Matthes Crest; Climbing the Cornice

31 Jul 1997 - by Jim Curl

Canted at 45 degrees and undercut, the cornice was only an inch or two thick at the lip where we held on to keep our feet from slipping, sending us rudely down a steep two hundred foot slope.

"This is pretty wild, Bob. Do you think it'll break?"

I kept my death lock on the lip and twisted around to smile at Bob -- only to find him casually walking behind me, practically with his hands in his pockets. How does he do that?

It was a beautiful summer day in the Tuolomne backcountry. The cornice we were on had not been recently crafted by wind, nor did it consist of snow or ice. Glaciers had long ago sculpted the rock that comprises the Matthes Crest.

Hidden from many viewpoints by the Cockscomb and the Echo Ridge, the Matthes Crest is a phenomenal piece of granite art. An improbable fin a mile long, it is easy to see why it is purported to be Peter Croft's playground. Indeed, the summit register is peppered with entries such as this: "Traversing first south to north, now north to south -- Peter Croft".

When Bob Suzuki and I asked friends about the route, we were warned of its length. Backpack in the night before, suggested some. Plan to bivy on top, counselled others. Disliking the idea of carrying sleeping bags and extra food, we ignored the naysayers and instead decided on a day climb.

"Maybe hiking in the night before isn't such a bad idea", suggested Bob at 4:00am as we began our walk.

A chilly morning wind had us huddling at the southern terminus for an hour, trying to wring warmth from the feeble dawn sunlight. I would have happily headed back out had Bob suggested it. Instead, at 7:30am he directed us into the shade. With teeth chattering, I led the first easy pitch.

A second pitch brought us to the crest and some badly needed sunshine. After one more unnecessary pitch we untied and put away the rope. For the next hour and a half we delighted in the class 3-4 scrambling, often along an incredible, exposed knife edge. Interspersed was easy walking.

Sand and pebbles bounced off my helmet as Bob skittered in his sticky soled approach shoes up the west side of the summit tower. It didn't look like we'd found the most travelled path. After about 80 feet, the rope drag was too much and a shorter and easier pitch led us to the summit. As I pulled onto the top, I sung out the National Geographic theme in Kai Wiedman tradition. It was only 10:30am. "Should we bivy here, Bob?"

For some reason, the description in Secor ends at the summit, suggesting two long rappels to the ground. But the northern half of the crest is not to be missed -- an airy gap requiring a wide stem to bridge, hand traverses and straddling on knife edges and challenging down climbing -- it required as much ropework and took us as long as the southern section had. And although easy, the "cornice" was an especially unforgettable (and unprotectable) 150 feet or so.

After the six hour traverse, we were back at the cars early. Bob and I agreed that a day trip was the best approach. What would we do different? Sleep in and start later.


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