Return Creek to Stanton Pass via Matterhorn Pass
(14 miles, +5,000/-3,000 feet).
Our campsite last night was lovely, but the proximity to the river made it cold and damp, creating some decent condensation inside my tent.
The first order of business this morning was getting across Return Creek, so we waited until 6am when we had some good daylight to see what we were doing.
We found a logjam that was a little tricky, but it kept 3 of our 4 feet dry!
We then ascended out of Virginia Canyon along Spiller Creek and some lovely dewy meadows.
We took our first break on a nice log right on the beach at Miller Lake. We didn’t want to leave!
We then continued on the PCT down to Matterhorn Canyon with its towering granite guardians.
At PCT halfmile 962 we left the trail and headed up Matterhorn Canyon.
As it turns out, there was no reason to keep our feet dry on the river crossings. The incredibly dewy grasses along the far-less-used Burro Pass Trail would dump gallons of water on us as we passed through meadows next to Matterhorn Creek.
We took another break on a nice log by the creek. It was crazy idyllic.
Soon the trail climbed out of the meadows and our feet started to dry as we passed between forests and golden alpine lawns.
Around 9000 feet we saw our first significant snow patch.
We took our last break on trail for the day and dried out our tents and sleeping bags in the sun while we lunched.
After lunch we crossed a snowfield and then headed cross country at the top of Matterhorn Canyon where the trees petered out.
Our first challenge was a small ridge to get us up to the cirque below Matterhorn Pass. It was a little steep but easy to follow the grassy slopes up the incline.
At the top of the ridge we got our first view of Matterhorn Pass and the snow fields that lay below. There was a lot of pink algae on the snow.
The pass itself was steep, and there was quite a bit of krummholz to negotiate, but we were pretty much able to go straight up to the lowest point of the pass. There was only one moment where there was any class 3 exposure on our route, and we could have avoided that one too with an extra 2 minutes of work.
The view from the top was stunning.
But it was a little hard to enjoy because I was very nervous about finding a way down. Secor used to rate the Spiller Creek side of the pass as class 3, but some other hikers later reported that they found a chute that was class 2 on the south side. I went to look for that chute but the only one I could find went straight down. (I would later find out that I needed to climb up the ridge about 20 feet and traverse to the left to the next chute to the south).
So instead, we went to the north side of the pass and followed a cairned class 3 route of ramps and ledges. I don’t think it was very dangerous. We had lots of footholds and handholds and only took our packs off at one point. But it sure did feel dangerous! I guess that’s the difference between class 2 and class 3….
Needless to say, I was a little busy with my hands during the descent so I did not get any pictures. I did get some, however, right when the class 3 part ended.
Here’s a picture looking back up at the chutes below the pass. We ended up down climbing to the right off camera, and I originally scouted the chute in the center of the picture at the low point of the pass. I think the one we wanted was the chute at center left that goes down and then to the right.
With all that drama behind us, we slowly made our way down to Spiller Creek.
We had originally planned to try going over Stanton Pass, but we were both pooped and a little anxious from the class 3 experience we just had. Stanton has a reputation for being one of the sketchiest passes on the Sierra High Route (even Wired was a little freaked out by it!). And Spiller Canyon was just so beautiful — it kept calling out to us!
We made our way up to Stanton Pass to look for a place to camp just below. It was extremely rocky, but we did eventually find a flat part to set up camp.
As we dined on our backpacker meals we watched the sunset and pondered our options.
In the end we decided to skip Stanton Pass this trip (though I do think I’d like to try it some time). The route down Spiller Creek looks spectacular, and I think we can probably do the 19 mile trip back to the car without too much trouble tomorrow. And it will probably be a little nicer to sleep tonight without worrying about yet another difficult class 3 climb.
There is so much beauty out here, there’s no reason to get hung up on a particular route or pass. The more I do this, the more I realize that my favorite trips are those where we have some flexibility to change the plan as we go.