The Point of the Mountain

Posted by on Mar 29, 2010 in Ski | 8 Comments

Along the Wasatch Front – both in local vernacular and in geographic terms – we use the phrase “the point of the mountain.” Actually, in the local vernacular that phrase has two meanings, one of which is simply a more benign term for the State prison. As in, “If you continue to behave this way young man, you’ll end up at the point of the mountain with the all the other criminals!” Incidentally, both Fatty and Dug live rather close to the point of the mountain, which may go a long way in explaining their documented criminal activity. But says nothing about Brandon’s checkered past since he lives just about as far south from the point as one can, and still claim residence along the Wasatch Front. Perhaps he was beguiled by the overt and exciting prospects of a life on the run and simply forgot himself. Either that, or my entire theory is bunk, and the three comrades mentioned above were simply the “examples” the Park Service chose to use in their attempt at telling all of us, with finger wagging superiority that “If you continue to behave this way young man, you’ll end up at the point of the mountain with the all the other criminals!”

Where was I?

Right. The second, and more common usage of the “point of the mountain” phraseology.

The point of the mountain is a geographic occurrence (where the prison happens to be) where Salt Lake and Utah Counties are divided by the tailings of the Lone Peak massif. And it may be, I think, one of the most western points of the Wasatch mountains. It’s also significant because I-15 runs right through it, making it a common point of reference for traffic reports, directions, and a de facto litmus test for your political views. That is, if you live south of the point, your most likely a right wing nutjob; and north, you are a communist thug.*

We often focus merely on the point itself, that particular spot that divides culture and counties – and houses Utah’s criminals. However, I’m more interested in the sharp ridgeline that extends upward and eastward, creating one of the more prominent and supportive backbones of the Wasatch Mountains. It’s immediate effect is the creation of Lone Peak. In fact, “point of the mountain” could be used rather appropriately to describe Lone Peak itself, as it culminates in a fantastic, pointed wall of granite. Beyond that summit is a snaking, sheer spine of rock that travels eastward, creating a most satisfying and alluring set of peaks and canyons – Bighorn Peak, Chipman Peak, and the small, but photogenic and iconic Pfeifferhorn are prominent within the immediate area. White Baldy, Red Baldy, and the American Fork Twins, are other peaks that feed off this enormous ridgeline. In fact, the ridge extends to create the southern slopes and the headwall of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and even part of the headwall of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Along the way it, and other sub-ridges collide into a mass of granite and scenic, beautiful, breathtaking panorama. The combined effect is one of the wonders of the world: wherein climatological circumstance conspires to create the improbably and unbelievably perfect cold smoke knows as “the greatest snow on Earth”.

* Whoa there big fella! I’m using exaggeration and stereotype for comedic effect. You can save that rant you just typed out for another day. (Also, I’m doing it again right now!)

Which starts to bring me around to my larger, and more adamant point, that is, what is the point of the mountain?

Why, exploration, of course.

One of the reasons that Lone Peak and its correlating sub-peaks have taken hold of my psyche and ambitions is the simple, but unable to be overstated, fact that I see those mountains every day. It’s the same effect that Timpanogos has on me, growing up as I did, directly below it’s southwest face. Living at the base of these mountains means that while driving, working, or otherwise fiddling aimlessly in the lowlands, that I am constantly in their shadows as they taunt and mock and whisper. One can only resist such urgings for so long. I had to do something. And so, feeling rather left out after missing out (due to my own flawed decision making skills) on two spectacular and capstoning tours last week – including that afore mentioned southwest face – I came to the obvious (and rather favorite-pulpit-pounding) solution of taking matters into my own hands – that is, I created my own capstone tour. The destination?

That photographic favorite, The Pfeifferhorn.

The Pfeifferhorn

With the Knuckle Dragger along to put in the boot track, we planned our route in the most detailed, scientific, fool-proof way either of us knew how to do. The process, which was fairly complex went, in laymans terms, like this:

“How do you want to get up there?”

“You mean other than walking?”

“I mean, the route.”

“Oh. I thought we’d just walk straight up the mountain until we reached the top**.”

Which in the end, is exactly what we did. More or less.

**I’ll leave it up to you to decide who is who in the above, slightly made up, dialogue.

More specifically, our goal was to approach the Pfeifferhorn from Dry Creek in Alpine, a south western approach, rip skins (or in Aaron’s case, rip skins and then build a snowboard*** out of the skis he had strapped to his pack using a complicated set of pins and tools and screws and locks) and ski down that same south west slope on what we hoped would be velvet smooth spring corn. Scientifically speaking, corn snow is formed when just the right amount of sun causes just the right amount of water to percolate and soften the snow crystals creating a turnable, but supportable surface. But “science” has never been a real strong point of mine. So I just like to think of corn snow as “natural groomers”. Timing is everything. If the snow is too soft, it can be slushy and dangerous. If it is too hard, it’s called ice. And nobody likes to ski ice, or dangerous slush. Let alone 3,000 vertical feet of it. And so we started walking, headlamps blazing, at that all too familiar hour of 5AM.

The famous Shotgun Chutes and the massive Northwest Cirque of Box Elder dominated the skyline:

Box Elder Peak

But we kept our eyes on the prize: The Pfeifferhorn. After 3 hours of boot packing, it was right there:

The Pfeifferhorn

Upward we climbed, until at long last, we were standing at the top – no more than ten miles from my bed. Or rather, we got as near the top as we dared. Our hopes of actually skiing off the summit of the Pfeifferhorn were quite literally blown away by the massive and somewhat – no, amazingly – frightening winds. I did not even linger on the ridge long enough to enjoy the view into Hogum, Bells, Maybird, and Red Pine. Yeah, it’s that sort of view. The entire world seems to unfold at your feet. And speaking of things unfolding at your feet, the north facing ski lines dropping off the ridge were simply stunning. Steep, long, open, and some of the most tempting, “one of these days I will ski that” lines I have ever laid eyes upon.  But this was not that day. However, it was a day for another “one of these days” lines. Which was our original purpose and the reason we went exploring in the first place.

And so, we ripped skins (and Aaron built his snowboard) in the howling wind. I’m confident that had I let go of my skins, or jacket, or skis, that today I’d be able to drive along the road in Little Cottonwood Canyon and pick them up. Seriously. I think the wind would have just thrown them into the air and over the void where they’d have floated down peacefully to the earth. Like one of those guys that jumps off of cliffs wearing a wingsuit (I can’t imagine the trial and error involved in developing those).

***Aaron is a splitboarder. And despite my ongoing jokes, is quite skilled.

Then, just as we had planned, we skied down the very lines we had just spent 4 hours hiking up. And while the corn snow was undercooked, it was still soft enough that we were able to make enjoyable turns. Best of all, was that the solid snow and the wide open and massive area made for a gigantic playground. Terrain traps were not terrain traps, they were half pipes. Steep roll-overs were of no concern and any danger of weak layers collapsing under our weight were alleviated by the sturdy, supportable surface. We hit lines that on normal, more avalanche prone days might have given us pause. In fact, the entire line, the very idea of skiing the south face of the Pfeifferhorn is itself something that would raise serious red flags if I were to embark on such a trip during normal winter conditions. But those thoughts were in the backs of our minds as we scraped along the snow, contouring down small bowls and through steep narrow chutes.****

It was, despite not being an epic snow day, without a doubt , a fitting capstone on what has been a most conservative season. And as I continually am, I was absolutely and completely amazed at just how incredibly open, tremendous and colossal the mountains outside my front door are. And we only scratched the surface (quite literally, actually). They become veritable monsters nearly immediately. One can escape the urban sprawl and within minutes or miles, become engulfed by wilderness. The size and the breathtaking scope of the cirques and the granite walls are muted and flattened from the floor of the valley. One must immerse themselves into the depths to fully appreciate the sheer enormity.

**** It’s not as if we threw caution to the wind. Although had we done so, it would have blown away rather quickly.

The Pfeifferhorn

The Pfeifferhorn

I’ve spot shadowed the chute we skied. I took this photo from my bedroom window.

Afterward our legs and our shoulders and our feet and even our fingers were fantastically tired. But we both had those toothy, exhausted grins spread across our wind burnt faces. And now, every time we look up at the Pfeifferhorn from the valley below, something I do each day, we will remember the day we skied it’s southern face.

Indeed, I think that today, we both understand more fully the point of the mountain.


  1. dug
    March 29, 2010

    epic. epic adam (and aaron).

    did aaron hike with his helmet on all day?

    • Grizzly Adam
      March 29, 2010

      He said he wanted to look like a Nascar driver. You just never know what’s going on in the heads of those splitboarders…

  2. Jared
    March 29, 2010

    Great post. The mountains always look good from the valley, but it’s a different feeling once you are in them.

  3. bart gillespie
    March 29, 2010

    enjoyed the post, nice BW pics! why not skin up? I have been up that way in hard snow and only had to boot the the last pitch?

    • Grizzly Adam
      March 29, 2010

      We skinned some of the way. The snow was slick enough that on the steep stuff we felt booting was more efficient. HAd it been just a little softer, we’d had been on skin most of the way.

  4. Aaron
    March 29, 2010

    Too bad you didn’t snap that cliff picture a few seconds later – right as I launched off of them.

    I was actually going for the Astronaut look with the helmet, BTW.

  5. mark
    March 31, 2010

    Believe it or not, point of the mountain is geologically part of the Oquirrh range. So calling it westernmost part of the wasatch isn’t quite right. Supposedly it was a massive sandbar in Lake Bonneville. The Wasatch range also has a bit of a crescent shape to it, so the portions of the range around Nephi and Box Elder county are possibly a bit further west.

    OK, I’m done nitpicking you about a topic I know next to nothing about. I only know that Oquirrh/sandbar bit because Watcher did a post about what sort of trees to plant at my house and included a mini geology lesson. I had always just assumed the point was the remnants of the glacial moraine from Dry creek. Perhaps that’s where the sand for the sand bar came from. I imagine Lucy J. could tell us since she’s an actual geologist.

    Anyway, nice line. Would have liked to have made it out there. Looking forward to some good skiing this week as a sort of severance pop. You heading down to race Cholla this weekend?

    • Grizzly Adam
      March 31, 2010

      Planning on Cholla. A massive storm could change my mind.

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