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Climbing Dark Star, a Sierra Classic

There's nothing wrong with spending a summer in Vancouver when Squamish is your backyard, I just wanted more this year. Then the phone rang."Come to California," Trev said. "We'll climb some real mountains. There's a couple of Grade Vs I want to get on."

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There’s nothing wrong with spending a summer in Vancouver when Squamish is your backyard, I just wanted more this year. Then the phone rang.

“Come to California,” Trev said. “We’ll climb some real mountains. There’s a couple of Grade Vs I want to get on.”

“Real mountains? Grade V? Hello?” I asked. Trev had already hung up. I threw my gear and my dog in the car and headed south.

In his book The Good, The Great, and The Awesome, my hero Peter Croft states that Dark Star on 12,999-foot Temple Crag (V 5.10) is one of the Big Four Sierra alpine routes. I don’t know what the other three are and I don’t know what Peter Croft was smoking when he wrote that, but I do know what Grade V means now and I won’t be doing any more for a while.

After dropping our dogs at the Crow Bar Hotel in Bishop, Trev and I drove through Big Pine to the Palisades: a mountainous wonderland of giant glaciers, pristine green lakes, great pines and silence. The sun was hot and the sky blue as we walked in six miles to bivy near a glacial lake under Temple Crag’s shadow. In the quiet light of morning we exchanged excited smiles and geared up, each with our own half-litre of water, pepperoni stick and Luna Bar. Dressed in long-sleeved shirts, toting toques and headlamps, we assumed we would be prepared for anything.

From our camp to the base of Temple Crag was a two-hour hike up heavy scree and patches of snow, but the weather was perfect and we were psyched when we identified the start of Dark Star. We had the place to ourselves. The first pitch is the crux, a stiff 5.10, and it was after this that we decided it would have been a good idea to wear helmets. Although the following pitches are graded low fifth or easy fourth class, some of them are tough and most are downright scary due to loose rock and difficulties in route-finding.

On the chimney pitch I got lost, so I brought Trev up to scope out the situation.

He looked me in the eye. “Do you really not know where to go or are you just scared? It’s a chimney. You go up,” he said.

He continued the pitch. It was entertaining watching him maneuver his thick body through the very narrow slot. When I laughed, my water bottle exploded. I guess I was sitting on it. I stopped laughing.

Finally atop the lower buttress, we were faced with many tedious ridge traverses to reach the base of the upper buttress, which turned out to be a repeat of the lower buttress except with even more traverse pitches and even looser rock. Everything we touched or stepped on moved.

I thought that getting to the top of the upper buttress meant being at the top of the climb. I am an idiot. We still had to traverse to the base of yet another enormous rock heap in order to get to the top. As we began, Trev looked behind us and commented, “Look at what we’ve been climbing. Like, gross.”

It started to spit rain. Thunder and lightning followed. When you’re close enough to touch the sky, you’re momentarily blinded; your heartstrings plucked.

Trev got a little grumpy and started saying things like, “We’ll never get off this choss pile,” and, “Great. We’ll either die of rocks falling on our heads or get hit by lightning. Just fucking great.”

We saw what looked like a possible bail route and after another boom of thunder backed by more lightning we decided to try it. We hiked down 1,500 feet of slab to be stopped dead at a sheer 500-foot drop. I won’t say what Trev said then.

Our only option was to finish that fucker of a climb. We filled our water bottles with dirty snow and trudged back up the 1,500-foot slab. At least the rain had stopped and the skies were quiet.

Back on the rope, Trev suggested that maybe we had already died and we’d be climbing this route forever because we were in hell. I laughed and continued to work silently at keeping fear off my back. We somehow reached the summit at dusk but there was no elation, only relief, and only a little of that. We still had to get down. We donned our headlamps, read the sketchy descent directions we had copied from Croft’s book at the climbing shop in Bishop, and hustled into Part Two of this epic.

Dehydration, fatigue and delirium were creeping in and even after hours of tripping over rocks and boulders in the moonless black night, we really had no idea how to find Contact Pass, the descent trail. We happened upon trickles of icy water, and drank and rested next to a glacier. I found my pepperoni stick in my pocket but had somehow lost my hunger, so I offered it to Trev.

That’s when he called it: “We have to stop until daylight. We’re lost and can’t see where we’re going. You always eat. We need some sleep. I wanted to keep moving to stave off the sub-freezing temperatures, but the last two hours of zigzagging had only helped to disorient us further.”


And then I had an idea. It was simple. A fire! We’ll make a fire! There was always a fire in the wilderness in the dark. Always. I laughed and jumped and jangled my cams and could already feel the hot flames flicking my palms. Trev looked around quizzically. I followed his gaze. There was no wood here. Just rocks. No fire.

Trev flaked out the rope for insulation atop a big flat boulder and we removed our harnesses and gear. He looked at me and said, Find two rocks for pillows. I stared back at him, wondering if he was trying to be funny at such a time. He wasn’t joking. Too tired to question his obvious loss of sanity, I picked up two rocks. He said they weren’t the right kind. I stood watching as Trev searched for two good ones. We used those.

I mean no hyperbole by saying this was the coldest night I’ve ever spent. Ever. We laid our tired bodies down on the rope on the rock, rested our delirious heads on rock pillows, and shook, shivered and trembled tightly in each other’s arms for the next several hours. We regularly turned cold exposed body parts inwards to the heat of the other’s body. We took turns lying atop one another rubbing arms and backs and bums and thighs, and between chattering teeth whispered words of love and longing for our furry dogs.

“Will we die?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so,” Trev replied. “But not tonight.”

Quiet laughter echoed out to the brilliant stars and into the utter silence, and we shook and shivered some more between fleeting moments of sleep.

And, at morning’s first shadowy light, a billion stars still ablaze, we saw where we were: engulfed in a magnificent boulder bowl surrounded by high jagged peaks backed with glaciers. And us: two small, insignificant trembling creatures staring wide-eyed at all that encompassed us.

Peter Croft was right. Dark Star is a great climb.

Alison Cerney lives in Vancouver with her dog, Rex the bullmastiff.