Anyone who has ambled through the Cathedral Range just south of Tuolumne Meadows is aware of the great white granite monoliths, the Cathedral, the Unicorn, the Cockscomb, and the other great monuments that patiently and timelessly watch over the gentle fir and pine forests, shapely tarns, intimate small streams, wildflower carpeted meadows, and diverse wildlife beneath them.
The well-documented and researched geologic history of the area has established without question that these monoliths originated as a result of subsurface cooled magma hundreds of million years ago, then they were carved into their elegant, sublime forms through eons of glacial ice passing across their ageless flanks.
This version of science is acceptable to explain the formation of all the Cathedral Range spires save one - the Matthes Crest. Named for a prominent geologist, it should more properly be referred to the Stegosaurus. The unique appearance of the Stegosaurus, a mile long rock north-south oriented fin studded with innumerable spines in perfect alignment with the main rock-body much like the ancient dinosaur it resembles, in my humble estimation can only be explained by an alternative hypothesis not consistent with prevailing scientific theory.
The age of the dinosaurs is long since past, the great beasts consigned to the ultimate fate of extinction through climate change brought on by a cataclysm of some sort, perhaps a comet, asteroid or other celestial intervention in the internal affairs of Mother Earth.
Like any other age on planet Earth, the immortal gods overseeing the affairs of the animal kingdom back it times primeval were presumably cast in the image of one of its most noble creatures, which during the dominion of T. Rex, Velociraptor, and the Brachiosaurus could only have been in the form of one of the dinosaur.
Unlike the great beasts themselves, the dinosaur gods, like all gods generally, are assigned the virtue or vice of immortality. When the dinosaurs one by one finally descended into the fossil era, the dinosaur gods, having no more responsibility to their mortal charges, needed to find a final resting place.
This necessarily required the Stegosaurus god to locate a final, peaceful residence. The Stegosaurus must have wandered across the Earth, vainly traveling from continent to continent for many in search of a suitable retirement home. One day, the Stegosaurus made his way into the Cathedral Range and realized this was the Earth’s best piece of real estate to call home, as gazing south towards the Cockscomb and west towards Tresidder Peak was sort of looking in the mirror, so he transformed his elegant, slender, mile-long form into the Cathedral Range’s finest white-granite fin.
The traverse across the fin of the Stegosaurus is considered by some of the Sierra’s rock elite, and many more non-elite, to be the preeminent climb in the range. Much of my own humble rock climbing adventures have been among the spires and monuments of the Cathedral Range, and I set out a while ago as a personal goal to reach the summits of each these noble forms.
Over the last few years, I have succeeded in climbing a number of these great and uniquely beautiful granite peaks under the provident and generous watch of the mountain gods, but the more well guarded and remote Stegosaurus had yet not seen a personal attempt yet.
In early 2004, I decided I was ready to give the mountain a try, perhaps via the traverse itself. As usual, Dave was up for yet another dive into the world of adventure, accompanying me along the way to spend the day atop the mighty spine of the Stegosaurus, with a summit attempt to the apex of the great fin along the way possible. A mid week getaway scheduled for September 2, a Thursday, was to be the date.
We left the Tioga Road early in the morning at the usual blastoff spot, sauntering our way across Budd Lake, up and through the gap in the easternmost Echo Peaks, then descended down to the base of the mighty Stegosaurus, a cold breeze blowing and its western flank completely shaded from the rising eastern sun. The Stegosaurus ominously loomed above us, its sheer western side preventing easy access to the much-coveted spine, its northern topmost flank jutting just higher than the nearby southern topmost flank. From our vantage point, the steeply curving final arc up to the north summit looked fearsome and unattainable. Hopefully, a more moderate path would be revealed.
Figuring that our sloth-like climbing pace would prevent us from accomplishing the usual long south to north traverse, we agreed that a summit attempt would take precedence, so we roped up to gain the northern portion of the fin. Dave led the first pitch, for which upward progress was dependent upon the frequent use of bumps, holds, and chicken heads for hand and foot holds, no doubt a remnant of skin blemishes several hundred million years old, back when skin care was not so convenient.
Dave reached the belay station and I went on up and past, leading the second pitch in a slightly more difficult yet secure shallow crack/depression leading past a small whitebark pine and then towards the tope northern portion of the fin, which was being kissed by the warming rays of the eastern sun. I jammed my way up an easy, short 15-foot crack and with our rope stretched nearly to its limit I made it on to the back of the great beast, the sun stinging my shade accustomed eyes.
Upon further inspection, I had reached a deep notch on the great fin. Dave followed up and past after a short respite, up out of the notch via a delicate horizontal crack. He then worked his way north on a 100 foot or so flattish section, stopping at a great impasse, the 3 or 4 foot gentle saddle giving way to one of the beast’s narrow and steep Stegosaurus spines, barely 6 inches in width but 10-12 feet in height, with no discernable footholds and handholds on either side.
Even worse, the steep arc of the final summit pitch looked no better, the combination of the steeping and narrowing the of the line was compounded by the giant knife-blade spines along the fearsome creature’s back. There was no way the summit would happen for us today.
In defeat, after a long pause we rappelled down off the back of the dinosaur, bypassing the short 20-30 foot downclimb that stymied both Dave and I in our collective attempts to solve it. The sun’s arc was well into afternoon, so we were now in the shade again on the beast’s eastern side, our enjoyment of the sun quite transitory given the few clouds in the gentle Sierra sky.
Once off the rappel and planning our descent, I had to take one more glance at the ridge. For some reason, below the crest on the east side it didn’t look as menacing. If I could find a way to attain it, an upward sloping ramp high on the summit pitch would provide sufficient access to the uppermost echelon of the ridge crest, so long as I could negotiate around a few sharp spines of the beast. Being stubborn and not wanting to admit defeat, I took the rope’s sharp end and headed up to investigate.
A few challenging flakes and narrow cracks later, I was again at an impasse, and yet another notch on the crest of the great beast. Staring straight ahead at a short yet steep vertical column, I decided to swing out onto the sunny western side and investigate the sheer western face to try to find a weakness in the staunch defenses of the dinosaur.
Dangling in the western sun, I was faced with a very steep, shallow 25-foot crack followed by a blank looking boulder-spine move for which I had no answer. With one side of my body basking in the sun and the other side in the shade, I sort of felt like the dinosaur myself. My overarching desire to enjoy a long life cast any thought of climbing the western edge of the ridge into oblivion.
Inching my way back completely into the shade, I studied the steep, rough-hewn column for weaknesses. I did notice one item – chalk marks – evidence of weary travelers who had blazed a path before me. I felt somewhat comforted and less alone as a result. A little more study and I was committed upward again to the crux, making it without much ado, aided by concealed yet easily revealed handholds.
Once on top of the column, I again straddled the sun/shade barrier, the main spine again becoming steep, thin, hold less, and disagreeable. No matter, as I had reached the shaded ramp. The ramp, while steeper and longer than I had first envisioned, was studded with abundant knob-footholds to my left and accompanied by a protection-swallowing flake system to my right. Up I continued, interrupted only by the clanging of my figure-8 rappel device tumbling swiftly off the precipitous edge of the eastern flank.
The ramp now complete, I was thankfully back again in the sun on the crest of the fin, having achieved what I did not think possible earlier in the day, one of the great joys of mountaineering. The crux was now well past, and I found a two-piece fixed anchor near the top of the beast and belayed Dave up to my aerie. We were getting close, the beast’s strongest defenses having somehow been circumvented.
The next pitch was much easier, the only obstacle of note being a downward sloping foot wide slab of rock resembling a mechanical bull, in both width and angle. That objective gingerly but awkwardly completed, I scrambled to the final apex of the Stegosaurus, the southern summit looming in front of me, lodged between a precipitous drop at my feet and a smoky horizon in the distance where the fin of rock seemed to stretch on for miles. A glorious perch, to be sure. I felt fortunate to bathe in the sun on top of one the High Sierra’s most guarded summits. Dave came on belay up to share in our collective victory, although not without showing some displeasure in having to take the ride on the mechanical bull.
Quite a while later, after fueling up on food and water on our well-earned summit, we rappelled down a series of ledges, enjoying the golden-orange light of the sun setting on the way down, the dinosaur god showing off its softer western side. After the day’s adventures, the walk back in the dark was but a moderate stroll, the great beast’s menacing appearance was only present in the form of a shadowy outline on the eastern horizon, transforming into the permanent form of a memory of the mountaineer. Thanks again to the mountain gods for their benevolence.