"In the mountains you've got to run"

by Paul Doherty, 1996

"Possible afternoon thundershowers," an ominous forecast. On Saturday a light shower from a passing cumulonimbus cloud had sent us scurrying down Lembert Dome from the top of the Northwest Books &emdash; a classic 2 pitch 5.6 to which I had added the optional 5.6+ final pitch variation. The rain added a layer of extra excitement to our descent down acres of steep friction slabs .

I've climbed enough in the Sierra to know the expected weather pattern, since it rained late today, then tomorrow we should expect heavier rains earlier in the day. Our goal was to climb Cathedral Peak. I proposed a departure time that would get us to the summit by 2 PM, ahead of the rainstorms. We got a slightly late 8:30 AM start from the cars at the busy Cathedral Lake trailhead, but Bill and Chris kept up with my punishingly fast uphill pace in the hot morning sun. So that we arrived at the base of the buttress exactly at 10 AM. just as I had planned. Two parties were already on the route but they were already two pitches up and so wouldn't slow us down at all.

We greased ourselves up with sunscreen, strapped on packs containing water, lunch, warm clothes and rain suits and hit the rocks at 10:30 AM. I raced up the first pitch but then my plans went awry. Bill was climbing second and climbed slowly and deliberately taking a half hour on the relatively easy first pitch, a pitch that would have taken Hal and I 10 minutes each to climb. The pitch ended up taking an hour. Chris raced up in good time. By 11:30 clouds had appeared in the sky and grown into cumulus, some with rain already pouring from their bottoms. I considered retreating now while the going was good, but the weather was still OK so I thought we could try one more pitch. I gave Chris the rack and pointed him up the second pitch. It was his first lead for a year and he did great. Unfortunately, during this pitch a cumulus grew over us darkening the sun, the wind came up and it started to rain. I put on my polypro and full rainsuit and waited on the ledge below. I finally got to start climbing an hour later. By the time I reached the belay ledge, the clouds had moved on, and the sun had returned, it looked like we might be in for a good day.

I grabbed the rack and raced up through the bottleneck chimney pitch just barely ahead of the three groups that had started an hour after us and that were rapidly catching up. Bill and Chris did a fine job on the chimney and we gained some time on our pursuers. Chris gave me the fourth lead, a great pitch high in the sky. Far to the south I saw a distant cumulus that was on a track to hit us later in the day. By the time we were at the top of the fourth pitch the distant cumulus had grown into a large black cumulonimbus, lightning flickered from its bottom. Counting seconds between lightning and thunder showed it was just less than 20 miles away. I didn't want to be on the pointed summit in a lightning storm.

In a move that was to prove fortuitous, Chris took the last lead. With encouragement from the approaching thunder cloud he lead it quickly. The storm was rapidly closing in on us. As Bill started to climb the pitch, I coiled the rope and free soloed up next to him, pointing out footholds and encouraging him to move more quickly. The sharp crack of thunder added motivation and he fairly flew up the pitch. When we reached Chris sitting below the summit block he pointed out that the rocks were singing an electrical song of hisses and crackles So we quickly belayed Bill to the top of the tourist route and sent him down toward the safety of the talus. Chris followed him while I wrestled with the ropes (I knew we might need them on the wet friction slabs of the descent.)

Accompanied by hissing electrical noises, we made a quick descent and I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the talus. Two of the three parties behind us arrived on the summit just as the storm hit. Luckily for them, this time the lightning missed the peak. On the way out, we discussed how an easy peak can become exciting in a hurry in a thunderstorm.

Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 1999

4 Apr 99