Sun, Aug 18, 2002
The alarm woke Vishal and I up at 5a in our motel room in Lee Vining. Or it woke me up, and I stumbled over Vishal sleeping on the floor on my way to the bathroom, waking him as well. I then went outside in the dark and over to Tom & Chris's room to see if they were going to join us for our climb of Cathedral Peak, day 2 of the 2002 Challenge. Chris had quit in the first half hour the first day, and Tom had been knackered from the long hike to Whorl Mtn. Neither had been sure last night whether they'd be up to hiking a second day as they'd originally planned, so they'd asked for a wakeup call in the morning to let them evaluate their condition. Tom answered the door groggily, saying he'd come over shortly to my room to let me know what they decided. Back with Vishal, we were busy packing and eating breakfast when Tom came back 5 minutes later - they decided to get some more sleep and forgo the additional climbing. Chris 0, Tom 1, end of the Challenge for both of them. Packed and ready, I left Vishal in the motel room so that I could get to the trailhead at the appointed 6a start time to meet other climbers. Vishal was to be shortly behind me. I drove up Tioga Road, through Tuolumne Meadow, and to the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead.
I was the first one there. Joe and Justin weren't far behind. They had camped east of Tioga Pass in one of the lower campgrounds where it is usually not difficult to find a site. We were waiting for a fifth, Thad Kellum, to join us when Vishal pulled up at 6:15a. Thad didn't materialize, so we headed out five minutes later. We headed towards Cathedral Pass on the JMT, turning off on the fine use trail about a quarter mile past our crossing of Bud Creek. The trail winds its way south on the west side of the creek, an enjoyable hike with fine views of Unicorn Peak and the other peaks that surround the drainage on three sides. Joe was forgoing the weight of his water filter that he usually carried with him, but was trying iodine tablets in its place when we stopped briefly to fill up before leaving the creek and heading towards Cathedral Peak. It took a little more than an hour to reach the base of Cathedral Peak's SE Buttress. This was the first stop in what was going to be a mini-tour of this end of the Cathedral Range, going next to Eichorn Pinnacle, Echo Peaks, Echo Ridge, Cockscomb, and finally Unicorn. I had no plans to climb Echo Peak #9 or Matthes Crest which are included in the full tour. These would entail considerable delay as I'm not up to moving that fast over difficult rock. All of these peaks I had climbed previously, though most of them I had used a rope for. I planned to free solo them this go around which is the only way if one is going to cover so much ground in one day. The others had no such grand plans. Joe and Justin had brought a rope and full climbing gear, planning only to climb Cathedral Peak's SE Buttress which neither had climbed before (this would be my fourth ascent, second without a rope). Since Cathedral Peak is the only peak in the group designated a Mountaineers Peak, it was the only "required" peak for the Challenge. The others were considered extras. Vishal had not previously climbed on a rope and didn't own a harness or pair of rock shoes, so he planned to climb Cathedral via the Mountaineers Route pioneered by John Muir himself. The only serious obstacle is the final class 4 summit block, which would be Vishal's first taste of class 4. As such, he had dozens of questions concerning it, which I tried to answer as objectively as possible. Not satisfied after grilling me the day before, the questions continued on the hike in, to which I finally could only say, "You'll have to see for yourself when you get there." At the SE Buttress I gave Vishal directions to head up the sandy slopes to the north of the buttress then around to the other side, and told him I'd see him near the summit to help him the rest of the way. Off he went while Joe and Justin began to unpack and organize their gear while I changed into my rock shoes and stuffed my tennis shoes into my hip packs. Another party of three was sorting their gear ahead of Joe and Justin, having arrived but minutes before them. It was 8a when I headed up the rock, bidding the others a nice climb as I left.
Another party was already on the first pitch, so I bypassed the second who was just starting up by taking an alternate path to the right of him. It was only a few minutes before I was up to the height of the belayer, and passed above him to get back on the main route. A small stone bounced off the rock next to one of my hands, startling me. It had been knocked down by another solo climber above me who was downclimbing the route. Intensely concentrating, he didn't say a word as he passed me ten feet to the side. I hadn't considered a free-solo downclimb - but it sounded interesting!
Even more so than leading a climb on the end of a rope, I find that free soloing class 4 and above involves a great deal of concentration. Rather than finding this stressing, I find it quite invigorating - it forces the mind to relieve itself of all the other troubles and issues that run through the mind when life is less threatened. Now, where it is obvious that a mistake can not only be serious but fatal, the mind can do that zen thing and focus on one thing, and one thing only. Every move of a foot or hand is seriously considered, each feldspar bulge is inspected for how to best cup a hand around it, each granite face is inspected for the best foot placements. As I move from one stance to the next, I consider how serious it is if a given hold gives way. In some I have great confidence, of others I am suspect, in some I make no bets and never commit my full weight to. It is extremely focused climbing, and somehow fun too. Maybe I have a really poor grasp of the definition of "fun." One would think that by the fourth ascent of a route navigation errors would be at a minimum. Not so for this route, or more accurately, not so for my poor memory. I did better than my previous outing, but I still managed to get myself off-route at several junctures. The critical one for me is just below the chimney, where I veered right and ended up looking at a nasty-looking section of face-climbing about nine or ten feet in length. It didn't look impossible, but I wasn't convinced my boots would stick if I committed to it. And without a rope, I need a lot of convincing. I stood there looking at the chimney just on the other side of the section, walking out a foot, then retreating. I found myself getting rattled and my muscles over-stressing themselves to the point of shaking. Not a good position to be in, so I backed off and took a healthy breath. Deciding I shouldn't be feeling that way, I backed down to the belay station below where I'd veered off, and headed up to the left. Ah, this looked more familiar. Right away I find I need to surmount the crux which I now recognize. Later my friends tell me this 10-foot vertical crack-chimney thing (I don't know how it's classified) is 5.7 and the face climbing is the easier 5.6 route. Hmmm. They're probably right. I struggled in this for only a moment before I remembered that I had previously gone outside to the right of this thing. A few key holds and some leg stretching get me around and up. Whew. The rest is easy by comparison, and not five minutes later I'm coming over the final block and looking at the summit block on the other side. I stemmed across to the summit block and climbed up to the summit at 9a.
As I scanned the west side for Vishal, a few minutes later I heard his voice calling up from below - he'd spotted me before I could locate him first. He was about halfway up the class 3 upper section of the West Face, and sounded a bit lost. Mostly just a loss of confidence. He began anew his series of questions, asking which way to go, whether a particular crack was better than that flake, etc. I could answer the general questions about which direction to head, but offer no advice on the very specific route choices since I couldn't see the details from 100 yards away. He made progress, first heading towards the saddle between Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle, then angling towards the summit, but then there seemed to be more questions than steps forward. So rather than shouting from the summit block, I downclimbed the 15-foot crack on the south side, walked around to the west side, and made my way down close to where Vishal was mired in indecision. Closer, it was easier to offer advice and answer his questions, and he was soon near the summit block. He had a broad grin on his face and evidently having a fine time. We climbed up to the base of the summit block on the west side, and then traversed around to the south side. I showed Vishal the two cracks that could be climbed on this side. The 15-foot crack on the left went directly to the summit, while a second 10-foot crack could be climbed on the right followed by some easy steps up onto summit. Vishal pondered this only a short moment, chose the right crack, and promptly landed himself on the summit. I wondered if his summit scream from the day before was to be repeated, and sure enough, a loud half-scream, half-yodel erupted from deep in his lungs. "You know that's annoying, don't you?" I said, to which he replied, almost apologetically, "Yes, but I have to do it."
We enjoyed the summit views and took some pictures. Another solo climber came up over the SE Buttress while we were there. An older climber of perhaps 50, one knee was bloodied from the effort. I asked if he was OK, to which he sort of looked at it and shrugged it off. Upon closer inspection, both of his knees bore the scars of repeated battering - it seemed as if he was used to climbing rocks with his knees. This was one guy who could benefit from long pants I thought to myself. He didn't stay long and headed back the way he'd come. I thought this was a different guy from the one I'd run across earlier, but it turns out they were one in the same. Later I found out from Joe that his "workout" consisted of soloing the route up and down three times in succession. He'd apparently done this climb many, many times.
It was 10a when Vishal and I left the summit of Cathedral Peak. It'd been an hour since I'd first reached the summit, but it was a worthwhile hour to see Vishal make the summit on his first class 4 effort. We downclimbed together back to the saddle near Eichorn Pinnacle where we split up again. I planned to climb Eichorn, then down the South Face from the saddle before heading up to Echo Peaks. Vishal was going back around the north side of Cathedral Peak and down the Mountaineers Route before heading up to Echo Peaks. I didn't want to discourage Vishal from joining me on Echo Peaks - he was climbing quite well, but I worried that the time would grow short and I'd be unable to complete the list of peaks on the day's agenda. I climbed around the slabby northeast and north sides of Eichorn Pinnacle to the start of the North Face route (5.4), the easiest way up, and the route I'd taken previously. Though I was familiar with the route, it still took me some time as much of the route is highly exposed, requiring me to move cautiously. About halfway up I came to what had been the crux on my first ascent, but was less willing to make the same dicey moves as I'd done before. It sure seemed more than 5.4. Looking around, I found this short eight foot section could be bypassed by climbing down to my right and then back up around to the left and up over a few handy flakes. Circuitous but much easier, even if the exposure didn't let up any. A chimney just below the summit was the last obstacle, and I stepped on top at 10:30a. Not finding a pen or pencil (or having one with me), I was unable to make an entry in the summit register, but I spent a few minutes perusing the register for names of those since my last visit. Greg Faulk (who I climbed with on Matthes Crest) had an entry from a few weeks earlier, writing that I had inspired him to climb this little side-problem to Cathedral - how touching! I went back down via the same route, climbed back around to the saddle, and started down the South Face at 11a. It took almost 30 minutes to find my way down this side, a short route of several hundred feet composed of a series of ledges connected by some easy class 5 downclimbs. Though faster than rappelling, I was no speedster at this free solo game. At the bottom I changed back into my tennis shoes and sped off towards Echo Peaks to the south. It was 11:30a and I was pretty sure Vishal was going to be well ahead of me in reaching the meeting place near Echo Peak #7 - and I had been worried earlier I'd be waiting for him. I jogged where I could, walking fast on the uphill stretches, and covered the ground between Cathedral and Echo Peaks in just 20 minutes. Vishal was there, 45 minutes ahead of me, patiently waiting. He'd climbed Echo Peak #7 and was considering doing a few of the others before giving up on me. I apologized for my tardiness, then went about continuing our adventure on this fun little set of peaks.
The adventure continued, now only Vishal and myself standing on the rounded ridge just north of Echo Peaks. It was almost noon, and the liklihood of finishing up all the planned peaks was much diminished. I had hoped that we'd have gotten here two hours earlier, but half of that time was used in Vishal getting to the top of Cathedral, and the other half was my delay in tagging Eichorn and then descending Cathedral's South Face. Oh well. Vishal was quite excited about more class 4 climbing as was I, and I decided we'd just do what we could and head back - I could always come back some other time to try the longer Cathedral Range Traverse. We started by tagging #5, an easy five minute class 3 climb. Though not the highest, #5 is situated in the middle of the peak cluster, and affords the best views of the rest of the peaks arrayed on either side. Echo Ridge and #7-9 lie to the east, #1-4 to the west. We climbed back down the north side of #5 and hiked down to #6. Though short and only about 70 feet high, this is one of the tougher ones. Secor says to "climb the vague northeast ridge; class 3." Ha! More like class 4, and some scary exposure as well. We went fairly slowly on this, myself first followed by Vishal. As usual he had lots of questions, but this time with good reason - I helped guide his foot and hand placements for much of the route as we wound our way up the north side of the pinnacle. Once on top we smiled for the first time in 20 minutes, congratulated ourselves and took in the views while we caught our breath. This is probably the best vantage point for viewing the Southwest Face of #9, which is a steep, sometimes loose, 5.7 climb - the easiest route on #9. Without a rope we had no plans to climb #9 today. I had climbed it previously with Monty, but I must say if I'd seen this view beforehand I might have had more serious reservations - an imposing sight indeed!
Slowly we made our way back down, without incident, confidence building. We continued down the slope to tackle the toughest section of the day - the east face of #4. Previously I'd only descended this route, and at night to boot, so nothing was familiar. I mistakenly thought the easiest way should be up the center of the wide chute formed between #4 and #3. I climbed up an inside corner for about 20 feet with much stemming and grunting, and certainly class 5 difficultly. Looking down on Vishal, I suggested he find an alternate way up to his left (south). Vishal moved about 20 feet to the left and started up, but hesitating. He wanted to know if he should climb this groove or another one. From where I was it wasn't possible to tell the difference and I recommended he use his own judgement. This he did, though he'd keep asking for advice even though his own choices were just fine. It was around this time I realized that Vishal really didn't need as much help as he made it seem. If I just kept quiet or pretended not to hear a specific question, he'd do just fine. I moved over to the left as well, and the climbing was easier, but sustained class 4. As we approached the saddle between #4 and #3, I took a good look at the broad south ridge of #3. It looked horribly steep, a compact series of vertical grooves running the length of the ridge for several hundred feet. Monty and I had downclimbed the ridge with packs and hiking boots previously, so I knew we could climb it, but it still was imposing. We continued up what was now the northeast face of #4 where it grew steepest. It was 1:15p when we reached the summit, a fine place for another break. We signed our names into the register, took some photos (west, northeast, east), had a snack, then retraced our steps back to the saddle.
Now the long climb up to the highest, Echo Peak #3. I steadily motored my way up the ridge, using hands to steady and pull myself up with, feet jammed into the particular groove I was climbing. I switched grooves when the climbing felt more than class 3, stepping over the 2-foot partitions between one groove and another. I reached the summit at 2p, and turned to take pictures of Vishal making his way up, about ten minutes behind me. Once atop #3 we knew the hardest climbing was behind us, and the rest would be fairly easy by comparison. We signed into the register on #3 (besides #4, #9 is the only other peak with a register) and took some more pictures of the sweeping views around us (north, northeast, southeast, west). We headed down the north ridge of #3 heading for #2. A short distance below the summit another unnamed pinnacle caught my attention to the east. Really more of a short ridge extension off of #3, it looked like a fun little class 3 scramble out to tag it. We christened it #2 1/2, and both of us went out to stand atop it. It turned out to be as fun as it looked, and only a few minutes worth of detouring. We continued down to the #2-3 saddle, then up to the summit of #2. Continuing north we downclimbed a knife-edged ridge and then up to the summit of #1. This summit has the best view of Cathedral Peak to the north. Back down the east side, we were once again on the sandy ridge running up towards Echo Ridge. Another unnamed pinnacle directly between #1 and #5 caught my attention. Only 30 feet high, this one looked to offer some more fun climbing. We dubbed this pinnacle #0, and found it to be class 4 on the north side (the other sides looked much harder). Some vertical climbing and an airy jump across a gap added to the excitement, but by now this was getting to be second nature to us. If Vishal had any intimidation when we'd started, he'd lost it by now. In several places I found Vishal descending facing out from the mountain where I'd been too cautious and downclimbed facing in.
After getting back off #0, we headed east around the north side of #5. I ran up and tagged #7 (about two minutes is all it takes) which Vishal had done earlier in the day while waiting for me. Then we both went over and climbed the last of the day, #8. The summit of this peak offers the closest view of #9, separated by a narrow, but vertical gap. We were close enough that we could easily make out the summit register lying on the very top of #9. I took another set of photos before we headed back down. It was now 3:45p and as expected we decided to call it a day. I'm sure we could have gone on to tag the other three we'd planned (Echo Ridge, Cockscomb, Unicorn) before dark, but we'd have been too tuckered for the following day. We took a wide, sandy chute down the north face of the ridge, heading for Bud Creek below. Some fun descent down the sandy slope, some sloping granite slabs, a little bushwhacking, and a nice walk through some meadows brought us to the use trail to that leads up to Bud Lake. We continued down the trail and reconnected with the trail we'd taken up in the morning, marching out to the trailhead at 5p.
Upon returning to my car I found a note from Thad that he'd left on my car at 6:40a. He'd missed us by 20 minutes, and suggested he'd meet up with us for Mt. Russell on the following weekend. There was no indication that he'd headed out to Cathedral Peak to try to meet up with us. I got my cooler out of the bear box and we enjoyed a cold drink from it before heading out. Vishal took off to cook his own dinner at a scenic overlook somewhere while I drove to the Mobil Station for some fish tacos. Yum. Afterwards I drove to the Rodeway Inn at Mammoth Lakes where I'd planned to meet up with Joe. To my surprise he hadn't checked in. Could he have gotten the wrong motel? No, we were pretty clear on that. I asked the clerk to check again which she kindly did, going through her cards of recent check-ins. No Joe. I got a room myself, and unpacked my stuff and took a shower. An hour later Vishal arrived, and by 9:30p we went to bed. Vishal was staying free in the room that Joe and I planned to split, but since Joe hadn't showed up I suggested Vishal should take the bed. Long after I'd gone to sleep, having drifted off still wondering what might have happened to Joe (accident? went home? lost?), in walks Joe through the door I'd left opened. He'd apparently run into a mess of five other parties on the SE Buttress of Cathedral, and hadn't gotten back to the trailhead until nearly 8p. That was nearly 12hrs on a five pitch route. Unbelievable! As Joe went back out to get his stuff, Vishal vacated the bed he'd now warmed up and rolled out his sleeping bag on the floor. Joe came back, took a shower, and went to bed - he'd enjoyed the climbing on the route, but had been highly frustrated by the delays. Oh well - no more ropes the rest of the Challenge, there would be little chance of such delays the rest of the week. (Justin, who'd been climbing with Joe on the SE Buttress, drove back to the Bay Area.)
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cathedral Peak - Eichorn Pinnacle - Echo Peak No. 3
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