To cap off a spectacular week of skiing on the east side and to make the drive home a little shorter, I decided to head to Matterhorn Peak on Friday. I’ve climbed several peaks in the Twin Lakes area, including a trip to Whorl Mountain on which we had briefly considered a visit to Matterhorn on the return, but I’d yet to visit the iconic high point of the Sawtooth Range.
I managed to recruit Zach to join me and we agreed upon a 7 am start, hoping that this would give enough time for the snow to soften, without softening too much. I headed out of Bridgeport at 6:30 and was stunned by the light show put on by the rising of the sun and the setting of the full moon. I stopped several times on the drive in to snap photos of the morning sun striking the ridge.
I found Zach at the large pullout just outside of Mono Village, whose parking was now plowed, but still gated. I told him I would take a few minutes to eat breakfast before I got ready, but Zach was in no hurry — he pulled out his Coleman stove and fried an egg for breakfast. I was a bit jealous but all told, it was nearly 8 am by the time we set out from the cars. In the meantime several other parties had come and gone, and I said “hi” to most, asking where they were headed. Several were headed for a line called “Ski Dreams” near Matterhorn. I was impressed by one party which was planning a five day traverse of Sawtooth Ridge!
It was a beautiful morning and I was antsy to get going. We hiked across Mono Village in our ski boots since I’d read a recent report that the snow started at the very base of the climb and were surprised to see that most of the camp facilities looked ready for summer. As seems tradition with the Horse Creek Trailhead, we spent several minutes trying and failing to find the trail. We found a downed tree which allowed us to cross Robinson Creek and then immediately spotted the bridge, only one hundred feet downstream! Oh well…
From this bridge we picked up the trail and managed to find the proper crossing of Horse Creek. On the south side of Horse Creek, the snow coverage became complete, so we clicked into our skis and started the climb.
I’m used to Zach kicking my butt on any marginally athletic activity, although if I choose a technical enough skin track I can normally manage to stay ahead of him. Today he was dogging it. Not only was he lagging far behind, he wasn’t very talkative and didn’t seem very stoked on the climb. He said “he wasn’t feeling it” which I didn’t find very useful for diagnosing the issue. I told him that the climb would become more straightforward soon, but that he should make up his mind whether he wanted to do this hike sooner than later. He decided to continue further and make a decision in a bit. After some conversation and the slope eased up and became less technical, he took the lead and seemed more himself.
From Twin Lakes, the climb into Horse Creek Canyon was steep and the nearly melted snowpack was littered with tree debris. Once we entered the canyon, we had expansive views of the severe Sawtooth Ridge and the climb was more shallow. We stayed high on the east wall of the canyon for a while, following some old tracks between before deciding to descend to the flat terrain of the meadows.
We mostly stayed along the flat bottom of the canyon, working our way up short two to three hundred foot climbs every quarter mile.
As we approached the head of the canyon we saw a beautiful couloir running up toward Matterhorn and I more or less begged Zach to ski that line on the way out. We also noticed three skiers about half a mile ahead of us starting the climb up the ridge toward Matterhorn.
We made quick work of the climb to the ridge and, after a snack break, started up the ridge following the tracks of the three skiers ahead of us. I was a bit confused that all three skiers seemed intent on setting their own track. I looked back to make a comment to Zach and laughed when I saw that he also decided to make his own track!
The climb from the top of the ridge was direct and fast, but the convexity of the snowfield was once again frying me like a solar oven! We stopped in the meager shade of a small tree to apply sunscreen and I realized I’d left mine in my other pack! Zack tossed his sunscreen to me, but it hit a branch and started sliding down the slope. I wasn’t eager to lose elevation, but I knew I would be in dire straights without some sun protection, so I quickly set off down the hill after the tube, catching it after a merciful thirty feet.
I checked my phone and announced that it was 11:45 am and we were at 10,500 ft, leaving about another 2,000 feet of climbing to the summit. Zach said that if we weren’t at the summit by noon he’d want to turn around. I was a bit incredulous — there was no way we’d summit in the next 15 minutes! He explained that he had misheard me regarding the time but was still uncertain whether he wanted to summit or not. After a little more climbing we found ourselves at the base of the three main ski descents, Ski Dreams, the East Couloir, and the West Couloir.
We saw one skier booting up Ski Dreams and three more skinning across the top of the glacier towards the West Couloir, still each in their own skin tracks! I know skiers who would have a psychotic break seeing three redundant tracks being cut across such a beautiful face (and three skiers which appeared to be in one group, no less)! I have no right to tell people how to climb a mountain, and it’s hard to get too upset about such an ephemeral mark, so I just shook my head and chuckled.
Zach decided that he’d rather hang out on some rocks at the base of the climb while I headed up. He was still having a bad feeling about the climb and didn’t want to push himself. I am not superstitious but I had to make a conscious effort to suppress the thought that maybe something would go wrong if I tried to climb the peak.
From our vantage, it appeared likely that the East Couloir did not have enough snow coverage to be skiable. The West Couloir, on the other hand, looked very skiable and appeared to already have a bootpack set up it. In addition, the three skiers ahead of me would probably only help stabilize the bootpack so I headed off in that direction, careful not to add yet another skin track on the face. I didn’t really consider heading up Ski Dreams because it was a smaller, less interesting route and I knew that the couloirs met the ridge closer to the summit and should therefore be an easier hike.
I quickly met up with the last two of the group and was surprised to find that they were also from Tahoe! I continued on ahead and met up with Ron from Truckee who had stopped in a more logical (in my opinion) start for the bootpack. We talked a bit, but Ron was nearly ready by the time I arrived so he set off and I followed his bootpack for most of the climb. I caught him about 2/3rds up and told him I owed him a beer before taking the lead (my portion of the climb followed the old bootpack and probably was not as difficult as the portion he set).
I topped out on the West Couloir and took my pack off for a quick break while I figured out a plan. Ron was close behind me and was surprised when I told him I was planning to continue to the summit. I peered over the backside of the couloir and was stunned. From my earlier visit to Whorl Mountain I knew that despite the severity of Matterhorn’s north face, its south slope was gentle class 2 talus. The guidebook even mentioned that the East Couloir was the easiest way to gain the summit, so I’d assumed that the West Couloir would be similar. Instead I was presented with a shear granite face. Even in trailrunners, I don’t think I would have attempted climbing it! I saw that possibly I could downclimb into an adjacent gully, but I wasn’t feeling hopeful.
I radioed down to Zach, telling him that the climb was looking stiffer than expected and that I would radio him again once I was on the summit. I wasn’t confident about this route, but I had less than 300 ft remaining to the summit so I decided I should at least give it a try. I opted to keep my skis on my back, thinking that the climb down to the East Couloir (or even Ski Dreams) from the summit might be faster than retracing what looked like a difficult route from the West Couloir.
I traversed a rock buttress into the next gully and, looking up, saw that it seemed to continue quite a ways upward and around a corner. I followed it right around a corner, then left around another, and then right again, glad for my crampons on the mixed snow/rock terrain.
After the last jog right, the snow started to get very steep, approaching and passing 55 degrees (which is right at the edge of my comfort on a snow climb). Worse, the snow was rotten and each step plunged a foot deep, making upward progress difficult as one boot step packed down into the previous. The snow continued to get shallower and my crampons and axe were frequently bottoming out on rock. I found myself swinging my pick into the snow, looking for solid purchase on a rock, pulling myself up with most of my weight on the axe and realized that I was out of my depth. I was making progress, but this was not safe terrain and it was not a skill I’ve ever practiced before. I tried to make only moves which I knew would be reversible, but at some point caught myself chanting silently “Come on! I’m almost there! I’ve got to summit!” I’ve never thought of myself as the sort to be caught by summit fever, but I recognized the delirium immediately, took a deep breath and decided the summit attempt was over.
I started reversing my moves and realized how risky some of the climbing I’d been doing was. I was able to maintain control on the downclimb, but the slope was steep enough here that even a short slip, if not promptly arrested, would easily buy me a helicopter ride off the mountain.
After I’d climbed out of the trickiest sections, Zach radioed me to see if I was doing okay. I told him that I didn’t make the summit and that it wouldn’t happen. Apparently I’d spent over an hour from when I left the couloir! Now that I remembered Zach was waiting for me, I tried to make haste, but it was still a tedious climb back to the couloir. Some radio chatter intermittently interrupted the climb. At one point where there was not much consequence I slipped on a rock and simultaneously a concerned voice which was trying very hard not to sound concerned came over the radio and not-quite-shouted “Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!” I laughed at the timing of the comment and hoped that whomever they were talking to was having a better day than me.
Once I arrived at the couloir and transitioned back into my skis, I had a hard time remaining disappointed — I had a beautiful ski descent ahead of me! I radioed to Zach to ask which route the others had taken. They’d all taken the east fork as I expected (this was the route we climbed) and I was thinking that meant I’d be able to have the west fork to myself. Zach told me however that there was near constant natural sluffing and rock slides in the west fork and that I definitely shouldn’t go that way. The descent was steep and fun, although the snow was a bit warmer than ideal. Once I exited the couloir I found some beautiful fresh snow and opened up the throttle as I skied out onto the glacier!
I joined Zach at the bottom and was surprised to find him in good mood! Despite waiting more than 90 minutes for my antics below the summit of the peak, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the beautiful weather spectating the other skiers! Apparently Ron’s group had stopped by to say “hi,” too. We continued downhill, splitting up, with Zach planning to ski the ascent route and me angling for the gully we’d seen on the approach.
I watched Zach ski down the canyon, half a mile below me before beginning my descent through the gully. There was a lot more debris than I recalled on the climb and I suspect that one or more members of Ron’s group probably skied this gully too. The hot afternoon had done a number on the snow, and although it was still showing good stability, the deep mashed potatoes were not exactly fun skiing. The terrain was astoundingly beautiful though, so it was hard not to have a good time!
After exiting the gully, I found several small cliffs to hop off of and was narrowly spared disaster after running into one of my own car-tire sized pinwheels. We stayed as high as possible along the east side of Horse Creek Canyon, trying to save ourselves some additional skating, and the descent went quickly.
Soon enough we were back at Twin Lakes, hiking through the campground to our cars.
Although I was disappointed to return to the car without reaching the summit, I’m glad that I was able to recognize when I was out of my depth and back down. Had I been wearing rock shoes or even trailrunners, had there not been so much snow, had I more time, had I not strapped a DSLR to my chest, or had I not strapped a pair of skis to my back, I’m sure I would have been able to finish the climb. But these were not the circumstances, so I think that I made the right decision. If I weren’t in more of a hurry to get home or keep Zach from waiting, skiing down and booting up Ski Dreams may have been the right call. Looking at the GPS data, I believe I turned around less than 50 vertical feet from the summit, which is incredibly frustrating. As it is, The Sawtooths are one of the more beautiful parts of the Sierra and one in which I haven’t spent enough time, so it’s hard to complain about having a reason to return!
Regardless, this was the end to an incredible week in the Sierra and easily one of the best weeks I’ve ever spent in the mountains! While we packed up our cars and bantered over the trials and tribulations of the day, I noticed someone was sitting the next car over. We got to talking with him about one of my other favorite weeks in the Sierra — the Sierra Challenge — and it sounds like he may end up joining this year! I set off on the road, already daydreaming about my next trip down to the east side.
- 100% coverage beginning south of Horse Creek
- Soft snow, becoming softer throughout the day
- Frequent natural rockfall and sluffing on solar affected aspects
- Large (9-24″) pinwheels and rollerballs
- No noted propagation of instabilities
Elevation Gain: 5,500 ft