Peak(s):  Cathedral Pk A  -  13,943 feet
Date Posted:  05/16/2021
Date Climbed:   05/15/2021
Author:  Danger_D
 Successful summit, but sloppy descent   

South Ridge Route as described by Roach

tl;dr the snow coverage this time of year was amazing, but the lack of a solid freeze overnight led to a loose couloir and a sloppy slog of a descent. The .gpx file uploaded here is what I made before the trip in Caltopo and the route above the lake roughly matches what we climbed

Like all good trips, our alarms went off at 1:30am. We wanted to hit the basin around Cathedral Lake for sunrise, so our goal was to get on the trail by 2:00. With the usual snoozes and tired packing we didn't hit actually set of until 2:30, but I still think that's a win. There weren't any condition or trip reports for Cathedral so we weren't entirely sure what we were going to hit.

The trail is very well maintained so we started off making great time up the dry trail with only scattered patches of snow. As we gained ground the snow started to come more often, but things were mostly easy to follow because of the a basic trench from the last few weeks of more ambitious hikers. Continuous snow didn't really start until around 11,300' and even after that things were pretty clear and easy to follow even with headlamps. Having a .gpx route was helpful once or twice. The intense switchbacks around 11,600' were actually dry for that whole face so it made things a lot easier. From the top of the switchbacks to the summit was continuous snow the whole way. The section of the trail between the top of the switchbacks and the lakes was in the worst shape and didn't have a clear trail. We lost the main trail (if there was one) and had to put on our snowshoes on some of the virgin snow, and the gpx route became extremely helpful. Once we got out of the trees the route-finding became a lot easier and the snow a lot more firm. In general, it was fairly straight-forward to make it up to Cathedral Lake, sadly our descent wouldn't be so easy.

The pre-dawn light near the lake

We split off the summer trail to head straight for the north shore of the lake. There were a few small streams to cross but all had small snow bridges over them, however with the recent heat I don't know how long those will last. After hugging the north shore of the lake we switched to our crampons. From here the route finding was actually easier than I thought it would be. We made our way up the center gully on the big face west of the lake. It was steep but a nice way to gain elevation. We weren't moving extremely quickly, partly because this one of the most beautiful hikes I've done in many years. The basin at sunrise is absolutely stunning and I highly recommend you time your ascent to get the full views.

Looking back at the lake just after hiking the first steep section

After you clear the first steep section you are rewarded with a great view of Cathedral Peak and an enjoyable hike. Even though there wasn't a super solid freeze the night before the snow was still very supportive and we made our way up without needing an flotation. Since you are just heading towards the end of the basin it was very easy to see where to go.

Bryan enjoying the first real view of our destination
Looking back at the basin and lake from the base of the couloir
Jaw-doppingly pretty hike up the basin

The basin continued to be beautiful, and we could get a great view of the couloir. I thought it might be hard to spot, but its pretty clear. Just look for the two towers on the climbers left of the peak and spot the couloir on the climbers right.


A closer view of the couloir

The whole basin showed clear signs of recent wet slides, and we were moving slower than intended. We started to worry about the conditions, but it was still only around 6:30 so we were confident to blaze ahead. The ascent couloir looks like it had a wet slide or two in the last few weeks. The avy debris wasn't rock hard yet, so it didn't cause any issues for the climb. The apron of the couloir was softer than I would have liked and we were sinking into the snow in places. People who are more risk averse (or possibly smarter) might have turned back because of the rapidly heating snow, but we kept on. The couloir climb itself was in good shape. The initial constriction was much more firm, but there was another softer snow section where it opened up about 3/4 of the way up. The top was the steepest part, but wasn't quite as committing as I feared. Once you clear the top you are rewarded with a great view of the Elks and a face full of wind.

With our slow pace and rising temperatures causing anxiety about the wet slide potential, we realized our pace needed to pick up. We decided I should push ahead solo to try to hit the summit in time and get back down asap. I dropped my pack at the top of the couloir so I didn't get any pics of the rest of the route, but there are several other trip reports with more detailed write ups of that section. In general I underestimated the remaining route. The route was mostly snow free but consisted of rotten Elk rock that made everything insecure. After rising out of the couloir you make your way on the left side of a cliff band and then swing up closer to the ridge to get to the summit. It was more vertical than I was anticipating, and I lost the poorly cairned trail and ended up in some heinous scree that sapped all my energy. On the way down I stuck closer to the ridge and it was a little more technical but MUCH nicer rock.

After a very quick tag of the summit I made it back down to the couloir and we took turns descending since I was worried about wet slides. We started the descent at 9:00 and things were already mushy. In the end things were completely fine and we even glissaded the apron, but I wouldn't be surprised if things would have slid later in the day. The snow in the basin back to the lake was actually still solid and we only had a small handful of postholes. All of the snow after the lake, however, wasn't so nice. Even with snowshoes we were post holing in places, and in general the slog really started in earnest. To add to the confusion our tracks from the morning weren't always clear and there ware several paths leading in competing directions. We ended up following a track that went too far downhill and we had to tiredly slog up a steep slope (postholing in snowshoes) back up to the top of the switchbacks. Right before the top of the dry switchbacks you traverse a steep snowy slope and there was a thin trench. While on that section the snow gave way underneath me and I was spit out onto the 50ish degree slope and had a couple of scary minutes trying to swim my way down to the trail halfway up the switchbacks. That bit of the trail is in terrible shape, but hopefully some traffic will establish a better trench

It might because spring is really upon us, or it might be mainly because we chose a day which didn't have a solid nighttime freeze, but the descent was loose, miserable, and possible dangerous. There were a couple skiiers who made it out in style, but us lowly snowshoers had a miserable hike out.

All in all it was an amazing day. The snow coverage this time of year made for some jaw-dropping views and avoided a lot of the talus that you see later in the year, however, if you aren't moving fast you can end up in a suffer-fest.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

05/16/2021 18:23
Great pics, much better than when dry.

great report--congrats
05/16/2021 19:32
Thanks for the great report. We are considering backpacking to the lake to hit the couloir early, perhaps late may early June. Was the lake frozen? Do you have an estimate of when the trail to the lake will be dry?


lake conditions
05/16/2021 20:57
tonythetige, my pleasure. Its hard to know exactly how much snow was around the lake but it will be several weeks at least until all the snow around the lake is melted. Yesterday morning the lake was frozen, but in the afternoon it looks like there was some melting around the edges of the water. I expect by Early june there will be places to camp around the lake, even if they aren't directly around the shore.


05/16/2021 21:27
I‘d love to head this way soon. Thanks for sharing

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