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Cathedral Pass

Posted Aug 19 2009 6:31pm
The last day of our high country trip began as I woke up about 5 AM and realized that we had all zoned out pretty early that night, and I had fallen asleep with only one blanket, and yet had been perfectly warm through the night. The early morning chill was easing dramatically. I had frost on our Biblar tent that first night at Tuolumne, and now less than one full week later it really felt like summer. Strangely, somehow it seemed more exciting to be wrapped up like a mummy in a tomb wondering whether or not my toiletries would freeze up inside the bear locker. I suppose nothing says summertime like partially frozen toothpaste. With weather this nice I decided to let the others sleep. I tossed on some clothes and boots and decided to scramble up the rocks behind the camp to see the sun rise. I suppose if you’re staying at a place called Sunrise, you can’t very well sleep in every morning. I described this little constitutional briefly in a previous post, but thought it was worth more detail here.

In the morning the mosquitoes were not out yet, so I did not need a head net. Walking out behind the dining hall you can pick your spot to begin climbing up. There were people camped out in tents near the base of the rocks so I tried not to make noise. It’s not like the pristine smooth granite of Half Dome or somewhere like that. The rocks all over this area are very coarse providing fantastic traction. The surfaces feel rough as though they were volcanic, but of course they are not. You could probably climb this stuff in any type of shoe even if it were wet. The cracks and separations between the rocks are festooned with brilliant penstemon, both mountain pride in a pinkish shade, almost fuchsia, and meadow penstemon in a purple radius. This gaiety was commonplace throughout this trip whenever hiking amongst the rocks. All of the lakes are lined with pink and white heather, and the rocks are all decked out in festive blooms just like this. As you reach the top of this formation in the fading starlight you have enough altitude to see the silhouette of the Cathedral Range now in view against the grey-blue horizon. Amazingly there were backpackers camped out up in some of the little plateaus high in the rocks. I thought that was an interesting site selection. I found a comfortable spot to sit along a ledge looking down on Long Meadow, with 3 distinct high ranges in my field of vision, and the sky lightening slowly. As the first sunbeams stream over Echo Peak (actually it wasn’t Cathedral as I said before) they paint the back side of Mt Clark creating a very tricky light balance. My poor little camera will never be able to do justice to this kind of dynamic visual effect. The angle then increases to accentuate the whole Clark Range with contrasting shadows and light before descending to the tree line surrounding Long Meadow. As the radiant heat begins touching your face, the full morning breaks on the grasses and streams, the still low angle creating long shadows. With daylight arriving I began to contemplate the fact that we were leaving that day, and my next night would be back in the totally familiar and annoyingly comfortable confines of our townhouse in the city. I couldn’t wait to hear that first errant car alarm.

After breakfast we all packed up and were ready to hit the trail. Our route was the John Muir Trail over Cathedral Pass and over to the Cathedral trailhead at Tioga Road. By this time the sun had fully risen prompting immediate de-layering. The mosquitoes were now out in force; so I used a long sleeved UV shirt to cover my arms, and a head net, with repellant applied to my hands. In camp I used either repellant or socks to keep them off of my feet while wearing sandals. The camp regulars insist that the onslaught will diminish in a couple of weeks. Hiking out along the meadow was an otherwise beautiful and tranquil morning stroll along easy open terrain. I was surprised that we had seen so little wildlife. One evening we watched a whole herd of deer out in the meadow, but since then nothing was around except a few marmots and ravens. At the far end of the meadow you can see Columbia Finger marking the way to the pass. The trail goes back under tree cover for the climb up to the pass. I didn’t bother to measure the exact elevation change from camp, but it was about 800 feet total up to an elevation of almost 10K. Dave made an elevation profile from his GPS. There is a link to Dave’s pictures at the end of this post. From the top there are good long range views, and of course everywhere you go up here there are endless rock scrambling opportunities for all levels. Curious barren rock formations abound from Mathis Crest to Echo and Unicorn Peaks. We took our time and had a nice lunch break under some shady pines alongside a moist green meadow just below Echo Peak. Further on, the trail passes by one of two Cathedral Lakes. The lower lake is a side trip of about 1.5 miles. I spent some time there a few years ago, but this time we skipped it. Instead, I wound up back tracking to try to find our lost photo mascot. A little stuffed bear, which we never found again. Returning it to the wild we continued on hiking down hill toward Tioga. There is one point along the way where there is a cool bubbling spring right alongside the trail. A perfect opportunity to enjoy some incomparably refreshing “real” mountain spring water. We filtered several bottles and took some with us for the trip home. After reaching the trailhead and a brief car shuttle, we were on our way home. On the way out I did notice that wild flower activity had picked up considerably. We had missed the optimum window by just about a week.

Click here to see more pictures from this hike on flickr.
Click here to see Dave's pictures from this hike.
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