Tue, Jul 26, 2011
Matterhorn is a poorly named summit in the far northeastern reaches of Nevada, near the isolated town of Jarbidge, not far from the Idaho border. The community is reputed to be the furthest from a paved road of any permanently occupied town in the lower 48. It is so isolated from the rest of Nevada that the townsfolk consider themselves part of Idaho and even observe Idaho's Mountain Time Zone, the only part of Nevada to do so. Our approach from Elko, NV would entail hours of driving with more than 50 miles of dirt road. The highpoint of the Jarbidge Mountains is the 10,800-foot Matterhorn with nearly 4,700ft of prominence, the highest point for many miles around. Adam was very interested in this peak I had not even heard about until a few weeks earlier.
Having slept the night high in Lamoille Canyon, we were up early at 3a to drop my van off at the Smith Market in Elko before carpooling for the long drive north to Jarbidge. We followed paved SR225 north for an hour, then 50 miles of dirt on county roads 746, 748 and 751 over two passes that had just recently been cleared of snow and opened for the season. Unlike other parts of Nevada, we found the landscape much greener, blanketed in fields of summertime flowers in some places, mature forests in others. It was certainly a wetter, greener range than most others in the state. Most of the dirt road was in good condition that could be driven by any vehicle, but of course at a much slower pace. We were lucky to have Adam's Ford Escape that allowed us to speed along at a good clip. Our TH turnoff came a few miles short of Jarbidge, a sharp south turn onto a much poorer road that followed the Jarbidge River upstream for several miles, growing rougher past a campground. The hardest part was a foot-deep crossing of the river that bounced the car hard as Adam gunned across, focused on not getting stuck at the bottom. The road was completely washed out about a quarter mile past this crossing, so it had gained us little. It was not long after 8a before we had parked the car and started off.
The washout was about a mile downstream of the old end of road as evidence by a shiny white sign found there. Another half mile further up the (now) trail is the old TH and kiosk, the latter looking underutilized. Just past this is the Jarbidge Wilderness boundary. Our plan was rather simple - follow the trail up the Jarbidge River to the pass, turn north and follow the crest of the range over six summits, then back down to the cars. The large loop would cover about 15 miles and 6,000ft of gain, an honest day's effort by our estimation. We spent the first two and a half hours making our way up the trail. It was an easy grade and a cinch to follow the well-maintained tread. The trail junctions were well-marked and the scenery was delightful. There were a variety of wildflowers on display and the forests were reminiscent of those found in the Sierra. We'd heard that the surrounding area is the only place in Nevada that supports commercial forestry, but who knows if that is true. Certainly some of forests around Tahoe on the Nevada side could support commercial harvests.
Somewhere before Jarbidge Lake, Adam and I got separated when I stopped for a potty break. I was off the trail for some time afterwards, passing by the lake and regaining the trail above the lake. Unbeknownst to me, Adam had stopped to wait for me in the forest while I continued up to the pass. I reached the pass around 10:45a where I expected to find Adam, but of course he was nowhere to be found. I briefly considered he might be behind me and waited about fifteen minutes before convincing myself otherwise. I figured he would certainly stop atop the first peak, so if I didn't see him there I would wait for him to catch up.
From the pass, the cross-country route follows the main crest upwards and north along a number of peaks along the way. This wasn't the fastest way to reach Matterhorn, but it was an efficient way to tag all the peaks while traversing most of the crest. The first summit was Government Peak, unnamed on the topo map, but shown on my GPS (and later in the USGS database and elsewhere online). Climbing up from the pass, the forest soon gave way to mostly talus slopes, which would mark the dominant order of the day. The windswept ridgeline provided many hours and miles of scenic views off to the west and east. I reached Government Peak's summit shortly before 11:30a, finding no sign of Adam. Settling in for a long wait, I scouted the ridgeline to the south that I had just come up and was happy to spot Adam only five minutes behind me. Soon joining me at the 10,180-foot summit, we eyed the line of peaks in front of us to the north, the rest of the day's peaks lined up one after another, stretching along the crest for more than four miles.
It took us 30 minutes to traverse to the second summit, Cougar Peak, at over 10,500ft. A small glass jar with a rusty lid held a collection of loose pages all crammed into the small space. It was not a very impressive register. There was a superb view of Marys River Peak to the south and our highest objective of the day to the north, Matterhorn, about a mile and a half distance. Not all along the ridge was talus, of course. Sometimes we would find compacted dirt and rock that made for easy sailing, other times ugly boulder fields that slowed us down and tested our patience. The traverse between Cougar and and Matterhorn seemed to have none of the easy stuff and all manner of the uglier terrain, in particular a very tedious boulder field leading up the south side of Matterhorn. It took us an hour and a half to cover the distance between the summits, the slowest section we encountered all day. We were worried that such terrain would make for a long day, but things improved afterwards.
It was almost 1:30p when we reached the decidedly non-Matterhorn-looking Matterhorn summit. Whoever named it such must have had a wild imagination, perhaps enlivened by boredom or lonliness in the Nevada wilderness, maybe one too many shots of whiskey at the local Jarbidge tavern, possibly some combination. A register at the summit dated to 1992. Some recent names were recognizable such as Ken Jones and Dean Molen, but many were wholely unfamiliar. At 10,838ft, it was the highest point of the day and indeed the highest point for more than 50 air miles in any direction (N - E - S - W).
Next up was Square Top, about 45 minutes further north along the ridge, and about 200ft lower than Matterhorn. The register found on its summit was a 1987 MacLeod/Lilley classic. The terrain heading north from Square Top was much more pleasant on the feet and we made good time reaching the next summit, Jumbo Peak before 3p. I had no luck finding a register in my impatient style (if it isn't visible by walking around, I rarely find it). I reported this to Adam who was just behind me in reaching the summit, but he brushed this aside as the work of an amateur. He walked around the summit rocks, marked by a wooden stake, eyed things with careful consideration, then began to remove a few rocks. I continued to blather about there not being a register until Adam silenced me with a simple, "Quiet, while I work." His thoroughness paid off when he extracted a small plastic film canister from among the rocks. It contained a single signature from 2004.
Our last peak of the day was Jarbidge Peak (with everything else named "Jarbidge" around here, there was bound to be a peak, also), the second highest after Matterhorn at over 10,700ft. Lying close to the northern terminus of the crest, it had the finest views looking north into the great, flat expanse of Southern Idaho to the north. After traveling around Nevada for the better part of a week, we had gotten used to the very regular Nevada terrain of mountain range followed by valley followed by mountain range. Nowhere in Nevada had I seen such an expanse of flat land that now stretched out before us for 75 miles. It was as if the Nevada landscape just gave way and a new one was there to take its place. Its unlikely that this had anything to do with the placement of the NV/ID border, but from our vantage point it certainly seemed appropriate. Once again I was unable to find a register and once more Adam's meticulous searching skills came up with another film canister register, also placed in 2004 by the same Idaho climber that had left the one on Jumbo.
We had completed most of our loop by this time with our car less than two miles below us to the west. We were heartened during the traverse to Jarbidge Peak as we noted the West Ridge descending from Jarbridge did not appear at all brushy and would perhaps work out just fine. This was the section of the route we had no information about ahead of time, and were happy to see that our luck was holding out. Together we descended more than 1,000ft until I ended up ahead of Adam by some distance and lost sight of him. Our descent routes diverged as Adam chose to use the 4WD road shown further north on the topo while I chose a more direct, but less certain route continuing down to the southwest. I found an old use trail, perhaps a miner's at one time, that led down to a 4x4 road that serviced some old cabins, no longer in use. Below these the road gave out and I descended through trees and knee-high brush mixed with some boulder fields and other small surprises. The upshot was that I managed to descend from the summit in just over an hour, returning to the car well ahead of Adam.
Normally at this point our adventure would be near its end - I would wait for Adam, we'd wash off in the creek, then drive for hours back to Elko. Our luck held out no longer as our real adventure was about to begin. I had no key to the car, but I went down to soak in the creek ahead of Adam. The water was much too cold to do more than wash off the dirt, and soon refreshed, I returned to the car. It was then that I noticed the earth was damp under the front of it. I bent down to check, dismayed to find it was indeed oil, as I had feared. I dug an inch or so into the soil to see that it wasn't just a small leak, but had soaked well into the surface of the road. There seemed little doubt that we had lost all our motor oil. This was not good. While Adam had a car full of gear, I had almost nothing as most of my stuff was back in my own vehicle in Elko. Getting stranded out here was not going to be fun.
Leaving my pack, I headed off down the road in search of Adam who I knew would be using the longer route we had originally discussed. I noted the line of oil drippings all the way from the creek crossing. Somehow we had totally missed this when we had parked the car in the morning though it seems it should have been obvious. Rather than continue down the road to look for Adam, I figured my time might best be used trying to make the crossing easier (either for our own unlikely return, or for a tow truck to be able to reach us), so I spent the next 30 minutes picking up large rocks and tossing them into the creek to raise the lowest portion. I must have tossed several hundreds of rocks before Adam finally made an appearance. I informed him of our predicament and together we went back to the car. Adam had held out hope that I somehow blew it out of proportion, but it did not take long for him to reach the same conclusion when he'd examined the scene for himself.
I was growing most anxious by this time. It would grow dark in a few hours and I didn't even have a sleeping bag. We made a plan to walk into town to seek help, grabbing our packs before starting out. To my liking, Adam was moving rather slowly in getting his gear together, seeming to be taking it all quite lightly. It was the first time I recall getting sharp with Adam, rebuking him for not recognizing the seriousness of the situation and moving more quickly. He woke up swiftly after this, and we were soon heading towards town. I apologized for raising my voice, acknowledgling my own fears as the primary cause, but Adam seemed to take it in stride. We talked about the possible scenarios - whether we could get a tow truck to even get back there to help us out, wondering whether the leak was slow enough perhaps to refill the crankcase with new oil to allow us a quick drive back to Jarbidge. Other possibilities came to mind but the most probably outcome would be a night or two spent in Jarbidge.
We walked perhaps a mile and a half to the campground where we talked a camper there into giving us a ride to town, a few miles further downstream. While he was preparing his camp to leave, another hiker had returned to his Prius he'd parked at the campground while he'd spent the day hiking to the pass. As he was heading back to Twin Falls through Jarbidge, we got him to give us a ride instead. It was a good break, the first of several.
When we got to Jarbidge, the first thing we did was look around as our driver headed out of town. There wasn't much to look at though, as the whole town can be taken in with a sweep of the head in a few seconds. The only place that looked like it had any business at all was the Outdoor Inn, combination bar and cafe. The action was all at the bar, consisting of half a dozen guys aged 40 to 75 sitting around the bartender who was busy pouring the slowest-ever cocktail. The bartender was the oldest guy in the place, possibly the owner, and we waited patiently for him to finish his work before interrupting. It turns out we probably needn't have been so polite because our story was just the sort of thing they were looking for to liven things up. After explaining our predicament there was a lively discussion about similar events in the past and possible strategies for getting us out of our jam. One of the older guys offered to help us with a tow from his own vehicle, but we'd have to wait until morning because he was too inebriated at the moment, by his own admission. More discussion ensued and eventually one of the younger gentleman said he'd be happy to drive us back up there and help, but he didn't have a tow strap. Luckily Adam did, and the three of us were soon piled into his Ford truck and heading back up the road.
Our new friend wasn't all that sure he could tow us out, but he was happy to give it a try. It fell to me to rig a tow system which I managed, an equalized pair to the front tow bars on Adam's car, connected to the tow hitch on the tow vehicle. I had my doubts about the strap system working, but I feigned confidence in the interest of collective positive thinking. I told Adam it would be his job in the rear vehicle to keep the tow cable taut and not run into the front. He couldn't start the car and so had no help from power-assisted braking. His foot would be exhausted from so much manual braking before it was over. I paused to film the crux as we attempted to get both vehicles back over the creek crossing. It was impressive to watch raw horsepower at work and it went over quite nicely. Our tow driver did not stop after getting through the creek and I found it necessary to jump on the back of Adam's car to keep from being left behind (I'm sure he simply forgot about me). I rode in this position all the way back to town. We pushed Adam's car out of the main roadway after unhitching the tow strap. The smell of burning brakes hung in the air. Adam reported he'd had his foot on the brake the whole time to keep the speed of both vehicles down as our friend did not seem to have bothered with anything other than the gas pedal.
Having gotten the car out of the worst of it, I was starting to feel better about our situation. It was not looking as hopeless as it had only an hour earlier. We thanked our new friend profusely and all went back to the bar, him to tell the story and Adam and I to figure out the next step. We were quickly learning a good deal about Jarbidge and its inhabitants. Most of them are retired folks and probably 3/4 of the 40 or so residents only come up for the summertime. Almost no one drives a car around the dusty town, preferring ATVs instead. They boasted that there are more ATVs than people in town. Almost everyone is friendly, even to strangers. Even to Californians. We were somewhat of a novelty in these parts even if our predicament wasn't. One of the elders that seemed to be the mayor, fire chief and owner of the largest ATV offered to call the resident mechanic (who was having dinner at home, we're told - seems you can't really do anything in town without everyone else knowing about it) to come have a look at our car to see if he could fix it. We were much obliged. It was just before dark when the car got assessed as having a punctured oil pan, something that couldn't be repaired in town. Drats. Time to figure out how to get the car towed.
The Chief opened the fire station for us and let us use the phone inside (no cell phone coverage anywhere in town). Our call to AAA wasn't encouraging. They couldn't schedule a tow ahead of time, so if we wanted to get the car towed in the morning we'd have to call back then. Worse, AAA would only pay the first five miles of what was going to be a 100 mile tow. Plus, the tow truck was likely to come out of Twin Falls, ID or Wells, NV, not Elko as we were hoping. The Chief suggested we call his towing friends in Elko to see if they couldn't help. They really didn't want to do the job, telling us they couldn't get to us until around noon the next day and it would cost us $600. Ouch. It seemed we'd be better off taking our chances with AAA in the morning. We had dinner at the cafe and got a room for the night in town. The cook also happened to be the guy who runs the two local motels. We had some trouble finding the place down the road in the dark and had to come back to the cafe a second time for better directions. It was with some relief that we finally got to bed around 10p.
The next morning we got up around 5a to place a second call to AAA. This one went much better. They would have someone out by 9a they told us and with a little bit of pleading I got them to send someone from Elko. Turns out it was the same towing service that we had talked to directly the night before. If I understood the AAA operator correctly, it shouldn't cost us anything additional if we got towed back to Elko. We breakfasted at the cafe and started our long wait. It would take longer than anyone expected. Not knowing that the more direct road had been opened, the tow company sent the driver around the long way through Wells, north on I-93, and in from the Idaho side to the north. Several additional hours were lost due to construction on I-93, with huge backups and lots of idling. All the locals that came in and out of the cafe where we waited offered opinions, discussed the latest word, and offered stories both related and otherwise. It seemed we had brought some celebrity upon ourselves and something of great interest to the town. One of the "features" of the Outdoor Inn was that every inch of the walls inside were covered in signatures and graffiti of all types. We were handed marking pens with which to add our own names, and we happily obliged. Who knew we would be spending this much time in these neck of the woods? We also learned that there is a second bar in town, the Red Dog Saloon. It used to be competition for the Outdoor Inn until the owner sold out to the Outdoor Inn. Now the other place is shuttered until wintertime when the town moves over to the smaller place to save on the heating bills. It was noon before the tow truck showed up and it instantly became a big hit. Half a dozen folks came out of the cafe to watch Adam's car getting loaded.
Having spent more than five hours on the road already, the tow truck driver was not it a great mood. It wasn't bad either, at least not initially. He asked us where we wanted to get towed and I tried very carefully to repeat what the AAA operator had told us so I wouldn't get charged past the first five miles. The driver feigned ignorance of AAA policy and refused to offer any help at first. When he perceived that I wasn't going to give up, he said what we wanted was a tow to "the nearest authorized AAA service center" which was the magic wording I couldn't quite get right. As this was in Elko, it would get us nicely back to town where my car was, and save us a bundle in tow charges.
We had three hours to spend with the driver, so it seemed worth the effort to warm him up to us. As Adam is generally a quiet guy, particularly to folks he doesn't know, the burden of conversation fell mostly to me and I must say I did admirably. I had the guy talking about his wife and kids and pretty much his whole life story before that ride was over. We also learned that the drivers are paid on commission, not by the hour, which explained his lack of motivation to help us out earlier. AAA pays a fixed amount under $3/mile for the first 25 miles or so, then about $3.40 for each mile after that. On the otherhand, if AAA is not footing the bill, he would have been able to charge us $5/mile which would have come to over $500. So the difference comes right out of his pocket. That kinda sucks for AAA to do this, because it gives the tow truck drivers no incentive to help their customers save money, in fact just the opposite. We also learned that Elko is pretty much the ideal location for a tow truck driver. Because there aren't a lot of dealership service centers in Elko, many tows end up going long distances to any of Reno, Salt Lake City or Twin Falls which are all equally a long way from Elko - and thus equally expensive tows.
It was after 3p when we got back to Elko. I had to be in San Jose the next day for family reasons, so I was going to have to leave Adam in town by himself with a broken car. The service place we were towed to offered to fix the oil pan for $600 by the next day which seemed a pretty good deal. I paid the down payment for half the bill before leaving Adam to his own devices. He would have to figure out how to spend the night in town (slept in the back of his car which was helpfully left outside and accessible), but would otherwise do just fine on his own. And so ended our most difficult jam yet. We were lucky enough to get out of it as easily as we did. I told Adam he should start carrying around a spare oil pan. Just in case.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Matterhorn
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