A Tale of Two Ridges: Wasatch Alpine Classics

 

Everest, Denali, Rainier, the Grand Teton…Utah has none of these. The Wasatch is not known
for alpine climbing. The Alps have Mt. Blanc, the Matterhorn and dozens of others.
Even Colorado, Californiaʼs Sierras and Washingtonʼs Cascades boast better alpine
routes. But there are two user-friendly classics here, and they are actually pretty awesome
in their own right. The North Ridge of the Pfeifferhorn is an imposing granite arete
set deep in the wilderness, the South Ridge of Superior is easy to approach, but hard
to complete, sporting knife-edge quartzite within a stone’s throw of Snowbird and Alta.

A “horn” is a peak with only three distinct aspects. The Pfeifferhorn, once known as Little
Matterhorn, meets this requirement. It is the centerpiece of the beautiful Lone Peak
Wilderness. Being immensely aesthetic, and within 3 miles and 3,000′ of a well
traveled highway, it sees more traffic than other nearby 11,000-footers like Red and White
Baldy, North and South Thunder Mountain, and Lone Peak itself.

Most parties ascend the East Ridge, but those drawn to desperate mixed climbing adventures,
rugged alpine scenery, and extreme trail-running frequent the elusive North Ridge.
Emphasis on the word “elusive”, although the climbing is not
incredibly difficult, the holds are removable when not frozen in place.
Therefore, to reduce objective hazard, its best scaled in the coldest times of
year.

In early December of 2011 Eric and I set out to do a one day ascent of the North Ridge,
but we were bummed to know the forecast high temperature for the day was below
zero fahrenheit!! We stayed warm as we traveled rapidly on skins through the
wee hours from White Pine Trailhead. We were greeted by a brilliant sunrise on
the North Wall of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Salt Lake’s Twin Peaks, O’Sullivan (Sunrise), Dromedary glowed pink, then orange in the morning light. Buoyed
by their ethereal glory, we pushed on, despite frosty feet, hands, noses,
eyelids, and nostrils. As we transitioned in the cold-air sink below the
approach couloir, we were reduced
to uncontrollable shivering. With gloves off, it was impossible for bare skin not to
freeze. “Should we bail?” he logically queried “We’re here, lets do it,” I countered.

“It should warm up.” And we carried on, for better or worse.

The first pitch is the avalanche crux. Climbing UP a terrain trap gully is always
ill-advised. Up the ante by knowing it hasn’t slid, has not been climbed this season, is wind-loaded,
and is overhung by a large cornice, and it is daunting. But a quick ice-axe snow
pit looks pretty strong, and we find supportable footing where a cross-loaded windslab
is stout enough. We spread out 10 meters part and head up. I build a belay below
the cornice, equalizing a 1/2-inch cam and a stopper in the impeccable granite, and
protect the follower. He belays me as I swim up the near-vertical faceted snow and mantle
onto the cornice lip. Now we’re on the ridge crest looking at the vast ruggedness of Hogum Fork.

Three pitches of mixed rock, ice and snow follow. The stemming, crack, edging, and layback
moves are not ultra-pumpy, but with crampons and freezing temps, it has an Alaska
Range feel to it. Ice axes are used for hooking on high, horizontal rock edges, wedging
into fissures and such, but often not for conventional snow climbing in this section.
I ask Eric how his feet are doing as he joins me on the ledge, enthused about the
mixed movement. “Not great,” he says. I am swinging my feet, clad in
Alpine Touring ski boots, vigorously back and forth on every ledge, as I have
done in the Himalayas, Karakorum, and AK ranges to keep my toes. I know that if
you can feel them, you are OK. If not, its definitely not OK. “But I can
still feel my toes,” he says. The ambient temperature is bitter cold, and
there’s no sun on this steep, north-facing ridge in midwinter. More
fun moves bring us to a broad, flat snow ledge half-way up where tents can be
pitched. We carry the rope and enjoy the easy ground for a short way to the southeast,
before reaching the base of the “slab” pitch. This slab is quite exposed, and the
holds are small, but it’s not steep. After a big rain/rime event in 2011, this pitch was coated
with 2 inches of Scottish-style rime ice, and we pranced right up it, sans protection.
Every other time I’ve needed to excavate the snow and find cracks to place small cams and stoppers.

I find a good “directional” placement as I reach the crest. It’s essential, because now I traverse
due south to the next belay, and a fall below would result in a dangerous pendulum.
Unfortunately the integrity of the granite, having been solid up to here, becomes
VERY suspect on the last two pitches. I rummage around endlessly in the snow-covered
rocks to finally sling 3 horns that don’t move. More snow and/or ice helps weld
the stones in place here. My closest call was on the last real pitch in May of 2003.

The third follower inadvertently pulled off a 2-foot tall block as she weighted it for a hand-hold.
Fortunately, she dodged it as it hurtled downward, and finished the route unscathed.
Since then, I’ve sworn off climbing the North Ridge during a spring thaw. This
last hard pitch is probably the crux of the route and goes steeply left past a desperate-looking off-width
crack in a green section of vertical rock. The green is common
in fractured granite, and is a crystalline mineral veneer called epidote. I’ve always
called it the “Green Manalishi” pitch, after a Judas Priest song I listened to as a teenager.
Getting past it, even if on precariously stacked blocks, is always a good feeling.

Just beyond it we drop to a dirty notch before I make one more easy lead west of the crest
to pass some big blocks. Now I kiwi-coil up all but 2 meters of the rope and we short-rope
our way up an easy snow ramp, with epic views to east and west. We come into
the sun, and the continuous movement aids in circulating blood to our frigid extremities.
On the summit we’re stoked and relieved. Bands of clouds, mixed with afternoon
sun, enable White and Red Baldy to peek out above the mists. American Fork Twin
Peaks shows only a tiny sliver of itself. By leaving so much veiled, the clouds give our
little Wasatch Range a sexy, big-mountain feel.

We relish its magnificence and the warming of our feet as we tromp down the East Ridge.
Descending naturally forces blood into the toes. But after 600′ in the afternoon sun,
we must turn left onto the shady, 40-degree, snow covered apron below the Northeast
Face. A great late-season cold-snow ski stash, it also provides fine glissading with
a clean run-out once we get down off the wind-buffed steeps. Transitioning back to skis,
we glide back through Maybird and Red Pine to our vehicles. A great way to enjoy the
Wasatch in winter, especially when the snow is too thin to really ski.

The South Ridge of Mt. Superior is a spectacular alpine climb, and as it good as it gets in
Utah. High-quality quartzite stone underlies the winter snow on this amazing
knife-edge arete. In summer, speed climbing aficionados, like Alex Lowe have dashed up the exposed
ridge and down the climbing trail in record fast times, but normally it is a full day outing.

I was married in Alta, and on the morning of 8/28/98, several guests, my best
man, and I scampered up the route and back down as a means of calming my frazzled nerves before
I stood before the Mayor. Evidently it worked, as I put the ring on, kissed the bride,
and am still happily married today! Since then, I’ve guided the route another 50 times,
and I’d still love to do it tomorrow. It’s that good.

A typical ascent begins with a 6am meeting at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon, unless
you are lucky enough to be staying in Alta or Snowbird, and you are walking by 7.
The South Face of Superior terminates in a broad alluvial fan (apron) that normally offers
good skinning (or skiing) or easy booting or snowshoeing. This low-angle start allows
the body to warm-up.

A triangular-shaped quartzite cliff atop the apron provides a safe alcove from avalanche and
rockfall to transition to crampons, ice-axe and possibly rope before continuing up the
Suicide Chute, aka Country Lane. From Alta it looks nearly vertical, as does the

entire South Face, hence the Suicide name. After Alta locals muster the courage and
ski the classic chute, they realize it’s no steeper than Baldy Chute, and the name becomes similar to that of a famous John Denver song.

It is a great place to learn crampon and ice-axe skills, and it’s a great ski line from

October to June, most years. My favorite program is to take skis up the route, ski a quick
“shovel lap” in the chute, then continue to the summit and ski home via the “W” Chute,
the SE Face or Cardiac Bowl on the north.

Atop the Suicide Chute, there is a plaque dedicated to a man who fell off the ridge while following
Andrew McLean up it. Technically it is a reasonable route to solo without a rope,
but in reality a fall could be fatal. If a rope is used, I prefer to employ running belays
with lots of slings, stoppers, cams, snow pickets, etc. for protection. Some guides
like to short rope / short pitch it. Either way, a rope has the advantage of giving you
a chance to live through a fall, or at least avoid serious injury.

Class 4 scrambling starts above the Suicide Col, and leads quickly to a horizontal knife-edge
section, the last portion of which earns the route its 3-star rating in Ruckman’s guidebook.
Although exposed to long fall potential, the moves are not hard, and perfect alpine-style
horns offer bomb-proof protection. Despite the business usually taking place
directly below at Snowbird, the South Ridge is generally quiet and serene.

A 300′ hike follows the knife-edge, and leads to the lunch col. Below here is the Invisible Chute,
made famous in the ’90s in a Warren Miller film by a Snowbird snowboarder named
Ox. He straightlined the impossibly narrow, east-facing gully until it opened enough
for him to spill some speed. Unfortunately, when he tried to do so, he cartwheeled,
out-of-control for much of the rest of the chute. It made for a spectacular segment
in the film, and helped confirm that it isn’t a ski run.

Moderate climbing above here leads to the 5.6 crux of the route. It’s a finger-lock move with
minimal feet and no reasonable way around it. On my wedding day, I belayed my brother-in-law
up it, and since then I’ve caught many a fall there. One client, who was on his
first real climb, learned to “trust the rope” by peeling off here. Wisely, he tried again and
made it. In the process, he realized that to succeed in climbing you have to go for it, despite
uncertainty, knowing you are protected. By the end of that summer, Mike scaled the
Complete Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton, and in 2011, he went to Ama Dablam. It all
started on the South Ridge.

Fortunately, a huge block can be slung with ease to belay the crux. Above it, a few more thin,
slabby sections with difficult protection lead to the Shark’s Fin. This last quartzite high
point marks the “W” chute, so-name because it has entrances from left, right and center.
Cherished by Alta extreme skiers for its committing and glorious nature, it’s also a
fine bail route for climbers without skis. Plunge-stepping and glissading have gotten me
down it with little effort on many a late evening.

The last few hundred vertical feet of the ridge is composed of dark-colored slate/shale stone.
This friable rock type does not lend itself to climbing, but works fine for low-angle scrambling.
A few hairy (and potentially stinky) goat dens can be found along this final piece
of the South Ridge, and I’ve even smelled the musky creatures. One time Icounted
60 of the non-indigenous goats on Superior. That herd seems to have shrunk or
dispersed since the mid-’90s, but after being introduced to the Wasatch Mountains by humans,
goats have flourished here.

In an ideal winter world, you don skis and shred avalanche-stable, untracked powder home
down the South Face. Or you enjoy less extreme, but still stimulating north-facing turns
down Cardiac Bowl and out to your waiting car at Reynolds Flat in BCC. Most climbers
descend the East Ridge to Alta. In any case, it’s a relatively benign descent, as down-climbs
should be, and a great way to finish a great day in the Wasatch Mountains.

 

One Response to “A Tale of Two Ridges: Wasatch Alpine Classics”

  1. That picture of Pfiefferhorn from the north is amazing!

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