Outside at 4 A.M., we are the only two people in the world. Our skis stick out of the back seat window of the car we borrowed in exchange for a six-pack of beer. We drive down the Little Cottonwood Canyon’s only road for about ten minutes before becoming the only car in the parking lot at the trailhead– even though it’s Saturday, and even though it’s the Wasatch, which is notorious for being full of go-getter skiers. We put skins on the bottom of our touring skis so that we can travel uphill efficiently, and begin the lengthy uphill approach to the base of the Pfeifferhorn. On several other ‘dawn patrol’ ski tours up the canyon I have watched the sunrise ignite the Pfeifferhorn’s broken granite east face in pink and pale orange and ached to be a part of it, standing in the glow on the mountain’s dramatically sweeping flanks.
Skinning in the dark now, it is warmer than I thought, but deep inhales still sting a little. The frozen air always stings, but it hurts less to breathe fast and quench my burning muscles than to not, so I’ve grown to enjoy it. My skis sound abrasive against the quiet of the night. The air around us, deep in the trees, is still, but clouds rip past up high. I wonder what the wind is doing to the snow where we’re going, and what it will be like standing in that chaos on the ridge. We’ll probably have skis on our backpacks, catching gusts and pushing us off balance. There’s nothing to do but see what happens when we get there, so I loosen my grip on the thoughts and predictions so that they too can rip past like the clouds of their subject.
The orange haze hangs like a coat over the Salt Lake City valley, just enough to illuminate the south facing couloirs opposite us across the canyon. They look steep and substantial from here. I have only recently begun to explore them, so to my eyes they carry a mystery and beauty I can only hope to access. It is as if I am looking across a crowded room at a stranger whose eye contact brings me the warm flutter of potential and curiosity. What conditions would I need to be able to safely ski them? They’re probly best in the spring, if I can climb them mostly in the dark and then ski them right as the sun’s warmth softens the snow. Can they really be as steep as they look from here? Who could I convince to come with me? The skin track bends slightly as it wraps around the mountain and the objects of my fascination slip out of direct view. Again the cloud thoughts of wonder and plans rip past my focus.
We wind up and up at a slow grade: pole plant, step, pole plant, step, arms, legs, breath, heartbeat, all in synch. Slowly grinding uphill, thoughts mulled over and let go to the wind. This is the medium of my internal discoveries, though their development is usually too subtle to be called epiphany.
The Moon is our sentry, giving us just enough light to see the snow’s texture- ski tracks, foot prints, glitter- when we emerge from clumps of trees. I move into colder air as we dip down to a creek that we must ski across and then feel the air warm as I climb back out of the gully. The light from my headlamp catches individual surface hoar crystals, literally frozen winter dew, which stand vertically on the surface of the snow like a feather. Intricate and precise, the edges of the crystals are sharp and my senses feel equally crisp. I feel the slightest breath of air across the sweat on my face and I know that it’s from the sun starting to glance across the mountains east of us, out of view.
Walking, walking, we arrive in the bowl beneath the Pfeifferhorn just as our eyes can detect the subtle lift of first light. I turn my headlamp off to accentuate the nuances of the new day as it builds. Minutes later the sun and the moon are providing the same amount of light from opposite sides of the sky.
Our objective stares down at us. The Pfeifferhorn looks powerful and severe, though does not feel like an enemy. It is as if the Pfeifferhorn is some legendary mountain person that I’ve just stumbled into in a casual setting. I know this person could flex her muscles to destroy anything, but I’ve been lucky enough to catch her after hours, wearing cotton, relaxing. With her she carries a weight and depth that manifests uniquely. I feel grateful to even be in her presence, and crave to interact in any way that will illicit the most truth of her being.
For us, today, that honesty-seeking interaction is to walk up the Pfeifferhorn’s steep flanks and east ridge to the summit and then ski the Northwest Couloir. It is the most visually natural way to ski the mountain from the summit, despite the 60-foot cliff in the middle of the line that demands a rappel.
As we start the steep climb to gain the east ridge the day’s first direct sunrays begin to bathe the surrounding peaks in grapefruit light. All of a sudden we are in it, swimming in morning alpine glow, our whole reality vibrantly illuminated. It’s like we’re tripping, but imagining the same thing together. All we can say to each other is nondescript exclamations of awe, repeatedly. We don’t even try to describe it, because we don’t need to: it’s too in our face; it’s all around us.
Slowly I carve a skin track through the seemingly unpenetrable windcrust on one side of the shallow rib we are climbing, and the brittle, punchy snow on the other. When the swath of snow becomes too narrow for switchbacks, we take our skis off and kick steps with our boots until we reach the ridge. The view from here inspires a vast sense of place I never could have conjoured. A web of ridgelines and deep drainages falls off to the south, while to the north I look into the glacially carved basin from which we came in the foreground and beyond it the same daunting south facing couloirs that held my imagination this morning. To the west I can see a string of peaks that are to me a mystery, and to the east towards Alta and the end of the canyon I see my typical stomping grounds, where it feels l am almost too familiar with every nook and cranny. It is not as windy up here as I thought it could be based on the fast moving clouds this morning, but I see small patches of clouds devour peaks one by one and then move out just as quickly. Feeling small yet interwoven with my surroundings, we continue up the east ridge towards the summit.
Standing on the summit, we become engulfed in a cloud with the peak, and visibility deteriorates quickly. We can still see far enough down the couloir to see that the ribbon of snow in the top portion is not wide enough for our skis to fit sideways. We must walk down the initial 150 feet unless we want to keep our skis pointing straight downhill between rock walls on unknown- but probably very poor- snow conditions until the couloir widens above a cliff that I really don’t want to inadvertently jump off. We decide to use the short ropes we brought to prussik down as we walk backwards, as if on a ladder, kicking our boots into the steep snow until it widens enough for our skis. As I set up the ropes my partner confesses he is too nervous to eat food, even though it took nearly four hours of continuous movement to arrive here and the temperature is dropping with the visibility. Frost forms on my jacket’s zipper and I make sure to speak in the same tone that I would use if we were sitting down drinking a beer together in a warmly lit bar. I tell him to relax, to try to eat some food. I describe my rationale for the snow’s stability and outline how we’re going to negotiate the cliffs, rope work, and transitions. I attach him to the rope, give him a brief refresher on rappelling and communication commands, then descend ahead of him, paying out rope as I go.
It all seemed so normal and matter of fact, not that it lacked the heart-flutter that I always get when I do things in the mountains, but that for some reason I just wasn’t scared or nervous. Realizing this I hesitated for a second- am I doing this right? Should I be second-guessing anything? My thoughts raced back to my first and only other experience skiing this line last spring. I was with my boyfriend at the time, who was also my main skiing partner, and another friend. We deliberated at the top for what must have been an hour before I- the only one in our party who knew what to do with ropes and rock climbing gear- rappelled into the couloir and managed the entire couloir until the bottom of the cliff section with ropes. That time my heart was racing, and my grip on everything was way too tight. I was cold, scared, stomach-knotted, and the loudness of all my thoughts and senses overwhelmed me. I wished desperately I could pause the wind, the cold, the fear- everything, and collect myself.
Somehow that mission turned out alright. But what happened between then and now that I can so casually talk and think as if I were just drinking a beer with my partner in a bar? My senses now are still acute, but I am enjoying what they bring to me. My thoughts are clear and lack the filter of self-conciousness that block creativity and efficiency in the mountains. I let the rope continue to slip through my mittens and I keep kicking my boots in the snow with big downhill steps.
When I’m off the rope, my partner follows. He’s cold when he gets down to me, and expresses that he is still very much out of his comfort zone, though accepting of it. I give him a high five, because he’s a trooper, and we put our skis on. I still lead, and ski with my ice axe out so I can arrest a fall from either of us before the cliffs. When we reach them I set up the rappel, repeat the same process as above, and off we go over the cliffs.
Somewhere in that rappel, with the buckles of my boots scraping on the frozen granite and the ice axe clipped to my harness tinking against the steep walls, we emerged from the bottom of the cloud. With stunning clarity, the neighboring ridgeline to the west and its daunting potential for ski descents comes into view. My partner joins me beneath the cliffs. His fear being emotional, it is eased by the visability, and once our skis are back on and the ropes coiled, we have nothing to do but to enjoy the rest of our ski descent.
The snow is like sculpted styrofoam as our edges dig in, and the austere granite slab rises next to us. I am not sure which enhances my brief experience of this interesting place more: full attention to the snow I am skiing or visual appreciation of the crack systems that sweep up the walls next to me. We ski down until the chute opens up, and regroup above some other cliffs. From there we make turns down the aprons until we arrive in the basin just west of the Pfeifferhorn’s north ridge. Feeling like we have done all the hard components of the mission we take off our harness, transition for a short section of uphill travel and eat some food. My partner has no problem taking down the sandwich I made him the night before, which solidifies my feeling of ease.
Below the wind now, I can hear a party of climbers on the North Ridge, arguably one of the best mountaineering routes in Utah, and one of my major goals for the season. Looking at the ridge now I feel the glow of inspiration rise in that place behind my sternum, where I can feel life come into me as I breathe deeply. Motivated sheerly by that feeling, and knowing I have the technical skills, I feel the peace of knowing all I need is a partner and time.
We begin the meandering ski descent back to the car and I feel giddy and accomplished. All I can do is be silly and exuberant with my partner as we bound through the aspens and evergreens. It’s now the middle of the day, but it could be any time. It’s kind of a shame to go that far and only ski one line- what else can I ski in the same day when I comeback? How many vertical feet and miles could I ski before I can’t function safely mentally? What would be an elegant link up of ski lines in that zone? Closer to the parking lot we pass hoardes of snowshoers. Oh yea, its Saturday. These people are enjoying the mountains and recreating, and they have no idea what we have just done.
We drive back up to the lodge, making it back with plenty of time before work. The people here are all skiers and mountain people, and they still have no idea what we have just done. Even if they have been to the area, they did not see the moonlight and the valley glow melt into the sunrise as it caressed the aggressive granite ridgelines that surrounded us. They could not hear my heart singing and they could not feel my partner’s sense of absolute realness. This is what wakes me up at 4 am. I can’t even help it.