This is another day I have long wanted to try, though I had not planned to do so when I drove over to the west side. Having been defeated by Matthes’ crux move last year, I was both trepidatious and eager to re-test my skill. In terms of grade and character, it looks a lot like Pingora and Wolf’s Head, with one traverse-y and one more vertical climb. However, the approach is much shorter, making this a fairly leisurely 6-1/2 hour day. Also, although Cathedral is an iconic Yosemite peak and Matthes Crest is just plain awesome, the scenery can’t compete with the Cirque of the Towers.
I wanted a short but interesting day after Starr King and Clark, so I paid my $5 camping fee to Exxon-Mobil (I think NPS patrols Cathedral Lakes more diligently than Mono Meadows), slept near Saddlebag Lake, and returned to the Cathedral Trailhead. It was cold overnight, so I finished writing about the previous day’s adventures while waiting for the sun, then got a leisurely start around 8 AM.
The Park Service has done significant maintenance on what was once a climbers’ trail leading to the eastern side of Cathedral Peak. While the old man in me grumps about kids these days having it easy, it is good to see the Park Service making things better for climbers, and it is a pleasure to hike on a trail designed for and used by humans, with comfortable-length steps, appropriately steep grades, and no rubble. I followed this trail to where it switchbacks to Cathedral’s base, then took off cross-country, following bits of use trail and the obvious line.
Switchbacking up to Matthes Crest’s southern end, I heard voices, and met five men from Las Vegas, four of then standing around while one led the first pitch. They were climbing as one group of three and one of two and simul-climbing after the first two pitches, an arrangement guaranteed to be painfully slow. I put on my rock shoes, then awkwardly climbed around and under their rope for the first pitch, ducked through the belay, and continued more easily from there to the crest.
The traverse to the south summit felt long, though I was mostly moving quickly along an obvious route near the top of the ridge. Many sections are like narrow sidewalks with hand-rails, and I probably would have gone faster wearing running shoes, rather than mincing along on bound feet. I skipped the south summit to traverse straight into the gap, where I found the same cheater-step making it easy to climb up a ledge and skip some vertical climbing below the crux.
The crux pitch starts with two vertical cracks in a dihedral. I was shamefully unmanned by this section last year, but felt completely secure this time around. While there are none of the normal “secure” holds — horizontal edges and ledges — there is a good vertical edge deep in the right crack, good hand-jams in the left one, and decent stemming or an occasional foot-jam. After this short vertical section, some easier climbing between and over the usual rock fins put me on the summit. As expected, I saw no sign of the roped parties; judging by the summit register, they may have summited about when I returned to the car. Soloing is way faster, and not just going down!
After some easy scrambling, the traverse north got serious below an old bolt and piton, placed to turn a fatal fall into a very unpleasant pendulum. This section consisted of a diagonal traverse on outward-sloping ledge, then a step-across and stem into a gap near some slings. It is easier than downclimbing the crux, but not trivial. Other than this one section, most of the climbing on the northern section is straightforward, though the route-finding is trickier and takes you farther from the crest. I kept going through the amazing “wave” section, then dismounted down the slabs to the west. There didn’t seem to be much interesting climbing after that, and I wanted to end on a high note.
Back in running shoes, I cut between Echo Peak and Echo Crags, picked up a switchbacked trail down from the Crags, then made a bee-line across the flats to the Cathedral trail. Amazingly, other than the 3-person trail crew and one pair of climbers standing around the base, I had the climb to myself. I crouched in a bit of shade to change back into rock shoes.
After once again making things harder for myself by starting to the right, I traversed into the standard route above the tree at the first belay. A route description is unnecessary, but I can think of two useful pieces of beta. First, look up! Especially lower down, there are nice cracks and ledges, but they tend to steepen or disappear, so you need to plan when to switch. Second, if you’re lost, look for chalk. This is an incredibly popular climb, with almost-permanent deposits along popular lines. The crux for me was a sort of chimney/dihedral about half-way up, which forced me into awkward mode for a few moves.
Instead of descending the Muir route to the Cathedral Lakes trail, I popped over the north shoulder to the climbers’ trail. The Cathedral Lakes trail is well worth avoiding, being remarkably flat and dusty. Though their steps only went part-way up, the trail crew was done for the season; I thanked them for what they had finished, passed another party standing around at the base of the climb, and hike/jogged back to the car.