Saturday, 16 September 2016. 5:31 AM.
Siting in my car at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead in Tuolumne waiting for the sun to rise and begin to warm everything, I watch hiking groups and climbers come and go. I had driven into the area late the previous night and struggled to find an available campsite. The season in Tuolumne was coming to an end, campgrounds would be closed in a week or so and I would be embarking on a two month roadtrip across the U.S. within that same margin. If Alwin and I hoped to climb the Matthes Crest Traverse before next summer, it had to happen this weekend. The original plan was to meet Friday night in Tuolumne. I arrived later than I’d hoped and Alwin was running even further behind. His last message said he would be sleeping in Oakhurst and would meet me at the trailhead between 5:30 and 6:00 AM. My phone buzzes. I raise it to read Alwin’s text, “I slept here in the valley just woke up I’m on my way please wait for me.” I chuckle because I have no intention to solo the route, waiting for him is my only option. The Sun rises. More groups come and go. I take various photos. I read a magazine. I contemplate napping, but think it could be a bad idea as it may make me more groggy. I use the porta-potty. I sort my rack. His mini-van arrives. 7:30 AM. I didn’t suspect I was two hours into a 21-hour day.
Tuolumne Meadows is the Eastern portion of Yosemite National Park—the high country. Accessible from the meadows is the Cathedral Range where you’ll find many higher altitide climbs including Matthes Crest, a nearly mile long fin of granite rising at its highest point 900ish feet above the valley below (nearly 11,000 feet above sea level). Many hike the 4-5 miles to its base to climb its face and traverse its thin—occasionally knife-edged—and featured ridge line.The most common route is to traverse from its South face two-thirds of its length to the North Summit where the climbing gets harder, rappel off, and hike back the 4-5 miles to the trailhead. This was our plan.
As we sorted the remaining gear in Alwin’s van, the full story of his tardiness was revealed. He had been battling a bout of food poisoning the night before and crashed in his van near a restroom. The night alternated between attempts to sleep and emergency sprints to the toilet. He was finally able to relax in the early morning and slept through his alarm. His stomach had settled, but he was operating on very little sleep. We collectively did not have a full night’s rest between us and we were now 2 hours behind schedule. We shouldered our bags, stashed Gatorade and snacks in a nearby bear box, and began the hike into the backcountry.
Cathedral Peak is a beautiful 700 foot granite triangle protruding from the Earth and demarcating the boundary of the Cathedral Range. We hiked past it reminiscing about when we had each climbed it in the past. The valley dropped below us and we hiked down towards the Cathedral Lakes where we briefly joined the JMT (John Muir Trail) and were greeted by campers and a family of deer. We had missed an earlier side trail skirting Budd Lake leading to Matthes more quickly. The views we were absorbing, the deer, and the perfect weather were worth the added mileage. At this point. We began heading uphill towards a long ridge partially obscured by trees. The contours didn’t seem quite right and it appeared less imposing than I expected. We forced our way up the slabs and the closer we grew, the more I doubted the formation. I stopped to remove the guidebook from my pack. As I turned, I saw an unmistakable ridge line—beautiful and intimidating—directly across from us. On. The. Other. Side. Of. The. Valley. We were near the foot of Tresidder Peak, a mile away from Matthes and with 3,000 or so feet of elevation change to navigate between the two points. Neither of us would be applauding our navigation skills for the day. With a collective sigh, we began our descent.
Saturday, 16 September 2016. After 2:00 PM.
After 6 hours of hiking, a laborious scenic detour, and never-ending ascending slabs, we found ourselves triumphant at the base of Matthes. I snacked, Alwin took the world’s shortest power nap, and we tied in. Matthes is notoriously crowded. Not if you start after 2:00. The only other group we would see was already transitioning from the climb into the long traverse. 9 hours in and I was finally ascending rock. The climb of the Southwest Face was straightforward and uneventful. We each lead a pitch and were on the summit in a reasonable time. 2 pitches with a 70 meter (230 feet) rope, our only rope—a decision we would regret.
To attempt to belay all of the half-mile traverse would be ludicrous. Most simul-climb or solo the traverse. We were unsure when we could comfortably stop belaying and start simul-climbing. The answer was almost immediately. Alwin belayed me as I began the traverse and ascent up a short slabby crack section. I placed one piece, stepped above it and yelled back that it was much easier than it appeared. “Let’s simul.” Simul-climbing is precisely what it sounds like: simultaneous climbing. There is no belayer. The leader places occasional protection, the follower stays a safe distance behind cleaning the gear as he also climbs. It is far less safe, but the right call in certain situations such as this one. To be fair, most of our “climbing” was careful walking and scrambling with periodic technical moves. The rock face did fall several hundred feet straight down on either side of us so the “walking and scrambling with periodic technical moves” could be intimidating and the consequences were severe. The wind blew constantly, the view was spectacular, we took turns leading, enjoyed the featured climbing, and moved at a steady pace past the halfway point steadily working in the direction of the South Summit and towards our worst decision of the day.
I was carrying two cameras: an old Panasonic GX7 in my pack and a small GoPro Session on my helmet. Each was fairly new (to me). The GX7 was purchased on ebay and this was its maiden voyage. I would often pull it from my pack to grab photos and videos (such as the one embedded above). The GoPro Session was on its second adventure, the first having been a route called Fingertrip on Tahquitz in Idyllwild a week prior (also with Alwin). I have been using GoPro cameras for seven years in all sorts of environments. The only time I had ever lost one was years ago when I stupidly told a friend to throw it to me while I treaded water in a frigid dark pothole in Eaton Canyon. Otherwise, I had abused the shit out of these cameras with minimal consequences. A small latch on the Session would be my undoing. I was leading again and moving into a tricky section with an awkward downclimb into a thin backwards traveling traverse. I hugged the rock, shimmied along, and turned my head to check my surroundings. Scrape. Pop. Whoosh. A small latch on the Session had popped open, the camera shot off the back of my head and bounced down the slabby face below. I completed the traverse and settled onto a much roomier ledge. I built an anchor around a small bush and squinted searching the ledges below where small flecks of rock twinkled as if from a tiny camera lens while awaiting Alwin’s arrival.
We reviewed the situation. All of the most interesting footage of the day (feet walking knife-edges, thin traverses, expansive vistas surrounding intense exposure) was on that camera plus the camera was practically brand new. If we finished the route and descended at the North Summit, we’d never make it to the base where the camera may lay before dark. Besides, it was probably on one of the many ledges directly beneath us. As I struggled with a decision, Alwin’s words surprised me, “We have to find your camera.” It is said you can retreat at many places on the West face and there was evidence someone had done so before—tat decorated the shrub I had slung. To get off the North Summit only required two or three raps with a 70 meter rope and we expected this section to be similar. We’d be down before dark and we could search each ledge along the way. Logic had left us. And so we descended.
Two raps down. No sign of the camera. We continued expecting each rappel to be the last. The Sun was rapidly disappearing. The rope sometimes wouldn’t quite reach the next ledge and so we found ourselves at dusk down-soloing a 40 foot crack. If only we had carried a second rope. Anchor options grew less ideal with each ledge and I was always concerned the rope would snag on the pull. Alwin had forgotten his headlamp in the van during the tumultuous morning. We continued in the dark sharing my headlamp or using the flashlight on Alwin’s phone. 6 raps in lead to another down-solo through choss and dirt piles, our supply of quicklinks and emergency webbing dwindling. As we sacrificed my cordelette and one of Alwin’s carabiners on rap 8, we hoped once again to be embarking on our final rappel. The fates smiled upon us. The ground flattened, the rope pulled, and we scrambled down into the dark woods, the Session visible nowhere. I estimate we had been rappelling for over three hours.
We bushwhacked through the wooded area and emerged into the open valley. We could see headlamps high on the North side of Matthes. Others were sharing a similar fate. We wished them luck and continued into the night. Discussing our options we agreed on a sound plan of action, perhaps our first of the day. We didn’t dare try to take the shorter route back to the trailhead. We had missed it by day, our chances would not be better in the dark. Yet, we knew where to find the JMT, and although a longer route, we knew it would lead back to the trailhead without a doubt. We shuffled for hours and I often fantasized about the Gatorade awaiting me in the bear box. We had both run through our water and were finishing our meager snacks. Tuolumne is still beautiful under moonlight, but we were exhausted and the trail never seemed to end. Our breaks grew more frequent and progressively longer.
Sunday, 17 September 2016. 2:30 AM.
Finally the bear box mirages I kept imagining formed into a tangible solid form—a real bear box. I swung open the door and was greeted by a fresh Gatorade. It was not long for the world. We emptied our contents into our vehicles and caravanned to the campsite where we promptly collapsed and slept until noon. Our plans to climb more on Sunday now seemed ludicrous. We grabbed lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli and discussed how we need to return this year and properly finish the route. 19 hours seems like an easy time to beat. And that camera is probably still waiting for us. Right?