The Matthes Crest

Off in the high country of Yosemite National Park, in Tuolumne Meadows region to be more specific, sits one of the most classic knife-edge ridges in the world. Spanning an approximate mile long, this fin of granite named Matthes Crest rises over 10,000’ above sea level.

Describing Matthes Crest is bizarre, usually ridges lie between peaks, but this particular comes out of the ground like the scales on a stegosaurus. Glaciers sculpted this feature to a completely independent formation, a ridge out of nowhere and between nothing in particular.

Historically Matthes Crest was first climbed in 1931 by Jules Eichorn, but the name was formally proposed in 1949 by a Yosemite National Park Ranger to be dubbed in the honor of Dr. Francois Emile Matthes, a humble USGS geologist and highly published writer, who focused his work mainly in Yosemite and the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountain range.  

During the 1930’s, Matthes Crest was known informally as ‘Echo Ridge’ because of it’s proximity to the Echo Lake and Echo Peaks.  "Dr. Matthes was greatly pleased at the suggestion that this ridge bear his name, saying he knew no other unnamed feature in the Sierra which he would rather have chosen." (SCB 34, no. 6, June 1949: 110-11.)

Super topo describes "No tourist has ever set eyes on Matthes Crest. A generalization, yes, but it depends on the definition of a tourist. Mine: one who goes through a national park quickly, never getting more than a few miles from the road. Matthes Crest, hidden away south of Tuolumne Meadows, is visible from no road and from no close trail. Only those who look directly south or directly north from close up will find this stupendous blade of granite worthy of attention."

Stunning scenery, fun climbing, and stomach- churning exposure combine to make Matthes Crest a true gem. Not only that, Matthes Crest is LONG. It is one of the more difficult peaks in the park; all of its routes are class 5, and gets much fewer climbers than its more famous neighbor, Cathedral Peak.

It was August 30th, 2016 and although we had been throwing around the idea of climbing the ridge for months, no real details were locked in.  Me and my climbing partner Shim aka the Fossilized Hebrew aka Shim Daddy aka Shimmy aka Ye Old Heeb were warming up a lap on Lembert Dome when we swiftly devised a strategy.  We would top out Northwest Books, head back to base camp to prepare some provisions, and head into the back country to climb Matthes Crest.  Our strategy would be to casually hike out near the climb, bivy at the descent point, wake up early the next day and climb, drop off the ridge near our bivy and grab our stuff on the way back to base camp.

The route we aimed for was the classic South to North Traverse, 5.7.  This is a five-star, mega-ultra-classic, high-sierra-alpine climb.  I had been dreaming of it and staring at photos of it from my friends Phil, Ray and Emilio's Instagram feeds. These guys have gone full beast mode!!

The hike out is at least 5 miles, much of which is off trail and depending on your route, will require some significant and steep gain. We parked obscurely and headed down the Cathedral Lake trail, adding in an extra mile for good measure. 

You mostly follow a trail, then catch a very obvious (pretty obvious) climber's trail along Budd Creek.  Then when we got to Budd Lake, we decided to head over a pass near Echo Peaks, since our destination was not to end up at the approach of the climb (closer to Echo Lake), but rather spend the night towards the end of the mile long climb (closer to Budd Lake).

After hiking up, over and down, the steep pass behind me in the photo (that's one of the Echo Peaks top left),  Shimmy and I scouted the approximate end point for tomorrow's climb and set up our bivy on the soft grass.  The hike out took us a casual 4ish hours.  We had an early dinner of oysters, olives, albacore, and Kerry Gold cheese.  We didn't spot a soul in sight.

We hit the hay pretty early, even before darkness fell, somewhere between 7-8pm.  I watched the sun drop over Matthes Crest and adored the alpenglow, but didn't wait up to appreciate the stars in the sky.

I spent a solid amount of time teasing the Fossilized Hebrew about his sleeping bag.  It was an early era Chouinard Equipment x Montbell that was thinner than a bed sheet.  Has zero insulation in it and over night temps were in the low 30's.  Truth be told, I have nothing but admiration for my partner, he's one of the last hardman around.  He moves quick, requires little food and water, needs nothing fancy, runs cold and can climb like a mountain goat.  Similar to the 80's Toyota wagon he rode in on, they just don't make 'em like they used to!

Equipment has advanced allowing people to go lighter, stickier rubber, more aggressive rock protection, all these things allow people to climb safer and harder, but you're a fool if you don't have appreciation for the elders that did these adventures without guide books or the technology.  They were tough, fearless, SAVAGE men!  Shim Daddy isn't an antique yet but he's the most excellent homage to the pioneers.  Much respect.

We woke up around 7am and hiked the mile parallel to the actual climb.  We headed up to the official start of the route.  It was a bit breezy and chilly so we sat in the sun for 30 minutes to relish in our excitement and warm up our fingers.  Neither of us has climbed this before, and neither of us knew too many people that had done this route either. Despite it's fame and reputation, still not a single person in sight.

Above is the route start.  Somewhere to the middle/right of center you find "two golden boulders" and set sail.  From the bottom of pitch one to the top of the ridge is around 500', this required 3 or 4 pitches up some face and dihedral climbing, much in the 5.5 YDS range and under (fairly easy).

So stoked to rise above this aesthetic granite.  I shot a selfie almost immediately after gaining the crest, you can see all the crazy towers you climb up, down, and around.  You can also see the white, dually-exposed, clever blade design of the route.  AMAZING!

Turned around and let's go!!

Like many long alpine climbs, it can be difficult to determine the chronological sequence of mixed up photos, it just keeps going and going! If you belayed out the entire route, it would be 18 pitches.  Most people rope up for the towers and simul-climb or free solo much in the middle.  Shim Doggy Dog and I simul climbed the full 60 meters apart, above you can see the arrow pointing at his orange backpack.

Here's one of me coming 'round the mountain as I come.  The terrain varies from 'sidewalk-like' 2nd/3rd class to really tip toe delicate 5th class traversing.  Just a couple months off my trip from Thunderbolt Peak to Mt. Sill traverse, I am pretty confident on this type of terrain nowadays.

Above is another shot down the ridge, you can see the scale, and below you can see me on one of those tight traverses, no room to fall when you're in this strategic arrangement.  The pendulum effect would not be pretty.

Below you can see me in a comfortably exposed belay station. All part of the job!

The last part of the route is to ascend the summit of the North Tower.  This ends the classic route, however there is a another 1/3 of the physical ridge left, it's often unclimbed because it secures little protection and requires highly skilled down climbing.  Regarded as continuously amazing, I would venture to say it's quite dangerous.  Atop the North Tower is the official registry and the highest point of the whole crest, around 11,000' above sea level.

Gaining this tower is also the crux of the day.  You begin with a real airy step around and over the split notch.  You can see the rope at the bottom of the picture below just flying in the breeze.  We went without a directional so both lead and follower had to go real safely on that move!

After you get to the base of the tower there is a 5.7 YDS (way sandbagged) true finger crack, diaginally with no good feet and a slight overhanging angle (just a few degrees).  This takes you off the ledge to a fairly juggy left hand with still very little feet.  This kicked my ass. This is my particular nemesis in techniques.  I got the hands real money but had a real struggle activating enough to core to pull the moves on the thinnest, non existent feet around.  Typical High Sierra sandbaggery, I did what I had to do and cleaned the section of crux.  Above that there is a bold little "5.4" mantle move you can see my Hebrew friend sending below.

From there, use the last gas in your tank to send the easy twin cracks, and get to the summit registry on the top of the tower.

It was windy, chilly, been a long climb and we had much work to get down and backpack to civilized camp, so we made quick of signing the books, took the ubiquitous awkward summit selfies (I look generally and oddly upset) and then rappelled right off the top of the tower.  Could be two full rope length raps (bring a pull cord) or you can do 4 x 60m rope raps with some fairly simply down climbing.  We got off quickly and smoothy.

Time to hike back to our the bivy gear where we left in the morning and make our way to the climber's trail, then Cathedral Lake trail, and then base camp.

We opted to blaze our own cross country trail home, and like an old married couple, Shim Shim and I engaged in friendly bickering about the navigation for the next several hours.  Was a beautiful and secenic hike back.  Been two days since we'd seen anyone and that's what you want when you're alpine climbing!  Peace and quiet!

After some of the same mileage adding shenanigans on the way out that we had on the way in, we got back to the main road around 6pm, still plenty of daylight.  We bumped into our friends around the trail head and had some snacks and drinks.  I laid down on some of the trail head bear lockers to rest and it was glorious.

I've climbed some glorious routes over the last couple years including Snake Dike on Half Dome, and Monkey Face at Smith Rock, but Matthes Crest was perhaps the most glorious, interesting, and compelling route I've done to date.  Just never ending fun, and doing it with Shimmy made it that much better.  Glad I dragged him up there!