Through Maybird Gulch
Matthew Van Horn and I both needed to take a mental health day off of work and get some couloir action in the Wasatch, so after debating about which peak and route, we finally settled on the Pfeifferhorn through Maybird Gulch. Although both of us have been to the summit several times, neither of us had reached the top through Maybird and with the prime spring conditions still in place, we knew that what awaited us in the hills would be fantastic.
We met at the Little Cottonwood Park and ride around 5:30 and we commenced a quick game of “rock scissors paper” to determine which one of us would drive up the canyon. Amazingly, I won the game (I never win these things) and I loaded my gear into Matt’s car and we were off.
It was still dark outside, but it was starting to get light and by time we reached the trailhead we did not need headlamps at all. We quickly donned our gaiters and packs and we were off.
The trail was covered in snow right from the start and both of us had strapped snowshoes onto our packs, because we were not sure whether or not they would be needed. The snow was very hard and it made for easy hiking as we made our way to the trail junction. Just after the junction we stopped to take a few pictures of Tanners Gulch and the Cottonwood ridge and we both noticed the sun shining on the top of Sunrise peak and the whole scene was purely magical.
My heart began to beat as I thought of what was to come and we headed back up the trail, both anticipating some excellent conditions in the gulch.
When we reached the footbridge that leads to Maybird, it was covered in several feet of snow and we noticed that all of the tracks we had been following continued up the main route to Red Pine lake and the thought of breaking a new trail did not seem all that appealing to me, so I asked Matt if he wanted to do the standard route or continue into the gulch. He quickly squelched any thoughts of going up the standard approach, by telling me he wanted to go for it and I was ok with that. I must add here that Matt lead the way the entire route, so I really couldn’t complain at all about breaking any trail. We made good time heading up the slope and we both noticed that the snow was much softer as we started heading west and I was thinking we would be post-holing for sure on the descent, but for the moment snow was in great shape.
When we finally got into the gulch, we stopped to take a few more pictures and I told Matt that he could easily talk me into heading over to the Obelisk, but again he was set on the Pfefferhorn and I am happy he was.
The views in the gulch were out of this world cool and as we climbed higher my heart began beating faster.
I’m sure part of it was we were pushing pretty well and also, I could see the Maybird headwall and what appeared to be several wet slides that had recently come down.
As we got closer to the headwall, we both stopped to assess the conditions and discuss our options and I was a little nervous about the headwall, because it appeared like every steep section had snow that had been sloughing off and I was just worried about getting up high and causing a slide.
Matt was not as concerned at first, but after looking at the slope for a few minutes, he announced he wanted to go for a couloir that was on our left leading to the ridge and after studying it for a minute I agreed that chute looked good, so we decided to go for it. I chopped out a ledge to sit on with my axe and we both put our crampons on and geared up for the climb.
Matt went ahead of me, while I made some adjustments and snapped a few pictures. The slope was firm, but the sun had been on it for about an hour and it was getting softer, so I was eager to get up to a portion up higher that was still in the shade.
The climbing was fun and the conditions were perfect. The sun was out and it really looked like a bluebird day and we couldn’t ask for anything more. About ¾ of the way up the slope, I stopped to take a break, so that I could take some pictures and video and while I was stopped, Matt crested the ridge and made is way over to a large cornice so I could photograph him.
The final push on the ridge was steep and fun and I made sure I had really good axe placements and footholds as I worked my way up.
When I reached the top, I was greeted by a small gust of wind and Matt telling me we needed to get up there quickly and I agreed.
The ridge was really fun, although while scrambling through one of the class three sections, my snowshoes strapped to my pack got wedged in between two boulders and I had to make a really awkward move to get out of it. Once over the rocks I spotted Matt at the end of the ridge and I quickly made my way over to him.
We dropped our packs and decided we didn’t need crampons, so I took a big drink of water and downed some fruit snacks and we headed up. The face gets steep here and it was covered in snow. The climbing was extremely fun, although I could not help but think about two climbers that had been caught in an avalanche in the same place a year earlier and that made me very uneasy, even though I had climbed this section many times before. When I was on the steepest section of the face I stopped and looked down at the cliffs below and my heart really started pumping. I made sure of every axe and foot placement and the snow was soft, allowing excellent purchase with the axe. Matt was leading the way and I tried to follow his steps, but in some places I had to make my own. Near the top the slope eases and I let down my guard a little and pushed up to the top. The view was extraordinary, but I noticed right away that our bluebird day was now becoming a little sketchy. Clouds were rolling in and the temperature was dropping noticeably.
We snapped a few pictures and I broke out my video camera to capture the incredible scene that we were witnessing.
There was much more snow than in previous years at the same time and I was struck with the sheer beauty of the place, even though I had tasted it before.
It never gets old I thought, although I was getting a little nervous for the down climb, even though it had never bothered me before. After about 15 minutes of soaking in the scenery, we decided we better get moving so again Matt led the way. The down climb was somewhat dodgy and we both faced the slope and kicked in our steps.
I tried to follow Matt’s as much as possible, but in some cases I had to kick in my own and I really made sure of each axe placement and every time I looked down I thought about the two guys that had gone over those cliffs. (Both men, Brian Dutton & Joseph Bullough are back climbing and doing well. Check out this recent TR describing "Gristle's Revenge".) My heart was beating pretty good and I soon noticed that Matt was back down to the ridge and I only had a few more feet to go before the slope began to ease up again and once it did I turned around and plunge-stepped back down to the ridge.
We took a few minutes to re-hydrate and have some snacks and Matt announced that he wanted to glissade down the slope that we had felt a little uneasy about coming up. I was sitting on the ridge with my legs dangling over the side and from my vantage point it looked far less intimidating than it had from the snow below. I told him I was up for it and after our snack I broke out the camera to catch Matt’s slide. Once on the slope he commented that it was really steeper than it looked and he took his time to make his way to a good spot. Directly below us was a rock band, so he had to traverse about 60 yards to a better starting point. Once there he took a minute to assess his mortality and with a yell he let loose on the slope. He had a great slide and let out a few “Oh yeah’s and Woo-Hoos” and in no time he was in the basin below and it was my turn.
I put the camera away and synched up my pack and gear. The traverse was a little steep, but I just used my axe for a self belay and worked my way on Matt’s tracks. When I reached the slide point I got a little nervous. No matter how many times you do this it still makes you a little cautious and as I sat down I readied my axe and let loose. I picked up speed quickly and I had to use my axe for a break or I probably would have ripped my pants completely off. I yelled the whole way down and the slide was fantastic.
When I reached the bottom I took a few minutes to arrange my gear and as we started hiking out it started to snow pretty hard on us and I turned and looked at the Pfeiff, which was now completely enveloped in clouds. The scene was amazing and I was happy we decided to stick to the original plan, because the Pfeifferhorn had never been sweeter. It was certainly a challenge and even though it was snowing on us at the end of May, I could not have cared less. The hike out was pretty uneventful, although we did get a few more good glissades in along the way. I was really tired by time I reached the fork in the trail and I really wanted to sit down, so I sat on a post that was sticking out of the ground a few feet and drank a few sweet gulps of my water. After a few minutes I was ready for the final push. About a quarter of a mile from the trailhead, we encountered the only other soul we saw all day, a lady with a dog on skis. That is just the way I like it in the Wasatch. The day had been perfect and had provided us with a little bit of everything. We had blue sky’s and sun, snow, not much wind, solitude and a bit of a challenge and as I reached the car I was completely satisfied with the day and Matt commented that for him it had been an amazing experience as well.