This past few weekends I’ve finally gotten to do expressly what I came out here to do: Climb big mountains via difficult routes. “Big” and “difficult” are of course very relative terms, but here I’m using them from the perspective of someone from the East Coast. Perhaps definitions are in order: “Big” mountains here are over 11,000 feet and “difficult” routes require crampons, a mountaineering axe, and some exposure. By that definition there are an infinite amount of “difficult” routes up the 19 “big” peaks in the Wasatch Range.
Technicalities aside, my last three weekends have involved summits or attempted summits up the largest of these peaks. Three weeks ago I attempted the Everest Ridge of Mt. Timpanogos, the second highest peak in the Wasatch. It’s important to get an early start on this climb since it faces southwest and is a snow climb. The sun creates all sorts of problems on a steep snow climb, from exhausting postholing to wet avalanches.
April 5 | Mt. Timpanogos: first attempt
Thus, I was out of bed before 2am and on the trail by 330. It reminded me of my Mexico mountaineering trip; climbing steep snow in the dark by headlamp with a fantastic view behind you. The biggest differences here was the metropolitan area 3 miles away the luxury of going from my warm bed to a mountaineering route in two hours 🙂
Eventually I ran into a few people from the Serac Club (a local mountaineering club out of Orem) on the ridge. They were turning around because of some problems routefinding (been there, haha) and a pretty nasty storm was rolling in. We were at about 11k feet when a driving wind picked up, pummeling us with horizontal snow pellets. I hadn’t anticipated the weather and was dressed a bit lightly, but decided to at least go up a bit higher and scope out a route. After some hairy scrambling and numb fingers I decided to turn around, a bit dejectedly. I always hate retreating from a climb.
April 12 | Mt. Timpanogos: summit!
So, I decided to tackle it again the next weekend. The weather forecast called for clear skies so once again I was up before my roommates had gone to bed on a friday night and set off from the trailhead at 2:45am. I was surprised to find some footsteps in the snow and saw the faint glow of headlamps far up on the ridge. It was nice to (again) have someone else breaking trail. By about 7:30 I made it up to my high point from the previous weekend and took the same route, a 4th-class scramble up some short vertical rock and 70° snow. It was a ton of fun, and before I knew it I had gained the summit ridgeline and was traversing over to the main 11,750 foot summit.
At the main summit I ran into the two guys I had spotted from before hanging out in the summit tower. One guy, Jeff, was a bit shaken up from having almost broke through a cornice right at the summit.
Traversing on the Timpanogos descentHe asked about possible descent routes, and I admitted that I didn’t really want to traverse back to the ridge again and suggested heading straight down a ridge directly below us. It was a spectacular clear morning, so I briefly took in the view, snapped some photos, and started the 6,000 foot descent back to the trailhead.
Routefinding on the way down was non-trivial, we were constantly getting caught above cliff bands and having to traverse steep snow slopes to go around them. A few wet avalanches had released the day before in the gullies nearby, so we avoided the slide paths and glissaded for thousands of feet until we ran out of snow. It was sweet. A grueling ten hours and 12,000 vertical feet later and I was back at the car.
I’ve got several more climbs on my wishlist for this spring, but most are either too dangerous to do solo or have access problems due to ski resorts. So, at around 11pm last night I decided to do some ski mountaineering on the 6th highest peak in the Wasatch, the Pfeifferhorn. It’s one of the most striking peaks in the range, with any route to the summit involving at least 3rd class scrambling. The main hiking trail takes a ridge to the east of the peak, spreading out the vertical gain. I, however, decided to directly ascend the headwall just east of the peak, with the hope of skiing down it afterwards.
April 19 | Ski mountaineering on the Pfeifferhorn
The morning was comparatively leisurely; I slept in til 6 am and wasn’t on the trail until 730 (stupid Salt Lake Marathon blocking traffic). This time, though, I was cruising on my AT skis, and having skied in the area before it was pretty comfortable. I set out from White Pine in Little Cottonwood Canyon (just below Snowbird ski resort) and made my way south. I followed some well-defined ski tracks all the way to upper Maybird Gulch, where the Pfeifferhorn completely dominated the scenery. From there I took off my skis, strapped them to my pack, and started the 800 foot or so climb up the 40° slope. Again, mellow 🙂 After gaining the ridge it was another steep 300 feet to the summit, which was surprisingly large and non-threatening. I took a 360° panorama, glissaded back down to my skis, and eagerly strapped in for the descent.
It was pretty awesome. I think I found the only powder in the entire Wasatch mountain range this late in the season, a stash at 11,000 feet on a northern aspect. I hate to admit it, but I pretty much wasted the first half of the descent falling after every other turn. I’m a bit rusty, especially on such steep terrain. Once it mellowed out to about 30° I was back driving turns again. The entire ski out took about an hour and a half, where the snow changed consistency constantly, from mashed potatoes to icy sun crust and back again. Staying on my feet was challenging, to say the least, and I was very happy to make it back to the canyon road a little more than five hours after setting off.
So there were a couple firsts here:
- First real mountaineering experience in Utah
- First time ski mountaineering (so awesome!)
And the spring’s just begun! I’ll be writing about my next few climbs as they happen, so stay tuned.