1869 was the year of the first known ascent of Cathedral Peak, made by none other than the incomparable John Muir. The bold mountaineer frequently gazed up the peak with reverence and awe, rightly claiming that the hand of man could not create architecture as inspiring as Mother Nature’s millennia of labors on the Cathedral. More than 130 years later, Cathedral’s lofty towers, sweeping buttresses, and jagged rock ridges continue to inspire and cast its mystical spell on the modern-day Sierra mountaineer, many of whom are drawn to its airy summit like any other point in the Range of Light.
I have been fortunate to reach a number of fine High Sierra summits, ranging as far as Olancha Peak to the south to Tower Peak to the north, including noble Sierra giants such as North Palisade, Ritter, Whitney, Lyell, Bear Creek Spire, Russell, and Conness in between. However, no peak in the Range of Light has touched my mountaineering soul to a degree approaching that of the Cathedral.
To most people, Yosemite National Park is synonymous with Yosemite Valley. The ice carved trench of Yosemite Valley is indeed a singular, spectacular sight and is perhaps the planet’s rock climbing Mecca. The Tuolumne Meadows area and the nearby Cathedral Range is most often a distant afterthought to the casual tourist. Nonetheless, despite the absence of 3,000 foot vertical to overhanging, glacially polished granite faces, the Meadows has a singular and unique beauty and grandeur that is prominently displayed along the sinuous Tioga Road.
The rock climbing opportunities in the Meadows area are myriad, providing the climber a choice of smooth, polished granite on a seemingly limitless supply of smooth faced granite domes, moderate scrambles on the rough hewn granite of the “cockscomb” monuments, and striking alpine rock routes. Just about anyone who regularly drives the Tioga Road in the summer and fall looks forward to the voyeuristic pleasure of watching climbers edging, smearing, stemming, jamming, and liebacking up routes frequently regarded as “sandbagged” and “runout”, not terms a no-death-wish climber such as myself likes to hear.
My limited rock climbing skill – and nerve- pales in comparison to the rock rats that seem to effortlessly float up the poorly protected, runout 5.10b slabs in the Meadows. Even so, I maintain that my love of climbing in the High Sierra is no less passionate than the devotion of the Tuolumne crag-masters to scale the steep, high angle rock that they so love.
Unlike many rock climbers, I prefer the solitude of the wilderness to the 5-10 minute approaches from the car. I guess that may be because I have never needed to carry a hefty haul bag on any of my adventures. That being said, I must still admit that I have been glad at times that the Cathedral is but a few miles from the road, making a hike back in the dark tolerable, but still far enough to leave the often troubled thoughts of civilization behind.
The Cathedral was not my first major Sierra summit, but it could properly be classified as my first “technical” mountain climb. When I first started learning to climb exposed, technical rock about six years ago, at the local crags of the Cosumnes River Gorge or at the Pinnacles National Monument, it was a scary, nerve wracking experience for me, one which did not come as naturally to me as it was for most of my climber friends. The Cathedral climb scheduled for a weekend in early October 1999, although not technically difficult, would be the first test for me to see if I could stomach the significant amount of air under my feet in the high mountains.
The journey to the summit block of Cathedral, the only section of the climb that requires rope work, originates from the beaten path of the John Muir trail, where quickly upon leaving the trailhead at the Meadows, one is surrounded by stately lodgepole pines. After a few miles and a moderate elevation gain of 1,000 feet or so, the mountaineer must leave the friendly, dusty confines of the JMT, angling up low angle, often rubble covered slabs. A while later, the tall trees of the subalpine forest give way to the twisted, stunted whitebark pine “krumholz” forest, which near the top of the Cathedral finally thin out completely in favor of the serrated, twisted towers and columns that serve as guardians to the top of the mighty temple.
On that crystal, clear, fabulous October day, I reached the summit of Cathedral, following in the footsteps – or better I should say footholds – of my longtime friend and climbing partner Matt. Matt had taken several climbing classes and I was fortunate to be able to learn from his patient tutoring.
To the aspiring beginning mountaineer and even more experienced mountaineers with the love of the mountains, the approach is invigorating, as it certainly must have been to John Muir back in 1869. The last 100 to 200 feet, which consists of steep and exposed slabs and ledges with ample handholds and footholds, I found particularly enjoyable, as the views of the golden granite dominated Yosemite High Country and the Cathedral Range extend in every direction.
Once we reached the base of the 15-25 foot high summit block, Matt and I roped up. I anchored in, and Matt smoothly led the short pitch without incident. I then nervously followed, tiptoeing across the narrow ledge and uneven bottom that led to the final steep, wide crack to the summit. With my clumsy rigid sole mountaineering boots inconveniently preventing easy footing in the cracks, I gingerly placed my hands into the cracks and slowly but surely gained the summit without incident. It was well worth it; the summit provides perhaps the most magnificent viewpoint in the entire Yosemite High Country.
The next year, Matt and I participated in several fine Sierra climbs, but again we were in the Meadows on another crisp, clear glorious October day in the Tuolumne country, with my longtime friend Big Dave and my wife Trina along. This was to be my first technical lead climb and Trina’s first roped climb as well. Traveling along the familiar approach from the JMT, I was soon again facing the summit block.
I began to climb after roping up and after slowly easing my way across what Norman Clyde described as a “corrugated” floor, I wedged my feet and hands into the parallel cracks of the short pitch, slowly edging my way closer to the top. It was with relief and exultation when I pulled up onto the very apex of the Cathedral, taking in a few minutes to soak up the magnificent view. It was just as satisfying to see Trina bag her first Class 4 trophy in the High Sierra. Dave and Matt, better climbers than I, easily followed their way to the top. My days of leading on alpine rock had begun.
One of the unexpected and rewarding joys of mountaineering is the experience of having a distant climbing objective come into focus. The Cathedral was my introduction to this experience. Anyone who loiters about Cathedral’s summit spires marvels at the striking Eichorn Pinnacle, Cathedral’s lower western summit. Only from atop Cathedral does the Eichorn reveal its true majesty, thrusting sharply and singularly into the skyline of the Yosemite High Sierra. Although I was impressed with the Eichorn on my first few trips to Cathedral, its intimidating from was sufficiently ominous to prevent me from realistically consider it as a climbing objective. I was simply content to admire its form from a distance.
However, the next year saw me to the summits of several mountains requiring travel on Class 4 alpine rock, a labor of love that guided me to the highest inch of many of the High Sierra’s most elegant and sought after summits. In late 2001, my renewed travels in the Cathedral Range led me to ponder the once unconceivable idea for someone growing up with a fear of heights, an ascent of the Eichorn. The winter of 2001-2002 provided me with many months to mull over the Eichorn climb, accompanied by practice at Cosumnes River Gorge for which I had ample time after my post-bar exam unemployment.
Inevitably, spring and summer rolled around again with the passage of the celestial cycle. On a sunny, beautiful early June day, with patches of snow marking the lingering of spring in the High Sierra, Trina and I surmounted the tower of the Eichorn as a husband wife team, a sharing of body, mind, soul other couples rarely get the opportunity to experience. There is no doubt it will remain one of the fondest, satisfying climbing experiences I could ever have in a lifetime, not to mention maybe the best photo-op in the entire High Sierra.
What comes to mind are unforgettable memories: hanging my butt over hundreds of feet of air, feeling grateful for the for the fortuitously place fixed pins on the traverse, the aerie of the summit pinnacle, the elegant upward sweep of the ridge to Cathedral’s higher main summit, sharing touching moments on the summit with Trina followed by a quick rappel, and a feverish scramble to capture Trina touching the sky.
For many reasons, including a newly found passion for backcountry snowboarding, I really did not do much rock climbing in the High Sierra or anywhere else in the summer of 2003. But a suggestion of a late September climb of the North Ridge of Mount Conness by my law school climbing friends Dave and Sam was too enticing to pass up. A moderate, yet spectacularly situated ridge climb, the North Ridge was indeed a joyous experience. What I was struck most by was the contentment and peace I felt while leading the many pitches on the route. I had practically forgotten the joy of a long yet satisfying alpine rock experience. After an arduous trip that included a summit bivouac and a long night filled with both starlight and laughter, I felt rejuvenated.
My very satisfying experience on Conness soon caused my mind to muse about the reliable old Cathedral. Any avid Tuolumne climber can tell you that THE route on Cathedral is the Southeast Buttress. Universally regarded as a classic alpine rock climb on perfect knobby granite, it draws the interest of the High Sierra and Yosemite climbers like no other alpine route in the park. Of course, this means that the route regularly attracts a throng of climber-worshippers.
During my few ascents of Cathedral via the regular mountaineer’s route from the west, I observed climbers appearing out of nowhere on the other side of the Cathedral, topping out on the Southeast Buttress route. Predictably, my thoughts were of envy and admiration, it must have been challenging and exhausting to lead such a long and daunting climb.
I had given the Southeast Buttress some serious thought even prior to the North Ridge ascent, having made it a part of a Valley Boys climbing weekend. Unfortunately, that weekend was cancelled due to medical emergencies, including an unpleasant scare to the now-expecting Trina. The recent memory of the great experience on the North Ridge and a desire to return to my favorite Sierra summit clinched my decision to make the attempt.
The route’s mega classic status and proximity to the Tioga Road make it perpetually overcrowded during the climbing season, which predictably results in the increased risk of rockfall and grumpy climbers queued up waiting their turn. I decided therefore, that I would make the attempt on a mid-October weekday on a day trip from Sacramento.
I floated this trial balloon by Dave, who is generally up for just about anything, and he of course answered my proposal in the affirmative. Jeff generously granted me a day off, a Wednesday it would be. Departure time: 4:15 a.m. Dave and I reached the Meadows about 8 am, finishing the hike to the sweeping, stunning southeast buttress about 10 am. On the approach, I kept gazing at the big wall, wondering if I was about to bite off more than I could chew.
Preparations complete, we were climbing about 10:30, but not before the usual spirited discussion about how and where the route should go. No matter how many route descriptions, topos, or pictures I see, the route always looks different than I expect at the start. Dave took the first pitch lead, not bad except for a short traverse with many footholds but lacking in the security of handholds. I am definitely not cut out for the smooth, slabby Tuolumne dome runouts.
At the top of the pitch, 160 feet or so of rope later, Dave anchored around the trunk of a stout whitebark pine, flourishing despite the sterile and hostile sea of vertical white granite. This was the first of a series several perfect anchors to last throughout the entire route, all of which were as trusty as death and taxes.
Dave belayed me up the pitch and upon reaching this first anchor I switched into the lead, which I would occupy for the next four pitches up to the base of the summit block, leaving Dave to the task of hauling the lion’s share of the weight. Luckily, Dave is Methuselah-like patient, as my painfully slow progress sometimes requires.
The second pitch was a well-protected open book dihedral, straightforward and moderate, studded with a plethora of smallish handholds and footholds the entire distance. I was pleased to be making strong and steady progress on this, for me, a very big rock climb. I took the direct version to the second belay anchor, another robust whitebark pine, located more than 300 feet from the base of the buttress.
We took a long look at the climbing topo at the belay station, as the route above lacked the continuity of the first two pitches. I set off, picking along on easy terrain until I was about 25 feet below the third belay anchor at the base of the Great Chimney, the signature feature of the entire splendid route. The topo had indicated a short stretch of knobby 5.6 face climbing to be negotiated. The term “knobby face” can be translated to mean lots of holds, but no place to set cams or chocks, an uncomfortable feeling for me, as I have grown accustomed to the security of the amply fractured granite of the High Sierra. Predictably, I pondered and hesitated for a while, Dave patiently waiting below with the pine keeping him company. Thanks for the patience, Dave.
After the delay and a careful study of the big face holds and chickenheads, I tiptoed out onto the narrow ledge below the best holds and then gingerly began my upward progress until my hands reached the key cup hold marking easier terrain shortly above. I had made it – definitely not my favorite part of the route. Now at the base of the Great Chimney, I tossed a few slings around a thick, delicious granite flake that one could lower a truck off. I belayed Dave up, who in contrast to my nervous Nellie attitude thoroughly enjoyed his jaunt up the face holds. While on belay duty, I had a pleasant conversation with our only company of the way, a pair of cheerful British climbers on a Yosemite rock walkabout, who were making the Southeast Buttress their vacation’s swan song.
With the October afternoon growing shorter by the minute, we were ready to face the Great Chimney. The Great Chimney, an unusual feature for a vertical rock wall climb mainly comprised of slabs and thin cracks, is barely wide enough to fit a man with a pack. As I maintain a somewhat sturdy build, I was forced to awkwardly wedge my way into the chimney’s cozy confines, pushing my day pack upward in front of me.
Unlike many chimneys, the Great Chimney was amply blessed with places for properly sized chocks, which I took advantage of in strenuously grunting, thrashing, squirming, and pushing along my path. It was definitely a spot not conducive to the delicate and graceful maneuvering so common to rock climbing, although such adroit rock ballet has always been out of my reach anyway. Chimneys, on the other hand, are more up my alley. I exited the Great Chimney without much fanfare, posed for a quick picture, the progressed steadily onward to the top of the pitch on a series of golden, knobby, short slabs, fun climbing, marred only by loose rock and scree, something not yet encountered on what had been a super clean route.
We were not at the base of the last major pitch. The guys from the U.K. then passed by us as we wished them a fond farewell. A glance at the watch indicated about 1 ½ hours of daylight in the short October afternoon, plenty of time, or so I thought. Unlike the previous pitches, which I had attacked with vigor and enthusiasm, this last one loomed large and I was pretty exhausted, a victim of the alpine start from sea level.
Upon embarking from the belay station, I had hoped that this pitch would be straightforward. Unfortunately, it was an intricate, wandering pitch replete with rope drag and what felt like an endless number of narrow, exposed ledges. A few times during the pitch, I simply was spent, the length of the day taking its toll. The very last ledge of the pitch, which would have been easy at the day’s start, gave me the most pause and stress of any move on the route. I just wanted the day to be over at that point. However, upon an extended examination and a need to be off the route, the ample holds finally showed themselves and I scrambled to the last belay station. Exhilarated, I finally got to enjoy the pleasure of drinking in the satisfaction of having made it to the top of the buttress.
Once I got over the overwhelming fatigue and anxiety of the final pitch, while belaying Dave up I had the joy of experiencing the most incredible sunset, accompanied by the rise of the full moon over the sparking white granite of the monuments of the Cathedral Range: the Echo massif, Cockscomb, the Unicorn, Matthes Crest. The deep hues of the ever shifting artist’s palette of some of the most profound beauty Mother Nature could serve up are impossible to describe with the humble pen: the cold white orb of the moon, the reds, crimsons, purples, and blues in constant competition upon the swift setting of the October sun, the soft orange-golden light emanating from the surrounding granite faces and ridges.
Perched on my aerie that was the final belay station, I realized how blessed I was to be present for this utterly sublime spectacle. Of course, these thoughts of bliss were interrupted by the cursing associated with the realization that my camera was stuffed deep within Dave’s weighty pack. Dave finally arrived at the belay station and we scoped out what was left, a short easy escape to the Class 3 slabs of Cathedral’s descent route. It was too dark to travel to the actual summit – no great loss this time as we have both enjoyed its singular perch a few times before. Dave led this short section and I quickly followed. We had made it!
The sun’s rays now a distant memory, we congratulated each other for a fine team effort. Looking just around the bend, I was impressed and intimidated by the dark shadow of the Eichorn thrusting upward into the dying light: the sunset close to an hour past already. We slowly ambled down the slabs into the darkness of the dense Cathedral Range pine forest and then trudged back to the car in the blackness, the LED headlamps our only guide. We made it back to Sacramento about 1:30 a.m. Not a bad way to spend a day.
The following Saturday, I returned to the flanks of the Cathedral. No climbing to do, I was intent on relishing my role as a wanderer and pilgrim, paying homage at one of the exalted shrines of the mountain gods. It was the type of short journey that John Muir would enjoy thoroughly, although the great master would have opined about it orders of magnitude more poetically than I ever could.
Beginning the day in early afternoon, I rambled onward to the Budd Lake basin from the Tioga Road, bidding welcome first to the Southeast Buttress, then to Budd Lake itself, then the easy scramble to the top of the Echo Ridge. I gave Trina a quick call on the cell phone, regaling her with my impression of the panoramic view at my feet, focusing of course on the Southeast Buttress.
Afterwards, I strolled up Cathedral’s gentle north slopes, soaked up the sun for a few hours, waiting for the sun to arc low in the sky for a few sunset pictures, perhaps a vain attempt to capture the wonders I experiences just a few days before. Sunset did finally arrive, followed by the now too familiar refrain of the LED guided trip to the car. Simply glorious, all of it.