Riding El Nino's Tail; Matterhorn

24 May 1998 - by Jim Ramaker

Ten miles north of Bridgeport, Pat Callery and I awoke after a restful night in the sagebrush to grey skies from horizon to horizon. Throwing our wet sleeping bags in the car, we drove down to the familiar trailhead at Twin Lakes, where we were soon joined by Jim Curl, Dot Reilly, Milushe Kudnrnovska, and trip leader Kai Wiedman. It was early Saturday morning on Memorial Day weekend and time for another one of Kai's assaults on the Sawtooth Ridge. After breakfast by the lake and the usual sorting of gear, we headed up the trail into Horse Creek Canyon about 8:30. We hit snow at the top of the first long, forested hill. Jim, Kai, and Pat put on skis, while Dot, Milushe, and I donned snowshoes, and we continued up the rugged canyon. The plan was to climb Matterhorn that afternoon, head west across the ridge to tackle Blacksmith Peak on Sunday, and hike out on Monday. El Nino had other plans..... Around 1 o'clock, we stopped for lunch at the top of a huge hill in the canyon and had lunch at about 10,000 feet. The weather turned cloudy and a bit windy, with the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Ridge socked in above us. We turned right (north), climbed up out of the canyon, and set up camp in a large open snow bowl next to snow-covered Matterhorn Lake. The mountains were still shrouded in dark clouds, so we decided to post- pone our climb. Jim, Kai, and Pat took off on skis to yo-yo the slopes above our camp, while Milushe and I played on some class-3 ledges and hiked to the base of the spectacular Horse Creek Tower above our camp. Dot was suffering with a recently broken hand that was still quite painful, and had to restrict her activities all weekend. Around 5 we gathered at camp to melt snow and cook. The cold wind picked up and sent most of us to our tents by 7:30. After an 11-hour sleep (close to the PCS record), we threw open the tent flaps and gazed into cloudless, crystal clear skies, with every ledge on the neighboring peaks etched by fresh snow. Because we hadn't been able to climb the day before, we agreed to forget about Blacksmith Peak and just do Matterhorn, so Kai told us there was no need to do anything radical like leave camp early. After lengthy cooking and relaxing, we finally left camp at 9:45, with Jim, Kai, and Pat on skis, and Dot, Milushe, and I on crampons. We ran into several other parties returning from Matterhorn or skiing up in the high snow bowls, including a large group of experts from the Southern California Ski Mountaineering Section, who were carving turns and crossing icy slopes with apparent ease on their wide randonne skis. We wandered upward in the warm sun while occasional snow and rock slides clattered down the huge wide face of the Dragtooth to our right. At 11 we started up the east couloir, the snow a bit soft as the sun had been hitting it for about five hours already. This couloir is not real steep, with an average angle of about 30 degrees. Part way up it, the skiers stashed their skis and donned crampons. At 11:45 I reached the notch and talked to a couple of guys with alpine ski gear, then headed up the last 300 or so feet to the top. In summer, you head left, then double back to the right along the ridge -- easy class 2 all the way. Or you can climb straight up the class-3 rock at the top of the southeast slope. In search of some sportier climbing, I decided to try that, though the class-3 rock was buried by the El Nino snow. Things went fine until the last 20 feet, where the slope steepened to about 60 degrees, topped by a 8-foot high vertical cornice of soft unconsolidated snow. Yikes. I climbed up to the vertical step and hacked away at the cornice with my ice axe, looking for something solid enough for a secure foothold. I probably should've downclimbed 200 feet or so to the standard route -- if I fell, an arrest was unlikely until I tumbled down to the lower angled slope, and even there, sharp rocks poked through the snow like sharks' teeth. Deep snow had made easy class-3 rock into something quite different. Finally I carved out a stable foothold at waist level, shoved my cramponed boot into it, reached up over my head and over the lip of the cornice, and planted my ice axe shaft all the way to the hilt. Now all I had to do was make the move and hope the whole shebang didn't come down on top of me. With a thrash I flopped over the top, and a couple minutes later I was on the summit, letting my breathing slowly return to normal. Jim Curl, Kai, and Pat also decided to avoid the tourist route off to the left. They went even farther to the right than I did -- Kai and Pat climbing an exposed class-4 rock step that scared even Kai, and Jim tackling a short vertical squeeze chimney with ice in the back of it. Oh those fun-loving PCSers, doing stuff like this with dangerous fall potential, while a well-trodden footpath to the summit lay just a couple of hundred feet away. We all relaxed on the summit for a bit, and then Jim Curl and I went down to check on Milushe. As I feared, she was following our somewhat fool- hardy path to the top. We advised her to go down to the tourist route, and after trying a couple of different routes and after a stern warning from Kai, she finally agreed to do so. But then she found she couldn't downclimb the class-3 rock and snow she'd just come up. As he's done for others in the past, Jim Curl went down, climbed up next to her, and coached her down. Finally, around 2 p.m., Milushe, Kai, Jim, Pat, and I were all back at the notch (Dot had stopped farther down because of her hand). Milushe really wanted to summit, and Kai and I agreed to go back up with her as we'd kind of left her stranded on the way up. Undaunted by her trials, Milushe quickly led Kai and I up the normal tourist route. Someone from another party had told us that it had "a class-5 move" -- ludicrous of course, but it did have some awkward class-3 moves up snow-covered blocks. The three of us soon topped out and started heading down -- a good thing, because the wind was picking up, thin clouds were racing over the summit, and a thick cloud bank was moving in from the west. We quickly descended the east couloir, while Jim tried skiing the lower half of it. He made one nice turn, slipped, slid down a couple hundred feet, then got up and continued. Below that, the three skiers had a great run back to camp, while Milushe and I got in some great sitting glissades. Back in camp we dried gear, melted snow, and played with the shovels to enlarge our kitchen and improve our snow walls. A long leisurely supper ensued, as we all watched Kai go through his ritual of wine, soup, chicken curry, tea, and gourmet cookies. The clouds moved in over the peaks and the wind picked up as night came on, and strong gusty winds to about 40 MPH knocked the tents around all night. Just before dawn it stated snowing, and at first light we looked out of our tents into a full-on spring blizzard. We ate breakfast in the tents, then packed up quickly as blowing snow stung our faces. It was about 30 degrees though, and the snow wasn't accumulating enough to cause avalanche problems, so there was no real storm hazard. Still, it was quite something for Memorial Day. As we descended the first steep hill below camp, I looked back at the others a few hundred feet above me, barely visible in swirling whirlwinds of snow. Descending on crampons was effortless, but the skiers were having a hard time on the crusty, frozen snow. It sure wasn't doing any melting this day. By 9 we were down out of the wind, and the snow slowly turned to sleet and then rain. We reached the cars at 10:30 a.m., washed up, then gathered in Bridgeport for brunch. The excellent Hayes Street cafe had a long line, so we made do with the dark, gloomy Sportsman's cafe. Our drive home was enlivened by more snow flurries while driving over just-opened Sonora Pass, where we marveled at the 12-foot vertical walls of snow cut by the snowplows on both sides of the road. May 25, and the El Nino winter was not in any hurry to loosen its grip on the mountains.

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