Peak(s):  Cathedral Pk A  -  13,943 feet
Date Posted:  06/30/2010
Date Climbed:   06/28/2010
Author:  Jon Frohlich
 Emotion and beauty in the Elks  

Cathedral Peak from Cathedral Lake TH
Climbers: Layne and Jon
June 28, 2010
Miles: 9.0 miles
Elevation gain: 4,063 ft (from Roach)

Up or down? What's the right decision when faced with something right in front of you? Is this safe to ascend? Do you trust your instincts and your past experience? I could write this and edit out my thoughts and make it sound like a nice, easy stroll but I wouldn't feel right about it.

Layne and I made plans last week to meet up on Monday to climb Cathedral. I was out on a rafting trip through the Royal Gorge with friends on Saturday and then bummed around on Sunday before heading into Aspen to camp. I camped off Castle Creek Road at campsite #4. For some reason a guy at campsite #5 chose to leave his dog unleashed all night while he went into Aspen to party (presumably). His dog barked all night at every shadow and noise he heard. Finally I abandoned my tent and slept in the car since the barking was muffled a bit. I'm sure no one else camped in the area got much sleep either.

Slightly tired I drove the 10 minutes down the road to the trailhead to meet Layne who had a much better idea and had camped right in the parking lot. We started off up the trail just before 5am. The sun quickly came up and we made steady progress up the trail to the lake. We hit some steep switchbacks and made our way past the Electric Pass turnoff to finally see the lake in front of us.

Malamute Peak from the lake

Red arrow marking the standard route up Cathedral

From this vantage point the view wasn't what we'd hoped. The gully we intended to climb was half melted. Trip reports from this time of year in the past have shown much more snow and a full gully. Not this time. We decided to continue ahead and didn't worry too much about it. We contoured north around the lake and found a spot narrow enough to leap across and then ascended up talus and grass to intersect a climbers trail heading up into the basin.

The climb up into the basin reminded me a lot of the Pyramid amphitheater. We traversed one snow field that allowed passage up close to the base of the gully. The melted out portion of the gully was dirt and scree. Layne went left and I went right. Neither was great but we made decent progress. I eventually found more solid ground on the far right and used some ledges to get over to the base of the snow. At this point I realized I had sliced my finger open and was bleeding all over. I found a solid ledge and bandaged up my finger before putting on my crampons.

I believe at this point it was 8:30am. We had heard some rocks come down the gully but nothing too major and the snow appeared to be firm. Was it too late in the day? We knew the snow was well consolidated and that the climb up at least should be fine. What about down? We both made the decision to go for it. I know others that would have turned back. I know that a decision like this is never easy. Your brain sorts through all your past experience and you have to make a call. I can't say we made the right one or the wrong one. I've backed off climbs before when I felt uncomfortable. I've not gone at all when I've felt for some reason that I wasn't supposed to be on a climb. Recently I decided not to go to Little Bear after Kevin's accident because it felt wrong. This time it felt like this one was within my comfort zone and it was fine to head up. I've learned over the years to have some faith in my instincts. It's still hard to make the decision when in the moment.

I followed Layne up onto the snow. It was in good shape. He cruised up wanting to get out of the gully as soon as possible. I followed as quickly as I could. We both ascended the roughly 250 feet of snow in about 15 minutes. At the saddle we dumped the axes and crampons and left them for our return. I followed Layne up the remaining climb. It was longer than we expected but it was not very difficult climbing. Mostly Class 2 with a few easy Class 3 moves thrown in near the very top. At 9:15am I met Layne on the gorgeous, warm, and windless summit.

Cathedral Lake from the summit

Castle and Conundrum from the summit

Maroon Bells, Pyramid, and Capitol from the summit

Looking at Triangle Pass and the Conundrum Hot Springs (middle and slightly left near rock glacier)

Layne on the summit

Me on the summit

We relaxed and soaked in the view for about 15 minutes before heading back down. The climb down went easily and at 10am we again reached the top of the gully. The moment of truth. Now we're committed. We have to go down. We put the crampons back on. Ice axe in hand and heart rate in check I turned to face in and started stepping my way down. As it got steeper my pulse quickened and I concentrated on each step. Plunge the axe, three steps down, move the axe down and plunge again. Repeat... a lot. Progress seemed slow. Every time I looked up the top was still close. Layne was below me doing the same thing. Every 10-20 steps I'd put my knees in the snow and rest but the effort and mental concentration was exhausting.

Looking down at Cathedral Lake from the top of the gully

Looking back up at the climb to the summit from the top of the gully

Eventually Layne decided to try side stepping down when it got less steep. The snow was quite slushy and made for awkward crampon placements. He appeared to be doing ok so I decided to try it. 3 steps in I found out this was not a good idea. My crampon slipped, then both. Instinct led me to plunge the axe in as hard as I could. The axe held. Eventually after what seemed like eternity I turned back facing in to dig the crampons back into the snow and breathed again. Nerves now shot and heart rate way up I resumed my slow progress down. It was hot and I was sweating like crazy.

Layne called out from his spot that it was 30 more feet vertical from his position to dry land. Ok, for me that means 60....great. More steps, more slushy crampon placements, plunge the axe, don't screw step at a time. Finally I saw Layne on a corner on dry land... 10 more feet. Some awkward postholing the last few steps. Off the snow...sit down, work the crampons off with shaking hands. Try to get the heart rate back to normal. The next 30 minutes were not the best. I felt shaky and off. I down climbed the rest of the scree back to the rock glacier in a bit of a daze. I didn't feel great and my progress was slow. My heart still wouldn't slow down to normal and my asthma had kicked up slightly. I followed Layne back across the climbers trail at a slow pace. We took a break and I pounded a few Clif Shots and some food. I felt a little better and we continued down to the lake.

We followed the climbers trail all the way to a different stream crossing farther north of the lake. I'm not sure how you'd find this spot in the morning but it was definitely nice to have on the way down. Some willow bashing brought us back to the main trail. I still wasn't moving quickly and between lack of sleep and the climb my body felt shot. The hike down was nice and finally at 1pm I reached the car a few minutes after Layne.

Did we make the right call? I don't know. We made the summit on a beautiful day and aside from a cut on my finger we got back in one piece. Cathedral is an amazing summit and wound up being a very memorable day.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions

Emotion indeed...
07/01/2010 02:01
It was a harrowing experience just reading your description of the descent!

My partner and I were out there the day before and went through the same contemplation at the sight of the half-melted out couloir. We ended up bailing... I feel like we made the right call, but I don‘t question your decision either. You were cautious and made it down safely. Good work on getting this peak in less than ideal conditions! Lovely photos, too.


07/01/2010 02:51
Congrats on your summit. It is an accomplishment for sure. I have tried that mountain twice and got turned around both times. I had what I believe to be the closest call I ever had in the mountains on Cathedral last June. Almost got hit with a microwave sized rock while climbing up the couloir around 8am. Didn‘t see it, didn‘t hear it, just felt it...and jumped. I‘m happy you made it down safe.

Layne Bracy

Nice write-up!
07/01/2010 02:54
Thanks, Jon - I enjoyed your writing and photos. Good to finally meet and hike with you after reading your posts all these years!

Summit Lounger

Dog still there next night.......
07/01/2010 03:45
We camped at spot #3 the night of the 28th, and we had the same experience as you did the night before with the dog. What gives?
Congratulations on summiting Cathedral. Too bad the snow is melting so fast. Nice pictures.


Pulling no punches...
07/01/2010 04:12
Great introspection, Jon. Glad you made it up and down unscathed. I‘ll be thinking about this peak until next June. FWIW, I tried to camp at the Cathedral TH Saturday night but there was a wedding going on down the road with live music so I had to sleep in the car. More specifically, I had to sleep in the front seat of my Honda Civic. I don‘t think a 3 A.M. alarm ever sounded so good.


07/01/2010 04:17
you really captured the intesity of that downclimb. I‘ve never been up there to see it myself, but I can imagine. I want to climb it this year, just not sure I will. The mountain‘s jagged cathedral-like spires are something else, and the view from the top looks amazing, esp towards the Bells, Pyramid, and Cap. Nice TR.


Great report!
07/01/2010 12:29
I can use this report in the next few weeks, although snow is probably going fast.


Beautiful photos ...
07/01/2010 15:43
I had forgotten how great the views were from that peak ... makes me want to go climb it again. Thanks for posting. Happy trails!


Thanks for the Report
07/02/2010 16:34
Jon, Thanks for the dramatic report. Too bad the snow melted out so quickly this year. I climbed this one a few years back from a camp at the lake when there was still plenty of snow in the gully; it was a great day. I still use a photo taken at the lake as my screen saver, it makes my coworkers jealous.
I‘m planning on climbing a lot of thirteeners this summer, hope I run into you again.

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