East Couloir Route (part one)
This report will be useful to someone who wants to summit this peak successfully and has never been to the area before, and you enjoy class 3 or class 4 hikes with no technical prep. If you have never done a class 4 peak before, this would be a good introduction (there are a few "easy" class 4 moves, but mostly class 3).
First, advance preparation - if you are climbing late in the season you don't need any crampons or ice axe. Just sturdy hiking boots. There are basically three very different approaches to summit. The easiest one is class 2 and uses a trail to circumvent the steep sections by going around the peak and approaching from the Southeast. I've never done this approach before, but I have been told it takes about 10 - 11 hours. The second approach is to approach from the North, and directly climb the North face of the summit spire. This route is class 5, and I've never done it either. The route described below is to approach from the North, but instead of directly climbing the North face, climb up one of the couloirs on either side. Either one is possible, I chose the East couloir. Also, I recommend eating a very big breakfast beforehand, and bring powerbars, etc. for the hike. In terms of energy, this hike is very demanding, with nearly 5,200 feet of elevation gain, that is almost one vertical mile. Lastly, bring water. Lots of it. Personally, on a day hike like this, I bring a gallon of water in my backpack. There is abundance of water supply if you prefer to treat your water, but again, it can cost time stopping to refill your water and treat it. I had attempted this hike before this year and failed due to delays and I ran out of time. More on that later.
I would describe this hike as having 5 main "hills" to climb up, punctuated by plateau sections in between. Each one of these hills is a challenge, but the last one is the most difficult.
I live in Campbell, which is a good drive from Bridgeport. So I left my house by 4:00AM with a full tank of gas and got to Annette's Mono Village around 9:30AM. This is the standard starting point for this hike. As you drive closer to Twin Lakes from Bridgeport, Matterhorn becomes apparent. It looks very steep and pointy. I parked my car in the lot (parking is free unless you park overnight) and set out on the trail. It helps to know in advance where the trailhead is, as it is not clearly marked and can cost unnecessary time trying to find it. This is important because the hike took me 9 and half hours (including half an hour I spent on the summit relaxing and eating a power bar). To find the trailhead, go all the way to the back of the campground, toward the direction of the peak, and cross over two bridges, the first one is very sturdy looking and the second one is very rickety. Once over there you will see a sign that says "hiking trail." After about 50 yards you will see a fork in the trail which is not marked. There is a large sign on the right fork. Take that route.
Matterhorn in the distance, first view from the trail.
East Couloir Route (part two)
The first part of the hike is on a pleasant maintained trail, climbing up a hill full of trees and plants, with a view of the lake down below. Once you reach the top of this you climbed up the first (and easiest) of the 5 hills. Matterhorn comes into view, and you hike along side Horse Creek for a few minutes. At the end of this meadow-like section you've gone about one hour into the hike. The next section becomes visible, which is a small boulder field. This boulder field ascends up to a ridge. This is the second hill. It is the shortest of the five hills, and may be a little steep for someone who has never done this kind of a hike before.
At the top of this hill, you are in nice flat section, following the trail South. Now comes the time to make a decision. On your right you will see a major hill that leads up to the are that I call the "main ridgeline." This ridgeline leads into the direction of the Matterhorn. You can either continue on the trail (class 2) or go up this hill (follow faint "use trails"). If you choose to go up the hill, climb up the hill pretty much as soon as you see it (the longer you follow the trail, the more difficult it will be to climb up the hill). The first time I attempted this hike I didn't know when to leave the trail, so I waited and ended up hiking up a very steep section, and, upon reaching the top, discovered I was high up on a ridge with a very difficult downclimb to get back to the main ridgeline. This hill is the third hill. It is pretty much comprised of dirt, talus, and light scree. Once at the top of this hill you will now be in a very different looking terrain, which is comprised almost entirely of boulders and talus. This area will have a short plateau, keeping South, then you will see the fourth hill. This hill is a pile of boulders. To the left of it, you will see a steep ridge which comes more and more difficult to climb (or downclimb) the further South you go. You will see ice near the wall on the left. You want to try and get to the high point of this ridge, then climb up the fourth hill to the top of the boulder field. At the top, you are now in the glacier plateau. You are more or less surrounded by peaks in the plateau. Early in the season this section will be totally snow and ice. Late in the season you will see the glacier, but again, it isn't difficult to traverse across with hiking shoes.
Up until now things have been pretty tame. This is where the fun begins. You will see the peak directly to the Southwest. You will likely contemplate one of three options - either take the soft-sloped far left route, the left couloir, or the right couloir. When I went the soft-sloped far left route was completely ice, so that wasn't an option. The couloir on the left is the East couloir. That is route I took. From afar, it appears like it has solid rocks and looks steep, but relatively straight-forward. Don't be fooled - it's all loose rocks and scree.
This is definitely the most difficult section. A few notes on climbing up the couloir safely. First, never traverse across an inclined snow or ice field without crampons. Slipping from this section could be fatal because you will not be able to arrest your fall, unlike slipping in scree. Secondly, use your judgement, never put all of your confidence in the strength of questionable contact points. When in doubt, always keep three points of contact on the terrain and "test" them out before assuming they will hold. There are a lot of loose rocks in this chute, I even saw very large boulders come loose. The sturdiest rocks are once you get to the main headwall, but most of the rocks are loose. There is also a lot of scree in this chute. Thankfully, it is in the shade (during the fall). A quick note about downclimbing this section - it's not as tough as it looks. Most of it is nice and easy, but if you need to take your time on any section, don't feel rushed. Keep your center of gravity close to the terrain on the steep sections and downclimb facing the terrain on the steep sections (only about one or two of these on this chute).
Once you reach the top of the couloir you will see the other side of the landscape. To your right there is one more section to complete - the summit spire. Once you've gotten here, you are extremely exhausted. The last section looks tall and steep, but its actually quite short and it's over with before you know it. This section has a few easy class 4 moves to clear, but mostly it is all class 3. Once at the top of this, you can see the summit block about 50 feet away. Use the last ounces of your energy to traverse across to it, likely stopping every ten steps to catch your breathe.
view looking down East Couloir
East Couloir Route (part three)
The view up on the top is amazing. You can actually see the parking area from the top, as well as a variety of surrounding peaks in the Northern Yosemite area. In addition, you are on the highest point of pretty much anything nearby. You also have a very steep drop-off to the glacier plateau below. All the rocks here are very strong, so feel free to get close to the edge and peer over.
At this point I had no energy left. I took a half hour break, drank a ton of water, ate a power bar, and headed down (I did not want to leave, the view was so incredible). Surprisingly, going down wasn't that tough. I found that going up was physically demanding, but going down didn't require much energy. Follow the main ridgeline back to the point where the trees are "tilted to the left" and you will see the route you came from on the far edge. I brang a headlamp with me, although I didn't need it as I reached my car exactly at 7:00 when the sun was completely set. I would also recommend bringing one of these in case you don't make it back in time. If for whatever reason you do not bring one of these, make sure you calculate a "cut-off point" for you to turn back by in order to make it back. But I would recommend bringing one of these on every hike just in case.
Have fun and enjoy the hike!
View from the summit
View from the summit
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