Summer Ascent of Pfeifferhorn North Ridge

Carly and then Matt following after the upper crux on the North Ridge.
Carly and then Matt following after the upper crux on the North Ridge.

June 27-28, 2015

The weekend temperatures were predicted to be the first in SLC of 2015 that broke the triple digits.  Despite the cool and rainy May we had June came back with a vengeance.  As I write and the final hours of June 2015 come to a close the record for the average temperature for June of 75.7° (1988) will be broken, with something around 77°.  Doesn’t sound so bad but check whatever your average June temps historically are to compare.

So to get out of the oven in the valley Carly, Matt, and I decided to make a summer ascent of the North Ridge of the Pfeifferhorn.  The three of us along with Eric attempted the route back in the winter, when it is more traditionally done.  That outing was a disappointing one to say the least.  This time we were sure inclement weather wasn’t going to cause any issues, nor was lack of daylight since the sun sets at 9 pm this time of year.

Matt met us at our house around 10 am and we got moving.  We were a little behind schedule as was Matt since he had to get some food for lunch/breakfast for the weekend.  It wasn’t a big deal since, again, there is plenty of daylight for the 4 mile hike in and the climb.  We planned for an overnight in Maybird Gulch to enjoy the cool fresh air and the alpine environment.

Approaching the White Pine trailhead we were dismayed that it seemed the entire city of Salt Lake had decided to hike the trail that day.  Parking overflowed onto the road for a hundred yards before and after the entrance to the trailhead.  Feeling lucky that our alpine start of 11 am would score us a spot in the lot we ventured in.  We were rewarded with a spot only one over from the start of the trail.  Score!  Who’d want to walk an extra hundred yards before their 4 mile hike right?

Setting off it was hot in the sun and we wandered up the trail heading towards Red Pine.  The Wasatch is unusually green and lush this time of year despite the heat.  The May rains really made all the plants pop.  Numerous little spring and runoff crossed the trail.  Despite the low snow the creek draining Red Pine was flowing swiftly and strongly.

Heading up towards Maybird reduced the number of people we passed significantly.  I say passed since no one ever passed us to my recollection on hour hike in.  It seems as though my training during the fall-winter-spring is still paying off.  Matt is still is good shape, when not injured.  Running near marathon trail runs will do that though I guess.  Carly on the other hand hasn’t had much time to workout with school and work duties.  Regardless she kept up really well.  I don’t really remember having to wait for her much at all.

Pulling into Maybird we were greeted with alpine sounds of birds, gentle wind through the tall thin evergreens, and the distant sounds of a cascade.  Maybird has two small ponds of snow run-off that we passed before entering the talus.  Only ever being here in the winter before I wasn’t expecting the vast expanse of talus that there was.  Maybird Gulch is rimmed by the Pfeifferhorn’s East Ridge to the south, North Ridge to the west and another unnamed ridge to the east.  The whole area is about 1/2 a mile deep and 1/4 mile wide.  This entire area is granite blocks of talus–making for slow walking as there’s no trail.

The choss pile that is Pfeifferhorn.  The North Ridge follows the ridgeline from lower right to the summit.
The choss pile that is Pfeifferhorn. The North Ridge follows the ridgeline from lower right to the summit.


Scoping a good camping spot on a grassy spot not too far from a stream we ditched our overnight packs and headed towards the low end of the ridge.  A lot of blocks and boulders and a little bit of snow later we got to the ridge.  The first bit of the climb is a fun scramble with low difficulty and commitment we did in our running shoes.  As the ridge went on though we needed to switch into our climbing shoes and get the rope out.  The lower crux of the ridge is probably the hardest overall.  There’s a fairly unprotectable slab which really isn’t too difficult in rock shoes.  I did wonder how it’d be in mountain boots–I’m sure I’ll find out this winter.

Simul-climbing on a single rope we made better time than if we’d pitched it out.  As we got to one of the first actual belays we all remarked at the large, and growing, black cloud to the southeast.  Since I was confident there wasn’t any weather forecasted and that we couldn’t hear any thunder I wasn’t too worried, but I, along with Matt and Carly, kept a close eye on that cloud.  Eventually when the cloud reached us it just started disappearing with nothing to show for it.  Our luck held.

Working through some blocky terrain with ominous clouds in the distance on the lower North Ridge of the Pfeifferhorn.
Working through some blocky terrain with ominous clouds in the distance on the lower North Ridge of the Pfeifferhorn.


Reaching our high point from our winter attempt, I grabbed the meager rack and started climbing, taking over for Matt.  Our three cams and set of nuts went quickly even though I rarely placed them and after about 300 feet of climbing I stopped at a logical belay to bring them up and collect more gear.  Along the way we were able to see some mountain goats hanging out in the gully next to the ridge.  Along with some rather interesting “climbers” that decided to ascend the gully in their Tevas.

Moving on I ran the next “pitch” out and went through all the slings, all the cams, and all but two of the nuts.  At a certain point I realized that Matt, at the other end of the rope and Carly in the middle, probably had taken everything out that I’d put in.  Given that we were “unprotected” I found a decent rock and just threw the rope over it for a terrain belay.  Perfect alpine style.  By this time the terrain had slacked off quite a bit and it was mostly scrambling on loose rocks and sand.  We all met up again and shortened the rope to about 15 ft between each of us.  This allow us all to be within visual and still provided some amount of protection as if one of us slipped the other could snug up the rope and help us regain our balance.

Finally after 5 hours on route we summited around 7:30 pm.  Weather was great, just warm enough not to be chilly and not hot enough to be sweaty.  We enjoyed the view for a bit, packed up our stuff and switched over to running shoes again.  Carly complained of being a bit loopy–probably a result of the long exposure to the sun and the 11,000′ altitude–so we decided to head down to camp.

Unfortunately the logistics of a summer ascent with an overnight are exceptionally poor.  As my friends to the north say, “ya can’t get they-ahh from hee-yahhhh”.  The descent off the Pfeiff is to go down the East Ridge, which is the normal “hiking” route.  While it is a hiking trail it is scrambly in parts over some boulders and talus.  We did this and once reaching Red Pine we ducked behind the ridge separating Maybird and Red Pine.  Our though here was that we could contour along something besides talus back to just over the ridge from our camp.  Once lined up with our camp (verified by GPS) we’d pop over the small ridge via a weakness and stroll into camp.  This plan only half worked.  There was still considerable talus and some snow (which was the easy part) to deal with.  Just as we popped over the ridge via the aforementioned weakness, we were greeted by an awesome sunset over the Oquirrhs (thank you copious SLC polution for making it so red).

Great sunset over the valley.
Great sunset over the valley.


And so came the best part of my day.  Carly and I had each carried up two Fat Tire cans with us on the hike and stashed them in a snowbank only 50 yards from our campsite.  I’m not going to say these were the two best beers (bee-ahs for you Mainers out there) I’ve ever had, but let’s just say they are very much in the top 5.

Sunday we headed back to the fork between Maybird and Red Pine.  There we dropped our packs in the woods.  Matt made a trail run from there up to the summit of the Pfeiff again via the East Ridge.  Carly and I decided to to do something similar, but just up to the lake.  The trail unfortunately was a bit steeper than either of us could really run and so we mainly did a power hike for the steeps and some light running on the flat sections.  Once at the lake we enjoyed the cascade, cool breezes, and birds singing while we waited for Matt.  Luckily Matt had brought his little walk-talkies and we were able to keep in touch for most of his run.

We eventually met back up and started back for the car.  As we descended the progressively thicker and hotter air became apparent.  In the last mile or so to the car we wondered why we’d “escaped” the heat and gone to the mountains since much of the trail is in the sun near the end.  While the average temps here are higher than in the east where I was, there is everything to be said about altitude.  It makes the sun hotter, the shade cooler, and the lungs burn a bit more–and all of that is just fine with me.