Climb: Cathedral Peak

We drove up Saturday night and rolled in at 11p to freezing (literally) temps. Campgrounds are closed for the season, but with a late arrival and early departure, we just threw bags down a bit off the road and set our alarms for 6:00. Damn. 10,000 feet in late September is cold. Clear and cold. No matter what I do, I can’t get my bag tight enough around my face to keep my nose from freezing.

6:00 came early.

Powering down the donuts and starbucks doubleshot can I brought was not the ideal start to the day, but it was caffeine and fat – both things I needed at that point.

Sunrise on the trail to Cathedral Peak


The hike in to the start is about .5 miles up the John Muir Trail to a use trail leading to the base about an hour and a half later. We only lost the use trail once, a minor victory, and ended up at the base around 9:00. Even so, we had two parties ahead of us. Fortunately, the route affords plenty of opportunities to pass.

A quick rack-up and look at the topo and we were off. The party to our left, of three, was kind enough, though fairly slow. The route is a classic pinnacle (see photos), so as we all neared the top, things started to cluster, even crossing ropes on one pitch. The climbing was straightforward and quick. So straightforward and quick, in fact, that I never looked at the topo again – the whole thing goes. Never a move harder than 5.7, I was actually a bit disappointed by the discontinuous profile. The views, though, were A+.

Cathedral Peak with moon above

The real story of the day, though, came after we summited. The actual peak is about the size of a card table, the wind was howling, and the midday temp with wind chill was probably around 40 degrees. In short, no place to hang out. We started down, thinking we understood the descent, but came to find out that we didn’t. At all. AT ALL. We fungled this descent so bad, we literally could not have fucked up worse. Instead of a fairly trivial descent down a sandy wash and talus, we ended up doing an additional nasty 2 hours of pure cross-country hiking ( i.e. no trail).

On the summit of Cathedral Peak

View Northwest from Cathedral Peak

We started playing the “how much daylight do we have” game, which is a pretty crappy game to play when you might die if caught out for a night in those conditions. Mark, in a brilliant coup, had left his headlamp in the car. Stellar… How does this math go? Two people divided by one headlamp equals…?

We were trudging along, one foot in front of the next, balancing calorie expenditure, respiration (the heavier you breathe, the more water you lose), and daylight. Oh yeah, and Mark’s wife was going to call YOSAR at 8:00p.

I was proud of my navigational skills, and we ended up back at the base about 2 hours later – around 6:45. We had 1:15 to get out. And it gets dark at 7:00. Rad!

As “not great” as our situation was, it paled in comparison to what we saw up on Cathedral: a team of two just below the chimney pitch (about 2/3 of the way up), and a soloist just above the chimney. Neither team moved in the nearly 1/2 hour that they were visible. We heard the roped team yelling, and I imagined the soloist’s internal monologue.

I’ve been damn-near benighted once, about 5 years ago while climbing in the Mexican desert, and I could vividly remember what the rope team was going through. The wind is howling, you can’t hear your partner, he can’t hear you, the frustration of the situation only adds to the already high stress, and the wheels just come off the whole operation. Teamwork turns to team recrimination, simple tasks take longer than they should, et voila – a frozen night huddled on a ledge (best case scenario) or standing in slings (worst case scenario). It ain’t pretty.

But Mark and I were on the ground, which was a fair bit better than being up on rock. Seeing these guys up there also gave me some consolation should Mark’s wife call YOSAR – at least none of those guys would die of hypothermia that night. 2 hours later, we had kicked the last root, tripped over the last rock, and shouted off the last noise in the dark, and were back at Mark’s car. Without the high near-full moon, this would have been an epic. I threw my backpack down in my apartment at 2:00am last night, 15 hours of sleep in the last three nights, 60 miles on the bike and a classic sierra summit all bagged in the meantime.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’ve done this route four or five times in total (though the above was the first): at least once under 3.5 hours car-to-car, simuled and soloed it, but sometimes it’s worth it to epic a little bit in service of helping a good friend learn to lead.

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