Most Popular Alpine Rock Climb in California
The southeast buttress of Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne is widely regarded as the most popular alpine rock climb in California, and makes many a climber’s list of Best Overall Alpine Rock Climbs in California as well, due to the excellent rock, short approach, aesthetic nature of the peak, and natural beauty of the Tuolumne Meadows region. Having done the route in 2002, I remembered flawless rock, a mellow approach and chill (5.6) yet incredibly enjoyable climbing. I decided that the climb would be a great introduction to Tuolumne climbing for my friend Eszter, who hadn’t done any climbing yet in the area.
A Walk in the Park
Having done the route easily years ago & having done a good deal of climbing this season more difficult than the route’s rating, I felt confident that this outing would be a stroll in the warm, sunny California National Park. In addition to the idea of moderate climbing on flawless rock, many of the guidebooks entice the reader into thinking that all of the potential routes in the immediate vicinity of the standard route are the same difficulty (ease) of the desired route, on bomber rock. Route descriptions of the buttress include: “There are many options on the lower part of the route;” “There are no real routes up the Southeast Face, just an incredible sea of features that can be pieced together in an infinite number of variations;” & “Numerous 5th class routes are possible up this cliff.”
Getting to the base of the buttress that morning, I picked a fun-looking start & began climbing, assuming a carefree attitude that comes with assumptions of perfect & moderate rock, fostered by the guidebooks, the great weather, & my own experience on the peak in the past. “This will be fun,” I thought to myself!
All this having been said, let’s take a step back & ponder the definition of “alpine climbing.” While individual interpretations vary, they all typically include the idea of technical climbing in a mountainous environment with variable and often unpredictable conditions and hazards. “Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills,” the English speaker’s how-to bible of All Things Mountaineering, offers this advice under the heading of Alpine Dangers: “Unlike most of the popular crags that attract sport climbers, alpine routes often have objective dangers such as loose or rotten rock or avalanche hazard.” The majority of the climbing I’d done this year having been done at the crags, frequently on popular Supertopo-esque routes, one could say that my generally fairly sound mountaineering judgment (in years past I’ve typically spent more time in the “mountains”) had fallen somewhat into misuse.
Back to the climbing, a few hours after beginning. Approximately 50 ft from the summit, I’d just overcome a brief, dirty 5.9 offwidth, easily the crux of the day, but quite representative of the dirty, lichen-covered loose rock typical of the route we’d pieced together up until that point, putting us high on the peak’s seldom-climbed northeast face (we were originally gunning for the SOUTHeast face, remember). Once I attained the fairly spacious ledge directly above me, I would have a great place to assess the few and seemingly minor difficulties separating me from the summit- it was so near I could almost taste it. Balanced in a somewhat awkward stance, I eyed the large block that was likely attached to the ledge I wished to attain- using it to pull myself over, I’d be on the ledge before I knew it. After the stone withstood the small test tug I initially gave it, I applied enough force to hoist myself up to the ledge. The proverbial shit then hit the fan.
The pull was just enough to overcome the static friction holding the unattached block to the ledge. As my mistake dawned on me, it seemed briefly that the block might stop again before making its fateful plunge over the edge. It didn’t, and the low velocity that it started out with, pushing me off the face, suddenly increased to free-fall. While the following action occurred in the blink of an eye in retrospect, I recall the quite logical sequence of thoughts that went through my head as the scene unfolded:
1.Surprise/terror: “Oh shit, it’s coming off!”
2.More terror: “Oh fuck, it’s coming right at me from above!”
3.Relief, as it just grazed (& not hitting square on) my head (ironically the one weekend where I’d forgotten my helmet), and glanced off of my left side, not scoring a direct body hit.
4.Pain, as the block collided with, & bounced off of, various parts of my body on its way down.
5.Suspense, as I continued my fall before the rope caught me.
6.More terror, as I helplessly watched the 70-lb bomb rocket downwards, Eszter at the belay below.
7.Relief, as the block continued its course, ca. 10 ft to Eszter’s right.
8.Shock and slight nausea, as I witnessed the potentially deadly missile explode upon impact with the rocks, 50’ below me.
WTF Just Happened?!!
The accident was over in the blink of an eye. In disbelief of what had just happened, I hung on the rope, analyzing the extent of the damage. First and foremost, I felt a sense of relief- I’d been spared a (literally) head-on collision, as the rock just glanced my left side; the rope hadn’t been severed by the rock; & the pro’ I’d placed (as backup to the sketchy-looking micro-hex that I’d encountered on the route) had held the (luckily clean) fall; & Eszter had been out of the fall line of the bomb. Shortly afterwards, however, I became aware of the acute pain in my leg where the impact had occurred & gazed at my mangled fingers, the exposed white subsurface flesh visible momentarily after the initial wound revealed, before the body realizes it should start bleeding. I heard an uncertain call from below: “Do want to keep climbing or should I lower you?” Incredulous of this response (& adrenaline flowing freely), I harshly shouted out “What do you think?! lower me!!”
The .3 Camalot (backing up the sketchy-looking hex that had been previously placed) I’d placed directly prior to my fall had fulfilled its obligation & done its job admirably, & I trusted it to lower me down to the belay. The $60 required to replace the piece seemed insignificant at the time compared to my urgent desire to get the f&*k off of the mountain as quickly as humanly possible & take care of my injuries (aside from a nut I couldn’t get loose, I did clean the other gear I’d placed, however). Reaching the belay, after we’d each reassured the other that we were (relatively) fine, I informed her that I’d be fine being taken off belay. Upon being freed from the rope, I doggedly scampered down 4th-class rock to the descent route over & right from the belay, approximately 100’ away. I wanted to do this as fast as possible, before any potential shock might set in, rendering me useless. While leaving Eszter, who’d had limited experience downclimbing with exposure, behind to disassemble the anchor, coil the rope, & get down to me by herself didn’t leave me entirely comfortable, it seemed that it would make things even more difficult for her to descend with an unconscious 185-pound person in addition to herself- she could always use the rope to rappel if she needed to as well, I reasoned.
Time to Get Down
Waiting amidst the talus below, the escalating pain from my wounds competed violently for my attention with the fear I had of Eszter slipping and falling on the steep & exposed terrain on the descent. My relief was intense when she finally reached the descent slopes. I was also relieved after reasoning that my left leg probably wasn’t broken as I’d just used my legs to cover the short distance from the last belay to the descent route. Having already changed into my approach shoes, as Eszter arrived I grabbed some water from her to gulp down 4 ibuprofens that quite fortunately remained in my camera case from the previous weekend, the first time I’d actually carried them with me on a climb.
Proceeding down the otherwise 3rd- & 2nd-class descent was frustratingly slow & fairly painful, & I was greatly relieved when we finally reached the (relatively flat) trail below. Making sure not to bend the knee on the injured leg (thus bearing my body’s weight), once I determined the most effective locomotion technique(s), our pace was manageable. The drugs (i.e. ibuprofen) didn’t hurt either.
Back in Tha Meadowz, Recovery
Upon reaching the trailhead & driving to the visitor centre, the climber-park employee on the other side of the ‘Closed’ sign on the door graciously responded to my persistent attempts to capture her attention (we’d arrived 15 min after closing time). While the medical assortment on-hand at the visitor center was minimal, she generously supplemented the available supplies with various goods from her own personal, well thought-out car 1st aid kit. Just washing away the dirt and accumulated blood from the wounds & sanitizing them eased my stress considerably. Her own personal opinion that my leg, while bruised & hugely swollen, would likely not require medical attention, also made me feel better.
Next, after driving to the Tuolumne Meadows store seeking ice, we encountered my friend Tri (whom I’d planned to see that evening, but didn’t expect to run into) in the parking lot.
After scoring some ice from the nice grill employee (also after-hours), & after considering my exhaustion, the fact that we’d already put down $20 for a campsite, the fact that I had friends right there, & the knowledge that alcohol was readily available & would be more easily consumed (& much earlier too) if we were to stay, the (right) decision was made to remain in Tuolumne that night instead of going to either the medical center in Mammoth Lakes or The Valley (both about an hour’s drive away).
With the company of great people & strong drink, the pain numbed, & became secondary to the evening enjoyed (even with the fear of the 10-ft high bonfire igniting the adjacent tree, setting off an enormous wildfire in the middle of a huge campground).
Having had some time to ponder the circumstances, the climb, the outcome, & other potential outcomes, my conclusions include the following:
•It sucks when an accident happens 50’ from the summit- sort of like crashing your car on the straightaway before the finish line.
•Things could have gone a lot better that day.
•Things could have gone a lot worse that day- some potentialities that easily could have happened:
-My pro’ could have failed, causing a longer fall (with more impact force), & possibly allowing the fallen rock to injure me more, as I would have fallen a longer distance with it.
-The block could have directly struck my head (which would have been really bad as this was one of the only trips where I’d forgotten my helmet).
-The block could have had a direct impact with my body (instead of glancing off the side of it)
-The block could have broken my leg instead of just bruising the muscles.
- The rope could have potentially severed the rope on the way down.
-Had Eszter been 10 feet to her right, she would have been directly hit by the rockfall.
•I came out of the incident relatively scot-free: slight swelling on my L temple, where the rock grazed my head; a bad flapper on my L pinky; squashed L middle finger; & severely bruised (but not broken) L thigh (quadriceps & hamstring)- had the impact been different, my injuries could have been much more severe.
•Putting as much faith in the rock I pulled on as I did was inappropriate- given the overall crappiness of the rock in the area in which we found ourselves (due to the virtual absence of traffic on that side of the mountain), I should assumed it to be loaded.
•Given the rock’s position, the repercussions of it coming loose greatly outweighed the ease of positioning that it allowed (had it been solid).
Suggestions to Others
Suggestions to others who may not have the experience yet to personally have learned the lessons I did:
•As climbing outdoors is to climbing in the gym, an alpine (especially if obscure, infrequently trafficked, or a first ascent) climb has much more objective danger than a comparably rated popular climb at the crags, which is likely clean with bomber rock.
•Test your holds vigilantly!
•When in doubt, wear a helmet- it could save your life!
•Protect the belayer- actively think of possible scenarios (such as rockfall) that could threaten them.
•If in doubt (due to the seriousness of the potential fall &/or the suspect soundness of a piece) & the opportunity exists (& you have enough gear), double up a gear placement!
•Bring a couple of ibuprofens with you on your next climb- as they act as both pain relievers and an anti-inflammatory drug, they could make your descent safer (increased awareness /ability to concentrate), possibly greatly aiding your getting down safely.
•Know at least rudimentary rescue techniques/ideas, in case an accident occurs- there are various books out there on the subject, or you could go balls out & take a Wilderness First Responder course. What good is your climbing ability if you’re stuck halfway up a huge wall in an emergency & don’t know what to do?
Props Go Out To:
Big Ups Yourself:
•My guardian angel for looking out for me (yet again).
•Eszter for holding my fall when a 70-lb torpedo was hurtling towards her.
•Girl at the visitors center, for helping me clean myself up & sterilization aid (especially so as it was after hours!).
•Girl from the grill (from Ecuador) for hooking me up w/ ice (especially so as it was after hours!)
•Tri & Margie, for collecting firewood.
Enjoy the mountains, everyone, but treat them with the great respect that they are due! Berg Heil.
If you found this interesting...
You might want to check out fellow SPer Jeff Moore's trip report
on an outing to nearby Tuolumne Peak, gone WAY wrong (**WARNING** high gore content). My injuries aren't s$%t compared to those he sustained, but the potential for loose, dangerous rock in an area known for its flawless granite is the unifying theme.