Sat, Sep 13, 1997
Two years later still, Matterhorn Peak was on my mind when I was looking for a weekend backpacking destination for a group of six. I was looking for something with a short hike in, less than five miles, where we could dump our packs and go off on a climb the rest of the day. A closer look at the maps and reading what Secor had to say, it seemed Matterhorn Peak from the Twin Lakes trailhead might fit the bill nicely. And I would get a chance to get a closer look at this elusive peak.
Our group of six drove up in two cars to Twin Lakes late Friday night from the San Jose area. We arrived around midnight after a five-hour drive, stopping for dinner and gas. At the end of the road into Twin Lakes is the Twin Lakes Resort. The trailhead is actually on the resort's property ($5 trailhead parking fee), and they have camping & RV facilities, cabins, groceries, boating, the works. There was nobody to greet us when we arrived, so we drove in and quickly set up our tents and went to sleep.
I awoke early, around 6:30a, hoping we could get the group rolling by 7:30a. While the hike in to camp would be short enough, we'd need plenty of daylight if we were going to have a chance at Matterhorn Peak. As usual with a large group, we had a wide variety of reactions to such a plan, from the enthusiastic to the slothful. I had time to take care of our camp and parking fees (the elderly gentleman was kind enough to waive the camping fees), cook a hot breakfast, rearrange my pack, examine the mauled trashcans (courtesy the bears we heard during the night), and a host of other time-killers, in between which I gently prodded on the slower members of our group. It was almost 8:30a by the time we had reparked the cars and gotten onto the trail.
The trailhead isn't well marked, and starts by wandering through the south end of the campground and across Horse Creek. Once on the other side (we didn't see the bridge and ended up using some logs), we found the more proper trailhead, with trailside map and trail markers. The trail begins climbing immediately, switch-backing up 1100 feet in the first 1.4 miles. This was enough to give everyone a quick reality check that this was going to be a bit of a workout. It was also a good enough stretch to spread out the bunch according to their individual pace. Stephan and Michael took up the front positions, hiking strongly. They were followed by myself and Ted, and our married couple, Alisa and Tim, bringing up the rear. This first part of the trail roughly follows Horse Creek as it comes out of Horse Creek Canyon and tumbles down to Twin Lakes. After a few stops to regroup along the way, we reached the end of this steep section in about an hour. The trail opens to a meadow here, and the trail makes a sharp U-turn as it heads up the side of the canyon. Our route left the trail where it meets the meadow, roughly following the creek up to Horse Creek Pass.
There is a nice use trail where our route left the maintained trail. I was keeping an eye out for possible camping spots in the meadow, as this was the only flat area we could identify for certain in this canyon from the map. There are some good campsites we found right away, but they were too close to the trail. I was hoping we could find a site at the upper southern end of the meadow, which would make our dayhike up to Matterhorn Peak shorter. As we continued on, we began to notice that there weren't any more suitable campsites that would hold the lot of us. I was beginning to believe we had made a mistake and would have to backtrack the additional 1/2 mile we had covered. I worried that this wouldn't sit well with the group as a whole. When we got to the end of the meadow we could see the route ahead, which begins heading uphill over rock and scree. I had the group wait while I went through the forest a bit to the west to see if there were any clearings. To my surprise (and our good fortune) we found an excellent spot at this end of the meadow. It had nice views out onto the meadow and looking up to The Cleaver (a knife-edge ridge to the west), as well as privacy off the trail and a short distance to the creek for water.
Having sold ourselves on the campsite, we dumped our packs and had lunch. It was 10:30a, and although it seemed like we had plenty of time, I was worried that we'd have to get moving if we were going to reach the peak and get back before dark. It was nearly 4 miles to the peak still, and 3,500 ft of climbing, and it was going to take some time to get our group up there. We headed off with daypacks to attack the scree and rock. From our campsite, the route begins to climb gently at first, but the trail is mostly exposed to the sun with no shade, traveling over scree and rock. After 2/3 miles, the route steepens considerably. The trail peters out in multiple directions, and from this point on it was difficult to find a continuous use trail. Michael, Stephan and I enthusiastically tackled the steep slope to the left of the creek, close to the canyon walls. As we crested the rise, we realized we'd climbed higher and steeper than needed, and so waved the others more to the right along a better route following the creek up. Meanwhile, we slogged it over and down the scree to meet them at the creek. (My advice to others is to be less overly enthusiastic and stick close to the creek.)
Up we climbed, again stretching out in a line. Climbing above 9,000 feet, the altitude was slowing progress as it combined with the warm sun to sap our strength. Gradually we made our way up Horse Creek Canyon, taking a number of breaks to regroup periodically. It took two hours to travel the first two miles and climb 1500 ft since camp, and we were still 3/4 mile and 1000 feet short of the pass. The last stretch was steep, and there was no longer any chance of keeping the whole group within sight of each other. Once the target is sighted the tendency seems to be "I'll wait at the top." The route to the top was pretty clear though, so it was highly unlikely we would have anyone getting lost at this point. The only snow we encountered was a large patch in a small cirque just below the pass. Soft in the midday sun, but well consolidated through the summer, it was easily enough crossed.
Stephan, Michael, and myself arrived at the pass just past 1p, by three slightly different routes (one route, three navigators). I found myself on some class 3 rock to the right of the pass just before the top, but this was easily avoided by the others who put a bit more thought into their chosen routes (with some help from me: "Uh..., don't go this way." The view looking down into Spiller Canyon was quite grand. We were standing on the Yosemite border (I don't recall a sign greeting us to this effect as there are on other routes into the park), near it's northernmost end. Our view was somewhat limited by the canyon walls that line both sides of Spiller Creek, but engaging nonetheless. Very little snow was left at the high altitudes, not surprising for a September outing. Only the small permanent patches that clung to the north sides of the peaks remained. Spiller Canyon, with its high meadows still green, were far more inviting than the mostly barren canyon we had just traveled up. It made us wish we were doing a one-way down through Yosemite rather than going back the way we came.
We rested and snacked at the pass while we waited for the final members of our party to arrive at 1:30p. I was still confident the peak could be reached, but only if the pace was hastened considerably. It was no longer the height of summer, and it would be dark by 7p, and we still had to make dinner when we got back to camp. Alisa and Tim declared upon reaching the pass that they had reached their destination and were quite happy to go no further. Ted agreed, having had his share of climbing as well. Stephan was up for continuing as much as myself, which left only Michael in an indecisive state. He very much wanted to bag this peak (as a fledgling peak bagger, he had been bitten by the bug), but felt it would exhaust him were he to continue, and reduce the degree of fun he was enjoying at the moment. As a full-fledged peak bagger, this tradeoff would not have occurred to me. My tradeoffs are more along the lines of, "Will I get lost, killed, or stuck in an unpleasant bivouac if I continue?" In the end, he regrettably decided not to join us (a year later, Michael would return to climb the peak on a trip through northern Yosemite while I was bagging Twin Peaks traveling in the opposite direction.)
Just the two of us, Stephan and I set off at 2p, leaving the others to rest and find their way back at their leisure. Stephan has a reputation as a very hardy soul indeed. He has ridden in the Death Ride (115 miles or so and something like 15,000 vertical feet up five Sierra passes), is an expert skier, windsurfs, hanglides, and has traveled extensively in the Alps (he's a Swiss citizen). Although I have worked with him for several years, our only previous adventure was a century ride in the Santa Cruz mountains a year earlier. As we climbed (quite swiftly now) the final 1400 feet in little less than a mile, he didn't disappoint. He could add scrambling to his list of activities he was quite good at. We covered that last mile in little over half an hour. Sweating and panting we reached the summit blocks and gave each other a high five. We'd hardly rested coming up (friendly bit of testing each other) and were pretty tired when we finished.
The views from Matterhorn Peak were phenomenal, as all of northern Yosemite was open for inspection before our eyes. We could easily identify Mt. Conness, Mt. Hoffman, and Clouds Rest to the south (Half Dome was just out of view). We could see all of Spiller Canyon now, along with portions of the neighboring Virginia and Matterhorn Canyons. The weather was delightful up top, no clouds, a slight breeze, and the altitude had moderated the temperature to a pleasant 65F or so. We found the register and signed it. Someone had left a one-page trail guide to Matterhorn Peak in which it mentioned Jack Kerouac's visit here back in the 50's. As we were enjoying the last of our snacks and having the peak to ourselves, we were fairly surprised to find two climbers just cresting the north face. Roped together, helmets, and climbing gear made for quite a contrast as we realized there were harder ways to get to the top. We exchanged greetings briefly with the lead climber as he belayed his partner coming up the last pitch. As it occurred to us that they might be more surprised to see us than we them, we packed up and left them to enjoy the summit on their own.
The top 100 yards or so consists of some big blocks and boulders, but once this was negotiated, the descent became faster as we took advantage of the loose sand and small scree to plunge step our way down the upper part of the mountain. I was ahead of Stephan on the way down, and so stopped at the pass for him to catch up. The low point of the pass goes through a long, narrow crack (about 10 feet wide) in the ridge that I hadn't passed through on the way up. So with a few minutes to spare, I went around to check it out. Out of view of Stephan, I waited about 15 minutes before I began to worry that Stephan had either taken a different route down, or possibly hurt himself on the way down. I went back up to get a better view but could not find him anywhere. I called out his name a number of times, but got no response. Somehow he had disappeared. After 10 more minutes I convinced myself that the most likely scenario was that he had gone a different route and was ahead of me. So I made haste to continue down the pass and look for him.
As I crested the small cirque just before the pass, I spotted Stephan up ahead slowly picking his way through the rocks, using his ice axe (which he had carried to the top) as a walking staff. Much relieved, I soon closed the gap and met up with him. Stephan had figured I was still ahead of him, and so did not hesitate to continue descending when he had reached the pass. As we continued down, Stephan began to move more slowly and cautiously, as he was having a tougher time now negotiating the basketball size boulders. Half a mile down from the pass, the larger boulders gave way to smaller ones, and the use trail became more evident and easy to follow. This allowed us to pick up pace a bit, but Stephan had no plans to move any faster. For the next half hour or so I would hike ahead and rest while I waited for Stephan to catch up, and then continued on again. After we got down the steepest section (still half an hour from camp), I left Stephan for good as I hurried back to help prepare dinner (I had to set up one of the stoves and cook dinner for half the party). I got back just after 5:30p, and Stephan followed about 20 minutes later. Tired as he was, he gave the impression that he could have gone on another 15 miles, one deliberate step after the other, made possible by his stamina training in the other sports he excelled at. The others had arrived back an hour and a half before us, and while tired, they appeared nicely rested in comparison to Stephan and I. But the two of us had climbed Matterhorn Peak, and for that we were rewarded with the quiet self- satisfaction of a climb well done. I believe we all slept quite nicely that night with the sound of the Horse Creek waters pounding the rocks in the background, lulling us and our tired bodies to sleep...
The next day, Sunday, we had to head back, but since it was a short hike out we had time to do a few hours of hiking. Michael and Ted were the only ones who wanted to join me, Stephan was resting his feet from the previous day. To the west of our campsite rose a steep ridge called The Cleaver, for its knife-edged rocky summit. To climb that would have been seriously out of our league, but I aimed instead for the scree gullies to the north of The Cleaver. Travel at first was over large boulders that moved a bit much to be comfortable on. In my efforts to appear like I knew what I was doing, I was a little too casual and took a good tumble off one of the rocks that gave way beneath me (and in the process I lost one of my water bottles). The boulders gave way to scree and rock, which got steeper and steeper the further up we climbed. When the slope reached maybe 30-35 degrees, Michael spoke up that he was no longer comfortable on this slope and in fact was getting spooked. I could see that he did not trust the scree and sand to hold his weight as we picked our way up the gully, and to the novice it appeared that one could slide at great speed for a good distance were one to slip. To help allay his fears, I showed by example that one could jump down the slope and slide no more than 3 to 6 feet worst case. I had a great deal of confidence in climbing the slope that it was very safe indeed, as I've never found a scree/sand slope that was fundamentally unstable to walk on. This demonstration made Michael feel a lot better and we continued on. The scree/sand gave way to boulders again just before we reached the top, and even got to do a little class 2-3 climbing as well.
Once on the ridge top it was an easy walk north in the downward direction of the ridge. We walked perhaps a quarter mile before we came to a point to go back down to Horse Canyon below. On the decent the slopes were much more gradual, but they were covered in vegetation much more than the scree gully earlier. We picked our way through the scrub, weaving back and forth to create the least damage to the plants and our legs. A few hundred feet before the bottom the vegetation increased significantly, as there apparently was enough to water in the slopes here to support aspens and other small trees and large bushes. At one point we were forced to go 30 yards down a pretty good slope covered in these large bushes. We grabbed branches with our hands to steady ourselves as we stepped over the branches of the bushes further down the slopes. It was a bushwhack as we struggled to stay upright and keep from tumbling into the thick of the bushes and trees under us. Ted gave us a laugh as he made the final ten yards through the trees as Michael and I waited for him. He nearly fell on the last plunge, and worse nearly lost his glasses, which just managed to stay on his face as they twisted about while his face was getting smacked with the branches.
Once down to the meadow, it was an easy walk back to camp, our little jaunt taking only a couple of hours. We packed up our things with the rest of the crew and headed back to Twin Lakes and our vehicles.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Matterhorn Peak
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