After a longer than anticipated recovery period following my Grand Canyon effort two and a half weeks ago – myoglobin has been flowing out of me en masse – I green lighted myself for a return to backcountry skiing in Utah, following two days of intensive hydration / system flushing. I finally felt back to normal, if a little weaker from not having been out much in the last 17 days. It felt good to be back in the saddle, or Black Diamond harness, more to the point.
As the clouds rolled in below us, we found the Northwest Couloir of the Pfiefferhorn (one of several routes that can be done in ski rappel fashion from this peak) to be a little devoid of snow on the upper reaches today. It then became a question of whether to do two rappels or work our way down by another route. I spelled out the options as I saw them and left the decision making to Jason Borro, the day’s partner. It wasn’t too hard for him to commit to our original choice of line, as we had all the necessary gear with us. After securing a sling around a perfect horn, in we went, with Jason leading the way down the rope.
Once onto a patch of snow wide enough in which to make turns, we found the snowpack to be pretty stable, a bit firm and wind affected, but it quickly gave way to somewhat softer snow. The turns became a bit stiffer as the snow hardened when we headed towards the choke guarding the rappel station. Hard snow above a cliff – perfect! I sidestepped the last 15 feet to the paired bolts and was grateful we’d both worn our Petzl helmets.
Securing ourselves with personal anchors, we loaded our skis onto our packs. The option to rappel with skis on is not presently available, as the snow is not loaded onto the steep rocks quite yet. It’s still early season skiing out there, as the upper snowfield’s lack of snow reminded us. Banging our way down the rocks and ice, we soon stepped back into our bindings for the lower half of the couloir. The snow was still firm, but turnable and yielding. Pretty reasonable for the Pfiefferhorn in early December.
As for rope details, I was glad I brought the 60 meter Sterling rope; I’d considered trying to get away with a 30 meter model for the day, and that would have been a bit short, twice. The initial entry rappel had us finding snow wide enough to ski at about 80 feet down, and the standard Pfiefferhorn Northwest Couloir rap station required about 60-70 feet of descent before we reached snow wide enough to ski. Either section could have been downclimbed in a pinch from where a 30 meter rope would have left off, but everything was more comfortable not having to take this option.
Skirting the apron, we ascended back into Maybird and made our way to the Red Pine Trail. Strangely uncrowded – this is the place where Wasatch crowding occurs, after all – we saw four people leaving as we arrived. Several more greeted us beyond the bridge by the White Pine parking lot on our return. All in all, it was a great day all to ourselves backcountry skiing in Utah’s Wasatch mountains, with reasonably stable snow and moderate snow coverage.