If you couldn’t tell by now, I like to make spontaneous decisions in the hopes that they result in incredible experiences. Rather than research and map out every detail for a trip, I do the bare minimum so that I’ll be safe. As for the rest, I try not to look at any pictures or trip reports ahead of time so that I can experience it all for myself in person when I get there. And this could have been more apparent when I decided to hike the Pfeifferhorn. It all started when I was reading an article in this past issue of the Utah Adventure Journal titled, “Scramble On!” It chronicles the journey of the author, Jay Dash, from marathon runner, to trail runner, ultimately to scrambler/trail runner/climber. He was tired of the same old trails and wanted to seek some real adventure, without needing to rope up for a climb. He started with the Pfeifferhorn for its iconic alpine ridge.
So I called up my buddy Luke and asked him if he wanted to do something challenging. Luke’s the type of guy who is always up for an epic adventure, no matter the circumstances. The more ridiculous, the better. But since I didn’t know much about this hike, I didn’t really have much beta to give him beforehand other than what I found on AllTrails.com. I knew it was going to be about an out and back 9 mile hike, with ~3,800ft of vertical gain. And I also knew it passed by a lake or two on the way to the summit. But that’s about it.
After picking up Luke, we stopped at the Red Moose for some stellar breakfast burritos, and then we headed up to the trailhead in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The weather was incredible at the base, bluebird skies and temps in the 60s. My pack was light, carrying only a few snacks, 2L of water, and 2 extra layers in case it got cold. I also had a hiking pole in my pack because I heard there was going to be some possible snow crossing and descents. Luke on the other hand, to make the hike more challenging (as if it needed to be), had a packed filled with only 1L of water, 2 granola bars, a jacket I gave him, and oh… a 20lbs weighted vest. Don’t worry, I thought it was ridiculous as well. Nevertheless, we were head up the trail for an epic adventure.
The Wasatch has been an incredible place to explore since moving here. The landscape and topography varies so much in such short distance, and the cottonwoods are the epitome of that diversity. The trail passes through dense forests filled with firs, spruce, pine, and aspen trees. We crossed over and passed alongside the creek that runs down the mountainside. After about 3 miles of gradual climbing up the trail, you reach the pristine alpine lake, Red Pine Lake. From there you get your first glimpse of the alpine ridge that towers over the lake. Looking up, we saw a jagged point on the western face of the wall, which we assumed would be the top of the Pfeifferhorn. It made sense from where we were standing and the mileage we were at.
The two of us followed the trail around the lake, headed across the snowy patches, and up the boulder field to the Upper Red Pine Lake. Until this point, there weren’t too many other groups on the trail, but we were able to follow a few guys up a smaller, tree and snow-covered spine that climbed up the steep wall. On either side, snow was still present and looked to still be a couple of feet deep. We took the switchbacks up the loose rock, climbing further above the alpine lakes below, until we reached the top of the alpine ridge. Thinking we were almost there, heading towards the peak we had pointed out from bottom of the lake, my eyes saw something off in the distance. “No, it couldn’t be.” I thought to myself as I quickly pulled my phone out to check the map.
Yes, it was. The massive rock formation that caught my eye looked like an entirely different mountain that pierced into the clouds and sat on top of where we were already standing. At 10,700 feet, this was already the highest I’ve ever hiked under my own two feet, and off in the distance looked like we still had a ways to go. Not to mentioned, it looked like a near vertical wall. Luke and I headed towards it and began to see how we felt about going up there. And we still hadn’t seen the hardest part yet, the Class IV scramble across the spine with pretty sketchy drop offs on either side. Neither of us were super stoked about going. I think the weight vest was taking its toll on Luke and I personally wasn’t confident I knew what I was doing up there to make up for it. But as luck would have it, Luke’s buddy Pete was running up to the summit when he passed us on the trail. So we followed him off the ridge and across the scramble.
I consider myself a decent rock climber, having spent a fair amount of time outside on rock. But no matter how easy the climb or scramble is, I always get sketched out when there isn’t a rope. Especially when I’m crossing this spine with a pack on my back and trail running shoes on my feet. But we just followed Pete’s line and made it across safe and sound. Except, now we had a near vertical scramble up loose rocks from 10.8K’ to 11.3K’. The steep slope felt like it was getting harder and harder as the rocks would slide out from underneath your feet. And at that altitude, my heart was beating out of my chest. But we only had a few hundred feet to go, so we got low and kept pushing. Halfway up the last portion, fellow hikers noticed Luke’s weight vest, and well, the jokes never stopped for the rest of the hike. We summited out at the peak of the Pfeifferhorn at around noon, with an elapsed time of 3hrs. We had made it.
From below, we couldn’t see the summit. It was hidden by all the clouds. But as we stood on the top, the cloud layer lifted and the sun began to shine a little stronger. It was incredible.We were standing on a jagged peak among the highest points in the Wasatch Range. To the south, we could see the parts of Mount Timpanogos that weren’t hidden by the clouds. To the East, Utah Lake and the American Fork valley. To the North, the ridgeline that separates the Big from Little Cottonwood. And to the West, where the summer operations of Snowbird were going on and the Uintas off in the way distance. It felt surreal to be standing there, even knowing that over 50 other people were going to summit this peak on the same day, it still felt special to me.
I can see why Jay, the writer of Scramble On!, started with this mountain. It offered everything in a steep, 9mile hike (which turned out to be 11 according to my GPS watch). Incredible views the entire way up, especially at the top. And it also offered some seriously challenging and steep sections that were still relatively safe. I’d recommend this hike to anyone who is looking to take that next step from hike, but don’t want to get roped up for a climb. I can’t wait to go back up there, but next time, I definitely want to camp out at Red Pine Lake for the night.
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.