Unicorn Peak (10,910-feet) and Cockscomb Peak (11,065-feet) are two adjacent summits located in the Sierra Nevada of California. They are part of the majestic Cathedral Range, a chain of spectacular granite peaks generally known as the “high country” of Yosemite National Park. These two peaks are connected by a singular ridgeline with an unnamed summit roughly midway between them. By geologic definition, both of these mountains classify as nunataks, meaning that they stood above the elevation of the ice during the last glaciation period. Extensive glacial activity in the Cathedral Range has effectively smoothed and polished all of the lower terrain, leaving these incredible nunataks standing as independent spires.
Neither of these impressive granite summits offers a route below class-4 in difficulty. The easiest route to the top (the ‘horn’) of Unicorn Peak involves several sections of spicy class-4/5 climbing, including an extremely exposed crux traverse on an overhanging wall. The easiest route up Cockscomb Peak involves about a hundred vertical feet of class-4 climbing on the west face. There are two adjacent summit blocks atop Cockscomb of about the exact same elevation separated by a small gap.
SUMMARY: I completed this traverse with Max and Giselle in late July of the year 2015 during our great summer of mountainclimbing in the Sierra Nevada. This was the first day of our week-long southward trek back to Mammoth that also included ascents of Mount Lyell, Mount Ritter, and Donahue Peak. From the town of Mammoth, we started by hitch-hiking inside the Yosemite Park boundary to Tuolomne Meadows, a collection of campgrounds at the base of the Cathedral Range. We approached Unicorn Peak on the Elizabeth Lake trail, then scrambled up class-3 slabs from the west shore of the lake to the main ridgeline. Reaching the true summit required a few sections of extremely exposed class-5 maneuvers, including an overhanging crux traverse. We connected the summits of Unicorn and Cockscomb by following the primary crest, attacking the summit of Cockscomb by an unknown class-5 route on the north arête, which we named The Spiral Staircase. We descended the class-4 west face of Cockscomb, wrapped around to the east face, and followed a wide class-2 scree gully back down to Elizabeth Lake. Before sunset we marched a couple miles south up Lyell Canyon and made camp on a granite slab below Potter Point.
23 JULY 2015
Delicate rays of the rising sun filter gently through the miniature sagebrush canopy; I extract myself from sleeping bag and slap barefeet on the dirt. With childlike excitement I rustle Giselle and Max from their slumbers and go about motivating them to rise. Today we begin a great journey on foot up and over the most magnificent alpine temples of Yosemite. All we must do is find a ride into the national park.
A veritable ragtag trio of California wanderers, we’ve slept in a little clearing in the sagebrush just out of general sight. Our location is at the junction of highways 395 and 120, a virtual stone’s throw from the bizarre expanse of Mono Lake, and at the base of the high Sierra Nevada. Last night the three of us managed to hitch a northbound ride on highway-395 from the town of Mammoth to this point. Highway 120 heads north from here into Yosemite; we’re hoping to catch a ride to the first high-country outpost, Tuolomne Meadows.
We sit cross-legged by the road for some time, but the only vehicles that pass by are rental cars occupied by tourists who are on very important sightseeing agendas that do not include picking up dirtbag climbers in the desert. At 7:30am the Yosemite Transit bus heaves up to the curb in front of the deli, driven by a seasoned mountain man who takes us aboard for three bucks apiece.
The three of us hop off the bus at the Tuolomne Meadows General Store, nodding cordially to the motley smattering of rock-climbers and thru-hikers clutching steamy breakfast sandwiches in the brisk morning air. Our faces turn to the southern horizon where Unicorn Peak juts skyward as an eligant horned creature made of divine granite.
We walk for half a mile along the highway to the Elizabeth Lake trailhead, not without first spending an inconvenient amount of time wandering lost through the campground labyrinth. It’s past 10:30am by the time we’ve filled bottles, stashed rucksacks, and set off for the summit with only daypacks.
The trail spends about two miles meandering through the conifer forest before emerging onto a network of meadows and lake basins.
We reach the shore of Elizabeth Lake (elevation 9,487′) at 11:00am, pausing to brew a pot of tea and contemplate the massive fortress of bare rock above us. We make a plan to scramble up the path of least resistance to the broad saddle south of the Unicorn summit block, and from there follow the ridge up to the top.
The three of us begin the 1,200-foot scramble up class-3 friction slabs, aiming for the saddle to the south of the peak. The slabs are variably polished, and we must exercise a small degree of caution to avoid slipping on the more treacherous parts.
The summit looms larger and larger as we approach the base. Eventually we are high enough to be able to make out a pair of climbers just below the summit.
We gain the ridge just south of the saddle, which gives us a tremendous view of Unicorn’s triple-form summit. The prospect of climbing up and over those the jagged teeth is enough to make our palms sweat.
From the saddle, we head due north along the narrow crest towards the summit. We come to a rather unexpected bottleneck: a pair of newlyweds on their first climb together, fully equipped with rope and traditional climbing gear. We can’t be bothered to wait for them to carry out each pitch, so we apologize politely while stepping over their rope and overtaking them.
We dip to the east side of the crest to avoid the first impassable gendarme, stepping out onto the near-vertical granite face and traversing cautiously across to a small ledge. The ledge juts out from the bottom of a 15-foot vertical hand-sized crack, which we use to regain the ridge.
The climbing along the ridge is memorable and fun, featuring a number of high-exposure class-4 moves on bomb-proof stone.
When we come to the crux of the climb, we are hardly able to believe our eyes. The task, outrageous as it may seem, is laid clearly before us: we have to step out below the west side of the ridge and traverse several feet along a fin of rock to an overhanging corner. From there, a couple of upper-body-dominant moves are required to haul oneself onto the resumed safety of the ridge. The holds are large and juggy alright, but the ridiculous exposure is enough to give me the trembles and cause me to nearly lose my stomach.
Beyond the crux, the ridge narrows to a knife-edge composed of gigantic blocks of granite. The quality of climbing here is top notch, especially when coupled with the superb views of the majestic Cathedral Range.
All of a sudden we find ourselves alone on the 10,910-foot summit block, shamelessly basking in the grand Yosemite panorama. To the north, the silver castle of Mount Conness towers above the scattered domes around Tuolomne Meadows. The eastern horizon is dominated by the crimson pyramid of Mount Dana, while the sparkling turquoise waters of Elizabeth Lake provide an aesthetic foreground. The best view, however, is the panorama of Cathedral Range spires to the south and west. Cockscomb Peak, Matthes Crest, Echo Peaks, Cathedral Peak, and Fairview Dome all contribute their signature to the skyline.
Our sights turn sharply to the fearsome pinnacle of Cockscomb Peak, which protrudes from the smooth ridgeline just to the south of our location. With time left to spare in the afternoon, we decide to follow the ridge over to the base of the peak and make an attempt at the summit.
Cockscomb Peak juts skyward from the glaciated ridgeline in a fantastical way, reminiscent of a sinister fortress while staying remarkably true to its name.
There are actually two high-points on Cockscomb Peak: a pair of twenty-foot blocks separated by a few meters of thin air. As we look up to the top of the mountain, we notice a pair of climbers belaying their way up the west summit block.
The east face of Cockscomb presents an overwhelming array of cracks and corners on completely vertical granite, save for one distinct weakness just inside the north arête. By our judgement, the most obvious route of ascent looks like a spiral staircase. Max and I set off to scale the wall while Giselle seats herself on a sunbaked granite slab and rests wisely.
The opposite (west) face of Cockscomb Peak is a well-known class-4 scrambling route, but we don’t know anything about this side of the mountain. Max and I gather our courage and begin ascending the face one section at a time, trading the lead role depending on how confident we each feel on each upcoming stretch. Multiple sections are class-5 in difficulty, with maximum exposure.
The climbing gets serious when we are faced with a 10-foot double-crack system. I immediately declare it too scary, but Max barely even hesitates to go for it. He jams and crimps his way up to the safety of the next ledge, and with a deep breath I manage the same. The moves feel slightly desperate, but there’s no room for second-guessing at this kind of height.
The double-crack system terminates at a prominent notch in the north arête, and we are able to breathe for a few moments. The two of us select the most sensible path to the top by wrapping all the way around the peak and ascending the class-4 chimney on the west face. Max hauls himself up on the west summit while I divert to the east summit.
At the elevation of 11,065 feet atop Cockscomb Peak, we have a more intimate perspective on the other peaks of the Cathedral Range, namely Matthes Crest, Echo Peaks, and Cathedral Peaks. Looking north, we are able to trace our route along the ridge and out to the pointed horn of Unicorn Peak, towering above Tuolomne Meadows.
Max and I descend the normal class-4 route on the west face and circumnavigate the peak back to Giselle’s resting spot. We chatter excitedly about our route up the “Spiral Staircase” of Cockscomb Peak for a while, then start heading back north along the ridge in hopes of finding a gully to descend.
Just for kicks, we scramble up to the 11,000-foot summit of the unnamed peak that lies on the midpoint of the Unicorn-Cockscomb Ridge. With a sweeping glance, we scan the iconic Cathedral Range horizon across the continuous sea of granite nunataks and domes.
Just north of the unnamed 11,000-foot peak, we discover a class-2 scree chute leading straight down to Elizabeth Lake. It seems to be preferable to the polished class-3 slabs that we used to ascend the ridge in the first place, so we jump in and scree-ski all the way down to the lakeshore.
From the lake, we follow the two-mile trail back to Tuolomne Meadows, where we then proceed to gather our rucksacks and set our course southward along the John Muir Trail to the base of Mount Lyell.