Accidents in the mountains are less common than in the lowlands, and these mountain mansions are decent, delightful, even divine, places to die in, compared with the doleful chambers of civilization. Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. – John Muir
In Tuolumne Meadows, there are no shortage of routes available to the motivated climber. Three of these routes make up what is known as the “Triple Crown”- Tenaya Peak, Cathedral Peak, and Matthes Crest. All three routes get you above 10,000 ft. for a moderate grade, and all are unique in their own way. The strongest and quickest climbers try to link them up in a day, which is an ambitious task. Emmanuel and I wanted to climb all of them, but honestly thought we would have to pick one or two of them. Well, turns out we didn’t.
Our plan was to head into Tuolumne from Lone Pine, sleep outside of the park and then climb Tenaya on Thursday morning. After Tenaya we planned to try to get a permit to backpack into Echo Lakes on Friday. As Cathedral Peak and Matthes Crest are about 2 miles from another (and both close to Echo Lake), many link the two routes in two days by backpacking to Echo Peaks. This lets you avoid having to hike back and forth and also to sneak in some backpacking in the middle of climbing two classics.
So, in three days we climbed the three most prolific “easy” routes in Tuolume meadows, Here, then, is what happened along the way…
Tenaya Peak –
Anyone who has ever been to Tuolumne Meadows is familiar with Tenaya Lake. It sits right off the road and its long and open beach make a great place for people to hang out. A fun factoid about Tenaya Lake is that there is literally an underwater forest from pre-lake years (yes, I am so good at geology and use all of the correct lingo) ; you can see some of the stumps sticking out in the middle of the lake.
Swirling above Tenaya Lake is Tenaya Peak (which was named first, I do not know, though I know “Tenaya” was the name of the chief of the Yosemite tribe that populated the area long before us Europeans came through). It is impossible to miss; arced lines stack up on top of one another creating a face that very much reminded me of Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley. When Tenaya catches the sunlight in the early morning it simply glows, radiating the sun toward the sleepy meadow that is still waking up in the cold morning.
Indeed, it was a chilly morning. We got into the parking lot at around 8 AM and I just wanted to start the hike up the hill to warm myself up. The approach is easy; at most it is 30 minutes up to the leftmost part of the base of the peak, where the route begins. Although, honestly, I’m not really sure where the route “begins” and where the approach “ends”- officially. Eventually though, the fourth class did turn into fifth and I felt like I was very obviously on-route. The rock quality is spectacular, everything was very solid and out of every route we free-soled on our trip this one scored the highest in terms of how quickly I was able to move and how solid I felt. Tenaya goes at 5.5, and I’d say I would agree with that rating. Near the top you have some very cool exposure as you skirt around some boulders; in my opinion, this section was the best part of the entire climb. The whole experience really can be summed up as a fabulously fun romp up a very unique rock formation in an aesthetic place. The climbing took us around two hours to finish. We also passed by a few marmots on the way up, sun-bathing.
Knowing full and well that my ankle was definitely not 100% ( though nearing so) I elected that we take the more relaxed (but longer) descent since we had time and we were planning on doing a lot of climbing and walking in the next three days. Emmanuel politely obliged and we headed down, looking for the Sunset trail. Well, we never actually found this trail and ended up cross country hiking until we hit the Tenaya Lake trail. Nonetheless, it was kind of a fun way down, since we weren’t in much of a rush. Another added benefit of having some extra time- tons of summit photos from all possible angles, yes! Photo dump time!
Once we made it down we went to get our wilderness permit for the next day. Luckily, there were still some available. Originally we had intended on doing Cathedral on Friday, camping at Echo lakes Friday night and doing Matthess on Saturday then hiking out on the same day After thinking some more about this, we decided to extend our permit to two days, just in case Matthess took a bit longer than anticipated (or if my ankle hurt) and we didn’t want do to the hike out. We had one extra day, we figured, so why not extend it- just in case.
We spent the afternoon packing and were ready before the sunset. We made a good dinner and went to bed at around 10 PM, fully psyched on the weekend’s adventure.
Then, some shit hit the fan.
Somehow, while getting into my sleeping bag, I struggled with the zipper and instead of calmly grabbing my headlamp to assess the situation, I just yanked as hard as I could and managed to rip a pretty big hole in my (down) bag. Excellent job, Jasna. To top it all off, I didn’t have any nylon to patch it with nor did I have duck tape. The only thing I could think of doing was going to the Mobil gas station to see if they had anything. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even open, though you wouldn’t have guessed from the party raging outside.
We knew that we couldn’t take this bag without patching it first into the back country, tons of down would come out of it and it would be ruined/slightly useless. We were left with only one option; ditch our plan of getting a super early start on Cathedral and head into Lee Vining (we were camping outside of the park on National Forest land) to get some patch material. That night, I felt both guilty and stupid for making such an avoidable error that forced us to change our plans. I passed a not so comfortable night crouched in my car.
The next morning we were in Lee Vining and found some good Nylon patch quickly that worked well. We headed over to the trailhead for Cathedral Lake, debating about what we should do- go for Cathedral despite our popular start, or just skip it and head straight to Echo Lakes. Cathedral Peak is a very, very popular climb. There are usually about 10-20 people on it at a time so if you don’t get an early (or a late) start, you have to wait for ahwile. We didn’t love the thought of waiting in line late since we had to backpack to Echo Lakes, but we did not like the idea of not climbing even more so we said “meh” let’s check it out.
We got to the base of Cathedral at about noon, and as we had anticipated there were plenty of people all over the route. I looked up at the thing and said, “well, why don’t we just solo it until we feel like pitching it out.” Emmanuel was down, I was down.. so venga, vamos – we went.
I was not doing so well on the first pitch, I was pretty damn nervous and was certain that once I reached the ledge I would ask to rope up. But, I didn’t. The second pitch looked really easy.. and so did the third. By the time we had gotten to the chimney, there was a huge line of people just waiting to go up it. This did not appeal to neither Manu or I so we skipped the crowd by climbing the 5.7 knobby alternative to the left, which was technically the hardest “grade” we soloed that day, though to me it felt like the easiest part of the route.
Well, two hours later, what do you know we were on the summit of Cathedral Peak, not having used our rope once. Well, this certainly made the route go by much quicker and we were down by our packs by 3 or 4, with plenty of sunshine left to make it to Echo Lake.
However, when we got to the very well-known and aesthetic summit of Cathedral, I didn’t let out a celebratory cheer nor did I high-five Emmanuel after just having accomplished something that many others would not think of even trying. Instead, I sat down and thought, a lot.. about what I had just done. I kept on mulling over the consequences of my actions and about whether or not it was a good idea to have free-soled the route. I didn’t feel like this on Laureal Mountain or Tenaya, largely because I felt much more confident on those routes and I did not have nearly as big of an audience.
In the end, I decided that the decision we made was not a stupid one and I did not regret it at all. However, I think that anyone who makes the decision to go unroped should surely have a dialogue with him or herself before hand about the very obvious and very serious consequences involved in soloing a route that one must come to terms with.
Later on, I remember reading that most accidents during free-soloing happen to people who made the decision to free-solo spontaneously, as Manu and I did, rather than to those who had planned it out ahead of time. The proposed explanation for this is that people who planned it out ahead of time are more thoughtful and plan ahead better. It is a good statistic to know, though I still do not regret the decision that day.
We made it to Echo Lakes set up camp and busted out our Bear Box to make some dinner- freeze dried chili, yum.
This chili was so disgusting I refused to eat it and instead had a very fancy dinner that consisted of a handful of nuts, a can of sardines, and a few slices of bread. It filled me up and my taste buds didn’t outright reject it at first contact, so I was not complaining at all.
The next morning we decided to sleep in; aka we woke up at 630 instead of 5 or 530. We figured we did not have to rush since we could stay the night at Echo Lakes if we wanted to- we had the entire day.
Matthes Crest is an incredibly unique rock formation. It is an independent ridge, meaning it stands by itself rather than between two higher peaks. The entire traverse is around 2 miles long, though most people stop after a mile (climbing from south to north) and rappel after the South Summit. The word is that after the south summit things get trickier, involve a lot more down climbing and get a lot more dangerous. Emmanuel and I weren’t so sure that we wanted to continue for the entire traverse, but we did not rule it out either. As usual we adopted our “let’s see how we feel” philosophy.
To get up onto the ridge you first must climb a few pitches of 5.3. Just waking up, these seemed harder than 5.3 to me, but nevertheless were easily done without a rope. As my head creeped up and over the final block on the last pitch, a long, massive pathway of rock jutted out in front of me. The grandeur of the ridge laid out in front of me dulled and quieted the fear that was making it hard to enjoy the first pitches. Never before had I seen such a formation and I pushed forward, cautiously, of course, to explore.
Moving along hte ridge was a tremendously unique and special experience. Standing on a narrow sidewalk of perfect granite and peeking over at the 3,000 sheer drop on either side was both stomach-turning and exhilarating.
After about 2 hours of making our way to the south summit, we reached the rappel point. It was here that we would have to decide whether or not we wanted to continue onward toward the north summit or rappel here. A lovely ledge made for a fine spot to break for lunch and contemplate. In the end we decided that what we had done had been so spectacular- and also so committing- that we did not feel it wise to push forward to the more dangerous north end. We had tested ourselves and were content; to go further would be risky and probably foolish.
You can get down to some 2nd class talus with one 60 meter rope, but it is best to do a double-length rappel. We only brought up one 70m, but luckily ran into two other climbers who wanted to rappel as well. We had a good time exchanging stories on that ledge as we all took a peaceful break, admiring our position and the sublime mountain landscape which was laid our before us.
Maybe one hour later, we were back at camp. The sun hitting the meadow invited us both to take a well-deserved nap and nearby Echo Lake also beckoned us for a quick dip.
We had finished by around one, and so decided we would hike back to our car to perhaps have one more day of climbing before we had to bid adieu to the Sierra and all of its grandeur, and once again enter the city. As we hiked out across the meadow Matthes Crest stood,
I leave you once again with another quote from John Muir; His thoughts, not nearly as elegantly put, were swirling in my head as I was driving away from the mountains, seeing the granite domes become smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror…
Until next time.
” Tell me what you will of the benefactions of city civilization, of the sweet security of streets- all as part of the natural upgrowth of man towards the high destiny we hear so much of. I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found […] Go now and then for fresh life- if most of human it must go through this town stage of development- just as divers hold their breath and come ever and anon to the surface to breathe…Go whether or not you have faith…From parties, if you must be social, to go to the snow-flowers in winter, to sun-flowers in summer… Anyway, go up and away for life; be fleet!”