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At Yosemite, a remote alpine peak, smoke, and thin air

The author’s mountaineering partner, Rob Vandergrift, on a ridge halfway across the mile-long Matthes Crest in California.
The author’s mountaineering partner, Rob Vandergrift, on a ridge halfway across the mile-long Matthes Crest in California.(brian irwin for the boston globe)

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Matthes Crest punches skyward from the high Sierra Nevada region of California, rising to almost 11,000 feet. The dramatic fin of granite is knife-edged, stretching for almost a horizontal mile. My climbing partner, Rob Vandergrift, and I struck out to attempt a traverse of the peak. The long approach hike and thin air would present their own challenges, but there was one variable beyond our control: the forest northwest of the peak was ablaze.

The Rim Fire, one of the largest in the state’s history, was reportedly the result of a hunter’s illegal campfire. Winds pushed the smoke to our north, sparing the park’s Tuolumne area, home to Matthes and scores of other storied mountains. Shouldering heavy packs, we plodded up a faint path toward Matthes as giant plumes of smoke bellowed from behind Tenaya Peak.

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Matthes Crest lies deep in the backcountry. Remote and dramatic, it represents a climbing opportunity rare in the lower 48 states. The trail disappeared at treeline, leaving us to navigate cross country by map and sight. We made our way past dramatic Cathedral Peak and the grey spires of the Echo Peaks. After six miles we rounded a bench of rock that opened to the west. Matthes eased into view as we hiked, stretching along the horizon. The massive wall of granite loomed over Echo Lake, where we would make our base camp.

Echo Lake basin is a striking bowl of thick conifers that blend into the summits that guard them. Bear activity is common here, and the resident marmots are particularly opportunistic when you leave food unattended. Anything tasty or odoriferous must be stored in a bear canister, a ballistic plastic drum the size of a turkey. I carried our canister atop my pack, making for a shifty load.

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Climbing a peak like Matthes requires planning. With your tent, butane stove, water purification device, and clothes, your pack fills quickly. Add to that a 15-pound sling of climbing equipment and two 200-foot ropes that are needed to retreat from the peak.

Then there’s food. We opted for burritos generated from dehydrated chicken and rice. It sounds as mouth-watering as chewing on a cereal box, but after a long hike, and a few dashes of Tabasco, the meal tasted almost restaurant worthy.

On the approach we hiked in shorts and drank from the streams. When the sun dipped behind the mountains, the mercury dropped, mandating puffy coats and long underwear. Although the basin was in the shade, Matthes towered overhead, poking into the orange alpenglow of the setting sun. We watched with some trepidation as the curtain of light slid up the mountain’s face and into the evening sky.

I usually wear earplugs in the mountains. I sleep better. However I needed to be sensitive to my alarm watch so we could get a predawn start. Without earplugs the crunching of frosty grass beneath the feet of a marmot or chipmunk was amplified, sounding like something much larger. It made for a restless night.

My alarm went off at 5:30, an hour before sunrise. We stumbled around in the thin light, chewing granola bars and peering at the mountain. It was huge. It seemed improbable. But mountains like Matthes always do. Once you’re on them, the realization of what is possible brings a certain comfort. With focus on your feet and what’s in front of you, the climb becomes a logical, yet thrilling endeavor. You tell yourself: Keep moving. Watch your balance. Watch your partner.

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We wove our way through the scarce pines toward the southern tip of Matthes. A swift organization of our ropes, a brisk chug of water, and I headed up the initial pitch, the climber’s term for a rope length of rock. I found one move particularly difficult, and passed the lead to Rob, who valiantly led the next few sections.

Atop the crest I led out, clinging to tiny quartz crystals and coarse granite, running rope length after rope length along the serrated ridge. Rock towers interrupted an undulating series of rises and falls, each one dropping a thousand feet on either side to the talus below. As I navigated the complex system of cracks and fins vertigo struck each time I pulled my body over a ledge or a spire. My body dangled over empty air, held on the ridgeline only by the strength of my fingertips.

We climbed for most of the day, making quick work of the long, jagged route. As we approached the south summit a delicate haze filled the air. Smoke from the fire was pushing in on us. And we were exposed, high in the sky.

A mere 200 feet from the summit the stench of burning wood filled our nostrils. Visibility dropped. Rob’s sinuses burned. And so, just shy of the top, three-quarters of a mile downridge from where we started, we pitched our ropes off the side of Matthes Crest and began a series of rappels back down to terra firma.

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We scrambled to our tent, packed up camp, and began the long hike out along the valley floor. As we left the basin I took one last look at Matthes. A breeze pushed against my face and within a minute the stone monolith evaporated into the thick, gray air.


Brian Irwin can be reached at irwin08.bi@gmail.com.