Matterhorn Peak ~ Sierra Nevada (July 1983)

On our recent mule packing trip in the northern regions of Yosemite National Park, we crossed Burro Pass. This pass sits on the ridge between Fingers Peak to the west and Matterhorn Peak (12,279 feet / 3,743 m) to the east. Heavy smoke denied us a view of Matterhorn but being near it brought back memories of when Tom Pass, Sam Pierce, and I climbed it via its East Couloir route in the summer of 1983. The three of us had met in the mountaineering program run by the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter. Looking back, we were young and strong and fearless (but not stupidly so) and anxious to climb some of the storied peaks in California’s High Sierra.

The south side of Matterhorn Peak as seen from the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on our 2020 mule trip

Reaching the peaks in the northern Sierra Nevada was a long drive from Los Angeles, so we organized a private trip to climb two of the north’s preeminent summits – Matterhorn Peak and Mount Lyell – over a long weekend. I hadn’t climbed much with Sam before but had with Tom – a very strong climber who took a resolutely minimalist approach to the process. Wool clothing from Goodwill and a can of chili (eaten cold) was enough. It did have a certain John Muir eating rice out a sock charm to it. At the other extreme, I had convinced myself that PopTarts (also eaten cold) were the ideal mountaineering diet – if you want to subsist on sugar. Mercifully that dietary phase didn’t last long. 🙄

After the usual long, after work drive up Highway 395, we reached Twin Lakes near Bridgeport, California and slept next to the car. Next morning we packed up and took the Horse Creek Trail well up into the drainage on Matterhorn’s northeast side. The trail eventually faded and we continued on across granite slabs and snow to a bivi at around 10,200 feet (3,100 m). I didn’t remember until I looked at these photos that another guy had followed us all the way to the end of the trail and then bailed when we started up the slabs – I have no idea who he was or why he followed us or what happened to him (cue eerie SciFi music).

Tom adds Hershey bars and fresh fruit to his minimalist diet
Sam and Tom and the mysterious stranger crossing Robinson Creek
Matterhorn Peak (M) and The Dragtooth (D) from the end of the trail in Horse Creek Canyon
On some snow below our bivi (the mysterious third guy looks confused)
Tom enjoys his can of chili, along with pita bread filled with peanut butter and cheese slices
Sunset over the Sawtooth Ridge

Although this was mid-July, there was still a good amount of snow where we were and it was impressively cold in the morning. Nevertheless, we got an early start, using crampons to ascend the icy snowfield into the East Couloir, then making a few Class 3 moves to attain the ridge. From there it was just an easy scramble up the ridge over piled rocks to the summit. 🙂

Sam confronts the mystery of the frozen gaiter
The East Couloir route (arrow) to Matterhorn Peak (M)
Climbing the icy snowfield
Moving on to Class 3 rock
Very cold rock
Petite Capucin
Some easy ledges just below the ridge
On the rock pile to the summit
Sam (R) and I on the summit, with a still snowy Yosemite National Park in the background
Classic summit shot
Later: Vaudeville in Lyell Canyon

Getting down wasn’t too hard (by now it was warmer) and we were soon enjoying burgers at the Jolly Kone in Bridgeport. Then it was on into Tuolumne Meadows, where, after a night of ranger-dodging cowboy camping, we went south down Lyell Canyon to do some more camping and undertake a successful climb of Mount Lyell (13,114 feet / 3,997 m). Overall, we achieved all our goals and had a good time doing so. Sam seems to have been using the trip (and mountaineering) to grapple with what to do with his life. It must have worked because he later became a well regarded internal medicine specialist in Los Angeles. Tom, who later got an engineering physics degree from Cal Berkley, moved to Silicon Valley to do something with solar panels and green energy.

This climb occurred during a golden moment in time that we were lucky to have and to be able to enjoy. So what’s changed in the intervening 37 years? Well, most of the formerly permanent snowfields around the peak are either gone or are greatly diminished. Permits (of which I don’t recall us getting any), sometimes along with reservations, are now required everywhere. Smoky wildfires were rare; now they’re not. Once we left the trailhead, we saw very few people; now there seem to be people all over. And 2020 and beyond is going to present everyone with challenges that the three of us couldn’t have even imagined back in 1983. But we’ll just press on, comforted by the good memories we take with us. 🙂

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2 comments

  1. Thanks! I didn’t remember he was even there until I saw the photos. So if we talked to him or found out what he was doing, I simply don’t remember. 😦

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  2. I always enjoy your “stab from the past” stories and pictures. The mysterious stranger aspect is especially interesting– did you guys talk to him,or was he always just silently tagging along?

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