Tenaya Peak northeast buttress

8 Aug 1999 - by Harlan Suits

Tenaya Peak's sweeping north face is striking spectacle for anyone driving past Tenaya Lake. For years I had wondered what climbing it would be like. Oddly, despite a favorable writeup in the Tuolomne Meadows guide, it seemed none of my climbing acquaintances had tried it.

Why was this route neglected? Perhaps because the Tuolomne guidebook describes the route as "nebulous." Or was it because the approach is too long compared to the easy access to the popular routes on Poly Dome across the road. I dimly remember a party at an RCS camp not returning from Tenay Peak until after dark, but I never got to ask them about it. Then I found out that Erik Simpson had done it and enjoyed it. His route finding advice: If you go to far right, it's more like 5.7 instead of 5.6. So what was I waiting for?

Last Sunday, Dave Erskine and I gave it a go. From the west end of Tenaya Lake we headed cross-country up to the toe of the buttress, which starts at the far left side of the face. The approach goes quickly up steep meadow and slabs--second class with an occasionally 3rd class move over glacier-scoured granite. In a few places pine branches offered convenient handholds. Most distinctive was the profusion of lush grass and flowers. Never before had a scrambled through "steep flowers" to reach a climb.

When we reached the toe of the buttress, we were pleased to see we were already far above the lake. But there was some disappointment: the smooth granite slabs above seemed rather low angle. Was the route too easy? We soloed up the slabs for several hundred feet. I found this part great fun: the rock was smooth and monolithic, steep enough to require proper footwork. Whenever a smoother section appeared, there seemed to be a crack or flake nearby to add security. This went on so long that we wondered how many pitches of roped climbing would be left.

Finally I felt the need for a belay and we set up an anchor. Meanwhile, gray clouds were boiling up from behind the summit, giving me another reason to be glad the route was going quickly: perhaps we could get up it before a storm moved in. I do not like to play lightning roulette.

The route now plainly diagonaled to the right of a roof of layered granite toward the summit rocks. We hit a few fun bulges that were in the 5.6 category, but there was a surprising amount of third-class terrain as well. Still, the rock here was a pleasure to traverse, exhibiting the rugged texture and big feldspar crystals typical of nearby mountains like Cathedral Peak.

Near the top, the clouds began to scatter and we breathed easier in the warm sun. On the fourth lead I came up just short of the summit rocks. Dave chose a 5.7-5.8 layback to finish the route, though there were easier alternatives nearby. We topped out about 100 feet left of the true summit.

The views from the top are grand, highlighted by big Tenaya Lake at your feet. With the storm threat easing, we lingered on top for nearly an hour eating lunch. From the toe of the buttress the climb took about 3 hours. I was surprised that our route was never very exposed: a system of ledges extends right to the summit area. The Roper guidebook describes another route farther to the right rated 5.7. This area is steeper and would certainly offer more sustained rock climbing. Has anyone done this?

If you want to do a fun 4th class--low 5th scramble with a light rack, however, the northeast buttress is a scenic and solid route.

Eric Beck adds:

I did this back in the early 70s, thinking it was a new route. However, we ran into a few piton scars. I remember about ten pitches in a very direct line to the summit, max 5.7, good climbing.

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