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rope running between flakes on Matthes Crest

On Saturday (that is to say, July 15th), Josiah, Liz, and I went for an attempt on the Matthes Crest traverse from south to north. It was a total mess; in my book, it falls just barely short of an epic, but it certainly crosses the line over into being a total cluster. We got in a decent ways over our heads, made a mess of basically the whole route, and had a really long day. Remarkably, almost the entire day was still fun. Here is, more or less, how it happened.

Josiah and I drove up to Yosemite on Friday night, leaving the Bay altogether too late. We camped just outside the park, on the West side; Liz mentioned that she expected to camp on Hardin Flat Road, and we indeed had no trouble finding her van parked there. We spent an hour and a half or so making camp, eating the remaining Chinese food, putting food in a tree, etcetera, and then off to bed we went. I slept like crap, like I always do in a tent and on a sleeping pad -- and anyway, the stars were above me shouting reasons why I should stare at them. It was midnight when I finally gave up and closed my eyes anyway, for an 05:30 alarm. We had a long day ahead of us.

After not many hours of sleep, the sun came up, and it was time to get moving. Although I actually felt fairly good, given how much I hadn't slept, my slow ass took forever to get moving, and it was nearly 06:45 by the time we left the campsite -- still having been too full from the Chinese food second dinner the night before to make breakfast yet. By 07:50, we arrived at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead, found parking, and started assembling ourselves. We'd arranged gear the night before, at least, but my daypack wasn't packed, since I'd used it the previous night to hold my food hanging from a tree. Sigh. Breakfast was made courtesy of the Jetboil; some bathroom stops, and general sluggishness and errors ("wait, I thought you had the second rope. wait, I thought you had the second rope. sigh. back to the car.") meant that we truly got under way at 0850 or so. This "a little slow, a little late" business, as it turns out, would be a theme for the day.

Josiah staring at Matthes Crest in thedistance

Our gear for the day was basically as such: Josiah had the rack in his pack, and a 1L water bottle; Liz had the 60m rope in her pack and a 1.5L water bottle; and I, wearing my Daylite, had the 70m draped over the top (and a 2L water bladder). All of us seemed to have some difficulty with hiking uphill at elevation; hauling the 70 on my back was particularly miserable with the way the Daylite was balanced. We were concerned about routefinding, and we were concerned about snowfields; beta we had been given the night before led us to believe that the approach would be a snowy muddy mess. To our surprise, routefinding given the topo was relatively easy, and the snowfields were not terribly bad to traverse, either, given poles for an extra point of balance. (I had left my ski poles at home, like an idiot, so I borrowed one of Liz's.) In the event that the angle was anything other than perfectly flat, the snow was good enough to kick steps in, even in my 5.10 Camp 4s.

As easy as the terrain was, though, we were still woefully out of shape, and having great difficulty keeping any particular speed up. Breaks were relatively frequent, and we had to throttle the pace way back to keep heart rates sustainably low. The ascent to the turnoff at Cathedral Peak is about a 10% grade on average (picking up 1485ft in 2.7mi); we made decent time, getting there at 10:22. Along the way, someone asked us what our objective was; we said "Matthes Crest", and they commented "A rather late start for that! Ah, well, you're young and fit". They were half right, anyway; we had to take another break at a stream at 11:40. But spirits were high as we refilled our water; the objective was in sight! We could see Matthes in the distance, and it looked every bit as glorious as it looked in the guide book. Stoke had temporarily dipped when we were slogging up hill, but seeing the crest provided a burst of excitement, and we were ready to get after it!

It took us nearly until 13:00 to get to the base of the route, ascending quite a steep grade to gain the base of the ridge. This, conceivably, should have been an indication that the objective that we had planned was unreasonable. But having failed to set a drop-dead turn around time in advance, we ate some lunch, put on our rock shoes, and roped up to begin simulclimbing on Josiah's 57m rope. The first pitches to gain the top of the ridge were done in two belays, with Josiah on lead; he commented thinking that he was slightly off route (about 15m to the left of the easy stuff), and I also found myself thinking that we were in trouble if the climbing sustained like that all day. My calves were very pumped on simul waiting for Josiah to place gear before I could keep moving. It felt like an eternity, even at good stances, not knowing whether he was placing gear, routefinding, or building an anchor. (He reported that carrying the 70m in his pack on lead was quite a tiring experience indeed, too.) But at last, at 14:30, we had gained the top of the ridge, anyway. Finally, time for some easy climbing -- this is what we had come for! Views were good, and this felt like the Matthes Crest we were promised ... but we had a long day ahead of us.

the Matthes Crest ridge

The climbing on top of the ridge was not super challenging, which is basically as people said. There were, in fact, a few 5th-class downclimbing moves, but a lot of it was solid 3rd-class walking on a ridgeline. We simuled it, with me leading the first little ways. I put in some pro every now and again, but much of the time I relied on rope drag for protection, and threading the rope back and forth around fins and horns. Occasionally, there were routefinding challenges, but nothing too serious. The climbing was easy, and we finally were making what felt like solid progress.

After a handful of figuring out which way I was to go, I was getting tired, though, and I started to get at least a little bit sloppy; for instance, rather than building real bombproof anchors when I stopped to belay to pick up gear, I often slung a fin with a single Dyneema sling, tied it off, and simply belayed from that. After being fairly mentally flamed from leading -- even a not terribly taxing lead, but nonetheless one with as much weighty responsibility as any other -- we swapped leads, unroping entirely to do so. (Since we had three on a rope, with Liz on the follower's end tied in on an 8 on a bight, there was a defined leader's-end and follower's-end.) Although the only way that anybody could have fallen there is if a meteor became crashed into us or something, it was still cutting corners unnecessarily.

a jive-ass rappel anchor

Josiah took the lead for a handful of ropelengths. A big hulking object was ahead of us, which seemed like good news. It looked like something that protruded and had some face climbing to do; a closer view, anyway, showed that it was simply a pretty exposed 4th-class scramble. Better not to fall, but falling also pretty unlikely. We'd been going for a while, so we were hopeful; when Josiah wandered up to the top of it, the indication was that the news was, in fact, not good: "hey guys!" "what?" "this is not actually the South summit." Well. That's bad; by now it was somewhat after 17:30. We proceeded on for a bit, until it was time for the next belay; around 18:30, we realized that there was no way we were going to hit the summit, and that it was, frustratingly, time to retreat. We had a long day ahead of us.

Having changed modes, we got to business. We started at our belay, slung the nearest thing we could find, and backed it up with our belay just in case. One of the BD Neutrinos came off the rack, the ropes went through it, and a few turns of tape around the gate secured it, and so began the retreat off the West face. Josiah went first, and to his chagrin, found an established rap station some 30ft over to the left of where he ended up; he wandered over on good slabby terrain unroped, while Liz rappeled straight down to where the rap station was. I went last, cleaning the backup anchor as we went. As I established on the rappel, the anchor (now just a single sling) shifted a few millimeters; Liz reports the gulp being audible from the anchor below. I resolved to be very careful not to bounce on rappel any more than I needed to.

It probably isn't surprising that our rappel was slow, given that our approach was slow and the climbing was slow. The terrain was incredibly low angle; low enough angle, in fact, that the most efficient way to navigate around some of the rap stations was simply to sit nearby unroped, and again just assume that there would be no meteors to become crashed into us. This low-angle rappel worked against us, too; the combination of a 57m rope and a 70m rope meant that the rope created an enormous cluster, and throwing it any reasonable distance was completely impossible. Raps took up to half an hour each. Liz was starting to shiver at the rappel stations, too, not having eaten any substantial amount over the course of the day.

Josiah doing battle with spaghetti on rappel

The sloppiness and tiredness continued. I had, optimistically, hoped that we'd be unroped by sunset, and hiking out by then. This was not to be the case. At the bottom of the second rappel, I decided to switch from rock shoes to the Camp 4s I had clipped onto my backpack. This all was fine, until I fumbled the left one and sent it tumbling down the face. A few minutes of staring in disbelief, but it was true. I burst into uncontrollable laughter, not really knowing what to make of it. Joshua, you idiot. We had a long day ahead of us.

Josiah set up for the next rappel. Our optimism continued, thinking that it would be the last, and then we'd be on easy slab. This was not the case. While he fought with the ropes, Liz and I got to enjoy the most beautiful sunset over the High Sierras that I never wanted to see, now around 20:30. We were definitely not unroped yet. Eventually, Josiah got to the ledge where my shoe had landed, and began searching; Liz rappeled over to what looked like a lower angle way down; and I rappeled towards the ledge, now wearing one Camp 4 and one Butora Altura.

sunset over Echo Peaks

As the last one, it was my turn to pull the ropes, which was fine, except that where I landed was absolutely horrendous, and not on a flat ledge at all. I took myself off rappel, since I could at least perch myself on the ground, and began shuffling ropes; I figured I could pull a bunch of the 57m rope to get an extra 6.5m out, then put myself back on rappel, getting me at least closer to the ledges. This was a great theory, but in practice, what happened was that I dropped my ATC. Tink, tink, tink, tink, tink, tink ... Joshua, you idiot. Josiah had had no success finding my shoe, and the ATC, well, it was already dark when I dropped that, so who possibly knew where that damned thing went. Someone would find it in a few years, I figured, and get a hearty laugh at my expense.

With nothing better to do, I fed myself down slowly on a clove hitch, not trusting myself to tie a munter. I found a ledge, finally, that I could get myself down from, but I didn't trust myself to scramble down with ropes attached to me. I looked over to call for Josiah to catch the ropes, but he was busy; Liz had rappeled somewhere that she didn't feel terribly comfortable scrambling down on and was quite unhappy indeed, and so Josiah was over there assisting. I figured I'd better do something on my own, since he wasn't going to be involved in whatever I was going to do for the next 20 minutes; looking for something to do to make myself useful, I flaked and coiled the two ropes. I tried to make some progress by hucking them as far down as I could, at least, without losing my balance and hucking myself down the slabs, too.

For those keeping track, this was about the half hour of this operation where I thought we were pretty fucked and about to get into even worse trouble in short order.

But finally, after Liz was moving again, and after I had divested myself of the ropes, Josiah came back over to pluck the ropes from below me, and I crab-walked down, still in one approach shoe and one rock shoe. At some point, I went to put on my headlight. It went rocketing off the sloped part of my helmet, and I dropped it into the bush below me. I cursed, picked it up, and did a more careful job of mounting it to my helmet. Phew. Just as I had committed myself to hiking out in one rock shoe -- we certainly didn't have time to keep looking -- Josiah went over to grab the ropes, and somehow found my shoe!

an ATC lying on the ground

Finally, at 21:30, we were all three reunited with two shoes per, roped ready to go into backpacks, and ready to get out of there. Five minutes further down the slabs, Josiah stopped to switch from rock shoes to hiking boots; he apologized for having to do so, feeling embarrassed to have caused yet another delay. As he looked down, right in front of his feet was my ATC. Score. The delay was worth something. Finally, we were mostly in the clear, but we had a long day ahead of us. Or maybe night.

The hike out started reasonably enough. We descended on our butts until we felt comfortable walking, and then started hiking until we hit our previous path. I suddenly felt very glad that I had mapped it out on Strava; the moon was not yet out, and so no mountains were visible on the horizon yet for bearings. From behind us, we saw headlamps, too; people descending off of the North side of Matthes, it seemed. We wondered if they were going to catch us up, and when they would be back to their cars, and if they meant to be out that late. To our luck, the snowfields had not refrozen yet, and were perfectly enjoyable to walk on; some were a little firmer, and some were a little softer. Nobody fell.

snowfields in the dark

By 22:30, Josiah had drained his water bottle. Liz was now substantially shivering, still not having eaten anything substantial. I was feeling okay for the moment, but lightly hungry, and I knew that if I didn't eat, I'd be in trouble. Then, I drained my water tanker, too. Luckily, we stopped for a stream, and Josiah had a chance to refill and add iodine tablets; they were said to need half an hour to work, so we did the best we could and got moving again. The dehydration was getting to Josiah; we had to stop every five or ten minutes to let him catch up.

We discussed having a nap until the moon came up; it was warm enough that I was still wearing a T-shirt, we all had extra layers, and we had a space blanket with us. Josiah was very tired; on the other hand, I was pretty concerned about accidentally having SAR called out on us if we didn't make it to cell service that evening to tell Colin and Elaine that we were okay, and Liz was not excited about getting a ticket on our cars for overnight parking without a backcountry permit. We pressed on anyway, slowly.

Eventually, we found a clearing, and declared that it'd been half an hour, and began draining some water. Josiah had as much of a protein bar as he could stomach before the water had replenished his system; Liz had some oreos; and I had half of a Clif protein bar, also unable to reasonably put the rest of it in my mouth. My stomach was unhappy, and I spent the rest of the hike out emitting noxious tailpipe fumes. We figured that the remaining amount of hike time was starting to come into reasonable bounds, though, and Josiah started to be able to pick out the outlines of mountains to navigate by, leaving us finally with little additional need for the GPS.

Finally, we found the Never-Ending Snowfield that told us we'd be nearly on the Cathedral Peak approach trail. After an appropriate never, we hit the Cathedral turnoff at about 00:15. The hike out from there was entirely downhill. Over and over, we estimated that we had about a half hour hike left; over and over, we were abjectly wrong. We figured we'd end up stopping somewhere along the way. We didn't, and continued along the march until we finally hit the car at 01:45, 17 hours after we had left. It was far and away the slowest downhill 3 miles I've ever hiked.

Liz got in her car, and we mumbled an "uh, see you at the gym". Josiah and I got in my car, and we beat feet for the East exit of Yosemite, with Josiah somewhere between asleep and staring at both of our phones waiting for one to say that they'd managed to squeeze out a message to Elaine. We wandered over to the Mobil Mart on the East side of Tioga, reclined both seats, opened the windows, grabbed sleeping bags from the trunk, and fell asleep in the Genesis. As I dropped some layers, I found that I had torn a solid hole in the seat of my pants from the crab-walking earlier. I had another fitful five hours of sleep, and at long last, we had a long day behind us.

the car

An epilogue.

Afterwards, I took a look at the Strava log, and had something of a point of contention with Josiah. I was trying to figure out where we bailed, and how far we were from the summit, proper, when I had the unusual discovery that we hadn't actually started at the South end of Matthes; we must have come up somewhere in the middle. Josiah swore up and down that we did, but I also remembered that he seemed to think we were off-route left (i.e., North) on the way up. We saw a bunch of people, including a handful of free-soloists, head up before us; surely they knew the route? But looking at the SuperTopo, the route clearly began south of Echo Lake, and looking at the GPS log, we clearly began north of Echo Lake. We simply could not have started on the route.

As it turned out, the source of our disagreement was that the SuperTopo was wrong. In fact, the route began north of Echo Lake indeed. A picture I took just as we established on the route reflected many similar photos on Mountain Project.

I spent much of the drive home wishing that I was not such a terrible mountaineer. Everything seemed to have gone wrong, and I made a lot of very silly errors that shouldn't have happened. It seemed that every time we went out for such an objective, one that has such a low number grade in the SuperTopo, we had a Highly Educational Experience -- or, anyway, a total mess. Somehow, we had managed to beat Cathedral Peak for "total cluster score", when Josiah and Emily and I did it in 13 hours. How did we possibly get worse?

Well, next time will be better. I will physically train more, and so I'll be fitter next time, and I will have just learned a hair more. It will still be a cluster next time, but maybe just a tiny bit less. Maybe we'll pick slightly less ambitious objectives next time, instead of more ambitious objectives. Or maybe we'll make a huge mess and end up having to bivy anyway. I guess I'd better bring a full bivy sack.

I can't wait.


Here's the GPS trace from this whole exciting adventure.
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