Southeast Buttress, Cathedral Peak 5.6

   
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Tuolumne Meadows, California USA

  • Currently 5.0/5
Avg time to climb route: 2-4 hours
Approach time: 1.5 hours
Descent time: 1.5-2 hours
Number of pitches: 5
Height of route: 700'
Overview
Cathedral Peak is one of the most aesthetic routes in Tuolumne. The climb consists of five pitches of easy and moderate crack and face climbing on perfect rock. The first few pitches are on low angle terrain that gradually steepens and becomes more difficult. Because of its quality and moderate grade, this is one of the most crowded routes in Yosemite. Luckily there are a number of variations if you need to pass a party.
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History
John Muir didn’t take long to seek out the most beautiful peak of the Tuolumne region. On his first trip to the Meadows, in 1869, he strolled up through virgin forests (no John Muir Trail then!) and scrambled to the top of what he named Cathedral Peak. The last bit was bona fide class 4, making it the hardest climb yet done in the country. Muir said afterwards, “This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California.”

Muir, naturally, chose the easiest way, and his was the only route on the peak for the next 76 years. Along came Chuck Wilts, one of the Valley giants of the 1940s. An electrical engineer, Wilts was fortunate to spend the war years on Army/Navy rocket projects in Southern California. This meant that he was able to get away often to climb in the Sierra. His wife, Ellen, herself a brilliant climber, remembers his gear, ancient indeed by modern standards: “tennis shoes, hiking boots and even, on occasion, nailed boots. His clothing consisted of army-surplus full-cut climbing pants, a pullover parka, and a brimmed shade hat.”

Wilts and Spencer Austin often climbed in the Valley on weekends in the early 1940s, and they were almost the only people in the Valley, with climbers and tourists alike involved in the war effort. Super climbers, they were the first to free the Regular Route on the Higher Cathedral Spire (1944). Later (1946 and 1947) they made valiant attempts on the Arrow Chimney, only to lose the route to John Salathé and Ax Nelson.

Virtually nothing is known about the history of the Wilts/Austin route on the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, even the year of the ascent. They never mentioned the climb in any major publication and, being modest men, never bragged about their soon-to-be classic route. The only clue—seven trivial words—appears in a mimeographed Sierra Club newsletter dated September 9, 1943, which states that in late July the pair “climbed the south side of Cathedral Peak.” This could well have been the route we are talking about.

Whatever the year, it seems safe to say that they got the idea for their route by looking at that amazing profile of the buttress seen from many places along the Tioga Road east of the Meadows. It would be hard for a climber to scope that view and not want to be up there. Why no one had done the buttress in the 1930s is unclear, except that the pioneers back then usually sought out unclimbed summits rather than put up new routes.

By the mid-1950s the route was a standard one, middling 5th class, and done by a few people on virtually every Sierra Club trip to Tuolumne. I did it when I was 16, in the company of an even-less experienced 17-year-old. We joyfully pounded our soft pitons into the decomposed cracks, taking hours (it seemed) to get them out, all twisted and scarred. Our excitement mounted as we got clos...   [full history for SuperTopo members only!]

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Approach
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Descent
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Everything You Need to Know About Tuolumne Meadows
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Other guidebooks that include info on Southeast Buttress
  • Rock Climbs of Tuolumne Meadows, by Don Reid and Chris Falkenstein.
Source: SuperTopo Guidebook Staff Last update: November 19, 2013
Cathedral Peak - Southeast Buttress 5.6 - Tuolumne Meadows, California USA. Click to Enlarge
One of the finest routes in Tuolumne Meadows.
Photo: Greg Barnes
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