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North Arete of Matterhorn Peak

North Arete in morning sunThis was my first technical rock climbing trip in the outdoors. Since October of 2003 when I started learning rock climbing from Dirk in the gym (Berkeley Ironworks) I have become quite comfortable with the idea of roped climbing, and this combines well with my passion for exploring the beautiful high-altitude wilderness of Sierra Nevada. Dirk proposed this trip as a prelude to the more challenging and committing Mount Whitney East Face climb, scheduled in the last weekend of August 2004. During August 7-9, 2004, Dirk Summers, Mark Thomas, and myself successfully climbed the North Arete of Matterhorn Peak, with a 5.5 difficulty rating. Dirk is the leader, and brought all the technical climbing gear. Mark brought his climbing rope. Normally rock climbing trips have a leader and a follower; with two followers in our case there was some extra technical preparations to be made. We prepared a pull cord to deliver the rope to the second follower if a climbing pitch is more than half rope-length long.

On Friday evening (8/6) we drove to Yosemite and camped at Tioga Lake campground, about 1 hour from the trailhead to Matterhorn Peak. Saturday morning we obtained wilderness permits at the ranger station near Bridgeport, then headed to the trailhead at Twin Lakes. Because I have already made it to the summit of Matterhorn Peak in 2000, I was the only person familiar with much of the approach route as well as the descent route (East Couloir). From the beginning Mark demonstrated his excellent hiking ability, pulling way ahead of Dirk and I in many sections of the trail. There is no official trail in the Horse Creek drainage, but the terrain is fairly simple yet myriad use trails try their best to confuse hikers. After I pointed the way to the East Couloir drainage, Mark and Dirk pulled far ahead of me and disappeared. When I reached Matterhorn Lake (9800 feet, I had never been here before) I saw several people skinny dipping in the beautiful lake. Besides Dirk and Mark there were two other parties enjoying the warm sunshine au naturel in the pristine alpine setting.

We decided to set camp for the day, even though it was early afternoon. We just couldn't pass up this heavenly spot with flat meadows and a winding brook. The sharp turret of Matterhorn Peak can be seen directly upstream, as was the clean, white granite of Cleaver Ridge. Dirk set out to pass the time by scrambling amongst the granite.

The next morning, we started hiking up the drainage before sunrise. Matterhorn Peak seemed to be directly in front of us, but the 800 vertical feet of intervening terrain before the base of the technical climbing route was full of loose moraine and steep rubble piles. We found on the left side of the drainage a series of granite slabs that provided easier walking, and soon Mark had pulled to the edge of the glacier on the last moraine. Sunrise brought bright orange alpenglow to the dramatic sharp pyramid of Matterhorn Peak, like a rocket ship waiting to lift off. Even though we all brought ice axe and crampons, the glacier was easy to walk on and there were many exposed rocks in the steeper stretches, providing better traction. Mark put on his crampons but Dirk and I just used our ice axes to aid walking. The ice on the glacier was hard but the slopes were gentle enough, and climbing the rocks made the steeper sections safe. I walked across a small crevasse that was only 2 feet deep, a curiosity but not at all threatening.

At the top of the glacier when it merges with the East Couloir, the ice ends and it is all loose rubble from here up. We stashed our ice axe and crampons, and started looking for the start of the North Arete route, based on photos and descriptions printed from summitpost.org, our trusted source of climbing beta. Soon we were able to find it and the roped climbing starts.

During most of the technical climbing pitches, we used a half length of rope for each follower (Mark and I). This necessitates creating more belay stations to reduce the length of each pitch. Both Mark and I were fairly new to technical climbing and had low comfort level on exposed sections, so we demanded Dirk to set up belay in more places than he thought necessary. The climbing was exhilarating as we moved onto more and more exposed rock. At one awkward belay station Dirk dropped two cams (they are very expensive), and Mark was able to retrieve one of them by lowering himself further on the rope. Above the same belay station, while climbing I knocked off a large rock (about 50 pounds) which almost hit Mark below. Mark later told us he was worried it would have severed the rope if its path had shifted a little bit. Fortunately, eveything went on without problems. During the crux pitch which was a dihedral, we used the pull cord to bring the end of the rope from Mark to me since the pitch was longer than half rope-length. After that, a chimney pitch required that our backpacks be hauled up by rope, since the chimney was too narrow to allow a climber with a backpack to get through. Finally, we made it to the top of the North Arete, when a middle-aged man climbed up the same route with bare hands, unroped and without a helmet. He told us he made it from the trailhead to here in about 5 hours. That's a pretty amazing feat. Dirk reacted with disgust privately, as this challenged his ego. It was around 6:30 pm and there was a traverse to do before reaching the summit of Matterhorn Peak. Dirk proposed soloing this traverse, but it was very exposed and Mark and I argued for a belay. We did, and made it to the summit not long after, in the warm glow of sunset.

After a quick group photo, we decided to head down, as we planned to make it back to camp, then hike out the same night (it was Sunday, and we had to go to work on Monday). I calculated that we would be driving back in the wee hours of the morning. Since I knew the way, I lead the way to the notch east of the summit where we could descend into the East Couloir. The couloir was filled with loose scree, and we made good time by skiing down in our boots. Once on the glacier however, we had to slow down because of the steep, slushy snow. Downclimbing steep rock in the dark was a worse option, and crampons would not work well in loose snow, so we walked down the steep snow carefully, step by step. It was getting dark quickly and we put on our headlamps. From here on we walked down a lot of steep rubble, but it looked totally different from the way we came up. The granite slabs were nowhere to be found even though we tried hard looking for it. Around 10 pm we started to doubt whether we were on the correct path, as we saw a deep gully and snow fields that we didn't remember seeing before. Dirk suggested that we may be in the wrong drainage. We studied our maps but couldn't get oriented. Mark was showing tiredness and dissapointment, as he had been with Dirk on several trips before where they couldn't get to camp and had to bivy in the cold. I had never bivied and did not wish to experience a first time. It was incredibly unpleasant to think of our prospects, now that we would surely miss work on Monday. Even though we were confident of survival, spending the night without sleeping bag and tent at high altitude, even in a gentle Sierra night like this one, could be very painful. Dirk continued to try to orient ourselves, but showing a lot of frustration. I became so tired and sleepy I definitely did not want to climb over a steep ridge to the next drainage to the west, as Dirk suggested. I was also more confident that we were in the correct drainage. My opinion won over, and we continued our downward path, overcoming many steep rubble piles and eventually made it to water in the bottom of the gully, and Mark was the first one to disappear further ahead. When Dirk and I saw him again, he was resting next to our tent. We made it to camp around 2 am. Mark was so happy and relieved he thanked me for being the "charm", since I had never bivied before. He also reasoned that that fact that this time we obtained valid wilderness permits somehow put us in good graces. Dirk was exceedingly happy as well, he exclaimed again and again, and brought out some liquor to celebrate.

The next morning the hike out was easy and uneventful. This was a very memorable first time for me, doing technical climbing in the high Sierra.

Previous trip to Matterhorn Peak: Climbing Matterhorn Peak in 2000

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