Following The Dharma Bums to Matterhorn Peak (Pt.3)

Those of you following my blog in the past will remember that The Dharma Bums always has been a special book for me among Jack Kerouac’s books, it certainly is one of my favourites.

I described my half-hearted and unsuccessful attempts to re-create their climb up Matterhorn Peak before in these two posts on this blog.

Following The Dharma Bums To Matterhorn Peak (Pt. 2)


Following The Dharma Bums To Matterhorn Peak (Pt.1)

This time around (September 2019) was to be my third and most serious attempt of getting up there. As I still possessed very little real backcountry and climbing experience I took a guide with me on this hike. It does probably seem excessive because many people do that climb, which isn’t really a proper climb as you do not need any technical climbing skills at all, on their own or with friends. What you definitely do need however is to be in very good physical shape and the more backcountry experience you have the better it is. It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have made it up to the top on my own. For starters I wouldn’t have found the route up there, hell, I sometimes even find it hard to say which peak is which because e.g. Matterhorn Peak looks quite different from certain angles and quite alike some others. Plus the trail is, especially the higher you get, rather poorly marked.

I also should add that I never on any of my 3 attempts did manage to locate the boulder Kerouac and Snyder were camped at although other people say you cannot really miss it (check Thomas Becker’s excellent blog post about his Matterhorn Peak climb here, it’s well worth it), or the ‘last perfect little lake’ Kerouac is talking about in the book (of course it’s possible we might have passed it but I couldn’t be sure)

The view at the start of the hike up Horse Creek from Twin Lakes campground once you get the first few switchbacks behind you
Horse Creek looking rather peaceful – before the storm hit

Anyway, starting off at Twin Lakes Campground, the weather forecast for the day wasn’t too good, there was a storm approaching from the North, and is it was the middle of September there’s always the possibility of it being the first winter-ish storm, which, as it turned out, it was. The day started windy but still sunny and we were making our ascent in good spirits (well, I was at least), my guide who was a proper and experienced climber (his specialty is ice-climbing, and if you know anything about climbing at all you’ll know that those guys are the real deal)) so he probably had a inclination of what was in store for us (I didn’t). We (well he) had planned on hiking a bit further up on the first day but as a gust of wind lifted me clean up off the ground (WITH my heavy backpack on) at some point and threw my down onto the ground we quickly abandoned that idea. What followed was the worst night of my life. We took what shelter we could find among a stand of trees, which only presented me with the question during the night if I’d be dying there crushed by a tree, a whole mountain (or a part therof) or drown in water in my tent (I told you I had little backcountry experience).

As it turned out nothing of the sort happened although the storm was raging from about 3pm until well after midnight. I did mange to find some sleep afterwards and, much to my surprise, when I woke up the next morning, (in addition to being still alive) there was absolutely no wind at all, the sun was shining, there was not one cloud around and there was a sprinkling of fresh snow on the ground higher up. As you will remember if you read The Dharma Bums Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) was talking about the danger of early winter storms up there.

Anyway after only my third or fourth breakfast in the High Sierra backcountry (which is great!) off we went with Matterhorn Peak soon in sight now. As I mentioned before you don’t really need climbing experience for Matterhorn Peak (I read somewhere it’s rated class 3 on the Yosemite Decimal System, although it’s probably more a 2). I am usually not very good with exposure but I didn’t find that to be a problem at all except maybe with the view from the top, but that wasn’t too bad either.

Matterhorn Peak is the one in the middle of the photo

However that may be, it still is quite a tough hike. Of course that’s all dependent on your experience and level of fitness, for my guide it probably was more like a walk in the park. To make matters worse we had to take all of our gear pretty much up to the top (we left it about 5 minutes from there) as we were making our way down a different drainage. But that did make the climb very challenging for me indeed.

Now, as you remember, Kerouac gave up pretty near to the top on a ledge.

Above is a photo of what I can imagine being that ledge, I can’t be sure it’s the right ledge, though as it was very near to the top and to give up at the point would be quite foolish, but that said I wouldn’t put it past Kerouac, especially as he was firmly an alcoholic at the point in his life.

I gave away the happy ending for me a bit earlier and I am still happy and proud to say that I did indeed make it up to the top, and felt like Japhy Ryder/Gary Snyder for a brief time. Of course I was very proud about not giving up when the going got real tough, but I should also mention that it is incredibly beautiful up there, especially from up on the top, but actually the whole Sierra Nevada high country is and it’s great feeling to be hiking around up there with no signs of civilisation such as houses, cars etc. around and very few people encountered (we didn’t encounter anybody during the whole 3-day trip, although at some point I believe I heard people talking). Plus we did see bear tracks in the snow, which was cool.

The view from Matterhorn Peak, you can’t really see Twin Lakes, they are down towards the next ridge, where you can see the green of the trees, in the middle of the photo is the Horse Creek drainage, Morley must have made his camp somewhere down there I imagine.
View towards the West (think Yosemite and San Francisco)

Unfortunately I had a bit of a fall shortly after we left Matterhorn Peak on the way down and one of my ankles was sprained a bit, in any case it was black and blue, but as soon as we made our camp that night I did stick it in a beautiful and cold mountain stream which made it feel much better. Oh and did I mention that I feel incredibly lucky about the weather on the day of our ascent? As you remember that storm on the first day was very bad but then waking up with brilliant sunshine, no clouds and no wind around for the whole day was just amazing. Especially as weather made a turn for the worse again, and it became quite stormy again, and quite cold, the day after our ascent.

Little high Sierra creek, good for sprained ankles (or your water supply)

So, if anybody reading this is thinking about doing this, I would ultimately definitely recommend it by all means give it a go, but if you, like myself, have got little or no high country hiking/climbing experience think about getting a guide like I did, or better still go with a friend that does know what they are doing up there. I don’t think it would necessarily be very dangerous but chances are you probably wouldn’t make it and would only have to turn back disappointed – although as I said before (Gary Snyder did too) it’s never a mistake to poke around up there, if you take it to the top of Matterhorn (or some other peak) or not!

As mentioned before, obviously it all depends on your experience and level of fitness, some people apparently do that as a day hike, although I can’t imagine how you would do that, I simply would have the stamina for that. And you’d be missing couple of nights up there in the high country, which would be a total shame (provided they are not like my first night of the trip, that wasn’t too much fun).

Last light of the day falling on Matterhorn Peak


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