Last week Mike contacted me about climbing Matthes Crest or Matterhorn Peak North Arete. It's the end of the climbing season, and I've wanted to get in something "big" this year. Last year I got on the East Face of Whitney. This year has been a struggle to find new climbing partners and progress my skills. The last few months I picked up some steam and got some good trad leads in, so I've been feeling pretty confident.
The Tioga Pass road is closed to overnight parking starting October 15th every year. This means no option to backpack into the Yosemite backcountry and climb Matthes Crest in a more "leisurely" fashion. There was only one option for Matthes: a long day single push to get it done.
We departed Auburn CA Friday afternoon, stopped at the diner Lee Vining for a meal, then headed to our dirt road campsite for 6 or so hours of sleep. At the 3 AM we got started. Up the 120, through the Yosemite gates, down the road to Cathedral Lakes trailhead. No cars, rangers, just 3 crazy adventurers on a freezing late October morning.
By 415 we were on our way. Hiking in pitch dark, we opted to follow the backcountry trail (I believe it is part of the PCT) past beautiful upper Cathedral Lake and Cathedral peak (which of course we could not see). At Cathedral Pass we left the trail and headed for the faint outline of a huge ridge in the distance. We marched through a field of frozen sparkling frost. Eventually we found the climbers trail, which we took to a spot directly below the notch where the climb begins. We dropped some superfluous gear and climbed the final 1000 ft of tree, sand, and rock to the start of the climb. The sun now rises and Echo peaks and Echo ridge are illuminated.
When I reach the top, I drop back a little to catch a perfect view of the first objective: climb the 250 ft headwall to gain the ridge.
I felt plenty confident to lead out the supposedly 5.3 start, planning to link the first two pitches and save some time. The pitch started out well. I trended right taking the path of least resistence. Then it became clear I have to move back left. The rope drag got bad as I was nearing the end of the 60m. I could see an alcove, I was a short traverse away (with ropes literally pulling me back). I pull on a small flake, it's loose as hell. I say "don't pull on that" but as I make my next move, I unfortunately do (maybe my foot slipped). The flake either brakes off, I'm falling. I remember a quote from a youtube video of a bad fall in Indian Creek, the leader's gear pulled and he barely avoided decking. When asked what he was thinking as he fell, the answer was simple: "Woawwwwww!!"
My gear catches (maybe a .75 C4), I come to a stop dangling sideways. I yell "I'm OK!" my wounds seem limited to some scrapes on my legs. Determined to finish the pitch, I get back on the horse, climb the 20 or so feet to the alcove, and set my anchor in a space so tight I had to drop my pack to squeeze into.
I belay Mike and Cory up, my first time belay 2 followers with a reverso attached to the anchor. I got my introduction to a problem which would follow every pitch I led: Mike's rope was an absolute bitch to pull through that belay device!
Unfazed and probably full of adrenaline, I led the next pitch. I was able to climb a straight line, avoided any drag, and topped out on a crazy exposed ridge. This was what we came for. We pitched out another pitch, this proved unnecessary but solidified the reality: no more pitching out the climb till things get serious.
We put away the 60m, setup the 70m for simul climbing, and I set out to cover some terrain on this monster ridge! I felt a sense of (slight) urgency, so I tried to move efficiently. I setup a belay after a short downclimb, which I had (potentially unwisely) bypassed by traverse a 8 inch ledge. We transferred gear, and I set out on the next simul. I was feeling kinda sick at this point. The next simul section took us to an alcove belay, right before the 5.2 - 5.6 bypass around a tower. This pitch was fun, I took a while setting up an ugly belay. Again, I experienced the agony of belaying two followers on that god forsaken device.
Having successfully surmounted the tower impasse, I felt a sense of relief. The majority of pitched climbing was behind us, lets move on!
We continued our simul. I climbed the class 4 tower, and did a 10 ft downclimb. We all got through this section fine, relief again!
I continued on along some exposed,wide ledges. This was fun, all I had to do was walk and enjoy the view. I setup another belay above a small tower. Swapped gear, and I continued on for what would be the last simul section. Mike and Cory followed, with a short downclimb starting the pitch.
Unable to see the fixed rappel anchor, Mike rappels using the anchor I had already setup, with a couple cams backing it up. After the arduous process of a double rappel while kicking the rope down along the way, Mike made it to the safety of the talus.
On the way down, Mike spots the rappel station. Yellow webbing wrapped around a tree. In my view, I would call it a big bush.
Cory rappels from the anchor to the correct rappel station. I do the short class 3 down climb, on snowy ledges, to meet him. Cory rappels, kicking the rope down along the way. Then, my turn. Lets get off this thing!
Finally down, the time somewhere around 530 PM, all we need to do now is retrieve our ropes. I pull pull it through, my bright green rope begins it's decent, and snags. Maybe I pulled too hard, maybe we were screwed anyway, but I couldn't unsnag it. My green rope doesn't want to cooperate. Tired as hell and not really caring about whether my rope joins us home, I cut it and retrieve 30m of my 70m. Whatever, lets go.
The hike down to the valley floor was annoying as the sun set. Mike was already somewhere down there, probably at our packs. Cory and I wander down and find him. We bask in our glory, enjoy beers Mike had apparently carried the entire day with hopes of drinking on a summit. It's dark, there's still a long hike out, but we're all down safe!
The hike out is 2.5 hours of wandering on a climbers trail and then the official backcountry trail. It's long, but I don't care, the objective is complete!
We drive down to Lee Vining, arriving around 1030 PM. After the realization that everything is closed, exhausted, we retreat to our previous camping spot and go to bed.
The next morning we hit the diner, eat some pancakes and eggs, and slowly regain enough strength to feel human again. On back to Auburn.
In the end, I feel like the climb was pretty much what I expected, other than the lead fall! The hike in was long, the climbing seemed straightforward enough. Climbing as a party of three and being relatively inexperienced in the realm of alpine climbing, things just move a little slower. We pitched out the technical sections, accepted the inherent risks of simul climbing and navigated long sections of ridge without incident. I knew what I was getting into, and I knew it would be no cake walk.
The most important lesson I learned: rope drag is killer. It reaches a certain point where setting up a belay or down climbing and removing some gear are the only options. Better route finding helps too, though I don't believe I was significantly off course.
Place every piece of gear with the assumption it is necessary to save your life. This is something I already knew and it worked. If you don't trust your gear, you might as well free solo or stick to sport climbing.
Don't pull on anything loose. Ever.