Tue, Aug 16, 2011
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Matthes Peak is an unofficially named summit on the Glacier Divide, the second highest after Mt. Goethe. The name derives from the Matthes Glaciers which lie on the north side of the divide, the largest Sierra collection outside the Palisade region. The outing involves an enjoyable hike to Piute Pass from North Lake, then down through Humphreys Basin before making our way south to the peak. We had ten folks at the trailhead - a good number for a mid-week Challenge day - though four of them were too eager to start off and missed the starting photo.
The Piute Pass Trail is a fine one, with imposing canyon walls on two sides and several picturesque lakes along the way. The upper portion of the canyon sees the forest give way to more alpine terrain as one nears the 11,400-foot pass. There was a large snowfield just below the pass on the eastern side, but a wide trench had been dug in it by hundreds of boots before us, making it a simple effort despite the snow's hardness. We were at the pass in less than two hours. It was a gorgeous day once again, and the hike down the west side of Piute Pass a pleasing stroll. The snow and rock of the Glacier Divide were prominent on the left side, the alpine meadows of Humpreys Basin stretching out to the north. It would have been a delight to continue hiking the trail all the way down to Florence Lake, but of course that wasn't the day's objective.
Half an hour down from the pass we began to leave the trail to head south for Matthes Peak. By this time there were just four of us in the front, including Sean, Michael, Tom and myself. Adam would normally have been with us as well, but he was feeling a bit worn this morning and had fallen some distance in the rear. Behind of the other three, I left the trail earliest, disappearing over the folds in the terrain before they had noticed my absence. They turned off the trail soon after, and we were back together as a group before our crossing of Piute Creek. There was a good deal more water than usual for August and the expected easy crossing was anything but. There were no logs in the vicinity and none of us wanted to take our boots off if it could be avoided. I was the first to cross on what turned out to be a huge leap - so much so that I landed hard and injured an ankle, something that would take weeks to finally heal. Luckily it wasn't so bad as to incapacitate me and I was happy it wasn't worse. Sean and Tom made the giant leap in turn, Michael deciding it was a bit much and went off in search of an easier crossing.
Ten minutes after the crossing we had rounded a shallow ridge we were traversing and had our first full view of Matthes Peak from top to bottom. Beautiful Packsaddle Lake was nestled at the head of the broad canyon we would ascend, trimmed with white granite boulders, grasses and shooting stars. Shortly after 9:30a we had reached the lowest reaches of a snowfield extending up from the more tedious morraine we had just crossed. The snow seemed far more preferrable to the morraine and we opted to start up here with crampons and axe rather than stumble over the looser morrainal rocks. Michael had fallen some distance behind while Sean, Tom and myself started up, aiming for a narrow snow-filled chute leading to the mid-point up the north side of the crest. The snow was firm but excellent for crampons and we made good progress. As I reached the top of this lower chute, Sean well ahead of me, I turned to photograph Tom not far behind me and spotted Michael a few hundred yards below him. Michael did not look to have as much energy as I'd seen on previous days and I began to wonder if I might not have a good opportunity to catch up some time on him today in the hunt for the Yellow jersey.
At the top of the chute we traversed right onto the main glacial snowfield. We had originally planned to take the easier chute far to the right of Matthes and follow the West Ridge to the summit, but with so much snow this year there was an excellent line for a steeper, but shorter route up the chute to the east of the summit and it was to this that we were now heading. Sean did a fine job of pacing the rest of us and was already halfway up this larger snow ramp before the rest of us got to its base. He later reported conditions "interesting" for his lightweight Kahtoolas that did not grip as well as ordinary steel crampons. It was after 10:30a before I reached the top of this chute and landed on the crest of the Glacier Divide. The view into the Evolution Valley and the Goddard Divide behind it was stunning. Sean was nowhere to be found and was probably already at the summit, or very close. Tom and, more importantly Michael, had fallen further behind on this second chute and I was now planning my opportunity to gain even more.
From the top of the chute, the remaining rock scramble was a class 2 affair, taking me 20 minutes at a fairly decent clip, as I was no longer taking breaks to catch my breath. Sean had been there for some time when I arrived at the summit just before 11a and I quickly told him my plan to duck off the West Ridge before Michael reached the summit in order to gain time. Sean found this highly amusing and was ready to run off with me since he'd already grown tired of the summit. I took only enough time to photograph the register contents and add my own signature. There was a scrap of paper from the first ascentionists, a Smatko/Schuler/Yates/Ross party, that was undated but probably from 1968. MacLeod and Lilley had made the second visit in 1982 and left the small half notebook that we signed into. There were only a smattering of signatures on the following five pages since that time, including Tom Kenney's who had put up the description of it on SummitPost and had been the source of inspiration for climbing it.
We took little more than ten minutes to reach the west saddle after scrambling over a maze of boulders and broken rock. Eyeing the descent below, Sean chose to tackle the steep talus and rock to the west of the snow field while I switched to crampons and went down the snow directly. Twenty minutes later, now back on granite slabs and talus, I ran across JD on his way up. He'd been wondering what had happened to the rest of us. We talked only briefly before parting. He would eventually make it to the summit and back to the TH by 6:30p. By noon I was back at Packsaddle Lake, and crossing Piute Creek once again twenty minutes later. I was further west this time and got lucky with a much easier crossing point that presented itself. I was not long back on the trail when Sean pulled up behind me. His route down the talus had been slower, but he easily made up for that once on easier terrain. He paced me all the way back to Piute Pass and a fairly fast pace for me, though it was plain to see that he was merely idling himself.
Once at the pass I suggested to Sean that he go on ahead and he obliged. He managed to make it back to the TH in under an hour by jogging the entire route. I jogged portions of it, but could not manage to do the whole of it, taking another half hour to return by 2:40p. Having put in a hard bit of work over the past hours, I figured I might have picked up an hour on Michael. I set my pack down next to his car and walked to the other end of the lot to talk briefly with Sean. As Sean got ready to head back to Bishop, I decided to take a rinse in the creek, and finding a sufficiently secluded place to do so, spent the next ten minutes rinsing the sweat and dirt and refreshing my spirits a good deal.
When I returned to Michael's car some 20 minutes later, I was shocked to find both my pack and his car were gone. Though I at first thought it must have been stolen, this was not at all the case. Michael had come back in a hurry once he reached the summit of Matthes and divined my plan to gain time on him. He had come back only fifteen minutes after me, picked up my pack and drove back to Mammoth. He figured I had left it as a message that I was back and had gotten a ride with Sean, having no idea that I was in the near vicinity. For my part, I couldn't figure out why he would take off with my pack and leave me. It would be more than an hour I'd have to sit and wait for a ride back. I walked up to the campground to see if he wasn't waiting there, then came back and sat on a rock waiting for someone else to return from whom I might get a ride. It was too far to walk down to Bishop so I saw no reason to wear myself out in that effort. Adam came sauntering back from the trailhead after some time, and I was happy to finally have a ride out. Eventually realizing I was not in Bishop at our motel, Michael returned to pick me up. We passed him going more than 60mph down SR168, only half certain. "Was that Michael?" we asked each other. He would eventually find me no longer at the parking lot and return to Bishop once more. We were both apologetic. I told him I'd be sure in the future to leave a note if I was getting a ride back by another means.
In all we had six participants reach the summit, two others failing to reach the top and two more who summited Checkered Demon as an alternate.
The fifteen minutes I picked up on Michael was enough to put us in a tie for the Yellow jersey. I hadn't gotten as big a lead as I'd hoped, but at least I'd erased my deficit.
After summiting Matthes, Tom went on to climb both Goethe and Muriel to extend his lead in the Polka Dot jersey with 12 peaks in five days. Karl had dropped out of contention with a second rest day (he had planned to take two days off in the middle of the Challenge to spend time with his family in Mammoth). Bill was in second place with 9 peaks.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Matthes Peak
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