It was 1 a.m. and I’d barely gotten a wink of sleep. A 5 a.m. wake-up call was just ahead, as well as a busy and difficult day in which I’d planned to climb two peaks in the San Juan range of southwestern Colorado. Both would be a little tougher than some of the mountains I’d done previously, though the technical side of the climbs were things I could deal with.
But it was going to be a long day. Two mountains, somewhere around 10 miles of hiking and climbing above 10,000 feet, big dropoffs and hopefully big payoffs in terms of views, solitude and, to a degree, a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, tagging the summits of Wetterhorn Peak and Matterhorn Peak would mark my best day of climbing in the Rockies.
But as the clock ticked past 1, I knew something was up. I was plagued by a persistent headache and a mind that wouldn’t shut off. And by the time I’d eaten breakfast, dressed and hit the trailhead, I realized I was just feeling off. The ambition that fueled my plan had ebbed. I was tired before I stepped foot on the trail.
I knew I had to pick one. Two wasn’t going to happen. So would it be Wetterhorn Peak, a gorgeous 14,015-foot spire with its airy summit, or would it be its smaller neighbor, Matterhorn Peak, beautiful in its own right, but not as difficult?
I’d made up my mind somewhere on the trail, but decided to wait to tell climbing buddy Johnny Hunter when we got to a split in the route where you went toward either Wetterhorn or Matterhorn.
“Johnny, I’m just not feeling it today,” I told him. “So let me offer this. Neither of us have been up Matterhorn (he’d already climbed Wetterhorn a month earlier). Let’s get Matterhorn and call it good.”
Thankfully, he was agreeable, so we turned northeast to follow a less-traveled trail toward Matterhorn’s southeast slopes. At 13,590 feet, Matterhorn is little brother to the aforementioned Wetterhorn Peak and, further east, the hulking mass that is Uncompahgre Peak. But it’s beautiful. It’s grassy slopes angle upward to a rocky summit while its craggy west ridge give the mountain an edge just hard enough to inspire awe. Gerry Roach, renowned Colorado mountaineer and author of “Colorado’s Fourteeners,” described Matterhorn as “stately” in his must-have guidebook. When the peak first comes into view, the description becomes believable.
Matterhorn is rarely climbed by itself. Most of the time, it’s climbed in combination with Wetterhorn or, for the people who are insanely fit, it’s a part of a three-peak day in which it, Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre are all climbed. Since it doesn’t hit that magic 14,000-foot mark or have the gnarly ascents some other 13ers have, Matterhorn doesn’t have the allure to make it a singular focus of many climbers’ attention.
But it does have its charms. First, because it’s infrequently climbed, you can bet on having the mountain mostly to yourself. That was my experience. Only Johnny and myself were on the peak that day.
Second, its scenery is spectacular. I wanted pictures from Matterhorn’s summit because I knew the views of the neighboring mountains would be amazing. I was proven correct, which made me feel a little better about forgoing Wetterhorn.
Lastly, Matterhorn has a little of everything. It’s a beautiful hike, and just enough challenge toward the end to add a little excitement to the day.
Looking at its southeast slopes, the hike seemed pretty straightforward. And it was, but the slopes were much steeper than they initially appeared. Since all of that portion of the hike was above 12,000 feet, it got rather grueling. I’ve experienced some steep hiking on Mount Belford and Mount Yale, and Matterhorn’s slopes felt every bit as steep. I’d worked on my conditioning quite a bit over the past few months, but still came up short of my own expectations. Translation: I was slow going up that hill.
But eventually we got to the end of the hiking portion of the ascent and into some actual climbing. When you first see Matterhorn, you notice it’s capped by a jagged, steep final section. I was hoping for some solid rock up there, but that didn’t happen. Instead, what you have are lots of boulders and loose rocks along with some dirt.
I saw two obvious routes to the top. I could go straight up a steeper, rockier portion of the summit pitch or angle off to my right toward a slightly easier but less interesting route. I chose the former.
We ditched our packs there and started our scramble toward the summit. In so doing, I spied a more vertical and interesting looking line. So I swung over to my left to take a peek.
A gouge in the side of the mountain made a small but nice-looking gully that ended abruptly at the top with a couple of chockstones wedged in place. At the foot of the gully were loose rocks and dirt. Below me, an exposed dropoff that ended a few hundred feet below.
The footholds were junk. But I figured if I could get some good handholds up higher, I’d be OK. As I climbed up, I saw the only readily available handholds were those dang chockstones.
I’ve been reading Aron Ralston’s “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” and noting that he had to cut off his own arm to free himself from a fallen chockstone, my current situation gave me pause. Ralston quoted Roach (the guidebook author mentioned earlier) as saying, “Geologic time is now.” A nice way of saying that a rock can move or fall at any time.
Looking back down, I saw that dropoff. The exposure didn’t bother me. But I knew that if I put all my trust in the handholds above and that rock moved or fell toward me, I’d be tumbling at least 200 feet before my body came to rest.
Oh, and I’d likely be quite dead.
So I backed off and backed out. Once back to my original line, the climb to the top was short but fun, and the summit was ours.
A good day
As it turned out, the climb ended up being quite satisfying. It lacked the flair of my original plan, but it ended up being a really good time. The weather was perfect: nearly cloudless, a light breeze and mild temps. I got the photos I wanted. Johnny got to throw snowballs at me. And the peace of being able to hang out on a high peak with no one else around was a treat.
And that brings up a point about hiking, climbing and mountaineering. For the most part, it is an individual endeavor. You have to think about your partners and such (being safe and keeping them safe), but the merits are pretty much based on what the individual wants. I saw people on the summit of Wetterhorn half a mile away or so, but I did not envy them. Wetterhorn will be there for another day, as will hundreds of other mountains I have yet to ascend. This particular day was all about Matterhorn Peak. And it was a good day.