The weather sucked pretty badly, but we decided to go anyway. It had been raining hard every afternoon for almost a week. Now it was 7 am and already raining. We wanted to squeeze in an attempt on Mount Lyell while we were in Yosemite, and this was the window to try it. The forecast called for sunshine the following day. With light packs, axes and crampons we walked the 8 gorgeous miles up Lyell Canyon in a continuous drizzle. By early afternoon, it had started to rain a little harder. About 3 pm we were at 10,000 feet with another 1000 feet of climbing ahead to reach a base camp. We decided to make a dash for camp, hoping the rain wouldn't get too much worse. A few minutes later, as we reached the top of a small ridge, it got suddenly dark and damp. Ominous. Seconds later the rain fell in torrents. We dashed for some trees and found a spot to set up our tent. Over the past week we had gotten good at racing to set up our tent in the rain. This was maybe the fourth time we had done this exercise since we left home. Like a pit crew, we each had our assigned tasks. We executed them rapidly as splashy, cold drops pelted us. Soon we were inside, wrapped in our damp, flimsy, gray, nylon home. Wonderful. It rained and rained. We settled down for a long wait. After a couple of hours of heavy rain we were getting hungry. We cooked dinner in the vestibule, hoping to make good use of the time. Right on cue as we finished eating, the rain began to let up. A couple of hours of light remained and up we went, searching for a camp on the treeless, rocky 11,000 foot plateau below the Mount Lyell glacier.
Mount Lyell is the highest point in Yosemite National Park (13,114 feet). It's north face is home to the Lyell Glacier, the second largest glacier in California. Our plan was to climb the peak via the glacier and the northwest ridge. Earlier in the day, on the hike up the valley, we passed two other parties that were coming down from the peak. Both had had to retreat due to bad weather and steep rock. We figured we had a little better chance if the weather improved.
After all the rain there was little dry terrain on the upper plateau. We found a somewhat dry spot in the gravel, and were set up just as dusk arrived. During the night, the weather cleared and the stars came out in full force. Under blue skies in the morning, we started hiking early and soon came to the moraine. As we went into some shade on the moraine we encountered a thin layer of ice covering the talus - remnants of the rain from the previous evening. This ice was slick and nasty, and for a few hundred yards our pace slowed to a crawl (sometimes literally). When we got back into the sun, the ice disappeared almost immediately.
Above the moraine, we crossed a long section of loose, sharp talus that has been exposed by the receding glacier. It's the type of talus walking that demands constant attention. This route is still called the Lyell Glacier route, but it's now possible to cross the valley only touching the upper glacier as you approach the col between Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. For this section, walking on ice would have been faster and easier. It's shocking to see how much the glacier has receded in a short time. Photos from the 60s show a valley completely filled with ice, even in late summer.
Once on the upper glacier, the climbing went quickly and soon we were at the col and beginning the northwest ridge. From the top of the col, the far side of the ridge drops off to the south in rapid fashion. The entire south side of the ridge is exposed and airy, adding a little spice to the route. We climbed up the northwest ridge heading toward an obvious steep section that lead to low angle walking up to the summit. This would be the crux of the route. With the glacier levels so low, and a low snow year, we would have to negotiate class 3 or 4 rock to reach the summit ridge. We weaved our way along the ever steeper rock, soon reaching a section that required a traverse very close to the glacier. Here a slip would have been very serious. The best route up was reasonably clear. But very quickly we learned that today the route had a fatal flaw. This part of the route was in the shade and at almost 13000 feet it was still covered in a thin layer of ice, similar to what we had encountered lower on the route. The steep rock was crazy, comically slippery. Further attempts at progress were far too dangerous for our taste. We explored alternative routes, but they quickly got into exposed and dangerous terrain that was 4th class or beyond. With a rope and gear it would have been doable.
Uncertainty is necessary in any adventure, large or small. It is the spice that makes climbing taste so good. This was an easy one - an easy decision. Down we went, reaching our camp 90 minutes later, and then continuing down, on a quest for the best campsite along the Lyell Fork, where we could rest and swim and bask in the sun. Until next time.
The southeast buttress of Cathedral Peak, rising out of the high alpine meadows of Yosemite National Park, has long been considered one of the most classic climbing routes in North America. For some reason, during our younger days when we frequently climbed in Yosemite Valley and Tuolomne Meadows, we never got around to doing this route. Maybe we thought it was too crowded, or it was not difficult enough. I don't recall any specific reason we missed it, but I'm glad we didn't climb it in those days. It gave us a chance to savor this incredible climb in our wiser years.
It had been a little while since we climbed such a striking route. On the day before our climb we scouted out the approach and took a good look at the route from the base of the peak. When the sun rose as we hiked the next morning, the sky was deep blue and unmarred by a single cloud. The rock - oh, the rock. Perfect white granite. Friendly parties climbed below us, sharing encouragement. We swapped leads as we climbed up the narrowing face, heading quickly toward the summit block. High on the route, the line gets a little steeper. On top of the 5th pitch, I sat on a clean white ledge, one foot wide, in a sweet, crisp breeze, with the whole of the southern Yosemite mountains spread out before me. Karen quickly followed and then lead up the next pitch. We have climbed together for 35 years. That changes your perspective when you get a chance to climb again on cool, bright rock, in the high morning sun.
The southeast buttress is not a difficult route by any rock climbing standard (it's 5.6). But it is at high altitude, and it offers a full range of climbing techniques - friction, knobby face, chimneys, small cracks, flakes and a great summit. The rock is perfect white sierra granite. It couldn't be better.
The route's reputation makes it very popular. If you head out to enjoy the climb, plan to share the face with others. On a good summer day there may be 7 to 10 parties on the face. Our strategy was to get up early, hike up in partial darkness, and hope we were among the first parties to arrive for the day. We were at the base by 6:30 am, and had the face to ourselves - at least until the next party showed up 15 minutes later. Expect to spend 3 to 5 hours on the route, depending on your skill level and the crowds (we did it in 3 and a half hours). Although the route can be done in 5 long pitches, almost everyone we have talked with does it in 6 or 7 pitches. We did it in 7 - with 2 shortened pitches to reduce rope drag. There are multiple routes on the face which can be mixed together in infinite variations. I'd suggest you stay on the classic route if you can; it's a gorgeous line with some fine pitches.
The protection on the route is excellent, with no real need for any gear over 3 inches. A double set of cams to 3 inches and a few nuts are all you need. Bring some slings to keep the rope a little straighter on long zig-zag pitches (mostly on the upper half of the route). There are plenty of ledges for belays, making it easy to vary your belay stances if the route is crowded.
I suggest you use High Sierra Climbing, by Chris McNamara, as a reference. The brief section in this book which provides hints on the down climb from the summit is especially valuable. Also useful is the description of the approach trail, which deviates from the popular John Muir Trail and approaches the peak from the east.