Southeast Buttress 5.6
Trip ReportAn Epic of Minor Proportions
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.”
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.”
“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.
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!
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 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.
“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.”
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