“Today is not a good day to die.”We’d been here once before. A year earlier, staring at a map in search of a hike that neither of us had done, it hit me: Why not retrace the steps of Jack Kerouac from his 1958 novel “The Dharma Bums”—to the summit of the Matterhorn in the California Sierra? I had longed to venture into that same apparently inspirational wilderness ever since I’d first read the book.
So, we lit out from Reno early one fall afternoon, driving a few hours south on the 395 to Bridgeport, into the Eastern Sierra for another 15 miles to Twin Lakes and then to the trailhead at Mono Village Resort. We traveled light—after all, Kerouac had done it in the 1950s with sneakers and minimal supplies.
We spent the afternoon lazily trudging up the path and enjoying the nearly tame wildlife. We had no goal other than to get out of town and relax in the wilderness, but as the sun went down and the wind picked up, we decided to find shelter rather than pass out under the stars. A cave provided the perfect refuge. Climbing partners for many years, Zach and I had learned how to improvise when the situation called for it. We tarped up the entrance to keep the wind out and went to sleep.
We awoke to the season’s first snow. Surveying the beautiful blanket of white that already covered the golden aspens, we decided we had gone as far as our limited rations and my mesh footwear could take us and we retreated amidst the softly falling flakes, vowing someday to return.Twelve months later, we made good on our promise. And this time we were prepared: Cold weather gear, proper footwear and food for three days. We had also done our research, although finding beta for this particular climb had not been easy. The Matterhorn, part of the Sawtooth Range, lies along the Northeastern border between Yosemite National Park and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. A Tom Harrison map, which had helped identify trails on our previous mission, would serve as our guide for this trip as well. I’d reacquainted myself with the Matterhorn on SuperTopo, which said that the North Arête, Matterhorn Peak, had become popular with rock climbers. But how tough could it be? Poet Gary Snyder—aka Japhy Ryder in “The Dharma Bums”—led Kerouac—aka Ray Smith—an inexperienced outdoorsman, up the summit without any special gear 50-some years ago.
As we started to climb, we reminisced about how we had mistaken the trail on our previous trip, realizing where we’d been thrown off course and choosing the other way around. But when the trail didn’t ascend as much as we remembered, I went off-trail, up the hill to where I hoped to intersect our intended path. It wasn’t there. I thought for a moment and then proceeded to bushwhack-traverse across the steep hill until I was back on the trail, pausing for a few minutes to wait for Zach. Once again the universe had spoken: Never underestimate, stay focused.We made great time up the Horse Creek Trail switchbacks, snapping shots of the shrinking lakes and surrounding solitude. The daylight was dwindling by the time the trail leveled off near the first valley and we crossed into the Hoover Wilderness, but we were still going strong and the mosquitoes would only attack if we stood still. We passed our cave and continued through a nice patch of woods that was our original goal but we were feeling so good we figured we’d continue on to the spot JK mentions at the end of the boulder field: “A dreamy meadow, pines at one end, the pond, the clear fresh air….” We knew it was up there, and the climbing guide recommended it as a place to camp. This was about the time, however, that Zach—my friend and longest camping partner—realized the map was no longer in his pocket.
Neither of us was greatly concerned. We’d studied the map and Google Earth so we believed we had everything under control. And, perhaps, I thought, another hiker would find the map, see us on the trail and return it. But, no matter: We decided we’d come too far to turn back.Beyond our intended first night’s site begins the famed boulder field where Gary Snyder taught his wilderness protégé about “ducks”—trail indicators—stacks of rocks placed on top of boulders by other climbers to keep one going in the right direction. Still energized, we headed into the darkness following the ducks up and away from the creek. We knew the general direction, but as the uphill became more challenging, we couldn’t see the landmarks that would have led us to our goal. Our desire and enthusiasm trumped our skepticism and logic; we missed a crucial right turn.
Up we went, convincing ourselves that we were still seeing the ducks every few yards. I led the way with Zach’s encouragement, as we leapt from boulder to boulder through a scree field, up a 45-degree slope, at night, with headlamps and full packs. I started to doubt our ascent but kept going since I’d made out some solid vertical rock not far ahead. We were hoping for a place to pitch our tent till morning, or at least a place that offered a view. After 20 minutes of scrambling between snow and rock, however, I’d still found no suitable camp and we continued up along the cliff.The moon had set and the night was black. The rock was getting more solid but also steeper. I took a chance and stepped away from the cliff, onto scree, and immediately slid down a few inches. I found my balance and took another step. I was making ground and the sound of a gurgling stream was getting closer. I made sure Zach was okay and then sped up, taking large sliding steps across and downhill in the fashion JK described when Snyder was bounding down from the summit.
Just below a snow patch, we came to the east bank of a creek, following it past a slippery cascade to a small pond where we put up our tent, made tea and campers meals and then retired to the comfort of our sleeping bags. The next day we awoke to a beautiful morning, clear skies with a slight wind. Our plan was to leave the overnight gear behind in the tent and take daypacks with our fishing gear to the summit. Meandering with the stream, we kept our eyes peeled for any signs of life that hinted at the alpine trout we were hoping to have for lunch, but, alas, there were none. Eventually, we arrived at the intersection of two valleys directly below the Matterhorn and continued up the ridge, surveying the mountain from every perspective.
It seemed hopeless to try it from the North or East without gear, so we decided to hike up the valley glacier in search of an easy way up. If we didn’t find one, we would continue to the end of the valley and hopefully find a path to the ridge top that could lead us back around to the Matterhorn. With fingers crossed, I stayed on the rocks on the edge of the glacier while Zach used his traction enhancers (YakTrax) to walk on the ice. As we got further and further apart, however, Zach seemed ever smaller as the mountain loomed ever larger behind him, and the enormity of what we were attempting to tackle became increasingly apparent.After about an hour we neared the end of the valley and met for lunch. I had been surveying the upcoming terrain and decided a certain chute looked passable with a little patience and a lot of perseverance, so we made our way to the base of the wall and started climbing. The route proved to be alternately solid and unstable. At times, every rock, pebble and grain of earth aligned perfectly to support our passage. A few yards further on, they disintegrated beneath our feet or within our grip.
I kept climbing as Zach watched for falling rock. Going down seemed as crazy as continuing and going up seemed hopeless. We had already leaned on a large boulder and discovered just how easy it would be to start a rockslide. I asked Zach to let me survey one last route. He obliged and I soloed about 50 feet of loose sharp red rock. A fall would send me all the way to the bottom of the valley on scree—if I could stay upright. As I crested the vertical section, Zach’s words hung in the air.
“Today is not a good day to die.”He was right. If this didn’t prove worthwhile, it was time to retreat. Bracing myself for the worst, I struggled to look around the rock and saw a reasonable path angling towards the summit field. We were almost to the top!
A short scramble later we found ourselves standing on a ridge at the head of the valley, looking at a higher ridge to the northwest. We weren’t at the top after all. It was after 6 p.m. but we continued on, determined to reach our destination before nightfall. Down the ridge and back up around more snow we went, only to realize that there was yet another ridge beyond that one. We scrambled over only to realize that the last one was the highest of all, so back we went. I scoured the area for the summit log and found it amidst the rocks in a thick aluminum can. The first entry was from 1964 and had been placed by the Sierra Club. We were proud to scribble our names alongside the recreation pioneers from almost 50 years ago. Until we read the cover: Twin Peaks.
We had climbed Twin Peaks—at 12,323 feet, the higher of its more significant twin to the Northwest, the 12,279-foot Matterhorn.I dug deeper into the tired old journal and found more entries. From Anne and Dean in 2007: “Thought we were climbing the Matterhorn. Oh well, beautiful view!” From the Lehmans in 2004: “Twin Peaks? So where’s the Matterhorn? Hell of a trail, gorgeous day.”
Damn Kerouac for not including better directions and maybe a map in his masterpiece! We decided to sort it all out back in civilization.
A treacherous descent to camp in the dark left us too exhausted to do anything but remove our boots and toast our success with the Crown Royal we’d toted up the path. It had been a very long day and it was time to relax under the stars. The next morning we slowly packed our gear and made our way down the trail.
“That mountain’s not going anywhere, man,” said Zach, glancing over his shoulder. “We’ll do it next year.”
Yes, I agreed. Third time’s the charm, right? As Gary Snyder tells Kerouac in “The Dharma Bums,” quoting a Zen proverb: “When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.”
And so we will.