It was Tuesday night. “Want to go to the Pasayten to climb Cathedral?” Yeah right, that’s a 20mi approach for a multipitch 5.9, I haven’t hiked more than like 7 miles in a day since.. who knows. Nevermind climbing 5.9. I ignored it and rolled over and went back to sleep.
Wednesday morning. 5am. I was awake. I mean, you don’t get this offer very often. I had sorta just assumed I’d never climb the peaks back there because they’re so far and when would I ever find partners/make time? That chasm jump randomly kept me up at night too. So maybe… maybe I should consider this. I could get 20mi in a day given enough time. I can follow most rock and I can prusik/aid up if necessary. “Hmm so five days… leaving tonight, back Monday morning?” Eric starts sending me routes on mountain project. He knew he had my attention. “Okay, well I can’t leave Weds, but I could leave Thursday afternoon, and take Friday/Monday off… and also, I’ve climbed twice this year, so you’d be leading all of it. Is that better or worse than the alternative?” “Gotcha!! Okay fuck yeah! I’m in! I’ll start packing!” I could feel the stoke coming through the phone. Shit. What the fuck did I just sign up for?
- Distance: 42mi round trip
- Elevation gain: 5600ft (including both Cathedral and Amphitheatre), highest point 8601ft
- Weather: 80’s and sunny, some thunderstorms, dense bugs (the air had a higher % bug than % oxygen i think)
- Commute from Seattle: 4.5 hours
- Did I Trip: No!! How is that even possible
- Best beta: Steph Abegg as usual, we relied on MP and I wish we had seen this beforehand (ALSO THEY SAW A PUFF MUSHROOM)
We left Seattle around 2pm on Thursday and got to the trailhead around 7. The road is in unbelievably good condition. We passed small stands with posters, like an interpretive trail sign, until we passed a memorial for four people and it all clicked. This was all part of a memorial for the four firefighters who had died in the Thirtymile Fire (a huge wildfire) in July of 2001. Our stoke dropped, tempered by the raw memorial. I proclaimed we’d be stopping at every sign on the way back to read each one.
We started out immediately to see how many bonus miles we could knock out that night so we wouldn’t have to do a full 20 miles on Friday. Eric’s pack was 55lbs, mine clocked in at 45 (I swore it was heavier, I was wrong). I thought there would be campsites at Pocket Lake (spoiler alert: there were not) which was about 5 miles up the Chewuch River trail but Pocket Lake turned out to be a hint of a marsh more so than a lake. It’s okay, we can go further, bonus miles! Luckily, about a half mile beyond this alleged Pocket Lake, we found a wide open meadow right before the turnoff to the Fire Creek trail. That turnoff is also a great place to get water. but bring a filter, because there’s horse poop everywhere. Fortunately, Eric had considered this. I had not.
We pitched camp in the open meadow and had an uneventful night besides a mystery crash in the forest and some rock fall that apparently sent Eric running in his sleeping bag thinking we were right beneath the cliffs. We were up and moving by 5:30am, eager to knock out mileage and get to Upper Cathedral Lake before the heat of the day. And if we were there soon enough, maybe we could even get on one of the routes up Amphitheater Peak!
We plodded along a very evenly graded trail (yay, horses! Last time I was on a “horse trail” in the Pasayten it was a lie) through varying stages of recovering burn zone. Fires had swept various parts of this loop in 2001, 2003, and 2017 (same fire that roasted Shellrock Pass and almost Dot Lakes!). We had sketchy log crossings. We saw a grouse (or a pheasant, or something). We saw a bear print. We saw a moose with her calf! We saw glacial erratics miles away from any glaciers carried down these valleys eons ago. Wildflowers starting to break through as the forest recovered. And black toothpick trees with peakaboo views as far as the eye could see. Literally. For like 17 miles. I started out all “wow it’s beautiful” but started falling into “fuck there are so many miles.” “Oh thank god a water break.” “Oh dear lord no we’re going uphill.” “Oh no a downed log.” “Oh no another log.” “Oh no a cluster of logs.” “Oh no it’s a switchback.” I started chanting the sections we had left in our head. We were on a 3.9mi stretch. Then 1.2, 1.1., .6, home stretch. Then 1.1, .6, home stretch. Then 1.1, home stretch. And finally. HOME STRETCH.
Right when I thought we were in the twilight zone making no progress through burn zone with increasing mosquitos and flies we broke out into open meadows and found ourselves in The Sound of Music. Remmel towered in the distance (it’s a walk up! A walk up!!) and grasses and cicadas and wildflowers and tarns sprawled as far as we could see. That’s Canada over there, eh? The jokes started. My aching feet were battling with my desire to take 1000 pictures. Do I want to walk to that tarn? Brain and heart say yes, body says you can go fuck yourself. We took the scenic route unknowingly, connecting with the Boundary Trail instead of following the cutoff that would have taken us directly below Amphitheatre and straight to Upper Cathedral Lake. A different type of bonus miles.
We finally reached the lake around 1pm, and quickly found a campsite (somewhat determined by “I just put my stuff down, and cannot convince myself to pick it up again”). Eric spotted a party of two climbing Pilgrimage to Mecca across the lake, and scrambled over to the base of the route to say hi. I stayed at camp, napping, or something that required no movement of any kind. I was already mildly anxious about the rock climb and I planned to conserve energy so I’d be as fresh as possible the next day.
Around dinnertime, we realized Erik and Maria had been at the belay for the final pitch for… well, a few hours. Erik had climbed some but appeared to be back down. We were debating if we should be worried. Right as we were trying to figure out what was going on, Erik shouted “Hey Eric! FYI, having some arm cramps.. gonna give it 30min and attempt to climb through it!” Some back and forth started to figure out how bad the situation was. Do you have water? No! Do you have headlamps? Yes! What radio channel? Pitch 3! One more pitch to go! Base of pitch 4! No, what RADIO CHANNEL? Radio! Rockie Talkie 10!! We cracked up. Rockie talkie ten, got it. We were able to radio them, though they couldn’t respond to us. Our camp neighbors came over. “Hey, we heard your buddy yelling, sounds like he’s got some arm cramps and can’t place gear? We’re climbing that route tomorrow, if they rap off gear we can clean it and bring it all back.” Rock climbing is such an awesome community. They hung with us for a while discussing options in case this turned into a full blown situation, laughing and joking the whole time too. After about 45min, Erik gave the final pitch a good old fashioned college try, and topped out with all four of us cheering from the lake below. “Like watching our own action movie” our neighbor said. “Strong work guys and… we’ll meet you around the corner on the descent with water and some menthols.” Eric took off to go be support crew and I continued to play sloth hiding from mosquitos at camp. Fortunately they did come back through our campsite so I could cheer and celebrate.
We woke up around 5:30 and got moving around 6. I thought I slept like a rock but my Whoop recovery was 7% so apparently I was wrong. We hiked up and over Cathedral Pass, and left the first switchback to start heading up to the gulley. We did not find a climbers trail, but the gully and start of the route were easy enough to find based on pictures.
Things we brought:
- 4L of water
- Nuun tablets
- Some cigarettes for Eric
- No bug spray
- ~10L of human blood in our bodies to offer to the mosquito guardians of Cathedral
- Light layers (nothing waterproof)
- Screenshots of beta
- Just enough tape to cover our hands
- STOKE FOR DAYS
Oh, and we had swapped radio with Erik and Maria, so we could talk and they could reach us, but we couldn’t reach them. I still couldn’t believe we were there. Well, let’s get after it! Eric started up the first pitch a little after 7am. Our goal was to average 1 hour per pitch and be done by 5pm.
The first pitch was pretty straightforward. Thanks to mountain project, we chose the “nondescript easier cracks to the right” instead of the offwidth at the top, though by “grainy” I think they meant “the rock gets extremely loose and sandy” which is never fun. I spent some time hanging and battling to remove a red #1 cam which didn’t make the rest of the climb seem promising. My price was going up as bugs swarmed my head and my fingers got bloody fighting this crack. Would I pay… $25 to keep moving? $35? If it hit like $75 then I’d be leaving it there and buying Eric a new cam, but somewhere around $45 it finally came loose.
Pitch 2 was phenomenal, the chimney was the perfect size for me, nothing required skin/blood sacrifices, and I was stoked the whole way though I do think we exited the chimney a little too early and also overshot the best belay ledge (it’s a super short pitch). Not much to see here, just a good old scoot your way up the chimney.
Pitch 3… well, the first words out of my mouth upon reaching the belay were “that was NOT 5.8.” I am not convinced we hit any of the features listed in the description, and I struggled HARD. I was discouraged, the pitch took well over an hour, if this is how the rest went we were going to be slow. Bugs had followed us yet again. I was wearing my thick soft shell to try and prevent severe blood loss.
Pitches 4 and 5 blend together in my mind. Both ended in a traverse on a huge sandy belay ledge, something about twin cracks, finger cracks, if a pitch didn’t have finger cracks on this route you’re probably off route. Both fine, definitely confidence boosters after pitch 3 where I had been reevaluating wtf I was doing on this route. Also, “cruxy mantle” in the description is accurate, there was a mantle and it was the type where I felt like I had just disobeyed the laws of physics using pressure so you have that to look forward to. Or maybe the bugs carried me as thanks for my bodily sacrifice.
Pitches 6 and 7 were kinda bummers. We didn’t find the 3rd-4th class terrain in pitch 6, or the “open book feature.” Everything was 5.6ish or higher. Steph Abegg was more realistic (“choose your 5.7 adventure”) so I wish I had read that a little more closely before the climb. Eric told me he had spilled an entire liter of water, he was getting arm cramps pulling up a 12lb 70m rope every pitch, I was getting tired, I sat at the belay stations which only exacerbated the tiredness. My snack was the crumbs of severely crushed cheese and crackers, not unlike the state of my energy and soul. Eric’s soul soon shattered too upon the realization that he had forgotten the lighter for his menthols. But it’s okay, we’re gonna dig deep and crush this crux. Look where we are. This is awesome. 5.9 finger cracks coming up. And the 10a finger crack that followed. What had I climbed this year? 5.6 and some top roped 5.8s? Yeah. This is like when my dad ran 7 miles one time and then decided to run a full marathon. No stop, it’s going to be great.
Eric started leading the 7th pitch, and a few drops of water hit my shoulder. Oh. Oh no. A few more drops. And then a rumble. That… that was thunder. Did Eric notice? I’m not going to say anything I think he’s focused enough on leading he doesn’t notice. Except the thunder got louder. And closer. And the rain drops continued, though not enough to really wet the rock. I got to Eric at the belay station. We laughed. Shit might be about to get weird.
We were in good spirits, the nihilistic “eff it, what can you do” kind determined to knock out the crux and get off this peak before we were caught in a Colorado style afternoon thunderstorm. Eric started up, game time decision whether he’d link the pitches or not. We ended up not linking them, for many reasons but the one I focused on was that I was about to be struggle city and wanted/needed a tight belay. Eric had walked me through aiding in case I needed it but I already knew I’d be doing my best to not be utilizing any gear because pride. And speed. Aid is slow. And now I had the added motivation of thunder. Fingers, let’s get ready to get fucked up.
Getting off the ground of pitch 8 was the hardest move of the entire route in my opinion. Once off the ground, you can stem up the twin finger cracks and it’s actually a blast. I managed to find plenty of placements for my fingers everywhere I needed them. Didn’t have to aid with any gear. I’d link a few moves and then have Eric take, especially when I was cleaning gear. His placements were bomb and usually had good rests, I just was so wiped and climbing at the edge of my capabilities this year. But I was determined, and Eric knew it. And this rock is SHARP. It may not be comfortable, but everything sticks. Eric CRUSHED both of these leads. Eell, every lead, but these two were especially impressive. Cruxes, dehydration, onsighting, thunder, threatening rain, mosquitos, what more could you ask for? And he did both cleanly and confidently.
Eric was pulling up the rope on the 9th pitch getting ready to belay me when I heard RAINBOW! EVE!!!! RAINBOW!!! SHOULDIGETMYCAMERA think of the enthusiasm pouring from the double rainbow guy from 10 years ago, that was Eric, fanatically shouting some hundred feet above me. Way ahead of you!!! I shouted back, holding my camera precariously on a semi-mostly-hanging belay. There was an enormous rainbow across the valley to the east
It felt like we cruised up both crux pitches. I even got some super comfy ring locks on the 9th pitch! I was honestly surprised, it was very fun (albeit painful, my hands were shredded) climbing with finger placements exactly where you hope they’ll be. I think having thunder behind me kept me from getting in my head and helped me commit to every move, and every move I made I found exactly the holds I needed. I felt pretty good about my finger crack abilities by the end of the second pitch. Stoked to be at the final belay, Eric asked if I wanted to lead the last pitch. No. Thank you, but no.
And so, Eric started up. As soon as he got out of view I heard him cursing. Something about a fucking hand crack this isn’t a hand crack is this a 5.8 hand crack no way is this 5.8 5.8 my ass and soon enough I heard “Eve, off belay!” and I laughed taking him off belay wondering what the heck this last pitch was about to be like. It was supposed to be a short 5.8 hand crack and then a scramble to the summit! But it was a weird off width/fist crack almost, and some shenanigans I don’t remember now, I was just happy to get to Eric and see that all we had left was a scramble. And the chasm jump. Ohhh boy.
We only spent a few minutes on the summit. It was around 4:30pm, we had at least surpassed our time goal. Didn’t find a register, wanted to get down before the storm came. Chugged the final quarter liter of water/nuun that we had between the two of us. I kept my rock shoes on for the chasm jump but took one look at it and said nope, get the rope. I did not come 99% of the way to be that fool who falls in a chasm carrying a rope or a climbing rack. We made a small anchor so I could downclimb and step over, except then I asked to be lowered instead. Once on the other side I switched shoes and suddenly Eric was next to me having leapt the chasm like everyone else I’ve talked to. I wasn’t even sure I could jump that on flat ground with how tired my legs were.
There was another spicy downclimb into a gully (like… a canyon) and then you traverse into a real gully (open fan of talus and scree and crap, traverse don’t climb the opposing wall in the canyon) and can just walk the rest of the way down. We saw two people on the trail below. Is that Erik and Maria? If they have water I might cry. I laughed. Their turn to bring us water and menthols! Erik met us first with like 3L of water (as Eric was chugging directly from a stream). I chugged some of Erik’s water without crying and soon enough we were back with Maria, who had a lighter! I fucking love the rock climbing community. Eric has good taste in people, I already trusted Maria/Erik would be cool but they surpassed expectations this weekend.
We all hiked back to camp and ate dinner together, resigned to the bugs. Eric had brought pudding cups (speaking of “light and fast”, Erik had 6 dehydrated meals because you never know what you’ll be in the mood for) and candles for the fourth of july, and even though it was technically the 3rd, Erik and Maria were headed out early the next morning so we decided to celebrate then and there. Awesome night with some really chill, fun people. Hope we get on another climb in the near future. We’ve already proven we won’t do the Seattle Freeze.
I slept rough that night, trapped in a sleeping bad with sore muscles that desperately needed stretching. We woke up to the smell of wildfire smoke and had a lazy morning. We packed up camp and deciding to walk up Amphitheatre on the way out. We stashed our packs in the shade at a mini switchback and just took one bag of snacks/water with us, not really knowing how Amphitheatre would go (we only had beta on the climbing routes) but I was pretty sure it was a walk up from this side. Given the view from below, I was SO SURE we were going to cliff out before the real summit, but we figured we’d give it a shot and bail in 2 hours if we somehow hadn’t summitted by then.
We followed a very well maintained horse-friendly trail up to the saddle and then took off to the right following intermittent boot paths. Right where I thought we’d cliff out before the true summit actually turned out to just… be the summit! Must have been a weird angle from below, and it hadn’t even taken us an hour. We admired the views and Cathedral, and the wild number of unclimbed routes all around us. Amphitheatre has some very cool geology, it’s shaped like a capital T and the lower left side of the T is rolling meadows but every other side is hundreds of feet of vertical rock.
Amphitheatre had a summit register (like the cutest tiny PVC pipe) which we signed before downing some water and snacks. We knew we’d hit a stream on the way back to our packs, so figured best to drink as much as possible now. I actually felt peppy and rejuvenated, like 800ft of walking gain with no pack had revived my body. Back at our oversized packs, we loaded up and headed cross country to intersect with the trail, following the Denali rules of “walk separately” so you don’t trample the same place in the event that you are forced to walk on vegetation. We probably saved ourselves a mile or two by going this way instead of following the boundary trail, and we did find the shortcut turnoff that would have taken us directly to the upper lake that we ignored in favor of the scenic route on the way up.
At first, it felt like we were flying back to the trailhead. The places we took breaks at on the way up came hilariously quickly (1.2, 1.1, .6, home stretch was suddenly “crap we’re done with all of the short stretches”) feeling like minutes instead of the eternity the approach had taken. But the sun got higher, and the bugs got denser and braver, and my body got weaker. We decided to aim for the horse camp just past where the trail splits to Tungsten or Chewuch/Remmel (or just before, if you’re on the way up). That would give us about 8 miles to hike the next day. Except when we were halfway there I was dragging. We a 3.9mi stretch, then 2.2, then another 2.2, something like that, didn’t matter because it all blended into “i’m going to FREAK OUT if we stand here too long because the bugs are starting to incite an instinctual flight response” and “if I take this pack off it may never go back on again.” We kept reminding ourselves these were bonus miles. We had all day Monday to do the rest, just wanted to see how far we could get on Sunday.
But, miracles happen. We started getting suspicious and mildly concerned when all of the logs/downed trees we had remembered were… missing. Were we on the right trail? Was I hallucinating? We finally ran into a party who said there was a WTA crew doing trail work on the full Cathedral Pass loop, meaning all of those downed logs we had battled on the way up were no longer there!! We didn’t have to skirt trees or stumble over twisted gnarled tree trunks or crawl beneath awkwardly low but not low enough logs. One may be a mild inconvenience, but 100 and you start to resent the existence of trees. The groups had also trampled and brushed out the trail, making it obvious and easy to walk. We joked about how we wanted to catch up to them to thank them but also never wanted to catch up to them because it would mean back to jumping fallen trees. We ran into them just after the turnoff to Remmel Lake I think, where they had set up camp in the buggiest section of trail possible. One of the guys did a casual 8mi trail run (he obviously forgot to take our 12lb rope with him) to scout the next section they’d be clearing while we slogged along wishing we were 24 and ripped. We persevered through the last section of downed trees, somehow didn’t fall off the bouncy skinny double logs across the river, and dropped our packs at camp.
I set up my tent immediately, took off shoes and socks, and sat my shattered, depleted body straight in the river. It was wonderful. Like a bath for body and soul, 10/10 would sit again. My core temperature returned to normal, my feet were finally relieved of pressure, the heat rash all over my legs temporarily stopped burning and itching. I pumped some water with Eric’s pump (so exhausted it was so hard) and limped back to camp barefoot. I destroyed some mac n cheese with chicken, and went to lie on my sleeping bad. I could barely lift my arms, they were the heaviest I’ve ever felt them in my life. My shirt stank from sweat combined with dunks in the river. Everything was dirty. Thank god for spare clothing, I just wished I had a third shirt and more pants. I dozed on and off throughout the night, woken up by sore muscles every time I had to roll over. Using the sleeping bag like an open quilt helped a lot, but it was too warm for the weather and all the bugs were getting stuck in my tent fly causing a caucophony of whatever is the opposite of a lullaby.
We woke up early again, and I think got moving around 6:30. We CRUSHED the last section, carried by rants and commiseration and survival instinct and desperation, counting each valley turn and dredging up landmarks from our memories of four days ago. The last maybe quarter mile to the car was brutal for me mentally, totally flat but the trail just kept going and then finally we were at the bridge that crossed tot he parking lot and bam we were back at my car. Which had a ticket, as expected. But it wasn’t really a ticket… just a notice to pay te $5 for a day pass! They’re way too nice, I was expecting to be donating $35 to the USFS for my forgetfulness.
I had Eric get the keys from the top of my pack so I could back up to the car and sit my pack down like a semi approaching a loading dock, except even slower and probably less coordinated. I chugged the leftover propel in the trunk of my car, changed into super low profile running shoes, fresh shirt, ahhh it felt wonderful. Time to stagger into the Mazama store for some salted baguettes.
But first, we stopped at the main memorial for the four firefighters. The fire had trapped 14 firefighters and 2 civilians, and there were several spots where these 16 folks grouped together. We read the memorial signs in reverse order which was tricky, but still fascinating, informative, and tragic. Highly recommend stopping at them on the way in and reading them in order (they’re all within a few short miles).
Surrounded by a quick moving wildfire (125 feet per second uphill = 85 miles per hour), six trapped firefighters deployed shelters on the scree and talus (field of small rocks), just as instructed in training. One decided his shelter would not hold and jumped in the river, another had no fire gloves and burned his hands badly trying to set up the shelter and then put out the flames that were already inside it. He bailed too and got in a van on the road (just feet from the river). Amazingly, the van sustained barely any burns, and those in the river survived. Unfortunately, the shelters couldn’t handle the sustained heat of the wildfire, the incident commander couldn’t get teams to the shelters because of the heat, and the four inside their shelters perished. And there we were, almost exactly 20 years later, watching the forest regrow while these people leave voids in their place.
Back in the car for good, we went straight to the Mazama general store, which has become a total overpriced hipster tourist market that stopped serving their dreamy breakfast burritos and only sells large containers of overpriced lotion to desperate sunburned/deet-lotion-burned climbers such as myself. My face had molted in the past 48hrs so I covered it in $18 cedar scented lotion you bougie bastards (okay, it smelled great). We got salted baguettes and sandwiches. I wish they made sandwiches ON the baguettes instead of whatever weird sliced bread they use. “Wait where did you get that?” Eric suddenly had a sandwich on a baguette. “Did you… did you migrate your sandwich onto the baguette?” “…yes. I knew what I wanted I wasn’t going to waste time with that dumb bread.” I cracked up. Expert move.
The drive back to Seattle was uneventful, besides possibly getting 28 miles to the gallon. I don’t trust it, but coming back from WA pass was the one time my car definitely got at least 26mpg, because we literally only had 2 gallons and somehow traveled ~52 miles (and then put 21 gallons into a 20 gallon tank). We were back in Seattle around 4ish, early enough I had an awkward few hours of lying on the couch making excuses to not unpack. I powered up the hill to Ha! to have mac n cheese with my roommate, because that mac n cheese brings LIFE to tattered muscles. I hadn’t had it in years, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t earn four nights of mac n cheese in a row. And this was a heck of a lot better than the variety of dehydrated mac n cheeses I had subsisted on for four days.
Easily the most memorable climb I’ve been on in a while. Awesome people, strong sense of climbing community, good company, and really just so much stoke. The whole crew and everyone we ran into were just so happy to be out there doing what we were doing despite the heat, the mosquitos, the physicality of it all. Couldn’t have asked for a better July 4th weekend, America is pretty freaking beautiful and I’m so thrilled we pulled this off.
Wonderful write up Eve! I can feel every bit of misery and joy through your descriptions. ❤
What an amazing experience! Love your write up…I want to do this loop as a backpack- will chat to you for beta. Also, Emily had just told me about WTA work crews clearing out 447 logs from that trail so it was funny to read about it here. Your poor hands! Have they healed? Sad story about the firefighters…can’t imagine that situation. Have you seen “Only the Brave” about the Prescott fire? Amazing movie – recommend. Hope to see you on Bevel!!!
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