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Tuolumne Meadows – 9/4-9/6

It’s been a full summer since I last posted. This is for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to a summer of not much mountain adventuring. Some nagging Achilles/ankle/foot pain I had been ignoring all spring finally caught up with me in early June, and I soon found myself hobbling around, unable to even climb in the gym due to arch pain while wearing climbing shoes. I was eventually forced to take three weeks completely off, but even after the rest, my ankle still felt too tweaky to really do anything big in the mountains. This injury, combined with a hellish (or is it just the new normal?) summer of heat and smoke made for a less exciting summer than last year.

This is not to say the summer was not without some highlights. Among some of my favorite days were checking out some amazing bouldering in the Uintas (with Billy and Zeb! 3/4 of the gang reunited!) and Jake and Ruth’s absolutely amazing wedding on top of the Elephant’s Perch.

After a summer of semi-disciplined rest and rehab, my ankle was starting to feel better. I reached out the Dalan, my partner in crime for some of my favorite big days in the mountains, to see if he was interested in attempting the Grand Traverse in the Tetons. He of course was, but two busy schedules meant we only had one overlapping weekend, Labor Day weekend. Dalan drove up from Las Vegas Wednesday night, and we began planning logistics. Then we checked the smoke forecast. The forecast called for AQI levels well above 120 all weekend long, with one website predicting values as high as 170. The weather was not great either, with temperatures forecasted to never crest much above freezing in the upper mountains. As appealing as the prospect of simultaneously freezing our extremities and destroying our lungs was, we decided to bail on our Teton dreams. Next year!

We schemed some backup plans, but Dalan woke up Friday morning feeling sick and decided to not force it and instead drive back to Vegas. Feeling bummed that all my plans had now fallen through and desperate not to waste the long weekend, I racked my brain for a last minute alternative. Almost all the places I could think of were smoked out.

Suddenly the idea of Tuolumne Meadows popped in my head. It was a place I had always wanted to check out, and I knew it had some good running and scrambling options. I checked the air quality and it was good, trending better. The only issue was permits. With covid restrictions, you need a day use permit to drive into Yosemite and they were all sold out. I began repeatedly refreshing the reservation site, abandoning any pretense of a productive Friday workday. After about 20 minutes, just as I was giving up hope, a reservation for the weekend opened up. An hour an a half later my van was loaded up and I hit the road for California.

The drive went smoothly and I was in Tonopah in time to see The World Famous Clown Motel just as the sun was setting.

I ended up finding a nice little pull-out near Mono Lake to crash for the night and did my best to get some sleep. I woke up just as the sun was coming up and hit the road towards Tuolumne.

The last time I drove through Yosemite was in 2014 for a through-hike of the JMT; we had simply driven through, needing to get to the trailhead in Mammoth where our permit started. My memory of Yosemite was thus almost nonexistent, as I started up Tioga Pass. The sunrise had just began to graze the top of the peaks, and I peered out the window, overwhelmed with gratitude that I had ended up here for the weekend.

My plan for the day was to go check out the West Ridge of Mt. Conness. The standard approach for Mt. Conness is from the east via Saddlebag Lake. Unfortunately, the historically bad fire season had promoted California to close all its National Forests, including Inyo National Forest. I had hoped that access to Saddlebag Lake Resort would still be open, but those hopes were dashed when I saw the “Road Closed” sign in the middle of the access road to the lake. Not wanting to give up on my plan, I decided to approach from Tuolumne Meadows, figuring an approach through Tuolumne high-country would be a good tradeoff for the extra mileage.

The early start meant no traffic, and I was into the park by 6:45 and at the trailhead by 7:20. The morning air was crisp, almost cold, and I alternated walking and running to stay warm. The first six miles were devoid of other humans lending to much more of a wilderness feel than I had expected.

After about an hour and a half I arrived at Lower Young Lake and stopped to refill some water. There were a number of parties camped around the lake which I was more excited about than I expected. One of the things I love about adventuring solo is it seems to multiply all the emotions I experience, both good and bad. Hiking through the empty high-country had been an amazing start to the day, but the abrupt transition from social Salt Lake City to a solitary weekend had left me feeling a little on edge. Some brief hellos with hikers around the lake helped chase away some of the anxiety.

The anxiety returned as I cut off the trail and began making my way through the woods towards Mt. Conness. A gap in the trees gave me my first good view of my objective for the day. The West Ridge of Mt. Conness is striking, a long snaking line framing the top of the sheer South Face.

After two miles of backcountry travel I arrived at the base of the West Ridge. My watch read eight miles and I had been on the go for over two hours. I realized it was going to be a bit bigger of a day than I had anticipated. I had hoped I might run into another party at the base, but there was no sign of any other climbers. Feeling a little out there, I stopped to drink some water and assess the route above. The start of the line is really more of a broad face, full of cracks, that funnels into the ridge above. Unsure of which crack to follow, I picked one that looked appealing and started upwards.

The climbing was moderate and the rock seemed better than I had read about on Mountain Project. I began to worry, however, as the crack system continued to force me up into the corner formed by the two aspects of rock. Higher up the corner system looked steep and intimidating, and I had hoped to work left onto easier terrain. Down climbing would have been casual enough, but I wasn’t sure how my psyche would feel if I found myself back at the bottom, starting up a different crack system. I decide to continue a bit higher to see what appeared. My decision was rewarded, and 10 feet higher a series of large edges appeared and I was able to work my way left into an easier crack system.

As I continued up, I felt the angle ease back and soon enough I was on the ridge proper. The climbing from here on out was nothing short of perfection. The rock along the ridge is split with hundreds of perfect hand and finger cracks, and the angle is low enough to make for extremely mellow scrambling. The neighboring South Face offers a sense of extreme exposure without any of the danger. I felt my anxiety from earlier in the day fade away and I scampered up towards the summit.

I reached the summit about an hour after leaving the ground. To my utter amazement, the summit was just as deserted as the climb was. Soaking in the views, I couldn’t believe my luck. It was truly a special experience to stand on the summit of Mt. Conness knowing I was the only human around in a multi-mile radius.

After signing the summit register and grabbing some food, it was time to figure out my descent route. There is a 3rd class walk off to the south, but I had read a couple Mountain Project comments recommending down-climbing the North Ridge. Despite its jagged appearance, the North Ridge is easier than the West Ridge, and goes at “easy 5th class”. Not eager to repeat the 8 mile approach, I decided to take advantage of being out there and check out the North Ridge.

This was most definitely the right call. The less technical but more intricate North Ridge felt less like a climb and more like a ridge traverse than the West Ridge, and wonderfully complemented the morning’s activity. I worked my way down the knife-edge ridge, peering over the edge occasionally to admire the glaciated north side of Mt. Conness. The two towers along the way provided some fun route-finding, but were easily bypassed with some short and secure sections of 5th class.

The climbing after the towers eased back to mostly third class, and soon enough I was eying up the descent back down to Roosevelt Lake. My knees and feet were aching at this point, but luckily the scree descent off the ridge went smoothly and soon enough I found myself traversing some low angle slabs towards the lake.

In keeping with the theme of the day, I had the lake entirely to myself. The north shore of the lake had a beautiful, huge sandy beach and I stripped down and went for a swim, savoring the warm late-summer water. Feeling refreshed and so, so alive, I sat on the beach, listening to some music and soaking up the views. Knowing I had finished all the technical sections of the day, I was finally able to fully relax and enjoy the amazing location.

Eventually I decided I should probably face the long hike out, and I crammed my blistered feet back into my shoes and started the walk back out to Young Lake. Mt. Conness towered above me, and it was satisfying to be able to look up and see the terrain I had covered.

Soon enough I was back at Young Lake and on an established trail. My knees and feet were not super psyched for the final six miles, but I was still riding the high from the day, and found it easy to ignore the psychical discomfort as jogged my way back to the car. The only negative of the days was that the Tuolumne Meadows Store was out of ice cream, but I made due with a big bag of BBQ potato chips and proceeded to stuff my face while I soaked my feet in the Tuolumne River. The day ended up being considerably longer than I had expected, but I felt deep satisfaction knowing I had pushed through some uncertainty and found myself a magical day.

Some numbers:
* 22.6 miles and 6,000 ft of vert
* 9:37 car to car
* Gear: Running vest, TX Guides for shoes, two liters of water, a filter flask, and some bars for nutrition

I found myself a beautiful pullout near Ellery Lake and wolfed my way through some Tasty Bite tikka masala before falling asleep for a nice early bedtime.

I woke up the next morning feeling sore but still tremendously fulfilled from the previous day’s adventure. I decided to check out the Cathedral Range and see where the day would take me. I left the Cathedral Peak parking lot at 7:30 with climbing shoes, chalkbag, and a light emergency harness in my backpack. As I made my way up the trail I caught up and chatted with a friendly couple from Tahoe who were on their way to climb the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak. Enjoying the free navigation help, I decided to follow them up and start my day on Cathedral.

We arrived to an absolute cluster-fuck at the start of the Southeast Buttress. There were at least four parties on the first two pitches, and another two parties roping up. I threw on my climbing shoes and started up a crack system right of the main line. One of the parties on the ground started up behind me, planning to simul-climb the route. The first forty feet or so where extremely low angle, but I quickly arrived at a steeper section of lay-backing. I tried to start up lay-back, but with the group on my heels and four other groups yelling and trying to communicate I just couldn’t focus. I down climbed off the the right and told the simul-climbing group that they were welcome to climb through. I found a nice little ledge with a small tree to sit behind, and took of my shoes and enjoyed the morning sun.

After probably about 15 minutes of waiting, the majority of the groups had made it onto the second and third pitch and the noise and chaos had calmed considerably. Feeling more at ease, I put my shoes back on and traversed over to the traditional 5.4 hand-crack start. Some bomber, low-angle jams allowed me to find my stride and I was soon at the top of the first pitch. My Tahoe friends from the approach were just finishing the first pitch as well and I climbed through them, keeping my momentum. I found a headlamp sitting on a ledge around here and to my delight it turned out to be brand new!

The second and third pitch went smoothly, and by the base of the fourth pitch I had passed all but the leading party. Rather than waiting to climb the 4th pitch chimney, I cut up and left, finding easy 5th class terrain around the corner. By the time I cut back right at the start of the 5th pitch I had the route to myself. The final bit of climbing was an absolute joy, with a mix of bomber knobs and perfect hand jams. I scrambled atop the summit pinnacle about 45 minutes after I had left my tree ledge near the base, elated to once again have a beautiful summit to myself. The views were absolutely stunning in all directions, and it was fun to be able to see the West Ridge of Mt. Conness in the distance.

The sharp summit of Eichorn Pinnacle beckoned to the west. The simul-climbing group had recommended the North Face route when I was chatting with them, and had also mentioned that the route was “very very exposed” and I would be welcome to jump on their ropes for the descent if I wanted to. That group was no-where to be seen, presumably stuck in a traffic jam somewhere on route, so I decided to wander down towards the pinnacle to check it out.

I found my way to the col at the base of the pinnacle and began to work my way counter-clockwise towards the north face. I reached the edge of a low angle slab and gulped at the exposure ahead of me. Where the slab ended, the angle suddenly rose to near vertical, with a couple hundred feet of exposure. I delicately worked my feet down some knobs until I was able to stem out onto the featured face. Now on the vertical north face, the climbing was ridiculously fun. Despite its near-vertical pitch, the face was littered with holds large enough to keep the climbing at the promised grade of 5.4. 50 feet of jug hauling later and I pulled onto the west shoulder. From there, some easy crack climbing took me to the pinnacle’s narrow summit.

I sat atop this whimsical feature, signed the summit register, and watched the first group top out on Cathedral Peak. Eventually I grew ready to have the exposed downclimb behind me, so I tossed my shoes back on and began reversing down the climb. Despite my initial wariness, the downclimbing ended up feeling even easier than the up-climb, and before I knew it I was back at the col.

It was only around 11:30am and I was on cloud nine having reached two amazing summits. I decided to head over to Budd Lake for a swim and to figure out my plans for the rest of the day.

The swim in Budd Lake was blissful, and I hung by the lake, soaking my feet and enjoying the perfect weather.

After a bit of a break, I began to feel antsy, and I decided to head cross-country to go get a look at Matthes Crest. I was feeling pretty satisfied with the day’s climbing, but I knew I would regret not seeing this iconic feature in person. The hike up to Echo Pass was hot and dusty, but as I crested the pass I was rewarded with my first views of Matthes.

The weather was still calm and stable, so I decided to continue my hike and at least check out the south end of the ridge where the climbing starts. I arrived at the south end as a group of four was starting up, and I settled into some shade to watch them climb.

The initial two pitches to gain the ridge looked super secure, following deep crack, almost chimney-like, systems to the top. Seeing the group climbing up, I decided I had a little more climbing left in me for the day.

Matthes Crest is divided into two halves, the south and north half. The south half is easier, being mostly fourth class once you gain the ridge line. The north half features much more 5th class climbing, and is generally considered to be a step up from the south half, both in quality and in difficulty. I knew a large fraction of groups rappel after finishing the first half, but un-roped climbers do not have this option as there is no easy down-climb at the halfway mark. Wanting to climb, I was still unable to mentally commit to climbing the north half so I figured I would climb the approach pitches up to the ridge, enjoy the ridge for a bit and then reverse back down to where I had started.

The opening pitches were just as enjoyable and secure as they had looked, and I soon found myself passing the group of four and standing on the ridge. The ridge line stretching before me was truly amazing, jagged fins of granite sandwiched between two sheer drops. The movement along the ridge was just as spectacular as the ridge’s aesthetics, narrow enough to be exciting, but wide enough to keep the climbing almost entirely 4th class. I settled into the scrambling and soon found myself passing other groups. I chatted with one group while waiting at a bottleneck, and when asked my plans I mentioned my reservations about committing to the north half of the ridge. “We’re doing the full thing and you’re welcome to jump on our rope if you get uncomfortable”, they kindly offered, and with that I knew I wasn’t going to turn around.

I soon found myself on top of the south tower and got my first glimpse of the north tower and the start of some more technical climbing. I traversed down into the col between the towers and grabbed a snack while I did a mental check-in to be sure I wanted to continue. I did. I moved up to a small ledge beneath the first crux of the route, a short but shockingly steep 5.7 hand crack. I tried to find some chalk in the bottom of my near-empty chalkbag, took a deep breath, and set off up the crack. The crack was surprisingly physical, but the hand-holds were great, and in short order mantled onto a small ledge above the crack. Carrying momentum now, I worked my way up the remaining crack systems to the summit of the north tower, smiling the entire way.

The difference in style for the second half was immediately apparent climbing down off the north tower. Whereas the ridge had been mostly wide and flat for the first half, it was now knife edge and involved much more down-climbing. Luckily the rock was still well featured with cracks and knobs, and I never found the climbing overly-insecure, just demanding of more attention. The climbing mostly passed in a blur of focus, but two sections definitely stood out: a wild down-climb along a fin of rock into a stem-across to another fin, and a slightly overhanging hand-traverse down through a series of horizontal edges. Looking at Mountain Project later I saw pictures of both of these sections so I think I am not alone for finding these sections especially thought-provoking.

As I continued along I could see the ground growing closer and I knew I was nearing the end of the ridge. A wild cornice-like section of ridge provided a final highlight; reminiscent of a crashing wave, it overhung the east side by at least five feet, and made for excellent climbing traversing along while peering over the edge. Safely past this feature I reached the end of the continuous ridge. Ahead were two final towers. I summited the south one but the down-climb to the north looked difficult so I decided to back-track and quite while I was ahead. I followed some easy 4th class ledges down and a few minutes later was on solid ground.

I contoured around back toward Echo Pass and got a perfect overview of the ridge I had just traversed. I felt so thankful that I had decided to climb Matthes and had had such a wonderful experience doing it. The climb is truly as classic as everyone says it is, and I was pleased with both my decision making and climbing for the day.

From there it was an easy three mile hike back to the car, all downhill, and I jogged through the forest reflecting on one of my favorite days in the mountains ever. So often my adventure days are dictated by alpine-starts, strict schedules, or careful logistics. To go into the day with no real plans or goals, and simply spend every moment doing exactly what felt right was the ultimate treat.

Some numbers:
* 13.4 miles and 4,600 ft of vert
* 10:25 car to car2:08 on the Matthes Crest
*Gear: Blitz 20L pack, Kaptiva running shoes, TC Pro climbing shoes, chalk, two liters of water, a filter flask, and some bars for nutrition

I once again fell asleep early, and I was back in the park at my now-standard 6:45. Facing a nine hour drive back to SLC later in the day, I didn’t have all day, but I figured a lap up Tenaya would be the perfect conclusion to the weekend. Taryn had told me a story of her climbing Tenaya Peak during the Stretch, and, while it had sounded like a slightly sketchy undertaking for a, at that point, newish climber, it also sounded like a beautiful line up a beautiful peak.

The parking lot for Tenaya lake was deserted when I pulled in. The lake was mirror-flat in the morning’s calm, and I jogged along the sand, trying to warm up my legs, wrecked from two big days out.

The approach trail was obvious and after about 25 minutes I was at the base of the actual climbing. I changed into my climbing shoes and began working up the massive granite slabs. The rock was insanely good; perfect smooth granite split by parallel cracks. The first half was mostly fourth class, and I wandered from crack system to crack system.

Arriving at a large ledge, I could see the angle kick back above me and I took a moment to figure out where to go. I tried to suppress images of newbie Taryn blindly climbing the face, uncertain in all her route finding decisions. The route I selected was a good one, with one crack system leading me into the next. An hour of joyous climbing after leaving the base and I found myself standing on the summit, savoring some of the best panoramic views Tuolumne has to offer. Once again, the West Ridge of Mt. Conness was visible to the north, providing the perfect backdrop to reflect on the weekend’s adventures.

Having to face the realities of work in less than 24 hours, I tossed on my running shoes and scampered down the descent. I paused on the shore of Tenaya Lake and decided to take one more swim before beginning the drive home. A hat-trick of pristine alpine swims, a hat-trick of flawless alpine climbs. It’s hard to imagine how a weekend could get much better than that.

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