We were so enthralled by our trip to climb Courtney & Star Peaks last week in the Sawtooth Wilderness that we returned this weekend for a second helping of summits. This time we had more ambitious intentions. We planned on a circular, 25ish mile route both on trail and cross country tagging Bigelow, Cheops, Martin & Switchback Peaks along the way. Bigelow, Martin and Switchback Peak are often done as a “Slam” in three days as they are part of the 100 Highest in WA List. Cheops, Martin and Switchback were also sometimes combined as a single alpine traverse as they laid on the same ridge. Essentially, our plan was to combine these two popular peak bagging tours in one long endurance venture.

After the long 4 hour ride to the Northeast corner of the WA Cascades, Damien and I were eager to begin our journey. Our boots hit the trail toward Upper Eagle Lakes at 8:30am. The trails in this area are manicured and smooth. They might be even better maintained than the PCT. This is not by some random occurrence. The trails in this section of the Sawtooth are used not only by hikers and stock, but also by dirt bikes. I am sure that during the dog days of summer this area would not only be sweltering, but also abuzz with bikes. However, with 1-3 inches of snow on large sections of the trail this time of year was quiet with brisk and inviting nip to the air. We only encountered 3 mountain bikers on the entire trip.

There are several junctions that branch off the main trail. All the junctions, of course, had signs except the intersection that leads to Upper Eagle Lake. This was marked by a small carin about 5.5 miles down the trail. We followed snowy tread carpeted by the golden needles of larches past a small outlet pond. The clouds that had been hovering high above us throughout the day seemed to sink closer to the peaks and a strong wind nipped at the bare skin of our faces. So much for the sun that was predicted! We zipped our jackets up higher as we walked beneath larches now past their prime. The needles that still clung to the knobby branches were no longer vivid yellow, but more of a faded, deep gold. Still they were stunning and I relish this time of year for its colors.

Damien and I finally broke out of the larch forest and reached the blustery shore of Upper Eagle Lake. Across the choppy waters a massive talus field rose upward into the overcast sky. On the upper slopes of the choss intimidating headwalls reared out of the talus rubble giving us pause. A quick look at the beta confirmed that we did not have to climb the near vertical faces of the headwalls. The true summit was around the back. Still it looked gnarly. However, as luck would have it the talus slopes did not have a great deal of snow on them compared to the other rocky walls surrounding the lake. Our biggest concern for this peak when we planned it was the amount of snow present on the rock as the last several sections on the summit block were described as quite exposed. However, it looked manageable from the base.

We traversed around the right side of the lake and then began to scamper up the lightly snow dusted talus. Damien and I trended to the right aiming for a weakness in the cliff band several hundred feet above. The talus was not what I would describe as stable, however it was manageable to negotiate. The cliff band proved a bit daunting as some sections we had to scale consisted of damp slabs. Luckily, we did not plan to descend the SE Route. As we traversed left to gain access to the upper talus field the clouds sunk lower obscuring the tops of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Mist swirled above us around the menacing headwalls. Winter is indeed coming!

We climbed the upper talus slope without too much trouble, although higher up there was a bit more snow and the talus grew increasingly sloppy. Upon cresting the ridge, we were blasted by fierce wind. The lake had all but vanished in the blanket of churning clouds. I wondered if soon snow would follow, but no precipitation fell. The summit block was on our left. We took a right trended gully up to the ledge. This was described as exposed, but I disagree. It was easy class 3 even with 3-4 inches snow cover. From the edge we descended about 3 feet to the base of a small face. This was the most difficult section of the climb. The feature is snow covered, but clean rock and there are two ways to ascend the face. Damien did a wide stem on the right. I did a narrow stem left and then traversed right with a foot switch. Both options were tedious, but not extremely difficult.  From the top of the face it was a simple walk to the summit where we had marvelous, close up views of mist!

Damien and I were now faced with the most difficult part of our day: descending. Getting off Bigelow would prove to be a rather horrendous and creepy undertaking. To descend the peak and get to Boiling Lake we needed to traverse along the ridge for one mile until we reached Horsehead Pass and the trail leading down to the basin. It seemed simple enough in text. However, this side of the ridge had a lot more snow. In addition, the talus and scree was some of the worst we have ever encountered; possibility worse than Morning Star Peak. The rock kept shifting and when they loosened huge piles just above us moved as well threatening to tumble down the mountain. It was like climbing through a house of cards. Once false move and an entire section of choss could collapse and some of these rocks were huge! We picked our way very slowly and carefully through the rockfall landmines. We could see the basin below us about 800 or so feet away. We toyed with the thought of just descending to the basin instead of traversing the ridge, but every time Damien and I tried to descend the rock grew more sketch. Damien and I decided to keep traversing but keep an eye out for a weakness in the talus to descend directly to the basin. The ridge was creeping us out.

After crossing some sketchy snow covered slabs we found an area that seemed to have more scree than talus heading down. We began to descend at a painfully slow rate navigating around wet slabs and cliff outs though the messy gully system. Damien and I each had a turn taking a fall on the way down, but fortunately neither of us traveled more than a foot or two. I cannot emphasize enough how relieved we felt when our feet finally touched grass and larch needles.

After a brief break to absorb the experience Damien and I continued through the basin on welcomingly soft ground just below the ridge. We stumbled across the trail  after about a half mile and easily followed it to the shore of Boiling Lake. Of course, the lake was the opposite of boiling: it was frozen!

The sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon as we set up camp under the trees near the shore of the lake. It was odd to see a picnic tables in a backcountry campsite, but I assume this is because the area if frequented by dirt bikes. I refused to sit at it for dinner though because it was the backcountry! I think my ethics annoy Damien sometimes, but he accommodated me.

We broke camp the next morning at 5:30am with three summits to tag and about 15 miles of travel ahead of us. Three peaks in a day would be the most either of us have ever accomplished in 24 hours. The psyche was high! Damien and I followed a trail south from the lake climbing easily to a small pass at 7440 feet. We then followed the trail down about 100 feet into a small basin. According to our maps this trail would just dead end and at some point we needed to start heading up to the saddle between Martin and Cheops just above. We were not sure what part of the saddle to aim for so after following the base of the talus slope in the meadow for a few minutes we started to angle upward through the rock.

Ascending those pile of rubble was comparable in many ways to the quality of rock we navigated through when descending Bigelow. The rockfall risk on this slope was extremely apparent and again we stepped with great care as a single misplaced muscle could cause massive rockfall. We even heard some large slides in some of the gullies after we had traversed through them. It was enough to send chills up our spins. Of course, part of the chill was also attributed to the frigid cold that enveloped us even as the sun rose illuminating the spectacular Sawtooth Range. We were on the shady side of the ridge. The sweeping views did provide some solace in the havoc of the ascent. We could see Bigelow far off and the long ridge leading to Horsehead Pass. Had we not descended directly to the basin the previous day it appeared we might have been on the ridge traversing for another 3 hours.

Finally, after several heart wrenching moments on the treacherous, loose talus we crested over the top of the ridge where, naturally, it was sunny. We were about 200 feet above the low point in the saddle and now were could see that a trail led right to it! This is the problem with alpine starts: you just can’t see very far and if it’s not on the map you have little else to go by.

We admired the snowy peaks bathed in golden alpenglow near a small stand of trees while eating our second breakfast. To our left were the craggy pinnacles that make up Cheops Peak. We toyed with the idea of skipping it since our minds were so mentally destroyed from the climb to the top of the Sawtooth Ridge. After all, it isn’t one of the hundred highest. But it was right there and we knew we’d regret it if we skipped over it. We weren’t chasing the 100 highest away. We were there to play in the hills.

Damien and I scrambled up the South Ridge of Cheops until we reached the clutter of towers. We followed the weakest path on the east side of towers up some narrow gullies. There are two large rock piles that look similar in height. We first climbed the nearest pile thinking it was highest, but of course once were on top it was apparent that the far pile was the true summit. The final summit scramble was easy class 3 on large blocks. Care must be taken because of the black lichen, but we didn’t find it too slippery.

We descended back to the saddle and began to traverse to Martin Peak. From a distance this mountain looks tremendously daunting, but as we neared it the talus angle seemed to soften and appear feasible. Damien and I began to climb up the North Ridge veering off to the west to avoid the rugged cliff directly on the crest of the ridge. The rock was slippery and unstable, but not as petrifying to climb as the scramble to the Sawtooth Ridge Crest. We certainly could not be careless though and steps deliberate. About 300 feet from the summit we ran into a descending party. They claimed the next section was the more difficult part of the route. The angle certainly increased and we had to contend with some slabby features as we ascended more or less straight up to the crest of the North Ridge. However, once we crossed into the ridge and onto the sunny side of the mountain the terrain eased rather significantly. It was an easy scramble up blocks to the summit.

At first, we through that the next bump in the ridge was Switchback Peak. It wasn’t far at all and looked extremely tame so we were elated. However, the more I looked at it the less confident I felt that bump was our objective. It was too close. Switchback was supposed to be a mile away along the ridge. I followed the ridge expanse until my eyes met with a white peak that looked as unnerving as Martin had from a distance. I looked at the map. This was Switchback. The bump was just that: a bump.

We descended easily down the south side of Martin and began the long traverse to Switchback Peak along the ridge. To our relief, this part of the ridge in no way resembled our experience descending Bigelow. The crest was board and the talus stable. There was even a descent climbers trail in sections! Additionally, now on the east side of the ridge we had the pleasure of enjoying the warmth of the sun’s rays and protection from the wind.

When Damien and I reached the base of Switchback we paused for a break and to procrastinate. It looked like another snowy talus pile and neither of us were eager to begin the ascent up rubble. We took some time to enjoy the wilderness views and look back at the other peaks we had climbed. Star and Courtney Peaks from of previous weekend trip were even visible in the distance.

Damien and I peered up at the final 450 feet of climbing. It was time to go. Shouldering our packs, we followed the ridge up Switchback. To our shock, although Switchback appeared from the base to be another snowy choss mess, it was composed of a fair amount of scree, firm sand and stable rock. The ascent was uneventful compared to the other climbs and we reached the summit swiftly, topping out at about 1:00pm. Three peaks in a day, all of them over 8000 feet!

Of course the day wasn’t over. We still had a long journey back to the trailhead. Still Damien and I didn’t hurry to much as it was a gorgeous day and we wanted to savor the moment. We descended down the south side of Switchback Peak and walked cross country over talus to the far-right ridge toward an obvious gap where we would meet up with the trail. This section of the Sawtooth Ridge is known as Angel’s Staircase. The talus was a bit finicky, especially the upper rocks which had slick lichen, but travel was comparatively tame. Damien and linked up with the trail with general ease and began to follow the steep switchbacks down toward Cooney Lake. It felt odd to be on ground that didn’t shift with every step and I felt like I was flying down toward the frozen lake.

Cooney Lake is a large lake beneath the expansive Sawtooth Ridge and surrounded by larches. I wished we could have stayed another night, but unfortunately, we had to get back to our weekday lives on Monday. Instead we walked the final 9 miles back to the trailhead and left the slate blue frozen lake behind. The miles flew by on the well-maintained trail. It was like walking on a superhighway as we completed the loop. Damien and I reached the car at 6:30, an hour earlier than expected and just in the nick of time. The sky swiftly dimmed as we replaced our hiking boots with crocs. Another 10 minutes on the trail and we would have broken out the headlamps! Of course, the day still wasn’t totally over as there was still the 4 hour drive home to complete. Wilderness weekends are always worth the drive though!

 

 

Damien and I were really torn between two separate trips this weekend. We originally had our sights on doing the Spider Meadows Loop (38 miles) with a side trip up Cloudy Peak in 2 days for added spice. However, the more we studied forecast models the more unattainable it seemed. Weather called for about a foot of new snow and high winds on Saturday. Getting through the entire loop or even just getting to Lyman Lakes seemed as though it would be a bit of a stretch in 2 days. Instead we opted to journey to fairer skies Northeast in the Lake Chelan/Sawtooth Wilderness. Snow was expected Saturday, but only about an inch or two, and winds would top out at 35mph. Sunday promised to be clear with 10mph winds. As it turned out, our decision was the right one. Not only did the forecast pan out exactly as predicted (for once), but climbers in the region of Spider Meadows experienced blizzard conditions with 70 mph winds that tore their tents apart!

Damien and I hadn’t been to the Sawtooth Range before, so we were very excited to experience a new area. We followed the W Fork Buttermilk Trail (TH 4000 ft) through the forest. The elevation gain is gradual and barely noticeable until about 6000 feet where there are steeper sections and some switchbacks. Still, we considered it relatively tame. The snow line begins at 6500 feet with the forest floor fully carpeted in a layer of white. However, the snow depth was rather thin (1-2 inches) making the trail easy to identify. At 7000 feet the evergreens give way to a forest of golden larches in their prime. The snow depth also increased here to roughly 3 inches as the forest was much less dense. I don’t think I have ever seen so many larches at their peak autumn color in one massive forest before. The contrast of white snow against the golden yellow hues of the needles took my breathe away. The autumn/winter wonderland didn’t even look like something that could exist in nature. It seemed more like a fairytale as the snow crunched under my boots and I gazed up at the shimmering branches.

We broke free of the forest and crested sandy Fish Creek Pass in early afternoon. Immediately, now exposed to the elements, we were greeted by a blast of icy wind ranging from about 35-40 mph. However, the surrounding landscape spread out in front of me was so overwhelmingly spectacular that I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to stare with my mouth agape or put on more layers first! However, a massive burst of arctic air against my face brought be swiftly out of my trance and I hurried to slip on more clothes. Feeling warmer, I could focus on the landscape. Clouds were moving in again and soft snowflakes drifted around us in the powerful gusts. To my left, the sheer face of Star Peak angled impressively upward. To my right, the NE Ridge of Courtney Peak angled to the summit. I could see the Methow Valley far in the distance bathed in sunlight and woodlands below with the golden larches leading up to the pass. On the other side another forest of larches stood against the untainted white snow. Snowcapped mountains encompassed the horizon as far as I could see. Purely magical.

Damien and I braced against the wind and turned onto the SE Ridge of Courtney. We brought our full packs with us as they weren’t all that heavy and there is nothing wrong with a bit of training weight! The ridge is composed of talus and scree. There is a faint trail in places, but mostly we moved cross country following the ridge crest tending right. The light layer of snow didn’t cause too much difficulty, but we did have to step carefully as some of the talus sections were on the slippery side and the rocks were unstable. The most tedious section was the larger talus blocks about 250 feet from the summit. They seemed especially slick and prone to shifting.

When we arrived at the top, the clouds were blowing around us blocking the views. However, since the wind was moving the condensed air so quickly we did get intermittent moments of unobscured visibility. Below us were the Oval Lakes and Gray Peak. Buttermilk Ridge ran downward from the summit reaching a bouldery high point and then dropped again before leading to the summit of Oval Peak in the distance. However, we admired that view from only moments before it vanished again into the mist.

Fierce winds drove us off the summit after several minutes. Descending the ridge required care due, once again, to the slippery and instable talus. Fortunately, the going grew easier as we lost elevation. Back at Fish Creek Pass, the clouds moved away and the sun illuminated the yellow needles of the larches once more. Damien and I crossed over the pass and, after several steep switchbacks, walked cross country to the shores of Star Lake about 1/4 mile away (9 miles from the TH). Star Lake, beneath the flanks of majestic Star Peak, is one of the most regal alpine pools I have ever encountered. We walked to the far side and set up camp on the shore just across the outlet in the shadow of a stand of larches. Snow again fell from the sky as we set up the tent, but in the basin, there was no wind whatsoever! It was, however, extremely cold! I was very excited about the brisk temperature. Autumn and winter are my favorite seasons for a reason! Unfortunately, along with the cold also comes less daylight. It seemed like just yesterday that the stars didn’t arrive until 10pm!

Damien and I woke the following day before sunrise, per usual. Alpine starts are a trademark for us it seems. I think I’m mostly responsible for that. There’s just something about starting the day under the stars and watching the full performance of sunrise that appeals to me. Damien and I only needed to use our headlamps briefly as we made our way through the forest of larches to the upper basin less than a half mile away. Once the terrain opened up we found that the moon was shining so brilliantly that we could see better without the help of our lamps. From the base of the massive SW Ridge we found a decent climber’s trail (easy to spot since snow had drifted it) and followed it to the crest of the ridge. At this point the sky was beginning to brighten revealing perfect views of the Cascade Range. We followed a climber’s trail on the right side of the ridge, staying below a hump. The trail began to dwindle after the hump on the ridge, but it was easy to find our way staying on the talus and scree right of the crest. The sun began to stream through the sky making the larch wonderland below glisten like golden flames. The snowcapped peaks of the distance Glacier Peak Wilderness glowed a soft pink against the deep blue sky. Fluffy clouds picked up hues of lavender and orange as the sun rose above the horizon just out of view behind Star Peak. In all my years playing on the mountains this might have been the most spectator display of alpenglow I have ever witnessed.

The strange and awesome thing about Star Peak is that it is deceiving in all the best ways. The ridge from afar look gnarly, steep and almost impossible. However, the further we traveled along it the easier the ascent seemed to appear. And not only did it appear easier, but I would rate this scramble as more enjoyable than Courtney. Though longer, the rock on this route was exceedingly more stable, even with the thin layer of snow. The final scramble up some large blocks did not cause us any trouble either to our pleasant surprise.

By the time we reached the summit, the mountains were bathed in full morning light. Views stretched out before us. Courtney, Oval, Hoodoo, Buttermilk, Bonzana… I could go on forever naming peaks. Unlike the day before, Sunday was clear and windless. Thus, we lingered on the summit for quite some time. Note that care should be taken as the North side is a sheer cliff. Don’t lean over too far! Eventually we did manage to tear ourselves away and begin the journey back to the lake. The descent was relatively quick taking only 1.5 hours (half the time it took to gain the summit from camp). Back at the lake we packed up our gear and began the journey home. Fish Creek Pass was calm. What a difference a day can make in the hills. Conditions are always changing and it brings with it adventure. I get bored when the weather is too pristine sometimes. It’s better to add a bit of spice to make it interesting.

The walk out seemed endless once we left the larches behind. Such is often the case during long stints in the forest back to the car. In this case it about roughly 7.7 miles of green forest beyond the larches. However, on these woodland treks I always love to observe the changes in vegetation as the elevation decreases. The diversity of the forest never ceases to amaze me. Furthermore, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the weekend and, in this case, how glorious our adventure into the autumn wonderland had been!

Damien and I haven’t really come to terms with that fact that autumn has arrived in the mountains. I believe the fact that only 3 weeks ago we couldn’t even sleep inside the sleeping bag because of how warm it was has really thrown us off! Thus, we did not question the weekend weather forecast as much as we should have. It looked rainy on the west side of the crest of the Cascades, but Washington Pass seemed to have a nice weather window of sunny to partly sunny skies. We saw this as a great opportunity to get in the rock climbing we’ve been craving since our return from the PCT. On the menu was Poster Peak (Blue’s Buttress) and North Early Winters Spire (Chockstone Route). We anticipated frigid temps, but figured that was all we would have to contend with forecast-wise. Unfortunately, neglected to factor in that we were climbing in Washington and not Yosemite!

When Damien and I arrived at the Hairpin Turn approach for Poster Peak the sky was cloudy and a heavy mist hung low in the mountains. This is normal for the cascades in early morning and it was especially not surprising since there had been some light rain the night before. The talus was barely damp and we expected the remaining, moisture and mist to burn off as the sun got higher in the sky.

After some bushwhacking we found the climber’s trail heading up the valley from the Hairpin Turn under the Liberty Bell Group. Autumn colors are coming to their peak with golden larches and brilliant red blueberry leaves painting the landscape. The route is straightforward and cairns guided us through the talus patches with ease. We turned off the trail beneath  gully and stream that lead off to the right granting access to the lower talus slopes of Poster Peak. There was still a fair amount of mist, but as we anticipated, it was beginning to burn off and patches of blue sky gave promise for a pleasant, sunny, fall day.

The talus beneath Poster Peak is not the most stable and care must be taken to not create rockfall bombs. We ascended the gully, circled left toward an obvious roof and went around the corner to the Blue Buttress belay ledge. As we were scrambling up the talus a light, intermittent sprinkle began to fall from the sky. There was sunshine at the same time and we still saw some blue ski. It seemed to be a simple, short lived sun shower at best. However, as we racked up on the ledge clouds closed in, engulfing the mountains and a steady rain began to fall. At first, we shrugged it off, thinking again that this was a brief event. But then the rain turned to heavy, whiteout snow. This gave us pause.

Damien and I really did not want to bail off a technical route for the second weekend in a row due to weather. Maybe it would improve in 30 minutes or so. We sat on the ledge with our puffies and began to wait, certain it would pass. After all, it was supposed to be sunny! It did not pass. In fact, the snow began to stick! The rock was also now saturated and dripping. After 45 minutes we threw in the towel. Even if the sun did come out it would take at least an hour if not more for the route to dry. By then it would be too late to attempt a 17 pitch route. We played with the idea of climbing up the peak via the descent route, but abandoned that quickly once we realized how rotten the talus was. Instead we headed back down to the car contemplating our Plan B.

Damien and I have xc skied around the perimeter of Goat Peak near Mazama every winter twice. Nonetheless, we had never been to the summit. It is a quick 5-mile hike and, though we always wanted to hike to the top, it was not a priority since our focus is technical alpine objectives and long backpacks. However, we had used half the day attempting Poster Peak, so a short day hike seemed to be the perfect way to spend what remained of the day.

We arrived at the trailhead midafternoon. Fifteen miles away from Washington Pass the sun illuminated autumn hues of gold, orange and red. Not a snowflake in sight. We journey up the trail feeling the crisp chill of the autumn air brush against our cheeks. Views across the valley and into the Pasayten were nearly immediate. The tread is surprisingly steep after the first mile. Luckily, even though we were in thr forest the trees parted every now and then providing glimpses of the Cascades and Methow Valley far below. At about 2 miles the trail reaches the top of the ridge leading to the Lookout and summit. Here views pour forth in all directions. West toward Washington Pass we could see thick rain/snow clouds blanketing the mountains. Blue skies and puffy, white clouds dominated the east. Typical Washington! We followed the gentle ridge through brilliantly golden larches to the Lookout. The fire lookout, which was used during the height of the Diamond Creek Fire, is locked for the season. However, climbing up to the lookout is unnecessary to enjoy the expansive views! Again, we made note of how turbulent Washington Pass looked. It appeared bailing was the correct choice. Our decision to bail from Poster Peak was verified further the following day as we drove past the Liberty Bell Group. The peaks and lower slopes were covered with fresh powder and Poster Peak looked particularly white!

 

Damien and I were excited to get back to uneven, unpredictable terrain inherit to mountaineering after 2 weeks on the PCT. With cool temps and no rain in the forecast after a week of precipitation and even some snow at higher elevations, we opted to go for the Ragged Edge (5.7) of Vesper and the NW Face/ N Ridge (class 4) of Morning Star. We had attempted to climb the Ragged Edge last year, but ended up having to bail due to the massive, unexpected line at the route. A new guidebook featuring the route had just been published which gained the area popularity it had never seen before. We hoped that all the hype calmed down after a year, but just in case we arrived at the TH at first light.

The trail to Headless Pass is notoriously rugged and very unlike the smooth trail of the PCT. The rocky, uneven terrain woke up the muscles I hadn’t used since climbing in California a month ago. We saw only 2 other parties as we journeyed up at ascending valley and both were headed to Mile High Club, an alpine sport route up a spire near Morning Star. Damien and I made impressively quick work of gaining the top of Headlee Pass, known very well for it steep, endless and short switch-backs up a narrow gully. Then we traversed across the scree and talus covered trail to the outlet creek of Vesper Lake.

Damien and I took a few moments to set up camp. On the way up to the pass we came across a couple going for the scramble route of Vesper, but still no technical climbers. After stowing our overnight gear in our tent (and repairing a pole!) we donned our harnesses and continued up the scramble trail through the lower benches and trees to the upper rock and slabs. Once on the rock, and some snow, we began the familiar traverse right around the mountain toward the notch that allowed access to the North Face of Vesper and the three technical routes. Upon rounding the corner, we received our first glimpse of the North Face with snow!

Damien and I expected a snow patch or two, but certainly nothing to this degree. The face itself was pretty clean, but the slippery heather ledges that access the routes, we covered with about 3 inches of fresh, white fluff. From our vantage point we could see that parts of the Ragged Edge definitely had some snow in the cracks and blocks. We traversed a bit further right to gain a better view of the route. Maybe we could work around it and somehow make due? We were aching to get back to roped rock climbing! However, with a better view of the route, we could see that most of it was caked with snow and probably there were lots of wet sections as well. But just maybe?…. we kept going back and forth, discussing our tolerance level for route spiciness. There was descent chance we would epic somehow, especially since there was no practical way to bail off the route. It would also be the stoutest 5.7 we had ever climbed in the backcountry.  Not to mention that the class 3 heather ledges were sketch already when they were dry. Snow covered heather would make things well, um, interesting. Still, we floundered back and forth. The urge to climb was so great that we couldn’t tear ourselves away. That is, we couldn’t tear ourselves away until a mini avalanche cascaded down the rock face. That made our decision black and white. I sure we would have ultimately backed off the route regardless, but seeing the avalanche made the decision process move much more swiftly!

We didn’t want to go up the standard class 2 scramble route up the south side. We had done that last year as an alternative and we really wanted to do something more technical. We decided to head directly up the West Ridge from the notch. This turned out to be a fun class 3/4 scramble on solid, enjoyable slabs and even some knobs reminiscent if Tuloumne Meadows! It should be noted that in many cases we purposefully chose to climb class 4 terrain. Most of the route had class 3 alternatives throughout.

We reached the summit of Vesper rather quickly and joined the throngs that had come up the South Side. It was early afternoon, so we lingered on the summit enjoying the expansive views and talking to the scramblers. Unexpectedly, we all noticed 2 helicopters flying below us nearby. This quickly got everyone’s attention and we peered over the summit block to observe. Was this SAR? It didn’t appear to be since the choppers were blue and white, not yellow. However, the one closest to us was flying as though searching for a place to land. What was going on? Finally, after a few attempts, the first helicopter touched down on the slabs on the shoulder of Big Four Mountain. About 5 people popped out and, to our astonishment, they began taking selfies and other pictures with their phones. Heli-camping? This gave us all a good laugh. The most expensive way to see the mountains on the Mountain Loop Highway indeed! Meanwhile, the 2nd chopper landed on the sandy shores of Copper Lake. Through my camera viewfinder I could see 2 people run out with what appeared to be environmental surveying gear. No selfies for them.

Damien and I descended the South side of Vesper. There were several inches of snow in places, but it didn’t cause any issues on the descent. Back at camp, we set up our sleeping bag as thick mist rolled into the basin socking us in under a white blanket of clouds. I’ve missed these brisk, autumn evenings! We filtered water from a small stream several yards further up the benches to avoid descending to the lake or outlet creek. By 6:30pm we were cuddled up in our sleeping bag. Sunset was only a half hour away. The seasons are changing!

The thick clouds lifted overnight revealing a sparkling array of stars. When morning arrived the cold, clear air felt uniquely bitter to us after a sweltering summer, but we appreciated it vastly. Our objective that day was to climb Morning Star Peak. This summit has a reputation for being a rather unpleasant climb with loose, rotten rock and bushwhacking. However, I read a report that claimed that this was only so of the standard East Route. The beta claimed that the NW Face/ N Ridge route was a fun, fast and easy class 3 scramble with about 50′ of class 4 on the summit block. This sounded like a good deal to us, especially since we were carrying a rope anyway for the exposed class 4 section.

Damien and I broke camp and descended Headlee Pass. From the final switch-back we traversed right over the talus field beneath Morning Star, following carins for the Mile High Club. The talus was not the best I have been on, but not the worst either. At least not yet! The carins led into a band of trees. On the other side of this band of foliage we left the Mile High Club approach route and headed straight up the NW Face. The going was relatively straightforward as we followed the wide gully system. The talus stability did diminish as we got higher and we took care to not climb parallel to one another. At about 4800 feet the gully curved right above a large clump of low trees and brush. We stashed our overnight gear here before moving on.

We followed a few carins over a small gully/drainage just beyond the trees and then once again, started to climb straight up. The already faltering talus and unstable, steep scree began to be replaced by heather steps and mossy, steep angled rock. We checked the beta to make sure we were on route as this terrain seemed rather sketch, but found we were right on track. Warily, we continued to follow the gully. Travel was tedious and calculated as we tried to step only on the small specks of dry rock between the thick, moist moss and insecure foliage. The angle grew sheer enough in sections that I am relatively certain it was class 4 and not 3. In addition, the run out became increasingly horrendous. An error here would be detrimental, if not fatal.

At 5900 feet, we reached a point where the run-out was so horrific and the moss so copious over the ever steepening rock that we decided it was time to turn around. In fact, we probably should have bailed earlier. Now we faced a new dilemma. How could we descend safely? The beta mentioned that it was possible to ascend to the summit block via brush. Could we go down that way? There was brush and trees on the edge of gully. However, when we ventured into the trees to explore we found them to be exceedingly dense and the ground to be nearly vertical dirt. Additionally, in the dense thicket we couldn’t see very far into the terrain. After a quick discussion, we concluded that the safest way down was, in fact, the way we had come. Although the terrain was sketch, it was familiar to us and we just had to reverse it. Naturally, we would have to move very slow and with caution to avert danger. We also knew there was a group of trees just above one of the worst sections we had scaled. I had seen a sling there. A rappel station.

It seemed to take an eternity, but we gradually and purposefully reversed route to the trees. First, we examined the brush directly beside the descent ledge we were standing on. However, the best tree there was much too narrow to be ideal. Unfortunately, this meant we would have to descend about 6 more feet to the thicker, overhanging tree situated in a area that felt much like a hanging belay anchor. With cedar branches in our face, and standing on slippery, high angle dirt we added two new strands of webbing and rap ring to the existing single point anchor. I cannot express how relieved I was rappel this final cruxy section. Normally, rappels are not my first choice, but in this case I was simply ecstatic!

Following the single rope (60m) rappel, we continued to double back toward our stashed gear. We celebrated as the terrain gradually grew more forgiving. Of course, route still pretty much sucked, but that was all relative compared to what we had experienced above. Damien and I finally returned to the trail 8 hours after we had departed. So much for a quick and easy climb!

The weekend was certainly not what we intended. Sometimes those kinds of weekends result to the best adventures. Climbing is not always about summiting. Sometimes it is about problem solving and the ability to be flexible as conditions changes. After all, the alpine is not a place of predictability!

 

Damien and I spent our last evening in the High Sierra bouldering at The Knobs in Tuolumne Meadows. This is a classic, old school area for pebble wrestling in the Meadows of Yosemite. Thus, ratings often are rather sandbagged. Expect to add about 1-2 grades on to most problems. The area is HUGE, and there are a plethora of problems for boulderers at any level. Most boulders were on the highball side of the spectrum, but there are shorter rocks climb as well. The location is right beneath typical Yosemite domes on open slabs making for a lovely setting.

Damien and I started on Mushroom Boulder which is lower to the ground on the SE face. It’s a great warm up boulder with lots of V0s (though the one on the far right corner seemed much stiffer than the others). There is also a fun V2 right in the middle of the face. This problem (unnamed) was my first Yosemite V2. Damien completed his first outdoor V1 ever on this boulder!

We moved on to the Eliminator which is a tall boulder featuring the classic Snake Eyes (V3) and Double Dyno (V4) problems. I played on those but they were too high for me to feel confident with the bold moves. However, on the NE Face I was intrigued by the V0 on the tall wall. I was pretty confident about sending it with all the knobs, so I decided to give this “highball” a try (a highball for me anyway.. maybe 15-18 feet). After that success, I went on to attempt the V1 right next to it. This problem is considerably more difficult but the crux is low to the ground and the upper section is exceedingly mellow. I sent this too as well to be delight! Damien and I also climbed the V0s on Small Boulder right beside Eliminator.

Next, we journeyed beneath some trees to Creek Boulder and So Low. So Low is an overhung short boulder with a gnarly V1 & 2 that I just couldn’t get. Fun heel hooks though! Creek Boulder is very tall and most problems looked scary being up so high. I opted to climb Creek Arete though which is a large, knobbed VB about 20 feet high. It is also the “walk off” for the boulder.

With our hands fried we headed back to camp. It was the perfect ending to our trip. I highly recommend this bouldering area!

After spending several days in a noisy, front country campground in Tuolumne Meadows, Damien and I were ready to enjoy the tranquility of the backcountry. From Yosemite, we drove south through the desert to the small hamlet of Lone Pine, CA. The town looks something like an old Western movie and it is the jumping off point for folks looking to climb Mt Whitney. However, several months back we were unsuccessful in securing a reserved permit for the tallest mountain in the lower 48. I was able to quickly devise a Plan B and reserved permits for Cottonwood Lakes to climb Mount Langley (14,026 ft) & Cirque Peak (12,900 ft). Both of these climbs individually are an undertaking due mostly to the high elevation aspect. However, both were class 2 scrambles and required minimal technical ability. They share the same zigzagged ridge-line and are sometimes done a linkup. The Linkup option appealed greatly to us as the distance and endurance required to climb two high elevation peaks in a single day would provide a fun challenge. Plus I love tagging fourteeners!

From Lone Pine we turned onto Whitney Portal Road which is the main route leading into the Whitney Range. After several miles we turned off Whitney Portal and headed for the high country on Horseshoe Meadows Road. Normally I don’t describe the roads leading to the TH, but this one is worth mentioning. First of all, I expected a road that went up to 10,000 feet to eventually turn rugged and unpaved. As it turns out, its paved the entire 22 miles! The next feature worth describing is the design of the road. From the 4,000 ft sandy dessert it switchbacks steeply up the foothills into the high country as previously discussed. These switchbacks are all the edges of cliffs with severe drop-offs of thousands of feet! There is also a sign that warms of falling rocks and that for several hours a day you may find crews clearing the random rockfall! To top this whole extravaganza off there is no guard rail, so definitely drive with care! It is a gorgeous road though, unlike any I have ever experienced, and that fact that it journeyed up to 10k feet blew my mind. In WA our highest road tops out at only 7k!

We arrived at Horseshoe Meadows Camp at around 2:30pm. There are bear lockers here for any food/toiletries you may want to leave behind. Leaving these items in vehicles is an invitation for bears to break in! We shouldered our packs and began the 6 mile trek to basecamp on the Cottonwood Lakes/ Army Pass Trail. The trail winds though dusty, open forest for the first mile or so before crossing a creek and entering lusher woodlands. We knew we had 1000 feet of gain and expected it to be all in one place going up a pass or something of that sort as it normally is in WA. However, the gain was essentially spread out over the course of the 6 miles to our surprise. We also expected to find ourselves at various junctions as the map displayed numerous intersecting trails. Going to the basin the only turn we encountered was the signed turn off for New Army Pass.

Many folks climb Langley and Cirque via New Army Pass because it is a maintained trail. Unfortunately, it features lots of sweeping and unnecessary switchbacks up to the pass and adds 1 mile and 700 feet to the trip. We had opted to take (old) Army Pass instead. It was described in the beta as unmaintained with several washouts. However, it was a more direct route and we hate excess switchbacks. Thus, we passed New Army Pass and continued on the trail to Cottonwood Basin.

Upon exiting the forest and entering the open meadows of the Basin we were greeted with our first clear view of Cirque Peak. Directly to the right of Cirque is a massive rock formation that I thought was Langley at first, but it proved to me a minor cliff face. Langley is ff to the right of the cliff and only appears smaller since it is further in the distance. Damien and I followed the trail through the lush meadows passing the signed side track to Muir Lake.

We walked by Cottonwood Lake #1 which has a small ranger outpost beside it. There are five Cottonwood Lakes total. On maps they are unlabeled. Our permit was for lake #3 because our beta suggested it, but even the ranger at the station where we picked up our permits had no idea which lake was which. He said that as long as we camped at one of the lakes we’d be fine. They didn’t care which one. The map at the TH did have the lakes numbered however. Other than that I have found no record. We studied the TH map and decided that lake #4 would probably be better for us.

Damien and I continued on passing through small sections of trees that reminded us of the ones found in Madagascar. Lake #3 is the last of the lower lakes and it appeared to be the most popular camping area.  Several parties were there enjoying the early evening. We continued on toward Lake #4 which is closest to Army Pass.

We climbed up a steep hill about 100 feet and suddenly found ourselves in a more rugged, and alpine realm. We were surrounded by jagged cliffs and the grassy oasis was replaced by rugged terrain. Damien and I found the perfect camp complete with windbreak about 100 feet from the lakeshore (this is a requirement) and set up our home for the next 2 nights. To our delight, we had the entire lake to ourselves!

Damien and I are big fans of the  Alpine Start. Boots were on the trail at 3:30am the next morning. Our headlamps guided us around the lakeshore on a good trail to the rocky base of Army Pass. Here we were surprised to discover a very maintained trail. Every maintained trail in CA we had encountered on the trip ended up being maintained by Washington standards! The good track made a few switchbacks up the talus trending left to get above a cliff band. The tread then follows above the cliff band to the right to gain the top of the pass. The “washout” was one or two large rocks in the center of the trail that were easy to get around. We did encounter some snow patches but they were easy to go around or short enough to take a few safe steps through. We never used the crampons or axes we carried.

At the top of the pass we crossed the border of Inyo NF and entered Sequoia National Park. We turned right here on an unsigned, but obvious trail and followed the broad ridge of alpine vegetation until we reached more rocky terrain and  a big sign. The sign requested that visitors follow the carins provided and remain on the route to preserve the delicate environment. It also asks that climbers avoid making new carins and forbade the deconstruction of the existing carins. I’m not sure who had the time on their hands to disassemble the cairns provided on the route. They were 5-7 feet tall and resembled pyramids!

We followed the cairns through the talus and sand now gaining elevation, though not aggressively. There are good switchbacks and an easy trail to follow. Sometimes there are several dusty trail options to get from one cairn to another. It doesn’t really matter which you take as long as you reach the next carin. At one point we did need to use our hands to scale a short, rocky cliff. There was a class 2 and class 3 option here each with no more than 6 -8 easy moves. The route takes you to the edge of  the nearly level summit plateau. Then is is a quick stroll to the flat, summit block.

We arrived at the summit of Langley at about 8:15am. Of course, Damien and I were the only people there so early. The views spanning from the summit are breathtaking and we were surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the country. Mount Whitney was even visible from our vantage point. We signed the register and took countless photos in the glow of early morning light. It was difficult to depart, but we still had another summit to climb!

We backtracked to Army Pass. Other climbers were just making their way up Langley. Most were coming from New Army Pass. From old Army Pass we needed to ascend about 300 feet up a hill to New Army Pass. We opted to not take the long sweeping switchbacks which lost elevation before going back up. Instead, we traveled cross country straight up, careful to avoid stepping on the delicate flora. It was pretty easy to keep our feet on the sand and gravel.

New Army Pass is signed and was more of a cliff outcrop than a pass at all. Peering over the edge I could see people sweating as they toiled up the infamous switchbacks from down in the valley. I was glad we took Army Pass instead. Cirque Peak was directly across from us and only 600 feet higher. However, to reach the summit we had to walk the horseshoe shaped North Ridge for 2 miles. There is no trail here at all, only talus. To our delight, the talus is not big and blocky, but consists of large flat rocks. It was some of the most fun terrain I ever encountered! We walked along the rock admiring the strange knobs and huecos as we went. Damien and I veered just slightly more right of the edge of the cliff to avoid unnecessary elevation gain to the various sub-summits. It was a relatively long walk, but we were having so much fun on the flat rocks we barely noticed. The last .68 miles the rocks grew less flat but there are easy sand tracks to follow made by big horned sheep. At the summit there are two markers and a register.

The view from this peak gave a marvelous perspective of the Cottonwood Lakes. We could also see the full route we had taken up Langley. We stayed on the summit for quite some time. However, in the distance peaks we could see several thunderheads developing. They were far off, but we were aware that it was not impossible for storm to brew over us as well even if it hadn’t been in the forecast. We journeyed back across the North ridge and descended to Army Pass.

We got back to our tent at 3:30pm which was much earlier than anticipated since we were scaling a fourteener. Spending so much time at altitude over the past 2 weeks had made the linkup easier than expected. It didn’t end up being the challenge we expected, but it was still are marvelous day! Plus, we even had time to take an afternoon nap; a rare luxury for us!

After another tranquil night at the 11,100 foot Lake #4, we packed up camp in the cover of the stars and shouldered our packs as the sun rose. We hated to leave the basin, but it was time to move on to another adventure. The early morning light made Cirque and Langley shimmer as we passed through the basin and back into the cover of the forest. The perfect conclusion to the high elevation linkup.

 

The Buttermilk Boulders of Bischop are world famous for their massive, egg shaped highballs and it seems climbers flock from everywhere to climb these giants. It is also home to the hardest boulder problem in the world “The Process” V16 on the Grandpa Peabody Boulder (first ascent Daniel Woods). Naturally, Damien and I had to stop here on our way to the Southern Sierras. For me, it was some kind of “rite of passage” as a boulderer. Our plan was see The Process, and then send some much easier problems!

It wasn’t difficult to locate Grandpa Peabody. We had seen the massive, 50 foot boulder many times in climbing films and it towered above everything else! Having the opportunity to touch the holds on The Process was like a religious pilgrimage for me of sorts. It was simply incredible to touch the rock of the hardest problem ever sent! I couldn’t even hang on the holds. They were glassy, sharp, and slick; even in the cool air of early morning. We circled the boulder playing around a bit on the V4 Cave Problem and playing with moves on various holds. Mostly we kept looking up and marveling at how gigantic the boulder was. We walked back to the car with an even deeper respect for the ascent of The Process, and also Lucid Dreaming which is a V15 on the same boulder (Paul Robinson, FA).

We drove about another half mile down the road to a group of boulders more in our range (though Buttermilk ratings are stiff). This collection of much shorter boulders is called Birthday Boulders. It is normally a popular area, but summer is off season in Bishop. It wasn’t even 9am yet and the weather was already about 75 degrees. It would easily reach into the 90s before afternoon in the dessert. Things were still manageable for now and there was even still some shade when we arrived. Plus, we had the rocks to ourselves!

We started playing around on the V0s: Birthday Mantel, Birthday Rib & Unnamed. These problems were definitely not normal V0s for me. Many of the hand/foot holds were nearly microscopic and the style was extremely balancey which is not where I excel. Still we enjoyed trying to find holds that we could cling to. We used lots of tic marks!

We had more success climbing “The Way Down” V0 which has larger holds and feels more like a standard V1 problem in WA. Some power moves and lots of fun for me! It is also the way off the boulder. Behind this collection of problems I found an Intriguing V2 called The Prow. The problem has everything I love: big power moves, overhung & sit start. It was just a bit too tall for me to feel comfortable topping out on. I projected the problem and was able to get passed the crux moves, but I opted not to finish the last few feet due to height. I was pretty happy though as in WA the problem would be at least a V3 if not a 4. Damien and I also played on another micro hold V0 called Birthday Left.

After about 1.5 hours of bouldering we hand no skin remaining on our fingertips from the sharp holds. The sun was beginningto gather strength as well so we packed up our pads and headed out. The Buttermilks is the best quality rock for outdoor bouldering I have every experienced. In addition, the problems, though stiff, are extremely fun and have great movement. I hope I can return sometime soon.

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.

 

For some reason or another I’ve always wanted to climb Clouds Rest. Maybe its the unusual name? The summit is between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows and affords magnificent views into the Valley, Half Dome and the High Sierra. Of course, when we started out at the Sunrise Lakes TH that morning the sky was thick with smoke from the new Wawona Fire, so the views weren’t quite as expansive. However, it was still a worthwhile scramble.

The trail begins near Tenaya Lake. The after the track crosses the Tenaya Lake drainage and it  heads  sharply south. There are a few junctions, but this is always a clear sign indicating Clouds Rest/Sunrise Lakes. After perhaps a half mile or so the relatively level trail begins to switchback up to the crest of Tenaya Canyon. This is the steepest section of trail throughout the entire 14.4 mile trek. Still it is well maintained and tamer than most trails in WA. At the top of the canyon ridge there is another signed junction. We continued right toward Clouds Rest.

The tread descends about 300 feet in the shadow of Sunrise Peak.Shortly after crossing an easy boulder field we entered a forest, traveling once again on level ground. There is small tranquil pond and several creek crossings. The trail in this section is pleasant, yet uneventful in terrain until the next trail junction. Here the forest begins to open up and the trail once widens as tread aims upward. It is not nearly as steep as climbing up Tenaya Canyon though. Just before gaining a long broad ridge the first view of Clouds Rest comes into view.

The summit seems like a much longer walk than it actually is. We gradually gained elevation following the broad, dusty ridge. The smoke was extremely thick and impenetrable on our right, but we still had some decent, albeit hazy, views on the other side of the ridge. Soon the trail reaches some pancake shaped rocks on the ridge. There is a small trail that journeys just below the peak for anyone who does not what the “scramble” to the summit. The description of the scramble is that it is a narrow, knife-edged, exposed ridge. We found none of this to be true. Yes, we were on a ridge with perhaps three or four brief class 2 moves. However, the ridge is nearly completely level and wider than most side-walks. It is in no way exposed or what I would describe as knife-edged. Regardless, the  pancake rocks were fun to climb and we quickly reached the broad summit. The Valley was completely socked in with heavy, grey smoke and Half Dome was all but swallowed by it. We still could see in other directions and during our time on the summit the smoke blew around a bit and gave as a faint glimpse of Half Dome. It was a pleasant day and we must of stayed on the summit for the better part of an hour. We were lucky to have the mountain to ourselves aside from some greedy chipmunks!

On the journey back to the trailhead we came across quite a few other hikers. I guess a late start is common in Yosemite. We prefer to start before the sun has barely crested the horizon!

 

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.