A change in weather and a change in plans.
My partner Larry and I decided that we were going to climb the N. Arete on the Matterhorn in a long one day push. For us, this is getting close to the limit of what we would want to attempt in a single day, but the thought of hauling up bivy gear was enough incentive for us to give it a go.
We packed a 10 mm rope and a light rack as well as a water filter and ice axe. We didn't bring crampons in the hope that the snow would be soft enough for us to simply kick steps.
Larry picked me up in Carson City at 4:00 am and we were at the parking lot at Mono Village by 6:00 am. After loading up and heading out we found ourselves lost after three minutes! Where is the trailhead? Finally after some trial and error we stumbled upon the first bridge crossing and were soon heading up the switchbacks toward the first meadow. As we emerged to the hanging valley we noticed that in addition to the lenticular clouds that we noticed from the parking lot, we now were seeing some thick cumulus clouds boiling up near the still far off summit of Matterhorn Peak. We talk about the implications of such clouds and decide to give them heavy weight when we arrive at the base and discuss the pros and cons of beginning the route.
Somewhere near the second meadow the trail plunges into a willow thicket, which caused us some lost time. Actually at this point the good trail is a thing of the past as from here on the trail travels over many snow and talus fields and is at various points hard to find, difficult to follow and tough to negotiate.
As Larry and I followed the creek along this alpine glade we commented at the beautiful scenery all around us. Quite inspiring. In addition to the numerous rock formations and waterfalls in the area, numerous flowers covered the ground in a tapestry of colors and saturated the air with a variety of smells. I kept getting hunger pangs for Caprese Antipasto due to frequent encounters with a plant which exudes an odor which is a dead ringer for Sweet Basil. We also saw numerous Mule Deer as well as Pika and Golden Marmot.
Soon after passing a pristine alpine tarn, we crossed a terminal moraine and finally gazed upon the incredible cirque which would constitute the final leg of our journey to the base of the N. Arete. We had been on the trail for four and a half hours. We sat on a rock and had breakfast. As we sat and weighed our options we were surprised to find ourselves in a sleet storm. Larry called the small ice particles gropple. Whatever it's name it didn't portend a good auger for our rock climb especially in light of the fact that the weather was coming in from the other side of the mountain and would be upon us without notice. As we sat and planned our climbing options the sky cleared and the blue sky and sun shone down and lifted our spirits and we decided to forge ahead with the climb. Just then the sky darkened again and rain began to fall.
Not really wanting to bail on the route and also not wanting to risk being three or four pitches up in the middle of a huge thunderstorm, Larry suggested we tag the summit via the East Couloir. Ah ha! The perfect Solution. We gain a fine summit and greatly reduce our exposure to potentially dangerous weather. With the decision made we finish our snack and head out over the snowfield with renewed vigor.
My original thought regarding the steep couloir was to gain the talus field as soon as possible to escape the potential injury that would result from slipping on the snow and sliding into the numerous rocks that pockmarked the lower part of the couloir. However, once I transferred to the talus from the snow I immediately went back to the snow as the talus was at the angle of repose and therefore extremely unstable. As Larry and I recounted our trip we both agreed that this section from the top of the snowfield to the notch was by far the most difficult and dangerous.
Once we arrived at the notch we were awed by the incredible scene before us. We were looking deep into the Yosemite High country many miles to the South. We were able to actually make out numerous landmarks such as Cloud's rest Where Larry and his wife climbed a multiday route called "My favorite things" a couple of years ago. We were also pretty sure that we could resolve Fairview Dome as well as some of the smaller domes that give Tuolumne Meadows it's distinctive look and feel. We were also able to see North Peak, and Mt. Dana, along with their distinctive couloirs. We were glad to also make out Mt. Conness, the sight of two previous adventures.
At this point the Summit looks far off and the route to it looks third class and committing, but rest assured there is a fine class two path to the top and it is less than twenty minutes away and very well worth the effort.
Standing on the top is quite an experience, even for a guy who is no stranger to spectacular summits. The sweeping viewscape is replete with familiar landmarks (at least for a local like me). To the North lies the Mokolumne Wilderness and the Dardenelles near Kirkwood. To the East lies the Sweetwater mountains with a fresh dusting of snow, as well as Mt. Grant near Hawthorne and Lucky Boy Pass. To the West we see Tower Peak, the object of a future adventure.
After spending nearly fifteen minutes on the summit we decide that it's time to head back. We are concerned about the talus field on the decent, but to our delight the talus field that was so trecherous on the ascent is of little concern on the way down. We are soon at the head of the snow field and we both glissade down in seconds the nearly five hundred feet that took us a solid half hour to climb.
Except for getting lost again in the willow thicket the remainder of the trip down is uneventful if not irritating what with getting mauled by mosquitos.
We arrived back at Mono Village by 7:00 thirteen hours after leaving. At the car, Larry cracks out a surprise cache of Guacamole and chips as well as a couple of Gatorades. Oh La La!!!!! Sweet!
We are both tuckered out, and the drive home seems much longer than the drive there, but we are both pleased that a couple of "old farts" can still knock out a big day like this. Personally, for me, this trip is bitter sweet since Larry is moving to Arizona soon and I will be here on my own with all of these mountains to summit, routes to climb and adventures and epics awaiting. I'm sure I'll find another partner, but Larry, your climbing shoes and mountaineering boots will leave an awful big footprint to fill.