Disappointed that our top-secret really big plans had fallen through for various reasons (weather, partners, & psych), Ben Horne (aka the zoom locomotive) suggested that we try an alternate plan that was merely regular-big.
We would go for a winter ascent of the Venusian Blind Arete (the last of Temple Crag’s celestial arêtes to be still unclimbed in winter) then continue on as far as we could: Gayley, Sill, beyond… Worst case scenario, we’d send the shit out of Venusian Blind then be successful no matter how bad we failed afterward.
It seemed like a good idea to me, fresh off an East Coast couch, not having been to altitude for quite a while, whatever: psych would carry me through. I tried to visualize pushing past the summit of Temple Crag. You’ve got to not feel done when you get there or you won’t have the will to keep going. So I visualized it: we’d tag Temple then happily scamper down to some saddle-or-other, then maybe romp up Gayley then down to another saddle. Then bivy. Easy. Fun. Casual?
Ben and I left the trailhead around 4am with a super-minimal rack: 110ft 8-mil rope and 3-4 cams, yet still felt heavy, carrying snowshoes, 3 days of food & fuel, ice axes, trekking poles, bivy gear. After 10 steps I couldn’t catch my breath. “Oh crap, I’m screwed”, thinking my east-coast low-altitude lack-of-training had left me impotent up here. But after a couple of minutes I caught my breath and we were cruising. Hell, I even kept up with Ben (zoom loco, the Sierra Speed-demon, the alpine annihilator) the whole way up to third lake. Though I strategically stayed in front of him the whole way, maybe that had something to do with it 😉
After a couple of miles of relatively dry trail, we donned snowshoes and had a fairly easy cruise up to Temple Crag (walking right over a frozen Third Lake), making it to the base of the route in about five hours.
The first section of the route proper is low-angle 3rd and 4th class slabs so we kept cruising without stopping. After a few hundred feet, the route steepens to a headwall. Ben, getting there a few minutes before me, chose a line up a snow and ice choked vertical chimney on the right side of the headwall.
Declaring it soloable, he scampered right up the chimney, fresh off a recent soloing enchainment binge of East Buttress and East Face of Whitney car-to-car a few days before. What would have been a blue and golden pleasure in summer turned out a bit more sketchy, to say the least. Wearing boots, gloves, and a 30 lb pack I underclinged a chockstone, leaned way out, boots placed on snowy sloping holds, and hung out for a while thinking about the move. While in the same spot Ben had yelled down that a fall would be ugly, but you wouldn’t die. Looking down from here I didn’t quite agree with him. After a couple minutes inspiration came to me and I danced up, but after this we pulled the rope out and donned climbing shoes so we could move less deliberately, and faster.
The rest of the route was amazing: positive holds, fun moves on golden granite, solid rock. We made good time swapping big simul-leads.
Just before we reached the summit I slowed way down. I don’t know whether it was the altitude, hunger or dehydration, or the snow on the rock forcing us to climb slowly and carefully, only stepping on dry sections. But I was near-bonk and not feeling so solid.
We tagged the summit.
I looked over at the Gayley-Sill traverse, and to my horror it was the most gnarled-up snow-choked complex ridge traverse I’d seen. It’s easily bigger than Sill-to-Thunderbolt, and way more complex. It’s knife-edge, and the bail options are unthinkable: gnarled-up snow-dusted super steep loose gullies. Not the happy-flat romp I’d envisioned before I got there.
After finding such slow going along the ridge to Gayley off of Temple, Ben mentioned something about if I want to bail we’d better go back and up and over Temple now because we weren’t gonna want to bail down one of those gullies later.
Note to Ben: don’t voice your doubts or your partner might just agree with you and call you on it. (Top secret alpine climbing trick; with your endless super psych these mind games probably don’t occur to you). With my own doubts verbalized to me, thoughts of going down took root and then it was too late.
We floated down deep snow and made the rap into contact pass, then down to third lake where I promptly brewed up and passed out in my sleeping bag. I couldn’t drink or eat more than half of a freeze-dried southwest chili because I was too exhausted.
Ben continued on to the car to get the C2C ascent. I awoke a couple hours before dawn to loud “whoomp”s and cracks all around me and realized I had fallen asleep on top of third lake. With thoughts of being cocooned in my sleeping bag and being dumped into the icy water I got the hell out of there.
I made it back to the car just after dawn to complete the much-coveted 28-hour near-C2C winter ascent of the Venusian Blind Arete. Ben got it in 17 hours C2C with a HUGE pack!
I kicked ben and we had omelets in Big Pine, unfortunately without any Feta.