Mono Jim Peak
|Story||Photos / Slideshow||Maps: 1 2 3||Profiles: 1 2|
Cathedral Peak previously climbed Sun, Oct 10, 1999|
later climbed Sun, Aug 18, 2002
Eichorn Pinnacle later climbed Sun, Aug 18, 2002
Mono Jim Peak later climbed Fri, May 7, 2004
One of the "projects" I'd been wanting to do for about a year now was a solo free climb of Cathedral Peak's SE Buttress. That route had been the first multi-pitch climb I'd done, and I repeated it later that same year. Now that I'd spent the last summer getting a good taste of class 4 climbing and what that entails, I was very interested in returning to Cathedral to see how comfortable I might be climbing that route without a rope. I half expected I might find myself frightened out of my wits - but that's what this project was about, to see where I found myself comfortably free soloing.
I arrived at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows at 6:30a, and after stashing my large cooler in the convenient bearbox, I headed off on the trail about 15 minutes later. Aside from my rock shoes, I carried some water, a few energy bars, sunscreen, and DEET. I've not been a big fan of hiking in the Sierra in June due to the abundance of blood-sucking mosquitoes that seem to swarm most ferociously at that time of year. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find much fewer of the pests than I expected. In large part I think this was due to the fact that I didn't stay in one place for very long all day. They seem to have a harder time finding victims when their targets are moving. I did apply some repellent and got a handful of bites besides (in places I didn't protect), but it was so few that I'm going to have to rethink my reluctance to come to the mountains at this time of year. As I further recall, it was usually when setting up camp that they seemed to be most bothersome, so for dayhikes I might do just fine...
As I hiked up the use trail that follows the west side of Bud Creek, I enjoyed the wildflowers and abundance of water in the creek. While not the raging torrent of April, it was quite a bit more impressive than the trickle of late August. Unicorn Peak caught my attention and I could see how one might mistake it for Cathedral Peak if unsure of the geography (more than a few parties have made this mistake on the relatively short approach). Unicorn looms directly ahead as I hiked up the lower portion of the trail, and only further on does it move to the left. The upper basin between Unicorn and Cockscomb still had a good deal of snow, somewhat surprising for this low snow year. To the right of Cockscomb towers Echo Ridge, the highest point in the basin, and to the right of that is the more famous Echo Peaks. Cathedral Peak itself doesn't come into view until within about half a mile, and then the SE Buttress is seen grandly in profile. I arrived at the base of the climb at 8a, and took a few minutes to survey the rock above me.
I didn't change into my rock shoes right away. I thought I might see how well I could climb in my boots. My second mistake was starting too far to the right (north) of the easiest route, and I found myself unable to make much progress upward. I'd climb up a crack to find myself blocked by something more than 5.6, back down a bit, and try another tack. I drifted further to the right as there seemed to be other possibilities there, but the climbing was more difficult than I had remembered, and more than I was comfortable on. I recalled that Michael and Monty had reported starting too far to the right on their first attempt here, and it occurred to me that I was climbing in that very spot that had foiled them, even with a rope. Small roofs and steep face climbing seem to block all possibilities in this area. Though certainly climbable, its all higher than the 5.4 rating given the SE Buttress, and probably in the 5.7-5.8 range. For 45 minutes I wandered about the right side of the buttress, not frightened (that was a good sign), having fun in fact, but not really making much progress. Finally I decided to go back down to the start and move over to the left where the easier route should begin.
Once down, it was almost trivial to find the correct (easiest) route. I recognized several scraggled trees above, that have been over-used for anchor points more times than the humane society would probably consider acceptable. Before I started back up I changed into my rock shoes, no more messing around. I stuffed one boot into one fanny pack that I wore, and one into the other, and then I started up. Having already warmed up on the harder stuff, the climbing was rather easy to start, and highly enjoyable. My main goal was to find the route that I could climb without ever feeling awkward or unsafe. Half a dozen times I found myself off the easy route and at a point where I would have to trust my shoes to stick more than I was comfortable with. I think this is what they call 5.7 face climbing. Instead, I would back down and try another route. It helped that I had climbed it twice before, though three years earlier, I felt reassurance when I could remembered a particular crack or belay ledge, knowing I was on route.
As I climbed, I found myself absorbed completely in the climbing. During the approach my thoughts wandered all over the spectrum of life, but now they were narrowly focused to the present. Where each of my limbs were located, how well they could support my weight on the hold, and where they would go next were all important at the moment, and nothing else seemed to matter. There was a good chance I would die if I fell, so in fact nothing else did matter. And I found myself enjoying the feeling and the moment a great deal. There is a saying from the 60's, that great counter-culture experiment that seemed to just fade away, that I've always enjoyed: "Be Here Now." In fact the phrase is from the title of a book by Baba Ram Dass, now just Ram Dass, who used to be Dr. Richard Alpert, Harvard professor back when he was experimenting with LSD with his fellow faculty member Timothy Leary. Ah, but I digress. Suffice it to say, it was easy for me to sum up one of his viewpoints very succinctly while climbing the Buttress, all without psychedelic enhancements - though I'm sure that would have added unusual dimensions to the experience as well...
The views improve markedly as one climbs and the surrounding peaks can be seen more fully. This is one of the reasons the SE Buttress is considered a classic - even just sitting at a belay station while your partner climbs is a fine experience. The view east includes Mt. Dana, Kuna & Mammoth Crests, and higher up one can see the peaks around Mt. Lyell. To the south is the Clark Range beyond Echo Peaks.
Two-thirds of the way up I came upon the famous chimney that I had twice before declined to climb. I had chosen instead to climb around to the corner to the right where I could climb some slanted grooves with abundant chickenheads that were more to my liking. Chimneys have always caused me a certain amount of dread, as I feel less secure trusting my back and legs to maintain pressure on the chimney walls during a climb. It was all a psychological thing in my head, and besides I had heard that this particular chimney had good holds once the climber was safely inside. So I decided to banish this demon as well, and made my way directly to the chimney. Before I could reach it, I found I had taken another hard route to get there. I was but five feet from the base of the chimney, off to the right a bit, but would have to make an exposed set of moves on a face with nothing for my hands to hold onto. I started up, backed down, pondered some more, and finally climbed back down the 25 feet or so to try the route up to the left. This turned out to be easier and more secure, and I was soon back at the base of the chimney.
The crux it seems is actually getting oneself into the chimney. The opening at the bottom is too narrow for even my thin frame (I'd venture it's virtually impossible for anyone over about 185lbs). My fanny packs, one in front and one behind, where too bulging to allow me to squeeze in. So I took these off and draped them around my neck, one facing front, one facing back, and started up. It was necessary to climb the outside of the chimney for about five feet before I could begin to squeeze parts of me inside. The legs were easiest, but that left me leaning backwards, exposed and uncomfortable, as I tried to wrestle my upper torso into the chimney. My bulging packs made this quite awkward, but I was twisted and turned and with a great deal of determination finally got myself in. As soon as I was inside I found great footholds for my feet and found myself comfortably secure. But stuck. There was very little room, and my packs made it hard to move around or lift my arms. I chuckled to myself as I considered my predicament. Eventually of course, I was able to move and extracted myself upward. It really is a fun chimney with good holds, but not recommended if you're loaded with gear. Out of the chimney I continued up after reattaching my packs around my waist.
A couple of friendly marmots did a good job of showing me I had nothing on them when it came to climbing. They could scurry about the buttress far better than I, even without the magic shoes. They were actually a little too friendly, quite content to let me get a closeup shot while they were probably expecting a handout. At the last belay station before the summit, I recalled a bit of exposed face climbing the previous trips. I thought this short section would give me the most trouble, but instead I found it to have excellent holds and no trouble at all. It goes up diagonally to the left and the chickenheads made it seem almost trivial. Above it there is a nice belay spot for the final short section to the top. I continued up, pulled myself up and over the final large blocks, and stemmed across to the summit. Success!
I revelled in my new-found confidence in soloing class 5 rock. It was 9:45a when I summited, taking nearly an hour after I restarted the climb. With proper route-finding it would have taken little more than a half hour, but I had actually enjoyed the extra time I spent climbing due to the high quality of the rock and stunning views. I had kept expecting to see others show up at the base of the climb, but for at least those two hours I had the whole route to myself. I enjoyed the views to be had, and the other fine peaks in the area including Unicorn Peak, Cockscomb, Echo Peaks, and Tresidder Peak. The bolts that had been secured to the summit of Cathedral the last time I was there were gone, the rusted stubs of the pins were all that remained. It seemed sad in a way. I'm all in favor of not adding additional bolts to the Sierra Peaks, particularly their summits, but I'm equally against removing ones that are already there. It seems a shame to remove the additional safetly the bolts afforded, particularly for a peak climbed as often as Cathedral. Besides, the rappel off the west side was quite fun and would no longer be possible.
Not far to the west was the fantastic needle of rock called Eichorn Pinnacle that caught my attention. As a side attraction to Cathedral Peak, I had passed by it three times in the past, wondering how it could be climbed. The easiest route is 5.4, but I had never spotted other than the vertical walls that seemed to surround the 60-foot tower of rock. I hadn't really considered climbing it earlier, but now that I was here I thought I should go see what I can make out of the easy route purported to be found there.
Just the name conjures up images of the early Sierra rock climbers: Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson, Walter Starr, Robert Underhill, Norman Clyde, Francis Farquhar, and others. Jules Eichorn, who with Glen Dawson in 1931 first climbed the pinnacle that was given his name, was involved in a number of other first ascents in the Sierra. He was in the first ascent party of Mt. Whitney's East Face, and it was Eichorn who was almost hit by lightning that gave rise to the name Thunderbolt Peak when it was first climbed by an all-star cast of climbers.
On two previous climbs of Cathedral Peak's SE Buttress, I had planned to climb Eichorn Pinnacle as an encore, but both times we had ran out of daylight before getting a chance at it. Now, having just climbed Cathedral a third time, it was not even 10a and I had pretty much all day at my disposal. So I set my sights on Eichorn not 100 yards away, and decided to at least make a thorough study of the route. Climbing the SE Buttress of Cathedral without a rope had been a new experience for me, but at least I was fairly familiar with the route. Eichorn would be a different story since I had not climbed it with a rope. Whether I would find it exciting or terrifying I couldn't guess, but I was eager to find out.
I left Cathedral's summit via the crack on the SE side, danced around to the west side on a thin traverse, and began to downclimb the west side. I chose to follow the ridge connecting Cathedral to Eichorn, not because it was the easiest way down (it wasn't), but because the climbing was more interesting there. As I made my way down, I was surprised to see another solo climber traversing across the West Face towards Eichorn Pinnacle. What were the odds of two solo climbers converging on Eichorn Pinnacle on a Thursday morning? Quite low, it seemed to me. I climbed down further, and the other fellow climbed higher, and eventually we met up right at the saddle between the two peaks (essentially just below the east side of Eichorn Pinnacle). He was as surprised to see me as I had to see him, and we stopped to chat briefly. Having camped down on the west side near the John Muir Trail, he was heading to Cathedral's summit, or at least as far as he could safely climb solo in his hiking boots. He didn't have much knowledge of the peak or its routes, but had been taken by its charms while camped below. Class 3 or 4 or 5 didn't seem to mean anything to him, and when he found I'd come up the SE Buttress he asked if it was an easier route than his present course. But I admired his determination and offered him some hints on how to best approach the final few hundred feet he had left to reach the summit. He paused to take a break and watch me in my efforts to climb Eichorn Pinnacle. From the east side it certainly seemed an impossible climb.
I first perused the east side of the pinnacle, noting a rappel sling about 15 feet up this side. A fist size crack ran vertically up from the saddle that seemed climbable, but horribly exposed. A fall would drop the unlucky climber not just down to the saddle, but at least 50 feet down the south side to certain death. I looked at it for several minutes and considered how it might be climbed, but concluded it could not possibly be 5.4. I wasn't exactly sure where the correct route was. All I knew was that it went "around the north side," but where it started I was very unsure. But it couldn't be from here. So I began to downclimb around the base of the pinnacle, circling in a counter-clockwise manner searching for the start of the route. I checked out every crack and granite block that seemed plausible, climbing several with fruitless results. Each time I backed out, climbed down further, and continued my circle a bit more. When I was almost 90 degrees around, I could finally see up to what had to be the correct route. Further around I could see there were more vertical walls that would surely rebuff me, and it was on the north side that seemed to offer a route that spiralled up to the right towards the summit. Getting to the route was trickier than I expected, requiring some careful friction climbing that I cautiously traversed. Thank God for magic shoes. I soon found myself looking diagonally up at the route, pleased that it seemed to offer such nice holds on an otherwise feature-poor stack of huge granite blocks. An old piton simulataneously offered me a sense of history and a reassurance that I was on the right track. There were three pitons that I found here, all within about 30 feet, that looked to offer great protection to secure one's rope to. If one had a rope, that is. Instead, I moved ever cautiously, testing every foot and handhold carefully, looking ahead to the next move, and looking behind to remember the last. There was no room for error here, and there could be no excuse for rushing any of it unnecessarily. I tried to avoid using the pitons for holds as that seemed unsporting. The middle piton was the only one of the three not fully covered in rust. I thought it might be the newest of the three, but soon realized it was the one most glaringly helpful to stick a finger in for support. I looked for alternatives to using the piton to grab onto, but found nothing that would make the next move feel secure. Following second on a rope it would have been easier to pass it by, but I was not in a position to let ethics win out over my margin of safety. I placed my middle finger through the eye of the piton as I moved past it, adding my own sweat and skin oils to the same surface many others had done before me (at least that seems the likely reason this part of the piton was not oxidized). Past the three pitons, I was off of the exposed section and at the base of the final blocks, towering some 20 feet above me. While not easy in and of themselves, they at least lacked the exposure of the earlier section and I confidently climbed the open grooves and blocks to the summit in a few minutes.
At the summit I was first surprised by the roominess of the place. It was easily three or four times larger than the summit of Cathedral Peak, though one would hardly expect that from below. I heard a shout of "Well done!" from the other climber who had waited patiently for me to summit though he could not see me climb for the whole route. There were several slings tied to a few bolts (why weren't these chopped when those on Cathedral were, I wondered), and an aluminum register box holding a few registers dating to the seventies. The most recent entry was dated June 13, today, though I suspect it was incorrect. Neither myself nor the other climber had seen another soul all morning, and we had pretty much covered both east and west sides of Cathedral on the ascent. After the person entered his name in the register, he followed up with a short note expressing his delight in a certain sexual act allowed between consenting adults; but why it occupied his thoughts upon reaching the summit was as puzzling as it was amusing. And he didn't seem to be so good at dates, either. Climbers are an odd sort, to be sure.
From about 50 yards distance the other climber and I had a short conversation. I asked if he was going further, to which he responded that he was hoping I might be interested in leading him to the summit in exchange for a share of his lunch. A sincere offer no doubt, but I responded that I really didn't want to climb back up to the summit of Cathedral. He shrugged, and soon began heading up again, roughly along the lines of direction I had given him earlier. After a short break I retraced my steps, heading back down by the exact route I had taken up - there really aren't many options on this route, as I found myself aiding off the very same middle piton again. At the bottom the route is less obvious and there are several ways one can go, so I chose that which would take me back to Eichorn's east side most quickly. As I reached the saddle again I heard a shout from above again, this time the other climber waved from the summit, successful in his solo quest. I gave a last wave as I turned my attention to the South Face. Flushed with my recent successes, I felt emboldened in taking on the South Face of Cathedral for the descent. The vertical distance was little more than a hundred feet, and much of it looked to be class 2-3 ledges that connected in a zigzag pattern for more than half the distance. But it was steep, no doubt, and I had no beta or previous experience on this side. From below I recall it looking impossibly vertical in the past, but now it took on the aura of an additional challenge. It was only 11:15a, and even if I had to retreat back up, I had plenty of energy and time to spare.
I studied the chimney at the base of Eichorn Pinnacle, and even sat at the top and explored the first move down with my feet. It would make a beautiful line, going 20 feet, across a few ledges, and then down a narrow chute to the bottom. I hesitated for several minutes before deciding I was not nearly as brave as I had begun to believe I was (or perhaps I was just exercising the proper amount of safe judgement). I stood up and explored other routes down, finally choosing one about 40 feet east of Eichorn's base. I found the descent as delightful as I had hoped, a combination of class 2 through class 5.easy that brought me to the bottom in about 15 minutes. The crux was the very last 10 feet that had none of the earlier exposure, and in fact I could have jumped off had I not been able to find a way down the last few moves. I took a short break to change back into my hiking boots, then made my way back around to the base of the SE Buttress in another 10 minutes. I have to say it was shorter and more enjoyable than the regular descent via the Mountaineers Route, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who might feel comfortable soloing such terrain.
It took me an hour to return to the trailhead, arriving at 12:45p. It had taken longer than I had expected to, but I had done a good deal more climbing than I had intended, and could hardly imagine a finer 6 hour outing. I retrieved my cooler from the bearbox, tossed the gear in the car, changed into some comfortable clothes and sandals, and drove on through Tuolumne Meadows. I envisioned the taste of the fish tacos I would have at the Mobil Station at the bottom of Tioga Road - mmmm.... Not wanting the climbing adventure to end, I began formulating plans for some afternoon climbing near Mammoth once I was done with lunch.
After consuming a delicious pair of fish tacos from the Mobil Station at the SR120/US395 junction, I zoomed off towards Mammoth Lakes and an afternoon climb out of Convict Lake. A few years previously I had climbed Mt. Morrison, the impressive peak that lords over the lake and commands attention from passerbys on nearby US395. Mono Jim sits in front of Mt. Morrison, considerably lower, but blocking perhaps a third of the view of the taller peak. Though Mono Jim shows up on Topozone, it remains unnamed on the USGS maps. The peak was named for a Mono Indian guide who was killed along with Robert Morrison near Convict lake in 1871 during a gunfight with escaped convicts.
It was 2:45p when I'd parked the car on the SE side of the lake and headed uphill. There is no trail to either Morrison or Mono Jim, so one must immediately confront the "fun" of scrub-whacking and climbing loose, steep hillsides. It was probably in the high 80's but felt much warmer in the afternoon sun. It didn't take long for the combination of lunch digestion and oppressive heat to sap what I thought was a good reserve of energy. Above that first steep hill that borders the south side of the lake, I joined a 4WD road which I hiked to the end at a small canyon on the NE side of Mono Jim. A faint use trail wound its way up the trickle of a creek that remained, but the trail gave out shortly before I reached a large snowbank that blocked the way in the canyon. I chose to climb the very loose sand/gravel/rock on the right side, but it seemed the whole hillside wanted to come down with my every step. I was on the lower sides of Mono Jim, so I sort of traversed up and left, angling for some vegetation that I hoped would provide better purchase for my boots.
Reaching the scrub was mostly a disappointment as the underlying earth was still fairly loose. A whole host of old memories flooded back as I recalled the same crappy conditions I had met in climbing Morrison, Baldwin, and other peaks in this area. It is little wonder that this range between Mammoth Lakes and Little Lakes Valley is mostly ignored by the climbing community - it has some of the worst conditions anywhere in the Sierra. Besides the loose soil and rock, the mountain sides are exposed to the sun with few trees for shade. Many of the trees themselves have given up the ghost, probably due to exposure or sheer boredom. For two hours I toiled up the mountain, the conditions only getting worse. The slope was relentlessly steep, and the loose dirt/sand gave way to loose, knife-thin shale that sounded like breaking glass as one walked on it. At the two hour mark I took stock of my position: I was still about an hour from the summit, the conditions looked even sketchier above me, and I began to have doubts I was on the right peak. I didn't have a map with me, but I found there was a higher peaklet between the one I was climbing and Mt. Morrison, and I had serious doubts I was on the correct Mono Jim. If one looks at the Topozone map it shows the correct location to be on the lower peak I was climbing, but I neither knew this at the time nor even trust it to be correct today. In any event, I decided after taking a brief rest to cash in my chips and call it a day. It was a tough decision as there are very few times when I turn back short of the summit. The process of deciding tormented me briefly, but once decided I was resolved in action. I would come back another time to settle the Mono Jim issue. Going back down was considerably easier, taking only half the time to descend as it had coming up. While sitting on the East Ridge, I looked down and spotted what appeared to be a use trail in the gully between the Mono Jim and the higher neighbor to the south. I went down that way on the return, but as luck would have it, I found the use trail was nothing more than a gully wash that took the small water flow in early spring as the snow melts. It was much too rutted to travel in, so I had to resolve myself to more loose and crappy ground to cover on the descent as well. I was finally back at the car at 5:45p. The highlight of the excursion was shortly before I returned when I spotted a red ball some way in the distance. Thinking it was trash I mosied over to it only to find a wonderful display of Indian Paintbrush. The landscape had been so drab and free of any wildflowers, that this small clump seemed so out of place from a distance.
After I returned and had something refreshing to drink from the cooler, I drove on to Bishop where I got a motel room and dinner. By 9p I was in bed, looking forward to the next day's adventure.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cathedral Peak - Eichorn Pinnacle
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:02 2007
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