Trip Report

Northwest Couloir of Pfeifferhorn – 3/28

Spring has finally arrived in the Wasatch, and with it the chance to ski bigger lines. Taryn’s studying is in full swing, so when she informed me that she could take Sunday off I quickly ran through my mental list of Wasatch lines I’ve had my eye on. Immediately the Northwest Couloir of Pfeifferhorn came to mind. Exposed, with at least one mandatory rappel, it’s the kind of line you want to ski with someone you trust to be dialed.

A storm had dropped a foot of well-bonded snow a couple days prior and, with low winds predicted, it seemed like the perfect time to go for it. Our only real concern related to conditions was the fact that temps were forecasted to climb into the upper 40s even at higher elevations, the first real warming of the season. We thus found ourselves at the White Pine parking lot at 6am, hoping to be back out by early afternoon.

We set off, moving quickly but steadily and reached Red Pine Lake as the sun began to hit the upper peaks.

We were soon on the ridge line and worked our way towards Pfeif. I had some concerns about warming of the final steep headwall to the summit as it faces almost due east, but our brisk pace paid off and the snow was still comfortingly dry as we booted towards the summit.

We reached the summit around 9am and got our first glance of our objective. Gulp. The entrance was a narrow patch of rock-hard looking snow and the steep, shadowed face looked unbelievably intimidating. A strong morning wind added to the atmosphere.

We decided to send Taryn down first with a belay from above to check out conditions. As we were flaking the ropes a party of three joined us on the summit. We knew one of the members which made coordinating with them a breeze.

Taryn clambered off the summit to a narrow ledge atop the run and carefully put on her skis. With a double check that I had her on belay she started sidestepping her way down. She reported extremely firm, barely edgeable snow, but continued to pick her way down carefully. Unfortunately, right before reaching the narrowest choke we reached the end of the rope (we had brought two 30m ropes for the rappel and were using a single one for the belay). Tentatively Taryn unclipped herself from the rope and I held my breath as she scratched her way through the choke and onto the wider slope below.

Now it was my turn. I stashed the rope in my bag and clicked into my skis. The snow was firmer than I had expected, even hearing Taryn’s report, and I found myself desperately wishing I had gotten that ski tune I have been putting off all winter. I found my rhythm: step, step, plant, repeat, and slowly worked my way down until I got to the rock choke. Where Taryn’s skis had just barely fit, my longer skis were not even close, and I had to precariously place my tip and tail edges against the rock as my edge underfoot flexed forlornly in the air. With some tenuous downhill pole-plants and carefully placed plunges of the ice ax I was able to sneak through, and gratefully joined Taryn beneath the entrance chute.

From above, the snow in the hanging snowfield had looked soft and chalky but we found re-frozen crud, torn up from previous descents. The group behind us made the wise decision to rap into the line and we took a couple of minutes to soak in the position and discuss our strategy. Taryn, with the shorter skis, kindly volunteered to ski down to the anchor first (as reaching the anchor lying flat against the wall can be difficult over ski tips), and, once the group above had finished their entrance rappel, began making her way down to the choke.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I heard her yell up, “I’m in direct”, and I started my descent. The angle of the pitch was slightly lower and it felt good to be able to link at least a couple jump turns after the shenanigans above. As the face steepened and narrowed near the anchor I again resumed my sidestepping and happily clipped myself into the anchor.

The rappel went smoothly and it was fun to survey the exposure of the line from the safety of a rope. We had offered to let the group behind use our rope as they were hoping to continue their day by booting up the Hypodermic Needle (a sketchy decision this late on a warm spring day and speed was of the essence) so Taryn and I hung out to wait to collect the ropes. The mood was definitely lighter than it was at the summit, and it was fun to chat with everyone now that we knew we had the line essentially in the bag.

The upper turns directly beneath the rappel were still quite steep (~50 degrees) and the snow was definitely still subpar. But hey, at least we weren’t skiing above a cliff! Finally, as we approached the final couple hundred feet of the apron the snow softened up, and Taryn and I blasted down to Hogum Fork enjoying some truly amazing powder turns.

The adrenaline from a day like this is of the slow-release variety and we gazed back up at the line, riding the high, stoked to have checked off a Wasatch classic. The midday sun didn’t allow us to delay long, however, and we speedily transitioned and worked our way back into Maybird Gulch. The snow was largely mush at this point, but we managed to find a short pitch of shaded snow on the way out Maybird and a couple faceshots were the perfect cherry on top of this immensely satisfying day.

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