Matthes Crest (5.7) & Fleeing the Fire

Sandy :

South Crack

Having bailed on an earlier Wyoming trip, we decided to instead get more California climbing in, and returned to Portland to plan and start painting the house for two weeks. Picking up “walk-up” permits online for Yosemite and Charlotte’s Dome, and with the house mostly done, we made the drive down to Lee Vining again and our favorite campsite.

Our plan was to drive down on Saturday, Sept 5, and spending four days in Tuolumne followed by 3 days climbing Charlotte Dome before returning on Sept 13th. As we passed south of Lake Tahoe it became apparent the ‘good’ and ‘moderate’ air quality reports we’d been getting weren’t exactly spot on, but we decided to make the best of it.

Waking up early on Sunday, we headed over to South Crack on Stately Pleasure Dome. Finding the footholds covered in ash but the weather mostly in the West, we decided to go for it since it was a short climb.

Tenya Lake as seen from the base of south crack

There are two ways to start for South Crack. The flake system to the left of the rope is the 5.8 start. Rick was feeling adventurous and he wanted to lead the delicate finger and tips crack with mostly smears for feet. I ridiculed at his choice of placing gear fairly close but when I was up on it, I realized that it was a scary lead. On the bright side the crack protects well.

Pitch 1
Dark blue/black sky in the southwest direction possibly due to fires near Sacramento
Upper section of pitch 1

Pitch 2 was hand and finger crack but considerably easier and fun.

Start of pitch 2
Upper section of pitch 2

Due to the ash we decided on the right-side variation for pitch 3, which is a 5.6 slab but its not mentioned anywhere that there is a 40+ foot run out between gear. We didn’t switch cameras so I had the camera while leading this pitch. This picture is taken from my last piece before I started the ash covered run out. I went towards right where I was thankful to find a crack.

Pitch 3

According to the topo pitch 3 ends on a ledge with a 60m rope but with our 65m rope and some simul-climbing we could not get above the start of the ramp below the ledge. Rick continued up to pitch 4 with little pro, eventually digging a bomber cam placement out of the ash in the upper section of the ramp before romping up flakes to a ledge.

Pitch 4
Upper section of pitch 4 under orange skies
Rick thanking the Almighty for zero falls on this ash covered rock
Above pitch 4
Summit plateau, sky is getting darker by the hour

Some easy slabs and simul-climbing led to the flat summit, from which we walked northwest to a low angle descent traversing left. There is an obvious gully full of vegetation that takes you back to the road with some bush-whacking.


We made pad thai and recouped, preparing for a foray into the Cathedral Lakes area.

Rick :

Matthe’s Crest

After a late start on Monday we left the trailhead around 7 am. We had climbed Cathedral Peak in July so we knew where the turn off for Matthes was, but everything beyond that was a mystery.

Cathedral in the morning light
Budd Lake filled with an ashy haze
Looking towards Echo Peaks and the north ridge approach

Heading past Budd Lake we contoured to the south-west side of the lake and broke off cross-country toward the Echo Peaks. Sticking to the plateau slabs and avoiding elevation gain, we skirted around the peaks until Matthes Crest was in sight. Dropping down into the forest below Matthes, we bushwhacked through the alternating meadows and forest until taking the final slab approach to the base of the route.

First view of Matthes Crest
Looking up the south approach pitches
Sandy racking up

Starting up the belayed pitches around 11:30 am, Sandy took us to the top of the ridge crest through easy knob-pulling in three pitches.

Sandy starting up

From here we switched to simul-climbing and made quick time to the first belayed 5th class pitch on the ridge line (“2” on the SuperTopo). This turned out to be a very unsustained movement which would of been easy to simul, and both topo markers “2” and “3” were passed in one 60m pitch. The final marker “4” for that section was easily bypassed on the right as third class, and then the climbing returned to straightforward simuling.

On the ridge
Looking back along the ridge

As this point our late start caught up to us, since it was past four and we hadn’t yet made it to the south summit. With the winds having changed direction hours before, turning our bluebird day into one full of ash, we decided we weren’t interested in potentially spending a night out and breathing this trash all night long, and so decided to descend. Four rappels later we were back on sandy terrain, quickly dropping down between the slabs and bushes, enjoying one of the least epic retreats we’d ever dealt with.

The south and north summits
The entire ridge line
Our route
Last view from the echo peaks

We discussed the reasons for not finishing on the way back, and made plans for another climb from the north side which would travel from the north ridge start to the north summit, rappel into the notch, then climb the south summit and traverse to our bail point, finishing all the unclimbed sections of Matthes Crest we still had left.

The sun setting into the smoke from the Echo Peak plateau

Waking up the next morning we had only scheduled a climb of Crescent Arch on Daff Dome and so could have a more guilt-free late start than yesterday. After dropping down to a particularly smokey Lee Vining for lattes and to e-mail my advisor, we found out our permits for Charlotte Dome had been cancelled, and that the smoke level was 3x what is considered hazardous, being instead simply labeled “beyond index”.

Cutting our losses, we left back for Portland after coffee. An hour later we were making creek-side omelets in perfect weather again wondering if we had made the right choice, but by the time we were north of Shasta things had changed dramatically. Twenty miles of I-5 was shut down north of us, prompting a council-of-war at the best Punjabi restaurant I’ve ever been to, oddly located in the middle of nowhere (Montague, CA) inside a truck-stop convenience store.

Now loaded up with thousands of calories worth of naan and rice, we cut over to 97 and drove north to near Klamath Falls where one fire had shut down the highway, then took 140 west to Medford, just sneaking through the town before it reached a level 3 evacuation. From here we drove through the smoke north of I-5, receiving continuous level 1-3 evacuation notices as we drove through various counties, eventually reaching home around 1:30am.

The quest to use this vacation time continues another day.

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