Trips & Pictures Cathedral Peak, May 2001

Cathedral Peak

June 1-3, 2001

In the previous week there had been a far-out chance that I might be able to take part in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, so I had been talking to my swim instructor, Elmar, quite a bit. Unfortunately, this year's triathlon didn't work out (next year!), but in the process Elmar asked what I was up to the following weekend, and whether I'd like to go up to the mountains with him, since his fiancee was going to be in L.A. Thus this trip happened! Little did I know what I was getting into!!!

I had been curious about rock climbing before, and had actually asked Elmar about good places to take a class previously (he used to be a climbing instructor) since I was considering trying a class this summer if time permitted, but I hadn't anticipated that it would become a crash-course weekend! When I was originally looking through web-page descriptions of the two possible mountains under consideration (Mt. Conness and Cathedral Peak), I was imagining that I would go up the hiking routes and that Elmar would solo climb the rock-climbing routes. He suggested that I should rent some climbing shoes from REI just in case, which I did.

I showed up at Elmar's place Friday evening, we dropped Lisa off at the airport, and then we took a detour to Menlo Park for a birthday party potluck. Since we were going to be traveling light on the trail, and were the last to arrive at the potluck, we happily filled the clean-up roll and majorly stocked up on calories :) We managed to roll out the door towards Yosemite at 11:15pm, reaching Hardin Flat Rd. just outside of Yosemite at 2:30am and sleeping next to the car off a dirt fire road in the woods.

The mosquitoes got us up promptly before 8, so we headed into the park and picked up a wilderness permit. When asked about how we would be keeping the bears out of our food, we were tempted to say "um, we aren't taking any, we ate for the weekend last night", but instead we gave the semi-politically-correct answer of "we'll be hanging it".

It wouldn't have been that far from the truth - this was the lightest trip I've ever taken. Elmar is into "ultra-light hiking", so most of the extensive gear selection I had brought along stayed in the car... Between us we had daypacks, sleeping bags, one tarp, thermarests, a rope, climbing harnesses, carabiners & free-climbing gear, a few extra pieces of clothing, and a paltry amount of food (half a loaf of bread and some cheese from the night before, a little trail mix, a couple of apples, a few power bars, and water). That was it...

We didn't take the traditional Tuolumne Meadows trailhead to Cathedral Lakes, but instead went up the valley from just past Tenaya Lake. Along the way around the base of the first dome we encountered we already had to do some bouldering, and as Elmar was giving me pointers I began to get nervous... He was eyeing all the rock faces with glee ("no problem, you could do that one!"), while I was starting to wonder what on earth I was doing!!! So, I switched into question mode... Poor Elmar, little did he realize how many pestering questions he was going to be getting on this trip!!! ("How tough do you think that face is? How does it compare to ...? ...).

We hiked up the rock valley next to the pretty stream which flows out of Lower Cathedral Lake.

At one point along the way, it got so steep that it became difficult to proceed. Instead of trying to cross over and hike up an easier way, I suggested that this might be a good time to try out climbing, on that slope, to make sure that I could do it! So we unpacked the climbing gear, and geared up.

Gearing up for my first pitch!

At this point Elmar gave me a crash-course on the general idea, knots, etc. Since it was a fairly short pitch, he soloed ahead with the rope, while I watched his path carefully, trying to memorize where he stepped. After he reached the top and attached the rope, it was my turn.... It was tough! I did fine up to a point, but then I started to lose my balance...! It's interesting, because as panic sets in, my field of vision narrowed drastically, suddenly I couldn't see any options any more! But, since I was on the top rope, and knew that I wouldn't fall, so it was just a matter of taking a deep breath, and trying what seemed best... After some tense moments, I was able to make the crux move, and shortly thereafter I was scrambling up the last feet of my first pitch! whew!

Some nice views on the way up to the lake...

Lower Cathedral Lake, with the peak in the background

The rest of the hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake was pretty uneventful. The scenery was beautiful, so we stopped for a snack and to take a nap in the sun. After that, we started to traverse up around the rock base of the peak to the shoulder shown on the right side of the picture below (near the right edge, the slight "V" formed by the slope off the peak and the shoulder to the right).

Cathedral Peak from the meadow near Lower Cathedral Lake

The view over the shoulder as we cross beneath the Eichorn

As we were traversing along just below the solid rock below Eichorn, Elmar decided that it was time to practice some more. He scouted for a good spot while I stayed put, enjoying the view and wondering again why I was doing this :)

Elmar found a good practice pitch, and it was time for my second pitch! After drilling me on the knots and techniques again, he headed up to a ledge (with me belaying), placing protection as he went. All too soon, it was my turn. One of my realizations from the trip was that starting each pitch is the hardest part!; that's when it seems the most impossible, and easiest to back out. Once you've started, it's easier to get into it.

Anyway, for this pitch, the first part was a crack that looked doable, but that was full of wet dirt, which made it really difficult! If it were dry it would have been a great place to put my feet in, but since it was wet it was slippery, and shortly my shoes were wet and traction was much harder to find! I slipped and slithered my way up, using my arms way too much. I was SO HAPPY to grab onto the tree on the ledge that Elmar was belaying from and to pull myself up... It had to have been the most beautiful tree I've ever seen, I was so glad that it was there to grab onto... :) That was my second pitch... After that we traversed off the pitch to the north, collected our gear, and went around the rest of the base to the shoulder, where we camped.

The pressure was off for the day, although now that I could see the face as we scouted the next day's route, tension started to build even more... Elmar had told me of several parts of the route that he thought would be the crux points, and now that we could pick them out on the mountain, I was again seriously wondering about what I was doing! The wind picked up on our exposed ridge, so we hurried to pick out a spot with protection, threw out our bags, hopped in, and had our dinner of bread and cheese left-overs.

Scouting out the face at sunset... (funny, it doesn't look as steep in pictures as it did in person!)

It was a cold night, with the wind gusting... We zipped our bags as tight as we could, but some wind would still blow in. Ah well, at least there were no mosquitoes, much too cold and windy! Elmar was having trouble sleeping since he had a lighter bag, so I gave him my wool socks. It was a long night, tossing and turning, always waking up, looking at the peak, wondering, ...

Morning was bright, sunny, and warm again. I wasn't feeling so well, though, very tense about what was coming, thoroughly unhappy. We had a light breakfast of an apple and some trail mix, found some water, and were shocked to already see other climbers who had hiked in from the Tioga road arriving.

An early morning visitor (marmot)

The mountain in the morning

Me, still wondering why I was there!

Well, Elmar convinced me that it was doable, so we packed and headed back to the edge of the rock face. We geared up, and the Elmar was off leading as I belayed (and glumly listened to the horror stories that the other parties were exchanging as they geared up). Then it was my turn, and there was no turning back. I probably wouldn't have done it if I hadn't known Elmar as a swimming instructor for almost a year, and trusted him thoroughly, since I was pretty terrified.

Again, the first start was the hardest. Our previous pitches had all been long enough to cover with a single rope length, but this was clearly not the case for Cathedral Peak; instead, Elmar would go ahead roughly a rope-length, placing protection (cams and wedges), set up an anchor point, and then I would climb belayed by the top rope, removing protection as I went. When I reached the belay point I would tie into the anchor, give him back the gear, and then belay for him as he went up to the next belay point. The first belay point didn't feel like what *I* considered a ledge, it was sloped and shaky, so I didn't feel all that comfortable. But I was starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of climbing, so the second pitch was better, and there was another nice tree at the second belay point... (oh, I was so happy to see the trees, since they usually indicated a decent ledge!).

Finally remembering to drink (and breathe!) again on the second belay point

From there it became a habit of watching Elmar's path and trying to duplicate where possible. Sometimes he would be out of sight, though, which always made me nervous, since I didn't want to get stuck in a dead end somewhere. In general, though, everything worked out fine, the rock was nice in that it was both very solid and rough, with lots of holds.

Midway up the third pitch

Elmar getting way too much amusement out of my worrying!

During the third pitch I had no problems with a crack that Elmar had thought might be one of the crux moves; the technique of jamming in hands and feet turned out to be pretty straightforward. After that pitch we ended up on a nice ledge with another tree (love those trees!), near the base of a chimney, the other crux point that Elmar was concerned I might have trouble with; specifically, with my getting INTO the chimney. We were queued up behind a few other people, and watching them try to get in was a bit nerve-racking, but when it was my turn it ended up being no problem, although getting out of it required crossing over a bit of an overhang, which was a mental challenge. I made a statement about how cool chimneys were, which Elmar quickly disputed by saying that this was a very non-typical chimney, as he proceeded to fill my ears with tales of how horrible most of the chimneys he has encountered have been...

The third belay point, looking through the chimney

Still going...

One major point of frustration was that I had no idea how much further we had to go! I'd keep asking Elmar things like "Do you think this is halfway?", but he (and everyone else) would always answer with things like "hmm, maybe, but don't worry about it, think about it one pitch at a time..." *GACK*! Not the answer I wanted to hear, I was slowly getting tired! It was fun hanging out at belay points, though, looking at the long drop and talking to the nice people who were also climbing.

Are we there yet?!?!

The 5th pitch was nice, ending in a huge! ledge, as in big enough to sleep on comfortably without worrying about rolling off! We were way above everything, too, so it had a great view, but I was getting worried again about not being able to get a straight answer from anyone about when it would end! I also had some trouble pulling out the anchor points.

To my surprise, when I clambered up to the sixth belay point, I realized that it was the top! The very small top, at that - the space was split between two rocks that combined probably didn't have more surface area than a mid-sized dining table. Very precarious (but we were anchored into several bolts). Needless to say, the view was awesome, full 360 degrees...

At the top, 10,911 ft... "Hey Mark, why don't you lean back a little more?" NO WAY!

Someone about to rappel down took our picture for us...

Looking down on Eichorn, from above. You can see where we parked way off in the distance, on the road behind the lake, right by the dome to the right of the road.

Then, it was time to figure out how to get down again. Elmar suggested that I could learn how to rappel from the summit block to the walk-off route, but at this point I was tired and my brain was crammed with too much climbing info already, so I opted for downclimbing that section while Elmar belayed me, and then Elmar rappeled down to join me. From there, we traversed down the back of the mountain (still in my climbing shoes) to the base to retrieve our packs, which the marmots had luckily not chewed on! (We actually saw a marmot just below us from the summit block that slipped and just caught itself from sliding off the edge - pretty amazing!)

Looking back at the summit block as we hike off (several people on top)

Watching someone rappel off the summit

I was happy to put my boots back on and re-hydrate, and then we were off. We had to traverse back down to the lake, and then hike down the slabs back to the car. Lots of rock, and very pretty. Back at the car we scarfed down some of the food that we had left there, and then we were off! We had some more good philosophical discussions along the way, and were home around midnight. Success!

After the climb, my fingertips tingled for over a week from the skin that I had rubbed off, after which they all peeled. Weird. But all in all, it was worth it, quite an experience. Still haven't decided if I would do it again :P Trips & Pictures Cathedral Peak, May 2001