Matterhorn Madness

1 Jun 1992 - by John Flinn

We were just below the summit, and downclimbing furiously, when all hell broke loose. Dark, malevolent clouds swept across the upper part of the mountain, hailstones stung our shoulders and thunder rumbled from all points on the compass.

All afternoon the storm had been patiently laying a trap for the seven of us, and now, as we scrambled posthaste off the top of Matterhorn Peak, it was springing it. And it was a wild one, dishing up generous helpings of snow, hail, rain, wind, thunder and swirling mist in various disagreeable combinations. Parka hoods cinched tight, ears cocked for the warning sound of buzzing ice axes, we hurried down to a col south of the peak and then dropped lickety-split down a slope of ball-bearing scree toward the valley below.

Mid-June, as you will recall, was a period of weird, unsettled weather in the Sierra, and we had managed to climb up into the very maw of a summer storm that startled us with its ferocity. Instead of scampering back toward the shelter of Twin Lakes, though, we continued over Matterhorn Peak and deeper into the back country. That had been our plan all along, and we figured the storm had to blow itself out soon. Three hours later, though, we were still being lashed as we downclimbed rain-slickened rock. My GoreTex parka had soaked through, and several of us were showing the early signs of hypothermia.

That morning, as he set off from the cars, we had been a pretty smug bunch. We were going fast and light on Kai Wiedman's alpine ramble, and we had pared our loads down to the bare essentials. On the trail up Horse Creek Canyon, we passed a couple headed in to climb the same route as us, but they were staggering under huge, knee-buckling loads.

By comparison, most of us were carrying slightly oversized daypacks for an overnight trip. The skies were blue and the air warm, but as we left the trail below Horse Creek Pass the first wispy clouds began to appear on the eastern horizon.

The snow in the couloir above the glacier was firm but yielding, and two or three hard kicks resulted in a decent step. Soon we settled into the classic snow-climbing rhythm: plant the ice axe, kick, kick, step, plant. We were a pretty fit group, but Jim Curl was virtually bionic. He kicked steps faster than the rest of us could follow them. The couloir was steep enough to require our full attention, and we didn't spend a lot of time looking over our shoulders at what was developing in the sky.

It wasn't until we were scrambling up the northeast ridge that we realized we'd been had. With frightening suddenness, the storm closed in on us with a pincer movement. We visited the summit only long enough to nix Kai's original idea of descending a steep, untried ridge/buttress leading toward the Doodad.

Instead we made our way down easier slopes and angled through the blowing snow and rain toward Burro Pass, at the head of Slide Canyon. The route-finding was a bit tricky in the mist, but Jim and Brian Boyle kept us on track. Eventually some scrambling and a couple of standing glissades brought us down into the lush green meadows at the upper reaches of the canyon.

Under different circumstances I might have proclaimed this one of the most beautiful places I've seen in the Sierra, but we were all wet, cold and demoralized. By now it was 6:30 p.m., and the storm showed no sign of letting up. It looked as if like the night would be a miserable, shivering one, especially so for Peter Maxwell, who didn't even have a bivy sack. (Although, for some reason, he didn't seem very concerned about this. (Peter's layering system, incidentally, consisted of a Pierre Cardin dress shirt under a Marmot parka.) They were soon supplanted by ugly, black-bottomed monsters that looked as if they meant business. Over lunch on the moraine below the Matterhorn Glacier, we studied and analyzed the evolving weather system, trying to read the cloud patterns like tea leaves. The storm seemed to be splitting in half, with one half going to the south of us and the other to the north. Little did we guess that this was a cunning flanking maneuver. Above us the sky was clear and Matterhorn Peak looked sunny and inviting. The vote to go for it was unanimous.

An hour later, just as we were reaching the first pines that could stand up and be counted as real trees, the storm finally took pity on us and lifted. After setting up camp and cooking dinner, we all wanted a fire, so I employed a crafty stove-assisted wet-wood-lighting technique I described a few years ago in SCREE.

If any of you clipped out the article, you might as well throw it away. It doesn't work all that well. Sunday dawned sunny and warm, and after lingering in camp long enough to dry everything out we continued down Slide Canyon to its confluence with Little Slide Canyon.

Striking off cross-country, we wandered down this side canyon, one of the real gems of the Sierra. Sparkling sapphire lakes; a rushing stream; luxurious, flower-dotted meadows; soaring granite spires - Little Slide Canyon has it all. As we neared the bottom, Noreen Ford, who had been this way before, offered some advice. "The one thing we don't want to do here is go to the right," she said. "Let's go to the right," replied Kai. At first it looked as if Kai was right--there was a faint trail to follow, and the going was pretty easy. But as we emerged at Robinson Creek, Noreen got to have the Mother-of-all-I-told-you-so's. Spread out before us was a vast, swamp-besotted network of beaver ponds, grassy mud bogs, and thigh-deep muck holes. Real "Apocalypse Now" stuff. Jim Curl and Paul Vlasveld took a long, circuitous route upstream, while the rest of us just plunged ahead and mucked our way through it. We all reached the trail at the far side around the same time, but from the waist down Jim and Paul were a lot cleaner.

As we approached the cars, we were a contented bunch. We'd seen a lot of wild and magnificent country in two days, climbed a majestic alpine peak and displayed a stiff upper lip during the worst the skies could toss at us.

Kudos to Kai for planning it. This was a good one.

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