Temple Crag, Sun Ribbon Arête

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: September 2, 2002

Photo: Gary Clark

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8/31/02: We woke up in a dirt-bag camp near Holbrook, Arizona full of anticipation - this was the first day of a long-awaited three-week vacation. Feeling no sense of urgency, we blew the entire day driving to Lone Pine. Deciding we wouldn't try to get on the trail tomorrow, we got a room in town around 5:30p and frittered away the evening looking for bargains in the climbing shop, then had a decent dinner in a little place right on main street.

9/01/02: Slept in after a good night's sleep - sometimes motels are well worth the money. We still had no plans to do anything physical today, but after I walked over to the Forest Service headquarters to obtain a backcountry permit, I started to get itchy. (Note: access to the east side of the Sierras is heavily regulated - check the web reference for the latest beta.) Patience has never been my strong suit. Late in the day, we suddenly decided to get on with it, threw our gear together, and started up the hot, dusty, horseshit trail toward a string of lakes with the creative and whimsical names "First Lake," "Second Lake," and "Third Lake." Our destination was Third Lake. Along the way we met some hikers and made the mistake of checking our bearings with them. "Hi there; say, would you know if Third Lake is just ahead?" "No, Third Lake is on up the trail - you aren't even to Second Lake yet." Now I was confused. Map reading is one of my strong suits, and I thought we had already passed Second Lake. "So, that's not Second Lake down there?" I asked, pointing behind and below us. "No, that's First Lake - I know it's confusing, but we've been here several days, and finally got it figured out."

We thanked them and continued on up the trail, but about a half-mile beyond the next lake I called a halt to the proceedings. "This just doesn't match the map - I don't think those guys had anything figured out." We were almost back to Third Lake when I saw the advice-giver coming up the trail rapidly. After catching his breath, he apologized and said they had gotten a little disoriented, and sure enough, we had already passed Third Lake. I wondered if I would have run back up the trail to correct bad advice when already tired from a day's exertions, and thanked him for it.

We found it difficult to accommodate the camping regulations, which included a ban on camping within 100ft of the shore of the lake. Every time we would find an attractive campsite, we would discover it was within the forbidden zone. The rule was well founded, though, as this area is heavily impacted from decades of overuse, so we persevered. Finally we found a marginal spot at about 90ft, and called it good. We set up our minimalist camp, munched our cold dinner, organized the gear for tomorrow, and settled in on thin, uncomfortable pads to see if a little sleep might be possible.

9/02/02: Up at 6:30am, we were quickly ready and headed for the base of climb. The moraine that forms the east side of the lake had not lost any of its ruggedness since the glaciers receded, and it was inefficient, ankle-twisting going for quite a while before we broke out into a smooth gully leading up to the base of the final talus cone. Now the challenge was getting up a snow-filled couloir to a large ledge where the climb begins. We had been unable to determine from below the condition of the snow, but reason dictated that, this late in the season, it would probably be closer to ice. We had not wanted to carry an axe or crampons all the way up the climb just to render this 100-foot section safer and easier, so we gambled and brought only some ski poles. Luckily, we didn't need to use them - the moat at the base of the ridge was wide enough that we could use it and some 4th-class ledges just above it to avoid the ice (it was definitely ice) entirely. We were at the base of the technical climbing, an unmistakable vertical corner, at 8:15AM.

The first pitch was stellar. Never more than 5.7, it was steep and aesthetic, and offered plenty of opportunities for protection, although I skipped most of them because I was enjoying the climbing so much. If the rest of the climb were like this, we had found a classic climb, indeed. All of it wasn't, we were soon to find, as we coiled the rope and scrambled about the next 500', but this put us in a classic situation on the thin edge of the arête itself. Pitch after moderate pitch of fine climbing flowed past as we simul-climbed - I was reminded of the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, several mountain ranges and two states to the north. A few highlights stick in my memory, the first being the Tyrolean Traverse. We were using a SuperTopo that waxed eloquent about this as a "must-do", but I found it a "don't-bother." I tossed the rope across the chasm about four times before I decided (1) I had no talent as a rope tosser, (2) I was wasting time, and (3) this 15-foot Tyrolean wasn't going to offer the thrill of a lifetime anyway. We quickly rearranged the ropes for a short rappel to a notch, then I led a nice 5.7ish pitch to regain the arête. We probably only lost about 15 minutes here, but this route is so long that even this made me a bit anxious to get on with it. A few pitches beyond that point merited belaying, but mostly we continued simul-climbing.

The second memorable spot was the crux pitch area, where a short descent into a notch brings you face-to-face with a steep discontinuity in the ridgeline. There were several alternatives listed on the SuperTopo, ranging from 5.9+ to 5.10-. I wasn't immediately attracted to the most direct line up the ridge (5.9+), and decided to go look at the supposed 5.10- crack that bypassed the step to the left. Traversing easily on a broad ledge, I searched in vain for features that matched the diagram. Finally it was clear I was well past where it was supposed to be, but the face above me looked reasonable, so I started up, telling Lynn "This is an experiment, I might have to back down." I found a few moves of 5.7, but soon arrived at the top of the arête, rather surprised that this simple bypass had never been documented on such a popular route, especially when the crux pitch was so out of character with the rest of the route. The guidebook rating of the route, as well as its length, are major factors in keeping the crowds down on this route. The neighboring 'Venusian Arête' and 'Moon Goddess Arête' are climbed instead by many parties that don't feel up to a 5.9+ crux.

Above the "crux" section, the ridge becomes much flatter, and the climbing is mostly a matter of threading in and around numerous short towers, and in and out of small notches. Simul-climbing gains time here, with abundant natural pro and minimal difficulty, although the exposure keeps your attention. Around 3:00pm, we were converging on the summit area, and Lynn took over the lead. We coiled the rope at the top of the final real pitch, and looked up to the summit. "Do we have time to summit?" She asked. "Well, it doesn't look to be too far up there - let's go have a quick look." Our "quick look" brought us to one false summit, then another, and finally around 4:30 we were atop the true summit of Temple Crag after about 1000 feet of ridge. A superb view of the main Palisade chain was our reward, and I tried to pick out lines I had climbed over 25 years ago on some of the peaks, but with little success. Without the map I'd wouldn't have been able to name even the main features.

Now for the descent. The description we had was quite adequate, and the fact that it included warnings of what "not to do" made us careful to follow it. We soon found ourselves on steepening terrain, but by looking for cairns were able to limit our use of the rope to one rappel. Even that pitch could have been down-climbed, but it didn't look very safe, and the anchor was already there. From the col, we headed on down a very poor couloir. Although broad, there was very little solid footing anywhere, and it got worse the lower we went. I'm a fairly bold talus-hopper, but I finally had to declare defeat at one point and re-climb a long, incredibly unstable section. I decided to make for the relative safety of the rock to the left instead. This is a nasty section, one that cannot be rendered entirely safe with any tactics.

We were back in camp in time to pack it up and head for the valley and a good restaurant dinner, always welcome after one of our "light and fast" trips that doesn't include cooking. Our synopsis of the route was that it is one of the best alpine romps we have ever experienced - not too difficult, not too easy, and certainly not too short. If you have the experience to move quickly on moderate technical terrain, and enjoy the challenge of continual route-finding decisions, this climb might be just your thing. I can't imagine anyone who enjoys the sport of alpine climbing being disappointed. Hopefully we will return to try the other two excellent ridges on this amazing Sierra face.