Being a climber in NorCal in the summer is much better than being in SoCal, and this is because we have easier access to alpine climbing in the Sierra. The long days mean lots of daylight in which to climb and it’s great to get out in the cooler, high-elevation air of the Sierra during the hot Californian summer. Climbing in Tuolumne is awesome because you can get out and climb “alpine” routes without the commitment of having to backpack in.
Among the many awesome multipitch routes in the Meadows, I think three stand out as the most classic moderate, yet easily accessible alpine climbs in Tuolumne: the Northwest Buttress of Tenaya Peak, the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, and the Matthes Crest. We’ve both already done the first two (I climbed Tenaya with my friend Lauren, Luke soloed it; we simuled Cathedral together), but hadn’t gotten around to doing the Matthes Crest yet. After not climbing for 4 weeks straight, I thought that a long, fun, moderate day would be perfect for my first weekend of climbing after my South Africa trip.
Although we had originally planned on doing the Crest on Saturday, we got into Crane Flat late on Friday night, so we decided to push the Crest til Sunday (hoping it might be less crowded then, too). This allowed us to sleep in a little on Saturday morning before driving out to the Meadows, where we climbed Zee Tree on Pywiak Dome, South Crack on Stately Pleasure Dome, and a few single pitch routes to finish out the day at Low Profile Dome. I was pretty tired by the end of all of this, since I had made the questionable (but necessary) decision to run on Thursday and Friday to whip my butt back into triathlon shape (this also after not running for ~4 weeks straight).
We headed to the always excellent Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil Station for delicious dinner, where we met up with a bunch of other climbers. We bivied for the night and got up at 6am the next morning to head back into the Meadows to start our Matthes Crest day.
We started hiking from the Cathedral Lakes trailhead at about 7:30am and made good time along the climbers’ trail to the Matthes/Cathedral split. This had us in good spirits, since we had forgotten to print the topo for the approach (we only had the written directions), we mistakenly thought this meant we were halfway (we were not). We reached Budd Lake and, after some brief discussions about interpretation of the written directions, set off again. Luke started to head uphill towards a saddle between some peaks, but I convinced him that we should stay lower and hike around the peaks (turns out, both ways work, but my way was the one intended by the SuperTopo directions).
We had begun to be worried that we weren’t in the right place when we rounded a corner and saw the Crest! Then we saw that we still had a ways to walk before the start of the route (at the south end of the Crest). We kept chugging, and eventually made it to the base of the route at 10:15am or so, having taken a little less than 3 hours to do the approach. Not bad for thinking we might be lost for a good half of the hike.
We had tentatively planned on soloing much of the route, but looking up at the crazy features of the first “5.3″ pitch, I decided that I would be much more comfortable simuling. Just being tied in to the rope and having the option to place protection makes all the difference in the world for me. I lead us up the first vertical section, then stopped to retrieve the gear from Luke and shorten the rope. If you only have 20-30m of rope out (vs. 60-70m), you have way less rope drag and much easier communication with your partner, although you do have to be more careful about placing protection often enough that you don’t end up simul-soloing with a rope.
With our 7 cam rack, we had to stop fairly often to exchange gear, but we were also able to move quite fast, passing both roped parties in front of us well before the South Summit. In the interest of time, we decided not to tag the South Summit. I also made Luke lead the 5.7 pitch up to the North Summit (it looked a little intimidating for simuling). At this point, the 2 parties behind us had apparently decided they’d had enough and had both rapped off before the South Summit, so we basically had the whole ridge to ourselves.
After the North Summit, the climbing became more technical, with a number of 5.8 or 5.9 downclimbing sections and some tricky route-finding to get around vertical drops along the ridgecrest. There was also a crazy section of traversing along a wild knobby slab that was overhanging on the other side. This has just barely enough protection to simul – some pro at the beginning, a new-looking piton somewhere in the middle, and a green Camalot (I think) at the end.
All the downclimbing meant we were moving slower than on the first half of the ridge, and as we neared the final 2 gendarmes on the ridge, we both had the same thought: traverse below the two small towers rather than going to the trouble to climb up and down each one. As the difficulty eased, the silliness increased, such as this incident of me forgetting to grab the red Camalot from Luke at our previous gear transfer:
When we finally made our way down to the ledge system we’d sighted, we found several sets of footprints, indicating that we weren’t the only ones to do this. We unroped and thankfully switched our climbing shoes for our approach shoes (this day involved a lot of time on our feet) and traversed our ledge system, which led us back up to the final bit of ridge crest, after the last 2 gendarmes. We decided to head for the saddle next to the Echo Peaks, which we were pretty sure would be a nice shortcut to get back over to Budd Lake. This was actually the saddle Luke had started heading for earlier in the morning, but as we went down the other side, we were glad we’d approached the other way – probably more distance, but a lot less elevation to gain on the way in, which was nice.
Back down at Budd Lake, we were psyched to be back on relatively flat, well-traveled trail again and set about marching our aching feet and sore legs back down to the car, which we reached at around 6:40pm, giving us an overall car-to-car time of just over 11 hours. While not super fast, I was still pretty proud of this, considering my legs were already tired from running at the end of the week, we were at elevation, and we probably covered ~10 miles (including the technical ridge traversing part) over the day.
After refueling with some nuun and snacks, we got in the car and started the drive back home, making it to our well-deserved burritos and chips and guac at the Chipotle in Manteca just 15 minutes before closing.
It was a long (especially with the 5-hour drive back home) but really good day. I’m really glad we finally did the Matthes Crest, and there’s something pretty cool about being in constant motion for so long (which is what happens when you simul the whole thing…). Although we had planned on soloing more of the easier first half of the ridge, I was happy about my decision to simul it. I think I would probably have been slower if I had been soloing, and the fact that we were simuling made the experience a lot more enjoyable and less stressful for me. There were definitely a couple of downclimbing sections on the 2nd half that I would have been extremely uncomfortable soloing, and I’m not sure I’ll ever want to solo the Crest. I’m also not sure I’d do the 2nd half of the ridge again, especially with a less-experienced partner, although I’m glad we got to experience it anyways.
Have you done the Crest? What did you think?