Southeast Buttress 5.6

  • Currently 5.0/5

Cathedral Peak

Tuolumne Meadows, California USA

Trip Report
An Epic of Minor Proportions
Saturday November 5, 2011 11:33pm
The radio in my breast pocket squawks at me again, “Dude, unless you're 15 feet from the top, we gotta rap down. It's getting dark.” I fumble with the talk button through my shirt, “We're okay. I can see the top.” Actually, it's a lie. I can see what might be the top, but I've been scrambling in the Sierras long enough to know that summits always seem to be “over the next rise.” “Bitchen! Make it fast!” My old friend's encouragement is unnecessary. I want to be off this peak in the worst way but fast doesn't describe either of us these days unless it is followed by the word asleep.
I call him Cow--a nickname earned from Boy Scout misadventures--not unlike our current predicament. The Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak in Yosemite is a classic climb. We judged our neophyte leading skills were up to the task since none of the five or so pitches were harder than 5.6. We figured it was a piece of cake.
Now, wiser men pushing sixty might have been less optimistic when they saddled up with 65-pound packs at the trailhead, or even had a second thought when their post-surgery knees wobbled the three miles to our camp at Cathedral Lakes. Even the hard-won grey in my beard might have advised caution, but Cow and I have a talent for ignoring our limitations. We should have seen this one coming, given the way the day started...
“It's too damn cold!” Cow hollers from his tent. I can barely hear him since he has an annoying habit of pitching his tent as far from my snoring as possible. Cow has a point about the temperature; the late October chill makes it way too easy to stay in my warm down bag. Being a well-seasoned backpacker conditioned to cold mornings, I quickly rationalize our pre-dawn strategy away. “Hey, it's only five pitches.”
Cathedral Peak
Cathedral Peak
Credit: Captain Triage
Eventually, the familiar battle between the sedating sleeping bag and my protesting bladder is lost and I crawl out. Cathedral Peak towers over us in the morning light. From our camp, the Southeast Buttress stands out in stark relief, and with each “gotcha” of my herniated disk, the peak looks a whole lot more like suffering than cake. Cow eyes the route as well. “Huh. We're dragging all this sh#t to the top of that thing?” I thought our argument over climbing gear was settled last night, but Cow is hefting the rack again. He pops off a few more pieces as if discarding moldy grapes. I protest and suggest that if he wants to save weight, he can leave his can of sardines behind. The truth is I enjoy buying cool mountain gear as much as using it, so I clip my prized tricams back on. Another argument over a handful of spare carabiners ensues, but I prevail.
The Southeast Buttress is a steep, heavily featured face, rising 700 feet to Cathedral's 10,940 foot summit. We plan to carry our gear to the base of the route and leave our big packs, boots and extra water. We'll do the climb as light as possible, then come down the quick and easy descent route, re-hydrate and head back to camp and loads of pasta.
As we hunt for a secure spot to stow our packs a young and fit-looking gen-x couple scamper up the scree to the base. “Mind if we jump on the route?” I’m annoyed, but I hear myself answer; “Yeah, go for it, we're not ready yet anyway.” Like most Cathedral climbers, young-and-fit had probably driven to the trailhead this morning and here they were already; beating us to the route. It didn’t seem all that long ago Cow and I would storm 20 miles up and over a 12,000 foot pass just so we could get to a favorite campsite quicker. Young-and-fit makes me feel tired, and I don’t like it. Cow gives me a knowing glance, but I can’t tell if he’s empathizing with me or just admiring the perky blonde in the Prana pants.
Regardless of the entertainment, we watch with growing frustration as young-and-fit engage in a remarkably deliberate application of sunscreen, followed by equally obsessive shoe tightening, sunglasses adjusting, hydration pack testing, and rack straightening. Cow starts to blink and twitch when they pull out a towel and carefully wipe the soles of their shoes. Fortunately, young-and-fit start climbing before I reveal my true nature. At least we can watch their first pitch and maybe save a little route-finding time.
Cow is roping-up for the first lead and it's already 10:30; hours later than we had planned. I give his harness a second look. “Hey, where's your belay device?” “Oh yeah, can I borrow one of your ATCs? I only have a figure-eight and left it in camp—too heavy.” I’m stunned; “I don't have a spare!” Cow gives a characteristic shrug. “Huh.” Choking him seems like an appropriate next step, but then I remember my extra carabiners. I dangle the recently disputed ovals with vindication. “We improvise.” I toss my ATC to Cow and rig the carabiners as a belay device. “Belay on,” I announce smugly. Cow awards me with a grunt.
Since we were too busy to pay attention to young-and-fit's route, the first pitch has Cow wandering all over the buttress looking for a small tree the topo labels “half alive.” Supposedly it marks a good belay ledge, but there seem to be plenty of scraggly pines that meet that description. Cow realizes he's climbed too high and makes a sketchy traverse to the ledge. He puts me on belay and I follow, spewing sarcasm as I make the ledge. Cow fires back as he passes me the rack. “Ok smart ass, let's see what you’ve got.”
Zippered up.
Zippered up.
Credit: Captain Triage
I confidently take the lead, but my route-finding is no better as I wander in and out of blocks, ledges, and alcoves during the next two pitches. By the top of pitch three I have so much rope-drag I'm virtually stuck. Adding to my angst, I have to piss so badly the horizon has a yellow tint. Admittedly, my rope management sucks, but, of course, I blame Cow. “Slack you idiot, slack!” I wonder if he's tied me off and is snacking on his kippers. He radios back, “I'm… (static) …tension…” With one hand I cling to the face while yanking the rope with the other. “Not tension! I need slack goddamn it! You're going to pull me off the rock, moron!” Cow is not sympathetic; “F… (static) …you, ass… (static).” Desperately, I haul on the rope and get just enough slack to make a final precarious move up the short face to a reassuring ledge. I set an anchor and tie in. “Off belay!”
“About time!” Cow radios up. “What in hell are you doing?” I'm actually taking a piss. I one-handedly punch the talk button; “I'm playing with my dick! What do you think I'm doing?”
The rope drag makes belaying Cow feel like hauling a pig up a Big Wall and I swear profusely while simultaneously admiring the view. The triple summits of Echo Peaks dominate the horizon. To the left, Tuolumne Meadows wears its fall colors. Far down, and to the right, a nearly dry creek cuts a serpentine pattern through the meadow surrounding Upper Cathedral Lake. The high country is quiet, awaiting the first snowfall. With another round of hauling and cursing it occurs to me that climbing is full of contradictions.
Cow arrives at the belay and sniffs around. “Man, it smells like piss up here.” We sit down for lunch and within moments it smells like kippered fish in mustard sauce.
The author above the third pitch.
The author above the third pitch.
Credit: Captain Triage
Even with our feet dangling in space, the ledge seems luxurious and we dally too long. Instead of being rested, our desk-jockey butts have stiffened up. I stand awkwardly, weaving over the edge like a wino. Cow leads off up a chimney, cursing my gear addiction as the overloaded rack repeatedly snags in the narrow space. I graciously offer to stop using my spare ovals as his belay but Cow is unfazed; “You think (grunt) because you paid (grind) a fortune for this (scrape) sh#t I have to drag it everywhere!” The rack catches again. “That’s it! I'm going to rot in this chimney!” I tell Cow to quit whining and climb. He does, clearing the chimney and angling up and left past a large flake and into a rocky alcove where he puts me on belay. I quickly follow and discover the chimney is harder than it looks. I decide not to acknowledge this.
Cow snags his way up the chimney.
Cow snags his way up the chimney.
Credit: Captain Triage
The next belay finds us increasingly discouraged with our slow pace. Young-and-fit are probably sipping lattés and here we are wasting time again with route-finding. I wonder if us old farts even belong up here. There’s an easier escape route off the peak at this point. Why not just take it? Are we trying to prove something?
Damn straight we are; we decide where the next pitch goes and Cow leads off again.
By now the buttress has been in shadow for hours and I'm getting cold. Cow's finished the pitch and is anchoring himself to the rock. “I'm freezing my ass off down here,” I radio. Cow is unusually sensitive; “Sorry man, I almost got it.” A few shivers later and he calls “Off belay!” Gratefully, I take Cow off belay, yank off my pack and pull on a vest, Gore-Tex shell, balaclava and fingerless gloves. I'm only half ready when Cow radios that he’s got me on belay and I can start climbing. My continued fiddling inspires his next transmission: “Are you climbing or did you drop your pants again?”
As I come into view, Cow starts to apologize for taking so long with the anchor, but the sight of my bundled-up form stops him mid-sentence; "Sorry it took... shit! I thought you said you were cold!” “Well, I was,” I reply sheepishly. Cow is practically blue, with nothing warmer than a flannel shirt. His barrage of expletives is so impressive I figure it’ll keep him warm for hours.
It's my lead again and I’m feeling desperate. The short October day has caught up with us. We discuss rappelling down, but it seems safer to finish the last pitch while we have light. The regular descent route is straightforward and is far more appealing to us than a half-dozen tangled raps in the dark. The climbing is so good that for a couple of moves I forget the fading light altogether. Near the top is a vertical crack. Leaning back against my fingers, I pop a red tricam into a flared pocket. The fit is perfect…ha! And to think Cow wanted to pull them off the rack! I make a move up and off the face in time to catch the sunset backlighting the tumble of summit blocks. Almost there!
The summit blocks at sunset.
The summit blocks at sunset.
Credit: Captain Triage
I snap a picture, radio Cow and scramble over some third class boulders. The last 15 to 20 feet consists of parallel fourth-class cracks. The exposure is unnerving so I put in a couple of cams. Then with a final move, I'm on top!
I hurriedly build a decent, but awkward anchor and put Cow on belay. He's climbing fast now and I can barely keep the slack out of the rope, but as Cow nears the top he stops. He is still out of sight and the gusting wind reminds me of the cold descent ahead of us. “What's the hold-up?” I radio. “You and your f*#king tricams! The damn thing won’t come out. f*#k it! I'm leaving it.” I was in no position to argue, although it seems to me this wasn't the first time Cow gladly left an obstinate tricam where I placed it.
The radio goes silent, and for just a few minutes I’m alone on top. The last rays of sunlight bounce around the high country creating a surreal glow on the mountaintops. Alpenglow is working its magic, dissolving away my fatigue and anxiety. I imagine bragging back home about how we sat in heroic silence, watching the indigo blue of dusk form above the orange and purple horizon.
Cow’s face finally appears over the summit block, glowing along with the granite.
“Dude, you got a headlamp?” “Sure, I always carry a headlamp,” I answer. “You?” “Nope.” "Jesus Christ!"
Panic and frustration fight for dominance. Cow is glazing over; “Must-go-down, must-go-down.” He lowers off, and then I rap from the summit. From here it is supposed to be forth-class around the back of the buttress, over a small rocky ridge and down a short climber's trail to our packs. I pull the rope through the anchor, intending to leave some gear on top, but it jams.
Over the radio Cow repeats his mantra: “Must-go-down.”
“Cow, where are you?”
“I'm down some slabs—can't see a thing. Where are you?”
“Rope's stuck, gotta clear it.”
I rig a marginal self-belay and climb back to the anchors to free the rope, but it keeps wedging between the crack and carabiners. I should reset the anchor, but instead I unclip the rope and yank it free, dropping it into the darkness. Trying not to think of the exposure, I down-climb back to the third-class boulders, find the rope and coil it. After what seems like an eternity, I work around the base of the summit blocks looking for Cow. “I'm down here,” he yells up.
“Keep talking!” I try to zero-in on his voice somewhere down in the dark, my tiny LED headlamp illuminating only the granite immediately below my feet. As I zig-zag down the slabs towards Cow’s voice a sickening thought nags me; aren’t we supposed to be moving over a ridge to the right? If we keep climbing down from here we'll miss the descent route.
“Cow, we gotta keep moving to the right. We’re on the wrong f*#king side of the mountain!”
“That way goes back up. Must-go-down.”
Cow was partway through the fourth-class slabs and, in the dark, had decided to go no further. It is a good thing because it is dangerously steep. My light is a feeble beam compared with the inky, moonless black that is rapidly enveloping us, making route-finding ridiculous. We rig a rappel and Cow goes first—unexpectedly swinging into an overhung black hole. “Where's the f*#king bottom?”
“It's right there, you coward!” I join him with my headlamp and see that we’re perched on yet another slab. I repeat my admonition to go back up to the right, but the ridge above—outlined by stars—is an ominous, uninviting black hulk. We pull out the map, but being brain-dead, we argue over what the map is telling us. I can see an occasional, distant glint from headlights on Tioga Road; that has to be north. “Uh, okay. Whatever you say,” Cow shrugs, “but the North Star is way over there.”
The author discovers the North Star.
The author discovers the North Star.
Credit: Captain Triage
Now, I really do know where Polaris is, but in my fatigue the stupid road is disorienting and try as I might, I can’t explain my point—assuming I have one. Cow is unimpressed; “That's north, we're moving north and that leads to this cliff.” He points out the tightly packed contour lines, “That’s a bad thing. We go west, we go down. That’s a good thing.”
The debate is like arguing with gravity. Down was down, and we wanted down. I give up on the regular descent route which is now behind us and reluctantly head down to the left. With a few more awkward rappels we gradually work our way out of the tedious slabs onto terrain where we can move faster, but the endless stumbling in the dark adds to the growing blackness in my mind. An armchair mountaineer--that's what I am--reading topos of routes I’ll never climb and pouring over field tests of the latest gear I’ll never use—an imposter!
Whump! Cow goes down in the scree. “C’mon, can you just stay close? You’re waving that light around like a goddamn Boy Scout!”
To those unfortunate enough to have hiked with us, it is a well-known fact that if there are two ways to go Cow and I will each take a different one. Thirty-five years of hiking together had clearly demonstrated this ludicrous behavior. Even now there seemed to be no way for us to simply walk together. We tried again; “Okay, look, you lead,” I say. “I’ll stay behind you with the light, and then we can both see.”
Whump! “Right! I see nothing but a f*#king shadow!” We try the side-by-side technique. Whump! “Asshole! Slow down!” I’m getting impatient. My sleeping bag is floating before my eyes like a blue feathery siren. I just want camp, and I want it now; to hell with walking together. But before our teamwork collapses entirely, we see dark shapes looming ahead.
Trees! We are getting down below timberline which means that a trail can’t be much further. Yet ironically, the tangle of forest debris makes the situation worse. Stubbed toes clad in tight climbing shoes bring explosive bouts of cursing and renewed lies about sticking together.
“Let's hold hands.” Cow says out of the blue.
“Do what?”
“We're going to hold hands.” Cow states flatly. I figure hypothermia has finally got to him.
“There is no way in hell I'm holding your hand.”
Cow is adamant. “I'm not taking another step until you hold my hand.”
The comforting blue ghost looms in front of me again. My watch says midnight. “Oh, for Christ's sake.” I grab his hand.
Much to my surprise, the affect of holding hands is remarkable; we actually make better time. Warm hands of friendship gradually penetrate my dark thoughts and we begin to joke at the absurdity of the situation--just one more added to the many epics that bring head shaking and laughter. The shared memories of pushed limits and near-disasters pour forth for an hour. Adventures all—crazy and irreplaceable, and not one of them was about proving anything.
The terrain soon levels off and when my headlamp illuminates the smooth and well-traveled John Muir Trail we stare at it like the proverbial yellow brick road. “To Oz?” “To Oz!”
Now it was only a matter of enduring grunge-filled climbing shoes for a mile or two more.
“So, uh, I guess we can let go now” Cow mumbles.
“I dunno,” I answer. “The trail is still kinda rough.”

  Trip Report Views: 4,061
Captain Triage
About the Author
Captain Triage is a trad climber from San Diego, CA.


Trad climber
  Nov 5, 2011 - 11:43pm PT
Great TR. I felt like I was there.
Captain Triage

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
Author's Reply  Nov 6, 2011 - 12:05am PT
Thanks Studly. I appreciate the comment! :)
Todd Eastman

Social climber
Putney, VT
  Nov 6, 2011 - 01:28am PT
The tone of the descriptions of Cow remind me of Bryson's treatment of Katz in "A Walk in the Woods."


Trad climber
Fresno/Clovis, ca
  Nov 6, 2011 - 01:30am PT
Awesome. I love the "just hold me" ending. Congrats on a long and healthy career slaying dragons together. A real inspiration. Thanks for the story. Way to keep gettin after it.

Mountain climber
  Nov 6, 2011 - 02:17am PT
Thanks for taking the time to write this up, one of the best i've read. I was laughing and crying. You really told the tale well.
This is very funny and touching at tha same time.
Wade Icey

Trad climber
  Nov 6, 2011 - 11:08am PT
thanks. good show.

Trad climber
Upland, CA
  Nov 6, 2011 - 11:20am PT
Beautiful ending to a funny write-up of your adventure.

Social climber
Choss Creek, ID
  Nov 6, 2011 - 11:50am PT
Gneiss & Gnarly tale of alpine vicissitudery, and old climber dudery.
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Nov 6, 2011 - 01:04pm PT
Awesome captain, glad you got to hold hands......)
Very strong write up!!!
2 head lamps is better then one....:)

Trad climber
Northern California
  Nov 6, 2011 - 01:00pm PT
This TR was such a great read. Thanks so much for contributing it. A story of friendship and climbing-- yay!

  Nov 6, 2011 - 01:07pm PT
Excellent trip report - I read it out loud to my partner and we laughed until we cried! Well done.

Sport climber
Boulder, Colorado!
  Nov 6, 2011 - 01:20pm PT
Excellent! We need more! :)
Jay Wood

Trad climber
Land of God-less fools
  Nov 6, 2011 - 01:56pm PT
Such a great write-up of a classic Cathedral (mis)adventure.

Captain Triage

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
Author's Reply  Nov 6, 2011 - 02:42pm PT
Many thanks to you all for such kind remarks.
Here's to climbing and friendship!
tinker b

the commonwealth
  Nov 9, 2011 - 07:32am PT
i loved it. especially the part about holding hands. tell us some more stories please.
Dos XX

Trad climber
Los Angeles, CA
  Nov 9, 2011 - 08:20am PT
It just ain't a climb if it doesn't end in the dark! Superb write-up of a classic adventure.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Nov 9, 2011 - 10:56am PT
Great TR! If we didn't have epics what would we talk about?

Boulder climber
Andy Cairns
  Nov 9, 2011 - 11:16am PT
Here's to climbing and friendship!

Amen. Within certain limits, though.

You seem to know your audience, Captain.

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
  Nov 9, 2011 - 11:36am PT
Epics are where it's at, as long as everybody gets to laugh afterward!!

Social climber
Mill Valley, CA
  Nov 9, 2011 - 11:58am PT
You really pee'd on a belay ledge on Cathedral?

Trad climber
Yacolt, WA
  Nov 9, 2011 - 12:29pm PT
Beautiful partnership.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
  Nov 9, 2011 - 01:37pm PT
I know every hold on that route, and on the descent (which is harder than it sounds), and you STILL got me gripped.


A pile of dirt.
  Nov 9, 2011 - 03:27pm PT
LMFAO - thanks!
Tony Bird

Northridge, CA
  Nov 9, 2011 - 03:51pm PT
i'm gonna follow these guys around with an empty gear sling.

the familiar battle between the sedating sleeping bag and my protesting bladder is lost

now that's poetry.

Trad climber
Being held captive behind the Orange Curtain
  Nov 9, 2011 - 07:10pm PT
The adventure has gone out of all my climbing...can I go with you guys? Great TR. Laughed my rear off!

Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
  Nov 9, 2011 - 07:11pm PT
Needs bigger picture but otherwise, funny as hell and a great TR!

Trad climber
  Nov 9, 2011 - 07:52pm PT
great tr! have any more epics you can share?

Mountain climber
Colorado & Nepal
  Nov 9, 2011 - 09:14pm PT
And do write up some more of your epics!

Mountain climber
  Nov 10, 2011 - 04:47pm PT
Great trip report. Thanks for posting

Sport climber
Almost to Hollywood, Baby!
  Nov 10, 2011 - 05:07pm PT
Pretty funny stuff! Kinda reminds me of Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple.
Bad Acronym

Little Death Hollow
  Nov 10, 2011 - 07:09pm PT
Excellent work! Love the strains of wounded pride and irascibility throughout! Keep us posted on your next adventure.
Captain Triage

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
Author's Reply  Nov 11, 2011 - 12:10pm PT
Cow and I do indeed have more adventures. I hope to write more soon. I'm sorry about the small photos. I'll post the full size originals as soon as I can find them! And about the belay ledge... can I take the 5th?
Again, thanks for the comments. I really appreciate them... more than you know!
Captain Triage

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
Author's Reply  Nov 11, 2011 - 06:37pm PT
Fortunately I found the original photos. They are much better. I also added a couple of new ones.
Thanks everyone!
Inner City

Trad climber
Portland, OR
  Nov 11, 2011 - 07:26pm PT
This TR was great. The everyman (me) alive and well in print!

That route is so great and can still offer up an epic. Once I did it the day after the road opened and we made the top in fading light only to see the snowfield going down the descent slabs. A few rappels later, we were fine, but it is still my most memorable ascent of that peak.

Thanks for the story!

  Nov 11, 2011 - 08:47pm PT
Excellent! Please do write up more TRs!!

Captain Triage

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
Author's Reply  Nov 23, 2011 - 02:13pm PT
Descent slabs covered in snow, in the dark. That is a worthy epic!
Cathedral Peak - Southeast Buttress 5.6 - Tuolumne Meadows, California USA. Click to Enlarge
One of the finest routes in Tuolumne Meadows.
Photo: Greg Barnes