I first laid eyes on Matthes Crest in 1999 when I was climbing the South East Buttress of Cathedral and I remember thinking straightaway what a fantastic line the summit ridge presented. I moved to England a few years later and never had a chance to go back and climb it. Fortunately for me I had a conference in San Jose that got cancelled in May so Jon and I decided to spend 5 days in Yosemite over the Memorial Day weekend. Matthes Crest was high on our list of targets.
We had made a quick ascent of Mount Dana via the Dana Couloir the day before and were feeling good about climbing Matthes Crest. We camped the night before outside of the park on a site off of 120 about 5 miles in from Lee Vining. I was a fairly knackered from my jet lag so we took a leisurely start and made it to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead at 5:30. I was amazed at how many cars we saw there. It looked like we might have a crowded summit.
We made good time up the trail to Cathedral and were at the base of Cathedral in an hour and a quarter. From there we cut cross country and aimed for the pass next to Echo Peak #8. We had to cross a number of sun-cupped snow fields to get to the pass and we were not looking forward to going back the same way as the sun was already high at 7AM and it looked like the snow would be quite soft by the time we got back. But at least in the morning the snow was pretty firm and we made our way to the bottom of the pass in good time.
Toe bashing traverses
The snowfield leading up the pass was a stiff hike but we were feeling good and made it to the top of the pass quickly. From there we could look down into the next valley and see Matthes Crest.
Matthes Crest from Echo Pass Echo Peaks
To get to Matthes Crest we would have to lose about 800 vertical feet down the backside of the pass and then hike cross country along a valley floor to arrive at the south end of the mountain. The back side of the pass was composed of gravel and sand so we skidded our way down it and aimed to end up as high as we could in the valley.
We had to cross a few streams along the valley floor and then we made our way along the western flanks of the mountain. We crossed a number of granite ramps and short snow fields but then we ran into a steep 400 yard long snowfield that led to the start of the climb. The snow was rock hard and we had left our crampons and axes back at camp to save on weight. What a mistake! We were fairly high up on the 30 degree field and it had a long runout culminating in some nasty looking boulders further down the valley.
Contemplating my mortality and my newly found sense of responsibility due to being a new father, I was thinking we might have to turn back. This was an extremely nasty thought process for me as I had flown 5000 miles out to California and I have an almost pathological need to summit a mountain once I get started. We really only had two choices: give up the climb or kick steps across the snowfield.
Intrepid mountaineer that he is, Jon volunteered to kick steps. What a painful process, the snow was practically bullet proof and it took us almost an hour to make it across such a short distance. We were pretty tired by the time we made it across the field but we were both more than ready to start the climb by when we arrived at the base of the route at 9:30. Jon would later bear tribute to his boot stomping efforts by losing a toenail.
We took a break to eat at the bottom of the buttress and then we geared up and started the climb. Jon lead up the first two pitches to gain the ridge. The first few pitches are around 5.4 so they were pretty easy but they had some long runouts to add a bit of spice to the route. I was amazed at how featured the rock was, there were all sorts of knobs sticking out of the granite and the granite itself was incredibly frictiony.
Time for the fun stuff
Once we gained the ridge proper we coiled the rope up and started the spectacular 4th class scramble across the top of the ridge. What a an exposed position! The Matthes Crest is serrated and has steep walls falling off for hundreds of feet on either side. The climbing itself was pretty straightforward but the exposure definitely added an element of excitement to the route. I had really enjoyed the Crib Goch ridge in Wales a few years previous but it couldn't compare to Matthes Crest. I think of all of the climbs I have done over the years that for pure fun Matthes Crest would have to top the list.
We made our way across the ridge unroped most of the way apart from a traverse on the left hand side of the ridge half way between the start of the climb and the south summit. In the end we probably didn't need to rope up but it did make me feel a more secure as the traverse put us right over the west face of the mountain. Once we regained the ridge we deroped again and made our way to the south summit.
You can either scramble up the south summit and then rappel down the notch to the north summit or traverse a 5.2 around the right hand side of the south summit that leads to the notch. We decided to do the traverse so we roped up again and I took the lead. The traverse downclimbed for about 20 feet down a crack system next to a tree and then there were some fairly obvious ledges leading to a shelf just below the notch. From there I climbed an easy crack to gain the notch and belayed Jon over.
We kept the rope on here and Jon caught up to me and continued climbing to a ledge about 10 feet above the notch where he then set up a belay for the 5.6 pitch up to the north summit. The climb from the notch to the ledge was short but it involved an akward mantle which took me a minute to get up. But I soon joined Jon and hooked into the anchor so I could belay him up the final pitch.
Me on the summit Jon on the summit
The last pitch goes at about 5.4 for most of it's length apart from about the first 20 feet which is a really pumpy 5.6 crack. We both had mountaineering boots on so the crack felt a little more difficult than 5.6 but Jon did a good job leading it and he made it to the summit in about 10 minutes. I followed him up and found the crack to be a bit of a stiff climb due to having a pack on, and mountaineering boots and not having climbed much technical stuff in the past few years. But I pumped through it and soon joined Jon on the airy summit. We had a leisurely lunch on the summit of cheese, salami and crackers and enjoyed the views for a few minutes.
There wasn't much of a summit register in the summit box but we signed a piece of paper that was in there and then packed up our gear and traversed a couple of yards to the north and down a ledge to get to the first rappel anchor. From here we did three rappels to make it to the top of one of the snow fields that falls down from the west face. Each anchor had 4 or 5 fairly healthy looking slings so we decided to trust them instead of adding another piece of webbing to each anchor station. Jon even recognized some of the webbing as being his from the last time he had climbed it. We made it down without any problems though and thankfully the snow was a little softer so our lack of snow protection wasn't an issue on the way back.
Once we hit the snowfield we made our way back to the bottom of the valley and filtered some water from one of the numerous snow fed streams that lace the valley. We then made an ardous and hot 1/2 hour climb up the back side of Echo Pass. Unfortunately as we had expected the snow on the Cathedral side of Echo Pass was quite soft and we ended up post-holing a fair bit on the way back. This seemed to be the story for the next 1/2 mile or so until we were able to regain the Cathedral Lakes trail. I didn't have my gaiters on so by the time we made it back to the trail I was pretty well drenched. But once we gained the trail we cruised back to the car and gratefully took off our packs and boots after having been on the trot for 11.5 hours. There were still loads of cars at the trailhead but amazingly we didn't run into any climbers on Matthes Crest nor did we see any on Cathedral. Maybe it was just some eager tourists.
That's all folks
Matthes Crest was an amazing climb. The quality of the rock and the exposure on the ridge made for a thrilling experience. We even had the mountain to ourselves which added a nice isolated feel to the climb.
The John Muir trail runs by Matthes Crest so we began dreaming about someday when my son is old enough taking him for a long vacation hiking the length of the John Muir trail. He doesn't know it yet but his Dad and Uncle Jon have some big plans for him!
The hike across the snowfields was the only bad part of the day but we did learn an important lesson though, which is to always bring an ice-ax with you in the early season. The extra pound is sometimes worth it's weight in gold.
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