Sat, Sep 21, 2002
Rising at 5a from a campsite east of Tioga Pass, Michael and I breakfasted and drove to the Cathedral Lakes TH in order to meet Dave for a 6a start. Dave arrived a bit late, and by the time we got started it was 6:45a. Ten minutes into the hike, while we were introducing ourselves and becoming acquainted while hiking up Bud Creek, I noticed that I'd forgotten my camera. Drats. Dave took my pack so that he and Michael could continue on while I ran back to retrieve the camera - can't let a fine climbing outing go unrecorded, afterall. It was five minutes back and then a bit more to catch back up to them, but it was a nice run without any gear to carry. I was almost wishing I had waited another ten or fifteen minutes so that I might have gotten Dave to carry my pack all the way to the base of the climb while I enjoyed an unburdened run along the trail. :)
Dave turned out to be a rather funny guy (in a good way), not an old stodgy marine one might expect, nor the crass wise-guy he sometimes feigns online. Michael is also a rather comical character of course, and so from the beginning we got along great and started slinging the sarcasm and other witticisms in the first five minutes. Dave turns out to be a really kind-hearted guy as well, which one would never have suspected from his online persona.
We reached the start of Cathedral's SE Buttress at 8a and changed into our rock shoes. I carried an 8mm 37m rope in my pack in case we ran into trouble somewhere and needed some help. We all put on our harnesses to make any mid-route switch from free-solo to roped climbing and easier affair. We went up with me in the lead, Michael in the middle, and Dave (as the strongest of us three) in the rear, where he could maybe be in a better position to catch us should Michael or I slip. Even better, he was expertly positioned to help coach from below, and at this he proved masterful. Free-soloing is a bit nervy, especially the first time, and the SE Buttress is a fairly long route to do this for the first time. Having already climbed it this way twice earlier in the summer, I was fairly comfortable and familiar with the route - though I still found it a hair-raising bit of excitement. Michael is much more conservative (or safer, really) than I, and from the beginning he was questioning the sanity of such an endeavor. So as we started up the fine finger and hand crack on the first pitch, David was very cooly keeping Michael calm by offering expert advice and soothing encouragement.
Michael was keeping his cool outside while inside his brain wrestled with the images of how this game dances with death in a very serious way. As I reached the end of the second pitch, I waited for the others and asked Michael how he was enjoying it when he came up to join me at the belay station. "Great. Just keep going," was he brief reply, and it was clear that his head inside wasn't nearly as calm as his smooth climbing would have one believe. When we reached the belay station below the chimney, Dave and Michael went right to do the short friction section below the chimney that always unnerves me, while I went left up what seems like an easier body crack to me. We met again at the base of the chimney and in turned squeezed our way up. A few more easy pitches and we arrived at the summit. While I reached out to shake Michael's hand in congratulation as he made the final move onto the summit, he professed, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life!" There was actually an expletive or two thrown in there, highly unusual for Michael, but an honest emotion for how he felt about the whole affair. Dave was calmly bringing up the rear, and we sat around the summit for a short while basking in the fine weather and our small feat. It was 8:50a when we reached the summit, having taken 45 minutes to climb the route - no record by any stretch, but still fifteen minutes faster than my previous time (no route-finding errors this time!)
We took a few photos of each other before beginning the descent, down the class 4 Mountaineers Route that brings one to the west side and the saddle with Eichorn Pinnacle, our next objective.
Our next objective was Eichorn Pinnacle, a fantastic-looking pinnacle not far west of Cathedral's summit. I was the only one of the three of us to have climbed it previously, so I led the way around to its north side and the start of the class 5.4 route there. It's a short one and half pitch climb, but has some certain-death exposure in the middle section that brings sweat to one's fingertips and forehead, dryness to the mouth. Several old pitons along the route add some historical context as well as a reminder of the seriousness of the climb. We gathered at the top of the first pitch as I showed Dave and Michael the short but unnerving chimney to reach the summit, what I considered the crux of the climb. One of them suggested it might be bypassed by climbing outside to the right (south). For some reason I had rejected that idea the first time I was here, but now that I looked at it and tried it, it turned out to be easier and not nearly as scary as the alternative. It's good to have other opinions in route-finding I was learning. The other two followed and we all met on the summit at 10a, an hour after leaving the summit of Cathedral Peak.
The summit register is a classic aluminum box placed by the Sierra Club many years ago, but inside we found no pen or pencil with which to add our names. It was the same as I had found it a month earlier, and I had neglected to remember to bring one this time around. Now Dave was feeling fairly stirred up after such a fine climb and was not to be easily deterred from making an entry. What else could we use? Like Peter Starr climbing Clyde Minaret in 1932, Dave hit upon blood as a fitting alternative to sign the register. But how to extract it? We didn't have a knife or any sharp objects, and neither Michael or I were willing to go to such lengths. But it seemed fitting that a marine ought to be able to gnaw his finger to draw blood, "That's all Semper Fi and shit," as Michael put it. Dave decided to pick at his cuticle instead of gnawing, which isn't exactly a worthy marine-style image, but it was effective. After peeling it back a bit, Dave would alternately squeeze a drop of blood out, write with it, and then quickly squeeze some more before it had a chance to coagulate. Writing with the side of one's finger doesn't lend itself to fine print or graceful writing, and it was necessary for Dave to consume two pages to add his name and date, and then another two more to add mine and Michael's names as well. Arrrr! (say it like a pirate), we were duly impressed with Dave's manliness and resourcefulness at this point.
For the descent Michael decided it would be more prudent to use the rope to belay him on the way down, the ascent having been a tad more racy than he would have liked, and not really looking forward to the free-solo descent. So I got out the rope, and belayed Michael down. When he was safely down, Dave started to head down while I tried to retrieve the rope. It got stuck in a crack and Dave worked some to try to free it where it was caught not far from the summit. While he was messing with the rope, I noticed he had left the summit register in disarray all over the summit, papers left out for the first breeze to sweep away. He had forgotten about it completely and I admonished him playfully for sloppy summit manners. He cleaned up his little mess and then posed marine-style with his blood-written summit entry. We then packed the register back its box, the rope back in my pack, and headed down to join Michael on the north side.
From here we climbed back to the saddle between Eichorn and Cathedral where we then downclimbed the 5.6 South Face. The rating seems a bit high as the route doesn't have too much exposure, but it's still a fairly technical two pitch climb. Down at the bottom we switched out of our climbing shoes and back into our hiking ones, and headed down the sandy slopes that make up the bottom half of the South Face.
We left Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle, heading down and then up towards the north side of Echo Peaks. Walking in a narrow channel on our way to Echo Peaks, we found some water trickling down the middle which we took advantage of to refill our bottles. We admired the 20-foot granite walls that lined one side of this channel, pointing out a number of fine climbing problems to be found here. Dave was smitten and couldn't resist one of these, and promptly gave Michael and I a mini crack-climbing lesson. While admiring his finesse, Michael and I chose to find an easier way around the wall, a bit further up the channel. We took the sandy use trail that leads up to Echo Peak #8 where we then headed left for the easy class 2 walk up and over Echo Ridge on our way to Cockscomb.
Echo Ridge is the highest point in the Bud Creek Drainage, higher than even Cathedral Peak. It affords great views of the more technical peaks that surround it, but because it is class 2 from the west it is generally disregarded and not often climbed. After reaching the highpoint and taking a few pictures of the surrounding views, we started along the ridge towards Cockscomb. I was the only one of the three of us to have climbed Echo Ridge before (and that was in the opposite direction), and I proved no help in finding us the easiest way down. I had mistakenly thought we could follow the ridge and find an easy class 3 descent. Not so it turns out. The only easy way off is to head down a small chute onto the South Face shortly after leaving the highpoint. Following along the ridge to the east leads to progressively more difficult rock. I started having my doubts when it turned to class 4 with some good exposure. The holds were decent, but the blocks got bigger and hairier. At about the same time, Michael and I decided to bail off the ridge. Michael was a bit behind me, and decided to bail left around the north side of the ridge. I was sitting up on a rocky perch and decided to head down the south side what looked like class 3-4 downclimbing. Dave, apparently not having enough adrenaline pumping through his own veins yet, decided to carry on along the ridge, back into the class 5 climbing.
For the next five minutes I concentrated on getting down the toughest 100 feet or so before I was on easier ground on the south side of Echo Ridge. Looking back up, I watched Dave make his way over and across the ridge, slow but steady progress. He was talking to Michael (whom I could not see, but guessed he couldn't be too far below the ridge if they could carry on a conversation). I was now too far below to talk with either of them, but it was interesting to watch Dave make the traverse look almost easy. He was very good at this, both Michael and I concluded. Dave came down to a notch along the ridge where Michael climbed back up to meet him. Then they both headed down the southeast side towards where I was, making my way towards Cockscomb. Looking back to the highpoint it was obvious now where the class 2-3 route up the ridge was, undoubtedly the way that Monty and I had taken some three years earlier. Oh well, live and learn. Today's lesson was that Echo Ridge was not to be taken lightly!
Our next stop was Cockscomb, located at the southeast corner of the Bud Creek Drainage. Michael, Dave, and I wandered up the sandy slopes covered in low, scrubby pines towards the West Face. I could hear voices in front of us, and soon spotted another party about halfway up a line on the left side of the face, in what appeared to be the same line I had taken previously with Monty. This time we were heading up free-solo, so we aimed for the easier class 4 route in the middle of the face, south of the summit.
Starting up first, I found the granite rough with quartzite, good for friction holds, but not much else. The climbing seemed more like class 5, but then I guess that's what old school class 4 ratings are all about - a grab bag of modern class 4 to 5.5. We changed into rock shoes as a safer bet on this route, and then made our way up to the ridge, north along it, down a short chimney, over a sloping face section, and then up to the summit blocks. It was 2p when we reached the summit, having taken us only about 15 minutes for the technical section, but four hours since we'd been on the summit of Eichorn Pinnacle - Echo Ridge took a good deal longer than we had expected.
By now Michael was convinced that free-soloing was indeed for the insane, and decided to call it quits for the day (and later declared his free-soloing career officially over). I had expected Cockcomb to be an easy climb after Eichorn, but it turned out to not be so, and about just as difficult. Michael decided to forgo the last peak on the agenda, Unicorn. Having carried a rope for such purposes, Michael took advantage of it to get himself a belay as he downclimbed back to the base of the West Face, leaving Dave and I on the summit. As I let out the last of the 37m rope, Michael made the bottom with about ten feet to spare. I then pulled the rope back up and shouted a goodbye to Michael.
The whole time we were on the summit we could hear voices from the other party around on the northwest side and out of view. The leader on the rope now traversed around to the base of the summit blocks on the south side (the same direction Michael had just decended), and began to set up a belay to bring his other two companions to join him. It seemed a more difficult route than the direct route Monty and I had taken to the summit, but then that's one of the beauties of rock-climbing - there's always a new way to get to there. Dave and I then prepared to rappel off the north side onto the ledges found below. A single piton with an old sling was firmly pounded into a crack on the side of the east summit block, and we used that (with a backup sling as well) to rappel off. The piton seemed quite firm and in good shape, but I still had some small hesitations in trusting it without redundancy. I've always been wary of rappelling, as it seems to require just a bit more trust in the gear than I like. Fortunately Dave was less weary and agreed to rappel first. Being heavier than I, I figured if he gets down alive, I ought to be able to as well.
Dave started down, initially with his legs spread apart, balancing off the two summit blocks. he then headed almost straight down, trying to aim for a ledge a bit to the north on which to land. The swinging motion slammed him mildly into the rock face, scaring us both a bit, but eventually he gave up that attempt and headed further down to a ledge directly below. Once he was down and off, I attached the 8mm rope to my harness and headed down to join him. Our new perch was still high on the northeast face, and solo downclimbing didn't seem inviting enough yet, so we decided to do another rappel. I wrapped a sling around a convenient rock on one side of the ledge while Dave asked if I had tested to see if the rock was solid. I replied, "Oh, this baby isn't going anywhere," as I gave it a hard yank with my hands. To my surprise, the rock wasn't an outcropping of the wall as I had thought, and my shove had moved it a good inch off it's base. I then ammended my now-stupid previous comment with "until we actually try to rappel off of it." I was sure glad Dave was along to keep things honest (and me alive longer).
After finding a suitable alternative to wrap a sling, our second rappel went off without trouble. Seeing more slings below, we headed for one a bit to the north, a large blue one that was relatively new that we used for yet a third rappel. This brought us down to the easier class 2-3 sandy slopes and ledges, and we then packed our rope back up and changed out of our rock shoes. It had taken us almost an hour to rappel off as it was now 3p - how slow it seems after climbing up without the rope!
Dave and I left Cockscomb and headed northeast along an easy ridge towards Unicorn Peak. In between was a higher pile of rubble named Mt. Althuski in some circles (so far on Hans Florine's website) that has to be traversed first. Michael was probably back to Budd Lake and on his way out to the Cathedral Lakes TH by now. The unexpected bonus in his leaving the circuit early was that he'd be able to bring the car back to the Tuolumne store and save Dave and I an extra mile or so of hiking. Dave was slowing down now on the large talus, and I waited about five minutes at the top of Althuski for him. All the while I looked around the summit area (it really is just a big pile of rock) for the elusive register that was reported to be here. No such luck. It must have very few entries in it I imagined, first for it being a wholly unpopular and uninteresting peak, and second because only a fraction of those reaching the summit might be lucky enough to stumble across the register.
Next we headed down the north ridge, more talus/boulder hopping to reach the south side of Unicorn Peak. The peak is really three peaklets lined up north-south, the north summit being the highest. We bypassed the lower southern and middle summits on the east side as we traversed around to the south side of the north summit. I recalled clearly the large boulder along the ridge here that had stopped me on my first visit - Monty and I had then chosen a different line on the East Face. With a little more care in scoping out the route, I was able to find the class 4 route around this obstacle and onto the ridge from the south. It involved a short 5-foot downclimb and traverse around the boulder on the west side, with some good exposure but a great hand crack to shuffle along on. This brought us around and back onto the ridge, and an easy scramble to the summit from there, arriving at 3:45p. No register here either (in fact Eichorn was the only peak we visited today that had one), but nice views of Tuolumne Meadows to the north, Cathedral Peak to the west, and the Sierra Crest to the east. Dave and I congratulated each other then retraced our steps off the summit.
We cruised down the easy slopes on the East Face of Unicorn, heading to Elizabeth Lake. We reached the lake on the northwest shore, contoured around to the northeast side, and picked up the Elizabeth Lake Trail. It took us less than an hour to finish the last three miles on the trail back to the store at Tuolumne Meadows. It was 5:30p when we arrived with plenty of daylight left, and as expected Michael was there to greet us. We drove over Tioga Pass and down to the Mobil Station at US395, and introduced Dave to the wonderful food at the Whoa Nelly Deli. Yum! Then off we went to Mammoth Lakes and a room at the Rodeway Inn. Tomorrow would be the long day, an attempt to climb both Banner and Ritter in a single day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cathedral Peak - Eichorn Pinnacle - Echo Ridge - Cockscomb - Unicorn Peak
This page last updated: Wed May 16 16:57:57 2007
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