Southeast Buttress 5.6
Trip ReportBeautiful Tuolumne Day - Cathedral Peak
"Beep beep beep" - the alarm in the tent next to us is going off.
"Beep beep beep" - now there's an alarm in our tent going off as well.
It's 4am. It's cold. It's time. Cathedral time.
Clothes, layers, muffin, bagel, & most critical of all, coffee (brewed 12 hours earlier - perfectly preserved in the thermos - a new alpine start best practice). After a 20 minute drive we pour out of the car from Porcupine Flat, throw on our harnesses, packs, racks, & turn on our headlamps...
This is the third summer my wife and I've climbed trad. We started talking about Cathedral a long time ago; I've climbed it virtually on gigapan dozens of times; this morning we were finally on the trail. Cathedral is an incredibly aesthetic piece of granite - 10,911 foot summit block from which you can see most every prominent piece of granite in Yosemite - frontal lit when you arrive in the morning - classic Tuolumne knobbish granite that provides a full jungle gym of route options - with a rich John Muir laden history - not to mention dozens of Yosemite Search & Rescue operations. We'd been somewhat apprehensive in the last couple summers about the climb - primarily due to the story our climbing group tells frequently about their first climb - where they arrived at the base - and their friends who had decided to beat them to the summit by climbing the evening before - called them over from some bushes - begging for some water - shivering and dehydrated from the entire night they'd spent man-spooning near the summit in horribly cold temperatures. We had zero intention of incurring the same fate.
5am, alpine start, dark, cold, the adventure begins... There are four of us, two climbing teams, with headlamps on we slog our way up the JMT at a relaxed pace, reaching the Cathedral trail shortly after the long set of stone stairs that turns to the left, about 18 minutes into our hike.
The trail turns out to be far easier to follow then I had heard, likely due to recent trail work by the park service. After an hour of hiking, an incredible alpine sunrise.
After exactly two hours of hiking, at 7am, the trail deposits us directly at the base of "Route A" on the SE Buttress. Although there's nearly two thousand feet of altitude gain, the cool morning temperature, and the slow steady gain, makes it a rather pleasant approach.
After taking 30 minutes to get ready, at 7:30am we begin climbing the A route while our partners start on the B route. We are the first on the rock, but we're no more then 20 feet off the deck when a guide arrives with a client and begins climbing the C route.
The first pitch is the most straightforward of them all, with a nice 5.4 thin hand crack near the end.
I stayed left on the second pitch resulting in some really nice stemming particularly on the second half of the pitch. I thought it was one of the nicer pitches on the route. I snapped this shot of Budd Lake halfway up the second pitch.
Route finding on pitch 3 was straight forward, and like most folks, I built the anchor at the top of that pitch at the base of the chimney.
The chimney was actually easier then I'd anticipated. I took my pack off and left it at the base, climbed up high enough on the face that getting into the chimney wasn't difficult (many say getting in is the crux), and from there it was both very protectable and easy to move up. Here's a shot down from the top of the chimney:
Here's a video from my GoPro helmet camera climbing the chimney:
Pitch 4: Chimney Video
I built an anchor at the top of the chimney, dropped some rope, hauled up my wife and I's pack followed by the packs of our friends climbing the B route. I put my pack back on, left the other three at the top of the chimney attached to the anchor, and proceeded on up the remainder of the fourth pitch. Although this pack hauling model resulted in the 4th pitch taking a lot of extra time, it made the chimney climbing easy, and seemed like a pretty good scheme. I wasn't sure where the proper belay station was at the top of the 4th, but found a spot that had just been occupied by a group ahead of us, and built an anchor there (after down climbing about 15 feet back to the spot). It I had of brought a 70 I would have pushed ahead instead of having to downclimb. Here we're just finishing the fourth pitch:
The topo indicates that the 5th pitch reaches the summit, but doesn't indicate the pitch length, and we weren't sure if we were on the right belay ledge at the top of the 4th pitch, so we ended up breaking the 5th pitch up into two pitches. Thus the 5th pitch ended up at a very large and comfortable ledge at the base of the 5.6 splitter crack which is probably 50 feet or so beneath the summit. From that spot there's a great view of Tuolumne, Conness, Lembert, etc:
Our 6th pitch led up the 5.6 splitter crack. At the top of the crack I was surprised by what I found - it was just different then what I'd seen in photos and anticipated. You can apparently go up to the right on a face, then step over a gap to a spot just below the summit, or you can go left (and down a bit), and traverse over to the base of the 4th class section leading to the summit first climbed by John Muir in his "boots". This is the route I opted for - I wanted to climb the 4th class crack system up to the summit so I was mentally prepared for the downclimb. I made the little traverse, added some pro, extended it, and then headed up the 4th class to the summit. Here's a shot along the way:
And here is a video of the final portion of the climb:
Video of Last Pitch to the Summit
And finally I was on the summit, arriving at 12:38pm, from a start just after 7am, so about 5 hours on the route. With about 30 minutes of route traffic, that was pretty reasonable for our first time up - although I'm confident having done it once we could do it much faster the next time around. The summit consists of two blocks with a nice crack between the two that protects well with BD#1 and smaller. We were able to get all four of our team up on the summit at the same time - getting more then that is possible but would be "interesting"!
Here's some shots from the top. In the second photo you can see how you can go up to the left and step across the gap to near the summit - or do the little traverse along to the base of the class 4 crack climb up to the summit.
Last but not least, here's a quick 20 second clip of the top out after we got all four of us on the two little summit blocks:
Video of Our Top Out
As far as views go, the top of Cathedral ranks up there very high!
After spending nearly an hour on the summit, my wife placed a couple cams in the crack on her way down, put me on belay, and I followed down-cleaning as I went. If you go down the fourth class and around to the right there's a couple 3rd class sections that get you down to a very comfortable large ledge that has a good sized bush/tree on it (that is in the bottom right hand of the next photo). There is some webbing attached to the tree (new webbing added by a friend who had climbed the route a week before). From there, we did one rappel with a 60m rope to a bush/tree down below. At that point, you can either do a second rappel from that bush/tree, or take a little 3rd class walk along a seam to the right. Half our team did the rap, half did the traverse - the traverse was much faster and sufficiently safe. At the end of it, you do a 2nd class hike up and over the ridge, and you'll see a well marked 2nd class descent trail down the side of the SE Buttress. If you are at the very base of the A, B, and C routes, this descent trail comes to the base from the upper right (passing the start of C, then B, and winding up at the base of the A route). It took us around 90 minutes to get back to the base of the climb from the point we started the rappel - although some of that time was attributed to the time it took for half our group to do the unnecessary 2nd rappel. I was actually surprised at how straightforward the descent was after all the horror stories I'd heard.
Once we had returned to the base of the climb, and picked up some items we'd left there, relaxed for a few, grabbed some food & water, it took us about 90 minutes to do the return hike back to our car.
Here's the time the various segments of the day took as reference:
Hike - 120 minutes
Pre-Climb - 35 minutes
Pitch 1 - 28 minutes
Pitch 2 - 44 minutes
Pitch 3 - 47 minutes
Pitch 4 - 76 minutes (broke it into two mini pitches to haul packs)
Pitch 5 - 51 minutes
Pitch 6 - 44 minutes
Pitch 7 - 46 minutes (downclimb pitch) (336 min total or 48 min/pitch)
Summit - 50 minutes
Descent - 91 minutes (back to base of the climb)
Post-Hike - 20 minutes
Hike - 94 minutes
Traffic - 29 minutes (time we had to wait for others on the route)
Car 2 Car - 13 hours
Some additional thoughts:
I would either (a) go really light next time around wrt the pack (e.g. less food & gear) or (b) take a full framed pack and leave it at the base. I had a larger BD climbing pack that contained a plastic internal frame that dug into my back and made the hike out very uncomfortable.
I would take a smaller rack - I had a doubles up through #3 and a single #4 - I would likely drop the #4 and consider singles in the larger BD sizes. The route eats up nuts and many sections can be run out relatively safely.
Consider taking more water then what you think you'll need, leave extra at the base for the return, drink a lot over the first three pitches. There aren't many picnic ledges, so the food you eat on the route needs to be easily accessible and quickly consumable.
I would make sure I figured out how to do the route in 5 pitches by either figuring out the right spot at the top of pitch 4 or by using a 70m rope.
Don't forget sunscreen & sunglasses!
The videos from the day:
Pitch 1 (A Route)
Pitch 2 (A Route)
Pitch 3 (A Route)
Pitch 4 (Part 1 - Chimney) (A Route)
Pitch 4 (Part 2) [Coming Soon]
Pitch 5 (Part 1) (A Route)
Pitch 5 (Part 2) (A Route)
Pitch 6 (Part 1) (A Route) [Coming Soon]
Pitch 6 (Part 2) (A Route)
Summit Video 1
Summit Video 2
Pitch 7 (Downclimb)
If anyone is headed up to Cathedral the first time and has any questions regarding beta drop me a line.
Cathedral is a really nice experience - get out and enjoy it!
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