It’s 4am when my alarm goes off.
In the darkness of the morning I hear the Weepies crooning to me. My eyes flick open and I raise my balled fists to my face and mush the sleep away. My body is tired but my mind is on fire.
Triple crown! Triple crown! Get up, get up let’s do this!
I throw the covers off me and fumble around in the dark for a few minutes, eventually finding the light switch. I blink and shade my eyes at the brightness, my lids like raisins, crumpled and bruised from the lack of sleep. As I walk over to the sink to brush my teeth, I look at myself in the mirror.
I look tired. My hair is falling out of the braid I put it in the night before, my lips look deflated and dry, my skin is slightly puffy with lines creased into it from my pillow.
What am I doing?
As quickly as the excitement comes, there is a lead weight that follows. As if someone had taken a cinderblock and sat it against my rib cage, I feel heavy, crushed under by something I can’t see.
I shake my head, clearing the feeling, and start getting ready for the day.
20 minutes later Kate, my climbing partner, and I are driving towards the park entrance. Each in our respective vans, me in my grey sprinter, her in a brown astrovan. It’s pitch black outside, the only light coming from my weak yellow headlights. I sip bad coffee and scan the horizon for a glimpse of anything familiar.
When we finally get to the parking lot, the sun is just barely making its presence known. The light outside is faintly blue, the world slowly coming back into clarity. Kate makes sandwiches for our lunch and I prepare coffee and breakfast. I shovel food into my mouth unenthusiastically. I’m not hungry, but I need sustenance for the long day ahead. Kate is bubbly and buzzing around as usual. Her positivity is infectious. She can smile wider and more brightly than anyone I’ve ever met, and pretty soon I’m grinning and getting excited for the day of climbing ahead.
We had decided to do what is sometimes called ‘The Triple Crown’. Three classic Tuolumne peaks in a single day. Tenaya, Matthes and Cathedral. Most people solo or simul all three of them to get it done in time. I’d been interested in this link up for a few years, but today it was finally going to happen.
As we started hiking up the trail, I think about the peaks that lay before us.
Peak one: Tenaya
At 1,500 feet tall, with a maximum difficulty of 5.5, Kate and I plan to solo the whole thing. It’s way below our comfort level as far as grades go, neither of us had ever fallen on something so easy. I knew it was going to be fine, but as we walked briskly in the chilly morning, I felt nerves tingle at the base of my stomach.
I force myself not to think about it.
It’s fine damnit.
I looked up ahead of me and see Kate, her long legs pulling her farther ahead of me with each step, her blond ponytail swishing back and forth. I put my head down and quicken my pace to keep up.
When we get to the base, my stomach is in knots. I place my bag down next to me and squat to pee. Kate begins pulling her things out of her bag, helmet, harness, climbing shoes, water bottle. I stand up, button my pants and look around. Above me is Tenaya Peak, it’s long slow incline leading up and away to the summit. Below me is the navy blue disk of Tenaya Lake surrounded on all sides by deep green pine trees. In the distance I can see the white grey granite domes that Tuolumne is known for, peppered with stubborn trees that seem to grow out of anything low angle enough to house them.
I take a deep breath, the early morning air smells cold and clear.
“Are you ready?” Kate looks at me. Her bag on her back, pink helmet on, climbing shoes laced up tight.
I feel the tension in my stomach again.
“Yes!” I force myself to smile and watch as she takes the lead. She turns towards Tenaya and puts her hands and feet against the rock.
The climbing is easy. It’s low angle to the point that if you did fall, you’d probably just end up lying down. I watch Kate’s feet move and imitate her steps. She’s slightly taller than me, and some of the moves feel stretched, but I do my best to keep up. Every so often we see chalk; evidence that other climbers have been here and that we must be on route. As my body begins to warm up, I stop thinking about anything else. All I can focus on is what’s in front of me.
Does that hand hold look good?
Place my foot there.
Make sure that hand jam is solid.
Get to that ledge and then stop.
We’re moving in unison, but a few meters a part. If one of us happens to knock a block loose or, (don’t think about that) fall, we want to make sure the person below is not knocked off as well.
The climbing is fun too. There are huge tree covered ledges every few yards and we take our time moving from one ledge, checking in with each other, then climbing on to the next. Before I know it, we’re standing amongst large stacked blocks and I can see trees growing on ground level with Kates pink helmeted head.
We top out at 8 am in the morning.
“Whoop whoop! Tenaya baby!” Kate shouts from the summit. “Yaaaaaas!”
She pulls out a GoPro and takes a few photos. We hug and sign the summit register. There are dull colored pencils in a bucket and a lined spiral ring notebook for us to add our names to. I flip the pages backwards and see a friends name from a few days ago. Smiling, I take a few photos as well.
After our celebration, we dust ourselves off, change our shoes and start our journey towards peak number two: Matthes Crest.
Matthes Crest is a mile and a half long fin of rock that juts out of the earth like the spine of a sleeping, long buried dragon. It looks almost sinister in the distance. A wall of impenetrable granite with only one cleft down the middle, an ominous gateway. There is no ‘peak’ on Matthes Crest, and the goal is to traverse the full crest. The hike is long. As the sun rises above us, we pass down through the tree line, past a marsh, across a meadow and then back up towards the smooth grey granite fin. As we hike, Kate and I talk about how we got here. How we met, how breakups both brought us to this life, how emotions carry us along in our climbing career. I try to focus on what she is saying, and not on the burning sensation in my legs, my back, and my feet.
The incline is steep, and our conversation has slowed. I keep signing this ridiculous song in my head from a Christmas movie I watched as a kid.
Put one foot in front of the otheeeerr,
And soon you'll be walking 'cross the floooooor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walking out the doooooor
Kate and I have stopped talking. I don’t look up. I just keep looking at my right foot, then my left. I can hear Kate ahead of me.
Gotta keep up.
I feel sweat begin to gather around the base of my neck, under my armpits, along the side of my face. The terrain beneath my feet begins to incline even more steeply. Each step is just a few inches forward. My thighs are burning, my back aches, my lungs are on fire.
Put one foot in front of the otheeeerr…
If I stop to look up, I know I’ll lose precious time. I just need to keep going.
And soon you'll be walking 'cross the floooooor…
We still have 2 more climbs to do, and many more miles to hike before the day is up, we can’t dawdle. I hear Kate somewhere along side me. My breathing is loud and ragged.
Put one foot in front of the other…
My feet move 3 inches forward at a time. It’s all I can manage. My neck is starting to hurt from looking down. I feel sweat trickle down along the side of my face, and I wipe it clumsily with the back of my hand.
And soon you'll be walking out the doooooor…
An eternity passes. My legs burn. I stumble and lose a few inches. I keep going.
Finally, the incline lowers. I look up and see 4 smiling young men with ropes, harnesses and helmets standing at the base, watching me and Kate’s approach.
“Heya,” I manage to gasp, sure my face is tomato red, hair sticking to my cheeks with sweat. “Are you doing the triple too?”
Kate and I begin to unpack our bags and get ready to climb while we chat up the party next to us. They are from San Diego and are planning to do Matthes and Cathedral today, but not the full triple. They seem impressed that Kate and I are doing all three. Kate racks up quickly and I put her on belay. As she shrinks into the distance a marmot wanders up next to me. Marmots look like beavers without the flat tails, but with the same thick brown fur and small black eyes.
Unused to seeing people, this large rodent doesn’t seem to be afraid of me. She wanders close, sniffing the air. She sits up on her hind legs, small black front paws hanging in front of her, and stares at me curiously for a second. I feed out slack to Kate as she keeps climbing and stare back.
Who are you, little friend?
After a few seconds, she turns away, obviously uninterested in the large brightly colored mammal in front of her.
Grinning, I hear Kate shout that I’m on belay, and I begin to climb.
When I arrive at the top, it’s obvious that we should unrope. The spiney crest we’ve come to is really a flat, wide granite sidewalk. It’s so large and has so few features to place gear in, that having a rope wouldn’t actually make us safer, as one of us might trip and (don’t think about that) pull the other one off too. We coil the rope and start our casual scramble over and through the spires of granite. After 30 minutes of walking and scrambling up and along sidewalks with great exposure, Kate and I begin to tire of the slightly on edge feeling of being unroped so high up.
We stop for a second to survey the terrain ahead of us, wondering for the hundredth time, if we should rope up or if we should just keep soloing.
“I’m kinda over this ridge traverse to be honest.” I say to Kate.
“Yeah,” She takes a sip of water. The Tuolumne landscape peels out in every direction behind her, it’s breathtaking. “It’s not really like climbing is it?” She asks in her slightly accented English. Kate’s mother is from England and every once in a while you can hear the faint accent come through in her daughters voice.
“Maybe we should just rap at the notch?” She suggests.
Halfway along Matthes Crest is ‘the notch’. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a large break in the otherwise continuous rock fin. Many parties will stop here, climb down some, and rappel to the ground instead of climbing up to do the ‘full traverse’. The question feels heavier than it should. I know what will happen if we don’t do the full traverse, Kate does too. I can almost hear the accusatory question launched across a parking lot at me, ‘So, did you do the FULL traverse?’
Thinking of answering that question makes me tired. A familiar lead weight settles over my chest and in that moment, all I can think about is getting off this stupid chunk of rock.
I look at Kate, her cheeks are slightly wind-burnt. Behind her I see the epic granite spines that form the ridge traverse of Matthes Crest. On either side of these spires the ground falls away, hundreds of feet below us in a smooth white slope. This wave of granite meets up with distant trees that look insignificant from up here. I can follow the shape of the Sierra with my eyes in every direction. White granite peaks explode from the ground, distantly beautiful, surrounded by rolling waves of high Sierra granite. There is so much granite your eyes can’t make sense of it all. There is nowhere in the world like this.
I feel the exposure of where I am, of what I am doing, and of what the consequences would be if I failed.
Am I having fun?
I look forward at another hundred yards of awkward scrambling with intense exposure.
“Let’s just rap at the notch.” I say, “I’m over this traverse.”
Kate agrees and smiles. We continue our solo over boulders, down climbing awkward sections with care. I’m focused on my hands and feet now more than I ever was when climbing Tenaya. The holds are good, large fat rails to grab with wide slabs of rock to stand on, but on Matthes you can watch the ground disappear beneath you and you find yourself staring hundreds of feet down at the ground below. It’s unnerving.
Kate and I scramble down towards the notch, sitting comfortably on a ledge. The party of four eventually reunites until all 6 of us are hanging out, getting ready to rappel.
Once we reach the ground again Kate looks up at where we just were.
“I’m glad we decided to rap,” She tucks her hair behind her ear and starts walking towards our next destination, “I don’t care what anyone says, I’m just glad we did it.”
I’m glad too, and I tell her as much. I like climbing because I like going up. Ridge traverses are just a lot of going sideways.
“The views were stunning though,” I say through bites of a smooshed peanut butter sandwich. “Definitely worth that.”
“Oh yeah,” Kate agrees. “Those pictures are going to scare the shit out of my mom though.”
I snort at this and keep walking. For some reason, listening to her swear in an English accent is funnier to me than it would have been, had she sworn in an American one.
My legs are tired from the miles we’ve already hiked, but the worst is behind us. We’ve only got one more climb to do and it’s my favorite of the three: Cathedral Peak.
Cathedral Peak looks like how you imagine an alpine peak to look. It’s pure pure white, with a teardrop shape that overlooks Tuolumne Meadows and even parts of Yosemite Valley. It’s a stunning climb with everything from slab, long splitter hand cracks, to chimneys, to a final airy step-across move that takes you to the top. I’ve done it three times before and had a blast each time.
Kate and I hike right along the valley we’re at the top of and find a stream of glacier melt to refill our bottles. Taking a long deep swig from my dromedary, the icy cold water hurts my teeth.
Kate sees me wince and says, “Nothing tastes better than water out of a stream though!”
The hike to Cathedral is just a matter of moving our tired bodies over the high Sierra terrain.
I feel the dull ache of exhaustion beginning to creep into my bones, but I shake it away, trying to focus instead on the chewy cliff bar I’m forcing myself to eat. The hike is uneventful. Kate and I aren’t talking as much as we were on the first two hikes, we’ve reached the ‘just get it done’ stage of the day.
At the base of Cathedral Peak are a few parties. One, a party of 5, is bailing. They chat with us amiably as we rack up, tie in, and get ready to climb. I start climbing away and feel the familiar granite underneath my hands. A smile creeps onto my face despite of my tiredness, This climb is a lot of fun. I pass a party of three, momentarily terrifying them as I tenderly climb by, my last piece of protection 40 feet below me, the rope swinging freely between my legs.
One of the guys snaps a photo of Kate and I as we pass, and promises to get it to us somehow. I’m too tired to think too much about it so I just nod and belay Kate up to me. The sun is slowly dipping towards the horizon and I want to top out before it sets, doing the down climb is no fun in the dark. We climb up through the chimney, Kate getting lost and me shouting bad directions to her. I’ve never looked at the topo for this climb, I’ve always just kinda gone up. But we manage, finally topping out and sitting on our third summit of the day, gratefully exhausted and ready for a nap.
We take our obligatory summit selfies, down the last of our food, and begin our descent. The wandery, slightly exposed down climb feels like nothing compared to the never ending exposed down climbs and traverses of Matthes Crest.
At the base of Cathedral, Kate looks at her watch and says, “It’s 6:16 right now, if we hurry we can probably make it back to the car in a clean 45 minutes and get this whole thing done in under 13 hours.”
The hike is only 3 miles until we’re back to the car, and it’s all down hill.
“Lets do it.” I grin, shouldering my pack and turning towards the trailhead. We walk briskly down the well maintained trail. It’s the nicest trail we’ve walked on all day, most of today was spent cross country traveling over streams, through undisturbed meadows and along undefined granite scree.
This trail feel luxurious.
Hiking in Tuolumne is a pursuit on its own. When I come here I can see why Yosemite is one of the most beloved national parks in our country. Colors seem brighter here in contrast to the ever present grey and white speckled granite. The green grass grows defiantly out of thick black soil, next to crystal clear streams that bubble up out of the ground seemingly without provocation.
The blue sky is bluer, the white clouds whiter, the air is thinner and feels more precious. Each gulp more grateful than the last because of its scarcity.
The only thing that seems paler is the sun. The yellow light is pale and bright. It encompasses everything as it travels brilliantly across the sky, somehow feeling harsher, colder, less forgiving than the sun I know at sea level. I lick my cracked lips and taste blood. The metallic tang of lips burnt and chapped and burnt again annoys, but does not shock me. I reach for my chapstick, knowing it’s too late, but applying it anyway as I watch Kate continue to gain distance on me.
“Hiking with damn tall people.” I mutter under my breath as Kate lightly steps over a fallen tree. I scramble ungracefully over it a few second later and break into a jog to fall into step behind her.
“What time is it?” I ask Kate, she always has a watch on. It’s an east coast thing, I’ve never known someone from the west coast to wear a watch.
She glances down at her wrist, “6:54. How much farther?”
I look around, “It can’t be more than a half a mile. We’re almost there.” I pant. I’m not thinking about my legs, I’m not thinking about anything except the bubbly water I have in Kates van.
A few minutes later, we break away from the tree line and Kates vehicle comes into view.
“Whooooo!” I shout as I stride quickly towards it. Peeling off my backpack, sunshirt, tank top, hiking shoes and socks as I do so. I drop my damp bag and clothes on the ground and throw open the side door. I grope around for the flip flops I know I have stored under the passengers seat, and Kate hands me a bubbly water.
“Cheers!” She smiles, “To The Triple!”
I cheers her, hug her, and smile. “To The Triple!”
Later that night I’m sitting barefoot on what I call ’the stoop’ of my van, the place where the sliding door opens. I sit and look up at the stars, a can of beer in my hand, thoughts of sleep on my mind. Kate’s parked next to me. We’re both exhausted, but happy and tired.
Did I have fun?
I reflect on the day. I was scared for half of it, in pain for most of it, thirsty and hungry for a lot of it, and exhausted during the last 3 hours of it. I feel my lips, chapped and scabbed. There is a sore spot against the front of my shoulder where my back pack has rubbed my skin raw. My finger tips are blistered and a hangnail caught on something today and bled freely.
But did I have fun?
I thought about the view from Matthes. I thought about the look on Kates face when we topped out Cathedral. I thought about the taste of the water we drank directly from a stream. I thought about the stretch of soloing where Kate and I sang pop songs from memory and talked about boys. I thought of the picture I saw, hand drawn in the summit register at the top of Tenaya, left there by a friend.
I smiled and tipped back the last of the beer into my mouth, “Goodnight Kate.” I said towards her van, not sure if she was asleep yet.
I took one last look at the stars over head and close the door.