Matthes Peak

17 Aug 1998 - by Tom Kenney (view roster page)

"Matthes Peak" (Pk 12,960'+ (Mt. Darwin and Mt. Henry 7.5 mins) south of Packsaddle Lake on the Glacier Divide

Friday, August 14th:

It rained today. We resupplied this morning at our food cache near Summit Lake. As we packed up to hike, a big storm hit. The wind was quite strong, and with our huge packs on, we felt like we were sailing!

We hiked through the rain down to a camp on Piute Creek, along the low trail below the lakes. We had hoped to cross the stream today, but the weather had us looking for a good camp for shelter and fire.

My partner, Gary, built a fire by 3:00 PM, but the rain didn't stop until 5:00. We ate a fattening dinner of vegetable soup and seasoned rice with almonds and cashews. Yumm!!

Saturday, August 15th:

The weather had improved slightly. Clouds were already forming by the time we were ready to hike. We hiked back to Lower Golden Trout Lake, where we crossed Piute Creek just below the outlet. Heading southwest, we crossed a slope checkered with slabs and meadowy forest. As the faint path lead around a ridge, the terrain became more gentle and park-like. We strolled on through the basin.

We were now hiking into one of the most beautiful basins I had yet seen. Meadow and forest occurred in almost equal proportion, and small tarns were everywhere. There were two prominent peaks at the back of the cirque, each sporting a pocket glacier. As we approached the largest lake at the back of the basin, we could see it's telltale greenish hue, the 'calling card' of the glaciers.

This basin looked out of place. It was so beautiful and obviously glaciated, slabs and domes outnumbering talus fans.

Soon after we made camp, the rain started again. We had a small feast for lunch and waited out the storm. There were rumblings of thunder echoing over the Glacier Divide. Eventually the rain ended and we were treated to yet another glorious sunset.

Sunday, August 16th:

After a morning of laundry and chores, I sat in camp and watched the peaks. I also watched the weather. There was no sign of another storm today, but the wind was whipping across the lake, causing the surface to sparkle like a huge bowl full of emeralds. After a while, I formed a plan - I would climb the rightmost (western) of the two big peaks tomorrow.

Monday, August 17th:

I awoke at 7:00 AM and began breakfast. The air was still and cold. After hastily packing my gear I set off for the talus and scree leading up to the moraines, 1000 ft. above the lake.

The slope was very loose in places and saturated with snowmelt to the point of mudslide. About halfway up the slope I heard a peculiar roaring noise which seemed to be coming from within the pile of talus. I bent to the ground and held an ear close to a crack in the rocks. I heard lots of water flowing deep beneath the surface. The water was moving boulders down there, with now and then a deep "KLUNK!" vibrating up through the rocks.

I bypassed a loose-looking section of the first moraine by detouring left (east). Passing between two snow patches, I continued upward through steep sand and rocks that refused to stay in place. Loose debris was flowing from beneath my boots! Using a dog-paddle manoever, I thrashed up the last of the sand and onto one of the many moraines I had to cross.

I hate moraines!! They are always dreadfully loose and dangerous. Unlike talus fans, which are sorted neatly by gravity, moraines are bulldozed into place in a random and unstable jumble of blocks, scree, gravel and sand.

After crossing and traversing several moraines, I began to cross the glacier beneath beautifully banded and distorted rock walls.

Here and there were small rocks which had fallen onto the glacier from above. I passed a rock-induced sun cup that was about 10 ft. deep!! About halfway across the glacier I passed the only erratic boulder riding the ice. It must have been there for a while, as there was no crater beneath, and it was well seated in the snow layer.

I crossed over a lateral moraine on the west side of the glacier and continued over a gradually steepening snow field. At this point I cursed myself for leaving my crampons at the food cache, but at least I had my axe. The snow was just soft enough for me to kick steps, but I felt very insecure. There was a lot of runout below me, but it was badly sun-cupped and had long snow ridges at the bottom.

I rounded the gentle curve of the snow field and could see my immediate objective, Packsaddle Pass. The snow swept up to the pass and formed a nearly vertical wall right at the top. There was even a trace of an old cornice 'frowning' down at me. As I neared the top, the snow just got steeper and steeper. The sun cups were all but gone, and the steeper the snow the harder it was. There was a chance I could go around it, but the rocks to the right of the snow looked dreadfully loose. In fact, just to the right of the route I chose was a huge, brown stain and a debris trail on the snow where a pile of loose blocks had recently taken leave of the slope above.

There appeared to be a very steep route threading through the flakes and blocks above me, but the closer I got the more intimidating the stack seemed. To add to my frustration, a set of coyote prints and a set of deer prints seemed to lead right over the steep snow to my left. However, even if the deer and coyote had been taunting me from atop the ridge, there was no way in heck I was going to get onto that steep snow without crampons. So...

I reached a group of gray flakes just above the snow and began to climb. The going was steep and loose, and the flakes leaned outward at what Norman Clyde might have termed 'an embarassing angle.' As I climbed, I was reaching over piles of loose rock to grab holds on what I hoped were well-rooted flakes. Other flakes required use of an arm bar with my right arm and judicious use of my ice axe with the left. At some points I plugged the shaft of the axe deep into the firm snow to get some marginal 'protection' for the rock moves. After about 50 or 60 ft. of climbing in this fashion, I traversed behind a snow 'railing' on a balcony of solid rock. AHA!...the crest at last!

Looking down the south side, I was surprised to see an incredibly easy slope of talus and sand leading up from Evolution Valley. Here, I took a quick rest and photographed the steep rock to document my ascent.

The ridge leading from here to the summit was a typical class 2 scramble, presenting little more than micro-route-finding problems. I was soon on the summit plateau, marching toward the obvious high point.

The views from the top were staggering. As I approached the cairn at the very summit, I walked right along the edge of the north face. There was no gentle slope of talus rolling off into a cliff - just the cliff. There were flowers everywhere, growing right to the edge of the precipice.

To the south and east the whole Evolution region was laid out in snowy splendor! I had an incredible view of Mt. Goddard, with Mt. MgGee in midground just to the right of Goddard. The Goddard Divide was an impressive black wall with snowfields and glaciers mottled by cloud shadows. I could see Mts. Mendel and Darwin, but from this point the former was nearly indistinguishable from the latter. To the west, the dull green ridges of the Kaiser Pass area gave way to the haze and infinity of the San Joaquin Valley. To the north was an incredible array of mountains, too numerous to name. I was looking end-on at Pinnacles Ridge and the Seven Gables region, and I could see as far away as Ritter and Banner and the Minarets. Again, Mt. Tom was showing it's huge, rusty bulk above the ridge to the left of Mt. Humphreys.

I found the register under an 'alternate' cairn a few feet away from the higher cairn. It was situated on a block sitting right at the edge of the north face, so I had stunning views down into the Packsaddle Lake basin as I read the register. The original scrap of paper had been placed by Andy Smatko, and his party that day included Tom Ross and two others I can't recall. He noted that he found a cairn when he reached the summit, so his was not the first, but probably the first recorded ascent. A newer pad, less than 1/3 full, had been placed by Barbara Lilley and Gordon McCloud (?) in 1982, and the most recent entry I found was in September, 1993. Next to the register jar was a very old tobacco can (c 1920s?) with a faded scrap of what appeared to be paper, but might have been a tobacco leaf. In either case, there was no writing visible on the scrap. I wonder if Smatko failed to find this, which might have been the original register.

To get a better summit photo, I walked south along the east edge of the plateau to where the views to the south were unobstructed. I found a nice nook out of the wind and ate lunch, then took a 'self portrait' with Mts. Goddard and McGee in the background. From this point, I could see beautiful and gentle lake basins south of the Glacier Divide, hidden from Evolution Valley on a slightly higher bench.

It was time to go. I made quick work of the ridge and was soon back at Packsaddle Pass. The rocks I had climbed looked awful from this angle, so I tentatively examined the snow for a way to downclimb. None of the snow looked at all safe, so I retraced my route down the loose ledges. I reversed nearly the exact sequence of moves I had made on the way up, and none too quickly regained the snow.

The return trip across the glacier was uneventful. I didn't want to retrace my steps down the loose sand below the moraines, so I opted to follow a dike of solid rock just east of the moraines. At first, I used the snow in a gulley at descender's left of the dike. When the snow petered out and gave way to the dreaded vertical sand box, I moved right and began to descend the dike.

I followed ledges down to where the dike spread into a wide area of slabs. The unlikely route was easy, with exposure being the only real problem. Threading through a maze of cracks and ledges, I reached a point where I could exit to the right onto a more stable talus fan. I dropped down the talus and was soon strolling through the beautiful meadow just south of Packsaddle Lake.

I reached the outlet of the lake at about 5:30, just over 8 hours since I started, and found Gary fishing. I plopped down on a hummock of grass and watched for a while. He caught a few fair-sized Golden trout, one of which was to be my dinner...

I've just returned from my long-term trip to the Humphreys Basin, and I have an addition and some corrections for stuff in RJ Secor's book.

First, I climbed a peak which has a 30-year-old register on top, but is not even mentioned in The Book. "Matthes Peak" is the less-complex peak south of Packsaddle Lake, with an elevation of ~13,000 ft. (just under, according to the 7.5 topo). The register (the original scrap of paper and a new register placed by Barbara Lilley and Gordon McCloud (?) in 1982) says that the first recorded ascent was made via the south ridge from Evolution Valley by Andy Smatko and 3 others, including Tom Ross, but does not mention the date. A later entry in the newer pad speculates that the ascent was made some time in the summer of 1968. Smatko notes in his entry that a cairn was found on top. Other entries indicate that the peak has been climbed also via the East Ridge (probably class 3) and my route, the West Ridge (easy class 2 except for below note).

Second, I climbed the above peak via "Packsaddle Pass" on the Glacier Divide. Upon my return home, I looked this pass up in The Book, and had to laugh at the class 2 rating and no mention of some stern obstacles along the route. From Packsaddle Lake, there are two ways to approach the Matthes Glaciers below the afforementioned peak - climb a dangerously loose slope directly below the moraines, or climb a more stable talus field on the left to some unlikely-looking slabs between the loose slope and the talus, then climb ledges up the slabs to a point level with the top of the first moraine. Head west and cross the moraines and glacier to approach the pass. The last 50 feet of the pass are the tough part. In lower snow years (most years) there may well be a 'steep class 2' route here, as per Secor's description. This year, there was a wall (nearly a cornice) of very steep, soft snow, which I skirted on the right via class 4 rock.

As an aside, I followed a set of deer tracks and a set of coyote tracks right up to the steep snow. Both sets of tracks went right up and over the steep part!!

Anyway, hope this helps someone. Both peaks south of Packsaddle Lake are spectacular and unique, and deserving of attention. The geology is like a negative of the Palisades - mostly white rock with bands of darker rock.


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