I thought I knew what alpine climbing was about. I thought that Dark Star would be a walk in the park surrounded by hours of hiking. Boy was I wrong!!
The description for Dark Star includes around 17 pitches with a bunch of 4th class and only two pitches of 5.10. While the base of Temple Crag sits just above 11,000 feet I was confident that we could make good time by simuling much of the climb and soloing the easiest pitches. The goal was a sub 24 hour which was a pace our friends had done the year before.
Rushing to Big Pine to get as much sleep as possible.
After a five pm departure from San Diego we made fairly good time and were at the trail head in big pine by 10:30. We set our alarms for a mind blowing 2:15 am and went to sleep as fast as possible. After 3+ restless hours we awoke filled with psyche and were met with a practically full moon. Konstantin had been to Temple Crag before and lead the way as we hit the trail at 2:50am. The next 6 or so miles passed fairly easily as we gained a few thousand feet of elevation towards a set of three alpine lakes.
The blurriness of this picture shows what it feels like to get up at 2:15 am
We crossed the river on a crappy log bridge just below Third lake and hopped across the talus field towards the base of the very imposing Dark Star. It was getting light out and I was happy with our timing thus far. However I forgot to fill a water bottle at the stream crossing which stung us later on.
~5:30 am below the massive Dark Star
After a bit more hiking and a scree approach we dropped our packs and went in search of the spring that usually runs all the way down to the base of Dark Star. With no sign of flowing water we mixed snow in with the water in our nalgenes and set off with two liters of slush and a half liter of Gatorade. Looking up at the first pitch I noticed the obvious difference in the granite from the weekend before. As I had read the rock was much more featured and was filled with bands of Quartz. I felt the crux of the entire route was about midway up the first pitch. Some tricky stemming and use of poor face holds gave way to a good fingerlock and then better foot holds. Following with the full pack was a bit tricky and was a harsh warmup.
Looking up from the base at the first pitch dihedral
Konstantin right before the hardest moves on the whole route (pitch 1)
A successful onsight for Konstantin of the first two pitches!
Konstantin lead the first two pitches and then I lead the next three. The third pitch was my favorite of the route with exciting step across to a hollow flaked followed by cool moves up to a lazer cut thin fingers crack in a left facing corner. The rock was perfect and the crack was just thin enough to make it exciting. The end of my three pitch block put us at a chockstone belay inside the “intimidating” chimney.
Luke trying to keep the sun off his neck with his new Buff
Second (closer) and first lakes. Such pretty water!
It seemed that the best thing to do was tunnel through the chimney and Konstantin made his way up and after no gear for the first 15 feet he placed a cam and stepped out around the corner into the light. He made it a long pitch and ended on a very comfy belay in the sun. After exiting the cold chimney it seemed we may have been a bit off route but we continued on very easy ground up the ridge. After reaching the belay and snapping a few photos Konstantin set off again and we simuled a long block to the top of the first tower over fairly easy ground.
Sun is shining life is good!
Konstantin searches for pro as he exits the chimney.
After a downclimbing and making an exposed traverse we were at a set of ledges below the next tower. We couldn’t quite figure out what the topo mean for the first pitch on the upper tower and nothing seemed obvious. There was a bit of a trail further across a ledge so Konstantin and I moved the belay and set off into the unknown. Konstantin followed some chalk up the next loose pitch doing an excellent job by not dropping any rocks on my head. It was a long lead and I was happy to rest since I had not had enough sleep the night before.
The cave monster escapes!
I lead another loose pitch to reach the ridge which hopefully got us back on route. The altitude had not been too bad thus far as we approached 12,000 feet and I had been able to eat enough food only feeling like I wanted to vomit once. Back on the ridge we simulated until the ropedrag became really bad. In retrospect we should have either been soloing or have tied back in at the halfway point to simul on 30 meters of rope. I lead another block of simuling along the ridge that ended in a rap anchor. We tried to line up this with the topo and guessed we were near “pitch” 14 meaning we would be rappelling again shortly, however the next bit of climbing convinced us otherwise.
The weather for the day had been amazing so far and I could see my arms burning in the sun since I had been expecting to be wearing more than my T-Shirt. I tried best to keep my Buff up over my neck and ears to keep off the sun. There was practically no wind and few clouds and we had only seen one other party at Temple.
Celebrating the perfect day and the six amazing pitches so far!
I was getting worn down by my belief that we were lost and it was eating into my psyche. The climbing was not hard but it was just challenging to have no idea where to go. I suppose my lack of alpine experience made it seem that the obvious route (the easiest line) was not the right way. I am far more comfortable when there is only one “possible” line.
After rappelling Konstantin started off around the next tower on the right side on a set of 3rd class ledges. The climbing became 4th class and we simuled a little until having to stop again due to bad rope drag. This belay was on top of a very pretty tower and a jagged line of spires were between us and a large red tower shown in the topo.
Riding the spire! How could it be so warm above 11,000 feet?!?
Konstantin lead off again on easy terrain only to find a rap station about 150 feet later. I thought this meant we were back on track and told him to stop. After find the belay and the kind of odd rap station I was not so sure so I kept going and downclimbed about 50 feet (5th class for sure) and did a bit of traversing to reach a better looking rap station.
The Big Red Tower from the topo can be seen in the back left of this photo.
This rap put is in a gully that I believe is described in the Croft topo. We opted for the easy and obvious 3rd class way on the left side of the next tower. This took us past a bit of snow which we happily ate to stay hydrated. 16 pitches completed the next belay put us back on track with a very obvious rightward ledge traverse following yellow lichen. This was at the base of the large red tower and concluded the technical section of the climb. I was mentally exhausted and wanted to be moving as fast as possible. I was worried about time it would take to climb the remaining 500 feet to the summit. Konstantin kept good spirits and helped me calm down and stay safe.
Konstantin makes his way across a ridge of chossy spires.
Turning the corner we saw a large section of ledgy terrain that I insisted we solo. I wanted to be moving faster and was confident that we would save time (speed = safety in alpine climbing) by moving at the same time. At above 12,00 feet there was no way I could move too quickly but putting away the rope sped us up and we were in the top in no time. The temps quickly shifted as we entered the shade and the wind picked up. We both happily donned our jackets for the first time since the chimney belay.
5 Hour Energy Summit Celebration!
At the summit it was 6:30 pm and we had been on the go for over 15 hours. Konstantin had brought a couple of the 5-hour energy drinks which we happily finished hoping they would keep us energized all the way to the car. A few summit shots later we started working our way down the talus to the final rappel. With the summit in the bag I was feeling better since the way down was obvious. Konstantin, having found the way down in much worse conditions, led the way and in no time we were in Contact Pass hiking towards our packs.
Good thing it only took us 4 hours to get back to the car!!
I chose to take the faster, yet more exciting, way down the snow filed while Konstantin stuck to the talus. I got a bit wet but was down in time to find the spring (which was still running but just didn’t make it all the way down to the base of Dark Star), fill up our water bottles, and sort all of the gear I had. The mosquitoes were out in full force and despite putting my Buff over my head I got many bites on my scalp. Once Konstantin arrived it was 8:15 and we still had 7 miles to go!
To Dark Star and its many loose pitches with breathtaking views.
Racing against dusk we slid and ran down the gravely talus as fast as possible. By crossing near the second lake we could hopefully cut off some time on the decent and we would be able to get back to the car sooner. Reaching the old road and the two nice bridges we were back on the main trail and Konstantin surged with energy. I had been keeping up so far on the uneven ground but I was no match on the main trail. With headlamps illuminating the trail and my trekking poles swinging furiously we tried to make up as much time as possible. Almost running at times we made it back to the car by 10:30!! This gave us a sub 20 hour time (19:40) and we were psyched at our success. Despite our 12 hours on route (which seemed slow to me despite 17 pitches or ~2500 feet of “climbing”) we had done the approach and decent quite quickly. I had never hiked so fast and Konstantin made 7+ mile summit to car push in a speedy 4 hours.
Luke celebrates his first time to 13,000 feet!
Doing longer routes car to car is an interesting experience and so far I have felt fairly good the day of only to have the fatigue hit me later in the week. On Dark Star I felt the need to rush and was not so sure of where we were going beyond “up”. I think it would have been a bit more fun if I had relaxed but it was hard due to all of the loose rock. I usually enjoy long granite routes because of the crack climbing which was sadly absent on Dark Star. It was wild to find so many incut holds on granite but the gear placement was trickier and there were many sections where you just couldn’t fall.
Committing to a C2C adventure adds a new twist to any long climb and makes one think about how best to utilize sunlight and good temperatures. As well going for 12+ hours changes the mental game as the mind struggles with decision making while exhausted. So far Dark Star took the longest of any climb I had done to date which is strange since it had the least amount of “technical” climbing. On Positive Vibrations our 12+ hour time was due mainly to slow leading on the harder pitches not the length of the climb. On the Red Dihedral our 16.5 hour C2C time was slow mainly due to the wind and cold. One thing I find similar between Positive Vibs and Dark Star was the confusion and slowness due to tricky routefinding.
Dark Star was an important learning experience for me and makes me wonder about how far I am really interested in taking Alpine climbing. Possible I was spoiled by the splitter cracks on the Incredible Hulk and was expecting a longer version of the same thing on Dark Star. Regardless the climbing was beyond beautiful and it was a good challenge to climb at altitude.
Thanks for reading!