A short but sweet tour of Mammoth Lakes led us on a drive of its perimeter. There seem to be few settings for a town in this world that can match that of Mammoth Lakes. Nestled up against the Sierra the town sits at 8,000 ft with another 4,000 vertical leading to nearby peaks dotted with alpine lakes. A mere 10 minutes from town lead to any number of beautiful lakes, streams, crags and waterfalls. On the to-do list in town was to catch up on some emails, grab some beers from the brewery and get more ice for the cooler.
Tasks accomplished we drove Vincent back up 395, this time opting for a scenic loop-road detour toward the refreshingly small town of June Lake, home of June Mountain ski resort. What an amazing place this was. The loop road continued through several smaller lakes walled on all sides by large granite moraines before opening into a broad sagebrush filled valley. A sharp left turn onto a gravel road and we followed signs toward Walker Lake. As we gained elevation the valley began to narrow and we entered a small plateau dotted with large Ponderosa Pines. Parking Vincent for the night among the old growth in a pleasant grassy meadow was certainly the most tranquil spot we have found so far.
The morning came quickly and our minds started to flutter with thoughts of entering Yosemite that afternoon. Purchasing our annual park pass we turned west on highway 120 and began climbing Tioga Pass. Vincent chugged along in 2nd gear at about 26 mph as we steadily climbed to the entrance gate at 9,945 ft. As we coasted through Tuolumne Meadows for the first time, granite domes appeared on all sides of the road sweeping gradually from sidewalks to sheer faces. Suddenly years of climbing magazines, photos, lore and legends seemed to rise from either side of the road. I quickly became overwhelmed at the expanse of granite to be explored and needed to pull over a few times to quell my excitement. Robyn poured over our new Tuolumne Free Climbs guidebook seeking out moderate multi-pitch routes to add to our tick list. Ducking back out of the park and pulling off the road into National Forest land for the night we set up camp at 9,000 ft in a small gravel lot backing up to a rushing creek. Trad gear splayed out in piles on the floor of the bus, we decided to climb the Medlicott Dome via the 4 pitch 5.8 Shagadellic. Racked-up, gear in piles, dinner, and a couple Mammoth Lakes brews in our bellies we poured over guides and climbing magazines until crawling in bed – alarm set for 5 am.
A restless night behind us Vincent again coasted down Tioga Pass into silent Tuolumne meadows. Alone at the parking lot, we followed a winding trail, gradually rising to switchbacks through granite blocks to the base of the Medlicott Dome. “Holy shit”, was my first thought. A granite expanse stretched in either direction and arched into the sky above. Armed with a small topo map and plenty on adrenaline we flaked the rope at the base of our first Yosemite multi-pitch. Multi-pitch routes at Revelstoke, Smith Rocks, and Castle Crags had all prepared us for the moment, but the history of Yosemite and the legends of our sport who established these climbs were at the forefront of my mind.
Pitch one was a nice corner to a bolted belay before a seemingly featureless undulation of slabby granite above. I have often tried to convey such expanse when describing the scale of Alaskan peaks but always fall short. In a snowy landscape with only the largest of features protruding from the snow distances and size in Alaska seem nearly impossible to judge. 20 minutes ahead turns to 40 min, 2 hours? This same sense of dizzying scale accompanied Robyn and I into the 2nd and 3rd pitches of Shagadelic. I would turn and look down to see Robyn belaying, she looked so close, but nearly at the end of my rope we stretched pitches to 150-180 feet in length. A new style of climbing was required, one that tested our footwork and mental toughness much more than our grip strength. Rounding the summit we were excited and elated. We had done it. A 3rd class scramble to the true summit for some photos and a beautiful walk down the south side with views of Yosemite Valley and Half Dome below brought us back to the meadow by 2PM.
Tuolumne was a special place to be. Camping climbing and hiking between 8,000 and 11,000 feet, we were getting well acclimatized after spending 2 years at sea level. The hikes to domes led us through alpine meadows studded with granite boulders and swaths of wildflowers. Creeks gushed past boulders and dropped from pool to pool – our soundtrack as we hiked by. After our success on Medlicott we had another beautiful day summiting Dozier Dome before lunch, and spending the afternoon slacklining in the meadow below. As we walked through the meadows the iconic summit of Cathedral Peak soared in the distance. Long before arriving in Yosemite we had dreamed of climbing the SE Buttress, a mega-classic 700’ 5.6 alpine route leading to a 5’ by 5’ pinnacle summit at 10,911 ft. Staring up from the meadow we decided it was time to give this classic a go.
At 4 AM the alarm went off. I groaned, rolled over and fumbled in the dark to turn it off. Two days earlier Alex Honnold and Hans Florine had done the same on their way to setting the speed record on The Nose of El Cap. Though cameras and fans didn’t greet us at the trailhead we were just as focused as we made our way to the base. Greeting one other group who arrived just minutes before, we opted for one of the many variations which all bottlenecked for the last pitch. Simul-climbing the first 300 feet put Robyn and I ahead of the other group and we were well on our way up the 3rd pitch before the crowds began to file in for their shot at the top.
Some of the most incredible climbing of our lives took us up past a steep dihedral and offwidth and past large dynamic moves on perfect stone to an exposed belay on a beak overhanging the valley below. One fast pair of climbers met us on the last pitch but ran short of rope for the summit and at 11:00 AM I found myself alone on the top setting up a belay for Robyn. Together we enjoyed an incredible view down the valley, past Half Dome and beyond – blue lakes and grey domes in all directions. Before we new it we had descended from the summit to the saddle to soak up some morning sun and revel in our success as lines of climbers formed at the base of the route. The ascent seemed surreal and went by far to quickly and as with all summits we felt honored and humbled to have been granted safe passage. We don’t belong in these places, at least not for long, and for me that is part of the appeal. To spend even just a few hours in an environment such as that, hanging 700’ over the valley below brings with it feelings that are hard to describe. Amazement at the beauty is underlined with a deep respect for the mountain environment. We weren’t the fastest, boldest or most talented climbers in Yosemite that day but we were certainly among the proudest. That’s one of the great things about rockclimbing. Each climb presents a unique feeling and challenge to a climber. For Robyn and I Cathedral Peak represents another great achievement and a highlight of our time spent in California.