The East Buttress of Middle Cathedral

Jun 5, 2016   #climbing 

After being introduced to climbing in the valley about a year ago, I’ve been constantly building and refining an ordered list of Classic Climbs that I Must Do. The east buttress of middle cathedral occupied a special spot on The List, because it seemed like it would be both a way to push my boundaries and a shitload of fun. According to everything I had read beforehand, the route offered continuous 5.8 to 5.10c climbing over 11 pitches of perfect granite. I can barely lead 5.9 trad climbs and I’ve never done more than 5 pitches of 5.8, so this route seemed like the next logical step up. The route offers lots of possibilities to aid through the cruxes and to bail if needed, so why not?

The opportunity came last week when I was in the valley with my buddy Gavin. Gavin climbs at about the same level and has the same amount of stoke (very high), so we went for it on a sunny day. We got to the pullout and finished racking up at around 8:30, and thanks to a well marked climber’s trail we got to the base of the climb around 9.

We swung leads the whole time, and I took the first lead linking up pitch 1 and 2. Pitch 1 was about 100 feet of reasonably easy climbing, but it quickly heats up at the start of P2 with a 5.8 roof. The roof was a little tricky and took me some extra time to figure out, but it wasn’t too bad once I found a hidden jug. The rest of the climbing to the top of P2 was fairly easy. The rope drag at the top of P2 was horrendous; I should’ve used longer slings at the roof.

View from the top of P2. Not bad!

Gavin getting psyched to link P3 and P4

Gavin took the next lead, which was a linkup of pitches 3 and 4. Our 60 meter rope was just long enough to link the 2 pitches. These pitches were fantastic. The start to P3 was a somewhat stiff 5.8 fingercrack wedged into a corner, and the rest of the 2 pitches were super fun laybacks. The climbing was very interesting and confidence inspiring, especially on toprope.

The start of P3

Looking down on the end of P4

Stoke level: still high

El Cap was staring at us the whole climb. Tempting!

The next pitch was the crux pitch, and it fell on me. There are 2 options for pitch 5: the original route, which starts with a bolt ladder that can go free at 5.10c and then continues to a 5.9 roof, or a 5.10a face climb that continues to a small roof and easier face climb. After debating with myself outloud, I eventually said fuck it and went for the 10a face climb option. I figured it would be an even larger accomplishment to do the whole route free.

The free variation was actually quite fun. The face climb leading up to the roof was easier than expected, and the roof took a little bit of thought but it wasn’t horrible. After the first bolt (which is easy to get to), the crux is relatively easy to protect. The face climb after the roof is an incredibly fun 5.6 filled with big juggy slopers. The face gave way to a fun little layback section, which ends the pitch at a ledge with a set of bolts.

The start of P5 - very fun knobby traverse

Looking at the topo, I thought that it would be straightforward to link pitches 5 and 6 with a 60 meter rope. When I got to the anchor at the top of P5, I decided to go for it even though the rope drag was already kind of bad. The first half of P6 is a face climb requiring lots of balance; the rope drag didn’t help with that. The second half was a layback up to another ledge. I just made it onto the ledge when I heard Gavin yell out “Joe, you have 5 feet!“, and unfortunately the chains were 15 feet over to the right on the ledge. After some back and forth, we decided to simul-climb to the P6 anchor. Fortunately, Gavin only had to do a short easy traverse to the first bolt of P5 to give me enough slack to get to the anchors. I anchored in with a great sigh of relief, put Gavin on belay, and ate a sandwich.

The P6 chains! Yes! I have to work on keeping my anchors neater

The ledge leading up to the chains. I ran it out to preserve rope and not contribute to drag. Also it was easy :)

Gavin led the next pitch (P7), which consisted of more fun layback cracks in left-facing corners. We both made quick work of it. I took pitch 8, which was one of the most memorable of the whole climb. The pitch started with a short blocky section narrowing down to a wide handcrack in the back of a big flared groove. The end of the pitch was yet another fun layback to short face traverse. The climbing was very heady and thought-provoking; it was easy to climb poorly with haste, but the climbing was easy when done right.

The start of P7

Looking down at the end of P7

Gavin following up the end of P8

At this point, fatigue was beginning to set in. We had started at a less-than-ideal time when the route was beginning to get sun, and we had baked in direct sunlight for the whole time. It was around 1:30 when we both got to the top of P8 and only then were we escaping the sun. We took a little break to recuperate and hydrate, then Gavin set off on P9.

Looking up at P9 which goes around to the left of the bushes. Almost out of the sun!

Pitch 9 was a less memorable pitch. It followed a small crack up more left facing corners. Pitch 10 was my last lead. The pitch started with a surprisingly hard finger crack that was marked 5.6 on the topo, then continued up a narrow crack system into a section of 5.8 finger crack that goes into a gully. I was moving exceedingly slow on this bit, making sure I was using the least amount of energy possible without getting too careless.

Gavin cruising up P10. I probably should have gone up the crack directly under me, it looked like better climbing.

The last pitch, pitch 11, was Gavin’s lead. The first half was a large flaring 5.7 chimney followed by some easier 4th class. The chimney was quite unwelcome to both of us; we both had packs on and aren’t fans of chimnies. Gavin grunted his way up, I followed in the same fashion, and we promptly collapsed at the top-out and devoured the rest of our food and water.

Gavin mustering up all remaining energy to lead the chimney behind him

We done did it! The topout wasn’t glorious but it was more than welcome

The descent was a little more than we bargained for. We followed the beta in the guidebook for the Kat Walk to the best of our abilities, but we ended up following a pseudo-trail to a series of 5 rappels with our single 60m rope. According to this topo, we went down the penny pinnacle rappel route instead. We missed the last rappel (rappel 8 in the topo), and I ended up downclimbing 10 feet in a large chimney to flat ground, while Gavin downclimbed some dirty 3rd class. It was a little unnerving following a route that was obviously not in our guidebook, but fortunately it was a very well established rappel route. We spent the next 45 minutes scrambling back down the gully between higher cathedral and middle cathedral to the car.

The chimney I downclimbed. This may have been a first descent - it was covered in dust and spiderwebs

Higher cathedral looking majestic

We spent almost 7 hours climbing, about 2 and a half hours on the descent, and around 30 minutes on the approach, bringing us to a grand total of 10 hours. While a portion of this time was definitely type 2 fun (especially the descent), the majority of the excursion was exceedingly enjoyable. This won’t be the last time I go up this route.

The route in retrospect, taken on the descent. Hover over the picture for what I’m fairly certain is the route we took