There are many versions of this traverse but the one that Dee and I chose was to just climb all the fourth class or lower routes. This meant we would not ascend the technical 5.7 Southeast Buttress route on Cathedral, on the other hand, we didn't need to haul in a load of gear to climb this particular route.
After blowing the early morning wake up by not hearing the alarm clock we started up the Cathedral Lakes trail at 7 AM Saturday. We decided to climb the peaks counter clockwise, that is, start with Cathedral. We left the Cathedral Lakes trail on the un-maintained but well worn Budd Creek trail after about 15 minutes. The Budd Creek trail essentially heads toward the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral and we left the trail about 100 yards before the buttress and headed up the slope to get to the northwest side of Cathedral. After some thrashing around and one several false start out a notch too far down the ridge towards Eichorn Pinnacle we ended up on the summit. The summit is the furthest north high point and the notch getting to the last 30 feet of fourth class is located close to the northeast ridge line. We patted the summit at 9:45 AM and headed back down.
Dee and I shot down the scree slope next to the Southeast Buttress and encountered the usual conga line of climbers which included my friend Dan and one of his buddies. A couple of "hearty hi ho's" and off we went towards the Echo Peaks. We headed across the wide alpine slabs and tundra that separates the Echo Peaks from Cathedral. Echo Peak Number 1 is the right most high point visible from the base of Cathedral. We worked our way up across the scree and brush to the gap just to the left of Echo Peak Number 1. Once in the gap we dropped our packs and climbed up to the saddle between Echo Peaks Number 1 and 2 and traversed over to the summit of Echo Peak Number 3. The summit of Echo Peak Number 3 has the lone summit register, an Ozzie and Harriet era metal flour can with a little note book in it. This was at 11:50 AM.
From the summit of Echo Peak Number 3 we headed back past Number 2, retrieved our packs, and traversed over across the top of Wilts Col and wandered up to the top of the Echo Crest. Departing the top of Echo Crest at 1:05 PM we dropped down a short third class section to get onto the southeast slope of the Echo Crest. It was a straightforward stroll over to the west ridge of the Cockscomb. We ascended the Cockscomb on the fourth class west ridge and descended at about 2:25 PM. We next wandered around to the east slope of the Cockscomb and headed towards the dogleg shaped ridge with Unicorn Peak at the far end of it. This required going over the top of a rocky bump right at the apex of the dogleg.
Unicorn Peak is somewhere at the end of this ridge. There are a couple of summit bumps at the end of the ridge and it wasn't clear which one was the biggest. We guessed it was the last one on the ridge and that turned out to be right. From a notch on the ridge the climb goes out on the west face and after a couple of exposed moves going past what is without a doubt the most ancient and manky bolt I have ever laid eyes on the summit is reached. This is about fourth class and we decided to use our rope for this short pitch. Since we didn't bring any gear we used slings threaded through gaps in the rocks for pro and tied in with a bowline-on-a-coil.
It was now about 4:30 PM and we contemplated our descent route. We had anticipated dropping down from the summit of Unicorn to the tarns below and hiking down the slabs and then moving northeast to pick up the Budd Creek trail, however, we had run into another party on the traverse from Unicorn Peak who claimed to have come up the slabs below Unicorn Peak with great route finding difficulty. The other options were to drop down to Elizabeth Lake and hike out through the Tuolumne Campground or drop down to the west and head over to Budd Lake and out the Budd Creek trail. Since we had about two and a half hours of solid sunlight left we opted for the descent down the slabs below Unicorn Peak in spite of the un promising sounding route finding difficulties.
From the low point on the ridge between Unicorn Peak and the un-named "bump" we headed down to the little tarns below Unicorn Peak. From there we crossed over the outlet of these tarns, which was now dry, to the slabs on the west side of the drainage and walked all the way down these slabs to the forested area at the base. We could see what appeared to be either a trail or a dried out creek bed to the left at the bottom of the slabs. It turned out to be a dried out creek bed. We followed this for about 100 yards and then headed to the west cross country, gradually heading to the north. We soon bumped into the dried out Budd Creek creek bed and crossed this at a convenient point. There were vestiges of an old trail on the west side of Budd Creek. We followed this faint trail for another 50 to 100 yards and then headed cross country again through a clear area. This turned out to be just above the open rocky slab area on the Budd Creek Trail and we were soon back on the trail. We followed this out to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead parking and arrived at 7 PM. For once in my life I didn't have to use a headlamp on this trail. It was 12 hours car to car.
This is a great traverse! It can be done at an almost infinite level of difficulty ranging from the easiest fourth class version that we did to including all the Echo Peaks, Eichorn Pinnacle, Matthes Crest and the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral. The fourth class version is a great choice for moderately experienced climbers and is highly recommended. The fourth class summits are Cathedral, Cockscomb, and Unicorn Peak. Echo Peak Number 3 and Echo Crest are easy third class.
The route can be bailed off of at any point along the way and the Budd Creek trail is an easy escape. It is recommended to do this traverse counter clockwise starting with Cathedral. We thought the cross country route heading down from Unicorn was easy and straightforward but this seemed to be difficult for those coming up from this direction. In the advent of a late day the hike out from Unicorn through Budd Lake would be straightforward but longer than the slabs and in an emergency it would be easy to escape to the east from Unicorn to Elizabeth Lake and take the trail out from there. This would require a walk back on the road to the Cathedral Lakes parking area.
We took a 100 foot piece of 9 mm perlon, four carabiners, and four slings and climbed everything in our approach shoes. We only used the rope once on Unicorn Peak and the 100 foot length was fine, even with two bowline-on-a-coil tie-ins.