Fri, Aug 3, 2007
Day 1 of the Sierra Challenge usually brings out a fair number of participants despite it being a Friday. Enthusiasm is high with injuries and attrition not yet taking their toll. As I drove into the Twin Lakes Resort parking lot shortly before 6a there at first appeared to be only a few bodies buzzing about at that hour. But within five minutes the masses had coalesced around my car and we had thirteen altogether for the start. Most I had met on previous outings, but we had a few new faces among the group to add additional interest.
Anyone that has hiked the trail to Horse Creek Pass knows that one of the trickiest spots is right at the beginning in just trying to find the trail through the large campground that occupies the west end of the lake. Our group got over the bridges to the creek ok, and started up the switchbacks heading south. I wasn't sure it was the correct fork, but those in front seemed less confused than myself. David W reminded me of the "shortcut" that follows the creek, and along with Rick K, the three of us broke off from the back of the group and made our way through the forest and towards the creek. It turned out to be no shortcut at all as I saw the lead group headed by Michael G up ahead on the trail every time our use trail came close to the main one. We eventually all merged back onto the main trail as we made our way up the hanging valley.
We found ourselves at the south end of the meadow found in the high valley in about an hour's time, where we took a short break before splitting into two groups. The five of us (Rick K, Dave D, Michael G, Glenn G, and myself) heading to the Doodad crossed the creek and started up cross-country for several thousand feet of boulders and talus. The others, heading to Whorl and Matterhorn, were able to utilize the use trail found in the main canyon heading to Horse Creek Pass.
The cross-country scramble to the sawtooth ridge is not an easy one, as it seems to go on for a very long time. Much of it is exposed to the warm summer sun with but a few trees to offer shade along the way. After about an hour and a half Polemonium Col and The Doodad come into view ahead - finally we seems to be getting somewhere. The nearby Dragtooth with the class 4 NE Ridge was our backup in case the approach to the pass was too icy, but from our vantage below it looked like the north side of Polimonium Pass would have little ice. It took another half hour to reach the base of the snowfield where we found it a bit tricky traversing off the moraine and onto the snow.
Glenn and I were the first to reach the snowfield as we donned our crampons and headed up before the other three had gotten off the moraine. I headed directly for the shiny sections reflecting brightly in the morning sun, wanting to test for ice before we got to the steeper sections in the shade ahead. I was happy to find not ice, but a slushy mix of water and melting snow. It had apparently not gotten below freezing the previous night, and possibly not for several nights before that. I moved back to the firmer snow that provided good traction for the crampons, next heading for the shade ahead to get out of the sun as soon as possible. After half an hour on the snow, Glenn and I had reached the small bergshrund where the slope necks down to a couloir and grows steeper. Though a bit intimidating, the bergshrund proved easy enough to surmount and the snow maintained good traction. It was not soft enough to kick nice steps in as we would have preferred, but there was very little ice and the crampons took to the snow quite well. Glenn took over the lead position for a short while, then gave it back to me as he soon tired - we were kicking small steps, which provided small purchase for a moderate amount of exertion. It took only another fifteen minutes to reach Polemonium Pass once past the bergshrund, but by the sweat and effort we expended it seemed like much more.
Michael was probably less than five minutes behind us in climbing to the pass, Rick and Dave another ten minutes behind him, but we waited for none of them once we had taken off and packed up our crampons. By now I was quite eager to get an up close look at the Doodad, and the best climbing looked to be just ahead of us. The south side of the pass is a steep but easy class 2 descent that could easily be taken all the way to the valley below. Based on one of the trip reports, our plan was to descend as little as possible and climb the class 3-4 rock on the southeast side of the peak to the base of the Doodad. After dropping down only about 50 feet, Glenn was ready to traverse right onto the more solid rock, though that first step was going to be a little iffy. As he stood looking at the reachy move, I first watched, then declined to follow even before he had attempted it. "Too dicey," I decided and dropped down another 40 feet for an easier traverse. Glenn hesitated after I had declined, then decided to play it more conservatively and followed me to the easier transition.
Michael caught up to us as we moved onto the more solid rock, then the three of us made our way up about 200-300ft to the summit. The granite was of a fairly decent quality, though not without a few holds that either shifted or broke off, keeping us on our toes. It was not easy scrambling, but not scary either, finding that find balance that makes for a very enjoyable climb in the backcountry. It took about 25 minutes to scramble up the face, and just after 10a we found ourselves on the summit ridge, one last pinnacle away from the Doodad out of sight to the west. Michael had earlier questioned whether we shouldn't being moving left to end up under or southwest of the Doodad rather than to the east, but I pooh-poohed that suggestion as I found the climbing straight up to be more enjoyable than a traverse. Looking at that last pinnacle I thought I was about to eat my words when I found I could not get around it either on the north or south side, but then it occurred to me that I could climb up and over it which worked quite nicely. And just like that, I found my self staring at that wondrous monolith that to date I had only admired from afar or in pictures.
It was an impressive sight, the 30-foot piece of rough granite jutting from the ridge, canting at an angle to the north. On first look, it certainly seemed unclimbable. But we had done homework before this climb and knew just where to look for the climbable route to top. I descended to the base of the Doodad, dropping my pack on the east side, then manuevering around to examine the 5.6 route on the south side. It looked as awkward and ugly as it had been described. Of the three of us, Glenn was the best climber, and as it turned out the only one who had brought climbing shoes. We had no trouble at all deciding Glenn should lead it, and Glenn had no trouble accepting the dubious honor. While Glenn changed out of his boots, I flaked out the 8.5mm/30m rope I had carried for the occasion, and in short order we had Glenn at the front end of the rope to lead the charge as I belayed him from below.
Glenn did a fine job of the climb. The crux comes after the first ten feet, a chimney move of sorts to inch up some two feet or so to get to the better holds and easier terrain above while only half secure in the flaring chimney. He made it look so smooth and effortless that it was over in less than 30 seconds. It took him longer to put in a piece of protection above the crux than it did for him to work his way through it. Once on top, Glenn took advantage of the two aging bolts to secure himself to the summit and set up a belay. Dave and Rick had appeared by this time and were watching the action from the small pinnacle to the east, taking photos all the while. My turn came next, and though it wasn't as hard as I had anticipated, a short slip I made in the crux section had me thanking the gods I was on top rope and not leading. I was acutely aware of the shortcomings of hiking boots as rock climbing shoes. Michael followed in turn, also in boots, and we took a short break with three of us on the summit.
The register showed the summit feature to be a surprisingly popular climb. There were many entries dating back to the 1990s and earlier, quite a few in recent years. Clouds had begun to move over the summit and other parts of the crest, keeping our attention at least partially aware of their development. Afternoon rains the last two days had us wary of the pattern, but we were happy to find that there would be no such precipitation today, nor for the rest of the ten days. I wanted to get some photos of the others on the Doodad from below, so before Dave and Rick had moved into action I had rapped off the east side of the block. The 30m rope was just enough to reach the bottom (which a comfortable margin of maybe six extra feet) which means either the block is higher than 30ft or my rope a bit shorter than 30m. Michael came down in quick succession after me, then the rope was repositioned and Glenn belayed Rick up to the summit (thanks Glenn for all your patience as the belay slave after a fine lead). Once Rick was on top, Glenn rapped off the summit himself, turning belay duty over to Rick.
Dave was the last to climb to the summit, lamenting half-jokingly that nobody was hanging around to take pictures of him. I had started to descend to the southwest in order to get pictures of the route from that side, telling Dave not to worry, his climb would be duly recorded in pictures. At least one anyway. Having spent almost an hour with the rope and summit block, the three of us were eager to get on with the adventure as we still planned to climb both the Dragtooth and Matterhorn Peak along the crest east of the Doodad. Since it would be too difficult to try to follow the crest, we dropped down on the Southwest side in order to reach easier sandy talus traversing some 500 feet lower on the south side. The scrambling proved to be as hard as we had found on the ascent, not the easier climbing we had expected. The route-finding proved tricky as we got cliffed on one line of descent after another, though we kept finding ways to continue downward via another path. At one point our descent chute became blocked by a large chockstone that left a drop of some 30 feet or more. Glenn explored the escape to the left while Michael looked to the right, but neither looked promising. Luckily we had another rope in one of our packs that we could use to rap down if needed. I moved down to the top of the chockstone looking for anchors to attach a rap sling to, but instead found a small hole that looked like it might lead down and past the chockstone. It was one of those improbable escapes that would have missed our attention altogether if we hadn't had the rope to warrant exploring it further, and a lucky find. I handed my pack to Michael as I wormed my way down and through the twisty passage, elated to find no harder obstacle below. Michael handed me my pack, then his own, then followed through the tunnel.
It took only half an hour to descend to easier ground from the base of the Doodad, but it had taken its toll on my energy level. I told the others that one of them would have to talk me into climbing the Dragtooth at this point because my interest had seriously waned. The other two were just as happy to forgo the climb of that bonus peak in favor of getting to Matterhorn sooner. Bypassing Matterhorn wasn't really an option because short of descending Polemonium Pass (which none of us was keen on), it was the shortest route back to Twin Lakes. But the Dragtooth was truly an optional effort and none of us cared to make a longer day of it than needed.
We headed to the West Face of Matterhorn, aiming for one of several chutes that descend from summit area. We had heard that the West Face was a good climb, but what we found was somewhat disappointing. Rather than good rock, we found the chutes littered with a good deal of debris, and though by no means a dangerous or sketchy route, it was mostly a less-than-exciting class 2 talus scramble, occassionally highlighted with a short class 3 section. We'd kept our eyes out for Rick and Dave as we progressed up our chosen chute, but it wasn't until we were half the way up that we spotted them on the traverse somewhere below Polemonium Pass. They were studying that side of the Dragtooth from below, though I'm sure it just looked like a jumble of rock from that vantage. They had apparently not seen us traverse all the way to Matterhorn and were still under the impression that we had gone to the Dragtooth. Not to be outdone in the bonus peak category, they started up to the summit.
Our arrival at the summit of Matterhorn Peak nicely coincided with Rick and Dave reaching the Dragtooth. Though probably half a mile or so distant, we could clearly make out their tiny figures atop the highest block on the Dragtooth to the west. Nearby, I was surprised to find only one other participant had beaten us to the summit. Looking down the SE Slopes, I could see more than half a dozen climbers making their way up, spread out along the class 2 route. Many of these we came to find later had already been to Whorl Mtn and were now after Matterhorn for a bonus peak, much as ourselves. I hailed them from above with a wave and a whistle, and got a few waves in return from those closest to us, near the top of the East Couloir.
There was much passing of climbers heading up and down as we descended the SE Slopes while the others were still making their way up. The three of us had decided to take the most straightforward route back by way of Horse Creek Pass where we could take advantage of a decent use trail through most of the cross-country portion. Having been down this route several times in the past, there were no surprises other than the fact that the descent was a good deal faster than we had remembered. It took only three hours to descend from the summit all the way back to Twin Lakes. Along the way we caught up with Mike Larkin who had started in the morning for Matterhorn about half an hour before the main body (he was the one who'd beaten us to Matterhorn's summit). Getting back by 3:30p was a good deal sooner than we had expected when we were first deciding not to go to the Dragtooth. In hindsight I was having some regrets, but consoling myself that it would be better via the class 3 NE Ridge at some future date. Further consolation would be had in the way of a very fine early dinner at the Whoa Nellie, a nice end to a great day of climbing in the Sawtooth Range.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: The Doodad - Matterhorn Peak
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