Hogum Days

Each year for Christmas my girlfriend Anna is given a voucher for a night at the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird. It’s quite a treat. We hit all of the local watering holes; we swim under the stars in the hot tub. For a night we feel like we are part of skiing’s elite vacationers. But really we’re imposters. We bring our skins into the hotel room to dry. We pore over the weather forecast and avalanche conditions. We count the tracks on Superior. The Cliff Lodge provides us with an extra hour of sleep before our usual early morning ski missions out into remote corners of the Wasatch. 

This season, during our annual staycation we were a little dismayed at the weather. Our Monday morning tour looked like it was going to be a bit skunked by wind, clouds, and snow. Oh well; we’d just have a couple extra mojitos and stay out at the pool a little later. Under dark clear skies we talked about lines that we would like to be able to ski if the weather cooperated, “oh man Coalpit would be so rad. It goes clean to the road this year.” We’d need an early start and near perfect conditions to get that one, I thought. So, we talked about just going up into Maybird and Hogum and looking at lines, skiing some powder on the flanks of the big mountains up in the wilderness. 

In the morning we woke up to a partly sunny sky. “Damn!” I cursed our sleep-in and scattered gear and clothes. “Let’s go skiing!” We quickly rallied, throwing all of our stuff into bags and haphazardly organizing our touring equipment. A dawn patrol was out the window by several hours, and I knew from our late night we’d be moving slow. I couldn’t be mad, we did it to ourselves and would just make the best of the day. 

White Pine trailhead was busy as usual, and we talked to some local avalanche forecasters in the parking lot. One mentioned that Coalpit had gotten skied the day before, and was still going clean. He thought they might try and ski it. It was almost 10am. His optimism gave me some positive reinforcement that perhaps we could make it happen. 

As usual it depended on a variety of factors, mostly though on the clouds. Would they preserve the snow? Would the sun come out long enough to loosen stuff up? There was a lot of fresh from the past week and warming would be the trigger. Plus, I knew that by hearing the green light from a forecaster, I could easily fall into a common trap: expert halo. Anna and I talked about these variables as we padded up the first section of the skin track. We’d go get eyes on our approach, the most dangerous aspect, and see what the snow was doing.

For the next hour and a half I kept my head down and chuffed away behind Anna. She is fast and I was thankful to burn through the doldrums of White and Red Pine. Soon, we were out in the open underneath the North East face of the Pfeifferhorn. It’s an amazing rolling moonscape riddled with granite boulders. The wind had rippled the new snow across the open field like a frozen disturbed lake. After a couple switchbacks beyond the meadow, we were atop Small Pass. 

Small Pass is the gateway to Hogum. It is a precarious little saddle that splits the Hogback and the North Ridge of the Pfeiff. Here the skier is faced with the most extreme wall and couloirs in the Wasatch. The Dresden Face with the Needle, Sliver, and Montgomery’s look impossibly steep and inaccessible. The treeless face is riddled with cliffs and complexity. The granite crown of this face is Thunder Ridge. The serrated edge separates the snow from the sky. 

At Small Pass we got a good picture of what had been happening in our ascent chute, the Hypodermic Needle. Earlier in the morning, snow had moved. Large wet avalanches had come down from the east facing cliffs to the right of the line proper. They were the real deal, and the skin track went right through them. Fortunately the weather that we had expected, cloudy and windy had partly come through. So while visibility was still good, the air had cooled substantially since the morning. We stood there on the pass for a few minutes, pondering our options. A lone skier skinned up through the debris. The snow was still, and the debris was likely from the morning’s warmth. Our later start might have actually helped us. We decided we’d go up and keep climbing until the mountain told us otherwise. Seeing a guy in the Needle, alone, gave me confidence. Avalanche social factor number two on the day: facilitation. 

We traversed toward the Needle and I kept my eyes on the face, no red flags. We skied a nice shot of north facing trees before we transitioned again and began the series of switchbacks up the apron. The route finding from here on out would be new to both Anna and me. While I’d been up and down the Needle, I ideally wanted to skip the bootpack at the top, and instead break out across a hanging snowfield that would take us to the ridge between the Needle and Coalpit Headwall. It looked pretty good, so long as the snow didn’t start moving again. 

Upward we walked, keeping an eye on the sun and the swirling clouds. We made good time and the hike went smoothly. Soon, the skier came down the chute in what looked like excellent powder conditions. We waited out of the fall line for his sluff to pass. He stopped and chatted with us. “I just got off the Pfeiff and the Needle looked too good to pass up!” We mentioned that we were heading to Coalpit. “Awesome, it should be great. I saw a couple tracks over there!” I had assumed there would be. Considering he was the first down the Needle, I presumed the skin track that we all had been following all day was a party skiing Coalpit. Someone to cut windslabs, test the snow in the line. I was cool with that. 

Soon we were at the point where we would either bootpack or skin across the little ramp. Our leader tracks took the ramp option, and I thought it looked safe as the sun was hiding behind a large grey cloud. “Alright Anna, eyes on me until I get to the ridge. Then follow, quickly.” The hazard was sluff falling from the cliffs above. It would wipe us off the skin track. Everything was still, and I was not concerned about stability. I was confident in our decisions. But, in avalanche terrain, one must always calculate what the risks may be, and if it slide came down, or if we fell off the skinner for some reason, it would be an unsurvivable ride over a 150 foot cliff. Sorry mom. 

I took a deep breath and started across, gently padding on my skis. 50 feet to go. Breathing, focusing on each step. Observing the snow around my edges, and keeping one eye on the slope above me. 30 feet. Easy, skinning is easy. Mellow. 10 feet. I punched for the ridge and made it safely across. I beckoned to Anna and as any good partner does, she kept a level head and navigated the exposed traverse. We were both safely on the ridge.  

With our skis on our backs, we marched up an amazing razor ridge, complete with granite high steps, icy rime covered rocks, and dramatic views in every direction. We were also getting an up close view of the famed Coalpit Headwall. You can see it from all over the Wasatch and the Salt Lake Valley. Its giant treeless face looks like something out of Alaska. Fluted couloirs funnel from summit and are lost to the ridgy foreground. From afar it is a steep foreboding white wall. Now, standing there on its shoulder, it welcomed us to ski the powder filled face. 

Clouds swirled as we climbed. Head down on the knife I led the ascent. I looked a step or two in advance, to make sure I wasn’t going to miss the booter, or step on some slick icy rock. I looked up and saw something alien. It was a rectangular piece of black plastic sticking out of the hike. My brain took a second to register but quickly I recognized it as a battery grip of a camera. I stood up out of my bootpack trance and plucked it up. From the snow, I found an entire DSLR camera. Must have slipped away from its owners, to be left alone at 11,000 feet in the middle of the winter. I chuckled inwardly at the strange lost toy and tossed it in my backpack. I forgot about the artifact and kept marching up to the summit. 

Soon we topped out and had to be quick on our switch over. The clouds were moving in, fast. I wanted to be able to see the massive face we were about to ski down. It’s complex and a small windslab could be lurking under a feature, waiting to take one of us for a ride. I watched Anna as she dropped in a made a scary committing turn to get onto the face proper. Again she stayed solid, and waited across the gully for me to join her.

We both were giddy. We were on a face we’d stared at for years. While the clouds made visibility less than perfect, the snow was surfy powder. I grinned and we clicked our poles together. “You first,” I said. Like a kid getting the keys to a Ferrari, she took off down the giant slope. I watched her disappear into the clouds, and knew she was waiting for me somewhere below. I followed her tracks down the soupy sublime descent. 

The rocky couloir ended fairly quickly, and we were in the bottom half of the face, a massive apron of powder. The pitch had eased significantly so we let it ride, and rode the big bowl together. We laughed and hooted as we skied down into small shrubby trees below the Coalpit Headwall. I knew now that another adventure was beginning, and we were entering another complex environment, the Coalpit Gully. This section came with another sampling of avalanche hazards, like rolling convexities and hang fire from the steep walls above. The latter was less of a concern because by the time we arrived at the entrance to the gully, the clouds had moved back in and the weather remained cold. 

We took turns leapfrogging through the long, fun run in the gully. Tree skiing gave way to steep little shots, to a full on rock lined couloir. We kept our eyes on the terrain and stopped on or avoided steep open roll-overs. After a while, we got a wild view of both the face we had come from, and down all the way to Little Cottonwood Canyon, all in all a 5,000 foot descent. We kept rolling down the run, and I knew soon we’d hit The Waterfall. 

The Waterfall had a handline around it. I stood for a minute looking at the rope, and the iced over bulge, and I pointed my skis straight down the thing. An eighteen inch drop over the flowing water was easily hopped, and as I skidded to a stop below I laughed out of joy for being able to have skied this classic run clean. 

The bottom of the line spit us out in an oak forest at the Quarry Trail. Near the creek, way below the summit and a long way from our hot tub at the Cliff Lodge we came up on two guys carrying skis. I knew that unless they had skied the Great White Icicle (unlikely), we had been following their tracks all day. They heard me crunch through the underbrush and wheeled around. 

“Hey!” I hollered. “Did you guys lose…”

After a moment of shock, then responded in unison, “A camera!?”

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