Matthes Crest, Traverse
By: Jason Halladay | Climbers: Jason Halladay, William Geist |Trip Dates: September 10, 2005
Photo: Gary Clark
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Matthes Crest is a spectacular mile-long, exposed fin of rock in a remote section of Tuolumne Meadows. It's not visible from any "tourist" vantage point in the park so those that have seen it have worked for it. Climbing and traversing the mostly fourth-class with some low fifth-class ridge crest from south to north is a classic line first done in 1947. The 2 to 3 hour approach makes for a wonderful tour through some of Tuolumne's most scenic terrain and affords the climber great views of many of the notable rock features in the meadows. Bill and I are big fans of exposure and were excited to make this traverse. Again we used the SuperTopo guide for the Tuolumne Ultra Classics to assist us with routefinding.
Saturday, September 10th
After enduring a very chilly (14F) September night in Tuolumne, it took some time to coax ourselves out of our toasty sleeping bags. The Tuolumne Meadows Campground doesn't offer much morning sunlight due to a dense packing of trees so we drove to the sunny General Store parking lot to pack up and enjoy a cup of warm coffee. After the half-mile drive west to the John Muir/Cathedral Lakes trailhead we started the hike south towards Cathedral Peak and Matthes Crest. This approach hike is documented well in the SuperTopo guide. We began our hike around 8:30am and quickly warmed up.
The hike along Budd Creek towards Budd Lake and by Echo Peaks is a scenic one indeed. Early on we passed a group of climbers headed for the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak and chatted with three women headed for Matthes Crest as well. The hike over the indistinct pass above Budd Lake and west of Echo Peaks was a bit chilly with a slight breeze adding to the cool morning air. We descended into the shallow basin just west of Matthes Crest studying the crest in profile as we approached the south end of the crest. The sweeping granite juts upward to a sharp and thin crest that promised to give us a big dose of exposure for nearly a mile of scrambling. Some easy slab scrambling put us at the base at 10:45am.
We snacked as we studied the first couple of pitches that lead to the crest proper. It appeared we would have the crest to ourselves until the three women arrived. Then we heard a voice from above, and saw a pair that appeared to be on the "standard" pitches shown in the SuperTopo guide which were still in the shade on the west side. The attractive gold face to the right looked steeper but well-featured and was in the sun. Climbing in the sun is always better than climbing in the shade and the wind above sounded like it was pretty ferocious so we opted for the face. I was the one suggesting the face, so I got first lead.
We hiked up on large blocks just below the face and roped up. As I got ready to climb, I noticed the strength of the west wind and how cold my fingers were already. I felt a brief bit of empathy for the climbers in the shade as I started up around 11am. The climbing on this first pitch was steep but very featured and felt like no more than 5.7. I placed a couple of cams before reaching a nice ledge about 80 feet up. My fingers were getting colder by the minute as I setup a belay, turning my back to the west. Suddenly my decision to leave my gloves and hat at the car to "go light and fast" didn't seem so bright. I pulled the hood on my wind jacket over my helmet and brought Bill up to the ledge. When he arrived we shouted through the wind noise debating whether or not we should carry on. We knew a lot of the traverse would be on the ridge proper but figured there would be opportunities to break on the east side out of the wind and in the sun. We decided to carry on after seeing the three women behind us racking up at the base of the crest to start climbing. Having our friends hear about that was not a good prospect to ponder.
Bill took off up the face, placing a minimal amount of pro on the 5.6 climbing that would have been enjoyable under warmer and calmer circumstances. The wind was so strong I couldn't hear him once he was out of sight so when the rope came tight, I broke down the belay and started climbing. I found Bill sitting on an awesome wind-protected ledge on the east side of the crest, which was good because my fingers had become basically useless. We spent a short time there warming our hands before looking up the rest of the rock. It looked like easy climbing for about 40 feet to reach the top of the crest so we coiled the rope and started soloing. As we left the nice ledge just before noon and headed back into the wind, we saw the leader of the other party that had started before us about 10 feet below. He was still in the shade and headed for the nice ledge we had just vacated.
The scrambling was indeed low-key and nothing more than 5.2 to the top of the ridge to our next ledge on the crest's east side. We now had a good view of the rest of the ridge crest to the south summit and it looked enjoyable. We both agreed we were glad to have decided to carry-on with the traverse. Oddly, the wind on the ridge crest seemed less intense and the scrambling was getting to be very fun. We continued soloing as we're both very comfortable with exposure and unroped low-fifth class climbing.
Staying as close to the top of the ridge as much as possible we carefully scrambled along the highly exposed crest for about 30 minutes before reaching the area marked as "2" on the SuperTopo guide. At this section the guide suggested moving around a short 5.2 corner to the west to a very exposed 5.4 undercling on the west side to a short 5.6 chimney. I went around the corner and took a moment before committing to the 5.4 undercling. Getting into the undercling then was the mental crux of the route because the foot placements were solely friction with no ledges or knobs. However, the undercling was very positive and comfortable and in three moves i was through it and onto the comfortable ledge below the 5.6 chimney/stemming section. Bill followed through the undercling and the 5.6 stemming was short and seemed easier than the undercling due to the relative lack of exposure.
At the top of the short chimney we followed a short ramp to the ridge crest again and enjoyed more exposed scrambling for a while. Occasionally we'd stay on the ridge crest only to get turned around by a large drop. We'd hike back a short distance to find a ledge section just below the ridge crest on either side. Often we'd follow decent foot ledges using the sharp ridge crest as a "handrail". We were thoroughly enjoying this traverse. It was a blast!
Before too long we found ourselves looking up the crest's east side to the top of the south summit. Exposed, low-fifth class climbing took us up to its summit at 1:15pm. The wind had died down a bit so we snacked for a while on the summit looking towards the North Summit. We saw a couple of climbers down in the notch between the south and north summits who were rappelling down the standard descent route. Apparently some others had started earlier than we had!
After a short rest on the South Summit, we headed back the way we came for about 100 feet to reach the 5.2 downclimb to the notch between the summits on the crest's east side. This descent ramp to the notch was quite obvious and went smoothly. Once in the notch we climbed up a couple of easy ledges to the base of the steep climbing to the North Summit. From the ledges we flaked the rope out and I tied in for the lead. It appeared I had two options-a 5.8 off-width chimney straight up or a reachy move to 5.9 face climbing to the left. I don't particularly care for chimneys and I'm a tall guy so I went for the 5.9 option. This step was very committing but led to a generous foot ledge so all I had to do was commit to it and get over there. Instant exposure awaited me as soon as I made this step and I quickly looked for a pro placement on the steep face. About eight feet up I found a good crack. Fantastic face climbing on nice knobs and flakes took me up to easier 5.4 ground and a good leftward ramp to the summit. I slung a big horn for the anchor and brought Bill up at 2pm. We had a great view of the sharp crest to the south and could see the other two teams behind us making their way along it, laughing and having a great time. After signing in the summit register, we decided it was time to head down. For a moment, we pondered continuing along the ridge crest to the true end of the Matthes Crest but dismissed that thought and set up our 60m rope to rappel back down to the notch between the two summits. In retrospect and after having read more about the rest of the traverse, I'm disappointed we didn't finish it. Oh well, that leaves something new for our next visit to Tuolumne.
Our single 60m rope rappel got us down to the ledges in the notch and left us with a short, easy downclimb to the next rappel anchor slung around a small tree. A second rappel got us down to 3rd class terrain where we could downclimb to the valley and start our hike back to the car. The hike back was nice affording us great views of Cathedral Peak's south face where we had enjoyed a great climb on the Southeast Buttress the previous day. We arrived back at the car at 4:45pm. It had been a great day in the mountains indeed.