Dark Star is one of the longest technical routes in the High Sierra, and holds the distinction as one of Peter Croft's "Big Four Free Climbs" of the High Sierra. The route takes the biggest and most direct line up Temple Crag. The route is composed of three distinct buttresses, which I refer to as Lower, Middle, and Upper in this trip report. The 5.10b/5.10c cruxes of the route appear on the first and second pitches, followed by about seven pitches of sustained 5.8-5.10 climbing which bring you to about the middle of the Middle Buttress, with about half of the mountain still above you. The second half of the route is easier climbing (4th to low 5th), but entails a lot of careful routefinding, wandering, exposed ridge traversing, and a few rappels. Due to the sheer length of the route, it's almost undoubtedly necessary to simulclimb (or better yet, solo) the 4th and low 5th sections of the route. This is what we did, and we found ourselves relaxing on the summit by 2:30pm.
Interesting note: The first ascent of this route is attributed to Doug Robinson, John Fischer, Gordan Wiltsie, and Jay Jensen, in 1975. They chose a name that fits the route: "Dark Star", the spaciest, longest, and most wandering song of the Grateful Dead.
Hike about 5 miles and 2500 ft on the North Fork of Big Pine Trail to Second or Third Lake (we chose Third Lake) and set up camp. You can either park in the hiker parking lot or save about a mile of trail both ways by paying $5 a night to park at Glacier Lodge. The base of Dark Star buttress is about 20 minutes from camp at Third Lake. Glacier Lodge to camp took us about 2.5 hours with overnight packs (and 2 hours on the hike out).
a. Glacier Lodge Store. We parked here for $5 per night per car and $2 per ice cream sandwich.
b. Camp at Third Lake with the Dark Star buttress looming 20 minutes away.
c. I got a kick out of this note on the topo*: "If you bring bivy gear - you will".
*we used an excellent hand-drawn topo we found on SuperTopo.com.
It seems that the standard start to the route is to start 500' up from the toe of the Lower Buttress, which can be easily accessed by third class from the left. However, we chose to start directly from the toe of the Buttress, which entails about 500' of 4th to low 5th climbing to get to the standard start of the route. From the standard start, the Lower Buttress is the steepest and hardest part of Dark Star. The first two pitches (easily linked into one stellar pitch) are the crux of the route (10b and 10c), the third pitch is 10a, and the next four pitches are 5.8ish climbing. About 300 (vertical) feet of easy climbing (4th to low 5th) brings you to the top of the Lower Buttress ("Lower Tower" on topo). The Lower Buttress took us 4.5 hours.
a. Approaching Dark Star at dawn. There are excellent bivy sites right where I am taking the photo, but water is 10 minutes away in either direction (water at the base of the route or water at Third Lake).
b. There was running water at the base of the route, coming down above the snowfield. Running water might not be there in late season.
c. Soloing the 500 feet to the standard start of the route. This is mostly 4th class terrain with a few 5th class moves and some 3rd class as well. There are several ways to go.
d. Looking up Pitches 1 and 2 (easily linked into one stellar pitch up a continuous corner) from the base. With the morning sun just hitting the route, the temps were perfect for sending the 10b and 10c cruxes of the climb.
e. Looking up Pitch 1. Great climbing.
f. Looking up Pitch 2, which we linked with Pitch 1. More great climbing up the corner.
g. An old unnecessary bolt near the top of Pitch 2.
h. Pitch 3 starts off by traversing left about 40 feet on a cool ledge.
i. A piton on the traverse at the start of Pitch 3.
j. The beautiful 10a finger crack on the second half of Pitch 3. Photo by Dow Williams.
k. There are beautiful quartz crystals all over Dark Star. Mentos for scale.
l. Shadow belaying.
m. Shadow climbing.
n. Climbing on Pitches 4 and 5, which we linked into a 310 ft pitch (about 80 feet of simulclimbing with our 70m rope). Pitch 4 is 5.7 juggy face climbing. Pitch 5 has a 5.8 roof and easier 5th class climbing.
o. Looking up into the chimney of Pitch 6. You can belay inside the chimney if it's a hot day. Belay lower if it's a cool day since it's a bit chilly inside the chimney.
p. Taken while leading the 5.8 chimney of Pitch 6. This was a fun pitch. The crux for me was dealing with my pack. I just dangled it below me, which worked well.
q. Looking down from a comfy belay ledge at the top of Pitch 6. The second half of Pitch 6 involves blocky 5th class climbing.
r. Dow leading off Pitch 8, which follows 5.8 cracks up through black rock.
s. After Pitch 8, the last 300 (vertical) feet is pretty easy 4th class, so we unroped and soloed it quickly.
t. At the top of the Lower Buttress! Not even 10:30 am yet. The Lower Tower is behind Dow in the photo.
The first two pitches of the Middle Buttress are pretty steep and technical: 5.8 face and then a 5.10a roof. After this, ~500 vertical feet of easy climbing brings you to the top of the Middle Buttress ("Upper Tower" on topo). To get from here to the Upper Buttress, there's a lot of wandering and careful routefinding in and out of gendarmes on an exposed ridgeline and a few rappels (we avoided the first 2 by downclimbing to climber's left). The Middle Buttress took us about 3.5 hours (~2:15 to Upper Tower, another ~1:15 to get from Upper Tower to base of Upper Buttress).
a. Route beta for finding the start of the climbing on the Middle Buttress. Apparently several parties have failed to find the correct route line since the wall above kind of all looks the same, but we just followed the topo's visual instructions to start climbing just off the tip of the ridge connecting the Lower Buttress with the Middle Buttress, and we found ourselves right on route.
b. The narrow ridge connecting the Lower Buttress to the Upper Buttress. Fun exposed 4th class.
c. The 5.8 hand crack on the first pitch on the Middle Buttress (Pitch 10 on the topo). I led this pitch.
d. Dow leading off the second pitch on the Middle Buttress (Pitch 11 on the topo). The 5.10a roof is above him.
e. Climbers on Sun Ribbon Arete across the way.
f. After the two pitches of roped climbing, the Middle Buttress eases. We unroped and soloed the rest of the route from here. It's about 500 (vertical) feet to the top of the Middle Buttress.
g. Dow soloing on the upper part of the Middle Buttress. We kept it at 4th and low 5th, but there were definitely sections where an unroped fall would be deadly, so it's essential to be sure of every foot- and handhold.
h. A cool slot/chimney we walked through on the upper part of the Middle Buttress.
i. This photo was taken from near the top of the Middle Buttress ("Upper Tower" on topo). From here, there's a lot of weaving around on the exposed ridge (sometimes right, sometimes left) and three rappels to get to the base of the Upper Buttress that's still pretty far away at this point. The terrain ahead looks improbable, but surprisingly it was mostly just 4th class.
j. The first rappel anchor between the Upper Tower and the base of the Upper Buttress. We avoided this rappel by downclimbing (4th) to climbers left.
k. Looking back after following more ridgeline after the first rappel station.
l. Looking ahead. The goal is to get to the base of the Upper Buttress in the photo.
m. The second rappel anchor between the Upper Tower and the base of the Upper Buttress. We avoided this rappel by downclimbing (4th to low 5th, perhaps a 5.6 move in a chimney - see next photo) to climbers left.
n. Downclimbing a chimney to avoid the second rappel. With approach shoes, there was a short section that felt 5.6.
o. The third rappel anchor between the Upper Tower and the base of the Upper Buttress. It looked possible to avoid this rappel by downclimbing pretty far down to climbers left, but it seemed easier this time to just rappel.
p. Rappelling from the third rappel station at the end of the Middle Buttress. This rappel brings you to a notch and the base of the Upper Buttress is a short scramble upwards from here (note: the topo is a bit ambiguous here, but you do need to scramble up a bit to get to the base of the Upper Buttress).
Once at the base of the Upper Buttress, you have two options, depending on your remaining daylight and energy: (1) Maintain the original route and go right around the base of the Upper Buttress and then climb up about 500 vertical feet of 4th and easy 5th to the summit ridge or (2) Escape left on 3rd class terrain. Since we had plenty of time and energy, we chose Option 1. The Upper Buttress went quick and took us about 30 minutes.
a. The detached ledges with yellow lichen that bring you around to the right side of the Upper Buttress to the last 500 vertical feet of climbing.
b. Dow enjoying an energy bar made by his wife Stacy.
c. Pretty solid 4th and low 5th on the right side of the buttress towards the summit ridge. Lots of options. The sooner you cut left the sooner you can maintain the ridgeline again.
d. At the top of the route! The summit is so close now!
You've arrived! What a view! (Note: You don't actually have to go to the summit since you can just start descending towards Contact Pass from the ridgeline at the top of the Upper Buttress. But why climb 2400 feet only to stop just about 10 minutes shy of the summit?!).
|360° summit view|
a. Looking down at the Dark Star buttress from the summit.
b. Dow on the summit. Mt. Winchell and Mt. Agassiz (I think) behind.
c. Steph on the summit. One of the Palisades (Mt. Sill I think) behind.
Scramble down towards Contact Pass, make a single rappel (~90 feet) to the pass, and scramble down more scree, talus, and boulders to Second or Third Lake. The descent took us just under 2 hours.
a. From the summit, start heading down a never-ending scree slope towards Concat Pass and....
b. ...make a single (~90 ft) rappel to Conctact Pass....
c. ...followed by more never-ending scree....
d. ...interrupted by a cool sandy oasis....
e. ...followed by a never-ending boulder field....
f. ...followed by relaxing at camp. We felt quite justified lounging around eating two dinners apiece after this.
g. Morning light on Temple Crag as we hiked out early the next morning.
We made excellent time on this route, finishing in 12 hours camp to camp. The main keys to our speedy ascent were: (1) soloing all of the 4th to low 5th terrain (rather than simulclimbing or—God forbid—pitching it out), (2) quick belay interchanges and short to nonexistent breaks, (3) careful routefinding, (4) general speed and physical stamina. The breakdown is as follows:
|Wake up||4:10 am||10,300'|
|Leave camp||5:09 am||10,300'|
|Base of Lower Buttress||5:29 am||10,480'|
|Base of roped climbing||5:58 am||10,740'|
|Start climbing Pitch 1||6:18 am||10,740'|
|Lower Tower||10:26 am|
|Base of Middle Buttress||10:35 am|
|Upper Tower||12:45 pm|
|Base of Upper Buttress||1:53 pm|
|Top of route||2:18 pm||12,880'|
|Leave summit||3:06 pm||12,999'|
|Contact Pass||3:48 pm||11,770'|