Vicky and I had bummed around Yosemite and Tuolumne since Monday: we bailed off a wall due to a back injury, did some cragging, soloed some alpine routes, and mastered the dubious art of bandit camping. Now, thanks to friends from LA, we had a real campsite for a couple of nights, and they had a fire going. I wanted to catch up with my friend Nicole, and I could sense that the people I didn't know in the group might make for good friends or climbing partners one day. It would have been a fine time to hang out!
But alas, I was caught between a cookie and a cake. I remembered whispers of Snake Dike done at night, and when I looked up I saw that the moon was nearly full. My happiest memories from the Sierra Nevada are from skiing under a full moon on a whirlwind two-day traverse of the range, and white granite is not much different from snow: it turns the high country into a silvery dreamscape, still and soft like a childhood bedroom, and far enough removed from wakefulness to let the mind drift pleasantly as it does in those last moments before sleep. I didn't want to see the sunrise. I didn't want to stargaze. I wanted to see the moonlight reflect off the high peaks, to see my moon shadow on granite slabs, and to see the glint of the moonlight in crystals in the rock, like it sparkles through newly fallen snowflakes.
"Vicky, do you want to do Matthes Crest right now?" There are any number of reasons why--maybe she felt guilty about her back, maybe the idea really struck her fancy, or maybe she just hasn't learned to politely refuse my stupid ideas--but she said yes! We hopped over to the fire to say good night, told everyone we'd see them in the morning at camp, and took off for the Cathedral Lakes trailhead. Vicky had done the approach in the daytime but bailed on the route because of impending thunderstorms, so between her experience and my GPS we figured the dark approach wouldn't be too vexing. I marked a few waypoints on my laptop during the drive to the trailhead, uploaded them to the GPS, and read the route description for the first time. The topo was long and confusing-looking, so I ignored it. I noted from the verbal description that we shouldn't rappel off the south summit, though. We arrived, packed everything we'd need for the night into one backpack, and took off at 10:30 pm.
In only about an hour, we got sucked too far left on the approach into long, narrow, rocky gorges reminiscent of canyons in Joshua Tree. They had high walls, maybe thirty or forty feet tall, and they had boulder-strewn bottoms. The moon shone through the canyons from the top, and it was so bright that it was hard to see straight ahead. We rock-hopped through these canyons for a while until we finally made it to near Budd Lake, where we saw four headlamps bobbing through a meadow. Poor folks: they had had an epic on Matthes, and they were hellbent on getting back to the road. I wish they had been going up instead, so that they could be at ease and could savor the night.
Matthes Crest finally came into view from the shoulder of Echo Peak. The moon was nearing the horizon in the west, so the side of the ridge facing us was lit up. We walked across slabs to the prominent saddle that marks the beginning of the route. I took one of our ropes out of the pack and almost flaked it, but Vicky seemed receptive to soloing the bit immediately above us, so I stowed the rope and up we went. The moon started to set, red and bloody, over a distant Fresno. We continued in this way, sans corde, two bubbles of light stemming and pulling into the sky, and we finished the first three pitches in scarcely twenty minutes. When we arrived on the ridge, the terrain eased and we began to realize what all the fuss is for: what a ridge! Before dawn it was too dark to see anything below, but it was obvious, when my two hundred lumen light disappeared over both sides of this granite fin, that we were very high up.
Peter Croft tells a wonderful story in The Good, the Great, and the Awesome about running this route before work one morning to watch the sunrise, so we slowed down to take some pictures to pass the time until dawn. With a point-and-shoot, no tripod, and limited places to hang a headlamp, it took some thinking, but we got a couple of passable shots. I had Vicky stand in position, aimed a headlamp at her from a small bush's branch, set the camera on the ridgecrest, started the timer, and scurried into the picture. We held very still for the long exposure. I remembered why people look so stern in old photographs--it's because the exposure times were so long that facial muscles would tire during the exposure, leading to blurry faces--so I tried to remain as expressionless as possible. I didn't realize that there is a vast difference between five seconds and five minutes--thus my weird expression. A giant white rat scared us at this point; I think I blinded it by shining my headlamp into its face, so it ran full-tilt at me and I nearly jumped off the ridge with a high-pitched, girly shriek. I later realized that the sporadic droppings on the ridge probably belong to that guy.
We continued along the ridge, at times traversing hand over hand on a thin flake of granite with our feet balanced on less than a square inch of knob each. The dawn was coming, and the terrain below us lit up: tarns, meadows, high peaks, and of course the yawning space beneath our feet on those fantastic traverses. Soon we were at the south summit, where it took a few minutes to find the proper downclimb, and were on our way to the north one. After soloing the route until this point, we both agreed to rope up for this 5.7 part: we wanted this to be casual fun and had no desire to make it a totally solo ascent. We climbed this pitch and were soon on top, where it was remarkably warm in the sun's glow. We removed our down jackets. At night, we'd seen the west side of the north-trending fin light up silver, and now the east side was lit up orange. Vicky left a note in the register, we found a couple entries from our friends Vitaliy and Lea, and we began the rappels down and the hike out. We arrived back at the car at breakfast time!
After chatting a bit with our friends at the gas station and packing up camp, we alternated sleeping and driving on the way back to Los Angeles. Conclusion: it is markedly easier to drive in daylight on thirty hours of no sleep than it is at night. Another conclusion: the Sierra Nevada is awesome at night. The breeze stops, the mosquitoes disappear, and the whole country lights up into an enchanted land of glowy, fuzzy wonders. Maybe the fuzzy part is just from my not having glasses yet, though. I hope you all will enjoy it soon deliberately--rather than during an epic. Next full moon's in a month!