Cathedral Range Traverse (IV 5.7)
August 21, 2002
4:00am. The alarm sounds, a shrill piercing shriek that slices through my warm cocoon of sleep like a cold steel knife. I don't want to hear it, don't want to believe that it's really time to get up. Prying open thick, heavy eyelids, I squint blearily into the still darkness, dimly searching for an excuse, some reason to call it off while still saving face. All I want is to sink deeper into the warm folds of my bag, to return to the safe, comforting womb of blissful sleep and wait fetus-like for the sun and the birth of a new day; to dream of awakening to a blazing sky and the smell of eggs and bacon on the fire; to indulge in that third cup of coffee while basking in the lazy warmth, casually perusing the guidebook before finally setting off at half past ten...
But one look reveals the truth: the starry sky is clear, the moon shows no hint of moisture, and there isn't even a whisper of wind. Cornered with no chance for escape, I pull the hood of the bag up over my face and resort to silent bargaining: Five more minutes. Then I promise I'll get up.
I'm not a morning person.
It's colder than usual for August in Tuolumne, and after the short drive to the trailhead I have to force myself out of the heated car. My breath visible as I load the espresso maker and fire the stove, I move mechanically in the cold darkness, hypnotized by the blue glow of my headlamp, struggling to ignore the voice that keeps insisting that I forget about this and go back to bed.
Off by 5am, stumbling up the trail I know so well, still stupid with sleep and confused by the shadows, I find the Budd Lake turnoff and continue, wondering how I'll manage the climbing when I seem to have so much difficulty walking. I go too far and have to backtrack before leaving the trail, busting through the forest, lost again, my internal compass spinning madly. But as I emerge onto the slabs, the dawn light reveals the way.
The summit of Unicorn Peak: The sun is illuminating the tops of all the high points of my intended route -- Cathedral, Echo Peak #3, Echo Ridge, the Cockscomb, and the Matthes Crest -- all glowing golden in the first light of the day. As I gaze at this, the sun slips above the horizon and casts it's rays on me. A good omen? I thought so once before, only to come up short. So I simply enjoy the lovely sight for what it is, smiling as the feeble dawn light takes some of the sting out of the morning chill. The question of what today will bring is still right there, but maybe a little less urgent this time.
* * *
For several years I had tried unsuccessfully to get friends interested in three moderate Sierra traverses. My suggestions elicited only blank stares and unanswered emails. One friend even told me I was nuts. I couldn't understand these reactions, for although these proposed outings were long, they were technically easy (5.7 or less) and completely uncommitting. With all the bailoff options, what did it matter if the routes turned out to be too much? They would still be fun days. I was starting to mull over the feasibility of doing these by myself when out of the blue last June (2001), my friend Kelly asked me if I was interested in one of them, the Cathedral Range Traverse. I couldn't say yes fast enough.
If you look at a map, the Cathedral Range stretches across a wide swath of the backcountry and includes peaks from Cathedral to Vogelsang and perhaps Lyell. But to climbers, the traverse refers to a loop of peaklets around Budd Lake. The "Budd Lake Traverse" has many variations. You can go out for a short afternoon scramble of a few of the high points of the area -- Cathedral, Echo Ridge, Cockscomb, Unicorn -- or you can include all nine Echo Peaks and Eichorn Pinnacle in the loop. Add in a traverse of the Matthes Crest or a climb of its North Ridge and odds are you're in for a full day. Clockwise or counterclockwise, any or all of the peaks, by their easiest or hardest routes, in one day or spread over several -- it's all fun no matter how you do it or what you call it.
Kelly and I set out early one morning, not entirely sure how much we could do, but intent on having a good time. In the middle of the afternoon, on top of our penultimate Echo Peak, we looked down at #4: an intimidating sight. Kelly suggested we skip it.
"You want to give up?", I said, surprised.
Kelly outlined his reasons: It would take us too long to downclimb or rappel to it, it would require a belayed climb, and then getting off would be complicated and involve additional rappels. He didn't think there would be time to do all that and climb Cathedral Peak.
"We came to do the traverse", I insisted. "We can climb Cathedral anytime. Besides", I said, eyeing the descent, "I think we may be able to have our cake and eat it too."
Kelly relented, and it was a good thing. The downclimb was stimulating but not difficult, we easily climbed the peak unroped, and the descent to the west turned out to be trivial. Then after a short walk, we dashed up the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak.
But no amount of arm twisting could convince Kelly to climb Eichorn. He seemed to greatly prefer getting home just a little bit earlier. It had been a very satisfying day, no doubt, but I couldn't help feel some regret over this. Then, a later study of the guidebooks revealed that we hadn't actually climbed Echo Peak #6, but instead had ascended an unnamed, unnumbered bump nearby.
The next time I saw Kelly:
"We have to go back and do the Cathedral Range Traverse again. And this time climb the real #6 and Eichorn Pinnacle..."
"...and traverse the Matthes Crest."
His smile widened, and included a let-me-know-how-it-goes look.
"No really, we can do it! We'll just start earlier and put the pedal to the metal. Simulclimb the fifth class. Come on!"
So I started thinking again about going alone. The problem with this was that self-belaying would be way too slow, and I'd never actually ascended any fifth class entity unroped before. I'd dreamed about climbing Cathedral Peak with just rock shoes and a chalk bag, and really hoped that I eventually would. Someday, maybe. When I was ready.
* * *
I arrived in Tuolumne one Friday afternoon two months later with the traverse in mind, and stopped off at the south flank of Daff Dome to climb a short moderate hand crack that I was familiar with. I'm not sure how good a test this really was, but at least no red flags had gone up.
The next morning I found myself standing on top of Unicorn Peak as the first rays of sun shot laser-like onto the summit. A good omen, I had told myself. An hour later I wasn't so sure. I was looking down the valley towards the south end of the Matthes Crest and thinking that it was a lot further away than I'd remembered. I had also expected to find water, but the valley was dry. Worse, there was something weighing me down beyond the rope and gear I was carrying, an uncharacteristic sluggishness that couldn't be explained by my lack of sleep. It wouldn't be until the next morning that the illness would hit with full force. But by the time I cached a water bottle, detoured to Matthes Lake to fill up another, and bungled up the slabs to the south end of the Crest, I had fallen far enough behind schedule that I was forced to concede that the full traverse had already slipped away.
I sat there for a while wondering what to do with my day. There were no other climbers on the Crest, at the base, or hiking up the valley. I realized with surprise that although I'd planned to climb unbelayed as much as as I could, I had been unconsciously counting on the presence of other people to buoy up my confidence. Unexpectedly alone, I felt naked and unprepared; the climb appeared dark and frightening.
It was a gorgeous day, clear and sunny, a soft breeze cooling my skin. I looked out at the Tuolumne backcountry, so clean and civilized, with it's gentle lines and golden knobby granite, an alpine feel and yet so close to the road. And there in front of me, the Matthes Crest: an incredible fin of granite, a form as improbable as it is beautiful. After about half an hour, my doubts morphed into desire, and I found that I really wanted to climb the Matthes Crest. Right now. It's what I'd come for! As a precaution, I put on my harness, clipped my gear to it, and tied the rope outside my pack: a free soloist with training wheels.
For the first ten minutes I was nervous, as if on a long runout, and I kept searching for nonexistent corners to hide in. But then I settled down and began to really enjoy the climb. There seemed to always be a good hold, a sinker jam, or something completely solid. The short 5.7ish corner below the summit that I'd worried about turned out to be secure and fun. With no reason to hurry, I hung out on top for a while, took off my shoes, wiggled my toes in the hazy sunshine, and tried to shake off the increasing fatigue. Then I continued with the much more aesthetic northern half of the traverse, enjoying it all the more before walking off on the slabs.
I crept up the slopes to the Echo Ridge, just to have a look at Cathedral Peak. By this time, thick smoke from a nearby fire had descended into the Budd Lake basin and Cathedral was nearly obscured. It looked like a scene from hell. With a burning throat and a feeling of exhaustion dogging me all the more, I headed out early and drove home.
* * *
"If you wait for the weather, you'll never climb jackshit".
-- Charlie Porter
I wonder what Charlie would have said if he'd seen those black clouds boiling up out of the southwest at 5:30am? This July, I'd headed in at 5am once again, fired with caffeine and hoping mightily that those clouds would burn off. It had rained lightly the day before, and I'd consulted with all available weather prognosticators, official and otherwise. Their consensus: a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms.
At 7:30am, as I prepared to mantle onto the first of the Cockscomb's twin summit blocks, I saw a lightning strike a few miles to the east. I paused and looked up at the sky -- solid clouds -- and heard the rumble of thunder. Then another flash. Time to get down from prominent points!
Hailstones chased me down Budd Creek and by the time I made the trailhead it was raining full on, cats and dogs. A slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms indeed!
* * *
And now it's August and I'm back again, feeling doubtful and somewhat uncomfortable with the spectre of repeated failure. Standing here on the summit of Unicorn, I figure I'll just have fun and see what happens. A quick talus-hop over Mt. Althuski and then I skirt around to climb the easy west side of the Cockscomb. By now I could do this part blindfolded. After a short rest, I drop my gear and water and climb the North Ridge of the Matthes Crest out and back. It's a compromise over the S-N traverse, but a fairly good one: kind of like a horizontal jungle gym. Picking up my stuff, I slog up the Echo Ridge, the high point of the area, and then head down to those nine pesky Echo Peaks.
Echo Peak #9 is the critical bit for me as I'm pretty sure I won't be able to climb it unroped. Along with the 8.5x50 line, I've brought six nuts, six cams, and a handful of carabiners and slings: courage in a rucksack. I scramble the first part to a spike, rig a self-belay, and begin climbing on knobs. It's not difficult, but my vivid memory of those knobs busting out under my feet the last time I was here keeps me on edge. I move right where I'd headed left before and find the going easier. Then a knob breaks -- or maybe my foot just slipped? -- and I'm reminded that I really can't afford to fall here. After rapping and cleaning the short pitch, I walk cams attached to double slings for a bit until the terrain feels more secure. Back at the base, I check my watch, and for the first time today allow myself to think that I just might finish what I started.
Most of the remaining Echo Peaks are almost an annoyance. After climbing them all last year (twice) their charm has faded. One by one I tick them off and then plan to descend to Budd Lake for some needed water and a snack. But voices high on Cathedral Peak seem to beckon me. I spy a pair of hikers below the base and run to them to beg some water. One of them pulls out a two liter bottle in which a one liter block of ice rattles around, along with a few scant ounces of water. I graciously accept a tiny ice cold drink out of this odd maraca; then head up to the base where I manage to wash down half an energy bar with the remaining swallows of water in my own bottle.
Cathedral Peak -- the climb of my dreams not so long ago. In some ways I suppose it still is. I remember a Tuolumne trip with friends one September about ten years past. Most of us were hiking to Cloud's Rest, but Kelly had split off with a friend to climb Cathedral, and I was so envious. Someday, I remember thinking, if I can just become a solid 5.7 leader, the world will open up to me.
TM Herbert told me last year that he's climbed the Southeast Buttress 250 times. I don't think I'll ever match that, but after 7 or 8 ascents, I continue to find it a great joy. It's a good line, the rock is clean and the climbing fun and easy -- "practically cuddly", as Peter Croft has written. Although the North Ridge of the Matthes Crest was wonderful, Cathedral is hands down the best part of the traverse for me and climbing it this way is maybe one of the most fun things I've done. I pass a party near the chimney and then, to my surprise, run into a bit of a crowd at the summit. After seeing no one all day until the two hikers at the base, it is odd to encounter this large group at 5:30pm on a Wednesday. There are two parties of three, sort of gummed up by the lack of a fixed rappel station on top. I chat with them for a while and eventually find my way to the top and then over to Eichorn Pinnacle.
The North Face of Eichorn can't properly be compared to it's West Pillar route, but for an eighty foot 5.4, it's a really good climb and a nice way to finish the day. I top out on the heels of a party climbing the Pillar and although I've brought my own rope this far just to rappel from the top, I happily accept the invitation to be first to rap off of theirs.
"Wait -- don't you want to sign the register?", one of them asks as I lean back into the rappel.
"The box is empty", I say. "At least it was last time I checked."
He opens the box. "Here it is. It's even got a picture on the front."
"No, I think I'll pass. I know I was here. Besides", I say as I start down, "there are two ice cold beers waiting for me below."
Back to my car before dark, 7:30pm. Thirsty, tired, happy.
A nice day out.
* * *
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