Cathedral Peak P750 SPS / WSC

Fri, Aug 13, 1999
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Thu, Jun 24, 1999
later climbed Sun, Oct 10, 1999

My first attempt on Cathedral Peak had ended about 50 yards short of the summit with about 15 minutes of daylight left. Had I known the proper route, it's likely I could have reached the summit that day, but instead I had turned back and camped up on the north ridge for the night before heading down early the next morning. I had to get back for a rock climbing class with my friends John, Michael, and Monty that morning at 9a. I knew I would come back again, better prepared next time.

I got a second chance less than two months later. Monty and Michael were off tramping in Scotland, climbing Ben Nevis and the like, while John and I planned a weekend of climbing in Yosemite. Michael had gotten me mighty envious of his trip to Europe, so this climb of Cathedral Peak was partly to return the favor (as would a future climb of Mt. Starr King). John met me at my house in San Jose Friday morning where we packed up his car, and left by 7:30a. It was a refreshing drive against the usual rush hour traffic direction as we left the Bay Area through the Livermore Valley and on to highway 120. We stopped in Oakdale long enough to get gas and some lunch before heading up to Tuolumne.

It was 12p when we got to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows. We packed up our stuff and headed out on the trail. John and I were excited, as this would be our first real climb since taking the rock climbing classes the previous month. We had a 50m rope, a whole pack of new rock climbing gear, and a rather rudimentary idea of how to use it. We had practiced with our new gear a few weeks earlier at Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains, but we had set up a top rope for that climbing. Neither of us had done any lead climbing, but that didn't bother us today. We planned to take the Mountaineers Route, the same one I had taken on my first attempt. This is a class 2-3 route that takes the easiest route up to the final summit block. The rope would be used to belay us on the final ledge and up the 15-foot crack to the summit. Since it's rated class 4, I wasn't worried about leading this short pitch, as it seemed like a perfect "starter" for some budding climbers like ourselves.

Our route started at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead, but soon left the maintained trail as we followed Bud Creek up to the eastern flank of the peak along a decent use trail. I was carrying the climbing pack with the rope and all our gear while John got away with a small day pack. This was actually my idea to help ensure John would be around to go on a second climb the following day. The weather was gorgeous (as usual) and we enjoyed the hike in. We stopped to take pictures of the wildflowers that we found along the way. While the approach is less than 2 1/2 miles from the trailhead, there is a bit over 1500 ft of elevation to gain before getting to the base of the eastern side. We left the use trail after we got a view of the peak, and headed for our route up the east side. We had a great view of the classic Southeast Buttress, a class 5 route that goes 4 pitches to the summit. It looked incredibly steep from our angle, but it seemed less so the closer we got to it. We had talked about this route with the guides from the Yosemite Mountaineering School during our class, and found that we could get a guide to take us up this route for about $250. At the time it seemed like a small price to pay for the privilege of climbing a classic.

We started talking about the possibility of taking the classic route. John had no interest in leading, but was up for seconding if I would do the lead. I was interested in leading if it was less than a 5.6 climb (we had seen it rated in various places as class 5.4 - 5.6). Perhaps we would go to the base and take a look. There were several other climbers that we could now see about halfway up making slow progress, as there were three in the party. We could only see two of the climbers from where we stood, the third being higher on the rope and out of sight. Perhaps we might climb a pitch or two and come back down if it got too scary (the peak appears to be steepest at the top). We decided it would at least be worth taking a look since it was no more than a hundred yards off the Mountaineers Route, and the closer we got, the more seriously we considered doing it.

When we got to the base of the Southeast Buttress, it was shortly after 1p. The other climbers had gotten more than halfway up and were well above us. Now that we were actually at the base, the climbing didn't look nearly so difficult. As we looked at each other before deciding what we would do, we were both kind of glad that Michael hadn't been able to join us. It's quite probable that he would have talked us out of it when we first thought of it, reminding us of how little experience we actually had, and how dangerous this sport really is. It would have been very easy to talk us out it I suspect, and I suppose our life expectancy would have increased statistically as well. But Michael wasn't there, and John and I decided what the heck, we'd give it a go. Besides, Michael was more likely to join in if we've already climbed it once. :)

I plopped the pack down and unpacked the rope, gear, and climbing shoes. We put on our shoes, uncoiled the rope, set up anchor points, and scouted the buttress for the easiest route. There was a tree about 140 feet up that we had seen the others use as a belay point, so that seemed as good a place as any to head for. After tying in to the rope, donning the rack (the collection of cams, nuts, slings, and carabiners that we would use to protect us on the way up - also called "pro"), and checking each other's setup, we went through the various calls we were taught to communicate with our partner:

Me: "On Belay?"

John: "Belay on!"

Me: "Climbing!"

John: "Climb on!"

And off I went. I followed an easy crack that lead up from the base, taking the time at several points to place pro in the crack more for the practice than the need to protect a potential fall. Once the pro is placed in a crack, the rope is clipped into the protection, and the climb continues. The initial climbing was easy enough and I was having a ball. The view down was not as scary as it might have seemed from John's vantage point looking up. Just before I reached the tree, it was necessary to take leave of the easy crack climbing and traverse over to where the tree was. This was strictly friction climbing, relying on the special stickiness of our "magic shoes" as we called them. It wasn't difficult, but a slip or fall here would be more severe since I had traveled a good distance since the last piece of pro I had been able to place in the crack. I reached the tree and went about setting up an anchor and belay station from which to bring John up. This took some time to accomplish mostly due to my lack of experience (others might call this, "ineptitude").

At this point there is a necessary exchange of commands that are used between climbing partners to ensure the next steps are done in the correct (read: "safe") manner. I give John the next signal, "Off belay!" which tells John that I'm safely tied into my anchor and he can take the rope off of his belay device, after which he calls "Belay off!" John then waits for me to pull up the slack rope, put it through my belay device, and signal back, "On belay!" This tells John that I have him safely on the rope, and he can then disassemble his own anchor and get ready to climb. When he's ready, he shouts, "Climbing!" to which I reply, "Climb on!", and we are now ready to have John start his climbing. An experienced pair can pull off the whole exchange in anywhere from 1-5 minutes, depending on the number of anchor points that get set up, how hard they are to locate, and such factors. For John and I each exchange took something like 20 minutes, and we were finding that the percentage of time we were actually climbing was quite low. Climbing, it was turning out, was a little bit of exertion, and a lot of sitting around.

John climbed up while I stood belaying the rope, pulling up one-foot lengths at a time. The rope gets pulled up by my guide hand (this is tiring), goes through the belay device, and then pulled back out with the brake hand. It is called the brake hand since it is this hand that must react quickly should John fall to brake the rope from sliding through the belay device. This was my first experience with belaying from above, and I was learning things quickly:

  • Arm strength is 1/10th used for climbing, 9/10ths for pulling up rope.
  • Sitting while belaying is not being lazy. It becomes a necessity to save one's back and legs from becoming exhausted quickly.
  • Patience is everything. This is not a sport for someone who can't sit still (like me!).

    The only rest from pulling rope I had during the belay was when John had to clean out the protection I placed, or when he paused before a difficult move. If I hesitated momentarily in pulling the rope up, John would get nervous watching the rope go slack under him and would shout, "Up rope!" By the time John arrived at the top of our first pitch, an hour had elapsed since we had first started to climb. At less than 150 feet per pitch, this was certainly going to take a long time, and it would be necessary to speed things up or we weren't going to make it up before sundown. After John settled in, I set off again to lead the next pitch. By now the other climbers were out of sight and earshot, and what I at first thought had been slow progress on their part while we observed from below, gained new respect and seemed quite speedy compared to our progress. But no matter. We were having fun, and we were on a Classic climb in the Sierra. It would take a lot more than slow progress to dampen our fun.

    We had wonderful views as we climbed, looking over Bud Lake and its drainage area. To the northeast was Tuolumne Meadows and the trailhead we had started at. To the east and south we had views of Unicorn Peak, Cockscomb Peak, Echo Ridge, and Echo Peaks. The weather could hardly have been finer. After that first belay, I made sure I was sitting down while belaying, and took in the scenery for the long periods I sat there. By the third pitch it was clear that this was not going to be a four-pitch climb for us. We were still far from the top. Route finding and placing protection were the enjoyable parts of leading. I would choose what I thought was easiest ways, avoiding a tall chimney we had seen others in, as well as other places that looked like trouble to me. A few times I had to place a piece of protection with one hand while I held onto the rock with the other. This required dexterity to open carabiners and remove a piece from the rack with the same hand. If I dropped anything at this point, there was probably only a 50% chance of it being recoverable. And at $5-$50 apiece, this stuff isn't cheap to lose!

    After the 6th pitch or so, I started to lose count of just how many we had done. We were completely in the shade now, as it was getting later, and the sun was on the western side of the peak. It was after 5p, and although we were getting faster at setting up anchors and getting all our ropework correct, we were still slow by most standards. I got out my windbreaker to help keep me a little warmer as the temperatures declined slowly and the wind picked up a bit. The wind also made it more difficult for John and I to hear each other properly. Often, a couple of "What?"s were needed before a message was repeated enough to be understood. It occurred to me around this time that there were a number of limiting factors on how long a climbing rope could be. After all, how did the standard lengths of 150 feet and more recently 50m come about? As one leads up, the rope being dragged gets heavier and heavier from both the friction going through the protection pieces and the sheer weight of the rope. A second limiting factor is the weight of the rope being carried in a pack during the approach. It weighs as much as all our protection, and together they weigh something like 40lbs. The third factor I had just discovered was how far two climbers can get from each other and still communicate. This can be alleviated with walkie-talkies, but without them, there is only so much distance one's voice can cover over rock and through wind. I made a mental note to get some radios for our next trip.

    It was near 6:30p when I could finally make out the summit block just above me. It was something like our 10th pitch, and we'd been at it on the ropes for 5 1/2 hours. A more experienced climber had told us this was a 2 1/2 hour route, so we had some time to shave off the next time. We also made jokes about the large number of pitches it took us to climb a four-pitch route. Currently there was a 2.5X multiplication factor we needed to apply to the standard guidebook numbers to figure how much time or how many pitches it would take for our novice team.

    As I crested the last block just before the summit block, I had a full view of the final 15-foot class 4 crack that I had read much about. Looking at it now, it seemed a fairly easy climb. I thought about how disappointing it would have been had I hauled all that equipment up the Mountaineers Route just for this. Rather than climb down the 10 feet to the bottom of the final crack, I bypassed it altogether to the right from where I stood as I made a final move onto the summit block. At the top I found a solid permanent anchor (placed by the Sierra Club) which made the final belay setup a snap. John was shortly on top and we could hardly contain our excitement and sense of accomplishment. We were ecstatic and congratulated ourselves heartily. We also figured we'd just saved about half the cost of our climbing gear by not engaging the services of the Yosemite Guides. :)

    Looking around we admired the view, but keeping a sense of urgency that we would have to hustle a bit to get off the steepest part of the peak before the sunset. It was clear by now that we would be hiking back to the car in the dark. Looking down the western side, we saw a couple who had just left the summit perhaps 20 minutes earlier. Possibly we weren't the slowest ones on the peak that day. We looked around the small summit block (it's actually in two pieces, each about 3-4 square feet) for the register, but found nothing. Maybe it was down below the summit block. I belayed John down the 15-foot crack, and then around to the western side of the summit. I then tossed the rope around to the side he was on and climbed down the crack myself. This way I would get a top-roped belay from up and over the summit. At the bottom of the crack I untied the rope and tossed it up for John to pull down from the other side. It had seemed easy enough to come down, and I wondered if I would feel the same way if I had to climb it without the safety of the attached rope. As luck would have it, I got my chance. The rope had wedged itself in the crack at the very top, and John was unable to pull it down. So up I went, pulled out the rope, tossed it over, and climbed back down. Easy enough. John was hardly thrilled with my performance, as I had failed to warn him when I freed the rope. This sent the remaining 30 feet of the rope right down on top of him as he looked up from below.

    We proceeded to search diligently everywhere we could imagine for the register, but without luck. John was particularly disappointed as he had only one previous opportunity to sign a summit register (on Mammoth Peak). We packed up our rope and gear, but left our magic shoes on to help us down the friction sections on the upper portion of the western side. We followed the western ridge down 30 yards or so until I recognized the spot where I had been stopped on my first attempt. On that effort, I had stopped when I got to a crack that made me uncomfortable surmounting. Had I just gone to the left a bit, I would have found easy class 2-3 climbing up to the final block. Oh well. Had I made it to the top then, this attempt would have been a bit less sweet. Just below us on the ridge was the spectacular looking Eichorn Pinnacle, which I had hoped we might also be able to climb (it's rated 5.4) as well. There was no time left to be greedy today.

    We continued down, following a chute directly down the western side that we had seen the couple descend ahead of us earlier. This gave us confidence that we were unlikely to find ourselves scrambling down into a difficult pickle. Down we went, John making slower progress due to his unfamiliarity with such travel. I had done this type of scrambling many times in the past with my hiking boots, so it was even easier in the rock shoes. The sun set while we were still descending the class 2-3 slopes, and John stopped to snap a few sunset pictures. Just before we got down to the tree line, we stopped to change shoes and get ready for the long march back. There was still enough light to pack everything up without breaking out the flashlight, so off we went into the trees. The Cathedral Lakes trail was about 1/2 mile off, crossing our path perpendicular to our route of travel, so it was hard to imagine we could miss it.

    We traveled on, myself in the lead, John following, as we climbed over fallen logs, around marshy areas, on a short cross-country jaunt in failing light. After stumbling a few times and stubbing a few toes, we finally gave up on our night vision and got out the flashlight. We ran into the trail around 8:00p, and headed right towards Tuolumne. Just like when we changed our shoes, we felt another sense of relief as we knew our journey had reached another easier stage. All we had to do was keep from tripping over a root or stone in the trail (and there were many of these), and we'd be safely out. Surprisingly, we ran into a group of five backpackers heading in from the trailhead and we exchanged brief greetings. I thought we would run into the couple we had seen just ahead of us at the summit, but they either camped at Cathedral Lakes or hiked out faster than we did. Pride compells me to believe they camped at Cathedral Lakes. It was 9:30p when we reached the car and I finally got to remove the backpack after carrying it around for the last 8 1/2 hours. My shoulders thanked me more than any other part of my body. We drove to the Lembert Dome parking lot where we had a dinner feast of granola bars, dried fruit, and beef jerky on top of a picnic table. While we ate, we sat back and watched a meteor shower light up the sky every minute or so with brilliant streaks of light. It was just our luck that we were there during this annual meteor shower, one of the more brilliant ones of the year (or so I was told later - I don't remember the name of it).

    After we had our fill, we drove into the Tuolumne campground (the one that always says "Full") and found an empty site where we crashed for the night (our bodies, not the car). It had been a great day. And we still had tomorrow and our plans to climb Unicorn Peak, so a good rest was in order...


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