It's July, and vacation-with-the-inlaws time. A cottage just outside Yosemite Park in California. The Sierras! My wife takes pity on me and puts me in touch with one of her old climbing partners in the Sierra Club Peak Climbing Section. Arun and I discuss options. I've been to the Valley before; it will be baking down there this time of year - the sun beating off the rocky walls and emanating in shimmery waves from the idling tourbuses; the babble of climbers from all over the world queuing up for the easy climbs and dropping gear on each other....no, let's not go to the Valley.
Instead, I'm keen on historic Cathedral Peak and the flat-out outrageous Eichorn Pinnacle, high up (almost 11,000 feet) in Tuolumne Meadows. The climb that has spawned a million web sites, it seems. A.'s done both before but is happy to revisit.
A couple of hours drive, up, up into the Meadows, the baking lowland temperatures (even at 7am) slowly moderating. 9:30am and we set off up the trail. A vivid contrast with British Columbia and its trails of fresh moist earth through the dank forest, devils club, slide alder, and rock fuzzed with moss. This is old, old, another world entirely. A dusty earth packed down around rounded stones. Dry wood, and far higher in the sky than one expects a bright sun beating down. The unmapped and unmarked climbers access route (it must be at least 50 years old); well-trodden along a creek, winds through the sparse alpine forest. The smell of the thick gnarled pines around the yellowed grass, and glare of the light. After a few hours we angle off the trail, up the scrubby slope to Cathedral's North Ridge. Loose scree and sand between the stunted bushes. To the left the fabled south-east buttress route, 5.6 climbing for pitch after glorious pitch.
Aaahh...but we don't have time today. At least 4 parties already there, the ring of clanking metal, cries back and forth from either end of their ropes, silhouetted against the blue sky. For us a scramble over the ridge crest, then traverse on small ledges cutting through slabs, across, and then up. Weaving back and forth across larger steps, the summit invisible until we attain a narrow windy notch. Even then the route is mysterious, hidden, a 4th class crack around a corner.
The rope comes out, I tie in. Step across on ledges, then up the crack, edging in my floppy running shoes. God, I'm out of practice. I flail on the generous holds, remembering that this very step was climbed first, solo, by John Muir 135 years ago. The rock is gorgeous, a lovely golden granite. The summit itself is flat, although small, and bisected by a crack perfectly suitable for gear. Apparently club trips occasionally put up to a dozen people up there at the same
time. Something like stuffing a phone booth or a VW bug I suppose. In the center, the rusty remains of a rap bolt; the latest victim of a longstanding ethics war. "If John Muir didn't need it..." etc. I try to remember the basics of anchor construction. Equalize, equalize, a tangle of linked webbing lying along the crack. Hmmm. I'm sure it will hold, but this is definitely not the most elegant anchor I've ever made.
Suddenly the deserted summit becomes crowded - a soloist topping out, a group of 4 just behind, all coming off the SE buttress route. A. wants the challenge of coming up ropeless; more power to him. I'm a father; that just isn't an option any more. The responsibility of that weighs me down, but in some ways it also frees me. We shake hands on the summit, then downclimb to let the others up.
Enough time for Eichorn Pinnacle? A. thinks not, but I don't see why it isn't possible. The weather is as good as it can get. Hours till sunset. The Pinnacle from here looks amazing, a vertical pillar splitting the sky a few hundred meters away to the west. "Let's just go and have a look and then decide", I say, but I want more than a look. There's a tightness in my chest, a hunger and a lust for much much more than a look. The classic climbers lie, tricking your partner into commitment -
I've been on both sides of it before. How long since I had that feeling last? How long will it be till the next time?
We begin to look around the right side, a slope of blocky granite. Finally see what looks like the route; a diagonal weakness that traverses onto the face to bypass a roof. Hmmm. A. offers to lead the first pitch and I'm OK with that. Man, it looks steep for 5.4 (Jules Eichorn soloed this in 1932). Suddenly apprehensive but unwilling to back off now. A. leads off slowly, disappearing around a corner. In the quiet cool shade I slowly pay out the rope, looking off at peaks far in the distance. A virgin landscape for me.
Eventually he sets up a belay, and I follow. The route edges out along a series of ledges, one awkward, then goes up over a bulge past a few pins worn shiny with use, to a little nook.
2nd pitch is mine, a short (and slightly overhanging) chimney. It feels harder than 5.4, maybe the "correct" route is around the corner? To heck with it - straight up. A few moves, then it's a breeze. Good holds on giant fins and flakes. Ah, what a view. The parched granite domes roll away to all horizons, except to the south where visibility is blotted out by an isolated afternoon rainstorm! A. comes up. We examine the register; I see Galen Rowell's name. RIP. A few tiny spots of rain drift across the summit, and we hurriedly rig the rappel. Straight down, right to our packs on the starting ledge using the rope stretch. Wow. In contrast to the crowds at the main peak we have been gloriously alone for this side trip.
We descend the slabs on Cathedral's west side, and back into the woods. A bit of bushwacking finally, a slight echo of the feeling I love in the B.C. backcountry, although the travel in this sparse open forest has nothing in common with the dense thickets of home. We soon pick up the wide and well-trodden Muir trail, and then its a bee-line back to the car. Home for dinner!