The Little Matterhorn (RMNP), 11,586ft.
June 28th, 1995. By Michael Dallin.
Route: Southwestern Slopes. Roughly 10 miles round trip.
Class 3 (close to class 4 at the end!).
Normally, you don't see many trip reports posted for mountains less than 14,000ft (or high 13,000ft) peaks. It's really a shame, because smaller peaks have much more to offer (no crowds!) than any 14,000ft peak in Colorado (IMHO). The Little Matterhorn is no different.
The Little Matterhorn is located in Rocky Mountain National Park, rising to the west of Odessa Lake. The peak is at the end of a ridge extending from Knobtop Mountain (on the Continental Divide). In 1994, I climbed from Ptarmigan Point to Knobtop to Gabletop, and was going to climb the Little Matterhorn, but stormy weather nixed that idea. Yesterday was my return trip.
The trail starts at Bear Lake, via the Flattop Mountain trail. About 1 mile up the trail, the trail forks, and I took the Odessa Lake trail. Normally, this trail is relatively flat, but that's in a normal year. This time the trail was buried under several feet of snow, and a few times I lost the trail. The going was rough and slick. As I neared Joe Mills Mountain, I lost the trail entirely. I know the area quite well, though, and managed to bushwack my way to Two Rivers Lake, lying just north of Flattop Mountain. From there it was a five minute walk to Lake Helene, where I stopped to eat a snack.
The Little Matterhorn was covered in clouds, but they were clearing. Below me was Grace Falls, and I had to plunge-step (and a bit of a glissade) down a snow slope to get to it. From there it was all uphill (mostly up snow, though some talus), until I got to the base of the southwestern slope (in a gorge between The Little Matterhorn and Notchtop). It started to rain a bit, so I took shelter. A few minutes later, it dried up, and I made my way up the southwestern slope to the ridge. By this time, the clouds had once again cleared.
Up to this point, it was your average climb. A bit steep, but good practice climbing up snowfields. The ridge is a different story. From the top of the slope, the summit is roughly 1000ft due east, and the travel is essentially horizontal. The problem is that this ridge is exposed -- *very* exposed. Much worse than, say, the Narrows on Longs Peak (without benifit of a sidewalk-sized walkway!). Things got pretty serious pretty quick as I scrambled along this ridge, taking my time and being real careful. A few cairns (hard to see) mapped out the route.
For some reason, I have always used a bamboo walking stick when boulder hopping, as opposed to an axe (though an axe is very useful on the snowy slopes below the ridge). It's very light and very sturdy. This stick, probably for sentimental reasons, has gone with me everywhere (it made it's debut as a 10ft pole used on the Burbank Tournament of Roses Parade float a few years ago, thus it has been on national TV. I took it, cut it down, added a bit of a grip to it, and have been happy ever since). For a bit of the clambering I used this staff. At one point, I had to descend about 15ft down a very exposed ledge. I needed both hands, so I let my staff go before me. Down it went... and down... and down... great, I though. I just lost my favorite walking staff. Such was not the case. It landed one foot from a precipice leading to a 1000ft drop. The staff was saved!
I stowed a bunch of my gear (including the staff) in a safe place, and continued the climb with only the essentials. The exposure got worse as I got closer to the summit. It was very insane, and very nerve-wracking. At a few points I wished I had a rope. Soon, the summit was within reaching distance.
The summit is the most exposed place of them all, as it is a four foot climb straight up, and holds room for only two or three people. I looked around. Clouds had filled Tourmaline gorge to the north, and were rising. Soon clouds were spilling over the ridge, over my head. If it started raining I'd be in a heap of trouble climbing on slick rock in such an exposed area. Prudence won out. After resting for about 30 seconds, I bid farewell to the summit, and slowly made my way back across the ridge. I barely went 10 feet before the clouds became thick around my head. Visibility dropped to 20 feet, which was good because the exposure wasn't noticeable, but bad because the cairns became invisible (there are ample places to make wrong turns on this ridge, and a wrong turn is a bad thing here). I had to hunt for the gear I left behind. After I found it, I made a slow traverse back to the southwest slope. As soon as I made the slope it started to rain, then hail (bb to pea-sized hail). I clambered down the slope to the same shelter I used on the way up.
The plan was to wait out the rain and maybe do a controlled glissade down one of the slopes into the area of Odessa Lake, where I would climb the opposite valley wall back to the trail. I waited. And waited. And waited. And it kept raining. After a bit, I grabbed an emergency poncho from my pack, donned it, and made my way to the slope. Visibility had improved to 30 feet. The slope looked a bit steep, and I didn't know what condition the runout was in. Deciding it would be nicer to be alive by the end of the day, I opted to plunge-step down the slope. As the slope became more gradual and visibility improved, I took the opportunity to practice the ever-useful self arrest a few times.
I made it to the bottom of the valley, and started to climb yet another snowfield up to the trail. I fell once, and was mighty glad that I practiced self arresting. I eventually made it to the trail, and started my way back.
The trail was in bad condition -- very slushy, very slick. A bunch of people had used the trail this day (a group of five did a bit of snowboarding above Lake Helene, and two folks skied down a slope from the summit of Flattop), so losing the trail was no longer a problem. It rained the whole way back. It rained during the drive down Big Thompson canyon. Heck, it's a day later, and it's *still* raining. Talk about timing.
In all, The Little Matterhorn is a very thrilling experience, but also a mountain to be very careful on. If you get shakey around exposure but still want to climb it, you may consider bringing a rope with, even if you don't use it (good security). A highly recommended climb, one of the most fun I've been on in the park.