Cathedral Peak P750 SPS / WSC

Thu, Jun 24, 1999
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
later climbed Fri, Aug 13, 1999


John and I met Michael and Monty at the Tuolumne Mountaineering shop where we filled out all the required waivers, paid our money, and went off to our Rock II class for the day. The class was held in a location to the west and across the highway from Fairview Dome. From our location we had an unobstructed view of Cathedral Peak from the north. This peak, and others like it, were why I was taking the rock climbing class. Cathedral is described as class 4 by Secor and the Sierra Club's PCS, and sometimes as class 5 in some trip reports (Our instructors also described it as class 5). Previously, I had limited my peak bagging to class 2 or lower peaks, and in the last two seasons expanded that to include class 3 peaks (such as Mt. Abbot and Mt. Mills). I had come across a number of peaks that were described as having class 4 or higher summit blocks that I found rather intriguing, and the next logical step up in peak bagging (Mt. Humphreys, Mt. Darwin, and Cathedral Peaks were examples I had come across). Of these, Cathedral Peak had the shortest and easiest approach, and seemed the easiest of this new class of peaks. From all the sources I found, I gathered that there is a series of narrow ledges with much exposure that must be traversed near the top, followed by a 15-foot crack to the final summit block, about the size of a picnic table. This description sounded quite interesting to me, but I was unable to get John or the other two to join me on a trip up to the peak later in that same afternoon. I was hoping to get one of them to join me so we could employ a roped belay for the scary parts to limit our risk in case we should fall at one of the exposed places.

We discussed the proposal during our breaks in the class, but I was unable to convince anyone to join me. "Suppose we just go look and check it out", I suggested, hoping to alleviate fears of getting in over our heads. John took to this suggestion and assured by me that it was not a difficult hike in, decided to join me. As our class drew to an end and we returned to Tuolumne Meadows, John changed his mind again. He decided instead to save his energies for our Rock III class the following day. I decided I would go by myself anyway and do a reconnaissance to give myself a better idea of the difficulties at the top, and see what the fuss was about. I had dinner at the Tuolumne Grill (double cheeseburger!) which I would make suffice until I returned for breakfast in the morning. The other three planned to climb the south side of Lembert Dome, a short but interesting class 2 climb that I had suggested earlier. They then planned to camp outside Yosemite in a forest service campground on the other side of Tioga Pass, where Michael and Monty had spent the previous night.

It was about 5:45p by the time I finished dinner and packed my gear to go. My plan was to approach Cathedral Peak via Budd Creek, which was the shortest route from my starting point. I would camp as near to the summit as possible, keeping an eye out for the last flat spots that could be found along the way up. Most of the area around Cathedral Peak, as well as the whole Budd Creek drainage are off limits to camping. The pass just south of the peak is the nearest legal camping location, but it would have required me to descend back off the peak after my reconnaissance. I doubted I would have enough time or energy left to do so before dark, and I wasn't even sure I would get to the peak before the sun set. This was all just rationalization for breaking the rules, which I fully intended to do from the beginning. I could further rationalize that I was making minimal impact by being alone, not having a fire, not cooking, not even setting up a tent, but I was still violating the rules of engagement. I will leave this breach of Wilderness etiquette open for others to judge as harmless or evil.

I began by hiking through the Tuolumne campground. The campground was empty since it was not scheduled to be opened until the following holiday weekend. This had turned out to be a nice time to visit the area, as the campground closure had kept crowds in the area to a minimum, mostly day visitors and backpackers using the area as a staging ground in and out of the Yosemite Wilderness. On the other side of the campground I found the John Muir Trail easily enough, which I began to follow west. I had a map with me, but didn't bother to consult it, overly confident of my abilities to navigate in this area. I had been up Budd Creek a few years earlier and found it easy enough to negotiate my way. After a short while I came across a good-sized creek that I mistook for Budd Creek. Embarrassingly, I had hiked less than a mile from my starting point before I had gotten lost. I was following the right side of the creek up and could not find the expected use trail anywhere. It then occurred to me that this was not Budd Creek I was following, but a different creek to the east. Still not wanting to consult my map (out of pride perhaps, or to create a sense of adventure), I left the creek and began heading in a more westerly direction, expecting to shortly come across Budd Creek. It turned out I was more than a mile from where I had thought I was, and it took me more than an hour to get where I thought I should be. When I finally looked at the map to see where I had gone wrong, it was obvious that I had left the John Muir Trail much too early. I had been incorrectly heading up towards Unicorn Peak and needed to contour around its northern side to get to the Budd Creek drainage.

Cathedral Peak was clearly visible to the west now as I followed Budd Creek up on its eastern side. I briefly contemplated crossing the creek to get to the Cathedral Peak side, but there was a great deal of water that did not look easy to cross. I decided to follow the creek up further towards the pass where there would be less water and the crossing much easier. Once I found a place I could jump across perhaps a half mile further up, I headed towards Cathedral's eastern flank, the so-called "mountaineer's route". Here I found a decent use trail (or rather several) that made this a straightforward class 1 hike up to the north ridge of the peak. I began to tire up this climb both because it had been a long day already and because it was a fairly steep slope even with the use trail. I found that the hike was quite a bit more difficult than I had originally expected, and I was now glad that John and the others hadn't joined. I would have felt bad that I had undersold the undertaking by such a degree, and it's likely we wouldn't have gotten this far had we stayed together. It turned out to be closer to 4 miles rather than the 2 1/2 I had described earlier to John, and combined with the 2000+ feet of climbing was more than could be honestly described as "easy". I was fairly convinced John would have been hating me at this point had he decided to join me.

I reached the north ridge shortly around 7:30p. It's comprised of very large boulders piled upon each other. I noted a small sandy flat area just over the west side of the ridge that would just be sufficient to throw the bivy sack, and had a nice view of the summit to boot. This pleased me a great deal since I hadn't seen suitable campsites on my way up the eastern side, and I was relieved I wouldn't have to climb 500 feet back down towards the creek. I kept my pack with me as I continued, in case I found another site even closer to the summit. I had a wonderful view of Eichorn Pinnacle, a small, sharply vertical outcropping of rock a few hundred yards to the east of Cathedral Peak. I headed off towards the saddle between Eichorn and Cathedral Peak, first over some large class 2 boulders, then more class 3 terrain. It wasn't clear to me where the "correct" route was, so I just took what seemed to me to be a series of benches, slabs, and easy cracks that looked to have the best possibilities, wary to keep things well within my means.

At 8p I reached a point midway on the line between Cathedral and Eichorn, and got a look at the view looking down the south side of the peak. While I was a little hesitant in crossing the northwest flank of the peak to get where I was, the south side by contrast was downright scary. It was not obvious to me where the narrow ledges were that needed to be crossed on the way to the summit, and I suppose I was secretly hoping I would find fixed ropes, a handrail, or even just some ducks to show me the way. I'm pretty sure I was looking at the "narrow ledges with exposure" described in the literature, but I was in denial about it, hoping there was an easier way than what I was looking at. I opted to ignore the south side (although I'm sure it's key to getting to the summit), stayed on the north side of the west ridge, and continued upward. The route got tougher as I used my hands to pull myself up and do some easy liebacks (or is it "laybacks"?). The route narrowed further and I finally reached a point where my next move was both difficult (class 3-4) and would expose me to serious injury should I fall. I was just able to turn myself around (my pack still on my back) where I had a wonderful view looking down on Eichorn Pinnacle and the sun just above the horizon behind it. I could see Half Dome, Mt. Starr King, and most of the peaks in the southern Yosemite area. I had maybe 20 minutes before sunset, and I judged I was about 30 yards horizontally and 30 feet vertically from the summit. This would be as far as I would go. I'm pretty sure that even if I continued the next move, I would find myself off the "correct" (read, "easiest") route, and find a much tougher obstacle on my way to the summit. It wasn't likely that I was going to discover an easier route that someone hadn't found in the previous 100 years of climbing here. Another day I would come back without the pack, but with a companion and a rope to climb around the exposed south side.

[As it turned out I wasn't at the exposed ledge - that occurs just below the summit block. And in hindsight I should have made the move up the crack I was heading - having gone up and down there a dozen times since, I know the route would have gotten easier. Maybe I would have stopped at the last 15-foot crack, but I would have gotten to see it. The route I followed this time was too close to the edge with the South Face. I should have been about 15 yards to the north and I would have found easier class 3 climbing. Oh well, live and learn!]

I hadn't found a better campsite than the one I had identified on the north ridge, so I retraced my steps very carefully on my way back down. I was quite pleased with my ability to comfortably down-climb the route, as I have sometimes found in the past that this was more difficult than the initial up-climb due to the lack of visibility of foot and hand holds. Apparently the rock climb classes and practice were paying off, as I was feeling more confident on rock I wouldn't have climbed a few years earlier. The sun set before I got back to my campsite, so I stopped to enjoy it and take a few pictures. I reached my site 10 minutes later, and began the brief task of setting up camp. Unlike the previous night, there was only a slight breeze and the temperature was quite pleasant. I was glad to be sleeping up high (just under 11,000 ft) with such a gorgeous view and no mosquitoes to bother me. I was actually warmer with my shirt off while I set up the bivy sack, as my shirt was still quite wet with sweat from the exertion and carrying the pack on my back.

Shortly after camp was set up, I changed into my sleeping sweats and settled down to sleep. It was now about 9p, and I was quite satisfied with my day's activities. I settled down in my sleeping bag although I didn't fall asleep for some time. I enjoyed the open air, the cool (but not cold) temperatures, the stars, and the moon shining brightly, now only a day from being full. My thoughts drifted about from family, to work, and to past adventures.

I awoke before 6a to begin my return to Tuolumne Meadows. Rock climbing class was scheduled to begin at 9a, and I wanted to get down in time for breakfast at the Grill with my friends. I planned to take the longer route down the northwest face just to have a different route, which was about 4 1/2 miles in length, the first 1 1/2 miles being cross-country. From the previous days vantage point where we rock climbed, it appeared that this northwest route was relatively easy to negotiate. This assessment turned out to be true, as I had no trouble descending the class 2 rock, scree, and sand. Rather than heading for the John Muir Trail by the shortest path, I chose to angle northward. This took me along a very pleasant ridge just to the west of Cathedral Creek, which has it's origin in a protected cirque on the northern face of Cathedral Peak (it's actually the northern end of the north ridge, but that sounds quite complicated, so one had best just view the map to get an understanding of the topography). At the bottom of this cirque was a large field of snow that was likely to last well into the summer due to its protected nature. This snow field was the source of Cathedral Creek and kept it flowing quite robustly right from its beginning.

The forest began again just before I had descended to the creek, and quickly grew thick and tangled as I crossed an area that was somewhat flat, and swampy from the runoff. At its thickest, where I was climbing over downed logs and scrambling through thick underbrush, I plopped down right in the middle of the trail I had forgotten I was expecting. Once on the John Muir trail, my forward progress picked up significantly, as I no longer had obstacles to get in my way. Three more miles and an hour later, I was back at the Tuolumne Grill where I found my three companions just finishing up breakfast. The first question Michael wanted answered was whether I had reached the summit (he would have been the most envious of the three) to which I had to sadly report, "No". Michael seemed somewhat relieved, as this meant I would be game for a future attempt in which he could join me. While I ate breakfast, we swapped stories of the events since we had parted the night before. Afterwards, we repeated the routine of the previous day, rendezvousing at the mountaineering store, paying our fees, and heading off for another fun day of rock climbing class.

After our class I had to leave the others again, this time to return to San Jose as I had promised my family I would be absent only two nights. The others spent the night at the previous night's campground, and then climbed Mt. Dana on Sunday morning. But that's not my tale to tell, so I will leave it to them to chronicle those events... :)

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