Written By Justin Morgan
Phantom Team Rider
3rd Time’s the Charm!
The Art of Patience While Touring in the Backcountry
When we scroll through Instagram, watch movies, or read articles about epic lines around the world, we all dream of tackling these same types of big objectives in the mountains. What we don’t often see ate the struggles and failures that go into riding some of these lines. And although many understand that conditions or situations don’t always line up for the big objective, others get themselves into dangerous situations due to a lack of patience.
Through riding with my main touring partner and mentor in the mountains, Mike Meru, I’ve learned that failure and backing down is a necessary part of backcountry snowboarding. Mike has been touring for over twenty years and is the first snowboarder to complete The Chuting Gallery—a book highlighting epic lines in the Wasatch. Riding with him taught me the importance of bailing. Heck, we even have a designated breakfast spot, Carl’s cafe, to go to when we back out of a line (best breakfast spot in Salt Lake City)
His final line in the chuting gallery, The Northeast Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn, is a perfect example of patience. The line is located in our backyard here in Salt Lake and it’s one of the most difficult I have ever ridden.
So to start, let’s talk about the line. The chuting gallery states “it’s more fun than running with scissors, sticking paperclips into electrical sockets, or taping firecrackers to a cats tail.” If that doesn’t make the hairs on your neck stand up, I don’t know what will. This line is worthy, and from our understanding had never been ridden prior by a snowboarder. The Notheast Couloir starts from the summit of the Pfiefferhorn, descending the north ridge before entering the couloir which changes direction to northeast. Which means the snow you start on is not indicative of the snow you will actually be riding. As you ride the couloir, it gets narrower and steeper with each turn—linking turns on a 52 degree slope above a cliff. A fall would be fatal. Once through the upper section, you end up on top of an 80 foot cliff with an anchor located behind a massive boulder. You set up your rope, rappel over the cliff, and then are graced with one of the most beautiful steep north-facing aprons in the Wasatch! Sound fun? We thought the same.
Our first attempt of this line was on March 22nd, with Mike and fellow hardboot rider Edouard Saget (aka Edo). Conditions lined up perfectly with stable powder and great weather. Unfortunately, as we got to the ridge weighed down by 30lb packs loaded with climbing gear, weather moved in. It was a cold day and we waited about 90 minutes, watching more and more clouds drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon, engulfing the Pfiefferhorn and our line. For us, it was time to pack it up and ride our “plan b”, a mellow line called Lake Chute, in pretty awesome conditions. We rode soft powder back to the car and headed to Carl’s Cafe.
Almost a month later on April 22nd, we once again returned. No pow this time, just firm conditions and warmer temps. The forecast called for sun to soften the line and the trio of us went back up with our heavy packs. We were optimistic, touring 6 miles and 3500 feet up back to the ridge. On this day, the Wasatch again plagued us. Boiler plate conditions never softened as the sun stayed hidden behind rolling clouds. We spent some more time up there that day, building a snow cave, making a fire, and practicing using our deadman snow anchor to retrieve firewood from down below. Great fun l, but again we bailed. As a group we decided boiler plate conditions would be present and that was a risk we weren’t willing to take. Was it possible… maybe? But in our eyes, it was not worth the risk. So back to Carls Cafe for some eggs, bacon, and hash browns to warm our defeated souls.
Finally on April 28th, we found success. Mike, Edo, and myself split the gear and headed up around 5am. Conditions looked similar to the last time. Cautiously optimistic, we kept our fingers crossed that the sun would do its thing and the mountains would give us the green light. Walking up, we were greeted with the most beautiful sunrise as the Pfiefferhorn shined in the morning alpenglow. The mountains were with us us that day. We summited the Pfiefferhorn, looked at each other, and knew today was the day! We dropped into the north ridge and set up the deadman snow anchor to allow Edo to rappel onto the NE facing snowfield and gauge conditions. After rapping a few feet, we heard Edo yell, “it’s perfect corn!” The snow allowed our single edge to grip the 50+ degree line and make jump turns.
The line went without a hitch. Singing Edo the Frenchman’s song Oh Chandeleze the entire way to calm the nerves making turns on some of the most exposed riding I have ever done. We made it to the anchor, rappelled 80 feet down to the apron. The feeling was electric as we had 750 feet of protected north facing pow! Could it get better? As we grouped up at the bottom, we exchanged smiles, high fives, and gratitude for the safe passage—a feeling like no other. On top of that, this was the last last in the Chuting Gallery for Mike, a lifelong dream, and a moment I am honored to be a part of. It really was a testament to his patience, skill, and respect for the mountains.
Looking back on all those early mornings, the thousands of vertical feet traveled with heavy packs, and the emotions that had plagued us from our failures, the mountains taught me a lesson I will never forget… patience. No matter how things can change for the worse, or just go wrong, be patient until the mountains grant safe passage.
All that being said, there are certain things that really stuck out on this adventure that are ingrained in me, and want to pass along.
- The mountains are always changing. No matter what the weather or the avalanche report says, use your judgment. Communicate honestly with your partners and identity changes, even if it means your objective for the day won’t happen.
- Make a plan “b”. Some of the best turns in this adventure were on days that we bailed.
- Be prepared for anything. Sometimes your gear breaks, you forget a key piece of equipment, or somebody in your group has a belly ache. Pack the night before, inspect your gear, and if something breaks or somebody isn’t feeling it, don’t push it!
Be persistent! Nothing in backcountry touring comes easy, especially on bigger lines. Don’t get discouraged from failure, use those failed attempts as a learning experience for the next attempt. Know that if the day finally comes, it is regardless of it being your first attempt or third, the most important goal is to come home safely.
In the end, hard work, preparation, the right partners, and persistence pays off. Being patient, no matter the situation. If it’s a question of avalanche danger, snow conditions, broken gear, or a million other things that can go wrong, the mountains will always be there. We just need to listen and give them the respect they deserve, no matter your agenda. The day will come when they say “come on in”, but not any given day. Dream big, adventure often, and push yourself responsibly in the mountains. Mastering the art of patience will eventually lead to the most memorable days on snow, no matter if it’s an epic line—like the Northeast of the Pfiefferhorn—or your first big couloir in the mountains. The key is to return every day and find enjoyment in those failures.