Cathedral Rocks P500
Lower Cathedral Rock

Sat, Apr 16, 2005

With: Matthew Holliman

Cathedral Rocks
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
Cathedral Rocks previously climbed Sun, Nov 3, 2002
Lower Cathedral Rock previously climbed Fri, Apr 11, 2003
later climbed Sat, Jun 9, 2012


The craziest part of the entire day happened in the North Pines CG a few hours past midnight. Matthew and I were sleeping under the stars in our sleeping bags between two of the campsites. I was awaken by Matthew's voice, calmly asking if I'd go with him to the restroom to check his head because he thought he was bleeding. Having been soundly asleep, I awoke in a bit of a stupor and thought the question a very strange one. Maybe he got a bloody nose or a scab came off or something? Continuing, he tells me thinks he got swatted by a bear while he was sleeping, and after feeling a whack on the noggin he arose at a start and saw a juvenile bear running off. He noticed the bleeding was more than a minor cut and while trying to wipe it up some, he debated over the next half hour whether to wake me or not. We got up, put clothes on, and walked to the bathroom. In the light I could see a crecent-shaped cut maybe four inches long and a quarter inch wide on the back of his scalp under his hair, matted from the blood. It wasn't bleeding seriously and looked to be already starting to coagulate nicely (I didn't know that half an hour had already passed since the attack). I got some tissue and wiped off all the blood I could to inspect the injury better. Sure enough, it looked like a bear swiped his head, but I wondered why only one cut instead of several parallel ones. It was weird as hell, neither of us had ever heard of such bear attacks before (we had absolutely no food on us, all of it was stashed in a bear locker). Still, it didn't seem like a big deal to me, though obviously Matthew was quite disturbed.

"I'm not ever sleeping in a Yosemite campground again," Matthew declared. "No way I'm going back there to sleep."

Not really having much choice at so late an hour, I asked Matthew what he wanted to do. He decided he'd rather sleep in the car back in the parking lot than take his chances with a renegade bear on the loose. Going back to our sleeping bags, Matthew packed up his stuff and headed back to the car while I crawled back into my sleeping bag again. I thought I was pretty tired from the long day we'd had, but I wasn't able to get much sleep after that. Every little noise, many of them simply imagined, had me bolting upright and looking around for a bear. None came by to disturb me, but my sleep for the night was pretty shot.

Around 5a (though at the time I thought it was more like 3a) I heard voices, then a flashlight passing over me. Matthew had returned, showing a ranger where he'd been sleeping. The ranger seemed to be looking around for a bear, but I half expected him to kick me out of the campground after he commented to Matthew that we were camped illegally. The two of them wandered off after 30 seconds and left me alone again. More fitful rest. I finally got up around 5:30a as it was just starting to get light out. I packed up my stuff and headed across the road to the parking lot. I wondered if Matthew would even be there, and considered I might be in a bit of a predicament if he wasn't - I didn't even have a wallet on me. But he was sitting awake in his car, looking over maps and guidebooks. He related how a security guy, looking for illegal campers in the overnight lot, had spotted him in his car. When Matthew explained what had happened, the security guy called in a ranger who took over the investigation, wrote up the report, and sent Matthew to the infirmary. There they put five stitches in his scalp, and since he didn't have his wallet on him, told him to come back at 7a to pay the bill. After the infirmary visit, he and the ranger had come to inspect the site of the attack so the ranger could write up his report. Matthew hadn't slept a wink after the bear swatted him.

Matthew had no interest in abandoning our climbing plans, though we would have to postpone our start time a short while in order to pay the bill. We ate our breakfast of donuts and similar junk food, then headed to Yosemite Village and the infirmary. We walked in through the emergency entrance and wandered down the hall a bit before we saw anyone, a nurse on duty. She asked what we wanted, looking at us like we didn't belong there, but when Matthew explained what we had come for, any anxiety was instantly gone as though she now remembered the pass-down from the night staff. The bill came to $362 and change, or roughly $72 per stitch. I still wonder if they were necessary, but since Matthew was fully insured through his work we didn't really care too much about the price. One bear attack, one sleepless night, $362 poorer, and off we went to climb Cathedral Rocks.

I had done most of our planned route a few years earlier with Dave Daly and Michelle Beaty in a long 12hr scramble that had a little bit of everything - difficult scrambling, roped climbing, bushwhacking, summits climbed, and great views to be had. We had somehow missed tagging the summit of Lower Cathedral Rock that time, so I wanted to add that, and possibly a side scramble over to the summit of Leaning Tower. Matthew and I got a later start (8a) than we would have liked, but I figured we'd probably do fine time-wise, moving faster as a party of two than we had as a party of three.

It was chilly at the base of Gunsight, shaded by the massive North Face of Middle Cathedral. The short hike up from the road through the forest was easy enough, as was the short scramble at the start of Gunsight. It didn't take long to reach the narrow part of the gully and the more difficult scrambling. We found hard snow in the lower reaches - crampons and axes made easy work of what would have been dicey in just boots. Debris atop the snow testified to rockfall dangers, so we put our helmets on for protection. As soon as we had the crampons off, the class 3-4 parts started, following up one series of chimneys after another, broken by short easy sections of scrambling. The climbing was made more difficult than my previous ascent with the addition of water on almost all of the difficult rock. There were only a few sections with slippery moss, but the presence of water made us nervous nonetheless. At the crux, Matthew led up the tricky cracks on the left side, eschewing the fixed rope found on the right side of the gully. Following, we were both up at the top of Gunsight by 9:30a.

From the notch, it took us only 15 minutes to reach the top of Lower Cathedral via easy scrambling. The view of El Capitan in the morning light was breathtaking. The Merced River flowed underfoot some 1,600ft below us. Our view to the east, taking in most of Yosemite Valley and a portion of Half Dome, were compromised by the sun's position - this would be a great view in the late afternoon. Looking west we could see Bridalveil Creek before it plunged over the famous fall, and on the other side of the creek rose the backside of Leaning Tower. My plans to climb that feature would have to wait for a different season - I had forgotten that spring runoff swells the creek below to dangerous levels, making a crossing a non-trivial adventure all by itself.

We headed back to the top of Gunsight, then scrambled over towards the northwest side of Middle Cathedral for the day's roped climbing. It was a last minute idea to pick a line to the right of the one we'd used previously. Not that our route on that first climb was bad - to the contrary we all found it quite excellent, but it seemed a route variation would make for a more adventurous outing. We traversed about 50 yards south of the previous start position, and scrambled as high as we could along the base of the rock faces until we found ourselves atop a small perch about the size of a tent pad. Here we changed into rock shoes and got out our rope and climbing gear. Where we planted ourselves seemed to be on what is called the NW Buttress. Roper says the route isn't on or near a buttress and from afar there doesn't seem to be a discernable buttress on this side. But from our starting position, and following up our route, it seemed as though we were on a broad buttress, rolling off on the left to the NW Face, and to the right to a shallow gully running up the west side of Middle Cathedral. I noted later that Voge's guide (which pre-dates Roper's) has a very different description of the route, though both are located on the same aspect of the mountain. After climbing the route I had to conclude that there are probably at least half a dozen routes one could take up on this side of Middle Cathedral, all in the 5.6-7 range. To pick out any single line as the NW Buttress (same for the NW Face) is probably not possible. Suffice it to say, there are a number of interesting routes one can take up.

Our starting point had a steep face to surmount (I'd call it steep slabs, but it was too steep for friction alone to hold, and we needed small holds to make any progress) with nowhere to put in protection for the first 20 feet. Like the previous day I offered to let Matthew take the lead. I was really hoping he might, because I find I enjoy roped climbing much more when I can relax as second. He merely laughed as though it was a silly suggestion. Darn. I climbed up no more than 3 feet before I was stopped. My arms and legs were already starting to twitch as I held on to my thin holds, looking in vain for another one or two past a blank stretch. After a few minutes I decided I was going to hit the deck if I continued up this route, and looking to my right the rock seemed to offer more promise some 20-30 feet over. I came back down and suggested we move the starting point down off our perch and over to the more featured rock to the right. Matthew agreed and we moved rope and anchor, a task that took some time with several re-flakings of the rope to set us up again. We were not looking like a well-oiled climbing team at this point.

The second try was more successful, and I made slow but steady progress up on better, but still sketchy (to me) holds. The first place that would take pro was 20 feet up, and I was never so glad to shove a cam in a crack as I was on that exposed face. I was so nervous that I put in a second cam to back it up right next to it. Only then was I able to relax, comfortable that a mistake was not going to cost me serious injury. The angle lessened, and the climbing easier (the start turned out to be the crux). After some distance I called down to Matthew to see how much was left of our 50m rope. He called up that there was 20-30ft left. I set up an anchor at the most convenient spot I could find within that distance, then hauled up the remaining rope. I was surprised and amused to find that I pulled up half the rope before the rope came taut on Matthew. We were a bit rusty - my estimation on lead was bad enough, but Matthew had called some 25m of rope "20-30ft" while it was flaked out in front of him. That was on the far end of a conservative estimate. :-) Matthew came up on second a good deal faster than I had lead that first route. The second pitch was steep as well, but better holds, and this time we were able to run out almost a full rope length in decent time.

The third pitch looked easier, though hardly trivial, and this time Matthew accepted my offer to try out his leading skills. I figured it would not only make life easier for me, it would speed up our progress since we didn't have to reflake the rope if we switched leads. And of course Matthew would get lead practice. I gave him my poorly arranged rack of gear, and as he tried to make sense out of my racking system, I had to sheepishly admit I hadn't done a good job of loading the gear on the string - carabiners were randomly clipped in one way or another in a cluttered fashion. Matthew started up the route which offered several choices in the upper section - left, right, or over a small roof up the center. This was Matthew's first lead I believe, and he was understandably a bit nervous. The slabs proved too steep to climb directly, so he favored the line though the bush on our left. He placed three of four pieces of protection in the first 20 yards, a high, but not unreasonable number. He placements were good in that they held well, but he had placed them in a zigzag pattern that soon increased the rope drag noticeably. This looked to discomfort him as he realized he had the extra job of pulling up a rope behind in addition to continuing the climb. He looked back at me like he was slightly upset, and I got the impression he thought I wasn't feeding out the rope easily enough. I held up the loose loop of rope in my hand so he could see it was all friction in the rope. Matthew was making decent progress and as he continued up he decided to go in the bold direction for the roof up the middle. I was impressed and thought it would make the best line on our route to tackle it straight up the way he was headed. I guessed his confidence was growing bolder.

But then trouble began. The route grew steeper and progress slowed. Two more pieces of protection went in and the rope got stuck in a crack between them. Matthew was far enough up that communication was difficult and loud shouting was required. Only 3 or 4 word phrases could be communicated without having it lost in the jumble. Matthew shook the rope a dozen times in an attempt to free it. He could pull some rope out, but the lower of the two upper pieces of pro kept pulling the rope back into the crack. I tried to communicate that he should go down and remove the lower piece to allow the rope to hang more freely. With the upper piece in place securely, the lower one wasn't needed so much and would move the rope away from the crack and reduce the rope drag. Matthew didn't hear me quite right, and though he lowered himself to the second piece, he never removed it. The struggle wore on, and began to take the fight out of Matthew. He was frustrated above, I was frustrated below, and time was dribbling away. "Damn, what's the hold up?" I questioned to myself, hoping he would make a decisive decision soon. I was growing cold and stiff the longer I waited, neck craned and achy, looking up into the sun just over the summit now. Our time on the pitch had gone over an hour before Matthew finally decided to abort his intended route and head to the right. He removed his upper pieces, and began a traverse to the right over friction slabs that were a little nervy. The rope drag didn't help as he made his way slowly across. I hoped he would head for a large, prominent tree to the right and up, but was disappointed to find that he just continued the traverse without gaining any elevation. The slabs were tricky I was to find out, but from below it looked like he was walking along a wide ledge and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what could take so long. The traverse continued and continued until he had gone a horizontal distance equal to the vertical distance he had gained at the start of the pitch. "Damn, he's fucking this all up," I thought to myself. An anchor was made at some bushes, and I was finally able to climb up to join him. I had to laugh when the first thing he said was, "I guess I fucked that all up."

"Did you know that pitch took us two hours?"

"Really, that long?"

"Yeah, we started before 11:30a, and it's almost 1:30p now."

"You better take over lead if we're going to finish this climb today."

"I was thinking the same thing."

To be fair, it wasn't bad really, but we did need to pick up the pace. We had plenty of daylight I knew, so I wasn't too concerned with time - otherwise I never would have offered the lead. And while climbing up to join Matthew I had a chance to inspect the route better - it was certainly harder than it had looked from below, and was a pretty tough lead for one's first try. And really it was the rope drag that contributed the most to the problems that were encountered. The place where he was trying to get over the roof was tough enough, but the rope drag just made it that much tougher. I gave him my observations on the pro placements and their contribution to the rope drag, and offered some suggestions for lessening the drag in the future.

We were over three hours into the roped climbing, and so far we had managed to climb one full and two half pitches, (I had burnt up much time with the misstart on the first pitch). Despite the weak start, we were now warmed up and started making steady progress. I climbed up past the roof section to the right, then angled left to get us back more or less on track for the line up the buttress. The climbing seemed easier now and we made excellent progress, covering the next 4 pitches in about two hours. The belay points were plentiful and I had no trouble finding good seats to sit on with decent anchor points. At the end of the 5th pitch I noticed the rock to the left looked familiar. After Matthew seconded up, I went over to check it out - sure enough it was the crux pitch we'd had some trouble on that first climb. It seemed almost funny - I recalled the three of us spending well over an hour trying various routes around or through that section before we finally got over it. Now, looking at it from a different angle, it seemed an obvious alternative would have been to head up just a bit to the right, where our next pitch was going. Yet I don't recall at the time that we had even considered it. Perhaps we had been too intent on the way we thought we had to go. The alternative proved much easier.

The roped climbing ended after 6 or 7 pitches, the way above now the familiar scramble over rock and shrub. We spent almost another hour on this scramble to the top of Middle Cathedral, where we arrived at 4:30p. It was not a simple scramble as we found some heavy brush in places, and other sections with spicy class 3, but it was all good fun. Just before reaching the summit we found snow patches that we eagerly used to supplement our dwindled water supplies. Upon reaching the top we took in the views and took our required set of photos of El Cap, Three Brothers, the Valley, and elsewhere. From the summit we continued south down to the notch (Cathedral Gully) between Middle and Higher Cathedral Rocks, then up to the summit of the highest pinnacle. The route is mostly class 1-2, with a short class 3 rock section coming off Middle Cathedral, and some class 3 bushwhacking and rock on the way up to Higher Cathedral Rock. From here we had views of Cathedral Spires catching the last rays of the late afternoon sun. Again we continued south, down to the top of Spires Gully, the easiest (class 2) route to Cathedral Rocks, and from there we started down the shaded gully. Passing by Cathedral Spires, I was surprised to note that there were two shorter spires between the two main ones, and even more surprised to note a taut rope stretched across the top of these two lower spires, some 400-500 feet above the base where I passed by. We had run into a good deal of snow in the upper half of the gully, which on the one hand helped avoid some of the tediousness of so much boulder-hopping found there, but on the other hand was too soft and caused us to posthole, necessitating slower progress. I got well ahead of Matthew in this section and descended the gully alone, eventually finding the use trail down below the boulder fields, then making my way back to the car around 6:40p. It had taken about 10h45m for the loop, a little more than an hour faster than the first effort, which seemed pretty good considering our problems in the roped section. It was clear that the loop could be done even faster, perhaps a few hours, without the delays. Matthew arrived back just before 7p, completing our day.

To avoid the possibility of another bear incident and perhaps even more so that we could get a decent night's sleep, we got ourselves a tent cabin in Curry Village for the next two nights. Thankfully, the bears never troubled us again this trip. We had showers and pizza and beer again, in almost the same fashion we had the night before. The primary difference was that we added sausage to the pepperoni pizza this time around - just to mix it up a little. :-)

Matthew adds: I placed a lot of pro because I wasn't sure how much confidence I should have in those placements. The climb was also a lesson in the value of conserving pro--when I came to the crack on the left further up, I regretted placing one of the cams down below. :-) As you might guess, I was indecisive up there because I couldn't pull the rope up any more because of the drag - but at the same time, I hated to give up the vertical, and wasn't thrilled about having to downclimb either. I ended up traversing over just to set up an anchor as quickly as possible rather than prolong the clusterfuck. Just the walk over there was pretty tough with the rope drag too. Seems my YMS class and Freedom of the Hills were both conspicuously silent on this topic. :-)

Bob responds: See Rope Handling, Chapter 7, in Freedom of the Hills for a discussion on rope drag. :-)


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Carol comments on 01/24/07:
Scary story about the bear... The first night I camped in Yosemite National Park (at Tuolumne Meadows) a bear sat on my tent! And after that incident, which wasn't nearly as bad as one swiping my head, but still I too didn't get much if any sleep that night...
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