12/03/2022 8:40:00 pm, Nathan

Twin Peaks (#22), Virginia Peak (#23), Whorl Mountain (#24), Matterhorn Peak (#25)

Day 20, Matterhorn Peak Group

I drove through the frigid night towards the Twin Lakes trailhead, buzzing with anticipation and nervous energy. Today, I’d be attempting one of the biggest ski days of my life -- a linkup of Twin, Virginia, Whorl, and Matterhorn Peaks. Lots of miles, vert, tricky snow conditions, and talus were guaranteed. Success was not -- this was the first day of the effort so far that I wasn’t completely confident about. After much debate, I had decided to do the peaks in a clockwise loop. The main reason for this was it meant I would be climbing the steep, and potentially very rocky North Couloir of Twin Peaks fresh, at the start of the day, rather than skiing it blind and tired at the end of the day. It also provided the option of skiing a line off the north face of Matterhorn Peak at the end of the day -- lines which I had skied before, but classics nonetheless.

I skinned through the darkness by the faint glow of my headlamp, a cold winter breeze keeping me bundled in all my layers. As it slowly grew lighter, I clicked off my headlamp. As an afterthought, I checked the battery level as I stowed it away -- it was shockingly low. Concerned, I checked for my backup light -- and found nothing. An amateur mistake. I knew I had little chance of finishing before dark, and that little predicament kept me pushing hard, and a little on edge, all day.

When the sun finally rose, it lit up the serrated granite of Sawtooth Ridge in magnificent hues of orange and gold. I charged upward with renewed energy. When I arrived at the base of the north face of Twin, I was very happy with my decision to start there.

The line was climbable, but would have made for a harrowing ski descent, with multiple narrow cruxes and a deep runnel down the middle. Partway up the steep, exposed climb, I heard a faint whisper of sound above me. Without a conscious thought, I simultaneously looked up and sidestepped the toaster-sized rock hurtling directly towards me. In the moment, it felt commonplace, totally casual. After a few seconds, though, the adrenaline hit me and I became fully aware of how close I had come to being knocked hundreds of feet down the rocky face. I spent the entire rest of the climb moving as quickly as possible, with my neck craned awkwardly to keep my eyes firmly fixed on the slope above.

Topping out onto the sunny summit plateau was a huge relief and an abrupt change from the dark, cold, exposed, and intimidating climb.

I visited both high points (one is a much prouder perch, the other is the “real” summit) then clicked into my skis for a descent of the SW gully. I had no knowledge of snow conditions in the gully, but I headed down and hoped for the best. What I found was far from that -- lots of lumpy, blue ice still frozen solid, making for skiing so jarring that my feet went numb. Below that, the gully steepened and the snow coverage became sporadic, requiring tedious down climbing and side stepping through many rocky sections. Eventually, with very few style points, I made my way out the bottom and transitioned for the climb up to Virginia.

This ascent was much more moderate than the previous, but still featured a self-made crux when I opted to forgo crampons on a short, narrow, steep snow step and found the surface to be soft on top but frozen solid and slippery beneath. I hauled myself up it using the rock on one side of the gully, essentially lie-backing with my boots smearing on ice. After 1000’ of mellower skinning, I arrived on Virginia’s north ridge. I ditched skis, pack, and boots, and deployed my secret weapon for the day -- trail runners. The time it takes to switch footwear and the potential for cold, wet feet is beyond compensated for by the bliss of agility and friction on rock. I romped up the ridge, luxuriating in the movement far more interesting than skinning or booting steep snow. From the summit, the east face of Whorl looked steep and intimidating. I picked out my line and set off, keeping my hurried pace.

Back at the skis, I returned my feet to their little plastic prisons, then made a long, descending traverse around the head of Spiller Canyon to the base of Whorl. The looping traverse, while great in theory, proved to be rocky and tedious, and likely no faster than a more direct line. Once again, I left the skis behind and made a beeline upwards. The standard route traverses a series of gullies, then tunnels behind a chock stone. The traverse was blocked by patches of steep snow, and seemed a tedious line that was sure to involve lots of taking crampons on and off. I opted instead to continue climbing to the south ridge, and sample the technical looking rock there. I found a wonderful little line of mostly solid rock along the crest, with a handful of enjoyable 5th class sections. All too soon, I rejoined the standard route and clambered up the last blocky section to the summit. Once again, I didn’t linger, as it was getting late in the day and I knew I’d be racing the sunset on Matterhorn.

I didn’t mind the prospect of skiing out in the dark, but would certainly prefer to be off any steep terrain with light to spare. I reversed the ridge, climbing as quickly as safely possible, then plunge-stepped back down to my skis.

By the time I arrived at the base of the SE face of Matterhorn, I knew I had a decision to make -- carry the ski gear up the huge talus field to ski a steep, technical line, blind, in the dark, in poor snow conditions, with a dying headlamp, or leave the skis behind, run up the peak unencumbered in time for sunset, then cruise a much mellower descent from Horse Creek Pass. For once, making the conservative decision came easily. I ground away at the final climb, racing the sinking sun to the top of the granite spire.

Near the top, the climb became steeper, but provided perfect, solid flakes of lovely golden rock. At last, I pulled myself up onto the summit ridge, and was met with the beaming light of the setting sun, low on the distant horizon. In every direction, jagged, snowy peaks were afire with alpenglow.

I danced my way to the summit, burning with the energy of the moment. On the summit, I shouted with a burst of pure mountain joy. Finally, after a long day of constant, hurried movement, I was still. The shadows of the mountains stretched long to the eastern horizon, and I was at peace.

In the dusky evening, I made my way back down to my skis, reaching them just before dark. The waxing gibbous moon was already high in the sky, and by its glimmering, otherworldly light I glided slow, smooth turns through the night. I felt blissfully unhurried, moving silently and easily below the steep, rocky walls of the valley. It was a romantic end to a truly wonderful day.

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