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.