Wed, Oct 14, 2020
Higher Cathedral Spire in Yosemite Valley is the highest free-standing pinnacle in North America, rising more than 300ft on its uphill side and 1000ft on the downhill side. Tucked partially around the corner of the far more massive Middle Cathedral Rock, it does not stand out well from the bottom of the Valley, blocked from view by trees from most vantages, visible from a few locations along Northside Drive near the base of El Capitan. It was first climbed in 1934 by a trio of the Sierra Club's best climbers led by Jules Eichorn, using dozens of pitons, many for direct aid to surpass the hardest sections. Chuck Wilts and Spencer Austin did the first free ascent in 1944. I've been wanting to stand atop this iconic pinnacle for more than two decades. I first visited it in 2003 while scrambling solo around the area. I managed to climb the first pitch on its easier left side, but the route goes near vertical after that and it was no place to be without a rope, a partner and some skills. While Robert was staying in the Valley for several months in 2017, he invited me to join him for some roped climbs, one of which would include HCS. Robert had already been up the feature once, and kindly offered to lead all the pitches and help me in my quest to stand atop it. The hardest pitches go at 5.9, well above my ability to climb, so I came equipped with an ascender that I thought would suffice to allow me to aid the difficult sections. Just above the start of the second pitch, I quickly found how badly I was lacking in upperbody strength, unable to lift my body more than a few inches before exhausting myself. It was a dismal failure, and we retreated. It was clear that if I was to have any chance at HCS, I would need months of intensive rock-climbing training or a pair of prussiks. Naturally, I chose the latter, because in the end I didn't really care if I was able to climb it in "proper" style - I was a peakbagger and just wanted to stand on the summit.
Robert and I set out from Southside Drive shortly before 6a by headlamp. The goal was to get to the start of the climb early, but not too early - climbing by headlamp wasn't desirable. It was forecast to be warm in the Valley so it would be helpful to climb in the shade as much as possible. The route works nicely for this, starting on the southwest side, spiraling around the west and north sides, leaving one in the shade all morning. There is a use trail that leads to the start of the climb, though it is not obvious where to pick it up. Despite the fact that both of us had been up the main gully at least twice before, we didn't find the trail until 1/3 of the way up the 1,500ft of scrambling. The route is heavily forested, littered with leaf & needle debris, and acres of lichen-covered granite rocks and boulders. It would take us about an hour and a half to reach the start of the route.
The first pitch is rated 5.5 and fairly easy. It goes up a crack in a corner on the right side, past a boulder to a belay at a medium-sized tree called First Base. We dispatched with that one in 30min.
The real work begins at P2, where there are two options, both rated 5.9. The easier route goes to the left with a 5.9 bulge to overcome followed by 5.7 and 5.6 climbing. The alternate, original route goes straight up for 50ft, then left under a small roof, both routes ending at another tree belay. This vertical portion is beefy 5.9, the hardest pitch on the route. As on our first visit, Robert led this in fine style. Once he had set up his anchor and gotten me on belay, it was my turn. I climbed the initial 10-15ft, no harder than 5.6. This was as far as I had gotten on our first attempt. This time I had my gear ready and called up "Fix it!", our signal for Robert to switch from belay to fixed-rope mode. This would allow me to climb the rope with prussiks. I had two pieces of cord for this. One piece had loops to go around my feet, then to an ascender fixed to the rope. The other, a simple loop of rope, tied to my waist harness, then to a second ascender on the rope above the first one. Like an inchworm, it would allow me to alternately move up the rope, first bending my knees, sliding the ascender up, then standing up, followed by sliding the top ascender up and then weighting on it. Rinse and repeat. It was critical to have a good leader placing solid pro above me since some of these would be taking my full weight as I ascended. The key piece on P2 was the one Robert placed at the start of the traverse under a roof. For this he used a small nut in a thin crack. I ascended the rope, cleaning gear as I went, sometimes having to unweight the rope in order to remove pieces under tension. It is not an easy feat to switch between rope ascending and free climbing, so generally I would not switch between the two modes of travel once I had the prussiks installed. The traverse under the roof had me a little worried since once that nut was removed, I was likely to pendulum to the left. Luckily there were holds to grab onto with one hand while I removed the gear, and I could slowly walk myself left without really swinging. The only real trouble I encountered on P2 was my inability to remove the small nut - my weight had seated it quite firmly and with only one free hand I was unable to dislodge it. We would have to see if it could be retrieved on rappel later. We spent an hour on this second pitch.
Once I had joined Robert at a second belay tree called Second Base, my confidence in the route increased. The prussiking wasn't easy, but it wasn't really stressful, allowing me to enjoy the experience more than if I was desperately trying to make a 5.9 move. The third pitch begins with some 5.6 for about 20ft, becoming 5.8 as one traverses across a rotten orange chimney (of sorts, not really chimney-like in my view), then an airy 5.9 step around a buttress to a hidden chimney that goes at 5.7 to the third belay, a sloping ledge with another tree for an anchor. I climbed the initial 5.6 section before calling up to Robert to fix the line once again. After climbing the rope a short distance, I removed a piece and did a slow pendulum below the rotten chimney, landing me in the crown of a small pine tree, somewhat comically. I inched my way up and around the buttress to the second chimney, then up to join Robert. Another hour was taken up by this third pitch.
The fourth pitch has some 5.7 to start, growing steeper, then a longish 5.9 traverse to the left. This last part had me a little worried, but with some previous experience with shorter traverse sections, I was still feeling pretty good. After Robert climbed this again in fine style, I had him belay me up the initial 5.7 section before fixing the rope for a third time. The climb went smoothly until I got to the end of the traverse, just below Robert who was waiting at yet another tree. I could see the taut rope ahead of me going over the edge of the rock before connecting to the tree. As I got within a few feet of it, the rope slid a few inches to the left and I was appalled to see a faint bit of pink coloring left behind on the rock from where the rope had moved. This was not the rounded rock edge one hopes for, but a sharper version. Fully weighted on the rope, I was perhaps six feet from Robert and imagining the sharp edge cutting through the rope and hurling me 800ft to my demise. I froze momentarily, not wanting the rope to move any further along the edge. I slowly worked directly towards it, keeping the tension directly along the line of the rope. I had one last piece of gear to remove just above the edge and I found myself looping a finger through that piece's carabiner as a backup while I inspected the rope a little closer. I conveyed my concern to Robert, but he didn't seem to worried. Indeed, the rope looked fine upon a closer look and I could relax. That finger around the carabiner would have been useless had the rope actually severed, but somehow it made me feel better. I joined Robert and breathed a small sigh of relief. Moving more smoothly now, this pitch took us only 45min.
The last pitch is easier, mostly a low fifth traverse to the left under a roof, then a short 5.8 bulge move, then some 5.6 climbing to the spacious summit patio. To help me hear him better, Robert broke this into two short pitches, stopping for a belay just above the bulgy move. Robert belayed me along the traverse and up the bulge, then went around the corner to the east side for the final 5.6 climbing to the top (Supertopo has this last bit as 5.8, but that's only if you stay on the north side and go up a vertical crack - the east side has much better holds and easier climbing). It was an airy stance where I stood to belay Robert for this last half pitch. There is an incredible view looking down on Lower Cathedral Spire which really gives on a strong feel for the wild amount of exposure - terrifically exciting and a little scary, too. We finished up on the lower patio a little after 11:30a, having spent almost exactly four hours on the climb. A short bit of class 2-3 scrambling leads to the highpoint just west of the lower patio.
The upper patio is equally spacious, providing a bird's-eye view of much of Yosemite Valley - Cathedral Rocks to the west, El Cap and Three Brothers to the north, Sentinel Rock and Lost Brother to the east. We were elated with our success, taking selfies and a collection of photos of the surrounding views. We took a 20min break atop the summit, knowing we weren't really done until we had rappelled back down the route. I wasn't much worried about these - Lower Cathedral Spire had a much more technical descent with a hanging rappel, something the higher spire would not have. A set of stout steel rappel chains attached to two solid bolts facilitates the start of the descent. For each rappel, Robert would go down first, myself following. We'd then pull the rope down, thread it through each of a series of rap slings, and repeat. The first rappel drops down to the top of P3. A second party on the route that we had heard occasional below us was climbing P4 as we went down. Lucky timing had them off the belay station just before we reached it, allowing us to pass without getting in each other's way. Our 60m rope was just sufficient to make this rappel - not recommended to use a 50m rope on this route even though the climbing pitches themselves are fairly short. We then rappelled down the next three pitches to the preceding belay trees, Robert pausing on P2 to successfully retrieve the stuck nut. Because the rappels are near vertical, pulling the ropes were pretty easy and we had only minor issues that were easily remedied. We got back to the start of the climb by 1p, having spent a full hour on the descent. There was some confusion as Robert found his pack opened, its contents strewn about the area. Evidently the ravens had learned to open packs and snatch any edibles they could find. All of his edibles had gone missing. I'd had my pack with me the whole time to carry water for the both of us, leaving only my boots and some random gear at the base. The other party knew of this problem and had placed large rocks on their packs. Good to know.
We had only to put away our rope and gear, change out of our rock shoes and make the long descent back down to the Valley floor. We were able to follow the climbers' trail the entire way, making it easier than we'd found in the morning. Finished by 1:45p on the last of our three-day trip, we had only to make the long drive home. I showered roadside and changed into some fresh clothes to make the drive more comfortable. Robert did likewise, minus the jug shower. It had been a fine three days, and our failure on K P Pinnacle that first day would provide impetus for another return before the winter season was upon us. And with that we parted ways, another grand adventure in the books...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Higher Cathedral Spire
This page last updated: Wed Oct 21 22:11:04 2020
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