Pfeifferhorn Northwest Couloir and North Couloir

Peter starting out a grey day.

Some routes weigh on my mind. They’re aesthetic, achievable, yet a bit scary. They require a big day with the right partner in the right conditions. And they require a bit of luck.

Thankfully, prerequisites fell into place today. I had a day off, Peter was in town and ready to go big, and the snow cooperated. We decided to pack the rope and the sharp toys and have a go at the classic NW Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn.

On the East ridge approaching the Pfeifferhorn, with a party of two ahead of us.

The Pfeifferhorn is a beautiful mountain. The forest service calls it Little Matterhorn, which isn’t far off. I’d looked at the route when I skied Coalpit with Nick and Noah, and it was calling to me.

The Northwest couloir follows the strikingly lit ramp to a choke with a 25-40 foot cliff before descending the steep apron.

We left the White Pine trailhead at 7 am, cruising quickly up the easy skinner into Red Pine hoping to get high before the sun came out and ruined the snow. The forecast called for temperatures above freezing at 11,000′, with temperatures approaching 70 in the valley.

Thankfully, high clouds and a stiff breeze kept the heat at bay. We reached the alpine zone above Red Pine Lake to find a pair of skiers ahead of us breaking trail to the ridge. Grateful for the work saved, we didn’t mind the company. If you’re out to ski the steeps on a Tuesday morning, we’ll probably get along fine.

In summer, this traverse is a bit more secure.
Pete, exposed above Maybird Gulch.

The traverse along the ridge was more exposed than I expected, and I worried that my decision not to bring crampons could sink us on the windblown East ridge. Thankfully, enough snow was plastered up the face to make it a reasonable scramble and before long we were eyeing the objective of the day.

Across the ridge and a few hundred feet from the summit.
A first peek into the Northwest Couloir.

We were in luck. Shaded from the prior day’s hot sun and favored by the South wind, the Northwest Couloir held settled, soft, chalky snow. As is the order of things, we let the pair who’d broken trail for us have the first go and waited above anxiously. The wait did us good, as the wind filled in their tracks. With a few careful steps in past the rocks at the top we were in, and I was living a dream I’ve mulled around for years.

Fine snow and a good start to a good run.
Pete getting wild above the cliff.
I follow on the upper pitch.
A classic spot for a backwards ski.

At the choke we discovered a few things. First, the anchors always feel too close to the cliff. Second, reaching out to clip the anchor past one’s ski tips is very awkward. Third, little G-string skimo harnesses, though very effective, don’t make for comfortable belay seats. Despite the difficulties, we deployed my brand new dental floss rope and slipped on down through the icy choke.

Pete on rappel through the NW couloir’s choke.
The freedom of no longer skiing above a cliff; It’s still steep, but doesn’t feel that way.

Below, the apron was dreamy. Steep but consolidated by sluffing snow, it skied as carefree as forty-five degrees ever feels. Down, out of the dark, and into the sunshine, the route was in the bag.

Pete skiing the lower face of the Northwest Couloir.
Soaking it in.

Not to waste a fine day, we decided to go have a look at the North Couloir, a shorter and steeper number that begins on the Pfeifferhorn’s North ridge. Crossing over the ridge from Hogum Fork back into Maybird, we spotted a group of climbers on the North ridge who’d kindly put a booter into the bottom of the couloir. Cheers gents!

The Pfeifferhorn from the North. Can you find three climbers on the ridge? Click for a zoomed photo.

It was an uphill swimming battle to attain the top of the North Couloir, but the powdery, chalky snow made it worth the work. Another set of turns on a steep face in the high alpine made for grins all around.

Bonus lap: the North Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn.
Looking back at the Pfeifferhorn from the northeast, with our tracks out of the North Couloir.

It was a laugh to get back from the car from lower Maybird Fork. Peter and I marveled at what an absurdly great tool skis are for moving around the alpine.

Sitting here on my sofa, typing this, I feel tired, but satisfied. It’s good to be able to go back to work with a bit of windburn on my face. It’s even better to have shared the experience with a good partner and a great friend.

Category: Adventures, Travel, & WritingSkiing


One comment

  1. Wow, glad you and Peter got to have that wonderful experience. Glad Taylor wasn’t there.

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