more steep and loose terrain above, trying not to fall on any of my shoddy pieces or drop rocks on Konstantin. Whatever I did felt like hard 5.10 or easy 5.11, and turned out to be the hardest pitch of the route for us. Konstantin impressively managed to follow it clean even with the heavy pack, and soon we were back to simul-climbing, trying to make up lost time on the two pitches below (F-n impressive lead, felt at least 11a! As for me following I simply assumed that Robb`s belay is as bad as mine so I woud rather not hang on it-KS). We arrived at the top of the 2nd tower around 15.00, and then made our way as quickly as we could to the first rappel along the ridgeline.
Darkness was fully upon us by the time we reached the “yellow-lichen traverse” at the base of the red tower, and Konstantin re-took the lead while I simuled behind him. From the end of the traverse, it’s supposed to be 600’ of 4th and easy 5th class to the summit*, but due to the intermittent snow patches and darkness, we elected to pitch it out until the end of the climb, where we arrived at 19.00, 12 hours after starting. From the top of the route, we could see two lights of campers far off to the northwest in the valley below, and as the moon had yet to rise, the sky was an amazing dark blackness filled with brilliant stars (I believe this could be hunger and cold induced hallucinations since I did not see any of that shiz-KS). Having finished the route, we decided not to scramble over to the true summit behind us in interest of time, and started to work our way along the ridge towards the down-climb and/or rappel to contact pass. Starting down the wrong chute twice in the pitch-blackness, we eventually found the rappel slings and descended to contact pass.
With crampons and a single ice tool, we made our way down contact pass and traversed towards the base of the climb where we’d left one of our packs on the approach (This is the second best part of the trip since we were sinking in the snow on every other step. Stars started to look brilliant and amazing to me too at this point-KS) The descent was the usual miserably entertaining random post-holing through snow covered giant talus, and we were both happy to make it through without getting too banged up. However, trying to find the rappel in the pitch-black under the moonless sky, and the post-holing through the talus slowed us down considerably, and it was 22.45 before we both made it back to the pack, a few hundred feet below the base of the route. The ¾ moon started to show itself around that time, and guided us back through the rest of the snow and talus to the trail below 3rd lake, where we headed back to the car, arriving there at about 01.10 – a little over 22 hours after starting out, and very happy to dig into our food stash left at the car.
Overall, it was a great day of climbing – not quite the winter conditions we had hoped for, but still pretty chilly (probably mid 30’s in the day, and mid/low 20’s at night), with some good snow slogging, and a fun ascent of one of the big Sierra classics. The rest of the weekend was pretty mellow, spent doing a little work, bouldering with Nate and Kostas in Bishop (great progress by both on Pope’s Prow and High Plains Drifter), and relaxing – including attending a fundraiser organized by the American Alpine Club to raise money for a toilet at the buttermilks boulders, and a slideshow by notable Sierra climber and Dark Star first ascensionist Doug Robinson (who kindly corrected our topos – see Konstantin’s). It was a neat coincidence that Doug was talking this same weekend, and it was quite touching to see some of the pullharder crew’s achievements mentioned in the show. Now… Konstantin and I just need to figure out what our next big Sierra route is going to be! (F#%$, yeah! –KS)
Notes on the Route
Just a few notes on the route. Dark Star is a pretty fun and good route, though there is a lot of easier terrain mixed in with the few harder pitches. If that takes away from the climb for you, try something else, but I think it’s still a lot of fun, and a good satisfying day. It combines covering a lot of ground, some tedious traversing, and some harder climbing – a combination I personally like. It’s a climb to be respected for it’s length, but I don’t think should be as intimidating as some make it. If you’re still interested in it, go out there and give it a shot. If you’re going to, our technical rack worked pretty well, and I think consisted of the following:
1 x blue TCU, 3 x yellow TCU, 1 x red, green and yellow C3’s, 1 x 0.3, 0.4, 0.5, 1, 2, 3 C4’s, 2 x .75 C4’s, a medium rack of nuts, and ~10 draws/slings. The extra finger sized pieces are nice, but if you’re comfortable on this terrain, you could probably trim that down by a few pieces even.
*According to the topo we used taken from Supertopo.com. Upon return I noticed that Peter Croft writes about 2 other variations to the finish in his book, both of which seem to stay more true to the ridge proper.