American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, California, Sierra Nevada, Middle Cathedral Rock, Direct North Buttress

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1963

Middle Cathedral Rock, Direct North Buttress. For several years Yvon Chouinard and I had looked at the true north buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock and wondered—if, who, when. What was climbed in 1954 and called the North Buttress route lay, actually, on the left side of the north face. A serious look a year ago showed a possible route on the extreme right edge of the northeast face, only a few feet from the prow of the buttress. One clear September dawn in 1961, we roped up at the base, carrying three days’ supplies. Because of difficult class 5 and 6 climbing (a maximum of 5.8 and 6.7), we made relatively slow progress. The route up the lower section was somewhat nebulous from the ground, although things fitted into place as we got to them. We started in a difficult (5.8) chimney and jam-crack, and climbed almost directly above this for some 700 feet. I took a 35-foot fall at the 700-foot level, but without serious results. By a double pendulum traverse to the left we gained a large ledge at the base of a 1000-foot crack system which led to the notch behind Thirsty Spire, the higher of the two towers of the true north buttress. We bivouacked on a large ledge that night. Our chances for success, however, were ruined when a quick un-Yosemite-like storm moved in during the night and turned the wall into a sheet of water. We escaped off onto the northeast face and the Kat Walk, reaching the valley floor by late afternoon. Early in the afternoon of June 13, we found ourselves at our old high point. Thanks to the three bolts we had placed before and to our knowledge of the route, we had made excellent time on this first 900 feet. By nightfall we had reached a small series of ledges, 1300 feet above the ground. Dead tired, we fell asleep almost immediately, only to be awakened at midnight by rain. Chouinard looked down at me from his ledge 30 feet higher and said, “It’s not happening again! It never rains in the Valley in June.” But it did, and by dawn our down jackets and our spirits were waterlogged. Above, all the water of the upper face seemed to be coursing down the flared chimney system which led to Thirsty Spire. (What a misnomer now!) Hesitantly we moved upward. Hours and several pitches later we realized that the climbing we had just done would have been very difficult even in dry weather. Due to the scarcity of piton cracks, we could not use direct aid, although we desperately wished we could. Chouinard led several difficult (5.8) flared chimneys that left me with the feeling “Thank God I didn’t have to lead that one.” At last, at three p.m., we reached the notch. Although the remaining 500 feet would ordinarily have been class 4, we sometimes used direct aid. As we neared the top, the rain slackened to a drizzle. We were back on the valley floor before dark and quickly changed into dry clothing; our down jackets weighed 7½ lbs. each! We used three bolts and 190 pitons, although the number could be diminished in dry weather.

Steven Roper, Sierra Club

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