Jul 30, 2004
Ever since my last visit to Matthes Crest, I've been wanting to go back. In that previous climb, we had reached the higher north summit, but with the afternoon already half over, our group of four had decided there was not enough time to complete the second half of the route, a section that it seems less than half the parties ever complete. This time I had arranged to climb with Romain and Rene as a party of three. Three is a poor number for swift climbing, but having climbed with Romain before, I trusted both his abilities and his faith in his friend Rene's abilities. They had climbed a good deal together, and I had never heard anything but good things about their climbs. We would move swiftly - one way or another.
We met at 6a at the Cathedral Lakes TH, and after a few minutes repacking gear and distributing the two ropes and pro, we headed out. Having been the only one to previously visit the peak, Romain and Rene let me lead the way. I chose to hike up the Bud Creek Drainage and take the route around the west side of Echo Peaks. This was a fine choice, providing nice views of Unicorn, Cathedral, and Echo Peaks - a wonderful set of pinnacles surrounding Bud Creek on three sides. We hiked to the saddle between Echo and Cathedral peaks, overshooting the easiest route a bit - it would have been faster to head more directly to the west side of Echo Peaks. Fine views to the southwest and west were to be had here. We headed south, skirting Echo Peaks on the left over some delightful grassy walkways and meadows. On the south side of Echo Peaks we got our first view of Matthes Crest. We found some slabs and north-south gullies to traverse, losing maybe a couple hundred feet of elevation as we dropped down a bit to the Echo Creek drainage. As we approached the base of Matthes Crest and started climbing diagonally up to the right (south) on the lower reaches of the West Face.
Approaching the start of the route I was ahead of the others, and took the opportunity to take a close up look at the route when I reached the steeper slabs. I was about 20 feet up from the base of the route perched on an outcrop when Romain and Rene came to the start. The route was steeper than I had recalled, and in fact very little of it looked familiar - memory apparently being one of the first casualties of the aging process. I climbed back down and took out the climbing gear I had in my pack and the others started to do likewise and put on their harnesses and rock shoes. I put on my shoes and harness and climbed back up to the perch I was on before. Before we had started we hadn't decided just how we would climb as a party of three other than I had offered to go last. But all along I had been hoping I would find the route tolerably easy enough to solo, partly because it would significantly improve our speed as a group, but mostly because it offered to be an exciting challenge. Staring up at the route now, with my hands feeling the rock texture, and looking closely at the cracks and possible routes, I had to admit to myself it was more difficult looking than I had hoped. Damn, this thing looked steep. Previously, Monty and I had gone to the right of the regular route while Michael and Greg took the usual line, and we ended up out on some fantastic face climbing, but stuff I didn't want to lead then, and certainly wouldn't solo now. So I was trying to figure out which was the regular route, but there seemed to be a number of possibilities. In the end I had to conclude there was no single "regular route" and I would have to climb up hoping for the best in the sections ahead I couldn't see. I let the others know what I was thinking at this point, and though they didn't protest, by their subdued responses it seemed obvious they didn't find this the brightest of ideas. I wanted to believe I was doing them a favor by speeding up the climb, but the reality was probably the opposite. They would be nervous watching me, and if anything bad happened it would ruin not just my day but theirs as well, and it would seem all so unnecessary.
Of course I climbed it anyway. I went slowly and methodically, checking out several possibilities, backing down from one, climbing up another, trying to make all my moves very deliberate and keeping within my "comfort" zone (I think this is a euphemism for that place between having fun and wetting your pants). Class 5 soloing is a very thought-intensive process, and therein lies the attraction. Everything I did and thought was concentrated on the next move I was to make - all other distractions of life, family, and the rest of the world are completely subdued and rid from consciousness, a zen-like state of mind. It is very intoxicating. It took me less than 20 minutes to climb the two pitches, not a very quick pace by any standard other than the alternative of using a rope. The others were just starting up when I finished the class 5 portion. In the shade lower down I was a bit chilled, but now I was greeted by the full warmth of the summer sun and I relaxed in its embrace. Knowing I'd have a long time to wait for Romain and Rene, I found a sandy ledge on the east side exposed to the sun to curl up on, and with my helmet under my head as a pillow I drifted off to a deliciously cozy nap.
I woke up periodically to listen for the others, then drifted off again lazily. On one of my regular dayhikes I would be antsy to get going at such a point, knowing that daylight was burning and miles were not being travelled as I'm generally only enjoying the moment when I'm moving. But today's mileage was low by comparison and this wait was fully anticipated, so it made it easy to lie there and nap. By and by I heard voices from below and eventually I stretched out and walked back over to the edge to check on their progress. Rene had led the second pitch and was maybe 20 feet below me, preparing a belay to bring Romain up. They had taken the route further to the right (east) where there was some steep face climbing with good holds. I waved, we chatted, and soon Romain appeared over the precipice, all smiles. Another party was below, a pair of climbers taking nearly the same route I had coming up. It looked like they were maybe 30 minutes behind us. Romain and Rene had taken a little more than an hour for the two pitches, pretty good time really. I'm pretty sure it took us twice that long when we climbed it previously. Another party of two had been climbing below them, and I could see the leader down below on the route I had taken up, they were maybe 20 minutes behind us at this point.
Once we were all together again, we held a brief discussion on how to proceed. Naturally I was all in favor of putting the rope away and continuing solo along the class 3 section ahead, and for the most part the others were too. Unfortunately the very first part looked like a steep bit of face climbing, but I reassured the others that up close it wasn't as steep as it appeared from where we stood. And so all the gear was packed up, and we proceeded on. It was highly enjoyable scrambling, as much fun the second time as it was the first, and we all collectively enjoyed the fine ridgeline, incredibly airy, and knife-edged in places. Leading the three of us, I had ample opportunities to photograph the others along this amazing traverse. In fact it seemed we all took quite a few pictures of each other, sort of like tourists in Washington DC who can't step around a corner without the need to take another picture. It took us an hour to complete the traverse to the north summit. I got a bit hung up just before the south summit, trying to remember where the traverse around the east side starts. In the end Romain simply picked a line around a stumpy tree and made it go, Rene and I following after him.
At the notch between the two summits, where the final class 5 pitch begins, we stopped for a lunch break. The others seemed famished and relieved to have a chance to eat something, while I hadn't really given food any thought (and in fact I hadn't even brought any with me). Romain unwrapped a drool-inducing deli sandwich he had prepared himself, featuring cuts of meat and cheese with French names I couldn't pronounce, between thick slices of olive loaf bread. "Mmmmm" I thought - maybe there was something to this mixing of food and climbing. Rene on the other hand had brought a more standard peanut butter and jelly affair, but it failed to produce the same Pavlovian response. While we were lunching the other party had been making their way across the traverse and were currently out of view and heading up to the lower south summit - it makes for a nice side trip if one hasn't been there before.
Following lunch, we went about the business of making the final ascent to the north summit. The most direct way is up a 20-foot chimney that goes at 5.8, but had been too much for our party of four my first time here. Since Rene had been selected by Romain to lead this last pitch (as far as I can tell, the two of them decide who leads any given pitch by the democratic procedure of who can blurt out the other person's name first), it was up to Rene to choose which of several options he might prefer. He chose the direct route, and did a fine job of climbing, placing pro while standing on a couple of shakey legs, and working his way past the crux. Above the chimney was easier class 4 climbing, and he soon disappeared over the top. Romain followed, trailing our second rope, an 8mm. We hadn't exactly worked out the method by which I would climb third, and after some time waiting at the bottom I shouted up to inquire what the holdup was. Romain was in the process of untying the 8mm rope, planning to tie the 10.5mm rope to it so that I could then pull the larger rope back down. While on the surface this seemed a safe plan, I was more concerned that the rope would get stuck on pulling it down with the inevitable knot connecting the two ropes getting wedged in one of several cracks. I nixed the plan in mid-execution and told them I'd rather just climb on the 8mm rope. With the rope above me there was little chance of a serious fall, mostly likely just a foot or two, plenty good for the rope thickness. When I finally got my chance to climb the chimney, I found it to be pretty darn hard - probably an accurate 5.8 rating since that's about my limit. I didn't have to place or clean pro, but I still struggled, finally managing to join the others on the summit.
It was 1p now, still plenty of time to do the whole traverse, and we were all feeling pretty good. We signed into the summit register, took in the views, and rested a bit. The other party was on the south summit, just preparing to descend. We had worried that they might catch up to us earlier, leading to a time-consuming wait while we let them pass, but it seemed they were going just about the same pace as ourselves. Looking north, we discussed strategies for continuing the traverse. We decided to all tie in to a single rope (the larger one), and see if we couldn't manage to simulclimb as efficiently as possible. Right away it was clear that a full 30m between each of us was too much to manage, so we started taking in loops of rope and clipping them to our harnesses. This was somewhat tricky - one needed to keep the rope organized so a loop could be taken back out or a new one added as the terrain dictated, but it was important to keep the loop sizes reasonable so the rope didn't get underfoot and impede us. The loops had a habit of getting snagged on chickenheads and other protruberances, so especially at first our travel was somewhat slow and awkward. But we got better at this as we went along, and after some time we began to feel more comfortable with this mode of climbing.
Romain had started off in the lead, Rene in the middle, myself bringing up the rear. Romain's leading was somewhat conservative (ok, slow), partly due to our lack of ability to manage the rope in the beginning, partly because he wasn't so comfortable acting as the lead man on the fairly exposed class 4-5 ridgeline. To be fair, the crux of the remaining traverse came shortly after we left the summit, a very exposed descent for some 40 feet or so down a steep ramp. Rene gave Romain a hip belay down this section and I did likewise for Rene. Thankfully he placed a cam about halfway down to give me the mental security to follow without the benefit of a belay. It was exhilarating and a bit frightening all at the same time.
Over one large block Romain ran into an obstacle, and rather than the three of us backtracking to correct the route, I followed around it to see if the alternative would work (it did), and ended up being the lead on our rope as it changed directions. This arrangement seemed to work out better and we stuck with it for the rest of the traverse. I love leading this type of terrain (class 3 to low class 5), whereas on the mid-class 5 stuff I'm more happy to just follow. Rene and Romain seemed equally happy to let me, so off we went. Not long after finishing the crux, the other party appeared at the top of the section, not far behind - they must have made quick work of the north summit and spent little time there. The climbing was nothing short of excellent. Airy, knife-edged in many places, interesting route-finding, it seemed to have everything. One fantastic section we called "The Wave" was a knife-edged section that curled slightly at the top like an ocean wave getting ready to break, and it hung past vertical some 15 feet or so. It was eerie walking along near the top, right hand over the edge to hold on, traversing across the rock face and wondering just how strong granite was and how thin the ridge might be.
At one section I got held up and couldn't get myself to climb down a short 8-foot crack. Rene joined me and provided a hip belay, after which it proved easier than I had first thought. All the rest I was able to negotiate independently, and it seemed like we were about to finish the entire traverse along the ridge or fairly close to it. We came upon the final two towers before the ridge goes to class 2, but these small towers proved a better match for us. I found myself looking down a 15-foot section along the ridge, nearly vertical, no obvious holds anywhere, and no alternatives to be found. It was definitely more than 5.8 climbing and I turned to others and said I wasn't going any further. I expected Rene to go over and have a look for himself, but they both took me at my word - either they were tired of the traverse by now anyway, or my declaration was very convincing. We backtracked to a lower notch where we were able to downclimb off the west side, no need for a rappel. We unroped and changed out of our rock shoes. The other party caught up to us at this time, and they too bailed off the west side without going to see for themselves. There were many footprints on the sandy ledges leading down, so it's possible this was the standard exit point. After dropping down a hundred feet we traversed north to regain the ridge (pausing to take a picture of the tower that thwarted us).
We followed the remainder of the ridge northward, then curved left to follow the south side of Echo Ridge towards Echo Col, the sandy notch between Echo Ridge and Echo Peak #8. Mostly as a joke I asked Romain if he wanted to climb #8 as a quick side trip. To my surprise he was eager, so the three of us headed up the two-minute climb after dropping our packs. We took more photos, checked out the amazing #9 immediately to the south, and then descended a class 4 variation on the northwest side, our last bit of rock bravery before the hike out. It was almost 5:30p when we reshouldered our packs and headed down the very sandy slopes on the north side. It took a bit more than an hour to head back down the Bud Creek drainage, but it was a relaxing stroll for the most part. We'd been out over 12hrs when we returned at 6:40p, but not the hard 12hrs+ like the previous day. With lots of time to rest and soak in the sun and views, and some of the best climbing found anywhere, it had been as perfect an outing as we could have anticipated. The crowning pleasure was a wonderful dinner at the Whoa Nellie after we'd checked into our Lee Vining motel and showered (much better appetite today!).
Thus ended the "warm up" for the Sierra Challenge. If the Challenge hikes and scrambles could come close to the fun we'd had today, it would be a very enjoyable week for sure!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Matthes Crest
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:03 2007
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