You’re a backcountry-touring enthusiast. And after a long autumn of training hikes and some hearty early-season tours, you figure you’re in rock-solid shape. This list includes five of the best tours on which to find out you’re not in as excellent shape as you thought. However, each tour offers views so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, you really won’t mind taking frequent breaks to catch your breath. So clear out your camera’s memory card and load your gear, extra layers, and high-calorie delights in your pack. Then, set your alarm for sunrise. It’s gonna be a long one.Above Photo By: Tommy Chandler
And now I’m going to get all safety patrol on you. The tours listed below are not only physically demanding but also pass through exposed avalanche terrain. Be very discerning about when to undertake these tours, always consult the avy forecast first, and practice safe travel techniques.
If you’ve ever skied in Big Cottonwood Canyon, you probably noticed the dramatic, chute-striped east face of Mount Raymond as you drove back down. Raymond’s precipitous chutes and the open bowl below them just beg you to ski the hell out of ‘em. They also demand that you be patient enough to make the slog up West Butler Fork, traverse the wide bowl between Gobbler’s and Raymond, and scoot up a final ridgeline to the summit of Raymond. You’ll be too blown away by the views of upper Big Cottonwood, Kessler, and Dromedary to notice how much you’re huffing and puffing. Your sweet reward: a full-access pass to the delicious chutes and bowl you scoped from below. You’ll enjoy a long descent, either retracing your route up (which involves a bit of traversing) or going straight down Mill A Gulch, which offers more immediate gratification but dumps you into a thin low-elevation snowpack a few miles down canyon from your car.
Vertical Feet Ascended: 3000 from Butler Fork Trailhead to summit
Required Fuel: Coffee + two burritos
One of the most majestic peaks in the Wasatch, the ‘Pfeiff is also known as the Little Matterhorn. Few Salt Lakers make the trek to the summit even in summer, let alone in winter with full packs and touring gear. The skin up Red Pine Fork is time-consuming enough that you’ll want to make an extra-early start and pack a headlamp. Once you get to upper Red Pine Lake, you’ll switchback up to the ridgeline to the west. From there, you’ll follow a somewhat dicey knife-edge ridge to your final summit ascent—a whippet will offer a nice touch of security in case you slip and need to self-arrest. The easiest approach to the 11,326ft summit is via the southwest ridge. The vast granite expanses of Lightning Ridge will greet you up top. The standard descent (for those who don’t have rappelling gear or wings) is to the north down Maybird Gulch, which returns you to the Red Pine Trail you came up. … Easy, right?
Vertical Feet Ascended: 3600 from White Pine Trailhead to summit
Required Fuel: Coffee + two burritos + extra queso and guacamole
Who’s afraid of needles? Not you, you say? … Well, ski this one and report back. The Hypodermic Needle is a narrow chute that pierces a thousand-foot-tall rock face at a sustained angle of about 50 degrees. We’re mountain folk, not mathematicians, so we won’t even try adding up the calories it takes to ascend this remote ticklist-topper, but beware: it takes friggin’ forever. However, it’s as worthwhile as it is difficult to access (see this vid of Ian Provo’s glorious descent). There are a few routes to the Needle, all of which are challenging enough to make a grown man whimper into his winter beard. Many consider the least horrendous route to be from the White Pine Trailhead to Maybird Gulch, up to the Obelisk (a high point along the ridge between Maybird and Hogum), down into Hogum, and up the Needle. From the top, there’s only one way down: down. Take a sip from your flask, chomp a sandwich, and off you go. You can retrace your route back, or you can ski directly down Hogum to the Little Cottonwood Road and brave a winter crossing of Little Cottonwood Creek at the bottom.
Vertical Feet Ascended: 5000 from White Pine Trailhead to Obelisk to Needle
Required Fuel: Coffee + two burritos + very large sandwich + two shots of bourbon
The Coalpit offers one of the longest and most breathtaking continual lines you’ll ever ski. Andrew McLean notes the only downside: “There are many ways to approach it, all involve pain and suffering.” This steep 3000ft-long snowfield of dreams is nestled above some forbiddingly rocky terrain, requiring intrepid skiers to take a very long and indirect approach to get to it. You can take a route similar to the Hypodermic Needle’s, skinning to the Obelisk, skiing down into Hogum, and skinning up toward the Needle but veering right across a hanging snowfield to duck around to the Coalpit headwall. Another option (a surefire quad-buster) is booting directly from the road up the Y couloir, ending up in the Coalpit Gulch. The ski down is as long as it is glorious; many people go directly down the Coalpit Gulch, which is a good route but requires some billy-goating (or rappelling) down some rocks near the bottom.
Vertical Feet Ascended: more than Hodhr, Norse god of winter, can even count
Required Fuel: Coffee + bucket o’ burritos + bottle of Dos Equis
Summiting Wolverine Cirque doesn’t quite require the same blood, sweat, and beers as the other tours on this list—in fact, you can even cheat a little by riding the lift at Brighton or Solitude to gain much of the vertical. (And, of course, you can go lift-ticket-free if you skin up Grizzly Gulch from Alta and take a right at the Twin Lakes Pass.) The real reason the Cirque is on our epic tours list is its extraordinary views. From the ridgeline, you’ll behold all the glorious contents of both Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons. The cirque itself is cathedral-esque, but no reverence is required—you’re free to holler as you descend one of its many steep, dramatic chutes. At the bottom, the welcoming delights of Figure-8 Hill offer a benediction to your rip-roaring (yet holy) experience.
Vertical Feet Ascended: 2000
Required Fuel: Coffee + your favorite flavor of fruit snacks