Sat, Aug 17, 2002
Whorl Mountain, tucked away inside the northern border of Yosemite, is a gem of a scramble - just far enough from the trailhead and just difficult enough to ward off many peak baggers. Its higher neighbor Matterhorn Peak, is much more well-known, has better technical routes and easier scrambling ones, and consequently gets climbed much more often. So it seemed fitting to start the 2002 Challenge with Whorl Peak, a step up from the 2001 Challenge's first stop on Matterhorn Peak.
My brother Tom and his friend Chris had arrived in Lee Vining late Friday night, taking a room at the same motel I had bedded down in earlier in the evening. Shortly after I arose at 4:45a they got a wake up call from me, and after a quick breakfast I was out the door at 5:15a the other two shortly behind me. I drove through Bridgeport and up to Twin Lakes where I found Joe and Justin stirring in the parking lot. Having arrived around 2a that morning, they had had no time for acclimatization let alone sleep. For that matter neither had Tom or Chris, so I was expecting it to be a slow group today. By the time the other two showed up in Chris's Jeep and we were all ready, it was 6:15a, only a bit behind the advertised 6a start. The sun had already risen on the high mountaintops, but fortunately our route up Horse Creek would keep us in the shade for the first several hours. The weather was unmistakeably fine Sierra fare, and it would continue for the next 10 days without interruption, not a single thunderstorm.
I had hiked with Joe and Justin once before on my failed first attempt to dayhike Mt. Williamson. The three of us had climbed over 8,000ft and 25mi in over 16hrs, so I expected the two of them would have little trouble with Whorl. Tom had followed me on a number of previous climbs, most recently a dayhike of Mt. Shasta in May of this year. Chris was the wildcard in our little band of five - I had hiked with him before and been unimpressed - Chris could talk a better story than he could hike. But he had climbed to over 15,000ft on Denali a year earlier, and Tom told me he was in decent shape these days. We gathered our meager day supplies, wandered through the campground found on the west side of the lake, and found the TH on the south side of the creek.
Joe and Justin went out in front setting a mean pace of about 3mph up the switchbacks that climb the steep south side of the canyon out of Twin Lakes. I knew we'd never be able to keep it up, but no one was complaining so I kept quiet and stayed in the rear of the pack. Three quarters of a mile from the trailhead Chris stopped suddenly and called it quits. He was sweating a good deal, breathing heavily, and simply commented, "There's no way I'm gonna make this." Joe and Justin hadn't seen Chris stop and were soon out of sight. Tom offered to stay back with Chris at a more leisurely pace, but Chris would have none of it. He wanted to go on at his own pace, and wished everyone else to go on ahead. Tom insisted that he'd stay with his friend, but Chris simply stopped and said, "No, I'll go back if you stay with me." So we gave Chris one of our maps and Tom and I headed up. As we approached the switchback near the creek, I suggested to Tom that we might take the "scenic alternative" which is a use trail that bypasses the switchbacks and climbs the heavily wooded slopes along the east side of the creek. This was not only more interesting than the regular trail, but it allowed us to cheat and catch up to Joe and Justin about 15 minutes later. The four of us continued up the trail as we got our first view of Matterhorn and the surrounding peaks in the morning sun. Joe and Justin had curbed their earlier pace appropriately and we happily trouped along.
Reaching the hanging valley above, we left the trail and headed up the sometimes helpful use trail that winds its way up the east side of the creek. Not far above treeline, we stopped for a break and to refill our water bottles. The trail petered out about a mile below the pass and we simply hopped along the countless moraine boulders that take one to the pass. Another participant, Vishal, was planning to camp on the south side of Horse Creek Pass and meet us in the morning. I had estimated that we'd get there at 9a, and a bit ahead of the others I reached the pass at 9:15a to meet him. No luck. I waited in the sun for the others, Joe just behind me by a few minutes. Justin and Tom had not seen us cross the snow in the shallow bowl at the base of the pass on the north side that leads to the narrow slot and the pass. Instead they climbed higher to the west, getting some loose class 3 climbing and an extra hundred feet of vertical in the bargain. Tom was the furthest off, and was but a tiny dot way off towards Matterhorn Peak when we caught his attention with some yelling and arm-waving. As Tom was making his way over to us, Vishal popped up around the same time. He'd camped the night before not far away as planned, but hadn't heard my calls when I first reached the pass.
I hadn't hiked with or even met Vishal previously. Of medium height with a lanky frame, he sported a worn, red floppy hat with a 3" rim all around, and struck me as an Indian version of Gilligan. A very friendly nature, he had lots of things to say, mostly in the form of questions. I had expected this, having exchanged a dozen emails with him previously. All of the mails started with "How should I...", "Where should I...", or "What should I..." and I had begun to get the impression that Vishal was almost helpless in the Wilderness. But we would come to find out that that wasn't the case at all - Vishal proved a very capable hiker/climber with great stamina - he simply liked to ask a lot of questions.
Whorl Mountain lay about half a mile south of the pass, in full view, and looking quite imposing. It juts up to a knife-blade edge that presents a jagged edge with three summits running roughly north-south, stretched out over about a quarter mile. The north summit is the highpoint, but from our vantage point it was impossible to discern the various summits. After a short break for a snack and a rest, we headed south towards the east side of Whorl Mtn. We skirted the banks of two small tarns on our way to the "ramp" that leads to the SE Face. The ramp is a wide ledge maybe 10 yards across that is very obvious from the pass. As one continues on it, it angles up slightly and more or less disappears after about fifteen minutes, leaving us to look up at the granite walls towering above us.
We knew that route-finding was tricky on this route, and I had read every trip report I could find online. The trick seems to be in being able to identify three chutes on the SE Face, and starting the climb in the far left (south) one, then moving over to the second and third one at key points. The problem is that most parties, us included, approach from Horse Creek Pass, and never get a view of the chutes. From the ramp it just looks like a jumble of steep granite slabs, grooves, and ridges, with some smattering of shrubs at various places. On the plus side, it all looked like very fun class 3-4 no matter which route you took. Knowing in advance that other parties had ascended or descended all three chutes (the right two are just harder from below), I wasn't too concerned if we got to the right chute. Where the ramp faded away, our party of five spread out a bit, taking several different tacks as we climbed up and angled to the right. Eager to make height, we did what so many other parties have done and started climbing up too early, positioning us below the middle chute.
Vishal was in the lead, but furthest to the right, and he had to crawl under an awkward overhang to get himself into the middle chute that the rest of us were heading for. Almost immediately we went from a sandy class 2 ledge system to class 3+ climbing up crack and grooved ribs that were fairly solid and highly fun. Tom was the least comfortable on such terrain, and we paused to provide him guidance for his foot placements up the tougher moves. Climbing ahead, I soon got into the chute where it was obvious we were now in the wrong chute. With some time to kill while waiting for the party to reconvene, I searched around and found the ledge over to the leftmost chute (#1) to confirm we were in chute #2 (there was no obvious chockstone above, which marks chute #3). As I headed back to chute #2, Joe was across from me making his way up the middle of #2. By now our party was collectively suffering from ill effects of both the altitude and general exhaustion. Consequently we were moving much slower and it took a while to get all five of us up each 100-foot section, even though the climbing was technically easier now. It was still quite steep and the loose sand in the center of the chute didn't make the effort any easier. Vishal and I were the only two that had acclimatized earlier, and consequently we weren't feeling the altitude as much as the others. Climbing ahead we found a route into chute #3, from where we could clearly see the famous chockstone about 80 feet higher. But there was a nasty friction traverse across about 20 feet of granite to actually get into the chute where the chockstone could be accessed. I surmised that this is the point that had stopped several parties in the past. Looking more like class 4+, I guessed that there must be an easier way into the third chute since the SE Face is rated class 3. Climbing the rib between chutes #2 and #3 about 50 feet higher, I found a narrow walkway (which we dubbed the "no fat guy traverse") between two rocks which opened to an easy, sandy ledge that led right to the base of the chockstone. I climbed back to chute #2 and showed Vishal the easy way over, then turned my attention to an alternative route to the top of chute #2 (I was liking our slow party - it gave me lots of time to explore this very interesting face of Whorl). Class 3 climbing brought me to the top where I had a breathtaking view down the west face (also quite steep), and a fine view of the south summit a few hundred yards to the south. I turned back north and gave my attention to seeing if I could get over to chute #3 from here. The initial move to pull myself up over a small overhang turned out to be the crux, as it was then an easy (but exposed) class 3 scramble over to the top of chute #3 where I could look down from above the chockstone.
By now the others had all made their way to base of the chockstone via the easy traverse that Vishal had showed them, and one by one they all wormed their way up the twisty tunnel that led one through the back of the chockstone up to the top. We climbed up a short ways, then traversed across the west side of the middle summit on the previously described "class 1 sidewalk." It seemed more than a bit of luck to have this 50 yard feature which certainly made short work of the rest of the climb. A few minutes later we were scrambling up the last boulders that brought us to the summit right at noon. Just under six hours to get five of us to this fine summit - a roaring success!
We snacked, we lounged, we perused the register, and took photos of the views and ourselves. It was rather smokey over Yosemite due to controlled burns (and the MacNally Fire burning south of Sequoia) so the views weren't quite what we might have hoped for. This had been more than compensated by the fine climbing encountered. We spent probaby 30 minutes on the summit before heading down the way we came. I follwed the others down the chimney through the chockstone (I had yet to enjoy that little trick - and it was pretty fun). Before going down the chimney I first tried to downclimb around on the south side, purported to be a class 4 variation when the chimney is choked with snow/ice. But I gave this up as rather hairy, seemingly more class 4 than I felt comfortable on. Below the chockstone I did some more exploring in chute #3. While the others went back over the easy traverse, I climbed down about 120ft in chute #3 to what looked to be a second easy traverse below the scary one we had come across on the way up. This lower traverse took me over to chute #2 but there I was greeted by a wall to actually get down into the chute. I downclimbed a short distance on the rib between the two chutes to where I could access a 15-foot inside corner leading down to chute #2. This was a bit exciting, class 4 I'd give it, and probably why it hadn't been mentioned in the guidebooks before. I found the others in chute #2, some below, some above me. I waited for Tom to come down and join me, and together we climbed down and over to chute #1. We all took chute #1 down to the lower part of the east face of the mountain, then contoured around to the ramp we had taken on the way up. This was definitely the easier way, class 2 all the way from below the chockstone.
Joe had been out in front, and I caught up to him at one of the tarns where he was stopped to filter some water. The others could be seen strung out in a line five to ten minutes behind. I could see that the group was getting tired, and going back down would probably be a slower affair. I had been harboring a private plan to tag Matterhorn Peak after Whorl, and was now thinking I could get to the summit and down before the others reached the trailhead. With everyone safely off the more difficult part of Whorl, I told Joe my plan and headed off solo.
After an exhilarating ascent of Whorl Mountain, I left my four companions and headed for the SE Face of Matterhorn Peak. By peak-bagger logic, the next best thing to dayhiking Whorl would be to do both Whorl and Matterhorn in the same day. I'd been up Matterhorn twice before by this route, so there were no surprises, and like the last times I found it mostly a slog - nothing like the imposing North Face would lead you to believe when viewed from Twin Lakes far below. It took only 45 minutes to climb the face and reach the summit, where I found a party of three on their way down and a solo hiker like myself. There were nice views of Whorl Mtn from whence I'd just come, and a long view down Slide Canyon to the southwest. It was already 3p so I didn't stay long, pausing briefly to add my name to the register and seek out my previous entry from the years before (I don't know why I cared - it's not like I wrote anything profound in there - guess I find some sort of pleasure in making this tiny connection with my past). I started down the SE Face, passing the other party making their way down over the class 2-3 ledges, then traversed over to the top of the East Couloir. Last year at this same time there had been a little snow in the couloir when I descended. This year it was completely devoid. I slid and jogged down the very loose and sandy chute, trying to be careful not to unleash large slides that could bury my feet or dislodge the larger boulders that teetered warily along the chute. At the bottom I came to the glacier which demanded more care in crossing as it was steep and icy, and me without crampons or axe. As much as possible I skirted the glacier as low as I could go on rocks, then used a few pointy fist-sized ones as axes to help me step gingerly down the steeper portion. Unusual for this glacier but due to the dry conditions, there were a few gaping crevasses that presented themselves. Fortunately these were more interesting to photograph than real nuisances, as they were handily bypassed. Once past the hairier section, I disposed of my temporary axes and did a standing glissade/run down the rest of the glacier. Then more tedious boulder-hopping down the moraine before I came to the fine lake that lies in a small hanging valley above the main canyon. This makes a fine campsite with a great view of Sawtooth Ridge to the west.
From here I set out on a different route from my previous descent, intent on finding an easier route down than the last time. Hiking down east of the lake, I found a handy little use trail that took me all the way down to the main use trail in the canyon below - much easier! Just before I reached the bottom of the main canyon, I spotted the others a short distance below me. Rather than call out I stayed quiet, watching them pass not 20 yards below me without spotting me, as none of them looked up. After they passed I continued my little game and crossed their trail further east to the regular descent route. They were going down the slightly more difficult descent down a steep gully which I hoped would give me a chance to pass them. I went down quickly over the steep boulder fields, the headwall at the upper end of the mile-long meadow/forest area in the canyon. I wasn't as quick as I thought, and ten minutes later when I nearly reached the bottom of the headwall, there were Joe and Justin ahead of me, Vishal not far behind. They had spotted me and my plans to sneak up on them for a scare went out the window. We walked down together through the last of the boulders and bushwhack to where we picked up the maintained trail. Tom hadn't been seen since they had started the descent of the gully, so I thought I'd wait for him there while the other three continued down to the trailhead.
The nearby creek looked invitingly pleasant, so after the others had left I stripped off my clothes for a refreshing dunk in the cool stream. It turned out to be less pleasant than it looked. The creekbed had a foot-deep layer of glacial silt and dirt that churned up when I stepped in, and I briefly thought I had stepped into some kind of quicksand. I only stayed in long enough to wash all the sweat off my body which was refreshing enough to make the effort worthwhile. I got out, drip-dried, and put my clothes back on and waited for Tom. 20, then 30 minutes had gone by before I got restless and started to wonder what happened to him. I started walking back up the trail, slowly at first, then with a regular gait. Still no sign after another ten minutes. Ten minutes further on I came across a few hikers also returning, and asked if they had seen Tom. They had, they told me, not five minutes back, and they described how he was trying to suck water from snow. Curious. Soon enough I found him sitting on a rock. He had some snow he'd picked up at the pass in the bottom of his water bottle, but there was no water left in it and he was trying to drink it faster than it wanted to melt. Tom was fairly exhausted, and had failed to recharge his water supply when the others were filtering back at the tarn several hours earlier. "Go drink out of the stream." I told him when I discovered his predicament. Afraid of contracting giardia, he'd let his thirst get the better of him instead of drinking out of nearby creek. He protested my suggestion, but I poo-poohed his concerns and told him there was no chance he was going to get giardia. He finally did drink out of it after a bit more convincing (I had been drinking directly from the streams for a number of years now, having given up filtering a while ago as a waste of time).
He felt somewhat better, but was still suffering from exhaustion and some joint and muscle pains. We hiked our way down, making a number of rest stops to let Tom recover, finally arriving at the cars at 6:30p. A little over 12hrs total, a few hours longer than I'd expected, but still a successful first day out.
Chris, who had started with us early in the morning when we were heading for Whorl, ended up having a nice leisurely hike after we left him. He did a loop up to Horse Creek Canyon, over to Cattle Creek Canyon, and back down to Twin Lakes. Afterwards he spent the afternoon 4-wheeling his Jeep around the trails near Mono Lake. Tom and I met up with Chris back in Lee Vining, and we went to dinner together at the Mobil Station down the road. Vishal stopped at an overlook for Mono Lake and cooked himself dinner, a pattern he'd repeat for the next four or five nights. Afterwards he came back to crash on the floor of my motel room for the night. Joe and Justin decided to camp off Tioga Road, and left us at Twin Lakes, to meet up again with us the following morning in Tuolumne Meadows.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Whorl Mountain - Matterhorn Peak
This page last updated: Wed Apr 27 14:55:32 2016
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