Yosemite Ice Climbing: Clouds Rest

Zac of Seattle, Washington, contributed this post to our Adventure of the Week Series. Follow him as he ice climbs up the northwest gully of Clouds Rest in this trip report.

WHO: Aaron and Zac
WHAT: Ice Climb on Clouds Rest’s NW gully
WHERE: Tenaya Drainage, Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park
WHEN: December 28, 2011
GEAR: 6 screws (all stubbies), assorted climbing nuts, few cams to 2″, 70m dry rope, some PB+J’s, and RadioLab podcasts

It’s been one of those winters where we have to get recreationally creative, and it’s no secret that Sierra’s ice is in rare fatty condition. Complete with easy low-snow access makes it feel like cheating in the alpine. The photos of Drug Dome from early December were enticing, but learning that up to five parties were hitting it on a busy day we feared it would be more a peg board than an ice climb. So we made some calls, got some vague beta, and ventured out to look at Clouds Rest’s steeper NE flows.

We left the western edge of Tenaya Lake just after 7am in the morning twilight. Some quick forested navigation brought us to the top of the creek’s outlet where it flows toward open southern slabs. Running around Tuolumne comfortably without gaiters in the dead of winter felt awkward, but that all changed when I punched through the ice up to my knee. Pulling my left leg out as fast as possible my boot and pants were only 90% wet. I live in the Cascades; we consider that still pretty dry. Moving to the south bank to avoid the creek’s frozen flow, we then scampered down the slabs as the sunrise’s alpenglow was taking fine form.

The beta was minimal, and the only ice we found in this first valley looked like WI 1 at most with no flow dropping down even half way. Our optimism started to transition to slight skepticism that anything had the volume to create a long or steep enough line. But we continued down into the pocket forest at the bottom of the huge granite spoon where we wrapped around the north edge until we regained Tenaya Creek. We were hoping the steeper NE-facing gully on the map with stacked contour lines would offer what we were seeking.

Once at the top of the canyon close to where the rap sites start for the Tenaya to Valley route, we crossed the creek and moved up slope using a talus field to gain a couple hundred feet of elevation. This provided good access for contouring around toward the steeper wall. On a drier day one could have used the slabs to shave some time, however we had surface hoar-like crystals on the rock which made even a little exposure pretty nerve racking. A couple hours earlier Aaron exercised his rally car driving skills with a hard left turn drift as common in blockbuster films. With Geo Metro sideways at 45 mph sliding by the Tioga Pass Resort, he looked over calmly and stated, “little slick up here, eh?” Classic sandbag comment.

As we came around a talus’d sub-ridge we finally got an eye on our sought gully. Ice was indeed extending down to touch the snow field where steeper cleft offered better shade. Things looked rather thin on pitch one and pitch two, but moderate angle enough to give it a shot. Aaron, who is always grinning when a rope comes out of a bag regardless of how scary something might look, was salivating for pitch one. With a few careful steps he worked up the intermittent sheet of 1-inch ice for about 30 feet before it finally thickened up enough for a stubby. A few ice steps and a couple screws later brought him up to a rock anchor well positioned just left of pitch two.

We transferred the gear, and I headed up into an auditory-brail assignment. This steeper sheet was noticeably more hollow with a thin 2 inches at best. Listening for the sounds was like hunting for a stud in dry wall. It hinted to traverse right 20 feet before committing to the slightly runout wall above. Precise yet soft swings followed by tip-toeing steps let me gain the first of two small rock roofs that offered a marginal cam placement. 35 more feet of thin and steep terrain opened up to much more solid ice. I took a couple big breathes, and then stretched the 70m rope up to some comfy ledges under pitch three.

This final steeper wall was fun WI 3 climbing. Aaron made quick work on its right side with a shallow ice dihedral, which was steeper but had great stemming. A handful of screws and a few rock placements gave way to straight forward ground as the gully kicked back. We downed a quick lunch, and assessed the mellower slopes above. Starting out simo’ing a couple pitches we soon realized that was rather pointless and de-roped. Another 300-400′ vert of soloing small but fun ice steps (WI 2 max) brought us to the forested bench above the gully.

We packed up and found the trail to Clouds Rest’s summit just beyond the horizon line where we topped out. A short hike to the summit allowed us to enjoy the sunshine as we took in the view of Half Dome and the rest of the valley below.

Shouldering our packs, we turning around and heading back on the trail to Tenaya Lake. Podcasts were deployed to keep us in the zone as we motored in the final two hours of daylight. We arrived back just in time to catch the evening alpine rays on Tenaya Peak. With road sodas issued we headed a few miles west to the overlook to enjoy the last part of the sunset and gain perspective on the ice line.

Certainly not too technically challenging of a line (WI 4- would be generous as the cruxes are limited), but Clouds Rest offered a fantastic day in the mountains with a high novelty factor; easy access only comes in once every decade or two. Wandering around a very vacant Tuolumne was a bit surreal as it is rare we get to experience National Parks so uncrowded.

Here is our timing if it helps with your planning:
7:15am Trailhead
9:45am Base of Climb
2:00pm Top of Climb
2:30pm Cloud’s Rest Summit
4:45pm Trailhead

The Tahoe Mountain Sports Adventure of the Week blog series takes a walk (or hike, bike, surf, Yosemite ice climbing trip) in someone else’s shoes, from pro athletes to local Tahoe adventurers. Let us know if you’ve got an adventure to share.

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