Cathedral Peak is an iconic feature of the Yosemite high country. At a height of 3,326-m (10,911-ft), it is the most visually arresting mountain above Tuolomne Meadows, and a popular objective of alpine climbing in the Sierra Nevada. John Muir, the first to ever reach the top, wrote in his journal, “This, I may say, is the first time I have been at church in California.” The spectacular setting, quality rock, and unique summit make this an unforgettable climb.
The pointed spire of Cathedral Peak was lucky enough to stand above the level of the glaciers during the last Ice Age, thus preserving its impressive shape. While mountains of lower elevation were rounded and smoothed by the movement of the glaciers, Cathedral Peak remained untouched.
As mentioned, it was first climbed by John Muir. The year was 1869 and, needless to say, Muir lacked the benefits of modern climbing technology. At the time, his 4th class route was considered the most difficult climb yet done in the United States.
Sometime in the 1940’s, the southeast buttress was free-climbed by Chuck Wilts and Spencer Austin. It was said that Wilts and Austin were enticed by the amazing profile of the southeast buttress seen from many places near Tuolomne Meadows. “It would be hard for a climber to scope that view and not want to be up there,” Steve Roper writes in the SuperTopo guidebook Tuolomne Free Climbs.
This holds true for myself and my friend Steve Stosky. We’re on our our first trip to Yosemite and are awestruck by the scenery. Seeing the tempting shape of Cathedral Peak rising above Tuolomne Meadows, we decide to give it a go via the 5.6 southeast buttress.
We leave early one morning from the Tuolomne Meadows campground, rucksacks loaded with enough gear for the climb. We have a trad rack because the mountain offers no fixed protection, save for a few pitons. We also have two ropes in case of an emergency double rappel – the belay stations are all more than 150 feet apart.
Off we go up along Budd Creek with such spectacular peaks above us: Unicorn Peak, Cockscomb Mountain, Echo Peaks, Matthes Crest, and of course Cathedral Peak. All of these mountains stand above 10,000-ft and feature massive blocks of clean white granodiorite.
An hour and a half after leaving the vehicle, we reach the base of Cathedral Peak. The spectacular spire shoots straight up into the serene sky, sending shivers down my spine.
Steve and I drop our bags and begin gearing up for the climb. Several other groups of climbers are preparing to climb the southeast buttress like us, some with ropes, others simply without ropes. It’s a classic peak enjoyed by climbers of a range of skill levels.
Steve, with more traditional climbing experience than myself, is to lead the entire route. We start on the first pitch, which is easy overlapping hands on 5.4 terrain. Already from the first belay station (150 feet off the ground) the views down into the Budd Basin are spectacular.
The views improve as we ascend another 150 feet to the second belay ledge, this time on 5.6 flakes. The rock is solid and the grade consistent.
The third pitch is a twisty 5.6 line following a meandering strip of plagioclase knobs. A small tree occupies the belay ledge.
The fourth pitch starts out in a 50-foot tall chimney. The chimney is wide enough to fit my body, but not wide enough for my rucksack, which contains the extra rope. As a result, I have to dangle my heavy rucksack between my legs. The rucksack is attached to my harness by a sling, and keeps slipping into the restrictive chimney. I muscle my way up the cramped chimney, pausing repeatedly to free my backpack from the slot. Above the chimney, the pitch continues another 110 feet higher on a 5.6 face to the fourth anchor station.
The fifth and final pitch of the climb involves a series of mantles on huge granite knobs. The sheer exposure makes these moves memorable. My excitement increases as I hear Steve’s voice above me; I realize I’m only a few moves from the summit. Channeling my inner Muir, I step across a small gap and haul myself up onto the square summit platform.
Our position on the summit is outrageous, perched on the top of such a prominent spire. We count dozens of sparkling lakes in both Cathedral Valley and Budd Valley. We see all of Tuolomne Meadows and the magnificent granite masses standing guard above it. Lembert Dome, which rises 1,000 feet above the meadows, looks to be hardly elevated from the ground at all.
While we are on the summit, our campground neighbours come and go. They are trying to complete both Eichorn Pinnacle and Cathedral Peak in the same day, and move very fast. Four people on the summit of Cathedral Peak is quite precarious.
There is a crack running down the middle of the summit block that can be used for protection on the ascent, but there exist no fixed anchors from which to descend. The descent involves a delicate 4th-class climb down a chimney and then an airy traverse to a safe ledge. Steve goes first, secured by our top anchor system. He sets protection along the way to protect me in the event of a fall.
When it’s my turn, I take a deep breath, remove the gear from the summit, and scoot carefully to the edge. Delicately I inch my way down the chimney, taking out the gear that Steve had placed along the way. While trying to squeeze through a particularly narrow part of the chimney, one of my side-pocket waterbottles slips from my backpack. I watch in horror as the orange Nalgene careens 1,000 feet down the sheer cliff. This event reigns in my focus; I bear down and complete the downclimb.
A short exposed traverse around a bulge brings me to safe ground where Steve is waiting. We take a moment to admire the spectacular form of Eichorn Pinnacle before scrambling down to another ledge.
From this point we must make a series of rappels down the northwest flank of the mountain, which is actually the 4th class ascent route set by John Muir himself. Given the fading light conditions, we decide it best to return the same way we approached. Thus at around 10,000-ft we contour around to the northeast flank of the mountain, switch to our hiking shoes, and run down the scree to the Budd Basin. The two of us walk back to Tuolomne Meadows under the light of our headlamps.