One of the most well-known and iconic mountains of the Swiss Alps is the Matterhorn — a spectacular rock pinnacle that rises abruptly, high above the surrounding mountains.
Early settlers in Utah noticed a peak high above Little Cottonwood Canyon, visible from much of the Salt Lake Valley, that was shaped similar to the Matterhorn. It came to be called “The Little Matterhorn.”
Its near-perfect triangular summit reaches an elevation of 11,326 feet, the 5th-highest in the Wasatch Range but more than 3,000 feet lower than its European namesake.
The name “Little Matterhorn” still appears on many maps and descriptions. But for many years, local hikers and climbers have used the name Pfeifferhorn in honor of Chuck Pfeiffer, a local climber and leader of the Wasatch Club who did much to popularize skiing in Utah in the 1930s.
Finally in 2013, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially renamed the peak in honor of one of the Wasatch’s legendary figures.
There are several “technical” routes to climb the peak via the north face requiring ropes and mountaineering skills. But the spectacular summit can also be reached by hikers who are willing to climb some steep slopes and do a little “scrambling” (use of hands to maintain balance while climbing).
The most popular hiking route begins at the White Pine Trailhead, about 5.5 miles up Little Cottonwood Canyon. The first part of the hike covers about 3 miles up to beautiful Red Pine Lake. The trail is wooded and well-maintained, making its way through pine and aspen forests where moose are frequently seen.
The trail divides about a mile after starting; be careful to follow the signs and route directing you to Red Pine Lake (to the west) and not to White Pine Lake. There are occasional moderately steep sections as you make your way up through the Red Pine Fork drainage, but you’re rewarded by breathtaking views as you reach a very beautiful mountain lake.
Looking straight ahead as you reach the lake, you will see a steep talus slope reaching up to a high pass due south of your location on the Alpine Ridge. That’s your next destination. A little to the right, you see a “false summit” that some hikers mistake for Pfeifferhorn. The actual peak is not visible from this area.
The trail wraps around to the top of the lake and then starts to climb again. In the spring and early summer, you pass near a beautiful cascade descending the mountainside where you’ll want to rest and take photos. If you have time and interest, a slight detour to the east will take you to the Upper Red Pine Lakes — a series of three smaller lakes that dry up as the summer progresses.
There are many ways up to the ridge from this point, and a variety of trails — all paths lead upward! The photos and maps in the online version of this article (see UtahAdventurer.com) will help you know what to expect and be able to pick your route. Most hikers find it easier to stay in the trees that lead up the ridge from the lake.
After reaching the top of the trees, you see a very steep headwall or hillside in front of you. But there are many short switchbacks that you can follow to negotiate the way up to the top of the Alpine Ridge above. Many hikers find trekking poles helpful in these steeper sections. It’s less than a mile from the lake to the ridge, but you gain at least thousand feet of elevation.
As you reach the top of the slope, you will see beautiful views to the south of Box Elder Peak and the northern part of Utah Valley, Utah Lake and Mt. Timpanogos in the distance.
Looking west along the ridge, you finally get your first view of Pfeifferhorn, rising abruptly less than a mile away.
Follow the clear trail that leads near the top of the ridge to the west. After another half mile, you reach the next obstacle: A quarter-mile “knife edge” of large boulders with steep slopes falling off on both sides.
There are several ways across this stretch, staying on one side or the other. You may want to bring some leather gloves to wear — using your hands to cross this section is almost essential, and be sure to put your trekking poles in your pack while you cross. There is some exposure, but if you move slowly and cautiously, most hikers find it easier than expected.
Now, you’ve finally reached the final summit approach! The pointed pyramid seems impossibly steep as you look straight up from the end of the knife-edge. But with trekking poles to assist, and following the small switchbacks up the steep slope, the remaining 500 feet of elevation go quickly and you’ll be at the summit before you know it.
The small rocky summit of Pfeifferhorn is one of the most thrilling of the Wasatch Range. The views in all directions are unbelievable. You know you’ve worked hard when you get here, and earned bragging rights among your less ambitious hiking friends who only dream of such attainments.
Be sure to see photos and maps of this hike, and a video of a recent ascent, in the online version at UtahAdventurer.com