Ski Mountaineering

Matterhorn Peak

May 24-26, 1997

Reiner Stenzel

On this Memorial Day weekend we had fifteen enthusiastic skiers in search of good snow. There was no disappointment because the northern slopes of Matterhorn Peak in the Sawtooth Range near Bridgeport hold snow till early summer. Our participants were David Kaye from Arizona, Pete Yamagata from Sacramento, Richard Contreras from Los Gatos, Reed Moore and Alvin Walter from San Diego and, from Los Angeles and vicinity, Duncan Livingston, Randy Lamm, Eric Watts, Mike Rector, Bahram Manahedgi, Mike McDermitt, Dennis Landin, Doug O'Neill with friend John, and myself.

We met Saturday at 6:30 am at the end of the Twin Lakes Road. The planned early start was delayed since the parking attendant of the Mono Lakes Resort appeared at 8 am to sell us the required parking permits. By then the place was busy with fishermen and campers who wondered what we are doing with skis on a sunny spring day. We hiked up the Horse Creek trail passing by a spectacular waterfall and many pretty wildflowers along the way. Our first break was at the lower Horse Creek Meadow where one has a clear view of Matterhorn, the Dragtooth and their large snowfields. The second Horse Creek Meadow was too small for a campsite for our large group. Thus, we continued up along a feeble trail, which led through a mixed terrain of brush, rocks, and snow until we hit continuous snow above 8,300'. A broad flat area in the Horse Creek drainage was suitable for a group snow camp, but some preferred to camp slightly higher on a dry but windy ridge (8,500'). We were not the only skiers in the area but were soon joined by a dozen of skiers from the SF Bay area. Between 10:30 am and 12 noon we set up camp and ate lunch. In the afternoon we headed up the Horse Creek drainage to the base of Twin Peaks. It was very windy and cold and fierce spindrifts greeted us at higher elevations. An impressive cornice topped the ridge between the two summits of Twin Peaks and forced us to turn back at the last bowl (11,200'). The descent had the typical mix of snow: wind slabs and crust at the top, breakable crust in the middle, and delightful spring snow at lower elevations. By 4 pm we were back at base camp for an early dinner in the community snow kitchen. The wind got us early into our tents.

On Sunday, we got up leisurely since it would some sunshine to soften up the hard frozen snow. The plan was to tour around Matterhorn Peak, inspect its famous Northeast Couloir, and consider a possible ascent. At 9 am we ascended the Horse Creek drainage to about 8,600' and then turned southwest toward The Cleaver.

After some climbing, Matterhorn Pk came in sight and we headed straight toward its glacier and couloirs. The steep walls of the nearby Dragtooth are very impressive. Many skiers were spread out over the long glacier. As one heads into the East Couloir the glacier steepens considerably. We ascended on skins to about 11,400' where the steep rock walls start, beyond that the snow became too hard and steep for safe edging, leave alone the kick turns. This is where most everyone turned back. Three of us (Duncan, Eric, and myself) decided to head for the summit. We all had ice axes, but only Duncan had crampons. After making careful kick steps we slowly ascended the steep (>40 degrees) upper East Couloir. At some point in the climb I was hit by random rock fall, not very pleasant. At about 12 noon we reached the top of the Couloir. Looking down we had some second thoughts about skiing it down. We continued on the South side of the mountain, left the skis at the highest snowfield, and ascended the summit via the class 3 East Ridge. From the Matterhorn summit (12,278') we enjoyed a spectacular view on a clear spring day. One could see peaks near Lake Tahoe in the North, all of Yosemite to the South, and endless desert ranges in Nevada to the East. The close Sawtooth Ridge had countless bowls and chutes with plenty of good snow to ski in. Doodad's precarious boulder was just below us, and convoluted Whorl Mtn to the South reminded me of an earlier ascent through a needle hole. After taking many pictures and signing the overflowing peak register of this emblem peak we descended at 2 pm. By now the Northeast Couloir was in the shade, the snow was stone hard and a fall would be difficult to arrest. Even hiking it down without crampons was risky, thus we decided to ski down the Southeast face into Spiller Canyon and to return via Horse Creek Pass. The snow was soft and we enjoyed a safe, great run down. Along the way we made several side tours to carve unskied slopes until our energy was drained. By 5:30 pm we were back at camp and joined the rest of the group to share the day's adventures. They had skied down Matterhorn glacier and toured the adjacent snowfields up to The Cleaver. In the evening some decided to hike out to avoid another windy cold night.

On Monday, we got up at 7 am, packed and skied/hiked out. The plan was to make a detour to nearby Buckeye Hot Springs before going on the long drive home. By 10 am some of us were soaking in running hot water next to a cold stream. Then we bid farewell with the resolution to come back to the Sawtooth Range for a multiday basecamp-style ski tour in another year.

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