Escape the poison cloud
Winter inversion is ugly. Each winter in the Salt Lake Valley there is a stretch of weeks when a hazy, smoggy, foggy accumulation of cloud settles low over the land, reducing visibility and air quality. Valley dwellers may not realize how thick it is until they drive up one of the canyons and see the low, brown cloud that covers the city and flows into the lower canyon like a phantom fjord.
Many people become more depressed during the winter months, and it is calculated that mid-January is the most 'blue' time of year. Fortunately, until another storm system sends in cleansing wind and moisture, there is a temporary fix for those that want to fill their lungs with fresh air and overcome the winter blues: Get out and haul your bones to a mountaintop. This winter, instead of sitting around wishing I could be out playing in the mountains, I have been going out and playing in the mountains. A suggestion from Joseph Bullough
to hike the Pfeifferhorn was enough for me to get the adrenaline pumping just thinking about it. It would be my first winter hike/climb, and on a peak that had seemed off-limits to me beacause of my lack of winter climbing skills.
"Any day you summit is a good day" is a saying I had heard before, and Joe would repeat it later in the day. We both took Friday off from work and started the White Pine trail in the dark at 6:20 AM. We rounded a few turns and could see the indication of skiers descending a ridge in the dark, their headlamps swaying down through the trees. As we made good time through the forest, the sun rose and revealed the Cottonwood Ridge behind us. Tanner's Gulch reached skyward like a giant, leafless white tree.
The majority of the trail was hard-packed so we did not put on snowshoes until until we were nearly at the edge of frozen lower Red Pine Lake. A ski track led across the lake, making a nice shortcut for the lucky and bold, but we decided not to follow. Joe broke trail around the west side of lower Red Pine Lake, crossing the dam and through the trees. Soon we were at the bottom of the steep, bare slope that sits between the sub-Pfeif on the ridge high above and the lake. Joe took a few minutes to show me the basics of avalanche beacon operation and then we began the trek upward to the ridge.
I love the Pfeifferhorn. For a guy like me who is not likely to adventure the wide world and visit the great ones--like the Matterhorn or Anapurna--the Wasatch mountains are just the right size to provide local adventure and awe. Ever since I took a tram ride to Hidden Peak a few years ago, I was drawn to the steep, pointed, distinguished shape of the Pfeifferhorn as I scanned the points along the Alpine Ridge. Since then I have hiked the Horn, but not in winter.
From the lake, Joe and I kept our snowshoes on for the entire walk up the minor ridge leading out of Red Pine canyon to gain the Alpine Ridge. From there, with the mountain in view, we took off the snowshoes and traversed under the sub-Pfeif toward the Horn's east ridge. At times we crossed over on rocky, bare ground: evidence that the area is lacking the usual snowfall for the season. We crossed the east ridge mostly on the crest, dropping to the Maybird side for its middle third, until soon we stood at the base of the Pfeifferhorn's east side. Crampons on, axe in hand, power-up, gulp some water, then climb those stairs. By this time the sun was full on the face of the mountain, but the snow stayed firm. Joe started first. Up. Thinking of the snow. Look back down at the cliffs below. Up. Thinking "Don't slip. Dear God don't let me slip and get into a slide." Up. Thinking of my family. Up. Thinking "I want to get up there...fast!" Up...Joe is up. I'm up. "Thank you, legs!"
View from the top
I love to summit. But I also love the journey to the summit. The rewards are both tangible and intangible. The body works hard but thanks you for working it hard by working better. The sense of natural beauty is pleasing to the mind and spirit. The panoramic views from a place like the Pfeifferhorn have got to be good for the mind, spirit and body. It is positive energy. I look around and forget the city for a while. It is easy to forget anyway, when it sits under a sea of haze, out of sight. All around me is the majesty of the snow-covered mountains, crowned with clear, technicolor-blue skies.
When we started down I followed Joe's instructions on how to plant my heel firmly in the snow to avoid getting knocked off balance and sliding. Soon we were again standing on the shoulder of the Horn, planning our way down. We chose to descend by way of Red Pine, glissading part of the way from the ridge, down into the basin that holds the lower lake. Snowshoes back on, walking quickly through the trees-- We didn't see another soul from the time we passed the morning skiers on the trail up. Not until we were close to the trailhead did we meet others heading up. In terms of 'incidents', this trip was--thankfully--uneventful. Unfortunately for the snowboarder that bummed a ride from Joe up to Snowbird, his 'incident' was written on his face: a round, bloody bump above his right eye told the story of his quick meeting with a tree.
For one Friday at least, I can say I successfully avoided the inversion for a day. More important to me is that I proved to myself winter summits are within my reach, and next year when the oppressive inversion again stays unwelcome over my home, I will be heading for the hills to breath clean, and see with unstinging eyes. Thanks Joe.
Unexpected bad news the next week
Joseph Bullough sits atop the Pfeifferhorn
On Saturday evening, February 3, 2007, my friend Justin called and left a message: "I heard on the news there was an avalanche, and they said it was Joe." The news reports that evening confirmed an avalanche
on the Pfeifferhorn had sent two mountaineers over a cliff band where they came to rest at the base of the mountain on the Utah County side. It was reported that one of the men was in extremely critical condition, and the other was able to call emergency. A rescue operation was organized, but it took 6 hours for Joe and his partner Brian Dutton
to be Life-Flighted from the mountain to LDS Hospital. At this time Joe remains in critical condition with several broken bones, lacerations, head injuries, and a partial collapsed lung. I am still in shock and somewhat depressed at this news. Brian later gave some details about their plans for the day: they were going to do the Beatout hike from Red Pine Canyon, over Pfeifferhorn and west across the ridge, over to South Thunder Mt, and out Bell Canyon. The week before, Joe and I planned on doing the same route. We left a vehicle at the Bell Canyon trail head and brought enough provisions for a much longer day. When we were on the summit of Pfeiff, Joe let me make the decision whether or not to proceed. I said "Let's go for it," but after a few minutes of struggling through the deep snow and scrambling over exposed rocks, Joe probably saw that I was not up to the full route. He was right. I would have to come back when I would be in better shape. We crossed back over to the Pfeiff's SE side and headed down without incident. The summit pyramid of Pfeifferhorn is straighforward and probably one of the easiest sections of the entire hike. The avalanche that sent Joe and Brian sliding off the mountain was caused by a disturbed wind slab--not enough to really bury a person. It was the steepness of the terrain and the cliffs below that provided the serious hazard. Thankfully, Brian was not as seriously injured as Joe, and he was able to call for rescue and keep Joe alive while they waited long hours in the snow for rescue. I wish for full recoveries for Joe & Brian, and look forward to the day when I can hike the mountain ridges with Joe again.
Update as of March 13, 2007
Joe is out of the hospital and is home with his family. I expect he will continue to heal and make a full recovery. I look forward to seeing him again on the trail.
Grizz, Joe and Glenn Merrill sit atop Sunrise Peak on the classic Wasatch Triple Traverse route. May 10, 2008
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