pfeifferhorn winter summit

Pfeifferhorn Summit in winter – Trip Report

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“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. “

 – Sir Edmund Hillary

Pfeifferhorn (AKA Little Matterhorn) stands tall in the middle of the Wasatch range at 11,331 feet. Remote in the Lone Peak Wilderness, Pfeifferhorn isn’t an easy peak to access and becomes even more difficult in winter.

pfeifferhorn winter summit

May the fourth be with you!

Before dawn on May 4th, 2019, I pretended to be a Jedi and started out on the trail to the Pfeifferhorn. I wasn’t entirely sure what the conditions would be, but I knew there would be a lot of snow.

Consolidated snow that would support my weight and not a ton of icy, slippery trails was my hope. I had my Kahtoola NANOspikes in case it was slick, but left them in the pack until needed.

Still plenty of snow

pfeifferhorn winter summit

Starting out, I knew there would be plenty of snow, but fortunately it seemed to be good running conditions.

I set out up the roughly 3 mile trail to Red Pine Lake hoping to reach the lake before hitting bad snow.

Good consolidated snow for big feet and small ones alike.

I made the run up the trail fairly quickly and found myself at the lake before I knew it. Conditions were prime so I decided to keep going to Upper Red Pine Lake and scope out the summit. In the back of my mind, every time I go to Red Pine Lake, I feel the need to push further to the Pfeifferhorn summit. This morning was no different.

Upper Red Pine Lake

pfeifferhorn winter summit
Upper Red Pine Lake

The allure was much greater as I pushed my way up past Upper Red Pine to where I could see the peak. There was a solid boot track leading up the southwest headwall and the snow was still crusty. So despite the glaring sun and warming weather, I decided to push on up the steep face.

pfeifferhorn winter summit
Skin track up the headwall to the ridge. Notice how polite people avoid stepping on the skin track.

I was only wearing my Mountain Masochist IV trail running shoes (read a review here). I did have some NANOspikes strapped on but I didn’t a solid toe to kick in with.

The Headwall

As I started the ascent up the face, I was moving fast until the booter took a sideways turn to traverse the steepest part of the slope. I carefully made each foot placement. I had on my favorite pair of trail running gloves which helped as I tried to get purchase on the snow with my hands for each step. An ice ax would have made short work of the ascent, but since I wasn’t really planning on a Pfeifferhorn summit attempt when I left home, I didn’t bring one. I also like to travel light and fast when I’m trail running.

Learn more about winter trail running here.

I had been feeling pretty confident in my summit attempt thus far, but as I worked my way across the traverse, my foothold broke off and I slid down the slope about 50 feet making my best self-arrest attempt with my legs and arms.

No worries, I thought as I picked myself up and trudged back up the hill. Scrambling back up, I quickly returned to where I fell and cautiously kicked into each boot track across the traverse. I came to the same spot that had broken off on me before, but couldn’t find much purchase on anything. I kicked in as best I could, but as I weighted the hold, I slipped again.

Frustration!

I was so close, but didn’t have the right tools for the job.

My luck for a summit seemed to be waning and my Jedi skills couldn’t get me up the headwall. I was ready to call it a day and head back down to the lake when the tides changed. A skier was skinning up the track I had just deliberately avoided destroying with big footsteps.

pfeifferhorn winter summit
Skier following me up the headwall

He had watched me slide and could see that I didn’t have the right gear for the job. We chatted for a minute and then I asked if he would kick in a new boot track for me. He agreed and also offered me his spare ice ax! I didn’t even need to use a Jedi mind trick. The force is strong on May 4th!

I gladly borrowed the ax and headed up the slope with a newly kicked booter behind my new best friend. It was easy going with an ax and solid footholds. Once up to the west ridge, I passed my friend by and headed straight to my objective.

The Ridge

Climbing the west side of Pfeifferhorn in summer is a scree-fest that leaves your ankles bruised and bleeding. In winter, it was easy going. Straight up the staircase with the ax as a security blanket found me at the summit in just a few minutes.

pfeifferhorn winter summit
The ridge and climb to the summit. The staircase runs just to the left of the exposed rocks

Pfeifferhorn Summit

Success! I had made it to the summit in nothing but running shoes and some spikes.

pfeifferhorn winter summit
On the summit

It took me just under three hours to make the summit, and without skis I was looking at about a 2 hour hike out.

I didn’t want to linger long because the sun was rising fast and soft snow on the way down would mean postholing misery and a two-hour descent could easily become a four or five-hour descent.

After grabbing a bite to eat, I headed carefully down the staircase. I walked along the ridge and dropped the ice ax with my new friend’s skis he’d left on the ridge.

pfeifferhorn winter summit
Carefully stepping down the staircase

I had a steep and easy glissade down to the lake. A few inches of fresh snow had fallen a couple of days prior, so the glissade wasn’t just an uncontrolled ice slide. This one was a fun and somewhat controllable slide down a ton of vertical.

The rest of the way home was just a downhill run through the woods and over the river. Most of the descent was still in the shade so the snow conditions stayed favorable. I still tried to push a fast pace and started to feel really sloppy toward the end.

Here’s a video I made of my day on the Pfeifferhorn.

Overall time was 5 hours for about 10 miles.

I came home good and tired with a huge grin on my face.

Have you ever been on an adventure where you pushed yourself beyond the original objective?

Share with us in the comments below.

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