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Climbing Matthes Crest

Matthes Crest's soaring spiresThis was a technical climbing day trip to the northern Cathedral Range area in Yosemite National Park, just southwest of Tuolumne Meadows, on August 14, 2004. This is one of the most unique areas of Yosemite high country with dozens of fantastically shaped peaks whose sweeping curves were sculpted by prehistoric glaciers. The previous year I had attempted unsuccessfully the most famous peak in this area - Cathedral Peak - without technical climbing gear. Now with some technical climbing experience on my belt, Dirk Summers and I decided to try climbing Matthes Crest, a most amazing peak shaped like a knife-edged fin, situated just 3 miles southeast of Cathedral Peak with almost the same height (10918 feet/3328 m). We will attempt to traverse from the south end of the knife edge to its high point - the North Summit, then descend by 3 rappells. The difficulty of this traverse is rated at 5.7.

Half of Matthes Crest's 5-6 mile approach is identical to that of Cathedral Peak, which I was familiar with already. The next leg of the approach climbs to the west flank of Echo Peaks (another fantastically shaped group of peaks), then descend about 1000 feet into the Echo Creek drainage before climbing up again to the south end of Matthes Crest. In order to get an early start we camped near the trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows the previous night, got up before sunrise and started walking. As we approached Budd Lake, just west of Cathedral Peak, the spectacular scenery unfolds. Unicorn Peak to the east, Coxcomb, Echo Ridge, Echo Peaks, Cathedral Peak, they form an amphitheatre of thin spires soaring with beautiful smooth lines. The flat, luxuriant green meadows complemented the smooth white granite in the sky, painting a heavenly picture.

In about 3 hours we reached the south end of the knife-edged fin of Matthes Crest, where the technical climbing route starts. South of this point were several more soaring spires along the ridge, but not connected to the "fin". We waited for 2 parties climbing before us, then climbed to the ridge in two pitches. The surface of the granite was full of quartz crystal protrusions that create a rough texture, perfect for hand and foot holds. Dirk told me this was the typical "Tuolumne granite" that climbers often refer to. Once on the ridge the vertigo became intense, as the "fin" was very thin on the top and the sweeping sheer walls on both sides were unbroken from top to bottom. Dirk suggested that we unrope since the climbing became class 3/4, but to me it was frightening. Sometimes there was one set of narrow ledges on one side of the fin but most of the time one has to travel on the very top. Because dark clouds were gathering, we were very afraid of being hit by lightning, therefore Dirk argued for faster unroped travel. I agreed and carefully moved forward, slowly making progress. At one point Dirk had to help me down-climb a big block. As we moved further north on the ridge, the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly. Eager to tag at least one of the summits, Dirk decided to go ahead further by himself, scrambling up the soaring South Summit unroped (probably easy 5th class). However, the more difficult North Summit (5.7) required 2 roped pitches, which we obviously had no time for. I started looking for potential rappell anchors from where I was. Soon I was able to find a rappell sling in good condition around a sizable tree.

After Dirk down-climbed from the South Summit, we were in a hurry to get down. We took the existing rappell anchor I found and fortified it with another sling, then rappelled down. We were able to find another existing rappell anchor below, which lead to our quick retreat to the bottom. Dirk was disappointed but he was well aware that a sharp spire like Matthes Crest is a lightning magnet, and having tons of metallic climbing gear on him means he could be a walking lightning rod.

The hike back to trailhead was filled with exceptionally beautiful scenery, as the weather cleared up less than an hour after we descended. The dramatic clouds framed a grand picture with the soaring granite spires in center stage.

Postscript: In 2005 Dirk and I tried to complete the Matthes Crest traverse again, but didn't reach as far as this first trip. We were rained and hailed on while still on the knife-edged fin, scrambled to descend on the wet granite, and had to do a roped down-climbing pitch due to lack of rappell anchors. Dirk exclaimed that this spectacularly beautiful peak simply does not like us! page view count since 11/24/09