East Buttress – Middle Cathedral (5.9 A0)

Sandy:

The long drive from Portland and the heat we absorbed during the first couple pitches of Central Pillar of Frenzy had left us fairly exhausted. After waking up the next day we went straight to the Cathedral Beach to chill in the water and eat, had lattes, sandwiches from Degnan’s Deli, climbed a few single pitches and explored the area. With both of us now in graduate school and taking less overall courses, the possibility of returning in spring instead of summer session was open, and we wanted to understand the area a bit better.

We drove to El Portal a bit early to be well rested for our big day ahead. One of the climbers approached us looking for a can opener; a German on a climbing vacation in the States, who had done East Buttress of Middle Cathedral the day before. His response to my question on how was the climb was, “very tiring”. So far I had read the mountain project description which had rated the climb mostly moderate 5.6 – 5.8. Based on my experience of climbing, I was a bit amazed by his response. How hard can it be if its only rated as 5.6-5.8 with one 5.10 b/c crux pitch which can be aided?

We went to bed at around 9pm to rise super early for our serious goal the next day i.e East Buttress of Middle Cathedral. Little did we realize about the adventure we were going to embark on right from the moment we wake up.

We woke up at 4:30am only to find a dead battery in our little Honda Insight. I quickly realized that I should have said something when I saw that the brake lights were on while I woke up at 1:30am to pee. I was half awake and didn’t understand that it was not normal. One of the food bags had fallen on the brake and left it pressed for hours. All of our efforts to stop a passing car or get help from the near by Hotel were futile (they did politely wave back though). Fortunately Rick found a spot where he got signal to call AAA. Trying to look at the positive side, I spent the time reading a book by the side of the river during the calm and cool morning. After about 30 minutes, I turned around to see jumper cables hooked to the car’s battery. I was astonished by the fast response by AAA. When I went up, I found that Rick had found ANOTHER set of climbers who had just done the East Buttress the day before, and agreed to jump the car. The car started immediately and we were on our way to Cathedral Beach after whole heartedly thanking the female climbing duo who had helped us.

She and her partner also mentioned how the East Buttress was one of her major goals this season. Hmm quite curious to find out how hard is 10 pitches of 5.6-5.8 climbing…

Sandy leading pitch 1 from the pedestal.

The hike was quick and didn’t feel strenuous, thanks to the months of hill running. We started climbing around 8:30am. Pitch 1 is probably the easiest of the 10 pitches but a bit insecure with loose rocks. I could not pull off the 5.8 roof move to link pitches 1+2 with the amount of rope drag, so I belayed at the tree below the roof.

5.8 bulge off the pitch 1 anchor ledge.

Rick:

It turned out the dire warnings on MountainProject over being inundated in parties on this fifty classic were slightly overblown. As the white granite began to reflect the early morning sun, it quickly became obvious why no one else was joining us today. While the climbing was beautiful sustained moderate cracks, any chance of belay shade necessitated incredible contortions to stick to the shadows as much as possible, and starting early did not seem to help us at all.

Pitch 2 layback section.
Start of the sustained fun 5.7 jamming up pitch 3.
Switching to a new crack system and continuing up.

Two pitches of beautiful laybacks and stemming cracks led us to the ledge below the aid section. I had done a few 10+ cracks the evening before in the 80 degree shade and felt like I could free the route easily, but by the time I had belayed Sandy up to the shade-free ledge all thoughts of free-climbing glory had left my mind. The 10c slab was a reflector oven, so I quickly scampered up the bolts, stepping on hangers and pulling myself up with alpine draws.

Making my way up to bolt ladder: for once an incredibly tilted picture is tilted to make it look less epic 😦

A fun slab traverse separated the bolt ladder from the 5.9 roof crux, and an improbably pounded piton right in the crux. After marveling how someone had presumably stemmed in the crux on lead pounding that in, I pulled the roof and followed the moderate cracks to the WORST. BELAY. EVER.

The positioning of the bolts and the waist-high pillar next to the ledge necessitated facing directly into the sun while belaying, which was now 85+ degrees and tempered by a slight wind. I burrowed inside my sun hoody and prayed for Sandy to make quick work of this pitch, which she did, until falling off the traverse.

Not to diminish her achievements clawing her way back into the crack, ascending what can be best described as “overhanging, blank slab”, but this, dear reader, is where it almost devolved to type 2 fun. After 30 minutes and a new-found respect for regularly practicing self-rescue skills, she was back up to the belay and I was shooting off towards the next anchor.

Start of the pitch 6 traverse.

Pitch 6 didn’t have a rating associated with it on the topo, which always gives pause. True to form, it was easy slab traversing, but without much in the way of pro. Still, it was a welcome reprieve from the sustained climbing so far, and best of all we were now IN THE SHADE!

Pitch 7 start.

One missing piton and a semi-crappy micro-cam belay later, I was running up an amazing deep groove, with just enough face holds and gear to keep things moderate. This led to a hand-sized cam belay, and an easy flake pitch reminiscent of the top of Fairview Dome, which led to a tree filled with ants. I had already become one with the ants on previous Valley pitches, and we got along splendidly as per normal (unlike those asshole ravens, who followed around and dissected my food-less bags the entire trip).

Pitch 10, linking together a few sweet cracks to a hand/finger crack top out above the roof.

Pitch 10 was by far my favorite, with bomber hand jams leading to a traverse to another crack on finger locks, leading to another traverse to a final strenuous finger jam crack that led all the way to the belay platform at the top of the pitch. After the MountainProject complaints about spending an hour plus looking for the rappel anchors, it was nice to see them immediately upon pulling over the ledge, where I hung out with more ants and belayed Sandy up.

The last few feet of the climb.
Heading to the start of the rappel line.

After a quick (quick?) 12 rappels back to the base, we were stumbling back to the Pedestal and the start of the route at the base just before dark. The ravens had helpfully opened every zipper and individually taken every item out of our backpacks, so it was quick to find what we needed and get packed for the descent.

30 mins of stumbling down in the dark and walking along the Valley Rim Trail with an iPhone for a light (who brings headlamps? Wait.. did you hear that!? What do bears sound like??) brought us back to a car full of snacks, and an utter contentedness that only comes from pushing ourselves on long routes.

I understand Sandy may have been questioning her life choices at this point, but I had peanut-butter filled pretzels and was good to go (more below).

Climbs on Middle completed so far.

Sandy in Retrospect:

In 4 years of alpine climbing, there are 3 fairly committing climbs that I have done which are as follows :

  • North Ridge of Mount Stuart
  • Regular Route of Fairview Dome
  • East buttress of Middle Cathedral

The north ridge of Stuart is fairly long but mostly easy with a few harder pitches. Fairview Dome is sustained for the first 4 (70m) pitches which are rated as 5.8-5.9 but eases off during the upper pitches. East Buttress, however, does not have any easy sections until the last ledge at the rappel station. The climb is fairly sustained, which felt way harder under the direct sun on a 85 degree day. Fortunately it was windy on the upper pitches and we were in shade after pitch 6 or so. Yet I didn’t find any easy climbing, which was quite confusing for the grade. The whole route felt like a stack of V2-4 (in the Circuit) boulder problems with cracks, laybacks, slabs, jambacks, stemming, roofs, corners: its got it all.

During the drive back to El Portal, I was questioning why do I climb while all of my coworkers play board games over the weekend, use vacation to catch up with rest, sleep and relaxation, and travel to Europe to booze and taste cuisines. Am I even a good climber if 10 pitches of 5.6-5.8 felt like I got my ass handed to me? I was surprised to notice that my usual go-getter attitude was not being triggered.

From my past experience, I thought a good night sleep will bring my normal state back and sure enough the next morning I was planning what do I need to improve to come back and block lead NE Buttress of Higher Cathedral!

Rick in Retrospect:

East Buttress was a blast, but it also necessitated us for the first time to take what could be described as a vacation together. Our normal modus operandi is to figure out the absolute most we can do over a period of time between work and school, and then keep repeating that throughout the summer until we are utterly spent and have no desire to go anywhere (aka, September). Due to the heat, we inadvertently found out vacations are awesome. Degnan’s is awesome. Swimming is awesome. Climbing next to waterfalls is awesome. And we probably need better sleeping arrangements (how does everyone here have a van but us??). Time to recover and find another climb!

Recovering from the heat of Middle Cathedral.
Sandy leading Super Hands next to the Lower Yosemite Falls.
Researching crack climbing from the beach.

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