Beer consumption in a frozen ski resort parking lot creates a wild opening from which springs a plethora of mountain-themed debates. Combine an alpine view, camp chairs, and a cooler packed with suds, and you’ve got a worthy setting for tailgate meditation. Such was the case on a recent trip to Alta, where post-skiing brews with my friend, Mason, led to cerebral deliberations on the merits of one’s favorite mountain.
The drinking of said beer elicited a narrative about Mason’s recent climb atop Mount Superior; that titular peak which looms everlasting above Alta. His reasons to stand upon her legendary head were three-fold: first, so he could add another notch to his Summit Brew checklist (Summit Brew is a goal where we are attempting to drink a microbrew from the top of every named mountain in Utah,) second, so Mason could pour his annual pre-season offering of quality hooch to Ullr in hopes that our Norse God of Snow will generously bestow his white bounty upon us, and third, because ever since he emerged from a Mid-Western wasteland of flat ground to the rugged beauty of Utah, Mason has displayed a poster of Mount Superior on his bedroom wall.
This third motivation to ascend Mount Superior may seem obvious, but the main reason lies behind Mason’s penchant for comparing mountains to hot women. You see, a ski bum hanging a poster of a beautiful peak on the wall is the same as a ’90’s-era pre-pubescent teen tacking a photo of Cindy Crawford above the bed. The vast difference here is that unlike Cindy Crawford, Mason can actually “mount” Superior.
Having checked Superior off his list in more ways than one, I asked if Mother Superior was now his favorite mountain – and this is where our deliberation began. If you live among mountains, and love them, you certainly have a favorite. Of course, with so many peaks in the Mountain West, it’s not easy to choose just one. Whether your mountain is a small, brush-covered mound outside of town seen only from the highway, or a monolithic peak that always welcomes you “good morning” with your mug of coffee, a favorite mountain is the focal point in an entire range that simply, for some reason, speaks to you.
But what qualifies a mountain as a favorite? While the question marinated in our alcohol-muddled brains, we fashioned a list of criteria for choosing which mountain deserves to be loved above all others.
In Utah, size is important, especially if you actually live near a mountain range. While you could technically call an unworthy hill like, say, Mount Wire as your favorite, verbally expressing this will likely draw guffaws and serious head-shaking from your friends. No, a favorite peak must tower over its neighbors, or at the very least be a local landmark.
To choose a favorite mountain, you must also experience it. That means hiking to the top, skiing down her snow-blanketed aspects, or even just camping at her stone foundation. A mountain’s personality changes dramatically when you see her up close. Patches of green viewed from afar transform into majestic forests of pine, and the slate gray canvas above treeline becomes three-dimensional cities of boulder and scree. Really, you can never know a mountain until you’ve touched her.
The final quality a mountain should possess before receiving the coveted title lies in the intangible. A favorite mountain needs to have a certain something that just speaks to you. I like to think you can’t choose a favorite mountain… the mountain chooses you.
Such was the case with my own favorite – Mount Sopris in Colorado. Sopris is the matriarch of the lower Roaring Fork Valley where I grew up, and I lived beside her until adulthood. The mountain is my siren song – a symbol that appears when I think of home. She is also the mountain that shaped who I am, and taught me to love and respect giant peaks of the west.
As a boy, I always wanted to climb Sopris. But it wasn’t until a high school outdoor-club trip that I ascended her for the first time. We strapped skis to our external-frame packs, camped on the snow below frozen cliffs, and boot-packed to her top come morning. From the summit, I could see a massive expanse of Colorado’s western slope, offering me a sense of place never felt before. After picture taking and lunch, my classmates and I skied down a north facing bowl back to camp. This was my first backcountry ski experience, and it was a revelation. Simply put, my love affair with the outdoors began on that day, and Mount Sopris set “The Path” before me.
Yet as I enter my eleventh year in Utah, I find that memories of my beloved Colorado mountain are starting to fade. Like Mason, I am a transplant with a need for a new favorite mountain in the Wasatch. But which do I choose? Is there a peak that has shaped me in some way during my time here?
There’s Mount Olympus, a name that oozes with mythology. This ever present behemoth of quartzite stands guard over the Salt Lake Valley like a god. But aside from hiking to her summit several times, experiences on those red-brown slopes lack the transforming qualities that Sopris endowed.
I share the same love for Mount Superior that Mason does, so she is a likely candidate. I’m always dumbstruck when I see her fluted, south face whenever I ski at Alta. Yet for reasons I can’t understand, Superior doesn’t seem to belong to me. Perhaps I’m not worthy of her. Perhaps too many other skiers claim her already. Maybe she is diminished as her slopes are so accessible from the side of the highway, where long lines of curving tracks spill down her face every time it snows. Superior is spread thin with adoration.
Then there’s the Pfeifferhorn. When I moved to Utah, I instantly took a liking to this perfect pyramid of rock after hearing her referred to as “The Little Matterhorn.” Drawn by her European vibe, she was the first major peak I climbed in Utah, and I always seek her out whenever I attain a ridge or summit in the Wasatch. Her snow-covered sides and mute gray cliffs tell me where I am. Each time the mountain reveals herself through a break in the clouds, I point with a finger or ski pole and exclaim, “Look, the Pfeifferhorn!” A few years ago I made a second pilgrimage to her summit, this time in winter, and skied down the Northwest Couloir, a steep chute that requires careful turns and a mandatory rappel over icy bands of stone. The mountain allowed us to descend without mishap, and we celebrated under her shadow. The Pfeifferhorn gave me the intangible, and she is now the front runner as my new favorite mountain.
But still, no Utah peak has power over me like Mount Sopris does. The fact that I grew up beneath her watchful gaze, and could see her from the living room window, embedded Sopris into my DNA. Her image is burned inside my head and cannot be shaken. Perhaps since I can’t see any grand summits from my new urban window, I need to create my own mountain view. Like Mason’s poster of Cindy Crawford, maybe I too should hang a picture of a famous Utah mountain above my bed, and then further deliberate over another cooler of beer.