Exploring Yosemite’s High Country

A lush mixture of deciduous and conifer trees line the windy road, as the YARTS bus makes its way northbound on State Highway 41 from Fresno to Yosemite National Park. I’m riding in the front row of the bus with my pack by my side, casually chatting with the friendly bus driver, Tim.

Tim asks where I’m from, and what my plans are for Yosemite. I share how I’m from Seattle, and that I flew into Fresno the day before. I plan to head into the Yosemite high country with my friend, Jake, for a backpacking trip – and hopefully to climb Cathedral Peak. If we go for it, I explain, it would be my biggest alpine rock climb to date.

Having camped at Summerdale Campground the night before, I had jumped on the first YARTS bus from the Tenaya Lodge stop, a convenient location near the campground, that same morning. It’s my first ride on a YARTS bus, Yosemite’s public transportation system that provides access to the park from the various gateway communities. And I’m realizing it most definitely will not be my last – what better way to avoid the congestion and limited parking in the Valley, while helping to cut down on traffic and emissions.

Catching the YARTS bus line between Fresno and the park!

Catching the YARTS bus line between Fresno and the park!

While this trip isn’t my first trip to Yosemite, it is a “first” in other respects. To date, I’ve sadly spent little time exploring the Yosemite high country – but that’s about to change. For this trip, we plan to spend nearly all our time in the high country, avoiding the Valley chaos and finding some much-needed solitude in the backcountry.

A few hours after jumping on the YARTS bus, Jake and I find ourselves in the Tuolumne Meadows area, off the Tioga Road. We step into the Wilderness Center to ask about backcountry wilderness permits as well as current conditions. To our surprise, a first-come first-serve permit for the Cathedral Lakes area is available. Feeling awfully lucky, we say: “we’ll take it!”

Near the start of the Cathedral Lakes trail, we spread out all our gear on the ground. We double check that we have the essentials for a few nights in the Yosemite backcountry – and for our alpine climb.

With loaded packs, we step onto the trail and start the several-mile hike to Cathedral Lakes. The trail gradually climbs for a few miles until we get our first glimpse of Cathedral Peak’s granite walls on our left.

Further ahead, we hike past lower Cathedral lake on our right, where we cross paths with a few other groups of hikers. Continuing on, we eventually arrive at our destination near the upper lake, where we plan to set up our backcountry camp.

We take a good 15 minutes to search the area for the perfect spot of durable ground away from the lake and main trail. We find the perfect camp spot, and we slide our packs off our shoulders and onto the ground. Pulling out the tent, sleeping bags and pads, and camp stove, we set up camp and settle into our new “home.”

We realize that we haven’t noticed anyone else since we arrived at the upper lake and our camp. It seems as if we have the entire area to ourselves – a scenario we’d only find ourselves in the high country (as opposed to the Valley).

We explore our new surroundings until the daylight starts to fade. After a quick dehydrated dinner, we decide to call it a night early, knowing the next day – our Cathedral Peak climb – will be a big one. I drift off, as faint alpenglow paints the top of the peak.

The hike in the Cathedral Lakes backcountry paid off!

The hike in the Cathedral Lakes backcountry paid off!

On Day 2, we wake in the five o’clock hour to another beautiful day in the backcountry. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal, we organize our climbing gear for the day. We lay out our 60-meter rope; the alpine rack, with cams, nuts, quickdraws, and more; our harnesses, and our rock climbing shoes. We divvy it all up. I take the rope, Jake takes the rack, and so on.

After 45 minutes of hiking, we arrive at the base of Cathedral Peak’s Southeast Buttress. To our surprise (again), no one else is around. We’re standing at the base of one of the most classic alpine rock climbs in the country – and it’s all ours!

We take some time to eye up the route. Having identified the correct line up, we organize our gear once more, in preparation for the five pitches of climbing.

We decide that Jake, who previously climbed Cathedral Peak a few years back, will take the first pitch. I’ll then take the second, and we’ll alternate until we reach the top.

Jake starts up, placing cams into the various cracks in the wall, and clipping the rope in each piece. I’m belaying him from below, with my neck tilted back fully, peering up the granite tower. Minutes later, he reaches the ledge at the top of the first pitch, anchors in, and gets off belay. He then puts me on belay, and I announce that I’m starting to climb.

Slowly ascending up, moving one limb at a time, the granite feels solid in my hands – pleasantly solid and not too cold, despite the late-spring temperatures.

I remove each cam Jake had placed into the rock, and soon I arrive at the ledge where he’s standing. I anchor in, and we prepare for my lead of the second pitch.

By the third pitch, we spot a group of two climbers below near the base of the climb, but still no one else. We’re still feeling awfully lucky to have so much solitude on this classic climb.

Setting up a gear anchor, I make a point of turning around to soak up the sweeping views of the high country. We’re now hundreds of feet above the floor, and visibility is exceptional. I hear myself say, “amazing,” to no one in particular, while scanning the countless peaks to the north and east.

Wrapping up the fourth pitch, Jake prepares to lead the fifth and final pitch. The wall’s surface area has narrowed around us, making clear that we’re getting close to the summit block. I feel much anticipation, as I prepare for this last leg to reach the top.

Jake tackles the last pitch with great composure, and climbs out of my sight. Keeping him on belay, I let rope out by “feel,” sensing the tension (or lack thereof) in the rope. Awaiting to hear any sort of command from Jake, I hear nothing at first. But minutes later I hear a “barbaric yawp” from Jake, knowing he’s reached the summit.

Jake gets me back on belay, and I follow up the last pitch, and finally spot him sitting on the summit block. I pull myself up the last few moves, and sit beside him on the block, which is no bigger than a small table. We did it! The Yosemite high country, in all its glory, is sprawled out before us in a 360-degree view.

Exhausted but overjoyed, we soak up the view for five or ten more minutes, knowing that we can’t stay forever. We then down climb off the summit block, and carefully traverse to the west onto some ledges, where we sit, eat, and hydrate.

Resting and soaking up some views after our climb of Cathedral Peak.

Resting and soaking up some views after our climb of Cathedral Peak.

At this time, we’re in no rush. We've tackled our objective, and are fully content on reaping the rewards. As the sun sinks ever closer to the western horizon, our eyes fixate on nearby Eichorn Pinnacle and the pair of Cathedral Lakes below. Eventually, we decide to call it a day and start to head down.

Walking off the west side of the peak, we soon reach the flats of the basin below and jump back on the main trail, which takes us back to our camp. As the day’s last light fades away, I look up once more to see the summit and pinnacle painted in gorgeous, warm light.

The day’s last light upon Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle.

The day’s last light upon Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle.

Back at camp, we settle back in, knowing the day was well spent in the high country of one of our country’s greatest national parks. Despite the crowds in Yosemite Valley, we had this backcountry area practically to ourselves – and what a difference it made.

Scott Kranz Yosemite High Country Cathedral Lakes Camp Night



Scott Kranz