“I could actually die or get seriously injured out here”, plunged into my brain stem at 12,500 ft, six hours into my climb of Temple Crag on Moon Goddess Arete. I had just lifted my foot off a refrigerator sized block that had shifted and nearly tumbled 1000 ft down the mountain. I also didn’t love the single cam in a short horizontal crack laid 30 ft diagonally to my left as the last piece of protection I had placed. This was what the last hour was like as I searched on lead to find a long ‘4th class ledges’ traverse using conflicting information among deteriorating rock quality. Things had changed drastically since my emboldened attitude that we could probably link neighboring Celestial Arete Venusian Blind with a scramble or traverse up Mt. Galey.
Friday night my partner and I arrived at 9k bivy on the Eastern side of Yosemite to pass out at 1am after a homemade chai-fueled 6 hrs drive. The next morning we were first in line waiting for the Mono Lake Visitors Center to open and grab the last four permits for the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. While our friends decided it was best to combine their approach day with climbing a different long route before the main event of their 1500′ climb up Sun Ribbon Arete. We decided to take our time and save our strength for our real deal climb up Venusian Blind (our original goal) that was sure to be a 12 hours climb camp-camp.
Starting from the car at 11:25am we hiked up in surprisingly reasonable temperatures unlike the 100 degrees I faced going up Whitney last June. 6 miles, 3000 ft and a dozen dogs later we were pitching our tent at Lake Three in an exposed, sunny spot near the shore at 3:30pm. The trail had a surprising amount of day hikers who apparently hike up the trail with their poles and dogs to to fish. We chose an exposed spot because the unending mosquitos found in any shade (starting at Lake Two) apparently could not survive in the intense UV found in the sun at 11,500 ft and left us alone… for now.
We messed around in camp, cooked an early dinner in full mosquito proof clothing + head net and went to sleep around 9pm to prepare for an alpine start. One hour before our high achieving friends made it to Lake Three to set up camp after a full day.
We woke up at 5:30am to a golden alpine glow hitting the surrounding rock and left camp at the leisurely time of 6:45am. With 16 hrs of sunlight and the fact that some people car-car this route in 12 hrs we were not that worried about the mostly simul-climbing 5.7, even if it was 1500′.
We had an okay time crossing the river and picking our way through a hilly boulder section to reach the final scree gulley to the snow at 9am. One party had just stomped up the snow in front of us as we too kicked securely kicked into packed and semi-soft snow-steps without crampons but with the aid of an ice axe.
We solo’d the easy stuff for an hour until we reached the gulley between Venusian Blind and Moon Goddess Arete. Here we were surprised by seeing a party of four moving incredibly slowly ahead of the previously spotted party of two AND another party ahead of the four! The speed and the fact that someone rappelled down the rope to do something after the last person climbed this easy pitch indicated that we very well would be nighted behind or hit by rock fall by this inexperienced group. After thinking it over, we decided to climb Moon Goddess Arete which we had the electronic supertopo for but hadn’t looked at extensively. It was sold as a similar climb to Venusian but with a little more traversing, a slightly harder ‘crux’ section of 5.8 and a little less quality rock.
Then we got climbing. Blasting up 1000 ft of simul-climbing to the first tower with amazing views of the valley behind us. We had packed full alpine gear for two with plenty of water, extra layers and two ice axes that made climbing the easy grade much more tiring than I had expected at 12,000 ft. However, I was thinking to myself the whole time how lucky it was that I was here, experiencing this adventure with such amazing views.
I still can be a little tentative around exposure so I convinced Sadie to lead the ‘wild exposed traverse’ seventh pitch around the First Tower. This traverse was secure and reasonable 5.7, but I certainly wouldn’t have thought, “oh, that looks like it could be a good line” if I was the first ascentionists. Now in the notch at 1pm after 5 hrs, it was my turn to lead the 5.8 sections to our next traverse section.
I lead 30m up a loose chimney and then up an amazing 5.8 hand crack until I became stumped. None of the features listed in the Supertopo added up. The ‘block with slings’ above the chimney was nowhere in sight, the shark fin boulder on a ledge I didn’t see, I couldn’t find a 5.8 pitch with a bulge in the middle and I was at two quartz veins referenced in the topo at the top of the second pitch from the notch, but I had only gained one pitch. The Supertopo also warned incessantly not to go too high and get into loose dangerous terrain and mentions climbing 100ft ‘wandering up the face’ AFTER the chimney, but I was only 30m from the notch. Super confused, I made an anchor and brought up Sadie to discuss.
Meanwhile, to our left the Shit Show on Venusian Blind was getting to full affect. I saw 3 climbing pairs in moving up various places all within 30m. One was off route, one was following on the heels of another follower and one looked to be on route on the arete proper. There was shocking over communication, but I’m not sure anything was being communicated. This was a conversation I overheard while belaying Sadie.
Lead Climber: “You are on belay”
Lead Climber: “You are on belay!”
Lead Climber: “Do you want a belay Yes or No!?”
Lead Climber: “Belay, Yes or No!?”
Lead Climber: “Belay, Yes or No!?”
Follower: “Yeah you are on belay!”
Lead Climber: “No, do you want a belay”
… it continues and I decide I got the gist of what was going on. This is a striking contrast to looking over to the right at our friends setting up the super awesome Tyrolean Traverse on Sun Ribbon Arete. Reaching their route’s vertical halfway point.
After conferring with Sadie and sacrificing my last 2% of phone battery to page through pictures of Moon Goddess Arete on Mountain Project; she went out on belay to do the traverse saying she had a good idea what to do. However, after a while of looking around, she too said she saw some ledges but they were over 30 ft down from these white quartz streaks mentioned in the Supertopo and it definitely involved more technical down climbing than the 4th class mentioned in the book. Mountain Project description didn’t offer a lot either:
A cracks lead to a platform and the second impasse below the flawless section of the Tower (5.8). Pass around to the right, very exposed, and continue to traverse (loose in parts) until cracks lead back to the top of the Tower (5.8).
Were we too high? too low? were there different ledges? If we rappelled into the ledges we saw. would we be stranded and have to rappel the (not recommended retreat) right gulley like one line of slings? I offered to take lead again and try to go up higher or figure out a descent to the ledges. First I thought I saw the way, but when the climbing got tougher I thought I had to be off route because no way was this 4th class nor would Sadie be comfortable technical down climbing on follow; essentially without protection on a traverse with deteriorating rock. I then went high and moved into increasingly loose rock. After some back and forth, traversing out and then back in. Going up and then downclimbing. All on 30 ft run outs with lots of slack as a partner around the corner and out of sight tried to toe-the-line between keeping tension, not short roping me and feeling when I backtracked. I plunged high again and stepped on my refrigerator sized block with hundreds of feet of face below me plunging into a steep gully.
At this moment, the rising fear and uncertainty inside hit me like a flash flood all at once. A fall here meant that I would pendulum 30 ft over a traverse to my last piece of protection. That swing would likely dislodge rock which could injure me or cut my rope. A pendulum like that alone could cut the rope or injury me on whatever I fell on or hit sideways. I was no-fall climbing in a sea of increasingly unpredictable rock that was getting more technical as I ascended and was technical on down climb when I had less ability to judge rock quality. This was all counting on that last piece of protection I placed holding on a fall like that too. I had confidence in that placement, but the rock quality factor and the orientation of the fall would be difficult for that piece.
I thought about the numerous stories every year of people climbing in the High Sierra who’ve died or become seriously injured from rock falls. Some are just stories, but some were friends of friends. I thought about my two climbing injuries that resulted from trad gear blowing on me in tested, but marginal placements off relatively low forces. I had a panic attack. I lost my confidence of my safety. I groaned and breathed in panic breaths as I forced myself to focus and be safe. I was on lead, I needed to go back to anchor to safety. Then I could be a human being, express my fear and let it pass.
I got back to the anchor and broke down. My senses were completely overwhelmed. I cried. I struggled to control my breathing to normal. I asked my partner to help make some technical decisions because I couldn’t engage the logical part of my brain to access real-risk vs. perceived risks in that moment. I’m not proud of it. I don’t think I was a good partner letting that happen, but it happened.
This is where it gets tricky. We decided that we cannot find or gain the traverse safely. We could down climb the route or we could bail into the gully on either side of the route. The Supertopo said the climbers-left gully was the bail gully, but we had no idea how much gear or slings were on this less traffic’d, high alpine route or if there were even established rappel stations people regularly used to retreat. If we first rappelled into the gulley the book said we could go up the gulley to finish the climb, but who knows what that would actually be like and it was late. All options had risk, but at the end we chose to descend down the left bail gulley outlined as the retreat option because we didn’t want to get further up and encounter more issues.
We chose to utilize canyoneering tactics of lowering the heavier person (me) from a less-than perfect anchor (one nut) with a full anchor backup and then the lighter person can rappel off the now-tested, less-than SERENE anchor. Next, at a block with slings we rappelled into the gulley and down it on single rope rappel stations with multiple weathered slings around blocks. 30 minutes after my panic attack I had regained composure and I was back to being able to be a full partner in a relatively uneventful rappel back to the base of the climb.
At the gulley we saw the shit-show party on Venusian Blind exiting the lower part of the descent gully, having already topped out on the climb. Did we make the right decision to change routes? I still don’t know. I do know that we were cursing them for ruining the lovely day we could have had on Venusian Blind, regardless of it being our decision to change routes.
On our last rappel almost to the snow field the wind picked up, gaining unusual speed that we mostly heard instead of felt. Then it started… Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. in a rhythmic, deep, concussion sound that abruptly stopped in an enormous cloud of dust that filled the descent gulley. We were unable to see the whole thing, but by the time we rounded a local cliff we saw a new, car-sized boulder bumped up against another previously seen car-sized boulder. I’m used to small rock fall, but the size of rock fall at Temple Crag was unusually common and large in quantity. Thank goodness there was no one descending the gulley from the top at that point!
Back on the ground, we stumbled our way through the rolling boulder field. Going up and down, trying to find our way back to the river to cross and arrive back at our camp as the light faded and we eventually had to get out our headlamps. 14 hours after we left camp, we arrived and cooked dinner that we ate in our tent given the mosquito infested air. Laying in bed, we lazily debated tiredly for an hour about who would leave the tent and secure our food in the bear can before going to sleep. At 9:30pm we saw lights appear at the top of the mountain, it was our Sun Ribbon Arete friends, descending after completing their incredibly long route. We heard several boughts of rock fall as they descended, sent them our good intentions for their safety and fell asleep.
We had thought (maybe just me?) Venusian Blind would be easy and maybe we would do Sill on our Monday. However, we were way too tired and made a lazy pack up in camp and hike out in three hours.
The seven hour ride home provided a lot of reflection on whether we made all the right calls and what we had missed. In reflection I think we made the right safety calls and we made other decisions that just resulted in a poor outcome. We couldn’t have predicted the poor beta for the traverse, when we had such clear information as a topo. We couldn’t have predicted that we wouldn’t be able to find the route because that had never happened and we are both decent at route finding. We can’t know what would have happened if we had followed that other party on Venusian blind. Maybe one of us would have a rock-fall injury? In the end, we could have just plunged ahead and down climbed or rapped into those ledges but we aren’t 5.10 leaders so it might have been a disaster. Taking on less-traffic’d objectives in the alpine sometimes means bailing and every experienced alpinist has had to bail so I guess it was just our day. So… just stay safe out there.
Note: This is a high rock fall area. We saw rock fall happen at least every three hours. If you bivy close to the climb keep out of rock fall areas.