Cathedral Peak is the most popular climb in Tuloumne Meadows of Yosemite and for good reason. The moderate climb features stellar rock quality, fun pitches and has a short approach. There are several variations of the climb which help with handling the masses to an extent, but all routes funnel to the Chimney pitch which effectively negates this. Damien and I were well aware of this alpine summit’s reputation for crowds so we opted to get a very early start to beat the rush. The book stated that arriving before 8:00 would put a team in a good place to avoid hold-ups.

We arrived at the Cathedral Lakes TH at about 3:30am and headed up the trail. Around this time Damien discovered that he forgotten his helmet, but we decided to keep going knowing that rockfall was not common on this climb. There were several junctions and we took a wrong turn causing us to loose time. Back on the main trail we followed the path by headlamp to a clear, marked off side trail on the left. We took this trail and followed Budd Creek for about 30 minutes. The tread then turned away from the creek and crossed over slabs. There was a “path” bordered by small rocks through the slabs which was handy. We reentered a dirt path through the forest, but after some time it seemed to peter out. We decided to just go directly uphill toward the peak. After some wretched, steep scrambling through talus, dirt and sand we reached the base of the peak and followed what appeared to be  a boot path up and to the right. However, as we looked at the topo and the wall of rock in front of us things just didn’t seem to match. We were taking the descent path up and were much too high! We backtracked down, again loosing time and finally made it to the start of the SE Buttress at 6:30am.

There was a team of 3 young women in front of us. They had 2 full width and length ropes and rope management was already an issue for them as they belayed the leader. As we prepared to climb more teams arrived and soon there was a t least 6 or 8 separate parties waiting to get on the route. Finally, the women were high enough so that Damien could begin leading. Meanwhile at the belay station the women were having a hell of a time untangling a bird’s nest of ropes and swapping gear inefficiently. Damien tried to offer advice to them when he got to the belay tree, but they just giggled and paid no attention. They moved slow even for a team of three so anything would have helped. It was frustrating for everyone waiting. There are other route variations as I mentioned before, but they are higher rated with 5.8 and 5.9 moves and some sections rated R. So not many teams were willing to start somewhere else. Bythe time I left the ground there were about ten teams in line.

The first pitch has some slabby moves followed by what appears to be a low angle hand crack. However, it is much steeper and harder than it looks. I was impressed by Damien’s lead. Damien continued to lead on the second pitch which was blocky with cracks. A fun, clean pitch for sure. We swapped gear at the next belay tree as we waited once again for the women. It took forever. Finally I lead out following a 5.7 corner and making an airy mantle move out onto the face. The hardest trad pitch I have ever led! From there I followed easy knobs to a ledge and belayed Damien up. It was not the end of the pitch but I was held up behind converging teams. I led up the 2nd half of Pitch 3 to a large ledge . Here is where everyone was bottle-necking. There are 3 options: far left was a class 4/ low 5 “escape to summit”, in the middle a scary looking steep face and to the right a tight chimney. Everyone was lined up at the Chimney. We first opted to skip the line and do the “escape”, but I discovered as I led that there was little protection and the rock was loose. I downclimbed and we ended up waiting in the now long line to climb the Chimney.

Damien led this section as I had issues getting into the feature. It requires climbing up either side of the walls just outside the chimney which are rather polished and then shoving oneself inside an extremely tight space via an exposed step-over. Getting inside is difficult on its own, add a pack and it’s downright gnarly. Damien managed to squish himself into the Chimney and slither up inch by inch. Then it was my turn. After wrestling myself inside the narrow slot I found myself mostly stemming up unlike everyone else I had watched climb it. It seemed to work well for me though.

Damien belayed me from the top of the Chimney and I took over leading the rest of the pitch, though I ended up stopping to belay him once more due to other teams in front of me. Finally, I pulled over a flake and descended a few feet to the base of the summit block. There was an easy crack system for the final few meters to the top where I built a gear anchor in the cracks. Damien joined me on the summit shortly after along with a few other teams. We didn’t linger as it was getting late. I lowered Damien down the summit block and he then walked around the 4th class corner placing gear. I followed him to a small alcove where we untied and made our way on third class terrain to a rappel tree. After re-tying a sling, which had a dangerous overhand knot, with a proper water knot we did two rappels to low angle terrain. Then we followed the ridge and crossed over to the same boot-path we had taken in the error that morning. When we arrived back at the base it was 6:30. We spent 12 hours on the route, but only 4 hours climbing! On the way out we discovered there was a good trail all the way to the base of the climb. We had somehow gotten off that path that morning in the darkness.

The moral of the story is to start this route in the dark. Also, we saw many folks using questionable anchor techniques and knots. Most teams treated this climb like a roadside crag and had no alpine experience. This was scary being that this is definitely an alpine summit. Something to keep in mind. The good news is that the route is indeed stellar and the views ridiculously awesome the whole way up. Just expect to share it with a lot of teams.

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