The word Matterhorn smacks of the golden days of Alpine mountaineering, and summons up the signature, craggy summit that even today tantalizes climbers. Indeed, it’s the Matterhorn of the Pennine Alps—not Everest, not Mont Blanc, not Mount Fuji—that perhaps best embodies the idealized, majestic mountain, particularly its enshrined east and north faces. This windblown-looking 14,692-foot tooth of rock is the textbook example of a glacial horn: a steep-sided peak whittled by the headward erosion of ringing cirque glaciers. It has a fantastical look to it: a subtly corkscrewed slant, and the sort of fierce posture of the flagpole dorsal fin of a bull orca among whitecaps.
A bit of science here: To qualify as a true glacial horn, a peak generally must have at least three sheer faces. The Matterhorn (big “M”) has given its name to a particularly extreme version of the glacial horn: those that come planed on all four faces. In other words, you don’t have to travel to the Alps to feast eyes on a matterhorn (little “m”). In fact, many of these pyramidal peaks can be found in the glaciated (or once-glaciated) heights of North America.
Let’s get acquainted with some of these mythic rock-skyscrapers, deserving counterparts of the “Mother of Mountains” studding the France-Italy border. (And let’s acknowledge as we do that this toothy bunch doesn’t account for all the continent’s matterhorns—here’s looking at you, Wetterhorn—and that a whole slew of peaks that don’t satisfy the strict geomorphic matterhorn definition—from Baffin Island’s Mount Thor to Ed Abbey’s “big aching tooth” of Baboquivari in southern Arizona—nonetheless can suggest, from certain angles anyway, the appearance and monolithic presence of the great Alpine fang.)
Mount Assiniboine: Main Ranges, Canadian Rockies
The 11,870-foot Mount Assiniboine along the Continental Divide border of British Columbia and Alberta—and the boundary between Banff National Park and the roadless Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park—may well be the most spitting of the Matterhorn’s North American spitting images.
Named for an American Indian/First Nations tribe, this Canadian Rockies celebrity shares with the genuine Matterhorn an almost unreal quality, and the appearance of a ferocious rock edifice that—despite both being summitted countless times—looks not only unclimbable but like a mountain that shouldn’t be climbed. (Known ascents of Assiniboine, for what it’s worth, begin with Sir James Outram in 1901.)
Mount Sir Donald: Selkirk Mountains, British Columbia
West of Mount Assiniboine (and visible from its summit) and across the grand gulf of the Rocky Mountain Trench looms a worthy matterhorn analogue in the Selkirk Mountains: 10,774-foot Mount Sir Donald, an important goal of early Canadian mountaineering. This commanding shark’s fin of a mountain—which rises nearly 8,000 feet in a bit more than two miles from the rainforest floor of the Beaver Valley just east—dominates the mighty peaks of British Columbia’s Glacier National Park, which include its lower companion horns of Uto and Eagle.
Mount Thielsen: Southern Cascades, Oregon
The “Lightning Rod of the Cascades”: That’s the tag for this pinnacled volcanic beauty a stone’s throw north of Crater Lake, a spired matterhorn along the lines of Pilot Peak. Indeed, so many electrical bolts kiss Mount Thielsen’s exposed, whittled-down pillar—the highest peak in this ravaged reach of the Cascades—that it’s littered with fulgurites, which are lightning-melded rock bits.
At 9,182 feet, Mount Thielsen is the loftiest and most extreme of a series of dead volcanoes in the central and southern High Cascades of Oregon, honed by ice to sharp-tooth decrepitude. In Fire Mountains of the West, Stephen Harris calls them “Oregon’s Matterhorns,” and they also include 7,800-foot Mount Washington and 7,844-foot Three-Fingered Jack. All Cascade stratovolcanoes reflect a war waged between constructive magmatic growth and chiseling glacial ice, and when volcanic energy ceases the icy side of the battle gains the upper hand. Mount Thielsen has been a volcano skeleton for 250,000 years or more, thus its ravaged spire: so much toothier than, say, Mounts Hood or Jefferson.
Kinnerly Peak: Livingston Range, Northern Rocky Mountains, Montana
Pyramidal 9,944-foot Kinnerly Peak is among the most spectacular summits in Glacier National Park. But because it’s tucked away in the park’s roadless and rugged northwest, it’s admired only by hikers and climbers. It makes a one-two punch with Kintla Peak—at 10,101 feet, the Livingston Range’s pinnacle—just south. (According to Summitpost, you can allegedly pick out Mount Assiniboine from the Kinnerly Peak summit under crystal-clear conditions: another matterhorn-to-matterhorn sightline.)
Grand Teton: Teton Range, Middle Rocky Mountains, Wyoming
The Teton Range of northwestern Wyoming eases gently up from a long western slope to an iconic craggy crest with sheer eastern flanks, and lorded over by the 13,770-foot tusk called the Grand Teton. Compared with the unsociable Matterhorn, the Grand comes a bit hemmed in by fellow Teton Range jags—Mount Owen, barely shy of 13,000 feet, is just north across Gunsight Notch—but its classic, picturesque profile gives it as regal of a bearing (and a starring role in countless long sightlines from Greater Yellowstone mountaintops). And it remains one of the signature mountaineering magnets on the continent and a defining landform of one of the world’s most significant protected complexes.
Pilot Peak: Absaroka Range, Middle Rocky Mountains, Wyoming
Rearing west of the valley of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, Pilot Peak and its stubbier companion across the eons, Index Peak, create one of the most striking profiles in the Rockies. Glaciers gnawed 11,708-foot Pilot into a matterhorn spike; an arête blade connects it to castellated Index just northward.
As Tom Turiano notes in his definitive Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone, Pilot Peak has a hint of the Grand Teton’s aura, but is less prominent from lowlands and best appreciated from backcountry vantages. “From nearly every major summit in the [Greater Yellowstone] ecosystem—Grand Teton, Gannett Peak, Washakie Needles, Younts Peak, Trout Peak, Granite Peak, Mount Cowen, Gallatin Peak, and Hilgard Peak—Pilot is visible, identifiable, and spectacular,” he writes.
Sloan Peak: North Cascades, Washington
“Picturesque Sloan could be called the ‘Matterhorn of the Cascades’,” the late, legendary mountaineer Fred Beckey wrote in his enduring Cascade Alpine Guide. Indeed, this 7,835-foot orthogneiss blade ranks among the most striking and distinctive peaks in a range not exactly lacking in them.
With its long leadup east ridge and aloof, ramrod summit point, Sloan Peak has been compared with a high-riding ocean ship; it also looks a bit like the asymmetrical tooth of a tiger shark. Its misshapen matterhorn makes a North Cascade landmark visible from far off on all sides, and arresting even with the proximity of the giant snowhead of Glacier Peak to its near northeast.
Mount Russell: Alaska Range, Alaska
The Alaska Range may be most famous for behemoth snowpeaks like Denali, Foraker, and Hunter, but its western reaches include some savagely beautiful granite horns and towers. These include the fabled (and storm-whipped) Kichatna Mountains of the western Alaska Range, a gray fortress of rock-fangs and crowns cored by the Kichatna Spires and including the great pyramidal Augustin Peak that has enough standoffishness to suggest the Matterhorn.
But the true Matterhorn of the Alaska Range must be 11,670-foot Mount Russell, which forms a perfect sword above the Dall and Chedotlothna glaciers, as remarkable as higher, burlier peaks to the northeast. Relatively few climbers ascend farflung Mount Russell, the standard route being up its North Ridge; according to experienced Alaska Range photographer Carl Battreall, the gnarly east face has been climbed but once, the just-as-gnarly west face, never.
Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated.
Featured image provided by Erik Wolf