| Exploring Cathedral‘s East Face Couloir
Cathedral Peak (13,943')
Route: East Face couloir ascent, South Ridge descent.
Approximately: 9 miles, 4063' gain, 10 hours.
Group: heather14, slynn4_13run
Those that ditched us: astrobassman, cheeseburglar
Colin called me Friday evening about a possible climb of Cathedral Peak on Sunday. I had another climb tentatively planned, but after taking a quick look at the route I told him to count me in. Colin, Heather, and Craig were climbing Hope on Saturday, and I was doing Democrat, so we decided to just meet at Cathedral's trailhead Saturday night. As I was driving Castle Creek Road, I couldn't help but think this climb was going to be great… I mean, look at this place:
View from Castle Creek Road.
It's over 3 miles and 2000' vertical gain just to Cathedral Lake, and the couloir was facing the east, so an early start was needed. Craig had a refresher course in mountaineering safety, and Colin's hands were still hurting from a climbing incident the week before, so they were going to play the day by ear. We left the TH just after 3am and made our way up the trail under the bright moonlight. Most of the trail was free of snow until we got closer to Cathedral Lake. The snow drifts and the darkness made following the trail a challenge, but after some post-holing and bushwhacking we finally made it to the north side of the lake. Approaching Cathedral from the east side blessed us with views of the sunrise.
We made our way around the north side of the lake along a faint trail, crossing snowfields and fields of the Elks' signature reddish rock.
Looking back east. Colin can be faintly seen in the lower center.
This area was such a cool place; rock towers and rugged ridgelines. Most people only come up to the lake, but once you get up above it, you can see so much more of the formations around Cathedral Peak.
Rock towers and dramatic cliffs. (Photo by Heather)
Our first view of Cathedral and its south ridge.
The Group Splits
I got a little ahead of the others and scoped out our intended route. We planned to climb up the standard route, which included a 500 foot high snow gulley, then traverse up to the summit. But I spotted something that I just couldn't take my eyes off of. There was a couloir going all the way up the east face to the summit. I was like a poor gear-aholic at an REI garage sale: I had to have it. The route looked doable and I didn't see any recent signs of rock fall down the gulley. As soon as the others caught up I pitched the idea of climbing this one instead, and then descend via the south ridge route. Craig had actually already turned back so he could make his mountain safety training course, so it was down to the three of us. Colin was all for it, but his hands were killing him already, and using an ice ax for the next few hours would only make the pain worse. So he opted out of it and decided to do a mountain near Electric Pass that didn't require an ice ax. Heather considered her options, but in the end just couldn't pass up the opportunity to take on this climb either. It was awesome she had such a great sense of adventure!
A closer look at our options – The standard route goes up the second gulley from the left and then follows the ridge north to Cathedral's summit. Heather and I opted for the longer couloir on the right, which tops out just below the summit.
I started on up while Heather finished putting on her crampons. The apron was pretty mellow, and the snow was perfect for climbing. As we climbed higher, the views of the basin just kept getting better.
Heading up the apron.
The basin and Cathedral Lake.
We took a left at the first split.
Another view into the basin.
One of the great things about this route was the fact that we didn't have a step-by-step guide telling us which way to go. From a distance it seemed pretty straight-forward, but there were several places that required us to guess as to which way was the best way to go. We tended to pick the way that looked the most fun, and fortunately those decisions got us to the summit.
A little over half-way up: Staying left looked more mellow, going right looked more fun. So we went right.
I would consider the next section the crux of the route. Up to this point the snow probably averaged about 40-45 degrees. But here we were faced with either some class 3 scrambling, or about 20 feet of very steep snow.
Our options: Some crampon-on-rock cling and clatter, or stay left and go up a short but steep bank.
The snow was the best I've encountered on a climb so far, and we felt up to the challenge, so we went for the steep stuff. I'm guessing it might be 60 degrees or so, but I could be way off. I did Skywalker the weekend before and this felt like it was a little steeper. I used both my ice axes, but Heather was able to get by with just one. Hopefully the pictures can give you a good idea of how steep it was.
Looking down the gulley from the top of the crux.
Heather along the steep section.
Heather would dig a hand hold with her ax for her free hand, and then proceed on up.
Heather at the top of the crux.
From here we could see that we were approaching the top of the couloir.
Stephanie with the exit in sight. (Photo by Heather)
The couloir mellows just before it tops out.
We reached the top of couloir and had 100 feet of scrambling before reaching the summit. The rock was loose and made climbing it with crampons a little awkward.
Heather scrambling just before the summit.
We made it to the summit around 8:30am and took a moment to enjoy why we climb to the tops of these beautiful mountains.
Cathedral's south ridge to Malamute Peak, Conundrum, and Castle.
Our traverse down the South Ridge was mostly class 2 with an occasional and optional class 3, and lots of loose rock. (Photo by Heather)
We reached the top of the standard route gulley and put our crampons back on. Neither of us had ever descended a couloir before, so this was a new experience for us. We both agreed it was A LOT harder than we expected, and probably the hardest part of the whole day! I tried side-stepping at first, but after a couple steps I slipped and started sliding down the couloir. I slid maybe 15 feet before I was able to self-arrest. The rest of the way down we faced inward. It was tedious and felt like forever to get down this thing. We were also baking in the sun, and at one point I started shoving snow down my shirt to cool off.
The top of the gulley.
Stephanie descending. (Photo by Heather)
We made it down the couloir in about an hour and took a short break. We got some nice views of the couloir we climbed up as we exited the basin.
Cathedral Peak and our ascent route.
Other than the bushwhacking and post-holing near the lake, we enjoyed out hike back out. We never saw any of this on our way up since it was so dark, so the views kept our minds off of the typical pains that are felt at the end of a long day. How can you not just love this place?
Gorgeous view of Malamute Peak. (Photo by Heather)
We were back down to the trailhead just after 1pm and celebrated with some cold, fresh watermelon. Neither of us was looking forward to our long drive home, but trips like these make it all worth it.
Clouds moving in as we head out Castle Creek Road. It was almost as if they were closing their climbing doors.
This climb was definitely my favorite snow climb to date, and one of my top all-around climbs. Maybe it was the fact that we really didn't know what to expect or where to go, or maybe because we had the whole couloir to ourselves. Colin and Craig, we wish you guys could have joined us; you both would have loved it. Heather, it was great to finally meet you and do a climb together! I love your willingness to take on these adventures and I can't wait to climb with you again!
Note: We couldn't find much on this route when we got home, or even if it had a name. But Heather did find this article by Lou Dawson: