It was Dee's birthday and this years requested trip was to climb Matthes Crest. We also decided to take a look at Columbia Finger since there had been some recent interest in this peak. As trips go it started poorly with the closure of 120 past Tioga Pass which meant we ended up sleeping at a turnout with a bunch of other people Friday night. We slept poorly and got a latish start up the Cathedral Lakes Trail at about 8:15 AM.
We headed up past the Cathedral Lakes and left the trail at the meadow that holds the creek that feeds Echo Lake which sits just below the West Face of Matthes Crest. We dropped the packs behind a large boulder and racked up with the intention of hiking up and climbing Columbia Finger. The Cathedral Lakes trail continues on towards Sunrise High Sierra camp and essentially goes right under the east facing side of Columbia Finger. It is an easy stroll from the trail to the East Face of Columbia. Our goal was the Southeast Face route, ostensibly 5.4 and A1. The route description indicates it starts about 150 feet right of the South buttress. Hmm. There is a big open book facing right about 100 *yards* from the South buttress. It is directly below a big visor that sticks out on the South buttress very near the top of the buttress. We decided to head up there. A short fifty foot slabby pitch put us at the start of the book. The book itself is essentially laybacking and wide jamming helped out by some stemming. I bypassed one section by climbing on the knobs on the face to the right. Some of them broke off which was disconcerting. At the end of the book the pitch goes right requiring a delicate face move around a bulge and up to a decent ledge. This pitch is about 5.8. The next pitch is mostly fourth class with one or two sections of about 5.4 to pull up onto ledges. This ended on top of the aforementioned visor. It is third class to the summit from there. I looked all over for what might be the route described in Secor's book. I am pretty sure we were not on the route. There is some mention of Bruce Bidner and Em Holland freeing the supposed A1 section at about 5.9 stemming in a Rock Rendezvous newsletter. We didn't see anything that needed A1, a shoulder stand, or wide 5.9 stemming. We went looking to find this stuff but have no idea where it is. At any rate, anyone with 5.8 wide crack skills can get up the route we took. We used a #4 Camalot and a #3 Big Bro for the wide crack and the usual assortment of gear. It was fun. The summit of Columbia Finger has some nice views of the region. There is a pvc tube at the top with paper but no pencil so if you insist on signing stuff BYOP. We downclimbed the third class route to the ridge and headed for our stashed packs.
We headed down the meadow towards Echo Lake for a few hundred yards and camped in the trees on the west side towards Matthes Crest. The little stream that feeds Echo Lake is barely running as of the date of our trip. It looks like Echo Lake is full of water so a late season climb from this area should still be possible.
We got an alpine start Sunday morning for the Matthes Crest climb. Well, sort of. My wayward sunglasses cost us about fifteen minutes tearing everything apart looking for them. They were safely stashed in one of my climbing shoes so I wouldn't forget them. The hike to the start of the south end of Matthes Crest goes around the base of the long slabs from Echo Peaks and heads up hill towards a bunch of trees right at the base of the south end of Matthes Crest. There is an interesting looking big fin to the south on the other side of this gap. Judging by the trip reports there seems to be some minor confusion as to the starting point for the route itself. Go to the little bunch of trees right at the base of the south end of Matthes Crest. Standing at these trees there are a bunch of continuous cracks to your right. They appear to get overhanging about 150 feet up. Don't go there. Just about ten feet to the left of the little bunch of trees there is a crack system that comes down and then stops about 10 feet from the ground. This is it. The crux is right there and is about 5.5 getting through the little slabby face to get into the bottom of the crack. This cruises up on good cracks and the standard Tuolumne knobs. We ran the 60 meter rope out to the end and set a belay. The second pitch is 5.0a maximum and really should be considered fourth class. Running the rope again put us right on the ridge line so two pitches of 200 feet got us up on the ridge. Most parties who have trouble here seem to get sucked into the cracks to the right. Indeed, a party of three after us started up there only to bail out and then follow us up.
Once on the ridge it is exposed third and fourth class. After our blazing start up the fifth class stuff we sort of bogged down up on the ridge itself. We ended up getting the rope out off and on and this was slow. I also headed down on third class ledges too soon thinking we had reached the South Summit. Two climbers from Colorado came whizzing past us simulclimbing. Dee and I looked at each other and said "that's for us" and finished the ridge simulclimbing. This was made simpler by using our FRS radios since the leader is very often out of sight of the follower. We took off after the Colorado rocketships and arrived at the base of the last pitch just as the second was starting up so the simulclimbing made a big improvement in our speed. There is a great 20 foot long ledge that starts in the notch and heads out onto the West face of the summit piller. The last pitch essentially climbs the crack that starts up from the left (northern) end of the ledge, however, getting into the crack is easier by going up the sequence of ledges just above the main ledge and then going left into the crack. The crack is about 5.7 and is about fifteen to twenty feet long before it gets easier. This last summit pitch is about 80 to 100 feet long.
We rapped off the summit instead of continuing down the ridge. The second rappel is from a juniper and is about 180 feet right to the scree but the bottom of this rappel is so low angle that it could be down climbed easily. The summit register container has neither pencil nor register. If you insist, BYO paper and pencil!
We motored down the scree and back up the Echo Lake creek to our campsite, packed up and hiked out. Weather was perfect both days. Happy Birthday, Dee!
Final Notes: Tresidder Peak is right there on the other end of the ridge from Columbia Finger. It is fourth class by the easiest route, ostensibly, and looks cool. Using speedier climbing or an earlier hike in it would be possible to climb both Columbia and Tresidder on the hike in and then Matthes Crest on the next day. This would be a "three stone weekend" of technical routes on Sierra peaks. Matthes Crest is not to be missed. For the avid Sierra technical mountaineer this peak is about as much fun as it gets. It is well within the reach of both experienced and fairly new technical alpine climbers.