East Buttress 5.10c or 5.9 A0

  • Currently 5.0/5

Middle Cathedral

Yosemite Valley, California USA

Trip Report
How I avoided death on the Kat Walk
Tuesday October 9, 2012 9:08pm
"It is easy to get temporarily lost, but the thing to remember is this: don't get involved with roped climbing again."
from the description of the Kat Walk in
"The Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley" by Steve Roper

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El Cap at sunset from the top of East Buttress on Middle Cathedral.
El Cap at sunset from the top of East Buttress on Middle Cathedral.
Credit: Mattyboy
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This is not an epic. It tells how I avoided an epic in a situation that easily could have become one had I made the wrong decisions at crucial points.

The Kat Walk is a traverse across the upper reaches of the
East Face of Middle Cathedral Rock in Yosemite Valley.
It's the standard walk-off for many Middle Cathedral routes,
taking you from the top of the cliff over to the
descent gully that divides Middle and Higher Cathedral rocks.

On a beautiful early fall day my partner Ross and I were
third in line on the classic East Buttress route,
and after ten hours of climbing found ourselves
topping out just as the last sunlight left the top of El Cap across the Valley.
Eager to reach the descent gully before dark we hurriedly
coiled the rope and scambled up 200' of class 3 terrain
until it leveled off and we were on the Kat Walk proper.

I relaxed just a bit at this point and decided to change
out of my rock shoes and into my hiking shoes, thinking
I would walk faster with comfortable shoes on. Ross had
already changed his shoes and decided to take the rope
and proceed without me.
As he left I said "If I don't catch up in 15 minutes, come
back for me." (Lesson 1: Always have an explicit plan for
what to do if you get separated.)

It only took 2 minutes to change my shoes, but the light
was fading fast. Ross had quickly disappeared through the bushes,
The trail seemed easy to follow at first, but as I
descended a corner around some boulders I found myself
looking at a very exposed 50' traverse across low angle
slabs. I started across and found that my hiking shoes
didn't feel very secure on the slope and the large rack
of climbing gear was throwing me off balance. About halfway
across the slab became very smooth and I stopped to
ponder my situation.

The slabs were not steep. I'm positive in broad daylight
with my rock shoes on I could have just walked across. But it
was nearly dark and I was wearing hiking shoes. The exposure
was considerable. Twenty feet below me the slabs dropped off
over a thousand feet. Like the old saying, "Easy as pie, fall and you die."
I wasn't feeling very confident so
I decided to back up to a place where I could sit down and
put on my rock shoes and my headlamp. (Lesson 2: Always carry
a headlamp on a long climb.) Mine is a tiny Petzl emergency
lamp that is very lightweight and practically stows away in a thimble.
It provides just enough light to see the trail in front of you.

By the time I changed shoes, it was completely dark.
I started across the slabs by headlamp. Again I reached the
middle and again I was dismayed at the prospect of making
friction moves over a thousand foot dropoff. The headlamp
was better than nothing, but I couldn't get a good sense
of depth perception. The slabs had lichen and bits of dirt
and gravel so the footing didn't seem very secure.

I stopped once again to reassess my predicament. I was alone
on top of a thousand foot cliff with a tiny headlamp. I was
tired, thirsty, and a little weak after a ten hour climb. I felt
some urgency to reach the gully, but the thought came to me,
"John, this is exactly how climbing fatalities happen, unroped
in the dark on a semi-technical descent." There wasn't even
a place to sit down, so balancing with my feet in two pockets
and one hand for balance, I yelled for Ross.
(Lesson 3: Don't let the urgency of the moment cause you to
travel in an unsafe manner. The old mountain dictum "speed is
safety" may apply for avoiding hazards like bad weather,
but on a mild October night in Yosemite Valley, being in
a rush can get you killed.)

I called out, "Ross, I need a rope."

Despite feeling like a wimp for not
having the courage to walk across the slabs, I decided I
would be safer if Ross would give me a belay.
(Lesson 4: Don't let your pride prevent you from asking for
a rope belay on easy terrain.)

A few moments later I heard Ross's voice in reply, but he was
apparently already down in the descent gully and I couldn't make
out what he said. His voice was muffled and echoes obscured the words.
We exchanged shouts a few times, fruitlessly, as neither of us
could understand the other. To me his voice had a tone of
finality, like he couldn't or wouldn't help me for some reason.

I stood in the dark in the middle of the slabs for about ten minutes,
waiting, and didn't hear or see any sign of Ross. I was feeling
frustrated and begin to face the possibility that I might have
to spend the night up there. After a few more minutes
I gave up on Ross returning to my aid and looking around
I decided to see if I could find a way to beat through the
bushes up above the cliff band overhead.

Carefully stepping back to the beginning of the slab,
I then retraced my steps, and started looking for a way
to get past the slabs by taking a higher route across
the cliff. Almost immediately my flashlight revealed
a cairn marking the trail, up through the bushes.
(Lesson 5: If the way forward seems uncertain, try backtracking
and studying the terrain more carefully.)

I was back on the trail. The slabs
were completely off route! I should have never gone
anywhere near them! In the fading daylight prior to donning
a headlamp I had walked past the cairn and committed the classic
mistake of heading down because it was easier walking
than going uphill through bushes.

The full danger of the slabs now became apparent to me, and
a great sense of relief passed through me at how narrowly
I had averted a potentially fatal mistake. The slabs were
definitely not the way to go, that really was a thousand foot
vertical drop, and attempting to cross the dirty slabs by
headlamp could have been deadly.
(Lesson 6: Trust your intuition. My impression from the guidebook
description was that descent wasn't supposed to be class 3,
so when confronted with something semi-technical, I listened
to the cautionary voice telling me to consider other alternatives.)

The trail took me up and over the slabs and down through
some trees then on to a small plateau where an obvious
cairn sat at the edge of cliff. Looking over the edge
a 5.8 downclimb a crack led into a gully. Something
was clearly not right. It didn't make any sense to
have to do fifth class downclimbing. What was the cairn
doing here? Stumped again, I tried calling out to Ross
once again for assistance.

"Ross, I'm lost".

I heard his voice in reply almost immediately, and this time
he sounded closer. Looking in the direction of his voice,
I could see a faint reflected light from his headlamp in the distance.
Was he coming back for me? We still couldn't understand each
other, but we could recognize each other's names. So like a
child's game of Marco Polo, every minute or so I would yell "Ross"
and he would respond "John", because that was the only
meaningful communication we could exchange. I begin to sense he
was getting closer. After a few minutes his headlamp finally
appeared through the bushes about 100 feet away,
and I could hear him distinctly.
Almost immediately on seeing his light I got re-oriented and realized the direction I needed to travel.
It was clear I should NOT descend the cliff, so I beat the bushes
back up through the trees.
A few moments later I was back on a good
trail and thanking Ross for returning to get me. He had been
able to traverse the tricky sections of the trail in the
last of the twilight, descend to the first rap station
and set up the rope. Then he backtracked to help me find
the trail that he had by now become familiar with having first
located it before darkness. Together we negotiated the rappels
without incident and descended the long gully safely back to the car.

Take away lesson: If something doesn't feel right, take time to reassess,
don't let the urge to push through "this one tough spot"
outweigh other options.

  Trip Report Views: 6,716
About the Author
Mattyboy likes granite.

Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
  Oct 9, 2012 - 09:32pm PT
Good work on figuring it out. The trail is mostly tight to the upper wall, seemingly in the bushes at times. No need to be on that slab!

Note: this topo shows the regular Kat Walk and Cathedral Chimney descent.
I don't recommend the "Penny Pinnacle rap route", unless there is another big rockfall in the Cathedral Chimney.



Trad climber
The state of confusion
  Oct 9, 2012 - 09:32pm PT

Great job!
Glad that you're here to report it.

Mountain climber
The Ocean
  Oct 9, 2012 - 09:36pm PT
Beautiful example of proper thinking.

Darkness even on familiar terrain let alone unfamiliar can make things surprisingly dicey.

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  Oct 9, 2012 - 09:43pm PT

state of being
  Oct 9, 2012 - 09:55pm PT
I know that spot. First time there, I took the slab around, with climbing shoes. Next time there, my partner spotted the cairn, but I thought it was marking the slab section,as I was conditioned to go that way, so we got into an argument. He was right, much easier to go straight thru the bushes. A few steps in and the trail becomes clear.

Gym climber
  Oct 9, 2012 - 10:05pm PT
Way to go.

My one and only time on that descent we got a late start in April when the gully was completely snow-choked, and had to descend in the pitch dark. My partner, who had done the route before, dropped his headlamp, and so I gave him mine. Rap anchors were under snow or water, etc. The descent experience was somewhat unpleasant.

Boulder climber
  Oct 9, 2012 - 10:11pm PT
Good sermon.
(Clint's photo)

Sport climber
Almost to Hollywood, Baby!
  Oct 10, 2012 - 02:57am PT
Great topo of the descent Clint!

I remember getting a little lost in full daylight there, contemplating raps off a cliff, before walking through a wall of bushes and figuring out the trail back into the head of the talus field.

Social climber
  Oct 10, 2012 - 03:24am PT
hey there say, mattyboy... (and for ross)..

whewwwww, :O
glad to hear that you are well...

scary stuff, specially to us non climbers...
though hiking has its own 'take care' times, too...

thanks for the share and for all that chipped in...
it helps folks like me, understand better, too...

  Oct 10, 2012 - 03:39am PT
But how was the climb?!?!

In the day, the trail is marked and easy to see (I remember cairns literally every few feet), but the consequence of a mistake was hefty. Getting off trail in the dark would certainly be scary.

We ended up climbing in 95F weather, and topped out in an almost drunken stupor from dehydration and for me, the gully was way more sketchy then the kat walk. Anything falling from above tunnels on your head, we stayed helmeted until after the last rap for fear of the top partner accidentally knocking a rock off the descent. The super loose rock lower in the descent did not work well with the complete loss of coordination because of the dehydration. At some point I ended up surfing a refrigerator sized boulder for 6 feet before jumping off.

My buddy lost his shoe in the descent, which was rescued weeks later as someone found it and kindly left it on a cairn on the approach trail.

Oakland, CA
  Oct 10, 2012 - 02:42pm PT
Great topo, Clint. Do you have a similar topo of the entire Kat Walk, from over in the DNB/NB/HCMT top-out area?

Trad climber
Fresno/Clovis, ca
  Oct 10, 2012 - 06:19pm PT
Way to keep it together man. Excellent reminder for all of us. Thanks for the heads up. We've all been there....and will be there again someday.

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Oct 10, 2012 - 07:40pm PT

Really good story, too.

the last bivy
  Oct 10, 2012 - 11:28pm PT
NIce! success in the mountains is about clear thinking and good decisions. live to climb another day
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
  Oct 10, 2012 - 11:40pm PT
You did a good job writing, man. I enjoyed it and learned something.
I was right behind you from my own perspective of fortyish years ago. In the dark. On the same off-route slabs, knowing I too was alone.
I can't remember details like the light, the moon, my partner's ID. But I know I got the hell back off the slabs as soon as I could, BUT ONLY AFTER THINKING. I thought the best move would be going back. Then I decided only after talking it over among myselves from the point of view of my partner.
As always, the closer you are to the last point you were seen the better, if you wish to be found as quickly as possible. Assuming your pride has let you admit you're lost!
A very provocative perusal of peril. Thanks, glad you made it up the Big E and the rest.

Trad climber
Upland, CA
  Oct 11, 2012 - 01:55am PT
Lesson 7 - learned from every other episode of the original Star Trek - "don't split up"

All kidding aside, I'm glad you made the right choices and lived.

  Oct 11, 2012 - 01:59am PT
Hey Man,

Thanks for posting! Its nice to hear/read climbing related stories...I think this is the correct website? Anyway I have a story of my own, first "wall" Spaceshot, Zion. Topped out in the dark and near disaster on the descent.

What we leaerned in the coming years of climbing if there are no "elephant tracks" you are going the wrong way. At least on big trade routes!

I also never, ever leave a partner from eyesight and give or take a belay if things are "sketchy". Pride is NO exsemption to safety.

Good on getting through that piece!

I hope more people will explain these details in any account of adventure.

Party on!

Again TFPU



Social climber
Southern Arizona
  Oct 11, 2012 - 10:12am PT
TFPU. Well-written. whew. Brought back an unpleasant memory for me. (I might have gotten angry about splitting up.) Good decision making.

Trad climber
San Jose, CA
  Oct 11, 2012 - 10:44am PT
I traversed across those slabs as a scared 13 year old after following my dad up the route in 93. I was fairly sure I was going to die as my feet kept slipping on dirt and gravel. We went all the way across, then descended the gully with one mini mag light. Scared the bajeezus outta me!
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Oct 14, 2012 - 09:34pm PT
Nice, write up and thanks for making me think!
Glad you made the right decisions!!!!
Andrew Barnes

Ice climber
Albany, NY
  Oct 15, 2012 - 03:14am PT
This TR is soooo true. I did the EB on Middle Cathedral a year ago, and we were the last party descending that day. We still had daylight, but I recall several dodgy sections requiring careful navigation. If you know where it is, it's not too bad, but it's certainly interesting the first time around.

Social climber
  Oct 15, 2012 - 11:46am PT
Here's a bit of a 1962 interview by Ranger Naturalist Douglass hubbard and William Kat:

Interviewer: ... I heard of a place called the Kat Walk.
Kat: That is between the two higher Cathedral Rocks. Where they come together like this, thats the Kat Walk.
Interviewer: Thats named for you?
Kat: Yes.
Interviewer: How did it get your name?
Kat: Dave Brower - have you heard of Dave Brower? - told me that they had climbed that place and they had to use two pitons. I told them they could have gone without the pitons. How? I pointed out there are certain places that then leave off and go to the right and the rest would be easy. So he sent three boys up there to test it out and he found I was right.
Interviewer: So he named it in your honor.
Kat: He named it. It was printed in the - -
Interviewer: Sierra Club bulletin?
Kat: Yes.

Magic Ed

Trad climber
Nuevo Leon, Mexico
  Oct 16, 2012 - 02:26pm PT
I had an epic here myself in '88 when we arrived at the top just as it was getting dark and we could not find the Kat Walk. Foolishly, we decided to rap down the gullys--took us all night, rap after rap in the dark, finally arriving back at the base of the wall just as it was getting light and another party was starting up the first pitch. I hadn't read the guidebook before we started because my partner claimed he had all the beta. Later, reading the guidebook,it clearly says, "If you can't find the Kat Walk, keep looking. DO NOT rappel the gullys"!!

Al Fylak

Trad climber
Rochester Hills, MI
  Oct 15, 2012 - 09:34pm PT
It brings back memories from 1983 when we had a similar experience after climbing East Buttress on a 90F day. We each had 1 qt of H2O which only lasted for half the climb. We finished the roped climbing near dark and were suffering from dehydration. Tired, thirsty, and not sure of the descent route made for some stressful moments. Seems like I got separated from my faster partner and headed down toward an obvious gulley. It was a dead end without a rope and I decided to hike/climb back uphill. I remember some spooky downclimbing, maybe the 5.8 stuff the original post eluded to. Obviously, we found our way down into the real loose gulley. Seems like we had to to go up and around the back aways, including a fair amount of bush whacking. We did not have a headlamp and ended up spending the night in the woods. Luckily it was warm since we did not have jackets either. At first sunlight we practically ran down the trail to the car and choked on water. I learned alot on that climb!

Trad climber
Albuquerque, NM
  Oct 16, 2012 - 12:37pm PT
Reminds me of topping out on the DNB back in 76. I did the opposite: couldn't believe the Kat Walk wasn't above so I kept going up while my partner took off east. I wound up in the middle of some water glazed death slabs at 2K feet off the ground when Paul came back looking for me. Seeing where I was he said: 'What are you doing there?' ... good old Paul - always had a precious way of just assuming I knew what I was doing.

Lesson one is paramount:

'Always have an explicit plan for what to do if you get separated ... '.

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
  Oct 17, 2012 - 04:59pm PT
sweet sharing such a learning experience.

thanks for posting up!

Trad climber
Fresno CA
  Oct 17, 2012 - 05:34pm PT
Good job. Thanks for posting the story. I wish I'd read it about 40 years ago (although we managed to get down without a bivy, it was mighty close!)

For what it's worth, I have been down the Penny Pinnacle descent -- but only from Penny Pinnacle. Even that little bit (which is straightforward) was enough to prove, to me, that Cathedral Chimney is the far better descent route. Anyone who can find his or her way across the Kat Walk will have no problems with Cathedral Chimney.


Trad climber
San Francisco
  Oct 18, 2012 - 06:30pm PT
Hey Clint,

Last spring we used your Kat Walk topo, Extremely descriptive, it should be in ST

Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
  Oct 18, 2012 - 06:47pm PT
Thanks, Mark.
I'm glad to hear the topo was helpful!

Random Nobody
  Oct 18, 2012 - 09:56pm PT
Holy shite!!!

Thanks for the story... Looking at the decent topo and then the photo... this could have ended up not being written, very easily.

Cheers to John and Ross
Middle Cathedral - East Buttress 5.10c or 5.9 A0 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click to Enlarge
East Buttress is one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America
Photo: Chris McNamara
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