Ethics of Ambition 2016: Risk
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, Yosemite, California (Wednesday October 28, 2015 at 11:24 am)


Dean Potter on a slack line without a tether (safety line)

When, and under which conditions, would the risk taken by climbers pose an ethical dilemma? I’ve discussed this issue in the past with Professor Strom’s class, Ethics of Ambition. Today, I presented three cases of risky activities:

1. Wing-suit flying and BASE jumping

2. Guided climb to Mt. Everest

3. Sponsored athletes who perform stunts for Red Bull and others

Dean Potter held the world record for the longest base jump, from the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger. In his wingsuit, Dean flew for almost 3 minutes over a distance of 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers).

On May 16, 2015, I was cat sitting for one of the ranger’s in Yosemite National Park. About 10pm that evening, I answered a knock at the door. It was Dean’s mate, and another woman.

“Dean and Graham jumped tonight, and we haven’t heard from them,” Jen said. “Is it possible they were arrested and can’t call?” she asked.

The ranger, Mike, who was packing to leave town the next morning jumped up.

“C’mon, we’ll go over to SAR (search and rescue) and see what’s going on.

With a sinking feeling I watched them leave.  Base jumpers and wingsuit fliers not showing up usually means one thing: they crashed. I was afraid that Dean, whom I’d known for over 20 years, was dead.

They had not been arrested (BASE jumping is illegal in national parks), nor did they call that night. The next morning,  SAR sent out a  team  which found and recovered the two bodies.

Potter’s goal was to break barriers and do what no one had done before. In an interview with Dan Duane (the Last Flight of Dean Potter), he says “”I love having these ultimate goals out in front of me,” …. “But the number one goal… — is that I don’t ever get taken out by fucking up. I want to live to be a grandfather….”

Sadly, Dean did not survive to see his grandchildren.

Still, Dean followed his dreams uncompromisingly. He pursued new goals as his art, and did not bow to the demands of sponsors.

Unlike Potter, would-be Everest summiters face different ethical dilemmas.

Mountaineer Leanna Shuttleworth passed the bodies of dead and dying people on her ascent. Leanna Shuttleworth  and her father Mark headed for the 29,035ft summit on May 19-20, 2012. Almost 200 climbers tried for the top; six died. “There were quite a few bodies attached to the fixed lines and we had to walk round them”, Shuttleworth said. “There were also a couple who were still alive.” Shuttleworth describes coming across one man who she assumed had perished. “As we passed he raised his arm and looked at us,” she said. “He didn’t know anyone was there. He was almost dead. He was dead when we came back down.”

In an era when climbing Everest has become a form of extreme tourism … has human life come to count for less than the fulfillment of a personal ambition.

In May 2015, an earthquake struck Nepal, killing  8,000 people, including at least 19 climbers—10  Sherpas—at  Everest Base Camp.This started one more debate about the commercialization of Everest and the ethics of climbing it.


Red Bull has been increasingly criticized for sponsoring extreme events and competitions in which numerous people are injured or killed.

Büchel and Deutsche Welle looks at the dark side of extreme sports and sponsorship in “the Dark Side of Red Bull - the Perils of Extreme Sports.”

In 2009,  three athletes died while doing (paid) stunts for Red Bull: skier Shane McConkey, parachuter Eli Thompson and basejumper Ueli Gegenschatz - who was  filmed when he was killed. Robb Gaffney, a medical doctor,  described Red Bull marketing as unethical.

In a recent story,” When Does Risk Outweigh the Reward?”, 

The author criticizes the Red Bull Rampage  mountain bike competition.
He describes it: “This is MADNESS.”  It  costs the Pros money to enter and
riders bring their own insurance , and are required to sign a liability waiver freeing Red Bull of any responsibility.”

I’ve described three very different types of extreme activities, with very different ethical considerations. Potter base jumped for his own fulfillment, with little or no pressure fro sponsors.

Would-be Everest summiters pay huge sums to risk their own lives as well as those of others - many Sherpas and guides have been killed trying to get the wealthy to the top.

And for Red Bull, athletes risk life and limb to get the sponsor more publicity.

I’ll let you decide which of these activities pose  greater ethical dilemmas, and which are purely a personal decision.

Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, women, Yosemite, California (Sunday December 14, 2014 at 3:34 pm)

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El Cap, the Nose, Stovelegs, first pitch

My climbing partner Eric Doub  and I conceived the  idea that maybe we should try to climb the Nose in a Day (NIAD). After all, everyone is climbing the NIAD these days. I personally know many people who’ve climbed it in a day. So why shouldn’t we?

Well, some minor details, like - the  other climbers climbing the NIAD are faster than either of us. And stronger. And most of them about 20 years younger.

However,  I wanted to try. And, apparently people at the American Alpine Club thought that we deserved to try this - they awarded me a “Live Your Dream ” grant to attempt the Nose.

Initially, I drove to Yosemite alone and found a climbing partner there who’d climbed with my friend in Colorado. Steve and I met at 5:00 am in the parking area below El Cap and organized our gear. Today, we would climb only the first 10 pitches - as far as Dolt Tower, and then rappel down.

Steve was a stronger climber,  and had climbed Astroman free a week earlier, so he led the first several pitches. After following pitch three, I  decided I wanted to lead the next pitch. Pitch 4 went well, after a scary stemming move above a ledge (with no gear in), followed by two short pendulum traverses, and then we were on Sickle Ledge.

We stopped for a quick snack here, and Steve said, sounding surprised,

“It looks like we’ll make it to Dolt.”

“Well, yes, ” I replied. “Wasn’t that the plan?”

Yes, but I didn’t really think we’d make it,” he admitted.

Oh? When I asked why, he replied that he didn’t really think an older woman like myself would make it to Dolt Tower, and that he thought we’d climb as far as was reasonable, and then descend.

He added, “We’re climbing faster than I expected, and I expect we’ll reach Dolt.”

Since I’d had every intention of getting to Dolt Tower, I was glad he now also though this was feasible — especially since I still hoped to eventually climb the whole thing.

I then led pitches 5 and 6, two easy pitches one can run together  with a bit of simul-climbing. The next few belay stances were miniscule — about 2″ by 3″ at the most, enough for one toe hold. Steve, who mentioned that he’d led every pitch of Astroman, led the next few pitches, and I climbed them .

We took no ascenders on this trip, but both of us climbed all the pitches. sine it was a practice run, this gave me a good feeling for the climbing on the lower portion of the Nose.

It also convinced me that I’d happily lead pitch 8, the first pitch of the Stovelegs, a fun hand crack.

Around 3 pm, we arrive on top of Dolt Tower, enjoying a wonderful view with our snack and water.  I can see why climbers call the Nose the greatest rock climb in  the world: the climbing is excellent, on superb rock, with a variety of moves and techniques - liebacks, stemming, jam cracks, face climbing all on stellar rock.

After that first run up to Dolt, I definitely planned to come  back for more.

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On Dolt Tower

Ethics and ambition, 2014
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, skiing, women, Colorado, California (Tuesday November 11, 2014 at 11:05 am)

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Shelf  Road, a favorite winter climbing area
I’ve spoken at Professor Paul Strom’s class, The Ethics of Ambition, for many years. In 2013, I discussed the dilemma of would-be guided Everest climbers, who pass by dying climbers on their way up and down the mountain. I also discussed sponsorship, and climbers who perform death-defying (and in some cases, deadly) stunts to please their sponsors and their audience. One report  by Deutsche Welle “uncovers the background stories of several deaths associated with Red Bull’s publicity stunts”

in 2011, I delved further into sponsorship and the pressure it can place on climbers (and any professional in extreme sports, such as base jumping, surfing, free skiing, and others.)
This year, for the first time since I’ve spoken at this class, we discussed a personal ambition of my own. The first consequence ( for this class, of my ambition):  the students wrote the answer to their homework question, and were ready to post it, before I got around to posting my annual ethics post. And why? Because I was rock climbing at Shelf Road (photo above) in pursuit of my current ambition.

In the past year, I conceived the idea of trying to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan within 24 hours. Many climbers have done this, so it’s nothing that special — but I would be the oldest woman to ever climb it in a day. Perhaps even the oldest person , if it takes me long enough to accomplish!

So why this goal, why now, and what ethical constraints are involved?

As to why climb El Capitan,  I’ve always loved climbing this rock face, since becoming part of the first female team to climb it. I’ve wanted to climb el Capitan since then, and was able to climb it two more times while I was still a student. Since then, I haven’t been able to climb El Capitan due to various constraints - job, career, and then I became a mother. While I continued to rock climb recreationally, I was not able to commit the amount of time and energy necessary to climb it within 24 hours.

Last spring, I was in Yosemite for a month, practicing the first third of El Capitan.  In 2015, I plan to return to Yosemite and work on the route for another month of two. When my son was young, I could not leave home that long. and, even though he’s been in college the past four years, in 2012 and 2013, I was taking care of my extremely ill mother, who lied in the Bay Area. I could climb for the weekend, but not for weeks on end.

So, in the past years, I’d given up my ambition to take care of my son, and then my parents.  The ethical constraint was clear: postpone my goals, or abandon my family. I chose to take care of my family, and climb El Capitan later. Perhaps waiting paid off: this spring, the American alpine Club awarded me a ‘Live Your Dream‘ grant to attempt this climb.

Why now? My son graduated from college in May, 2014; both of my parents have passed away, and my job as a ski instructor at Beaver Creek Resorts allows me to take the summer to climb. For the first timein decades, I have the time to go to Yosemite for a month or so without abandoning other responsibilities.

I’ve asked the students to discuss similar ethical dilemmas that they may have faced in their lives. for instance, perhaps a  high school athlete had to choose between his sport, and academics. Or someone had to choose between attending a college that offered the best education, versus staying closer to home and family.

We all make choices in our life that affect others, and those decisions and  ambitions can cause ethical conflicts.

What gets publicity are the famous athletes (and artists, politicians, and  others in the media) whose decisions affect not only their only lives, but the lives of many.

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El Capitan, Yosemite

Tenaya Peak, Tuolumne Meadow, Yosemite
Posted by sibylle in Yosemite, California (Monday August 27, 2012 at 4:27 pm)

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Our “lunch” stop on Tenaya Peak

This past July Hal and I romped up Tenaya Peak. I hadn’t climbed for many months,  and felt too out of shape to climb any truly strenuous or difficult routes; so climbing the  long, easy  ridge of Tenaya Peak seemed like a good way to get in shape.

We hiked around Tenaya Lake to  the stream, which we crossed on  alog near the lake.  Head toward the Peak until you reach the trail, and turn left (east).  Follow the hiker’s trail until you see a big cairn, and then turn right, uphill, toward the ridge of Tenaya Peak.

The trail weaves back and forth through the manzanita shrubs toward the peak, staying near the right edge  of the bushes. When the slabs looked reasonable ( this will vary according to personal reference), traverse right and continue up slabs.

If you’re comfortable on friction, the slabs are easier and quicker than slogging through the shrubbery. We continued up slabs to the high spot in the photo, above  - a very large, flattish slab of rock that provides a cozy lunch ‘table’.

After eating a quick snack here, we roped up, and belayed the next (crux) pitch. here one has various option - head up the break between arches, or head up a layback and crack  to the left of this break. If there are several climbers on the route, the left-hand version, perhaps technically moe difficult, provides a nice way to avoid a traffic jam.

From here, I traversed far left, and then various options allow one to reach the summit. We belayed only for these last three pitches, the second of which comprises an easy 5th class traverse.

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View towards Mathes Crest from Tenaya Peak

Dick Dorworth, climber, Skiing Hall of Fame
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, skiing, Wyoming, California, Idaho (Monday November 14, 2011 at 7:07 pm)

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Dick Dorworth at City of Rocks, 2010

I met Dick Dorworth in the 1970s in the Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming. I’d hiked in to the Cirque with big plans and two other girls - Anne Marie Rizzie and Linda Covert. I say “girls” intentionally, since we were teens, and college students.

Dick was guiding a client and had his wife and son with him. After the client, wife and son left, and my two friends departed early, Dick asked me to climb with him.

In my second summer of climbing and leading, I still felt new to the ropes. But, I figured, with a professional climbing guide, what can go wrong?

However, Dick wasn’t planning on climbing an easy trade route. No, he’d been eyeing an as yet unclimbed line on the North Face of Mitchell Peak (12,482′.)

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N. Face of Mitchell Peak

Photo by Jason Funk

We started up early in the morning. Dick led the first pitch, which he’d climbed before on his first attempt on the face (with his client, I believe). At the belay, he pointed up and said,

“Just follow that corner until you reach a good ledge and then belay.”

I was  a teenage girl. This was by far the biggest, and scariest,  wall I’d ever been on.  And the longest route I’d ever been on, by far. I also was used to climbing with my father, and doing what he told me. So I grabbed our nuts and hexes and climbed up the corner until I found a ledge to belay from.

We climbed about four pitches until the weather looked very threatening, and a Dick’s urging, we rappeled down.

A few days later, armed with a waterproof parka I’d borrowed form another climber,  we started up again. After the first four pitches, we entered terra incognito. Dick led the next pitch,  and at the belay, pointed up again.

“Just head up that flake,” he encouraged me.

I was even more nervous. Here I would lead an unknown pitch on an unclimbed route, with no idea of difficult it was. My habit of climbing up anything that someone told me I could do stood me in good stead, and I led the next pitch, which wasn’t too desperate.

We’d now climbed 6 pitches, with the angle and climbing difficulties easing off. However, the weather and nightfall more than threatened, as black clouds boiled up from behind the wall and thunder grumbled in the distance. Dick headed up quickly, and we reached the summit plateau it got dark and all hell cut loose.

Luckily I was wearing the borrowed parka. Dick found an overhanging ledge we crawled under, as hail pounded us and wild lightning strikes lit up the summit.

I’d never been in such a storm in such an exposed place.

“Are we going to make it?” I quavered, sure that we’d be forced to spend the night up here, and not at all sure that we’d survive it.

“I know the descent.” Dick reassured me. ” I f we can find the gully, I know were the rappel anchors are. We carried no headlamps - I didn’t own one, and headlamps in those days were big, clumsy things.

Once the brunt of the storm eased, we  crawled on hands and knees toward the edge, looking for rappel anchors during the brightest lightning strikes.

Somehow we found the anchors and commenced rappelling. After numerous raps on soaking ropes, from which  streams of water ran down our arms, we reached more crawlable terrain.

Eventually, close to midnight, we spied a roaring fire. Our friends,  knwoing we were out there, had built an enormous bonfire to help light our way back to camp.

We happily crawled in next to the fire to dry off, and eat some lunch and dinner.

Dick named our climb ‘the book of Ecclesiastes’, perhaps to commemorate out trial by water and fire.
This year, my friend and mentor, Dick Dorworth,   was nominated to  the Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame for his world speed record and his many books and articles.

Remembering Chris
Posted by sibylle in Yosemite, Eulogies, California (Monday May 30, 2011 at 1:44 pm)

Eight years ago today, on beautiful sunny day in Yosemite Valley, Chris Hampson and I set out to climb on Lower Cathedral Buttress.

It was the last climb of his too-short life - only 25 years old, Chris that day fell over 100 feet to his death.

We started the day full of joy and enthusiasm. Chris and I had climbed a longer, much harder route on Middle Cathedral Buttress  (the Kor-Beck) and were going  to climb Overhang Bypass to look at Overhang Overpass.

A short  way from the car, I noticed I’d forgotten my helmet.

“D*&%, I forgot my helmet! I’ll go back and get it.

Chris  dissuaded me, saying that on this easy climb we wouldn’t need helmets.

We decided to simul-climb, both moving at once, on this easy route (one 5.7 pitch, and the rest easier). When I finished the long traverse left below the roof (the ‘Overhang Bypass’), and then started up to the left of the roof, the rope caught in the crack at the roof’s edge, forcing to stop and belay.

I placed gear, and belayed Chris up to me.

“Can you give me another cam?” I asked. “I want to beef up this anchor.”

“Hold on a sec,”  he replied. “I want to enjoy this view.”

Chris stood below me and the roof’s edge, with Bridalveil Falls roaring down to the depth in all its glory almost right next to us.

After placing another cam, I tied all of our anchor points together and tied myself in to one center point.

“There. Now we have a bomber anchor that will hold anything,” I said, satisfied with my heavy-duty belay anchor.

“Yeah, but we won’t need that today,” Chris replied.

From here, we’d climbed the hardest pitch. A ramp diagonalled up and left, past some trees, toward a long ledge crossing the wall above us.

“I’ll head up to the ledge and traverse right once I reach it. I won’t place much gear to avoid rope drag,” Chris explained.

I sat at my belay, slowly paying out rope, as Chris climbed up the ramp and disappeared around the corner. I continued paying rope out slowly as he moved up, out of sight.

Suddenly, I heard a shout.

Over the waterfall’s roar, I could barely make it out. Was he telling me he was up? Was it a shout of triumph at reaching our goal?

Then,  an indeterminable time later, I felt a jerk on the rope. Then nothing.

He must have fallen.  But he wasn’t shouting, and I couldn’t see him around the corner.

I sat for a few minutes, wondering what to do now.

Miraculously, Bob, a climber I knew who worked with Tuolumne Search and Rescue, appeared below me, soloing the climb.

“Bob, my partner fell and I can’t see or hear him.”

Bob soloed up the easy ramp to the tree above Chris.

“Chris, can you hear me?” he yelled.

“Yeah, I can hear you, ” came Chris’ reply.

“Where do you hurt?” Bob asked.

“I hurt all over.”

“There’s a ledge just above you.  Can you try to climb to it?” Bob asked.

“Yes, but I can’t see very well.” came Chris’ response.

Bob climbed back down to me, now using my sling that had been around the tree to tie himself in to the rope leading from my belay up to the tree.

“I’m going down to get SAR. Your friend has a life-threatening injury. Get yourself free from the belay and climb up to talk to him.” Bob told me.

Bob left, looking shaken and nervous about down-climbing the route unroped.

I slowly, methodically, and carefully, changed my tie-in from the end of the rope, to a prusik. After double-checking the system, I climbed up along the rope, now fixed between the anchor, and the tree below which Chris hung. It was maybe 70 feet to the tree, along an easy ramp. Once at the tree, I saw Chris hanging below me at the end of his rope.

“Chris! Try to climb up tot he ledge, and I’ll pull in the rope as you move up.”

However, Chris could not climb up. At 6′5″ and 215 pounds, I could not pull him up. We had only one rope with us, so I couldn’t rappel down to him.

Even if we’d had two ropes, I’d have to do a single rope rappel, and I still don’t know how I would move 215 pounds.

“Hang in there, Chris, ” I shouted. ” YOSAR is on the way.

It seemed like an eternity. The sun moved, and our shady ledge came into direct sunlight. I got hot, and Chris got hot.

Then things got worse. He started moaning and shouting in pain.

I jumped up and down, waving my arms wildly, to the YOSAR personnel I saw below. If they would only get here sooner.

Keith Lober and Lincoln Else, two park rangers I’d worked with, arrived.

“Is that tree good?” Keith asked.

“No.” I was forced to reply.  “I wouldn’t trust it.”

The tree was small, and half-dead. It might hold the weight of three people, and us hauling, but then, it might not.  I’d already looked around for good cracks, and there were none.

Keith placed several bolts over another lifetime.

Finally he descended.

Lincoln was on radio.

Chris had stopped screaming.

“I’ve got bad news for you, ” said Lincoln. “Your friend is dead.”

Top Extreme Sports: Climbing Blog

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands - Alcove Springs hike
Posted by sibylle in utah, Yosemite (Thursday April 28, 2011 at 5:23 pm)

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View of Moses and  Zeus

The view at the end of our long hike via Alcove Springs!

Weather for climbing
Posted by sibylle in Uncategorized, utah, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Idaho (Tuesday August 17, 2010 at 2:38 pm)

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“It’s way too hot to climb there now!” I heard this morning.

Weather, temperature, and the presence or absence of rain become frequent preoccupations among traveling (or even stay-at-home) climbers.

Here’s a great site for weather in the United States:


They don’t yet post weather outside the United State.

The weather site helps to avoid spring snow showers.

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That’s my tent, buried under the snow!

A snowy tuolumne
Posted by sibylle in Yosemite, California (Thursday July 16, 2009 at 6:54 pm)

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Lake Tenaya sits beneath Stately Pleasure Dome; Conness in back

This spring, we hoped to climb Tenaya Peak and the West Ridge of Conness. Two years ago, I arrived in Tuolumne on June 15 and we climbed Tenaya Peak on the 16th and the west ridge of Conness the following day.

I hadn’t counted on the very wet spring in the Sierra, coupled with cold temperatures that kept snow on the ground much later than normal. Snow covered the ground, in places, to a depth of three feet along the approach to Tenaya Peak. Not only did snow block the approach trail, but a large snow patch above a part of the climb contributed to a steady stream of water running down the rock we’d hoped to climb. Climbing Tenaya Peak this May was not a realistic option.

A quick look at Mt. Conness showed us a similar problem: a large snowfield covered the approach to the climb. Not wanting to hike in with ice axes, we decided to climb sunnier and dryer domes instead. WE climbed several routes on Stately Pleasure dome, which faces south; and also climbed the West Crack on the steep West Face of Daff Dome, which is steep enough that no snow lies on the rock.

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View of Cloud’s Rest from Olmsted Point

Cathedral Peak, tuolumne
Posted by sibylle in Yosemite, California (Tuesday July 14, 2009 at 6:50 pm)

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Cathedral Peak, May 2009
Cathedral Peak remains a favorite climb of California as well as visiting climbers. Its easy rating – 5.6 – makes Cathedral a frequent goal for climbers trying their first technical peak in the Sierra Nevada. Supertopos includes Cathedral Peak in its book, Tuolumne Free Climbs, and refers to Cathedral as one of the most aesthetic routes in Tuolumne (as well as one of the most crowded).

I’ve climbed Cathedral numerous times, starting in the 70s. In 2001, I took my 10-year old son up Cathedral, and I’ve taken numerous friends up the climb over the years. I usually try to start the 3-mile hike around 8 a.m., and begin climbing between 9 and 10. After living in Colorado, I’ve endured enough soakings during hailstorms that I now try to get to the top of a peak close to midday, and get back down by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

However, Cathedral’s location in sunny California, where it rarely rains in July, causes people to underestimate the potential seriousness of this route.  Two climbers were caught in a Sierra storm in November 2007 and were unable to get off the climb before becoming soaked. When rain turned to sleet, the situation became dire. The climbers decided to retreat due to deteriorating conditions. As it got dark, and started to snow, the climbers became hypothermic. One of them writes a heart-rending account of their attempt to get off the peak and back to their warm, dry clothes, and of his partner’s hypothermia and death.

In July 2009, two women were trying to make a fast ascent of the Cathedral, and started late – between 3 and 4 PM. They were climbing at the same time, with a running belay, heading toward the chimney halfway up – at the end of pitch 3. Since another team was in the chimney, the leader decided to climb beside the chimney. When out of sight of her climbing partner, she fell to a ledge and lost consciousness. Fortunately, climbers above rappelled down and assisted her, and a flight for life helicopter flew her to the hospital. She survived, with many lacerations and fractures in her spine.

While Cathedral Peak is a reasonable goal, I would recommend getting an early start to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. If taking a beginner up the route, it’s best if one person knows the route and, especially, knows the descent. The climber who died lost his life on the way out, after becoming hypothermic on the descent and remaining separated from his warm clothes for too long. The descent is easy, and can be fast, if in daylight and if you know the way.

The route meanders up random slabs and cracks to an obvious chimney a little above halfway up.  I’ve gone various ways to the chimney to pass people lower down, but have climbed the chimney (as far as I remember). The last time I took a friend up the climb, I saw storm clouds coming and decided to pass the climbers in front of us in the chimney. I was able to climb the entire chimney pitch without placing any gear, and thus avoid tangling my rope with their rope. The chimney is very secure, and quite short. One can belay directly below the chimney, and also right after it, or continue up on easy terrain.
The final summit block is optional – one can either climb it, to enjoy the view, or bypass it on the left to reach the descent on the back side.  The last time I climbed Cathedral, we did not climb the summit block since there were already a number of people on top and I was worried about clouds I could see coming in. Instead, we hastened to the back side and got down quickly.

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