The last time Misha and I set out to climb some granite in Tuolumne, a friggin' deer ran into my Volvo and we got shut out by crappy weather. This time we had significantly better luck; the animals kept their distance and the clouds never threatened. The result was a perfect day in the meadows.
Misha had grand plans for the next several days -- to traverse Russell, Carillon and the Cleaver out of Whitney Portal (expectations that were later adjusted). On my schedule was a dayhike of the NE Ridge of Bear Creek Spire -- not as ambitious as Misha's plan, but a fairly lofty goal in light of my summer of excess (let's just say the neighborhood chimichanga joint isn't going out of business anytime soon). Given the recent snowfall, we both questioned the wisdom of our plans but we intended to forge ahead nonetheless. Since we both needed a warmup on Saturday, I suggested the classic SE Buttress of Cathedral Peak. Ordinarily this is an easy sell, but Misha had just climbed it two weeks earlier. After some coaxing, he agreed to the plan and by Friday night we were camped bandit-style out on Evergreen road.
Driving up the Tioga road, Misha pulled off past Olmstead and stared up at Tenaya Peak. He half-heartedly tried to sell me on doing something other than Cathedral, which he feared would be crowded by multiple parties on route. I pushed back mildly. "Sweet line dude, but it looks north facing and pretty chilly for October. Let's drive up the road and see how many cars are at the trailhead for Cathedral". Misha agreed. Upon arrival, we were the first and only car. Game on. After huffing up the climbers' trail, we arrived at the base of the climb. Unbelievably, there was not a single party around us. Maybe the late season scared everyone off? Was it the prohibited overnight parking along highway 120? Whatever the reason, we basically had the Budd Creek drainage to ourselves. We took advantage of the gorgeous weather and our modest agenda for the day by lounging around for an hour before sorting out the gear. Around 10am, we finally got off our asses and started up the climb.
The climb itself was awesome. I mean really awesome. Tons of knobs, cracks, flakes, you-name-it -- all over the most perfect granite with drop dead views over the Yosemite High Country. Since I'm a climbing noob, Misha led the entire climb. Since I was the cleaner, I also carried the backpack. At the fabled chimney that lies halfway up the route, my plan was to try to climb around it since the pack wouldn't fit. But Misha placed a cam right inside the chimney, so I had no choice. I clipped the backpack to the back of my harness and wrestled my way up through the narrow gap. I felt very strong on the route and was stoked for the opportunity to test myself. I cruised up each pitch and never felt nervous until the very last move, not because of difficulty but due to the exposure.
After the climb, we ran down the mountaineer's route to our cached gear, then an easy hike back down to the car. We blazed down Tioga Pass to the gas mart, where Filet Mignon, Buffalo Meatloaf and a few glasses of wine were consumed with gusto. A perfect end to a perfect day. While eating dinner at the Tioga Gas Mart, I had a fine stroke of luck when my Blackberry picked up an email from Eric O, Truckee resident and local climbing and skiing maven. He wanted to join Joe and I on our run up BCS. Perfect. Plans were made to meet at Mosquito Flat by first light. At the trailhead, I crawled into the back of the trusty wagon and called it a day.
Joe and Eric were there as planned in the morning, and after a few pleasantries and nutella-slathered poptarts, we were off for the long but flat hike to the base of Bear Creek Spire. We debated bringing a rope up with us because we weren't sure how much snow had fallen over the past few weeks or what condition the route was in. But in the end we decided to just bring our sticky shoes in case we got into a sticky situation.
The hike up Little Lakes Valley rarely disappoints, and today was no exception. At Long Lake, we witnessed the most fantastic reflections of the surrounding mountains. We stood dumbfounded for 15 minutes snapping photos. We hit snow just above Dade Lake; the entire north and west facing slopes were covered with the stuff. It made the going very interesting, as it was not enough snow to cover the talus, but just enough to make it difficult to judge the stability of the various blocks. It also made them slippery as hell. Thankfully, the ridge itself wasn't too snow-covered, and we made good progress. Near the top of the ridge, where it joins the North Arete, the snow became more of a problem. My approach shoes were slipping all over the place and I couldn't get good friction with my feet. With the route getting steeper, the exposure getting more pronounced and me getting more scared, I opted to switch into my sticky soled climbing shoes. The normal "escape" route to the left was not an option today, so we had to just continue straight up to the arete. While rated Class 4, I agree with Supertopo that this is a sandbag (they rate it at 5.5).
Once on the arete I knew we were very close to the summit, but several times I thought we were hosed. Leading ahead, Eric always seemed to find us a reasonable way through the chaos. The first was a gnarly step out onto a face with tiny knobs and huge air underneath. No thanks. Joe and I opted instead to mantle up a big block to the right. Then a huge tower blocked our progress but we found a death-defying hand traverse to skirt it around the right side. After all of this, the summit block was a piece of cake. Rumors of huge exposure and a tricky boulder move were oversold; easy handholds on the top of the block together with a huge foot pocket made the final move fun and not all that hard. We were on the summit by 2:30.
The hardest part of the day was unquestionably the descent. After lounging on the summit for close to an hour, we downclimbed the west face headwall and began trudging down towards Cox Col. Snowy talus followed by yet more snowy talus. I quickly fell behind Eric way in the lead and Joe not far behind. My sea level lungs and dionysian summer of excess began to reveal themselves. I stumbed ever downward, frequently slipping and falling on the snowy rocks. Several hours of talus hopping later and we finally reached a use trail below Treasure Lakes. We picked up the pace, yet nightfall hit us at Long Lake. Joe pulled out his headlamp and led the way. Eric said he wouldn't need one, so I didn't bother to pull mine out. The problem is, Eric has nightvision and moves like a panther. He promptly disappeared into the darkness while I struggled vainly to stay within the shine radius of Joe's half-dead LEDs. That I did not stop to rummage through my pack and pull out my own headlamp can be attributed to some combination of oxygen depletion and wishful thinking ("Hey, we're almost to the car, right?"). Joe was kind enough to wait for me, and we made it back to the cars at 7:30, about 12 hours after we left. Eric was already in the truck with the tunes going. He probably could've done the whole climb in five hours.
I didn't stick around for too much post-climb backslapping; I had a seven hour drive back to Marin ahead of me. I did have a stroke of luck when I arrived at the Tioga Gas Mart just before closing and was able to score a dinner and a couple of much needed Red Bulls. Still amped from the climb and the great sense of accomplishment, I was wide awake the entire drive home, pulling into my driveway at almost exactly 2am. Tired, but well worth it.