Matthes Crest Traverse
Full South to North Traverse (5.8, IV)
June 17, 2003
back to Sierras…
Text by Aidan Haley
The moment I heard of the Matthes Crest I knew I wanted to climb it. It almost begs to be climbed. The Crest, at just about a mile long, consists of over 5,000 feet of climbing on knife edge weathered granite. The exposure is out of this world, and the climbing is just as fantastic.
Michael and I woke up at 5:45 hoping to beat the so-called “crowds” you usually encounter on popular routes like this. We drove into the park and to the trailhead and immediately started hiking. We started up the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and branched off on what we thought was the climbers trail. We were wrong, but what’s great about hiking in California is that there is minimal underbrush, unlike the dense forests of Washington, so we faired just fine. Eventually we made it up to the pass in-between some of the Echo Peaks and were greeted with grand views of the entire traverse. We had to drop 800ft. down to the valley below the crest and follow it till we got to the south end of the Crest.
We made a sort of rising traverse toward the start of the route from the valley floor and encountered some rock slabs that unnerved Michael a bit. He had old wore out hiker and didn’t give him good support while scrambling up the slabs. He paused and decided for the final bit of the slabs to put on his rock shoes. I made it up to the bass of the route and started gearing up and uncoiling the rope while I waited for Michael to finish the slabs. When he arrived at the start of the route he didn’t look too happy. I asked him what was wrong, he replied “I left my (expletive deleted) pole on the slabs while I was changing into my shoes and I forgot to pick it back up…it’s gone man. It’s gone.”, followed by more ensuing words of rage. I felt really bad and had to try and make him feel better. “Michael, the first pitch is right here…it looks sweet man…how about you take it! You’ll cruise it man!” It’s medicine that always works when climbing to give your partner a sweet looking lead if he is feeling down and he is sure to perk up. And it did just that. Once Michael got tied in he instantly felt better. The first pitch was really fun, steep face climbing to a chimney gear belay half way to the crest.
I took the rack and was ready to climb into the sun and up on to the crest. The second pitch continued with steep climbing to a gear belay on the crest itself. I brought Michael up and we looked ahead at what was to come. We decided to belay one more pitch along the crest to get used to the climbing and then we would simul-climb for as long as we could. So, Michael lead off on the third pitch which looked steeper than it was and brought me up to his belay. From there I took the rack and led off on our first simul-pitch. This section consisted of easy but exposed climbing on the crest. I got to a steep point in the ridge where it became about 3 feet wide and dropped off on both sides and since I was running low on gear I set a belay and brought Michael to my stance. I re-racked and we dubbed the obstacle in front of us the “Stairway to Heaven.” It was my favorite feature of the climb. It was fantastic climbing with a 600ft. drop off on my left and 800ft. on my right.
We continued simul-climbing to the South Summit where we found the rap station to the notch in between South and North summits. The rap station consisted of a sling around a horn of rock. Now everything I ever was taught said never trust a single sling so we backed it up with a cam and Michael went down first being the heaviest. The sling held his bounce test fine so when he called off belay I cleaned the cam and down I went. The next pitch from the notch up to the north summit was the crux consisting of a 5.8 off-width hand crack that I managed to grunt up. Once on the summit we smiled and laughed and enjoyed the views, but still knew we weren’t done yet.
The next section of ridge was the most terrifying part of the climb. Michael led off as soon was out of view. The rope became taught so I started climbing. Soon Michael came into view and he was straddling a flake belaying me. It looked like hard downclimbing to get to him and it was. Turned out to be 5.7/5.8 downclimbing with 700ft. of air underneath me. “Thank you Mike for the belay!” I was freaked to say the least and Michael’s belay was really uncomfortable.
We wanted to get moving. The next pitch didn’t offer any relief, huge airy flakes led to more scary downclimbing. As Michael climbed down the short overhanging crack to my belay he thanked me for the pro and told me to take the lead again. To say the least, the climb had a much more serious tone to it than expected. We were committed to the ridge and had to keep moving. So I led off to gain more ground. Once the rope drag became to bad I set a belay and brought Michael to me. From there he set off and encountered more problems with rope drag. After a bit more climbing along the ridge we reached the pitch we called the “Wave Pitch.” We called it this because it consisted of a hand traverse on the lip of the ridge that overhung on the underside. The climbing was easy but there was no pro for about 100 feet. From there I took over and started along the ridge, we had had enough of scary downclimbing so I decided to take some third class ledges underneath a tower to the finish slabs on the north side of the Crest. We rested and ate before the slog back. One final wave goodbye to the Crest at Echo pass and down we headed to the car.
The Matthes Crest was everything I thought it would be and more. It tested our physical and mental strength and rewarded us with a beautiful climb and jaw dropping views. An experience I will likely never forget!
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