After some heavy smoke days and terrible air quality in Tuolumne Meadows, it seemed like the winds were changing the skies clearing. Damien and I set our alarm to 2am for the climb we had been thinking about since last November: Matthes Crest. Matthes Crest is rarely seen by anyone other than climbers. It is off the beaten path and obscured from view by Echo Peaks. The Crest is a lengthy summit and it allure lies in the ridge. The standard South to North Route climbs 2-3 pitches (5.5) up the South end of the mountain and then traverses for a mile across an exceedingly airy knife-edge ridge (ranging from class 3 to 5.4) to the South Summit. It is possible to continue on to the North Summit (5.7) and cross the rest of the ridge-line down to the other side, but this section involves little pro and down-climbing sketch 5.8 so it was not in our agenda. In fact, it is uncommonly done by anyone. The route is somewhat popular despite its longer approach hence our highly early start to the day.

We pulled onto the shoulder at the Cathedral Lakes TH and began walking at about 2:45am. We knew the first part of the approach since it is the same as Cathedral Peak. We took the trail toward Cathedral Lakes for about a half mile until we reached an obvious side trail on the left blocked off by some logs. We followed this trail along Budd Creek and then over slabs with rocks forming a walkway for about 1.75 miles. At this point the beta is to journey cross country so Damien took a bearing and we headed into the forest. Bushwhacking in the Sierra is not nearly as wretched as it is in WA. Basically, all you are dealing with is a meadow with some pine trees poking out and they don’t even have lower branches! No understory. In the dark, it was difficult to keep our bearing just right and we fumbled around for a while getting to the open slabs. Once on the slabs we continued toward Matthes eventually stubbing upon carins and then a well-trodden sandy, gravelly trail. We followed this track through the slabs and under the striking rocky summits of Echo Peaks. Then we rounded a corner and received our first view of Matthes as darkness began to lift from the sky.

It was HUGE! We stood awe-struck at the intimidating formation in front of us, letting the scale of the mountain sink in. It may have been intimidating but it was also intoxicating. Drawn forward by the Crest we descended about 300 feet through and forest and then across an green meadow with streams to the base of the mountain. We traversed right along the base slowly angling upward toward the start of the route on the far side of the mountain. The going was not difficult and we made quick work of the roughly 500-600 feet of gravel, grass and talus.

At the base of the route there was a single team just starting to climb. They spoke briefly to us mentioning that bad weather was going to move in somewhere between 11am-5pm.  There was a 30% chance of thunderstorms. This was news to us as we had been unable to check the forecast since Saturday just before entering the park nds back then it had been fine. Damien and I had a brief discussion and decided to go for it. We are fast simul-climbers and also knew that storms rarely started before 3pm. Plus it was only 30%.

Damien led up the first pitch, 5.3. It was about 120 feet and topped out at a good belay ledge. We decided to combine the next two pitches making for a long 200 foot, full rope length pitch. I led this section which climbed up some easy blocks before entering a crack system dihedral with knobs. I placed moderate protection as I went along until several feet up the dihedral. The crack would only take cams and I was simply out of the size I needed. I could not downclimb back to the ledge confidently, so I made a conscious decision to run it out. I don’t know how I held it together. The climbing was not difficult, but with your last piece of protection 25 feet below you suddenly the game changes. I remembered how high ball boulderers and free solo climbers took steady deep breathes. I copied them and focused carefully on each move, making sure every simple movement my body made was precise. Speed was sacrificed as errors could not be afforded. I think I placed about 4 pieces in over 100 feet. On my way up I wondered what I would find when I reached the ledge. I had no gear for an anchor. I needed natural pro and I hoped I would pull over the ledge to find a big horn or massive boulder. Thoughts like this, thinking ahead, kept me sane I a climbed high above my distant protection.

It seemed like an eternity on the wall, but I did eventually pull over the ledge. To my delight I was greeted by a giant boulder. I slung the boulder and set up my belay to bring Damien up to join me. When he arrived Damien prepared to lead the Simul-climb section and racked the gear. We folded our 60 meter rope in half to shorten it without the hassle of a kiwi coil.  A climber joined us on the ledge as Damien took off. Things were still much quieter here than on Cathodal Peak. With ten feet of slack in the rope I disassembled the anchor in preparation to follow. When the rope went tight against my harness I climbed up a few feet and pulled over to the ridge.

I was greeted by a true knife-edge. It was spectacular in both airy exposure and in sheer wild beauty. Ahead of me I could see Damien making his way up and over the first hump in the ridge. Enthralled I followed, cleaning gear along the way.

The climbing was not especially difficult. The exposure was heady though and any mistake even on the class 3 sections would result in a long fall. But luckily, exposure is awesome too us so we didn’t mind.  The rock is excellent quality with knobs, cracks and blocks. Nothing was loose on the ridge. Between the class 3 and 4 sections were areas of low class 5 mostly where there was a hump in the ridge. Often these features were intimidating from afar, but not difficult to climb. There were a few tricky moves though sprinkled throughout. Of course, 360 degree views of Yosemite engulfed us as we made our way along the knife-edge. It was glorious, but I did note building clouds.

The traverse to the South Summit took us exactly three hours, which is the estimated speed for someone soloing the route! We swapped gear once about 2/3 of a mile in. As we enjoyed the splendid views of the South Summit we observed the sky. It was blue with fluffy clouds, but the distant mountains seemed to have, at the very least, some rain. We lingered a bit before setting off for the descent. It was difficult to pull away. We had the summit to ourselves! But the next team was getting closer and we knew the weather could change in an instant.

To descend we needed to access the Notch between the South and North summit. Damien down-climbed the South summit and followed a 5.2 ramp system down to a tree as described in the beta. We switched leads at the tree because of rope drag. I led out following the ramp, but it led to a gully not a notch and it was on the wrong side of the mountain. I tried a different path with the same result before climbing back to Damien. Damien took a go at finding the notch and discovered that the topo beta we had neglected to mention that the ramp leads into a gully and then you must climb back up to the notch!

The temperature dropped and more clouds moved in as we unroped at the notch and descended several yards to the rap shrub. I rapped first and made it to another rap tree with a questionable mess of slings. However, I was not at the ends of my rope. We ended up doing a single rap down instead of the 2 in the beta, opting to downclimb a few feet of low class 5 rock. No sooner than we had pulled the rope and put on our approach shoes did the sky grow grey and the distant sound of thunder echoed of the rocky cliffs. Swiftly we scrambled down the easy talus and sand to the cover of trees. The team behind us? They decided to stay up on the mountain and climb the North Summit!

We ran into another team in the forest. They had bailed on questionable trees and shrubs partway down the ridge when they saw the weather moving in. We chatted for a bit as light rain began to fall. We needed to cross open slabs to return to the trailhead which didn’t sound all that appealing. They took off after some time. Damien and I lingered a bit more to see if the thunder would move off. It didn’t and the rain grew a bit harder. We decided to a least climb the 300 feet through the trees to the slabs and then decide how to proceed.

The thunder claps were not overhead when we reached the tree, nor were they loud cracks. No lightning thus far. We opted to move quickly through the slabs. About ten minutes in there was a flash of lightning and we hid in a small “canyon” in the slabs by a tree. Fifteen minutes later we began moving again. The storm passed us leaving nothing by lingering rain and distant rolls of thunder as we reached the Cathedral Peak Trail. It was still a long walk back, but having Jimmy Chin pass us on the trail made things go a lot quicker. We had seen him a year ago on the same exact date climbing the Grand Teton. What are the odds!? He and his team had also bailed on Matthes when the weather moved in.

 

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