In the process of organizing my photos, I found this classic 1992ish image of Alex Lowe skiing the NW Couloir of the Pfiefferhorn in the Wasatch Mountains.
A lot has changed since then, including Alex no longer being with us. More than anyone, Alex was the guy who showed me, and many others like me, that skiing skills were an important, but tiny part of the entire backcountry experience and it was more about location and the ability to get there, as well as a sense of mountain safety. And while having fancy new gear is nice, knowing how to use it is far more important. In this photo, Alex is on some old Dynastar skis, 2 buckle Dynafit climbing/skiing boots and some Silvretta 505 bindings, which were all the rage at the time.
Alex’s climbing achievements overshadowed his skiing, but that said, he was and still is one of the strongest backcountry skiers I’ve ever met. Even if he was breaking trail in deep snow, few people could keep up with him and it was common to get lapped. He was also notorious for skinning anything and everything, including over rocks, roads, logs, steep narrow spines, ice, creeks, etc.. I remember watching him traverse a short section of near-vertical rock using holds for his hands and “edging” on rock chips with his skis. I hadn’t been touring long enough to know this was unusual and when I asked him it that wasn’t hard on his bases and edges, he just said, “Gear is meant to be used.”
But Alex aside, I haven’t seen the upper section of the Pfiefferhorn this filled in for years, which is too bad as it is some of the funnest skiing on the route. I don’t remember this photo being taken on a huge snow year, but more than that, this line is seeing so much more traffic nowadays (especially since some D-Bag wrote a guidebook about it) that this upper section is almost always scraped down to bare rock. Oh well, tragedy of the commons I guess, and maybe in a big year or with the right conditions it will be back. In the meantime, there is a “sneak” route down the ridgeline to the skier’s right which connects back into the couloir via that rock rib just above Alex’s upraised right hand. It is not quite as aesthetic as the main line and has an airy feel to it, but it generally holds more snow.