It’s been a very dry mid-winter and even the sheltered north-facing slopes are getting grim. Determined to find some excuse to get up into the high mountains, Hunter and I decided to check out the North Ridge of Pfeifferhorn. We have both done the North Ridge in summer, but the idea of doing it with a rope and crampons seemed like a good excuse to have a big day in the mountains with minimal reliance on skiing conditions.
We got a late start given that it was an adventure with Hunter, leaving the White Pine parking lot around 8:50. The previous night’s hangover canceled out with the feather-light boots and skis I brought, and we made slow but steady progress up into Maybird Gulch where we got our first view of the ridge. The ridge certainly looked more intimidating plastered in snow and Hunter and I began to discuss options. The North Ridge technically starts above the North Couloir, a narrow Y-shaped line of snow that runs up to the ridge-line. But the ridge continues outwards to a small col in-between Maybird and Hogam. Both Hunter and I had started at that col in the summer. This extension of the ridge is less steep, but more knife-edge, culminating with a tricky slab section that has to be navigated in order to reach the top of the North Couloir.
Finding ourselves a bit intimidated by the “sit-start” variation, we decided to skin to the base of the North Couloir and asses things from there. As we got closer to the couloir we could make out a party of two as they transitioned and began climbing up to the ridge. They opted to ascend a steep snow slope on the side of the ridge rather than take the couloir, allowing them to join the ridge before the the crux section.
Reaching the foot of the North Couloir it was clear we were not the only people to have the same idea. The party we had seen had gained the ridge but was waiting for a group ahead of them. Another group worked their way along the ridge above us, having started at the col.
Hunter and I geared up while we contemplated our game plan. The couloir start was certainly simpler, but it seemed a shame to ski in all the way just to skip the most aesthetic part of the ridge. In the end we decided to mirror the group we had seen ahead of us and join the ridge right before the rock crux.
We booted up the initial snow slope and started picking our way through the steep mix of rock and snow. We encountered a couple of short, consequential moves through rock bands, but otherwise the snow was bonded enough for easy travel and we made it to a small break in the ridge without much trouble.
The two groups ahead of us were backed up along the ridge so we took our time flaking out the rope and preparing for the technical terrain ahead. While we were waiting the group that had started at the col caught up and joined us at our little stance. As luck would have it, they were ex-coworkers of Hunter so we hung out and chatted while we let the groups ahead get some space.
The break in the ridge acted as a natural wind tunnel and eventually we grew cold enough that we decided to get going. Hunter agreed to take the first bit, and started working his way up the knife-edged ridge. He moved quickly at first, placing intermittent pro and navigating the blocky rock. His pace slowed dramatically as he reached the first small gendarme and down-climbed out of view. It seemed to take forever for him to navigate the next 15 feet, but eventually he emerged back into view and I breathed a sigh of relief as romped up another steep section of ridge and set up a belay at the start of the slab face.
Hunter yelled down that I was on belay and I started up the ridge, relieved to be moving again after a while standing in the shade. The section right out of the notch was well featured and, with my extremely limited mixed climbing background, was a great warm-up for the day’s activity.
Soon enough I reached the gendarme where Hunter had slowed and it became clear why. The only reasonable route forward involved dropping off the east side of the ridge and traversing around the gendarme to re-join the face. I down-climbed off the ridge and onto a small hanging snowpatch where I was able to take a few steps before it ended the snow ended against the arete of the gendarme.
Apart from a small ledge for a handhold the rock here was shockingly blank. I worked my feet up on some edges and pulled the ledge to my waist, feeling around for any potential handholds but found nothing obvious. Confused, I yelled up to Hunter. He informed me that he had taken his gloves off and pulled a few delicate moves to get his feet up onto the ledge. My hands were still fairly numb from the cold belay so I took a few moments to swing them in an attempt to revive them as much as possible. Taking a deep breath I pulled my gloves off and worked my feet high again. This time committed, I placed my crampon points delicately on a small sloping feature and grabbed a bad side-pull with my right hand. Pulling and pushing as smoothly as possible, I stood onto my foot. My skis scraped the rock above me, threatening to throw off my balance, but I pulled harder with my hand and was able to get my other foot onto the small ledge. Feeling relieved, I pulled myself around the arete and back onto the ridge.
My hands now completely numb, I tossed my gloves back on and moved as quickly as possible up the remaining rock to join Hunter at the belay. Below is a photo of the ridge, with Hunter’s ex-coworkers starting up.
I found myself a bit rattled by how insecure the climbing around the gendarme had felt so Hunter kindly offered to keep leading. Directly ahead of us was the slab section that I knew would be a crux of the route. I had been glad to have sticky approach shoes while scrambling the ridge in the summer, and I knew the winter gear would only make the moves less secure.
Putting him on belay, Hunter left the security of the featured rock and made his way out onto the slab. Stretching across the smoothest section of slab was an old piece of rope, secured between a hilariously rusty piton, and some unknown placement buried in a chunk of ice. Hunter manged to find a good cam for protection and then gingerly grabbed the rope as he worked his feet across the sloping foot holds. Safely across the rope, Hunter was deposited at the base of a shallow crack. Pulling out his tool, Hunter worked his way up, his right hand wielding the ax in frozen dirty in the crack, his left hand on bare rock. I watched nervously as Hunter got further above his last piece, but he climbed flawlessly and soon reached a small ledge system where he could cut out onto a snow slope.
Following the pitch proved to be uneventful, but I again found myself feeling very thankful that Hunter had taken the lead. I just haven’t figured out how to trust crampons or ice tools. I’m sure with enough practice it will eventually click, but at the moment it still feels absolutely foreign.
The two groups ahead of us were rigging a rappel to bypass a short section of ridge and join up with the North Couloir. Back in the sun now, Hunter and I decided to wait to let traffic clear out. This gave us a good opportunity to watch the group below us navigate the slab.
Hunter led the final short section of ridge to where the groups had rappelled. Thankfully this section was considerably more straightforward, with just a few sections of delicate down-climbing. Ahead of us we could see one of the groups who had climbed back up the right branch of the couloir to continue on the ridge. The other group decided to take the left branch and re-join the ridge higher up.
The rappel was surprisingly long, consuming much of our 70m rope and deposited us nicely at the fork in the North Couloir.
We let the group behind us use your rope so we took a moment to grab some food and enjoy being on solid ground. Feeling rejuvenated and more confident about the second-half of the route I agreed to take over the lead. I made my way up the steep snow while Hunter finished coiling the excess rope and he joined me on the col at the top of the couloir.
The ridge above the couloir was wonderfully featured, especially compared to the first half of the ridge. Feeling confident, I yelled down that he should just start simuling once we reached the end of the rope. We quickly caught the group ahead of us as they were pitching it out and they were kind enough to let us climb through. A bit more fun scrambling and I topped out on the snowfield that marks the top of the left fork of the couloir. The group that had taken the left fork up was reorganizing gear and also let me climb through.
The slab section immediately above the snowfield was more featured than I had remembered it, and I found myself soaking up the secure climbing and great positioning. Once through the slab I made my way onto the east side of the ridge. The climbing here was perhaps the steepest of the day, but the teetering blocks offered a plethora of good hand and foot holds and the ice and below-freezing temperatures kept everything feeling solid.
Eventually the climbing on the east face led me back onto the ridge proper. I wound my way up the now more-gradual ridge line until I was confident Hunter was through the steepest terrain and then hip belayed him up to me. We un-roped and enjoyed a final victory romp on secure snow up to the summit.
We reached the summit of Pfeifferhorn about four hours after reaching the ridge. The first section of ridge to the top of the north couloir had taken us three hours and the rest an hour, reflecting the significant difference in technical difficulty.
It was later than we had expected so we grabbed a quick bite of food and clicked into our skis. After hours of scratching up rocks in crampons it felt great to finally be wearing skis. This relief soon faded as we dropped off the summit and down the east face. The snow somehow managed to be both extremely firm and extremely variable. With large cliffs looming below, turning didn’t seem super appealing so Hunter and I resigned ourselves to some good old-fashioned side slipping.
Our side slipping strategy worked and we arrived at the east ridge in one piece. We took our skis off and scrambled across the ridge, enjoying the more moderate terrain. We watched as the groups we had passed reached the summit and began making their way down towards us.
Finally, done with last of the scrambling for the day, we put on our skis for the descent into Red Pine and back to the car. The skiing out was a pretty horrendous mix of breakable crust and icy out-track, but we were just happy to be out of the exposure and have gravity on our side.
The day’s adventure ended up taking us almost eight and a half hours, definitely longer than we had anticipated. I think if I were to do it again, I would just go up the North Couloir, but I am glad we got to experience the more technical parts of the ridge on our first time up it. Definitely a fun day out and a great excuse to get into the mountains even with subpar snow.