It had been a big year. More snow than usual was packed into the cracks and plastered onto the mountain faces. The turn of the season had come and things were warming up while the snow was settling out. We were filming for Powderwhore Productions off the east shoulder of the Pfeifferhorn in our backyard, the Wasatch Range. The night before had been a late one and after one mediocre run I was tired and unmotivated for another lap. The sun was really warm and I remember just sitting there enjoying it. There’s a sense of peace that comes in the spring after having survived another season. I was staring at the north face of the Pfeifferhorn. Then I saw it, Plinko, a connection of steep hanging snowfields that must be skied.
When I discovered the backcountry on skis 15 years ago, it was all about the powder. All I wanted was to float down bowls and dance through the trees. With so much terrain to see and explore in the Wasatch, I was satisfied for many years. Then one night everything changed. I went to an REI slideshow and my innocence was lost. Author and backcountry skier Andrew McLean was presenting his new book, The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains. Image after image of steep and horrifying couloirs and dark remote gashes flashed across the screen. I remember thinking, why? This is stupid! This isn’t even skiing! I was frightened and upset, but also excited. Something in me was awakened. I bought the book and became a disciple.
Ten years later I had skied almost all the lines in The Chuting Gallery and my mind had achieved the proper warping of a ski mountaineer. I began seeing and seeking lines that weren’t established, or in any book. You ask, “What if that fills in?” and wonder, “Does that line possibly go?” It’s a puzzle, a game. I started seeing stuff that made my stomach drop because it’s just stupid. But it’s there, and it’s possible. My heart and mind were alive and racing with wonderment.
The allure of steep skiing, or ski mountaineering, whatever you choose to call it, is hard to express. Perhaps it’s the heightened focus and awareness of taking action with clear and present consequence. Maybe it’s a zen like meditation in the face of fear. Yes, these deep dark recesses are packed with snow and rocks, but they’re also full of mystery, wonder, and excitement. I love every aspect (pun intended) of skiing and the steep end is just another place to play. The mountains know no limits, so the question eventually becomes, what are mine? How far am I willing to go?
So there I was, not consciously looking for anything really, when the heavens opened. The epiphany was instant. There was a ski line. Right there on the Pfeifferhorn’s North Face. I couldn’t stop from piecing together this stout, steep, and committing connection of ramps. It wouldn’t leave my head even when we were done filming and back down in the valley far physically removed. I felt like I had discovered some secret treasure and all I needed to do was go back and retrieve it before somebody else did!
This project would clearly involve several rappels and because I had never placed a piece of protection it seemed like a good idea to invite a competent and able partner who had more rock climbing experience. The warmer weather would soon transform the snow to mush. I knew the time to ski this new line was soon. So I contacted Courtney Phillips and he said he was game. Court had only been skiing for 2 years, but he was super fit, a great climber, and most importantly for ski mountaineering, he has a fucked up sense of what “fun” means. So one week later we set off to see what we would find with ropes, pitons and ice tools weighing us down.
The Pfeifferhorn can be a madhouse on sunny weekends and this was one of those days. We passed several groups and topped out with a couple of others. Everybody was there to ski the classic Northwest Couloir, which is a short and stout little gem in its own right. Compared to places like the Tetons, the Wasatch is pretty limited in its true ski mountaineering potential. There are many great couloirs that reach 45 degrees in pitch, but once you achieve “steep,” at over 50 degrees, the snow rarely sticks to the underlying rocks. The closest thing we have to a “Grand Teton” is the Pfeifferhorn and that’s a really lame comparison, but you make do with what you have and get creative to keep yourself entertained. The beauty of picking such an ugly line as ours was that you could avoid the crowds. We snuck off to the side to find the entry. Two guys followed us, and asked if this was the entry for the Northwest. We looked at each other and smiled, both thinking we should tell them yes and see if they would follow. But we didn’t, we told them no, and that they didn’t want any part of this.
I brought along a blown up photo to aid in our inverse navigation. We kept referring to it as a ‘map’ and it turned out to be a very useful tool. When mountains are steep enough that everything just rolls off into space, they can look very different from above. The trick was connecting the correct ramps and of course not tumbling to death over hundreds of feet of rock while doing it. However, it looked as if it would all ‘fall’ into place if we could get started in the correct spot. I didn’t actually hear Bob Barker yelling “come on down, you’re the next contestant on the Price is Right,” but it was time to play our larger than life game of Plinko.
The turns right off the top were mellow. The snow was perfectly chalky and then it rolled over to over fifty degrees as we found the short entry chute. We made some turns and sidestepped through a narrow choke to reach the first rappel. It had been difficult to gauge the length of the raps from far down in Hogum the day before, so we packed along two 60-meter ropes. The first cliff was managed by doubling a single line over a prominent rock horn. This landed us on the angling ramp we were hoping for. Unfortunately, it turned out to be much steeper than we had anticipated. Courtney clicked in and slowly and carefully hacked his way down. I had been on telemark gear exclusively for the past 12 years and on that day, on Plinko, was my 3rd day on an alpine touring setup. The snow was very soft and I had some serious issues clicking into my skis since the snow underfoot wasn’t firm enough. I felt stupid. Not a great place to figure out how your gear works. Luckily I hadn’t pulled the rope yet so I could hang on while I “dyna-fiddled” around. After finally clicking in, it was clear we were committed to the down, and I followed the shallow edge marks that Courtney’s sharp skis had left behind.
Is this even skiing? The answer is yes- because we have skis on.
The ramp narrowed and the slope steepened. They say to be careful what you ask for because you might get it. This is what we had wanted. We were there, on the sharp end. It was as steep as is possible while still holding snow and as exposed enough to know that any fuck-up would mean game over. Thankfully the snow was in great condition. It had seen just enough sun to consolidate it and we were there late enough in the day that it had slightly softened. Our edges bit into the snow perfectly. I checked out the slope angle using my beacon. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it read 57 degrees. Lots of ass clenched tiny sidesteps. I remember contemplating making turns. I really wanted to. I did a few of those test bounces that you do when it’s really steep and you’re feeling things out. Try as I might, I just couldn’t force myself to let go mentally and leap into the air. Sitting here afterwards in the safety and comfort of my home, I’m happy with that decision…kind of. With 4 more years of experience on alpine touring gear I like to think I could make the turns now. In life and any endeavor, you really do get to make up your own rules, ethics, and define your own actions. Making turns would have been more like “skiing,” but dying is less like skiing. So I sidestepped some more and more until I was just glad to be through what would turn out to be the crux of the day.
The next rap anchor didn’t come so easy. After a sketchy traverse to a rocky outcrop, we scraped away a bunch of snow and found a few cracks. Court hammered in two pitons and then equalized the anchor. This section required both ropes and even then we barely reached the final platform. But it was all smiles when we did, knowing we had plenty of gear and only one more rappel to go. The final patch of skiing was very short, as all the skiable sections were, but the snow was so good that we were able to not only make turns, but also enjoy them.
Our third and final rappel dumped us onto the forty-degree apron and we coiled the ropes for the final time. There was great relief to be on such flat terrain. As we transitioned from the vertical world, our nerves quickly relaxed as we found the snow to be boot deep, classic, Wasatch powder and we made nice easy turns finally free from the fear of falling.
We hadn’t heard of any previous attempts and didn’t see any signs of prior parties on this line (rappel anchors), and none since, but this is the Wasatch and pretty much everything has been skied. So, I’m not sure if we can call it a first descent, but it was new to us. There was no doubt everything on that line was in the mid to upper 50′s. Having skied all of the graded routes in the Wasatch I would call this the most continuously steep, serious and committing ski descent, with only the Great White Icicle as its rival. We’re rating it at (II S6+ A).
It was late and we had been so focused on the route that we had forgotten to eat or drink anything all day. We picnicked in almost the exact same spot I had been pondering the face a week before and we laughed that it was by far the longest it’s ever taken us to descend a mere 1,000 feet. The evening was warm and comforting. It was done, but I didn’t want it to be over. We now knew that mountain in a way we didn’t before. There are no shiny new cars, or parting gifts in this game, but we came away with the real prize. It was a challenge at the outer edge of our abilities that we had chosen, accepted, and completed. We skied out Hogum to the road in less than friendly conditions and watched the sunset in silence as we drove down Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Noah Howell has spent the past decade traveling the world filming and skiing the steep and the deep for Powderwhore Productions.