Higher Cathedral Rock P500 YVF / CS
Middle Cathedral Rock YVF / CS

Sun, Nov 3, 2002

With: Dave Daly
Michele Beatty

Higher Cathedral Rock
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
Higher Cathedral Rock later climbed Sat, Apr 16, 2005
Middle Cathedral Rock later climbed Sat, Apr 16, 2005


A few words about Cathedral Rocks may be helpful for those unfamiliar with these formations. On the south side of Yosemite Valley, across from the far more famous El Capitan, rises three peaklets collectively known as Cathedral Rocks (not to be confused with Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows). The names Higher, Middle, and Lower are attached to the three peaklets, the highest furthest south, the lowest closest to the road. Just east of Higher Cathedral Rock lie the two Cathedral Spires, impressive free-standing pinnacles that were first climbed in the 1930's, and at the time the most difficult rock climbs in North America. Much time was spent climbing Cathedral Rocks and Spires prior to the Big Wall era in the 1960's, and though there are some excellent routes on the steep North Faces that are still climbed regularly, there are much fewer ascents of the summits themselves, and other less-demanding routes that involve bushwhacking and long approaches have fallen from favor in the last several decades. This TopoZone map may be useful.

This trip got its start a few months earlier when I was climbing solo up El Cap Gully on the north side of Yosemite Valley, just west of El Capitan's massive Southwest Face. As I was climbing the gully I'd look back now and then while taking a break and admire the view on the south side of the valley, across towards Cathedral Rocks. Between Lower and Middle Cathedral Rocks was an interesting gully that looked like it might be an interesting class 3-4 climb. Later I found out it had a name, "Gunsight". A search on the web found many references including Hans Florine's time of 28m30s, asphalt to saddle. I figured it couldn't be that hard if Hans could do it in under half an hour. Guidebooks didn't have much to say about it other than it is used as a descent route for climbs of Middle and Lower Cathedral Rocks as well as the Leaning Tower on the west side of Bridalveil Creek. They mention several rappel points, but that doesn't tell me if it's class 4 or 5 terrain when climbing up. Inquiries on the web were answered with Steve Roper's out-of-print description:

climb 900' of talus to the 1st cliffs in the gully. Stay far left and climb class 3 - 4 for 175' until it is possible to scramble right. Climb a 75' chute on the far right side of the gully to a short talus field. the final problem is a large chockstone. The easiest way over this is on the left side where excellent but hidden holds are found. 150' of talus leads to the Gunsight. Bridalveil Creek is 15 minutes, the summit of Lower Cathedral Rock ( class 2 ) is 20 minutes. The descent follows the climbing route - two 75' rappels are usually made.

That was enough to get me interested. Originally my brother Tom and Michael were going to join me, but both dropped out in the week prior. No matter, I would go anyway. I sent an email to Dave (who had climbed with Michael and I back in September) and got a reply that he'd be interested in joining me, but only for Sunday. So I planned a few solo hikes for Friday and Saturday, leaving Gunsight for Sunday. Dave further suggested we might climb the 5.6 NW Buttress of Middle Cathedral whose start is at the top of Gunsight, but neither of us could find any route descriptions. He also suggested we might invite Michele from SummitPost whom neither of us had met, but seemed interested in hiking and climbing. I didn't really expect she'd join us on three days notice, but told him to give it a try. In my last email exchange with Dave we agreed to meet at the Curry Village pizza place at 5p on Saturday.

Returning from a fun hike to North Dome on Saturday, I returned to Curry Village in time to take a shower, and still had another hour to kill before meeting Dave. I spent most of that time in the Mountain Store, enthralled by the collection of Yosemite climbing books they had there. I looked through every one I could find for a description of a NW Buttress route on Middle Cathedral, but they were all solidly silent on this. Many other fine routes like the East Buttress, Central Pillar of Frenzy, and Stoner's Highway were described, but none on the Northwest side. I was beginning to think the route was a figment of Dave's fertile imagination. I had a grand time lounging in the store leafing through books, finally leaving with $134 in books to add to my ever-growing collection. I dumped the books (except for the two with descriptions for Cathedral Rocks) in my car and went to the pizza place, arriving right at 5p. Dave wasn't there when I got there, so I took up a small table and read my climbing books in more detail while I waited. 6p came and went and still no Dave. By now the pizza place was quite busy. The cafeteria was closed (for reasons mysterious to even the pizza employees) and this forced an unusually high demand for pizza, the line staying 15-20 persons deep fairly steadily. At 6:15p I decided I better get in line to get pizza, Dave be damned. As I stirred to get up, a woman caught my attention. Very attractive with long blonde hair, she'd been sitting not 5 feet from me for the last hour obviously waiting for someone as well. She asked, "By any chance or you Bob?" "Uh, yes," I replied, my first instinct telling me I'd just won the Super Lotto or similar equivalent. Even before she replied with "I'm Michele," I suddenly made the connection and knew who she was. We laughed about our close encounter without making a connection for the last hour. I hadn't really given a second thought that Dave would actually be successful in getting Michele to join us, and Dave had led Michele to believe I'd be wearing a hat, which I wasn't. After some more small talk, I got in line to get us some food while Michele went to find us a bigger table. Just as I finished paying for the food, Dave showed up, full of excuses (he'd lost the keys to his car and had a friend drive him to Fresno to get a new set), apologies, and of course his usual bag of humor. Truth was, I didn't care if Dave had showed up at all anymore, he'd already done pretty good by my reckoning. We had dinner and drank a few beers until 9p when the pizza place closed and we were forced out into the cold November air we'd been avoiding.

Outside, we took our three cars to Upper Pines campground where we found an empty spot (even though the sign out front said FULL) and set up camp. Dave had brought a tent for Michele to use, and Dave and I had it set up in short order. I used my bivy sack stretched out alongside my car, while Dave got out his bedroll to sleep under the stars. Michele felt bad to have a huge 3-person tent to herself, and offered to share it with us we'd like. "No way," I muttered, "my wife'd kill me!" Dave had no such concern (he paid for it later with the Angry Scowl he got when he retold the story to his wife), and happily took up residence inside the tent. I could hear the two of them laughing about Snicker's Bars between the knees and other such things as I slowly drifted off to sleep. A large party camped nearby did its best to ensure we didn't sleep too soundly, as they partied and kept up a small racket until nearly midnight.

It was still dark out when Dave got up and I could hear him banging around outside. It wasn't that loud in reality, but it seemed like he was setting up for a rock concert instead of just setting up his Coleman stove for some breakfast. He came over to wake me up at 5:45a, a full 15-minutes sooner than our agreed upon earliest rise time. Or at least that's what I thought we'd agreed to. Damn - someone who wakes up even earlier than me! I got up, packed up my stuff, went to the bathroom, and generally greeted the coming dawn in a rather slow fashion. Michele did likewise, and soon we were the only three persons stirring in the whole camp. I suggested to Dave that the other campers might not appreciate the noise we were making, to which Gunnery Seargent Dave replied, "These people could use some military training!" I didn't really mind that there was a little payback here for the extra noise we endured in the late evening hours. We breakfasted and packed up our cars, then drove out to Southside Drive near Gunsight.

We decided to take a regular climbing rope and a full rack, so that we could explore this fabled NW Buttress route. Dave showed me his Don Reid book that showed a little arrow going up where the route started along with the name and rating - but no other info. Dave carried the rope, I had most of the rack, and Michele got a smaller portion of the gear that just wouldn't fit into my small pack. It was 7:15a when we left our cars and headed through the oak forest heading for the Gunsight. The route is pretty straightforward even if there was no climbers' trail that we found. We simply followed up the dry, rocky creekbed that led up towards the Gunsight. Ten minutes after starting we stopped briefly to allow Michele to remove her red parka and fleece vest. Now she was dressed completely in black from head to toe (ok, with the exception of her shoes), and looked like Ninja Trail Girl, ready to strike fear into the hearts of unsuspecting bears and other forest creatures. The North Face of Middle Cathedral Rock loomed high above us, an impressively vertical wall of rock rising 1,500ft above the trees. It took only 20 minutes to wind our way to the start of the Gunsight where the walls of Middle and Lower Cathedral converge to form a steep canyon that rises about 400 feet to a saddle between the two formations. The climbing in this gorge was everything I'd hoped it would be. Easy class 2 at the bottom soon gives way to class 3 scrambling punctuated by some interesting class 4 sections. We started on the left side, climbing up until forced right where we climbed a series of fun, narrow chutes. Dave was leading the way out in front, Michele second, myself bringing up the rear. It was certainly much more fun following Michele than Dave by a long shot. The last obstacle was a chimney blocked with a large chockstone. On the right side was a knotted rope perhaps 20 feet long attached to two bolts above and draped down over the steep, smooth side. Dave had already climbed it and Michele was on her way up when I caught up with them. I walked up to the chockstone and tried for several minutes to climb the slightly overhanging left side, to no avail. Too hard for me without a rope. Seeing that I wanted to avoid the rope "cheat", Dave suggested I try the far left side. That turned out to be the route with "excellent but hidden holds" described by Roper, and the key to getting up the crux of the Gunsight. It was exposed a great deal, certainly no place for a fall, and both Dave and Michele offered encouragement as I scaled the 25-foot section, and rejoined them above. From there it was an easy scramble to the top, where we arrived at 8:15a, an hour after we'd set out. Han's 28 minute speed record no longer seemed very impressive, considering we'd simply walked the whole distance in just twice the time.

We took a few minutes to enjoy the views, particularly down into Bridalveil Canyon, and over to Leaning Tower. But we were only a third of the way to Middle Cathedral's summit, and now that we had a good view of the northwest side of the upper two thirds, it was a bit daunting. We tried to make out the two routes depicted in Dave's book, but weren't really sure what features matched the picture we had with us. Nothing looked obvious to us from below, so we took it on faith that as we got closer a way would present itself. We scrambled under the trees and through the manzanita, making our way over to the start of the granite wall. We decided to scramble up a short class 4 section with the aid of tree branches above for handholds, to allow us to climb another 50 feet higher on the face before starting with our rope.

Here our adventure switched to a slower but more technical phase, and we got out our gear and prepared to climb the uncertain route that lay ahead. Michele and I were supremely confident in our technical leader Dave, so designated by default - neither Michele nor I cared to do any leading today. Michele had been technically climbing for only a month or so (though she'd followed up to 5.10, which is more than I could claim), and I've found that I don't really need to do any leading to have a fun time. Snake Dike was a good example where I followed third and had a most delightful time. Aside from our 10.5mm, 60m rope, we had an amazing assortment of cams and other gear thanks to Dave's bountiful supplies. Harnesses on, I tied onto a purple sling I used as an anchor, and belayed Dave who headed up. From our perch on top of a couple large flakes, the first pitch went up and diagonally left over some easy face climbing with good finger holds and nice friction. Near the end of the rope, Dave could see a fine belay tree that had old rappel slings attached, and he kept trying to use up all the rope to get to it. But we needed to keep a few yards in reserve since Michele and I would be simul-climbing in turn on the same end of the rope, and we needed to maintain some amount of space between us. To get Dave a few more feet Michele untied and we fed the rope higher to Dave, but he could still not reach the tree. With Michele's tie-in knot just above me, she'd just be able to clip back in if she stood on her tip-toes at the start of the pitch. So we had to stop Dave, and he made a surprisingly nice anchor at his end, short of reaching the tree.

After all was ready on Dave's end and Michele and I had shouldered our packs, we set off, Michele about six feet in from of me tied on with a figure eight on a bight. Michele cleaned the gear while I managed the rope and space between us, and generally enjoyed the views. It was easy enough climbing and we were soon all together at the start of the second pitch, though we continued past Dave to the better anchor tree he'd been aiming for. Michele gave Dave back his gear, we switched the rope ends around between Dave and I, tied Michele in again not far from my end, and then Dave headed up again. This pitch started out up an easy enough crack about 15 feet high, then grew tougher. Michele and I were first made aware of the difficulties when we heard some uncharacteristic grunts from Dave. We also grew concerned because we were finding that Dave didn't always take what seemed like the easiest line, but would deviate for something he found more challenging. Looking above, we were hoping he would veer right towards a lower angled crack in a left-facing corner, but instead he veered left where we had seen nothing but very steep climbing from the start of the first pitch (a bulge above kept the left side currently out of view). We laughed about our being chicken, and whispered incantations that we hoped would float above and influence Dave to turn right. Michele pulled a Starbucks bag out of her pack and began to munch happily on one of the scones she had brought with her. I found this incredibly funny and took a picture to mark the convergence of Starbucks and Cathedral Rocks. Later she decided she didn't like this photo at all and asked that it be removed (so don't look for it in the photo section). At one point Dave told us to be careful and watch the rope as it was a tough spot. More grunting was heard. I stared at the rope, but it didn't move at all for several minutes. Not a good sign, I thought. A few more grunts and the rope started to move again, and Dave finally got over the difficulty and reached a new belay spot. Even better, our incantations worked and Dave did indeed move right towards the corner. When it was our turn to get over the difficulties on this second pitch, Michele and I agreed it was the crux (so far, anyway), and were ever-so-happy to have leader Dave along to drag us up.

At the start of pitch #3, Dave suggested I take the lead. I was hoping he was joking (he wasn't), but he said he needed a break. I think he was just jealous that Michele and I were having a social time while he was doing all the hard work. I tried to point out that I didn't have loops on my harness to hold gear as the other two did, but that just got someone to hand be a shoulder sling. So I hooked in all the gear, or most of it - frankly there were more cams with us than I've seen in my life, and probably about four times more than needed - but who's going to turn down the extra mental security they provide? I didn't really know where I was going after the first 15 feet up which was the only part of the next pitch that was obvious. But up I went anyway. I found a nice crack to stick a piece of pro in, then pondered my options. It was about 15 feet to traverse over to the crack in the left-facing corner. The crack was filled with dirt, grass, and a few tiny bushes, and didn't seem like it was going to take any protection. Just getting to it across the traverse seemed likely to subject me to an annoying, though not threatening pendulum when I fell as I expected to. Looking up the face was even smoother with absolutely nowhere to put in protection for at least 30 feet. Dreading the long runnout over 5.7+ friction, I opted for the traverse over to the crack. This turned out to be fairly easy with some finger-wide ledges that held my feet nicely. Thank God I had brought climbing shoes! Now for the hard part. I climbed up the crack for about 10 feet, or more like alongside it since I couldn't actually get any body parts into the crack to call this crack climbing. Instead I half stood up and pressed my feet to the left while I leaned against the more vertical part of the corner to my right. Five feet further I reached one of the small bushes and found an opening in the crack to place a cam. I was in a more serious position here, knowing a fall would be hurtful, and rushed to get the piece in, attach a quickdraw, and clip the rope in. Whew. Stepping a foot higher, I heard what I guessed was pebble-fall, rolling down the face behind me. I didn't think I had dislodged anything, but wasn't about to stop to ponder it. Dave called out something behind me which I ignored due to my intense focus on getting myself up the rest of this steep section. Another eight feet higher I turned around to notice my quickdraw had slid all the way down to the traverse, and my only protection for 25 feet was sitting snuggly in the rock without a worry of its own. I looked at Dave who calmly told me "Don't worry about it, just keep going," as his way of saying I'd just screwed the pooch. I was actually on more secure footing now, and so not truly worried about it, but it was a pretty dumb move. I climbed straight up now as the hold grew more secure, tying a sling around the base of a small shrub for another piece of pro. I finished up at the base of a tree (with more rappel slings) where I set up a belay in a nice protected pocket with about 20 feet of rope left. While belaying the others up, I pondered the slings around the nearby tree. They were all very old, bleached white, and tattered. Later I tried to remove these and other slings (to recover the rappel rings), but was unsuccessful - the trees had grown tight inside all the slings, and without a knife it was impossible to remove them. Considering the tree growth, it was probable that the newer slings were more than 6-8 years old - not a recently used route, it would seem.

After the others joined me at the top of pitch #3, we had a short 60-foot scramble through brush and easy terrain until we were stopped by another formidible wall that would require our rope again. We took a long break here for lunch and to rest, though mostly for lunch - we'd had plenty of rest already, spending more than three hours on the first three pitches. After our break, Dave started up again, straight towards another left-facing corner. This time he opted to climb right, onto steep faces, but nowhere to put protection. This turned into a bit of yo-yo climb for Dave, who would climb up five feet, get sketched, and climb back down to rest. He repeated this a number of times, with the goal to figure out how to get himself left, and over the lip of the left-facing corner. Without protection he couldn't muscle the nerve to make the final couple feet, and Michele and I started to grow a bit tense watching the drama from below. After about 45 minutes of trying to make it go, Dave finally came back down to the belay, removing his two pieces of pro that he'd placed. I offered to take the lead, and give it go, thinking I could skirt his sticking point more to the left by climbing up the left-facing corner directly (it helps to have had so much time resting from below to study the route more objectively, than trying to force something to go with one's muscles tied in knots). With Dave belaying, I went back up and put in the two pieces of pro just as Dave had earlier. Then I stood up and studied the rock more closely, and I could see why Dave had chosen to go up and right here - it just felt better. But aware of the trap he'd gotten into, I continued up the corner, doing something like a half-lieback, leaning out on the vertical wall of the corner, much as I'd done on the third pitch. This proved to be the key, and in a short time I was up to the point in the corner that Dave had tried to get into. I placed another cam here and then set off diagonally left, face-climbing with small cups for foot placements and some tiny ledges to get my fingertips on. It occurred to me while I was halfway across that this was probably the hardest lead I'd done, but I felt pretty good - there was something about being in a remote and scenic setting that made it feel pretty damn good in fact. I climbed a very wide crack up for 20 feet, mostly with stemming moves rather than in the crack, placed another piece, and walked over to the nicest ledge we'd found all day, that had "belay seat" written all over it. I used a large block behind me (that wasn't rock-solid) with a sling around it for an anchor, backed up with two opposing nuts inserted in some cracks. From my seat I could see the whole of pitch #4 below me, and as before, Michele and Dave came up together.

The fifth and last pitch was the easiest, or should have been except that Dave was leading again and NOT choosing the easiest route. Michele and I were convinced that he was going to stretch this route out just as long as he possibly could. This last shortened pitch was all 5.easy friction climbing and we were all soon enough convened above, close to the vertical North Face, triumphant in our little rope work. It had been a very fine climb indeed, one of the best I've enjoyed, though to be honest I haven't done more than half a dozen multipitch climbs. The combination of remote location, great views, uncertain route, and a social atmosphere, had made this a highly enoyable effort - I was particularly glad Dave had pushed for it, because I would have taken the bushwhack-scramble route on the west face had it been up to me. The only trouble was that the climb had taken us six hours to do five pitches, and it was now 2:30p. We knew we only had two and half hours of daylight left, and we still had a long way to go - up to the top of Middle Cathedral, down and then up to Higher Cathedral, then down the south side where our guide books told us we could pick up a climbers' trail. Reaching the saddle of Gunsight had gotten us a third of the way up, the rope had gotten us another third, and we still had a third of the height to scramble before topping out on Middle Cathedral. We repacked all our gear, and got on our way.

Now that our climbing leader had done his job (and a fine one at that), Dave was happy to relinquish the lead role and play the follower the rest of the way. I was back on my most comfortable terrain - class 3 scrambling, and was happy to lead the charge. On we went over large slabs, under trees, and through quite a bit of bush. At one point Dave collapsed to the ground, curled up in the fetal position, put his thumb in his mouth, and began to whimper. I think it was his subtle way of telling us to slow down. It did get us to stop and laugh for a minute or so, but then we were off through the brush again. For just under half an hour we carried on until we reached the summit. Controlled burns muted some of the views, but they were still impressive - El Capitan to the north, Half Dome and Sentinel Rock to the east, Higher Cathedral Rock to the south, and Leaning Tower (whose summit was well below us now) & Bridalveil Creek to the west. I looked around for a summit register, not really expecting to find one, and was not surprised. What was odd was that we found the stumps of some good-sized trees that had been sawed off many years earlier. There was only a single tree of the same size remaining uncut. Some of the logs from the cut trees still remained on the summit, slowly rotting with time. Who would carry a saw up here and then cut these tree down, we could not imagine, but it seemed quite a shame. We took a summit photo (the only one of the day with me in it), had another brief snack, and headed down to the notch between Middle and Higher Cathedral Rocks.

Much of the south side of Middle Cathedral is easy class 2 scrambling (I took a small sidetrip to get a picture of Lower Cathedral Spire which was about to disappear behind Higher Cathedral Rock), but near the notch we ran into some short cliffs that caused a few minutes delay as we backtracked and found another way down further west. Looking over to Higher Cathedral, it wasn't obvious that a scramble route existed to the top. In fact it looked like we'd be running into more walls and it had us a bit nervous. We considered briefly going down east from the notch into Cathedral Chimney, but that has a few rappels along the way that would likely slow us down, so we opted for the original plan. Later I found that there has been recent rockfall in the chimney and it is considered unstable and unsafe until the winter snows and time would have a chance to let it settle. At the notch we found our way partially blocked by a huge ponderosa that had fallen and splintered along the ridge. It was burned badly, the only tree so damaged, the likely result of a lightning strike. The needles of the branches were brown but still attached, and it seemed the tree had been blasted sometime in the last year. All that remained standing was about 15 feet of the base.

Heading over towards Higher Cathedral, we did indeed find a scramble route up the northwest side. Portions of it were incredibly steep, and much of the steepest section was covered in shrubs. We couldn't even see the rock below the steeply sloping branches that covered the ground, and there was little we could do but use the branches in both hands to pull ourselves up. We laughed about this a good deal, as we had never encountered bushwhacking as steep as this. A fourth class bushwhack if there ever was, it would have been 5th class if the holds weren't so good. It was about 3:45p when we summited Higher Cathedral, and made a quick survey of the views (a great place to look down on Cathedral Spires to the east) before heading down, the sun now just above the horizon.

The south side of Higher Cathedral had many ducks marking a well-used trail that took us down to the next notch to the south, the top of Spire Gully. The gully is so named for the fantastic views of Higher Cathedral Spire, the tallest free-standing pinnacle in North America (at least according to our guide book). A dirt trail leads down from the saddle, but quickly dives into a 15-foot chimney which proved to be our last serious obstacle of the day. Below this the trail winds its way for a few more minutes before running smack into a boulder field. Fully half the trail down is nothing more than a massive boulder field, now tiring to negotiate in the fading light. Many ducks have been set up at 10 yard intervals, but for the most part they are useless. Not until we are near the base of Cathedral Spire does the boulder field end and a decent trail once again present itself. This we drove down without stopping, trying to make it back to the road before needing headlamps. I had gotten ahead of the other two by a hundred yards or so, but shortly before the road they came jogging down the trail to catch up. Michele was out in front and continued jogging past me (evidently had more reserve energy than we expected - next time she carries the rack), but Dave stopped and walked out with me. We reached our cars at 5:15p, 10hrs after leaving, and right at the last light. We shared a few drinks out of my cooler before heading off our separate ways, but all agreed it was a rather fun techo-scramble-bushwhack adventure climb. The weather had been quite fine for November, and as it turned out the last fall weekend in Yosemite before the first winter storms hit. Perhaps our next outing will be on snowshoes, but when and where is still to be determined...

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For more information see these SummitPost pages: Higher Cathedral Rock

This page last updated: Tue Apr 23 12:42:52 2019
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