In August of 2008 I did a gorgeous backpacking trip through Hoover Wilderness and the Northeastern corner of Yosemite National Park. One of the highlights of that trip was getting a look at Sawtooth Ridge and its highest point, Matterhorn Peak, as I hiked between Burro and Mule Pass. The sharp western face of the ridge looked beyond my climbing comfort zone, but when I later learned that the eastern side had a much more tame class 2/3 scramble it shot to the top of my peak bucket list.
The peak does not share much in common with its European name-twin, though some see a similarity between the classic profile of Europe’s Matterhorn and the north face of the Sierra’s version. Our version sits at the Northeastern border of Yosemite National Park and tops out at 12,279 feet. It’s a destination for technical rock climbing, scrambling, and ski mountaineering in the winter. Even though it’s not the tallest or most interesting of climbs on my bucket list, I somehow felt like I couldn’t call myself a Sierra peak bagger until I stood on top of this year-round playground.
Matterhorn Peak gained some notoriety in Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” where the author wrote of his attempt to climb this peak. Because of this, it draws people who might have no business attempting a class 3 Sierra summit. I read the book years ago but had forgotten the detail of the climb being this peak until I started researching the route up the peak.
It turns out our planned route was essentially the same one taken in the book – Horse Creek out of the Twin Lakes Campground, up and over Horse Creek Pass, and finally up the eastern sandy slope of Matterhorn to the solid class 3-ish summit block. By the end of the day we had gone over 13 miles and 5100 ft of elevation gain in about 12 hours. We kept a steady pace, neither fast nor slow, and took plenty of breaks to tank up on water, snack, and study the route ahead. All of us had been in the mountains for a few days and were acclimated. YMMV.
On that note, if you’re here researching this peak because you read about it in “The Dharma Bums”, I’d recommend you get some experience under your belt before attempting it. It’s not technically difficult, but there are plenty of challenges for even the experienced climber. It’s a long, long day at elevation. The trail only takes you half way. The remainder of the climb requires the ability to route find by reading different types of terrain and making smart route choices. This is the kind of skill you get through experience. It’s not impossible, I’m just saying know what you’re getting into.
As part of my research I found several examples of detailed advice and pictures of the route. Some ended up being helpful, and others wholly inaccurate. For that reason, I’m writing my own account of our route in the hopes that it clarifies some of the other trip reports that are out there. Our experience is detailed below along with annotated pictures.
Interested in going directly to the map and logistics? Get them here.
The five of us met up in Bridgeport on the evening prior to the climb. We knew we wanted to get an early start the next morning, so we pulled into a dispersed campsite near Buckeye Creek and got to sleep early. Alarms were set for pre-dawn, and we quickly packed up and made our coffee before hopping in our cars and heading down the road to Twin Lakes Resort. At 6 am we parked in day use parking and got our things together for the long day.
This route starts off with quite possibly the hardest part of the day – finding the trailhead. Just take a look at my track on the map below and try not to laugh at our aimless wandering through the pre-dawn campground, trying not to wake campers while simultaneously complaining about the lack of trail signage and trying to photograph the bear who was wandering from site to site looking for breakfast (he wouldn’t show us the way to the trailhead).
While I can recommend dropping a waypoint in your GPS, finding a place to cross the creek to the actual trail wasn’t trivial. Eventually we found a toppled tree to cross. 30 minutes into the day and we were still within spitting distance of our cars.
Once we gained the Horse Creek trail things started going much better. The trail climbs about 1000 ft over several switchbacks in the first two miles. It’s a well graded and maintained trail and we cruised up that stretch pretty quickly. I only snapped a couple of pictures, including the quiet sunrise over Twin Lakes below us.
On the topo map, the trail curves sharply to the east and heads over to Cattle Creek. In reality, this is a signed junction and instead of following the trail to the east, continue on a just as worn use trail south along Horse Creek. For the next ~3/4 of a mile you’ll be following a use trail along the creek on a gentle incline. Sawtooth Ridge and the Matterhorn start to appear from behind the canyon walls.
I took one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken on this stretch of trail. Our destination still looks far away – the pointy peak to the left of center in the shot below is Matterhorn.
At about 8 am we started to run out of easy to follow trail. Our first obstacle was a boulder pile that was easy to scramble over. Plenty of cairns marked the route through. Here we are, end of the trail:
After this boulder pile, a well defined use trail continued through the lower slope of the east side of Horse Creek Canyon. Ahead, I could finally see the first obstacle I recognized from trip reports, the false pass. This is what it looks like:
This part of the climb is where the beta I had found seemed to be the most inaccurate. See the white outcrop in the middle of the pass ahead? Most trip reports said to traverse under it to a use trail that went up the green chute to its right. The boulder field on the left was supposed to be awful.
As we got closer, we were still in very good use trail in the boulders. Half of our group decided to check out the green chute and scrambled over to it. Two of us (including me) stayed on the use trail in the boulders. We all ended up meeting up at the top (at a nice shaded campsite/lunch break stop), the boulder people arriving only a few seconds faster.
On the descent, I took the trail through the green chute and I thought it was steeper and slicker than the use trail through the boulders. I would recommend the rocks on the left over the chute to the right. Maybe the previous climbers were on a different use trail on approach (there are a few running up the canyon) and missed the use trail through the boulders?
Above the campsite we followed some steep switchbacks up the hillside that took us too high. Instead, look for the trail that leads along the creek from the campsite. We found it on the return hike and it was more direct and less steep. On the bright side, we found this cool rock shelter.
The next mile follows various use trails and cairns. It is pretty easy going along Horse Creek, even though it is easy to lose the trail. If you lose the trail, just stick to the creek. The water was so low this year that we actually spent a fair amount of time hopping from dry rock to dry rock through the creek since it was the most direct route.
At the end of the canyon you’ll head southwest up a steep slope. However, before you get there, you’ll see this broad inviting red slope to your right. Your GPS will tell you that’s the direction of Horse Creek Pass and Matterhorn. Your GPS is not wrong. You will really really want to go there. But don’t. It walls out at the top and you’ll be turned around. Instead, continue up the creek a little bit further.
About 1/3 of a mile beyond the base of this slope, you’ll reach the end of the canyon and see several use trails heading up the slope to the southwest. It doesn’t really matter which one you take. From here on out you’ll be following poor use trails and occasional cairns. This is the stretch where experience reading mountain terrain comes in handy. You’ll have the option of staying lower or moving up higher on the hillside. It doesn’t really matter which way you go at the start. But as you get closer to Horse Creek Pass you’ll want to make sure you’re a bit higher on the slope.
This is what the terrain looks like down lower. Just pick a line and go.
Eventually you’ll see a big snowfield and the narrow Horse Creek Pass ahead. While you can certainly go to the pass proper (it’s kind of cool looking), if your goal is Matterhorn I recommend crossing higher, above the large boulders and rock walls next to the pass. It will save some extra distance and elevation gain, and it’s probably easier. It involves some scrambling and traversing through loose rock and sand, but that’s just expected on a peak like this. This is why it helps to keep a higher line as you climb through the rocks towards the pass.
There was also a nice natural lunch rest spot at the place we crossed. We could finally see our target up close!
Traverse under the blocky rocks to the base of the sandy east slope of the Matterhorn. It really doesn’t look so bad from here, and we can pick out our route! In the picture below I’ve drawn in our route up in blue and the descent in yellow. It is hard to see from this angle, but we head up the sandy slope to the right of a large gendarme. We then traverse across the slope behind the gendarme to a small flat spot on the south side of the summit block. Then it is a class 2-3 scramble to the summit.
The slope was so sandy and slow going on the way up, but that worked to our advantage on the descent. The yellow line follows a steeper slope that we could just bomb down on the way back. Wheee!
Here is a closer look of the gendarme and the approach to the summit block:
You can see how sandy the slope is. The rocks were not solid enough for quick rock hopping so this stretch took a loooong time. Two steps forward, one step back. It’s an exhausting slog. That said, it’s really not hard, technically speaking. You can get all the way from the trailhead to the platform below the summit block on class 1 terrain. It just requires smart choices in the trail-less stretches and some slogging. But I’m still pretty tired by the time I get to the platform!
This is a closer look at the gendarme as I passed it.
Above the gendarme, you can either go straight ahead up the class 3-4 side of the summit block, or traverse over to the platform for an easier approach. Here is the traverse, and if you look carefully you can see Deb in red waiting for us at the platform.
And here is a look back on the traverse from the platform with the landmarks labeled. The steep chute between me and the gendarme is where we descended.
From the platform, the summit is a quick scramble away. The higher you stay, the easier it is. I found what I would call a class 2+ route through the pile. Here’s the group coming up the summit pile. You can see the flat platform just behind the summit pile we’re scrambling up. Whorl Mountain is further back on the ridge. That’s another bucket list peak for me…
I will never tire of this experience.
Here’s another look at the summit scramble on our way down.
And a peek down the chute we were able to take on the descent of the sandy slope. 2 hours up, 10 minutes down. Fun. The large gendarme we passed on the way up is now on our left. You can see use trails zigzagging down the chute.
You can see Horse Creek Pass (and the big snowfield below it), so visually this is a pretty easy descent. You just retrace your steps the whole way back!
This was a long day, but I really really enjoyed this peak. I would do it again, for sure! It helped that I’d been out climbing for a week already, so acclimation wasn’t an issue. I felt pretty strong, except for that awful slog up the slope towards the end. That’s enough to take it out of anyone, I think. I don’t know anyone who likes climbing up that terrain.
I hope this long report clears up some of the information out there. If you have any questions, please comment below!