Church Tower YVF
Higher Cathedral Spire 2x P300 YVF

Mon, Oct 30, 2017

With: Robert Wu

Higher Cathedral Spire
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile
Higher Cathedral Spire previously attempted Fri, Mar 7, 2003
later climbed Wed, Oct 14, 2020


When I heard that Robert was going to be in Yosemite Valley for a month, I sent him a note asking if he'd be willing to spend a few days with me to climb some objectives that have been high on my list for years, but were clearly beyond my abilities. Higher and Lower Cathedral Spires were first climbed by Jules Eichorn and pals in 1934, at the time marking the most difficult ascent yet in the Sierra. Pitons imported from Europe had been employed for the first time in direct aid, marking the beginning of more serious rock climbing efforts in Yosemite. The more difficult of the two, Higher Cathedral Spire is rated 5.9 by its easiest route. I had never even been on a route above 5.8, so I was more than a little nervous I might not be able to climb it, even with a toprope. Robert suggested we could do both spires plus Church Tower in a day which I gave tacit approval to, knowing it was far more than a stretch goal. I'm sure it could be done, but not with me as a partner.

Higher Cathedral Spire, Regular Route, 5.9

I met Robert in the early morning while it was still dark at one of the turnouts where El Cap Drive meets Southside Drive on the west side of the Valley. Having done the route a few weeks earlier, Robert led us across the road by headlamp and then up the climbers' trail that winds its way up the drainage on the northwest side of the buttress on which the three objectives lie, taking a bit more than an hour to reach the base of the climb. There was some confusion on my part as I insisted this wasn't the spot I had climbed years before when I had scrambled the first pitch. "Where's the white cross?" I implored, knowing it to mark the start of the Regular Route. Robert had no idea what I was talking about but had no doubt as to where the start was. Eventually I spotted the cross just behind where we were flaking rope and gearing up, settling the issue in my mind. Our early start was designed to ensure that we were first on the route ("I can't find anybody willing to start in the dark in the Valley," Robert had commented). We were hours ahead of the only other party we'd see up here all day.

Robert was ready to head up P1 just after 8a. In 20min we were both up to First Base having easily dispensed with the 5.5 pitch. From here things would get serious in a hurry. Robert chose to lead up the 5.9+ finger crack variation directly up from First Base, putting on a fine display of rockcraft as he cooly worked his way up some 30-40ft of difficult climbing, placing a string of gear to protect it along the way. There was some pause as he worked out the traverse at the top of this pitch and an awkward pull up onto the second belay spot. Eventually he set up an anchor, pulled up the rope and got me on belay before it was time for the rubber to meet the road. I had been imagining this moment for more than a week, wondering how I'd fare on a 5.9 route. To continue the analogy, I was barely out of first gear when I hit the barrier on the first turn and wrecked my car before completing the first lap. I managed to retrieve the first piece of gear Robert had placed before finding myself unable to get over a bulging rock leading to the start of the vertical finger crack. I tried pulling up on the rope, grabbing the second gear piece and several other unsportsmanlike efforts, all to no avail. I even clipped an ascender on the rope to aid in pulling myself up but found I had almost no upper body strength to make any real progress. It was all very disheartening and I called up to Robert that "I suck! I'm really sorry, but I can't do it!" and such self-deprecation as I thought might accurately convey my frustration. Robert was having none of this, declaring he had all day and for me to just take my time and concentrate. Concentration wasn't my problem however, and after a few more weak attempts, I again declared I was done. "But I can't clean the gear on rappel!" he shouted down. I inspected his line of 9-10 cams and nuts, complete with runners and biners, summing it all up to some large dollar figure before shouted back up, "I'll pay you for it!"

Eventually Robert rappeled (and managed to clean all the gear) back down to First Base and we completed the retreat with a second rappel back to the start. Robert probably though me overly apologetic regarding my flame-out, but I couldn't help feeling bad about dragging him all the way up here for such a poor performance. As it was barely 10a, we figured we weren't yet finished and thought we might have better luck on the easier objectives. We were scrambling back down through the boulders in the gully northwest of the buttress when we realized the regular routes for both Church Tower and Lower Cathedral Spire start on the southeast side of the buttress. Hmmm, maybe we would have to settle for just one of them - if that.

Church Tower, East Arete, 5.5

We followed thin trails and leafy cross-country around the toe of the buttress before starting back up through the southeastside gully, another bouldery talus affair. Neither of us had climbed Church Tower or explored the terrain around it, so we had some work to figure out where to find the start of the East Arete. We wandered up some loose class 2-3 terrain to the base of what we guessed was the East Arete (aka, the Regular Route), only to find no sign of the oak with five trunks which marks the starting point. Back down we went, then up the gully some more until we could clearly see the notch between Church Tower and Lower Cathedral Spire. Here we looked right (east) for the expected oak, finding one that seemed to fit the description but not the picture Robert had gotten off Mountain Project. The correct tree was located a short distance downslope against the face of the buttress, matching the photo nicely. So far, so good. It was now noon, having taken us two hours since finishing the rappels on Higher Cathedral Spire. Robert said we should be able to whip out the 5.5, 4-pitch climb in an hour and then get on with the lower spire. I held out considerably less hope but figured if we got to the top of this one I'd call it a success.

Compared to HCS, the climbing on Church Tower was far better suited to my skill level. The fact that it saw much less traffic with a fraction of the available beta was more to my liking as well. Robert led all the pitches with ease, so much so that I thought he might be bored before we were done, but he seemed to think it was better than he expected and a good deal more involved. The first pitch went up a wide, low-angle crack with a couple of chockstones to get over, then through some trees on a wide ledge to a belay spot, using less than half of our 70m rope. P2 starts up a broken chimney angling to the left, the most interesting climbing of the route. The views begin to open nicely at the top of this pitch at a wide belay ledge overlooking the Valley to the east and north. P3 starts up a short face before following the broken ridgeline of the East Arete towards the summit tower. It was 2p by the time I'd joined Robert at the top of P3 where I think he was realizing we weren't going to get to LCS today. I had been climbing the route and cleaning gear as fast as I could safely do, pretty speedy with the low level of difficulty, so I don't think I was causing any undue delay. Really, it was just more involved than Robert had expected. It would be another two hours before we were down to the base of the route again.

The top of P3 was another wide slab of rock with enticing views. There were no more trees above P3, leaving us with just rock and a few minor shrubs for the remainder of the route. P4 goes halfway up the summit pinnacle, now fully in view, before a traverse on a ledge to the right. Robert disappeared around to the northeast side of the pinnacle before finding the belay spot just below the summit. The last pitch is very short, going down a small step to the right before easier climbing is found leading to the top. It was nearly 3p by the time we topped out, the summit having just enough room for two to sit, somewhat precariously. We spent about five minutes at the top, snapping pictures in all directions. Overcast skies washed out the photos some, but the cooler temperatures had been a welcome relief from the warmer temps earlier in the day.

A series of 3-4 slings around the summit served as the rap anchor. We used these to attach our rope and rap down to the notch between our summit and LCS. Slings around an oak branch just below the notch marked the second rap station where we dropped into the southeastside gully where we'd started. A third and last rappel got us to the talus in the gully with a short walk back to pick up our boots and other gear we'd left there in the beginning. It would take another 45min further to descend back down the ducked talus gully, past the Cathedral Boulders area and to our cars where we arrived around 4:45p. Despite the dismal retreat off HCS, I was elated with how the day turned out and thanked Robert for his fine guiding skills and immeasureable patience. We showered at Half Dome Village (seems there's no attendant there anymore) before dining later that evening at the Mountain Room. I half expected to find Chongo there as I had a few weeks earlier, but he was no where to be seen this time around. We ate way too much food and would go to bed bloated, but feeling much revived in the morning for that day's outing...


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