Limited Success on Venusian Blinds (5.7, IV)
Note: My ambitions are growing. I want to be the next Jon Krakauer. I wrote the trip report below more honestly and open that I ever have before. I did it without the bluster I’m used to seeing in mountaineering literature and with the humility I felt. I’m putting myself out there. Thank you for taking the time to read and please let me know what you think in the comments.
I started dreaming about climbing Temple Crag last August. I joined my friend on a 3 night backpacking trip to the 7 lakes and was blown away by how beautiful the Temple Crag formation was. I was also jealous of the alpine climbers stomping up the path with their heavy packs. Each and everyone one of them had Venusian Blinds in mind. I had just come off my successful Mount Whitney East Buttress (5.7) ascent and had a glimmer of hope.
The opportunity presented itself when my good friend, Brian, demonstrated his superior planning capabilities by acquiring all of the permits offered the weekend before 4th of July weekend. Perfect.
The preparation went fair. I didn’t have time to work on my technical climbing as much as I wanted because of my commitment to be in good hiking shape for Mount Rainier. I researched Venusian Blinds fastidiously, but just enough that I scared myself. Was I ready for this? I wasn’t sure. My dream is to be an alpine climber. I romanticize those that head into the backcountry finding peaks and climbing them. It’s the golden age of alpine climbing. I wanted to be a modern day John Muir. Is that who I am now? I wanted to look in the mirror and see that in myself but I didn’t. But time passes whether or not you want it to, so I went in, strong of legs and soft of belly, with every intention to succeed.
Robin and I hiked up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek with 60-70 pound packs. I knew this hike wasn’t going to be as challenging as the approach to Iceburg Lake at Mount Whitney, and we took advantage of that fact by bringing some niceties for the backpacking portion of the trip. I brought a hammock and an e-reader in addition to my half of the shared equipment. Robin brought a fishing pole. It was by far the most weight I have ever carried, especially on a 7 mile hike, but I believe it was a good decision. We were glamping.
We separated from the group to camp at the outlet of 3rd lake on the first night. We needed better access to the climb. Our intent was that we would meet back up with our friends after successfully completing the climb on the second night. We had an obscenely early dinner and got into our sleeping bags at 6:30pm. We woke up late at 3:15am because my alarm failed to go off. Robin complained that he wasn’t able to sleep at all, but I felt rested at least.
We crossed the dam and groped over the boulder field for 2 hours by headlamp. We reached the snowfield by first light around 5:30am. I was actually a little surprised. The snowfield was not as steep as some trip reports led me to believe. I climbed Mount Rainier a month prior so the pot may be a little poisoned, but even that thought gave me a boost of confidence. I had experience doing this. I was going to be fine.
We scrambled the first two pitches of class 3 and 4 unroped. Our at-home-on-the-couch plan for this section was to look at and decide if we wanted to do it unroped or simulclimb it. When we got there it looked pretty breezy. I approached the climb wearing my harness on so I was ready to smack that rope on at any second. Robin went ahead and things went great for a while. Then, 1.5 pitches up there was a short flaked section that looked a little harrowing for me, and I voiced that concern. 6’2 Robin took a high step, did a high reach, and whaled over the edge. 5’5 Me reiterated my concern. He asked me if I wanted to rope up. With him on the ledge and the rope on my back it was a little too late. He also wasn’t wearing his harness yet and he was in an awkward position to start putting one on. So I asked him to put on his harness while I do this one last scary move before roping up.
I started awkward chimneying up the flake/corner. I had a thin knee bar in that was held together more by friction than I would have liked. I groped for the high hand but couldn’t feel it. My knee bar was slipping and I saw 500ft of air below me. I wanted to just no-hands whale over the edge but Robin was still standing on the awkward ledge. I said, “Robin move your feet I can’t top out”. Then he said, “give me a second”. I started pleading urgently in my quivering little bitch voice, “Please, please, I’m scared”. He moved his feet, I whaled up, grabbed a 3 from his backpack and PASed into the crack using a single cam all in under a minute. I was breathing hard and fighting back tears. He looked at me with annoyance. He was reacting to me snapping at him while I was scared. Suddenly the dynamic on the whole climb changed. I felt like that moment for me was really serious. I very much felt like I could have died. He was inconvenienced. I felt the trust in our climbing partnership dissipate. Did he have my back? I didn’t know.
The next pitch was my lead. I sucked it up and I did very well. It was a rope stretcher. We slung leads and I did what the topo called my first 5.7 section unprotected to prevent rope drag. I was having fun.
We hit another snag at pitch 6. The topo said we had to cross a short gully to get over to an arête. From there were supposed to stay on the face. I looked at the route and saw that it sure would be great if we could go into the gully to the right. Robin approached the cross over and yelled to me that he wanted to stay in the gully. I yelled back “stay on the face!”. He responded, “It doesn’t make sense to!”, and proceeded to lead us off route.
A fast team approached behind us. He asked which pitch were on. I pointed to the notch behind me and said, “That’s the end of pitch 4 for sure, and I think we are starting pitch 6. I think we are just getting off route now, so if you do what the topo says and stay on the arête you can pass us.” He thanks me for the beta while I continued to belay my partner into what I knew was going to be a big mess.
Robin stretched the rope to the highest point of the gully, and looked down at me worriedly. He belayed me up and I observed that the rock was loose, the movement slippery. I clung onto a big pizza shaped block and felt a shift that startled me. I yelled at little “eep!” and kicked the wall accidentally with my right foot with the force of my entire body weight. I felt a white hot pain shoot up my foot and a ringing sound in my ears. I couldn’t put weight on my right foot. It hurt too badly. I tried to shake it off. It persisted. Something was wrong with my right toe.
I knew at that second that we were epicing. I lost the mental game. It was 10am.
I continued to climb up, and I observed that the movement was harder than 5.7. The ledges were small and the pain putting weight on my right toe induced tears. I got up to Robin, looked up, and noticed how overhanging the next few sections were. I told him that I thought I broke my right big toe. I pulled my shoe off and looked at my feet. I lifted off my toenail, but figured if I taped it down it might reattach. It looked a little red under the toenail, but not a lot of swelling yet. I asked him to lead the next section.
He looked a little worried but he continued up. He was going slow. The movement looked difficult, and microwave sized blocks were loose. He led up to a hanging belay and asked me to start climbing. This section was hard for me. There were hard exposed moves that I observed that Robin wasn’t able to protect. I was worried. I told him that we had to bail. We looked down below us and agreed we couldn’t bail from where we were. We were staring down at least 20 rappells off of loose blocks from a hanging belay. He continued up another pitch.
It was an uncomfortable stance and my feet ached. I noticed that another team was followed us up the gully. I yelled down, “We are off route! Stay on the face!”. The team yells back up, “We know! We are passing in the interest of time!”. I observed that the team I spoke to before was progressing successfully albeit slowly up the face. I yelled back down, “Its very scary up here!”. But I wasn’t able to deter them.
I followed Robin up to a corner. I estimated that we were on the 10th pitch. It was hard. I pulled an improbable 5.10a roof. He yelled down to me before I reached the top, “I can’t find another way forward!”. I paused on a ledge. I said, “Do you want to downclimb? There are may be a path forward from here, but if I follow you both of us are stuck!”. He sounded scared. He told me he couldn’t downclimb from where he was at, so I went the rest of the way up. It was my turn to comfort him. He was choked up close to tears. I could tell at that moment that he lost the mental game too.
“We can traverse around this corner to see whats over there”, I said. He thought of it before but didn’t feel comfortable doing it with so little gear at the end of his 100ft pitch. I considered the team behind us and wondered if they had radios. I was sure that they did. We had no cell phone signal. Was it time to call in the helicopter? I decided that maybe it was if we turned the corner and it blanked out, otherwise it would just be silly. I was able to talk Robin into this. We had to try.
It sounds obvious that we would continue groping for the route now, in retrospect, but we were drained. Physically and emotionally drained. At that moment we had climbed more vertical feet in a single route than we ever have before. We were 1200ft off the deck. Staring down the route was daunting. We felt the grade 4 commitment level in our bones, and we couldn’t shake it. I didn’t trust the mountain with its loose blocks and ability to break bones even on top rope. I didn’t trust my partner who peered into my fear of death with contempt. I felt an inarticulatable fear I had never experienced before. And in that moment, with another team following us up the route, I, for some reason, felt like I had the option of laying down and giving up. But I didn’t. I was able to comfort my partner and push us forward.
I knew that route has a bail out option on route around pitch 10-12. There is a rap station into a gully where you can climb 3rd and 4th class up to the summit plateau. That’s right, you have the option to bail up. From there you can take the standard descent. With my pained foot it sounded like the best option, if only we were able to get back on route.
I belayed Robin up a timid tension traverse around a blind corner. He was able to climb up. Easy peasy. Wouldn’t it have been silly if we just gave up? I reminisced momentarily about what losing the mental game really meant. I broke my toe, lost faith in my partner completely, and got off route, but I still held it together well enough to be there for my partner when the shit hit the fan. I felt weak for the thoughts I had unroped, but I redeemed myself when it counted.
We ran into both of the other teams on route at pitch 11. It was only 1pm. I asked them if they saw the rappel rings. They hadn’t. They told us not to bail, but they didn’t have the day we had. We climbed up pitch 12 and found them there. I felt relief in my chest. But I was suddenly insecure about my decision to bail. I still am. I tried to give myself some slack. I decided that I stopped leading pitches at pitch 6 because of my inflamed foot, so I really wasn’t having fun anymore. Even top roping with white shooting pain in my foot just wasn’t fun. So we bailed.
We got to the summit plateau at 2:30pm. We still got to the top, so it felt like a success still, more or less. I give us a B. Good marks for facing adversity, pressing forward, and making it to the top, but those last three pitches haunts me. Can we say we really did it? Yes, or no. At best I can say that we had limited success.
We descended easily off of contact pass. We were happy to have packed our ice axes and crampons down the 1000ft snow field. We got back to our tent at 5:30pm, before nightfall even. A real epic would have included a benighting or, at least, a descent in the dark. It was a success in all the practical ways that mattered.
I am unsure if I will attempt Venusian blinds again. It’s a route left unfinished but I feel like we were close enough to tick it off, (right?, right!?). I am ready for a new adventure but not quite. There are other lines on Temple Crag and I feel like that mountain has something it still needs to teach me. The memory reel that plays back highlights my moments of despicable self doubt, of faced adversity and letting it crush me. I also saw the climber that I respected in myself before. I pressed on. There is something important at Temple Crag that I haven’t overcome, and its also a place where I can show myself that I am the person I wanted to see in the mirror.
I will be back