Up, up and up we walked, single file, Cliff leading, Dar following, and I struggling in the back. High Sierra Climbing describes the approach to the Matterhorn: “This is a HUGE approach that starts out pleasant and gradually gets steeper, more difficult, and less fun.” Cliff estimated that we would take five hours to hike the five miles to Tarn Lake. I felt comforted by this number. To me, it meant we were going to walk slowly. To Cliff, it was a reflection of the steep and strenuous trail.
The path climbed steadily uphill, switchbacking by a creek that stampeded down a series of waterfalls. So symbolic, I thought as I fought to keep my shoulders back under the pulling weight of the pack: Here I am, once again, walking against the current.
|The trail, meandering surreptitiously|
After an hour, we had covered a thousand feet in altitude and about two miles distance. I quickly calculated: fifteen hundred feet in altitude and three miles to go. Not too bad, I thought. Everything is going to be okay. But the trail flattened, meandering in a lovely meadow by the creek, seemingly forgetting the “HUGE approach” promised in the book. I relaxed, let my guard down, started to enjoy the walk.
We had lunch on some rocks, basking in the sun, listening to the gushing creek. Collecting our packs, we found ourselves before our first real obstacle. The trail faded under a garden of boulders, reappearing to tantalize us only to disappear again below the rocks. Beyond the boulder field stretched the scree slope, reaching steeply to the sky. Suspended in limbo, no matter how often my legs lifted, my knees bent, or my feet struck the rocks, the scree slope still limited my horizon.
|The scree slope. Try to find Dar and Cliff|
My face heated. Dar and Cliff shrank, their tan clothing merging with the scree. The earth concentrated its malevolent gravity on my pack, my feet struggling to keep moving forward in the never-ending rocky landscape. Finally Cliff and Dar stopped against the trees. The end, I breathed out, wrestling with the last few steps to reach them. But no, beyond them the scree stretched upward, relentless, and above that, Cliff said, one more ridge.
My brain shut down. I slipped and slid on the rocks and the dirt, barely avoiding the trees. We stopped for a rest. Suddenly, a voice, a head. A Brit hopped up, jauntily swinging his long legs and arms. “Only a few feet, I think!” he announced, and continued his dash up.
Cliff smiled indulgently. “People always wonder why climbers have to turn around sixty feet from the summit,” he commented. “Sixty vertical feet are not the same as sixty feet distance.” Feeling wise and realistic, we followed the Brit’s hopeful footsteps. And there, not sixty feet from us, lay Tarn Lake, warming its frigid, glacial waters in the sunny afternoon.
It had taken us six hours to get here. I stumbled, exhausted, barely taking in the scenery, as the Matterhorn serenely watched. When I nearly crushed my finger, helping Dar set up the tent, he asked me to please sit aside. I looked at the snow and stones, the steep terrain leading up to the mountain, and in my head only one thought ran in circle: there’s no way I’m going to do this climb tomorrow. No way at all.
To be continued….