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The Turns I Earned: Noah Howell and the Line He’ll Never Forget

Tuesday, March 14, 2017
We’ve all had those days. Everything seems to line up perfectly in the mountains and you have an experience you’ll never forget. For Black Diamond Athlete Noah Howell, there’s one particular backcountry ski run that he’ll always remember …

I admit … I was obsessed.

And my obsession had developed into a full-blown project.

I wanted to ski all the lines in the legendary steep skiing mountaineer’s handbook known as The Chuting Gallery.

And now, after several years ticking off the lines in Andrew McLean’s guide to steep skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, there was only one more left … the Northeast face of the Pfeifferhorn.

But let’s back up to where it all started.


Images: Andy Jacobson, Words: Noah Howell

About a decade earlier I attended a slideshow Andrew presented at REI for the release of The Chuting Gallery. I knew nothing about ski mountaineering and was content just lapping mellow powder bowls. Andrew’s images of gut-dropping steeps and bold traverses were terrifying, but for some reason alluring. I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to seek out these seemingly impossible routes and ski down them. But something inside of me was very drawn to it. I bought the book and started seeking out the deep, dark gashes. And I discovered I have the right sort of twisted mind to enjoy playing with gravity on steep consequential slopes.

Over the next several years I would go on to tag all the three star lines, the classics and some of the lower hanging fruit. In one day I skied all 19 lines in Wolverine Cirque. With the help of great partners I ticked off the more challenging and absurd lines like the Great White Icicle, The Ribbon on Devil’s Castle and even put in some new routes along the way. It was a fantastic project taking me to new and exotic locations, all the while exploring the tiny, but intricate Wasatch Range. And along the way, I became friends with the man himself: Andrew McLean. We skied together in the Wasatch and even on an expedition to Alaska. He knew I was ticking my way through his book and was supportive—and interested to see if I would finish the project.


Once I was down to the final line, I was also beginning to wonder if I would finish. For several years I had been waiting in vain for the Northeast face of the Pfeifferhorn line to fill in. And in the spring of 2011, heavy snowfall stuck to the high alpine peaks and it looked ready. I had already attempted this ski descent twice earlier that season, but had turned back on both occasions, once because of rock hard snow conditions and the other due to a storm that beat us back down to the valley.

But on April 1st (no joke) Andy Jacobsen and I decided to give it another go. If we were able to ski it, this would close out the final chapter on my extremely slow, laborious, yet thrilling completion of Andrew’s book. I thought it would be fitting to have Andrew along, so I invited him and was honored that he agreed.

Everything looked good as we casually made our way to the summit with heavy packs. There are certain days in the backcountry when I just know it’s going to be a great day … and this was one of those days. Things got quiet and we prepared the ropes and gear for the descent.


Snow conditions off the top of the Pfeifferhorn were soft, but not too deep—ideal for this steep and exposed skiing. We took turns leap frogging our way down one of the most prominent and recognizable peaks in the Wasatch Mountains. We avoided the center chute because it wasn’t filled in. Slow hop turns took us through some rocks and down the north ridge for a few hundred feet. A narrow strip of snow allowed us to traverse back to the right and into the center.

From here things got very spicy! The slope was in the 50-degree range and below us the mountain gave way to a several hundred-foot cliff. The steep skiing game is largely about exploring your own personal boundaries and comfort zones in reaction to the conditions you encounter. With my tail between my legs I decided making turns here was too risky with probable death being the consequence of a mistake. I carefully sidestepped down instead of making turns. At the base of this strip of snow Andrew went to work putting in protection for the rappel.


It felt reassuring to clip into the anchor and we gingerly clicked out of our skis, holstered them on our packs and prepared to slide down the ropes. Andrew joked about how much “fun” we were having. Andy and I nervously laughed. He then mentioned that when he had made the first descent many years before it was in deep powder, making it a much less hair-raising experience.

The rappel was near vertical over the sharp and snaggly rock. Maybe the best part about skiing these steep and stressful lines is actually the relief and joy that comes when they’re over and done. The ropes dropped us onto the final pitch of the run. The slope was still steep, but all that lay below was a wide open apron that gently spilled into the upper Maybird drainage. We all laughed and opened it up while cruising into the flats together. We pulled up across the upper drainage with the line in full view. A flask of whiskey somehow found its way into our hands and we looked back up at our tracks and toasted to the absurdity of it all.

Although I’ve since skied many other steep and adventurous lines, this day on this mountain with one of my best friends and one of my skiing heroes is one I’ll never forget.


Here’s the Beta:

Approach:

Park at the White Pine trailhead 8 miles up Little Cottonwood Canyon on the south side of the road. From here follow the trail to the creek, cross the creek heading west and wrap around into Red Pine drainage.

Continue up the valley past the bridge and to the upper lakes. From here find the rib leading west that gains the ridge. Continue on the ridge to the west. This includes a bit of a scramble before you make the final summit climb. Stay to the climbers right on the peak to avoid the hanging south-facing bowl.

Pitch Degree: 55 degrees

Terrain Type: Steep and very exposed

Aspect: Northeast

Vertical Gain: From trailhead 4,000 feet (technical steep part 600 feet)

Vertical Descent: Technical steep part 600 feet (to the trailhead 4,000 feet)

Pro Tip:

The route has recently been bolted making the rappel much safer and easier. Look for the bolts on a huge block on the skier’s right-hand side right above the cliff. Two 60-meter ropes will get you through the cliff.


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