Cardinal Pinnacle wasn’t on our tick list when Brian and I headed up to Tuolumne Meadows for four days of climbing. But the weather threw us a few curves, and we ended up climbing both of our less demanding objectives in the first three days. Since we were heading back south on the last day, Brian to rendezvous with another friend for three days on Mount Russell, and I back to the daily grind, we needed something relatively short.
Croft raves about Cardinal Pinnacle in his book The Good, The Great and The Awesome, so a route there was somewhere on both of our lists of things to do. After some consideration of the logistics, and weighing our desire to get a decent night’s sleep for once, we settled on The West Face, a four-pitch 5.10a climb on the Pinnacle.
We arrived in early afternoon after breakfast at the Tioga Pass Resort and a shopping spree in Bishop. We were joined by Brian’s friends Bill and Javier, who were fresh off the Muir Wall in the valley. The plan was for us to do The West Face, and them to do another route on the pinnacle. We arrived before the other two, but didn’t wait. We assumed we would be slower than they, so we might as well get going.
The route starts at a large, prominent flake about twenty feet high near the base of the crag. It is possible to start on either side; the left side is 5.8 climbing in a corner, while the right is a 5.9 crack. Looking up at them both, it was hard to imagine how the right side was harder than the left. Bill, who has done both variations, later confirmed my supposition.
The left hand variation ends in an awkward mantle onto a sandy, sloping ledge. Brian had the first lead. He placed three pieces, including a small offset Alien, in the corner up to the ledge. From there hand jams in a left-facing corner lead up to the crux area—a funny stretch of climbing in two thin cracks on either side of a shallow gully, followed by a reputed 5.10a step across beneath a large block. The cracks were indeed thin, but stemming eases the pain considerably. If you continue with the stemming approach, the step across is not too difficult. Neither of us felt it was a 5.10 move. 5.9 maybe, but no harder.
Enjoyable climbing in cracks, corners and flakes lead up to a final steep section below a huge ledge. A flake out on the left face of the corner provides several “Thank God” holds that I was personally very glad to find. Another mantle onto a sloping ledge puts you next to the lowest rap anchor. Brian mistook this for the belay, which is actually a few yards higher on the right. However, the pitches are not long, and it didn’t matter.
Pulling over the first mantle as I followed Brian’s lead, I managed to strain something in my left arm. It was quite painful to pull hard on the holds. When I arrived at the belay ledge I informed Brian that the next lead was his as well. He asked if I wanted to go down. I wasn’t ready for that. I just didn’t want to commit to a hard lead with an unreliable arm.
Brian gathered the gear and started up pitch two. If you believe the topo, this pitch contains the second crux, another 5.10a step around an arête. The step around is quite thrilling, but the physical crux is lower down. A forty foot dihedral provides sustained jamming and lie backing, starting out at around 5.7, and winding up in the 5.9 range. It gets steeper and more awkward at the top.
Brian made reasonable progress through this section. I couldn’t see him, but the rope kept moving. When it slowed to a crawl, and then stopped I knew he was at the second crux. Brian is the kind of guy who won’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out the best way through. He’ll figure out something that he thinks will go, and then go for it. Thus, when the rope didn’t move for about fifteen minutes I knew he must be up against something tough. When Bill and Javier, who were watching from below after having finished an appalling one-pitch overhanging jam crack, let out a burst of applause I knew Brian had cracked the nut. He was off belay within minutes, and then it was my turn.
When I arrived at the base of the long corner the first thing I noticed was that there were no pieces anywhere in sight. Jesus, did he lead the whole thing without pro, I wondered? As the climbing got harder, I became appalled that he would take such a risk. I was ready to chew his butt out when I got to the next belay.
At the top of the corner my left arm was toast. I was effectively trying to climb with one arm. Have you ever seen those cartoons where the characters start running full tilt but don’t move until they suddenly get traction? That was me at the top of the corner, only I didn’t get traction. I’m still not sure what I did to get past that point, as I was rapidly growing desperate with the pain in one arm, and fatigue in both hands.
Needless to say, I was quite relieved to pull through the moves to easier ground. From my perspective that day, the middle of pitch two was the best climbing. Moderate cracks and flakes wandered up towards a corner that faded into nothing. The crux step around was on the right side of the corner just before it vanished.
I took my time shaking my arm out, but it wasn’t recovering as fast as I needed. I hoped it wouldn’t require much in the way of pulling. Hanging was okay, but pulling hard wasn’t going to happen.
I needn’t have worried. The second crux is harder than the first, but it’s quite manageable. I did it slightly lower than Brian had, grabbing an incut crack around the corner, and cheating my feet across featureless rock until I was on the right side of the arête. Brian seemed relieved that I hadn’t popped off. When he pointed out that the rope ran about twenty feet horizontally to the belay, so was I.
When I bailed on leading the second pitch we sort of agreed that I’d take pitch three as a consolation prize. But it was not to be. I told Brian that I would be happy to give it a go, but he’d have to give me at least fifteen minutes of recovery time. This didn’t appeal to either of us, since we had been on the route longer than anticipated already, and we had a long drive ahead. So once again, Brian took the sharp end.
The third pitch starts off with a forty foot traverse. The pro was less ideal. The climbing was just thin enough to make us pay close attention to what we were doing. We both hoped that when he reached the crack system that would take him up the rest of the pitch that the climbing would become easier.
It didn’t. Protection became a question of balancing rope drag against safety. The first piece he placed after the traverse popped out right after he got in the next piece. The climbing wasn’t letting up much. The third pitch is basically all crack climbing on a nearly featureless face. The crack varied from big hands to fingers to fingernails in a couple places. Brian eats that stuff up, so I was glad he got to lead it.
Because the angle was considerably lower on pitch three my arm hadn’t gotten as worked as on the previous two. So pitch four was all mine. I clambered over Brian, who was tucked into a funky little stance right in the corner where I needed to start. The only technical difficulty to speak of was a 5.8 chimney immediately above the belay. A couple of mid-size cams protected this part admirably.
Chimney climbing suited my physical condition perfectly, and I was soon past it. From that point a steep, though easy, traverse leads around and up to the top. I took one look at the tangle of sun-baked webbing looped through the bolt hangers at the first rap station and decided we would have to get down some other way. After the sketchy rappels we had done ten days earlier on Clyde Minaret, I was in no mood for a repeat.
Brain followed quickly. We started the search for an alternative descent. Unfortunately, since we assumed from the beginning that we would be rapping the route we had both elected to leave our approach shoes at the base. That meant we would have to descend five hundred feet of scree and talus in rock shoes. Ouch!
It took a bit of exploration before we settled on a long rappel down to the notch south of the pinnacle. Until that point I had assumed that there was some kind of walk off. But there isn’t. When they call it Cardinal Pinnacle, they really mean pinnacle. We couldn’t tell if the rope reached the ground when we set up the rappel. Halfway down, though I could lean out enough to see past an overhang to discover that our long rope indeed reached the notch. Thank God for 70m ropes!
The walk down wasn’t nearly as bad as Croft makes it out to be. There isn’t much scree that can’t be avoided, and the talus is just talus. We made good time. At the bottom I checked the time. In all, we had been about five hours on the route. Slower than we expected, but not too bad considering the route was about the same length as Eichorn Pinnacle, and quite a bit harder. We spent six hours on Eichorn three days before. Does that mean we’re getting better? Wouldn't that be nice!