Team Alpine Machine got its act together about 11:30 AM Saturday morning and headed up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. We cut across the outlet of Second Lake and headed up towards Temple Crag on the Mt Alice side of Second Lake. There is a very nice bivy area that is hidden from view from Second Lake on the other side of the moraine coming down from Mt Alice very near the climbing routes on Temple Crag. Unfortunately the good ones were covered with snow at this time of year but we found two decent spots close to the water supply and almost level with the ramp leading up to the start of Dark Star. This took about five hours which included a conversation with a fisherman who informed us we were out of our minds. The bivy spots near to the start of Sun Ribbon Arete were also clear. We rounded out the day by hiking up towards Contact Pass to get an idea what the snow scene was for the access to Contact Pass. The entire left side of Contact Pass was dry. We decided that the ice axes were not going to be needed in order to get down from Contact Pass.
Team Alpine Machine was rolling by 6 AM Saturday morning and at the base of the route by 6:20 AM. The Moynier topo indicates that the start of the route is near a burst of white quartz in the rock and sure enough there it was. Further to the right is the start of Barefoot Bynum. The crux pitch is the first pitch. Alexey got stiffed with this crux lead since I got the crux on Red Dihedral last year. It is 5.10b or so, a thin finger tips crack with some help from stemming and the left edge of the dihedral. A real early morning eye opener. This crack takes small aliens and stoppers. There are two fixed pins at the belay anchor at the top of this pitch.
The second pitch is about 5.8 and ends at a two pin and one bolt anchor. The next pitch is the best one on the route. It starts with a big reach into a hand crack protected by a dubious looking knifeblade piton and continues up another thin finger tips crack and ends at a two pin belay. This is also small aliens and stoppers country. This was also the last we saw of any fixed pins or fixed belays. Two moderate pitches later (5.7 to 5.8) brought us to a chimney pitch. This was totally fun. After that there is one pitch of 5.8 or so and then some fourth class. At this point the Moynier topo becomes extremely misleading. After about two pitches of fourth class we did indeed get to the "top" of the lower buttress but there is a bunch of fourth class and third class various and sundry "pitches" to get to the gap between the lower buttress and the upper buttress. This is obvious when looking up at the route from Second Lake but this is not indicated on the Moynier topo.
Eventually we ended up at the gap separating the lower buttress from upper buttress. We cruised up the second buttress but we have absolutely no idea as to where the route indicated by Moynier topo goes. Nothing was harder than about 5.7 and supposedly there is a 5.9/10a roof somewhere up there but we never saw it. This is followed by another bunch of fourth class and third class "pitches", one rappel, and then finally two rappels to drop us into the gap between the upper buttress and the final summit approach. None of this is indicated on the Moynier topo. This was accompanied by the occasional snow flurry and then a couple of solid hours of non stop thunder coming from Owens Valley. Fortunately, none of the storm blew over the summit area of Temple Crag but it sure was disconcerting.
Once in the gap between the upper buttress and the main peak the climbing drops to consistent third class. An hour later we were on the summit signing the register. This was at about 8 PM and the sun was near to setting. We took off for the talus and scree heading for Contact Pass and found the rappel anchor just as it got dark. A 100 foot rappel dropped us onto the top of Contact pass and using headlamps we chugged down Contact Pass to the snow field at the bottom. We decided to go to the far right side of the terminal moraine at the end of the snowfield since the north side of the terminal moraine had been avalanching all day and night. Dangerous. The snow was still soft and we kicked steps down to the sand at the end of the snow. A short hike downhill and Team Alpine Machine had returned to camp. It was now 10:30 PM, about 18.5 hours after we left camp. Team Alpine Machine is not known for its speed but we made it. The next morning we headed for home.
This is an interesting but not overly difficult route. The most difficult climbing is on the first pitch but the difficult section is short. After that there is only one more pitch at the 5.9 level and that is pitch three. There is a lot of third and fourth class climbing on top of the buttresses. The route is very long and moving quickly is advised. Team Alpine Machine would have moved faster if we had recognized that we were on easier terraine and had coiled the rope. If it looks like third class it probably is. Coil the rope and jet. The Moynier topo should be taken with a grain of salt. The consecutive look of the pitches in the topo is incorrect and the so called fourth class pitches should be treated as "lots of fourth class". This route should appeal to people who like third classing along ridges. I personally find this tedious and think the Sun Ribbon Arete is a far better route. While the Dark Star Route is considered a Sierra Classic, even Croft does not rate it as highly as the Sun Ribbon Arete. Croft does consider Dark Star to be one of the "Big Four" Sierra Alpine Routes and this probably contributes to the routes mystique.
The best spot for a bivy is above Second lake. To get there cross the outlet of Second Lake and then head down and around Second Lake close to the shore of Second Lake. There is a faint upward sloping trail through the scree leading up from the outlet of Second Lake towards the moraine at the end of Second Lake. This requires a bunch of sidehill climbing and walking which is tedious and tiring. It is much easier to just contour around the lake and then head up the moraine at the end of the lake. Keep going to the left and uphill. Head towards Temple Crag and this brings you to the sandy bivy areas. There are excellent bivy spots near the start of the Sun Ribbon Arete and good ones lower for Dark Star. The water here comes from melt water from a snow field and is somewhat temperamental. It should be flowing later in the day but can be dry in the morning. An extra water container or canteen is very useful.
Once past the first pitch the route itself is quite moderate. A double set of small aliens up to orange and a selection of stoppers work well. We brought larger pieces up to 3 inches but only one of each. We used a single 60m rope. Bailing off this route would be difficult and a double rope system is recommended if the weather looks iffy. Be prepared for a "lot" of third and fourth class climbing on top of the buttresses plus a couple of rappels, none of which are indicated on the Moynier topo.
Head for Contact Pass which is towards the east. Mt Alice should be visible. There is a obvious gully heading down towards Contact pass in this direction. This is not the descent. The descent is to the left (north) and should be marked with a distinct climbers trail in the scree. Going down from this point keep drifting to the right. There is a obvious fin of rock to the far right which blocks further travel in that direction. The rap station is about 20 to 30 feet before getting to this fin and straight down. There should be a duck here and there in this area which indicates you are getting close. Once on top of Contact Pass head down to the north. Avoid heading down the terminal moraine at the end of the snowfield. It is dangerous. Either keep to the far right or the far left.
Climbing California's High Sierra: The Classic Climbs on Rock and Ice, Second Edition, John Moynier and Claude Fiddler, The Globe Pequot Press (Falcon Guides), 2002, ISBN 0-7627-1085-3. Lousy topo and route description.
The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, Peter Croft, Maximus Press, 2002, ISBN 0-9676116-4-4. Lousy topo.