Note: This trip report also appears on summitpost.
Back in May I quit my job and moved to Bishop to take full advantage of (fair weathered) alpine season. Lingering wintery storms made the conditions less than ideal (read major postholing) so I passed the time in the Gorge and Tablelands, anxiously awaiting for the big melt off. As the snow began to melt I did some shorter approach climbs to avoid significant slogging. I have some plans for big traverses late in the summer, and I was starting to question my conditioning and readiness.
I was supposed to day trip Venusian Blind with Miguel, but he was sick and it didn't seem like an ideal plan given that he would also be driving all the way out from L.A. just for this climb. Additionally, I was aching to do a solo trip. As much as I enjoy climbing with other people, I also like the meditative nature of climbing alone. I suggested to Miguel that he reschedule our trip, and I started planning a trip to Tuolumne.
My original plan was to link up the NW Buttress of Tenaya Peak and the SE Buttress of Cathedral Peak, but was detoured from Tenaya after seeing recent photos of snow on the route and reading in the High Sierra Supertopo that bypassing this snow patch "will involve harder climbing on unknown terrain". At the last minute I settled on attempting the Cathedral Traverse select as outlined by Croft in The Good, the Great, and the Awesome: SE Buttress of Cathedral, Echo Peak #3, Echo Ridge, Cockscomb, and Unicorn.
I headed out for Tuolumne on my motorcycle at 6:40a. After calling me "sir" the ranger at the Tioga Pass kiosk informed me that at the E side entrance I could only pay for my interagency pass via check or cash. He initially suggested that I go to the Tuolumne Meadows store ATM and return, but told me that I could pay on the way out when I said that I was out to climb Cathedral and didn't want to waste time getting started. I figured that I should at least get cash in case I get stopped on the way out, and ended up having to wait until 9a for the store to open. So much for an early start, but that's why I live in CA and not CO.
Finally at 9:30a I set out with my mp3 player. As Cathedral came into view I started to feel slightly intimidated. The one time I had tried to climb the SE Buttress (roped) many years ago we were rained off. Is that Conness 5.6 or Yosemite sandbag 5.6? Would I get off-route? Comments from my Bishop friends at the previous night's dinner ranged from "I would never solo Cathedral, especially if I'd never climbed it before..." to "No problem, there's a lot of ways to go...". Jascha told me the night before that he just read a short sci-fi story in which the main character was reminiscing about getting a call from Yosemite SAR to report that her daughter had died after falling off a peak. Great timing. I told myself that as with most Sierra peaks the routes look easier the closer you get.
As I neared the base I was passed on the trail by a guy wearing only approach shoes, a chalk bag and a visor. He effortlessly flew up the route. I pulled out my Supertopo route description and settled on a variation combining route C (the right most route) with route A (the standard route) starting at the chimney.
Being a Thursday the route was dead by Cathedral standards. Two parties of two were milling around at the bottom on the standard route. As I started up the climb I found it mostly easy going with good friction. I found my rhythm and took in the amazing views. The dicey sections, like pulling into the chimney, were short and the route finding was straight forward. On the last pitch I got to a section that didn't quite match the topo, but all of a sudden I topped out. The climb had taken 1 hour and it was now noon. I descended back to the base and made my way over to Echo Peak #3.
I climbed to the notch next to Echo Peak #1 and skirted the SE side of #1 and 2. Between Peak #2 and #3 I found a slightly wet trough to access the summit ridge, although I thought "Class 4" might be a better adjective than "easy" as used by Croft. I guess it's all a matter of perception. Amusingly, the summit register (the only one I found on the whole traverse) was a rusted cookie type tin. The views of Matthes off the backside were spectacular and I was looking forward to doing the traverse in a few days.
The climb over to Echo Ridge was uneventful. I found a fun downclimb on the SE side and spent a lot of time drooling over Matthes. I still had a lot of time before dark and I wasn't feeling particularly tired, so I figured that there was a good chance I could finish the whole traverse at a reasonable hour.
On Cockscomb Croft's description mentioned heading up and right to a notch. Of course, there was more than one notch. I picked the leftmost notch, which turned out to be the wrong one. Fortunately, the route is relatively short so I was quickly back on track and on the summit. The descent options are a 5.6 downclimb off the backside (more direct) or reversing the route and heading around the N side of the base. I tried the downclimb and decided that I wasn't up for crumbly, exposed 5.6. The downclimb from the first notch I tried seemed more reasonable, but I didn't want to reverse the grovely, exposed mantle move I had found on the way up. I opted for skirting the N side of the peak on a somewhat exposed, mossy/snowy ramp system. This seemed more palatable than losing a bunch of elevation by dropping down to the snowfield.
Now on the ridge between Cockscomb and Unicorn, the only thing impeding my route was a huge pile of talus of almost the same height as Unicorn. I decided to ignore the Croft route, which goes over the pile, and go for the lazy option of contouring across it to minimize the amount of elevation change. Fortunately, the talus was large and stable, and progress was swift. I easily found a fourth class route up Unicorn for my final peak of the day. I stepped off of Unicorn at 5:30p (6.5 hours or climbing time).
I cruised back down to the Unicorn/talus pile saddle and headed SW across the slabs through the lovely basin below Unicorn. On the other side of the basin I found a ramp system down the slabs that put me on the SE shore of Budd Lake and briefly back on the trail. The trail disappeared in the snow, so I crossed Budd Creek and beelined cross country NW until I hit the climbers trail. Back at the trailhead at 7:30p I was descended on by the infamous Meadows mosquitoes, so I quickly donned my riding gear and headed home. Of course the Tioga Pass kiosk ranger waved me through.