2010-2011. It started to snow in early October and did not cease until the following summer; the storms were relentless and were drawn to the Wasatch mountains in Utah from the Southwest, from the Northwest. At this point in my life I did very little other than ski; I spent five or six days a week working as a ski patroller and every other moment I could in the backcountry of the Cottonwood Canyons. I skied all but a few days between Halloween and Easter, trying to take advantage of a once in a lifetime winter. The amount of snow that fell can be quantified in the number of cups of coffee that I drank per day, which topped out at roughly 12 before I decided that I had a problem. I would wake up before 5am for both avalanche control and days in the backcountry; I tried to keep going, always knowing that it was bound to stop at some point. But there were so many lines and chutes that I had been lustfully eyeing for years, waiting for the right moment to approach.
Monte Cristo, The Hypodermic Needle, Mount Dromedary, Thunder Bowl, lines off Mount Superior; memories of deep powder shimmering under a blue sky, of hours of trailbreaking, of stable conditions, of standing atop monochrome monoliths remain as pleasant, but hazy recollections. Although there is one foray into the backcountry that has endured as it is of a different character; it has a tinge of danger and disaster. The mind understandably works this way; its self preservation instinct is better served by searing threats to life and limb into the memory than the tranquil and pleasant.
The Northwest Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn. Steep. Narrow. Classic. An hourglass shape, the upper end of which feeds you into a constriction that terminates with a cliff, typically requiring a rappel, before opening into a vertiginous apron. The line consists of a 1000 foot descent with an average pitch of 50 degrees. The approach to the remote 11,326 foot peak is long and committing. The couloir itself is noted for its often treacherous conditions, something that I hoped to avoid by skiing it after the right storm.
In the middle of February a storm was approaching that promised to drop a significant amount of snow on top of what was a stable snowpack. My friend Joel and I had decided that we were going to make an attempt on the Pfeifferhorn the following day; for me this meant calling in sick to work, something that I didn’t lose any sleep over. Joel and I had undertaken a few different adventures together and our demeanors were well matched. Joel has a love of skiing that is matched with fearlessness and intelligence, despite his Australian origin. His ability to carefully navigate the perilous backcountry with savvy can lead to nothing other than thoughts of a snowbound version of Mick Dundee.
I woke in the morning darkness to take a look at the weather stations around the Wasatch and the avalanche report; it looked like it was going to be a perfect day. The Northwest flow had dropped a foot of snow without any terrifying wind or other irregularities from what we could gather.
We parked in Little Cottonwood Canyon and started skinning towards Red Pine Lake in the predawn glow, slowly making our way upwards with our headlamps aglow. We broke trail through the fresh light snow, sweating despite the morning chill. The surface began to shimmer as the sun broke over the crest of the range, the pristine blanket covering every surface took on a blinding pure whiteness. We assessed the conditions perpetually; everything seemed stable and lacking in spatial variability. The peak was within sight, intimidatingly looming over us, growing with each lunge forward.
Touring in the Wasatch gives me a feeling of remoteness and peril despite the hum of cars in the canyon below and the thunder of Howitzer artillery up the canyon. It is a different world beyond the road; it is harsh and unforgiving.
There is a very little that I remember from the approach despite the many hours that elapsed; I often go into a strange meditative state as I step and breathe. We bootpacked the shoulder before standing on top and peering out upon the rugged and serene landscape as a gentle wind swept over and chilled us. It was noon. We put on our harnesses. I prepped my daisy chains to clip into the anchors, and checked the rope.
‘Do you feel good about it?’ I asked Joel as we looked over the seemingly vertical precipice that lay in front of us.
‘It looks a little icy and scoured, but I feel good about it. You?’
‘Yeah, it just looks like the entrance to any couloir.’
‘Who is going first?’ Joel asked me.
‘Uhhhmm….I’ll go? I’ll back off if it gets sketchy.’ These moments are always strange. You are putting yourself up against your own judgments about the conditions. The first person is the canary.
Joel turned on his helmet cam and I cautiously stepped into the couloir. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, a temperamental chemical that can either go the way of fear or focus; I channeled it as I moved out towards the right shoulder of the couloir to check its condition. The sound of my edges grinding against the icy surface filled the air as I cut across; it was slightly terrifying. I stopped to take a deep breath at the shoulder, which held some snow, but I decided to traverse back and forth across the couloir rather than trying to make turns. There was nothing that a normal human being would identify as skiing yet.
The slope got steeper and the walls began to close in. The couloir at this point consisted of nothing but sheer ice, something that is typical in the upper end of couloirs. I meticulously worked my edges on the surface; I tried my best to keep my doubts and concerns at bay. The anchors were within sight, as was the powder field below. The cliff did not look substantial and a fall, as long as I didn’t hit any rocks, would mean nothing but landing in the soft cushion of fresh snow that covered the lower end.
I worked my way down into the choke point, moving with slow deliberateness. I muttered gratefully about how sharp my skis were and yelled my plan up to Joel. As I neared the choke point my ability to hold an edge was progressively compromised by its concave shape, I was only holding an edge with my tips and tails. I committed too far before realizing that I was precariously balanced above a cliff on ice, unprepared to take a fall. Moments slipped away as I held my edges at a ridiculous angle perpendicular to the 50 degree slope and stared at the anchors that were several feet beyond my grasp, with a rope someone had left behind strung through. My legs started to burn and quiver as I schemed to get out of this predicament. There was no boot packing or side stepping back up; the ice and shape of the surface made these options out of the question. The cliff was just an icy ten foot waterfall and there should be perfect snow below. There seemed to be only one option; I quickly thrust my hand out for the rappel anchors and rope, hoping to quickly clip my harness in after I got a grip. Ice is best understood from a tipping point perspective, you have purchase until you don’t; it isn’t something that is gradual or forgiving. I felt the tails of my skis give out as I reached forward over the tips of the skis. The rope was doubled over through the anchors. I only managed to grab one end.
I didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate what was happening or I was simply to disoriented by the way in which it happened. As my tails lost their edge I fell backwards, meaning I was on my back with my head downslope as I went over the icy, rocky chokepoint. My arm ricocheted off of several rocks as I tumbled and gained speed. The whiteness that I had appraised from above as comforting, soft snow received me with the harsh thud of blue ice. I began to gain speed, feeling the irregular surface of the ice below me grating against my back. I tried to stop myself with my skis, tried to catch an edge, but they simply exploded off my feet. My head remained downslope; I starfished outwards, swinging my arms and legs wildly in an effort to create friction.
I tilted my head backwards and saw myself headed towards rocks at a speed that I would place at around 30 miles per hour. My mind didn’t panic as there wasn’t time. Huuuuuuuuuuu Ahhhhhhhhhhhh Huh huh Huh Oh I remember making some guttural animal sounds as I continued futilely flailing. Everything unfolded rapidly, but with an intense and clear focus. The last thought I remember: I never thought I would actually see my own death or that it would be so easy. The rocks came near, but contour of the couloir cradled me, carrying me safely past. As soon as this disaster was averted I found myself rotating through the air, white, blue, white blue. I hit a wind lip built up on a minor fork in the lower portion of the apron headfirst. I cartwheeled nearly to the bottom of the ski line before stopping. I remember having some sort of strange moment as absolute silence enveloped me; the world had stopped turning. I slowly stood up and looked in fascination at the hundreds of feet that I had descended in seconds. There were no alarm signals yet, just shock. I looked down to see red slowly spattering the snow below me; blood was running off of my arm that stilled griped the rope that I pulled through the anchors.
I didn’t have time to look at where the blood was coming from before the panic set in. Joel! The shape of the couloir meant that he was only able to watch me disappear over the lip from his vantage. I needed to get within ear shot of him; I needed to let him know I was alright and that he shouldn’t descend. I was gasping, fighting to get enough air as I kicked my boots into the ice, adrenaline pushing me upwards.
I caught sight of him standing at the choke point; he had gotten ahold of the anchors. We shouted back and forth, although I don’t think we were close enough to understand one another. Suddenly he jumped off the lip of the cliff and hit the sheet of ice. He had a Black Diamond Whippet Self-Arrest ski pole that he drove into the ice with his weight until it was ripped from his hands. I stared on in silent horror as I watched him gain speed, taking the same ride that I had just miraculously survived, and pass within a few feet of me at incredible speed. There was no sound other than the roar of his synthetic ski gear over the ice.
I found myself running down back towards the same point where I had found repose. Joel had managed to pass another 20 feet beyond my mark and lay in a heap with his avalanche airbag deployed.
‘Are you alright?’ I shouted down.
‘You need to go get my ski.’
‘Where is it?’
‘It is stuck in the choke point.’
I accepted this gravely and started upwards without asking any other questions. My arm began to stiffen and get cold from the blood that ran down it. My lungs and legs burned as I tried to work quickly under the assumption that Joel had probably sustained some kind of injury. I was running on nothing but adrenaline at this point, although I started to shake with a freshly conditioned Pavlovian fear as I approached the cliff once more, carefully toe pointing as I went. I grabbed Joel’s whippet that had been ripped from his hands and then began ascending the blue ice below the cliff.
I saw the ski jutting out from a crack in the rock above my head and understood why Joel jumped. I kicked out and carved handholds to ascend the final icy pitch to the ski. I carved out a sturdy handhold as I stood perched over the icy abyss and began to swing the ski pole at the ski to try and dislodge the ski. On my third strike it broke loose and began a chattering bouncing ride downwards towards Joel. I yelled in vain with the hope that it would miss Joel.
I began my descent, working my way across slope to recover poles and skis that were incredibly separated by hundreds of feet. One of my skis had come down vertical and with such force, that only a few inches protruded from the snow and ice. I eventually reached Joel again and collapse into the snow next to him.
‘Holy shit! Are you alright? What’s going on?’ I let out in release.
‘I am good, but I am not sure if I can move my knee, I think I tore something. We need to get out of here though, get me that ski and we will see what I can do.’
I finally looked at my arm. It had swollen to what seemed like twice its normal size and had a significant injury exposed at the elbow from hitting rocks that managed to rip through three layers of clothing. I was convinced it was broken, but accepted it with calm resignation. Everything was not all seriousness though; we were laughing hysterically within minutes, lost in shock and adrenaline.
‘I cannot believe we are alive. Did that really just fucking happen? To both of us?’
‘Are you jealous that I made it further than you?’
A significant amount of time had elapsed in this whole episode; we were well into the afternoon. We still had a run out down Maybird Gulch that was not short or simple. Joel tried moving his knee and had some range of motion and not too much instability. I helped him into his skis and watched in gratitude as he was able to carefully begin working his way downwards. An inability to ski would have likely meant spending an evening out.
Joel, with an injured knee, skied with skill that left me astonished. We reached the car in the twilight, both shivering and drained, mentally and physically. I took off my gloves and looked on in horror at my bloody hand and the pinky finger that was completely black and waxen with frostbite.
‘Whoops!’ I hold out the claw to Joel and start laughing.
We descended the canyon and recounted our respective stories over a pitcher of beer, looking haggard and talking manically, oblivious to the other people in the bar. We realized what had been our undoing: the storm system had arrived from the Northwest, the direction that the couloir faces. It had come in slightly warm with brief rain that had served to bond the fresh snow to the existing snowpack everywhere else. In the Northwest Couloir it had frozen rapidly, due to the direction of the couloir and the wind, and merely created a sheet of ice that attracted no snow. Joel clarified another part of the story, he had lost one of his skis as he tried to kick his ski into the sheet of ice to get purchased; it chattered down the couloir and became lodged in a crack midway through the cliff. Joel decided to jump and try to dislodge it with his ski pole before taking his downward journey. He realized that we needed that ski to get out of the backcountry and there simply was no decent way of getting it.
Joel had to go to the hospital the next day and found out that he had indeed torn a ligament in his knee. I returned to work and tried to continue on like nothing had happened despite my inability to move my elbow joint. I had no insurance, so going to the hospital had to be avoided. I hid my broken wing out of fear of getting caught in my lie and out of a certain degree of shame over what had happened. I did not want to recount the tale, but after a few questions from people on my patrol team, I spun the tale with a grin. Stories eventually just become a piece of you, telling them helps the process along.
I have since developed a deep seated fear of slippery surfaces above precipices; a fear that I find to be completely rational. I have been on an endless summer since that winter finished. Joel has gone on to more ridiculous feats, including supporting his ski habits through the practice of law.
All photos and the video are credited to Joel.