Note: This trip report also appears on summitpost.
Back in August 1997 I was introduced to the Matthes Crest traverse, which still remains one of my all-time favorite climbs. The massive granite fin is like no other formation I've seen, and both the scenery and exposure are stunning. I'm not sure why I waited so long for a repeat ascent, but after nearly 11 years I decided it was time to return.
Jascha and I headed out for our usual not so alpine start, but with enough time to get back before dark based on the low end range of Supertopo's time for the route. We planned to do the full south to north traverse, instead of rapping off the north summit like most parties and as I had done in 1997. The route is mostly Class 3 and 4 with a few 5.3 to 5.7 pitches, so I packed a 30m rope, half a set of medium to large nuts, two Link cams (special thanks Dave and Naomi), four slings and a cordelette in case it got dicey.
We followed the approach as described by Peter Croft and aimed for the saddle between Cathedral Peak and Echo Peaks. As we skirted the Echo Peaks to the southeast the full crest came into view. The smoke from the Clover Fire created a faint, but perceptible haze in the air, but not enough to detract from the views. After crossing the valley we found ourselves at the base of the climb just under two hours from the car. A party of two was just finishing the third pitch.
The standard route follows three crack systems (the hardest of which is 5.5) that top out on easier, more horizontal terrain. We decided to solo this first section, which although easy provided some early exposure as we traversed between the sets of cracks. Moving swiftly along the top of the ridge we passed the party of two. Route finding was straightforward, with the majority of the climbing along the ridge top proper. The views of the surrounding Cathedral Range and the exposure were as breathtaking as I remembered.
Before long we were at the south summit. Looking across to the north summit the 5.7 section looked blank and with the number of cracks the 5.4 chimney was not apparent. I was hoping things would become more obvious once we got into the notch that separates the two summits. We backtracked slightly and found the 5.2 downclimb with the tree as described in Supertopo. Once in the notch we found the 5.7 section to be a 20-25 foot long diagonal finger crack, basically a boulder problem, followed by an easy chimney. I asked Jascha if he felt comfortable soloing and off we went sans rope. We did use my cordelette and a sling to shuttle our packs up onto the ledge. Before long we were on the north summit and on to uncharted territory. I had no beta on the last section other than it was possible and that it shouldn't be harder than 5.7.
The exposure was far more spectacular, including an airy step across and traversing a large overhanging wavelike fin. We passed several rap stations, where various parties had escaped the crest for who knows what reason. Hopefully, we wouldn't discover why. As we neared the end of the crest two final small towers remained. Here the terrain became more challenging and upon surmounting the first one we were unable to find a reasonable downclimb. We backtracked and traversed the left side of the tower only to find more difficult cracks leading up to the final tower, but also an easy ramp system leading to the end of the ridge. We opted for the later option, had a lunch break, and continued over the ridge just to the E of Echo Ridge. The traverse had taken 3 hours.
From here the descent was the same as I had done for the Cathedral Traverse several days prior. We picked our way down the snowfields and over the slabs to the eastern shoreline of Budd Lake. The trail was still partially snowed in, so we headed northwest until we hit the Cathedral climbers' trail and back to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead. We finished in under just 8 hours. Once home I consulted Bob Burd's description of the route on summitpost and discovered that the downclimb off the final towers exceeds 5.6. I think we made the right move.