South Sides: Mount Chicanagua and Chipman’s

Inspired by my recent viewing of the ultra-classic movie, The Climb, from 2002, I wanted to summit Mount Chicanagua, too. As could be expected from any movie put forth by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, this one is a real zinger. Strong acting is abundant. For example, there is a scene in which one of the climbers flexes while working out in front of a poster image of Chicanagua. I nearly wept.

Dialogue? Turn the volume up, because you won’t want to miss a single syllable. Intensely deep words like, “I’m going alone” pave the way for one of the grandest epics ever captured on film. Filming? Classic Hollywood style in which various cuts are utilized to make the Wasatch mountains look a lot bigger than they are. It’s easy to get swallowed by the cinematography.

Whoops, spoiler alert. Already slid a spoiler past you. Here follow more. For anyone who hasn’t viewed the remarkable piece of cinema that is ‘The Climb,’ it’s important to note that the Chile based Mount Chicanagua is at high elevation. Attaining the summit requires a multi-week expedition, and a multi-day effort from base camp. Intense physical training and conditioning are required to get this thing done. Doing the extreme East Ridge could lead to death.

According to Hollywood-style naming traditions, Jason is probably skinning in front of the Eiger here.

Uh huh. The Mount Chicanagua in the film is known to Utah locals as the Pfeifferhorn. Or, by its older name, the Little Matterhorn. It tops out at 11,326 feet. Dispensing with the multi-week expedition, Jason True and I claimed a successful one-day summit of this imposing peak by approaching from the south side, then ascending the rocky western rib.

Jason heads to the fearsome Chicanagua from the South.

23.35 kilometers / 14.5 miles for those interested in that sort of detail. Start and finish at ‘A,’ moving counterclockwise.

It was sort of wonderful that Jason jumped at the opportunity to turn the usual 4,000 vertical foot approach of the Pfeifferhorn (from the White Pine Trailhead) into an extended, near 6,000 foot jaunt. In the spirit of the film, why take the easy route? Heading up the long way, from the south side, from Alpine, was the ticket to make our attempt on Chicanagua seem a bit more expedition-like.

Throughout the day, the breeze picked up steadily; its speed rising as we did. Although we were careful not to get blown into the northwest couloir as we worked our way up the western rib, our success at times seemed more attributable to luck. With gusts clocked to 60 mph on summit ridgelines, the going was chillier than it has been of late. We both suspected the onset of facial frostbite, and I turned to face out of the wind to warm up my face several times in just a short distance. Time to start packing the balaclava again for a few months.

The theme of the day, besides going big, was breeze. I don’t have many shots from near the summit because I was busy preventing frostbite.

These are the sorts of lessons an outing to Mount Chicanagua will teach you.

The disarming part was that the steady wind would occasionally lessen, only to be followed by full strength gusts. More than once, unbraced against the onslaught in a lesser wind, a gust caught the skis on our packs and treated them like the sails they essentially are. Bowled over, but unwilling to step in the direction of the wind – sure doom with a tumble over the cliff as the prize – we hacked onwards until reaching the Pfeifferhorn summit. There we took shelter behind the small block of rock that creates a decent alcove for these situations, and got ready for the descent.

We managed to not get blown off the summit. Barely. Chicanagua is tough sometimes, but that didn’t deter Jason from the ‘smiling in unusual situations’ theme.

I didn’t write, ‘got ready to ski down.’ As seems par for the course on such a mammoth mountain, the top has been scoured by wind and much snow removed. Although our skis were on our feet from the top, what we did for the first bit of descent wasn’t quite skiing. At least not smooth, arcing powder turns like in the movies! More like the survival skiing that one expects to face on fearsome peaks like Chicanagua.

Rocky off the top. Seriously. A steep field of shark’s teeth.

Once below the exposed rocks, perhaps 200 feet down, the snow was somehow quite good and powdery. Then it began alternating between wind affected, wind crust, breakable crust, and supportable crust, intermingled with large swaths of powder. This remained the theme of the day as usual – quite variable.

Good views help compensate for variable snow.

Because we too wanted to flex our muscles in front of the life-size image of the Pfeifferhorn, we did that by ascending a good long way up Chipman’s south side following lunch. Our approach unfortunately tapered to a rocky ridge in which we were skinning above massive exposure, heading for what looked like unskinnable, relatively complicated terrain.

Check out the CAMP Speed helmet, which doubles as a snow transport meter. Half filled in the time it took to eat a few bites of lunch. It was windy even off the ridgelines.

Although the snow was quite solid, I didn’t like the position I anticipated we’d be in if we continued our trajectory. Volunteering a pulled plug card wasn’t a difficult choice for me. Jason agreed, which gave me some relief. Exiting turned out to be tricky, as the snowfields that dropped away below us all appeared to terminate in cliffs. Ropeless, late in the day, getting cliffed out wasn’t on the agenda.


Look downslope and see Jason skiing in front of the Eiger. Ahem, Box Elder.

We turned back the way we came, which provided incredible views of Box Elder. What began as more subtle crust skiing turned to pow as I crossed over to the opposite side of the slope and skied down to Jason. From there, we had mostly powder on the way down. That was followed by plenty of powder when it was time to make our way – across slope and slightly uphill – back to the skin track. It is often at this point in the day that I seem to encounter the deepest, least wind-disturbed, champagne pow.

But that’s to be expected on any sort of expedition to Chicanagua. You just have to work with the variables, flex your muscles, and suddenly you’ll be in the parking lot. After watching a perfect sunset. Hoping, as one can only do, that you’ll be able to watch ‘The Climb’ yet again. Breathtaking. Maybe you’ll nearly weep, too.

The sun descends as Jason makes time down the exit path, but we made it to the vehicle with plenty of light.

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