Pfirst Time on the Pfeiff


After a winter of big storms and deep snow, March was like a faucet that has been cinched shut. We had finally dried up. And, after a couple weeks of high pressure, the mountains were firm but stable. While it wasn’t powder skiing, it meant green light for big lines that would otherwise be off the table.

We had our eye on a centerpiece Wasatch jewel: the Pfeifferhorn. It’s visible from all over the range and even from the city. It’s a peak I had never summited in any season, let alone skied. To me, it stood for something in my skiing and climbing, a culmination of experience that I had to test myself against.

James and I had been near the summit the year before. We had camped in Maybird Gulch deep in the Lone Peak Wilderness and taken a long day to explore both upper Maybird and Hogum drainages. To me, this is the wildest and most awe striking alpine region in the Central Wasatch. I am far from the city, from the ski resorts, and the drone of canyon traffic. It is this peace and sublime that instills the desire to explore.

A year prior we had gotten as high as the Maybird Headwall ridge. Sharktooth shaped rocks covered with ice and a wandering sloped bootpack twisted my stomach, made my feet shake. In a no-fall zone I clicked into my skis and skied a short line down the headwall. On the ski back out across the high meadow I looked back at the mountain, happy to be skiing away. The ridge had terrified me.

I knew that I had to get more comfortable with that exposure, so in the year since I had been training. I had spent more time leading climbing routes; I had ski toured more days than skied the resort; I had built strength. Through all of that, I had worked on calming myself through breathing.

A dry March meant that the usual danger would be rapid warming so we had planned to wake up in the middle of the night to ski the Northwest Couloir. The night before we were setup for our mission, I checked the weather and the avalanche forecast. We would have AM cloud cover and cold temps for most of the day. I texted James, “meet at 6:00, not 3.” He responded positively and I went to work racking up my gear for what I assumed would be a long adventure. The NW requires ropes and a harness. I was excited to use some of these climbing tools with skis on my feet. So, all of these items went into my touring back. And other things that I normally would have brought, like an extra layer, came out.

Like with most big outings that I have not tried before, my sleep was broken as I’d wake up and toss around thinking about the line or checking the clock. I woke up early, made coffee, and went through gear in my head.

While the alpine region to the south of Little Cottonwood Canyon is one of my favorite places anywhere, getting there is one of my least favorite ski tours. I break it into three distinct sections: the Wilderness sign, the Doldrums, and The Church. I am sullen for the first two, not speaking to my partner or looking around at my surroundings. It takes an hour, and I just want to get it over with. The skin track is icy and uneven, and winds randomly though leafless grey aspens whose thick frozen fingers tear at nylon jackets. The outsides of my feet burn in my boots and my legs are not yet awake as I work my way through the Doldrums. This is a double-edged sword however, what makes it special is that it is harder to access. I weave through evergreens, and finally I slide over crossed the Red Pine Bridge and am in the Church. I am thankful and have some water.

The vibes and views were perfect in Upper Maybird that morning. We chatted about life and skiing, and the great mountain in front of us. It is a massive triangle that splits the ridge. With three sub-ridges itself it is symmetrical and almost a perfect pyramid. It is a mountain that is impossible to see and not be inspired to climb. While we could see our ascent, our descent was hidden deep on its north side and was unknown to us.

As we padded on our skis up to the chute, I thought maybe that too was why I seek these big lines and high places; more than wanting to just see them, I want to know them. I want to understand how the granite fits together; the small green lichen that clings to the weather-beaten stone; to see ravens and hawks swiftly soaring above; to hear wind and nothing else. I also want to know how my body and mind react in environments that are beyond the norm for human existence. Wilderness is a place where we can go but we cannot remain. It is amazing to see what the body can do in these remote and sometimes dangerous places. And then, when I cannot cope with something, to train myself to be better and stronger.

So we hike, and as we do we see another party. They have elected a different route up the headwall, one that skips the ridge. It’s more direct but it looks long and steep, and they are moving slow. We stick to what we know, and aim up the wide chute to the east. It was less firm than the previous year and we kept our skins on, delicately edging in the styrofoam snow. I felt good, confident and awake. It was staying cold with the sun in and out of the clouds.

We popped out of the top of the chute, up onto the ridge and scoped the surroundings. Out to the south stood Timpanogos and Box Elder, and west to the Great Basin. As we looked east, we saw a party of three rounding Red Baldy, the guys from the parking lot. Looking beyond the ridge that had scared me last year, there was a party already on the east face of the Pfeiff. I counted nine people skiing our chute. Two more climbing up behind us just to hike to the summit, without skis. We strapped our skis to our packs and were passed by a group of three that rounded the corner from Red Pine. Their leader was quiet and seemed grumpy that so many people were on the mountain. But they seemed proficient so we let them by, and hoped they would continue their speed as we got up onto the summit. As there are rappels, there could be waiting if any party had issues.

I timidly stepped my plastic-shelled foot out onto the icy granite ridge. I looked forward, and I took some breaths. I reminded myself that I was capable and could continue this hike. I walked behind James and relaxed. The tails of my skis dragged against the granite but I did not let it knock my steps. I stayed balanced and square through the spine. This year, the ridge walk was actually enjoyable.

At the end of the ridge we met the party who had elected to bootpack the direct line up Maybird Headwall. They were sitting in a small snow cave at the base of the East Face, and had a 36 inch piece of angle iron for snow belays and lots more pointy tools than we had carried up. I was wide eyed, had I underestimated the mountain? They told us that they had started at 3:30am, as we had intended to. The mountain had been in clouds until 7:00. They had bivvied for hours in upper Maybird waiting for daylight and visibility. While they gathered their gear and put on their harnesses we took a break, letting them go ahead and get in line on the summit. As we pulled out our own harnesses, they cast off up the last pitch before we could all start rappelling and skiing.

We had a snack and organized our gear, and all of the parties got on the summit pretty quickly so we were confident that there would not be a choke of people to deal with. It did look windy higher up so we were happy for the cave and a moment of stillness. Once the cave people were out of sight, we started up the east face bootpack, the last push to the summit and a place I had long wanted to find myself. The sun shone overhead and we kicked our toes into the last steep steps. James and I hooted as we reached the summit. My first time on the top of the Pfeifferhorn, it was more than I had imagined. From here we could see everything; Lone Peak, more of the Great Basin, and all of my beloved Central Wasatch. We were high on it.

We watched the last of the confident team drop in and pull their rope, so it was time for the group we met earlier to start their first rappel. While we still couldn’t really see the chute, we knew generally what the program was. Rappel down in, ski a long ramp that gets gradually steeper, then find another rappel, lower again, then ski a long run off the mountain. I was excited.

We waited for the better part of an hour for the groups in front of us to clear, and we were ready to get in there, ready to ski some steeps.We threaded our rope and tossed the ends down the small first pitch. It almost looked like we could down-climb it, but we had hauled the rope up there so we wanted to use it. As James lowered in, he grinned up at me and we both howled with laughter. It was an amazing feeling to be on a rope with our skis. He casually walked down the loose rock and ice into the main shot and stepped into a nice flat area. After stabbing his whippet into the snow and taking himself off rappel, I followed him down.

Just below him, I found a nice little mantle to hang out on, and took myself off the rope. I was now standing inside the Northwest Couloir on the Pfeiff, right in the heart of the thing. I was looking down at around 800 feet of firm steep snow, chopped up but not terrible. I focused on my rope; pulled one end hard and it zipped through the ring and down into my lap. I coiled it and fixed it back to my pack. We would need it again soon.

James said, “Well, I guess we can ski now?” I laughed and starting hopping down the chute. It was hardpack but nothing I hadn’t experienced before. With a large angling ramp and steep walls, it felt like I was in a central artery of the mountain. After many delicate but fun turns, I looked below and froze. The group in front of us was still very much in the thick of it. They had not even reached the second rappel and were just sitting there. Skis off. I didn’t want to kick ice chunks down on them so I stopped and planted my hip into the side of the steeps. James followed me down and sat right next to me. “Well, more waiting” we agreed there was really nowhere to go until they were out of the choke and second rappel.

If you want to make a steep, technical, three star Wasatch descent feel lesser than it’s hyped up to be: have a casual sit down right in the middle of it. We laughed at our predicament and relaxed as much as possible on a 45-degree ramp above a steep choke. The sun was out, but the winds had picked up. The snow that we had stirred up in our hopping was swirling around. I started to regret not having that extra layer. I shivered, James saw my discomfort and passed a down jacket he had packed deep in his pack.

The group in front sorted it out. James skied down and joined me at the rappel. We were alone at the last rap station above a long and amazing looking ski run. The winds had mellowed and the sun was shining, we were very much back in our groove.

We had read that most seasons, this rappel is over a tricky 50-foot cliff, but this “big” season it was totally filled in. Skiing on rappel, reverse down a 70-degree snow choke was, for some reason, hilarious to both of us. We hooted with laughter, cackled in the wind. It was raw and amazing. It was what I had hoped, fun, exciting, and a culmination of experience I had gathered. James followed me down and after we pulled and packed the rope we enjoyed over a thousand feet of amazing buffed hardpack.

We started to wrap around the mountain back to the south where we would climb Small Pass and ski back out Maybird and the way we came up. Topping out Small Pass was a release of emotion. Not only had we succeeded, but also we had done it in good form. We skied well, worked out systems well, and felt solid throughout. James and I switched over from hiking to skiing one last time and gave a strong high five. I took one last look up the north ridge and dropped the cornice on Small Pass, center punching the apron. My skis whizzed quickly across Upper Maybird, and back down through all the layers of the wilderness and eventually, to the next big climb high in the WasatchPf

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