As the trail passed the headwall to Horse Creek Canyon, it followed a short ways away from Horse Creek, occasionally shaded by old growth pines. At 8,200’ we reached a switchback on the main trail – from here it would be cross-country the rest of the way to our camp. The use-trail travel was nice at first as it passed through a clearing, but soon the going got tough. Thick bushes crowded in, covering the large boulders that the trail passed over. There seemed to be several trails one could take, and this just added to the confusion on where to go. The brush was slow going since the bushes made it hard to see where to step and the branches snagged our packs, but soon we were through the brush – now all that lay before us was a 1,200 ft climb straight up a loose talus slope.
Dirk and Gordon slowed down as we reached the steep slope, but I sped on. My legs were built for powering up steep slopes, and since it was hot, sunny, and there was no good place to sit down, I just wanted to get the hill over with. After about 800 ft of climbing I found a flat spot with some sparse shade and dropped my pack to wait for the others. I saw Dirk and Gordon slowing up down below and hollered to them about finding a nice place for lunch. This seemed to give them the motivation to push on a bit longer and soon we were enjoying a nice lunch break as we enjoyed a wonderful view of Horse Creek Canyon.
After lunch we continued on up the steep slope – luckily the ground was more solid at this point and there were more trees providing shade. Dirk and I stayed together as we picked our way through some cliff bands before heading up the final steep slope. We reached a saddle at 9,200 ft and were rewarded with a view of a beautifully green-blue alpine lake. It was a few hundred feet across and surrounded by steep granite cliffs – the lake seemed to have bored down into the bedrock. There were some other hikers enjoying the lake below, and we left our packs to go join them.
The hikers had climbed Matterhorn Pk via the East Couloir and were heading down that day. Across the lake was a tent and a pair of hermetic climbers who were intending on climbing the North Arete the next day (we talked with them once on the whole trip since they stayed in their tent the whole time!). Gordon happily plopped his pack down on the side of the lake just as Dirk and I decided to go for a swim. While we had been waiting for Gordon we tried to photograph a little frog in the lake and found the water to be warm enough for swimming. Dirk foiled my last attempt to photograph the frog as he dove into the lake. I stripped down and followed. I got used to the water fast, but my feet froze when I let them dangle too far down. We tried to coax Gordon into going for a swim, but he declined, content to just relax and enjoy the view. There was a large flat grassy spot atop a ledge on the south side of the lake, but the open meadow to the west was more inviting, so after our swim, we set up camp on the other side of a large boulder about 100 ft away from the other climbers.
While I got my tent set up and gear organized, Dirk took off to try some bouldering traverses above the lake. He called insisted that Gordon and I try the traverse, but both of us were feeling rather lazy by then and just relaxed around camp, enjoying our full view of Matterhorn Pk further up the canyon. This was one of the best campsites I had been to in the Sierras, and although the approach was quite trying, it was well worth it to get here. Dirk explored the cliffs to the west of our camp, climbing up a large chimney and disappearing over the horizon to catch the sunset.