The Sawtooth range looks like something out of an alpinists dream. It has all the features one would look for; looming granite faces, knife edge ridges with big air under you heels, historic summits, a glacier and a few little snow and ice gullies tucked back in the shadows. Plus, it has the key feature of being out just far enough that it keeps the crowds at bay. Most people will only take a curious glance from the window of their car at 75 miles per hour from highway 395, where the Sawtooths dominate the skyline above Bridgeport California.
Snow pack varies season to season in the Sierra Nevada, sometimes as dry as J-tree to years like the last two, which seemed like a constant blizzard. Here in Fish Camp, Southern Yosemite, we received about twice as much snow as usual. Which means I had almost 7ft of pack at one point in my front yard, which sits about 5,100 feet in elevation.
When my long time climbing partner Matt and I showed up at the glacier we found conditions more like May 1st than mid-July. The rocks were barely poking up from beneath the snow. The little lake that would usually be a milky blue gem of glacially fed melt water was instead mostly ice with only one little corner free. It exposed the clearest water possible after a long winter of lying undisturbed by wind and the constant surge of the glacial melt. Believe me, it tastes every bit as good as you can imagine.
Matt and I had also decided to bring our two most entertaining climbing partners: Kevin and Carlos. Kevin has an endless sense of humor, which could only be categorized slapstick clowning, not to be mixed with Matt’s sometimes out of control mischief. For example, they were kicked out of Bangkok together. You have to be pretty bad for the Thai police to not even want you in their jail. The fourth was Carlos, a blonde-haired blued-eyed Puerto Rican. As a tropical fellow, Carlos was cold. But he was awestruck by the setting we were about to partake in. Soon we would all be eating up the cracks and drinking down the faces as it was the sweetest nectar on earth, Sierra granite.
Forest fires somewhere in the Sierra always help to make the sunrise beautiful and different every day. Different shades of pink and purple reflect off the clean white granite faces. The hue changing as the wind and sun shift until it is blindingly clear and bright from the suns reflection off glacier and rock.
After we drank coffee until the point of shaking, we headed up the glacier. We found it to be firm and easy to walk on for the approach, though twice as long as it appears. Our goal was the North Arête of Matterhorn Peak. It is the type of peak a child would draw; geometric, near symmetrical, lines running to a pointed summit. Add the climbers’ artistry to the picture and a striking arête running from glacier to summit would be next followed by a couple crack split dihedrals for good measure. Luckily for us, it is real and we were there.
We were a group of climbers familiar with each other and the pitches rolled by only interrupted by laughter and the occasional snack. The climbing hard enough to warrant basic rock shoes but no more. There is a crux on every climbing route, and I found ours on a little section of face and arête that I traversed out on to in order to, let’s say, keep the route clean. After all was said and done, I kept going up finding the holds to be right on the arête, which was about 35 feet long and 800 ft. off the glacier, giving me maximum exposure and no gear. The edges and knobs kept my retreat at bay and seemed to be just big enough to try to go a little higher, hoping that one more move was going to give me the respite I wanted. Of course it came all the way at the top of the arête where I was able to traverse back into the nice dihedral crack.
To finish the route, a traverse around the arête from one dihedral to another on the North Face is necessary. This section is cold and shaded, not to be taken lightly by our tropical companion. The face is near vertical and split by only a few cracks, all of which look intimidating and hard. Not quite what I was expecting. Hand-jamming my way up the face I kept finding hidden cracks in the back for my tips making what looks 5.10+ climbing into 5.6. But the cracks are ice cold the wind is picking up and the reality that alpine climbing is always serious is back on the forefront of my mind.
As we pull onto the summit ridge clouds began to stack and were blowing through the gap of Matterhorn Couloir; swirling dark vortices, like the water around a large rock in the Merced River in spring. It was re-coalescing back into a stream of clouds over our base camp and across the Walker River Valley, East to Nevada.
After a few pictures we pull on rain gear for the descent, for both the glissade and the oncoming storm. When we clear the saddle south of the summit and start our descent the ground beneath our feet aids our downward progress as it freely slides and makes you have to check your speed. It consists of the ever so fine powder that only a glacier can produce over millennia, combined with flakes and boulders, proof of the effects of the freeze and thaw process from the walls towering above. Once we hit the obstacle free snow we were back at camp in minutes. Using both boot and butt glissade we did the last two-thirds of the descent in 15 minutes. Arriving just before the short-lived rain, all four of us snacked beneath the Mega-Mid at basecamp. Damn! What a good day!
Pat Warren is one of SYMG’s Senior Guides and a Sierra granite addict. To learn more about Pat and the rest of the SYMG staff, click here.