Matterhorn Peak: First Time Winter Mountaineering and Snow Camping

matterhorn peak winter climb followtiffsjourney
HIKE TO: Matterhorn Peak
TRAILHEAD: Twin Lakes
MILES: 12.6 miles
TIME:  3d/2n
DATE I WENT: Feb 26-28, 2021
DIFFICULTY:  that depends if you're scared of heights like me I guess
ELEVATION: 12,285 ft
ELEVATION GAIN: 5798 ft 
PERMIT: yes
LOCATION: Hoover Wilderness, Eastern Sierra
*photos in collab with Chris Brinlee Jr*

NOTE: I lost my brand new Petzl Summit 2 Ice Axe on this trip – if you’re heading up when the snow is melting, I can tell you exactly where to find it for me! Full gear list is included at the end of this blog post

This year, I decided to embrace the winter weather, embrace the cold, and embrace the snow so I could continue to explore the outdoors for the entirety of the year. I learned to ice climb at the beginning of the year and two months ago, I learned the basics of backcountry snow camping as well as winter mountaineering for the first time. Don’t be fooled – I climbed Matterhorn Peak in the Sawtooth Range of California’s Eastern Sierra, not the famous one in the Alps, but one day, I’m going to climb that too 😛

Why now? I’ve never camped in the snow before – every year, I tell myself I’m going to camp in the snow, even if it’s just next to my car (which seemed preferable as a newbie). I just want to experience it and get comfortable with it so I can not be limited and continue to explore the outdoors in all 4 seasons. I want to climb mountains, not just hike them; I’ve always wanted to try mountaineering but my fear of heights has always held me back. I had zero mountaineering experience before this and have always wanted to take an introductory course but never did pull the trigger on that either. If you’ve been following my Instagram, you’ll know I met a new and very experienced friend recently who was willing to mentor me in the wonderful yet terrifying world of snow and alpinism. If you ask me how did I get into all of this – the mentorship of Chris Brinlee Jr is the short answer. Without his guidance and patience, I never would have put in the effort to try this all yet so I’m super grateful for the chance.

This weekend consisted of two clinics that took me out of my comfort zone:

  1. Beginners Snow Camping / functioning as a person who doesn’t do well in the cold
  2. Intro to Winter Mountaineering / functioning as a person who’s scared of heights

Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada is a classic (so I hear) in California, bordering Yosemite in Hoover Wilderness. It is the tallest peak in Sawtooth Ridge sitting at 12,285 ft.

We spent day 1 hiking in and learning to build our camp shelter, day 2 learning the basics of mountaineering and climbing in the snow, and day 3 summiting and hiking out.

followtiffsjourney chrisbrinleejr kinga justinolsen
Matterhorn Squad: (front) Chris Brinlee Jr; (left to right) Justin Olsen, Kinga Gyorkei, Me

Day 1, Friday, Feb 26: Hiking In and Setting Up Snow Camp

The trailhead starts at Twin Lakes Resort in Bridgeport, CA but there is no parking available there in the winter so one of our group members parked down the road and walked after dropping us off. We arrived late and finished getting out pack together to start our hike at 2:55 pm. The approach is short but felt long with snowshoes. Snowshoeing can be a bit exhausting. We only made it 2.8 miles in about 2 hours with 1,224 ft of elevation gain before setting up camp as we were losing daylight.

Setting up Camp on the Snow:

Our shelter was an igloo-tent hybrid – possibly the coolest shelter I’ve ever helped set up. The tent weighs just over 1 lb. It was a very windy weekend so we chose a spot behind a larger boulder with the mountains shielding us from the other side. To camp in the snow, we first stomped around the ground to pat the snow down in the area, dig out a hole, build a shelter with -snow-ice blocks around the hole, then set up the tent shelter.

Functioning in the Cold:

I don’t function well in the cold. I actually function very poorly in the cold… my body just freezes up and I can’t move. It’s one of the reasons I don’t hike/ adventure much in the winter months outside of Sunny SoCal. I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply have poor blood circulation and once I’m cold, it takes a long time for me to get my body warmed back up. People say to just keep moving but I can be moving for hours in the snow and not feel my fingers and toes. Toe warmers don’t work for me either. For this reason, I don’t contribute much to setting up camp in the winter. My group graciously allows me to head into the shelter as soon as it is up to keep warm and I contribute by setting up our sleep systems inside. I know many people hate blowing up the sleeping air pads, but I don’t mind one bit especially if it means I can be “inside” of our open shelter.

The hard part about sleeping in the snow seemed to be getting the ground even. Chris had this idea to stretch his two-person shelter to fit four people with an igloo-like wall built on the bottom half to protect us from the wind. I was skeptical at first – the idea of a somewhat open shelter on my first snow backpacking trip seemed a little too out there… but the weight and body heat won me over.

I slept in the middle of everyone in my -20 degrees sleeping bag so I stayed nice and toasty. We brought our foam pads which weren’t quite necessary since we all had the same super warm air pad (which happens to be the warmest of its class on the market with the highest r-value), but after testing out the following trip without the foam pad, I do believe it makes a small difference in warmth, enough for me to bring it along. Also, I never believed the hot water bottle trick worked until this time. It was a low of 14 degrees with a wind chill of 0 degrees at night camping around 8,300 ft.

winter backcountry camping hyperlite mountaingear shelter

Day 2, Saturday, Feb 27: Mountaineering Skills Development

This was an important day – I learned the proper skills to set me up to attempt the other winter climbs I was eager to try in the weeks to come.

I learned crampon footwork, how to use an ice axe, self-arrest, and all the nitty-gritty details in-between. I learned how to walk uphill, downhill, traverse, different steps, bucket steps, how to switch directions carefully, how to hold my ice axe, how the ice axe can work as a self-belay, how to self-arrest (which scared the bejeesus out of me), and so much more.

We spent the whole day practicing and the best part of the day *cue the sarcasm*, the whole weekend in fact, was Mother Nature delivering her monthly gift unexpectedly early. That’s right – I got my period. As a woman, I have to touch on this and if it’s TMI for you, skip to the next section: this was the first time I stepped out of my comfort zone to camp in snow and climb in snow… and having my period hit me unexpectedly this weekend put a cramp in my plans… literally. Being a woman in the outdoors almost every week, I’m bound to get my period on hiking trips. It’s inevitable but it just took me by complete surprise this time and Mother Nature delivered all of her usual gifts that come with it. The first day of my period may be the only day of the month I find myself lacking energy – I don’t use it as an excuse to just stay home and do nothing or give my body a break… but I also don’t plan to do things like this. In the shortest month of the year, I got my period twice – how is this fair? I did not have the spare energy and it took a lot out of me to push through. I’m not one to brag about my accomplishments but this weekend was personally a damn proud moment for me.

You can imagine how the rest of my day went.

Day 3, Sunday, Feb 28: Summit Push to Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (12,285 ft)

We woke up around 3:30 am for an alpine start at 4:16 am. It was a full moon so we were able to hike without our headlamps. After getting going, Chris and Justin tested our avalanche beacons (which they did at the beginning of the trip as well) and we were ready and off! The approach was a significant amount of elevation gain still and my morning was not off to a great start – I lacked a lot of energy… not because of the lack of food, not because of the lack of sleep, but because of my period. It felt like it took everything I had within me to push through and keep going. I actually tried to call it quits within an hour in because my cramps were killing me and my painkillers took forever to kick in but thankfully, Chris wouldn’t let me give up and waited patiently as I moved at an ant’s pace. I’m not even going to front – it really sucked.

At 6 am, we could see the snow couloir we were to head up and at that very moment, the nerves settled out of my mind and the excitement hit – I knew I could do it. It didn’t look nearly as bad as I expected (until I got a bit closer). Sunrise around 6:18 am was one of the most beautiful lights I’ve seen in a while. I don’t do sunrise hikes very often and it’s especially harder to do in the winter on a snow hike so this was very special to see.

sunrise sierra nevada feb 2021

At 7:30 am (10,973 ft): 2.45 miles, 2,632 ft of elevation gain, and 3:15 hrs into the morning, we arrived to the bottom of the colouir on the remnants of a dieing glacier. It was also the first bit of direct sunshine we had so we took advantage of it for a longer snack break and to gear up with our crampons, helmet, harness, and ice axe to get ready for the climb. Stoke levels were high.

Climbing Up the East Couloir

At 9:46 am (12,043 ft), we reached the top of the East Couloir (although I’m not sure what time we started it) in about 0.6 miles and 1,122 ft elevation gain from our snack spot. The climb had an average slope of 41 degrees and a max slope of 57 degrees – even though the max was just for a teeny section, every step freaked me out. Climbing up started easy, maybe because I knew I was still somewhat close to the ground, but there came a point the heights got to me.

I feel like the most important thing when it comes to adventuring with a fear of heights is to have a good and patient support system. This was Kinga and my first time climbing a mountain. Justin has some experience but our trip leader, Chris, is very well-experienced and equipped to lead us all. Although we’re not very experienced as a whole, they were the best team to have done this with and I’m grateful for their patience throughout the weekend. Knowing how terrified I am of heights, I was never the one at the back of the group – it gives me some peace of mind to be in the middle, to see people surrounding me. It helps minimize the fear of heights knowing I am really not alone up there… and blocks some of the heights within my peripheral vision. Chris did bring a rope in case we wanted to jump on it, but in the steeper sections (& in the moments when I really got in my head and freaked out), he kicked bucket steps to help make it easier for Kinga and I to just walk up so we made it to the top of our first couloir without roping up.

After reaching the top of the couloir, we were able to take a nice break before a short traverse in the snow and then a short class two rock scramble to the summit. We did rope up for this section. The summit is actually right above the couloir when you look straight up!

Traversing in snow is probably the most uncomfortable part of it all for me. I’ve learned the proper techniques to do it… but something about it makes me more nervous than anything else. I moved extremely slow.

At 11:30 am (12,285 ft), we reached the summit of the highest peak in the Sawtooth Range of the Sierra Nevada: Matterhorn Peak – my first winter mountaineering ascent! From the peak, you get 360 views looking into the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite! The summit was a beautiful, sunny 18 degrees with a wind chill of 9 degrees – the most perfect weather I could have imagined. After enjoying it for about 45 mins, we started to make our way down.

matterhorn peak sierra nevada winter mountaineering followtiffsjourney

Going Down the Colouir

Getting up is only half the battle. This was the part of the trip that terrified me most – going up is one thing with a fear of heights… but coming down is even more terrifying. The first few steps going down are always the hardest – seeing the steepness of the terrain I need to walk down is terrifying but I know I need to get down somehow and the more I think about it, the more I hesitate and get in my head and don’t want to go.

It helps a lot for me to 1) be on rope and 2) have someone else go in front of me. This helps my mind see that 1) it’s totally doable and hopefully not so bad and 2) there’s a great comfort for me in seeing another human being near me when I’m exposed to heights for peace of mind. Chris, Kinga, and I all climbed down the couloir while Justin skied it! I fell a lot but it really was not as bad as I expected after the initial steps.

It was a long way back to camp and then back to the car, but we finally finished just before 6 pm.

If you’ve made it down this far, thanks for reading!

Questions, comments, suggestions? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!
& please don’t forget to practice Leave No Trace 🙂

Gear List

for 2 nights backcountry camping in snow + climbing a couloir

Since it’s my first time mountaineering, new gear costs a lot of money so I only purchased what was absolutely necessary and borrowed what I could 🙂 Many of the links included in this blog post are affiliate links which simply means it costs nothing additional to you but I’ll make a tiny commission off your purchases which helps to fund my travels/ blog, so please support me by purchasing through the links below 🙂

6 thoughts on “Matterhorn Peak: First Time Winter Mountaineering and Snow Camping

    1. Definitely! I’ve done 5 winter climbs since this trip! 2 overnight trip with no successful summits (but fun snow camping) and 3 successful day climbs 🙂 The snow can certainly be intimidating but I bet with the right group and preparation, you’d have a great time Caren!

    1. Thanks for everything, Chris! You’ve certainly made my first time as comfortable as possible 😀

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