Regular Route, Higher Cathedral Spire 5.9


Yosemite Valley, California USA

  • Currently 4.0/5
Avg time to climb route: 2-4 hours
Approach time: 1-2 hours
Descent time: 1-2 hours
Number of pitches: 5
Height of route: 600'
The regular route of Higher Cathedral Spire was considered the "test piece" valley climb at the time of the first ascent in 1934 by climbing legends, Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson, and Dick Leonard. During the 1930's the techniques for roped climbing were still new and the modern climber can only imagine the terror of climbing this classic route wearing heavy boots, almost no pro for the leader, and ropes that were unlikely to survive a lead fall. Later in 1934 Marjory Farquhar became the first woman to climb Higher Spire (in 1936, she became the first woman to ascend Mt.Whitney's East Face route). This classic Yosemite climb wanders its way from one tree belay to the next, as was the norm at the time of the first ascent, to arrive on top of a spectacular summit with a commanding view of El Capitan and Yosemite Valley.
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It’s hardly surprising that the pioneer climbers of the early 1930s chose the Higher Cathedral Spire for their first serious outing. These adventurers had started as mountaineers, where reaching an actual summit (rather than a nondescript rim or a ledge partway up a cliff) was a demonstrable sign of success. And what better place to head for than the Higher Spire, North America’s largest freestanding pinnacle? This phallus of granite rises some 400 feet above the ground at its upper edge and more than 1,000 feet on its downhill side. Naturally, it was to the upper side of the tower that the pioneers approached, for they wanted success, not an epic.

On the historic Sierra Club trip of Labor Day 1933—the first-ever climbers’ visit to the Valley—Jules Eichorn, Dick Leonard, and Bestor Robinson had hiked up to the southern base of the spire. Leonard’s first impression: “After four hours of ineffectual climbing on the southwest face, and three hours more upon the southeast and east faces, we were turned away by the sheer difficulty of the climbing.” It’s no wonder they failed—their “pitons” on this reconnaissance were 10-inch-long nails!

On November 5, armed with pitons and carabiners obtained by mail from Sporthaus Schuster, a large sporting-goods store in Münich, the trio returned to the southern face and managed to climb two pitches before darkness forced a retreat. “By means of pitons as a direct aid,” Leonard wrote, “we were able to overcome two holdless, vertical, 10-foot pitches.”

This attempt is historic, for it signified the first use of artificial aid in Yosemite—and one of the first times in the country. The technique of driving pitons into the rock in order to grab them, or to stand on them, or to attach slings to them—in other words, to use them to gain elevation—was common in the Alps. Robert Underhill, the trio’s mentor, had trained in Europe and might have been expected to embrace this technique, but he was unyielding on the use of artificial aid: “Every pitch,” he once wrote, “must be surmounted by one’s own unaided abilities. . .” The pioneer Yosemite climbers respected Underhill, of course, but confronting firsthand the smoothness and sheerness of the Valley’s cliffs, they realized they would not get far unless they used, occasionally at least, some form of “artificial” techniques. The trick, as they saw it, was to use as little direct aid as possible: the game was climbing, not engineering. This adventurous attitude was to be emulated by most of the better climbers in the years to come.

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Source: SuperTopo Guidebook Staff Last update: September 29, 2016
Higher Cathedral Spire - Regular Route 5.9 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click to Enlarge
The route winds up the left skyline to the summit. The traditional start is lower on the left.
Photo: Randy Spurrier
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