Conquest of Matterhorn

26 May 1996 - by Tony Cruz

It took Whymper seven expeditions before he finally bagged the Matterhorn in Switzerland, but my climbing team made it to Matterhorn Peak in the Northern Yosemite region on our first try. We did not see any Italians coming up the hard way, but there were some European climbers (probably German or Swiss) on the technical routes just east of us on the Sawtooth Ridge. Luckily, we made it back alive even though a member of our party fell 300 feet, tumbling head over heels down steep snow and rocks.

My climbing partner (and incidentally my dentist) Mark Burhenne and I left the Bay Area on Friday afternoon before Memorial Day and drove over Sonora Pass. East of the pass before Bridgeport we had a fine view of the Walker River and its meadow. Far beyond the meadow in the west we spotted an impressive snowy mountain. Later on our summit we reckoned it to be Tower Peak. Tower reminded me of certain 19th century paintings I've seen depicting the Western mountains in that fantastic way that is strangely true to life. Another peak added to the list.

From Bridgeport it was a short drive to the Twin Lakes Resort. We paid the required hiker parking and camping fees ($14) and enjoyed a campfire before retiring in Mark's Toyota Land Cruiser (which gets my vote for best commercial four-wheel vehicle ever built). During the night, the whimpers of Charlemagne, the third member of our expedition, alerted us to the presence of a large black bear. With our flashlights, we got a great view of this animal. This is always enjoyable if your food is safe. However, I don't enjoy the racket made in a crowded campground when idiots leave out their food in bear country. Surprisingly we didn't hear any commotion. But the next morning we noticed that all the campground's garbage cans were on their sides -- none were bear-proof!

Friday night was mostly clear but by Saturday morning an overcast moved rapidly from the east and dropped a trace of sprinkle and snow on us. Since we are fair weather climbers (or at least we try to be), we slept in. Later we heard that snow fell on Matterhorn Peak for two hours that morning. While we were busy lazing and trying to decide whether or not to change our plans, Charlemagne spotted a deer and raced after it, just like they do in National Geographic specials.

We postponed our decision and drove into Bridgeport for a heavy breakfast. From there all looked rosy except for a few clouds over our mountain. So we decided to go for it and began an early Alpine assault at a quarter to noon.

The trail head is not well marked and a bit confusing to pick out. Two large switch backs led us to good views of Twin Lakes and cascading sections of Horse Creek. Another switchback took us up above the creek, giving us a fine view of it and the rugged peaks in the distance. The short trail led us south across a nice meadow and to snow and boulder fields. From the beginning I could imagine that I was hiking a miniature version of a route to the Palisades and this illusion stayed with me for the entire trip. I could identify features that reminded me of Sam Mack Meadow, North Pal, the V-Notch, the U-Notch, Palisade Crest, etc.

We decided to camp on the ridge directly in front of us and above "Sam Mack." Mark had brought his skis and he spotted a narrow tilted chute coming down from the ridge. When he pointed it out to me, I thought he was nuts to even think about it.

To get to our base camp, we avoided the steeper, rockier section to the right and ascended a snow field to the left. On the way up, Charlemagne got into some difficulty near a cliff and could not make it back to us. His rescue prompted some heroics and loud cursing by Mark. Our site gave us a marvelous panoramic view of the north faces of Matterhorn Peak, Twin Peaks, other surrounding mountains and most of Horse Creek Canyon.

Saturday evening was surprisingly mild and free of wind. According to Mark's Casio, it went below freezing only briefly Sunday morning and never below 27 degrees F. We had hoped for a bit more chill to make the snow harder. We set off at 6:30 a.m. Mark put on his skis and went down past "Matterhorn Lake" and up to the left of camp while I put on my crampons and climbed the ridge to the right of camp. The sky was free of clouds and there was almost no wind. We took many photographs and rendezvoused several hundred yards up on the glacier. As we approached the East Couloir, small snow and rock avalanches that we could not always locate by eye fell from the large rock walls to our left. The going was easy at the bottom of the couloir which we measured to be about 36 degrees. It steepened a bit near the middle to over 40 degrees and was probably steepest at the top. We stayed mostly to the left of the couloir to avoid the exposed rocks to the right and minimize the chance of being avalanched (which was probably minimal but not zero since the soft fresh snow was the deepest in this section). The couloir is probably no more than 400 feet from top to bottom.

The view from the top of the couloir was stunning and invited comparison to one from the Palisades. Dana, Lyell, Conness, Tower, Whorl and several other mountains were in view. Toulomne Meadows and many other wonderful features were highlighted by the still-heavy snow pack and provided great photo ops. I took off my shirt and raised up my arms holding out my ice ax in triumph. At the couloir we found another shirtless man who had erected a seemingly bomb-proof North Face tent. His companions were two German Shepherds, one with three legs. This guy thought that everything about him was "killer." He was intoxicated with his surroundings and could not stop raving about the mountains and his dogs. Charlemagne was the third German Shepherd at the top of the ridge that day. Just after us a young couple arrived from the west via the class 2 route.

Mark had to tie Charlemagne down (or he would risk his life following us). We scrambled up the remaining couple of hundred feet to the summit. The young man who arrived moments after us flashed the peak ahead of us but he warned his girlfriend off. We climbed the Class 3 rock very deliberately and were rewarded with a full panorama even better than that at the top of the couloir. Taking more photos with Mark's fine equipment we lingered, enjoying the perfect day. Mark pointed out the highest spot on the summit and I kissed it. We tried to find the register but gave up without really trying because of the snow. Mark had been on the peak several times and said that this time was a bit anticlimactic, but still enjoyable. He has had several adventures on this peak, having skied it in the Spring and day-hiked it in dry conditions in the Fall (he doesn't recommend the latter). The peak has special significance for Mark because of his adventures and also because his father wrote a classic Sierra ski touring book which prominently features Matterhorn Peak.

On the way back down to the top of the couloir, we met one other person. He had day-hiked from Twin Lakes with a small pack and had gone up the couloir without crampons or ice axe. He manner was controlled but he also praised the Sierras and compared them favorably to the other great ranges he had visited.

The way down the couloir generated the only grunting we suffered on the whole trip. The snow had softened considerably by early afternoon and it was inconsistent. I wasted time plunge stepping, side stepping, putting my crampons on and off and down climbing with the points of my crampons. Mark didn't fool around and just down climbed it with his points. As he had done throughout the trip, Charlemagne ran circles around us the whole time. We were the only ones seen coming down the couloir that day; the couple went back via the class 2 route; the guy with dogs planned to stay the night and climb the peak that evening; and the day-hiker apparently chose to exit via the class 2 route.

Near the base of the couloir we picked up our packs which had been cached. Mark elegantly skied out of sight in minutes and I managed to glissade the better part of 1,000 feet down to camp soon after. Given his grace on skis, I was surprised to hear Mark say that the snow conditions were terrible and dangerous. On the way down, I stopped to collect one of my water bottles, which I had carelessly dropped at the cache site.

By the time we arrived at our base camp, clouds had obscured the north faces of Matterhorn, giving it a mysterious aura. Mark packed quickly since he wanted to get down before his wife got nervous and called the rangers. He put on his skis and bolted directly off the ridge directly to "Sam Mack." I followed him with a glissade but rocky cliffs barred my way and I was forced to slow down to carefully down climb another crummy section as bad and a third as long as the couloir.

Unknown to me at the time, the skiing conditions had improved enough for Mark to risk skiing that incredibly narrow tilted chute he had spotted on the way up. On the way down he lost Charlemagne. Then to his horror Mark saw the dog slide uncontrollably on the snow and fall over a cliff. Charlemagne tumbled and spun for about three hundred feet and Mark contemplated how best to put him out of his misery. To his amazement, the dog stood up, shook himself off and appeared to be completely uninjured except for a slight bleeding at the lip. Mark broke his rule of not feeding human food to his animal and offered a burrito to Charlemagne, who took advantage of the situation and inhaled it.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and as smooth as a warm brandy. We crossed over Sonora pass in the moonlight, listening to "Wish You Were Here" and made it to a fleabag motel in the Central Valley. We woke up early the next morning and were back in the Bay Area by 7 a.m. or so on Memorial Day Morning.

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