By Headlamp by Zack Fields
What a winter: Hatcher Pass blew past its average winter snow total in December, and the powder keeps piling up. Deep coverage opens up lines that often are impassable or inordinately dangerous, and the Pinnacle had been on the top of my list to ski.
The Pinnacle is a narrow spire, like an extruded pyramid that towers over the Fair Angel and Independence Mine Valleys. From pretty much any ridgeline near the Mine, you’re looking up toward the Pinnacle. Yet access to the line is not challenging at all: It’s a quick ski up the groomed road before you hang a right and ski up and over an old moraine and massive talus field to the base of the mountain.
The Pinnacle has four skiable lines, like the cardinal points on a compass tilted 30 degrees. The southwest face is the most exposed, with a snowfield that partly overhands two small cliffs. To the southeast, a large dogleg couloir provides the most consistent snow quality, with the bonus of skiing off a small prominence down into the chute. The northeast couloir starts out very narrow, typically by slipping in next to a massive cornice.
To climb the Pinnacle itself, ascend the northwest couloir, which necks down in the middle before broadening into a small bowl as it ascends toward the ridgeline. This couloir typically is wind-hammered, and alternates between sastrugi and breakable crust.
From the northwest-facing couloir, the route up the Pinnacle is simple: Straight up, then working left above a very large cliff before reaching the summit. The Pinnacle is a challenging summit because inadequate snow coverage would mean scrambling over very steep snow-dusted rocks. The final 300 or so vertical feet start out so steep it is hard to bootpack uphill without falling over backward. Fortunately, a fall here would probably not be fatal, as there’s the bowl and couloir below with ample time for recovery. An avalanche would be very bad, as there generally are exposed rocks in the couloir’s throat and more on the apron below. The snowfield above the couloir does have a distinct convexity about 2/3 of the way to the top, which certainly made me feel nervous as I was crossing it just below an exposed rock band.
After passing the convexity, the gradient tapers off to a more manageable angle, but the consequence of falling increases significantly. As you work your way the final hundred or so vertical feet to the summit, you’re below a rock band and above a hanging snowfield that terminates in a massive cliff, which in turn terminates in the Pinnacle’s northeast-facing couloir. An avalanche on this face would be deadly if one wasn’t able to self-arrest.
When I skied the Pinnacle recently with a small group, I descended off the summit from right to left, staying right near our boot pack to avoid going out too far on this hanging snowfield. After getting beyond the death fall zone, the gradient steepens to 60 degrees or so but the consequences diminish.
The snowboarder who followed me took a path just slightly further out on the snowfield, and triggered an avalanche that broke at his feet and poured off the cliff, thundering into the couloir below. Fortunately it didn’t break above him, and he was able to descend the rest of the Pinnacle uneventfully.
With a morning start, you’d probably have time to ski each of the Pinnacle’s three couloirs plus its southwest facing snowfield. The southeast couloir (called Web Foot) is my favorite, primarily because the others have rarely had good snow quality, but also because the Pinnacle’s sheer face towers so high over it. There’s some five hundred feet of vertical rock above the couloir. The downside of Web Foot is that the easiest access is up a snowfield interspersed with two small cliffs, which have hanging snowfields above them. Such unsupported slopes make me nervous, but in good periods of good stability—which are the only conditions under which one should contemplate climbing the Pinnacle—it’s a great line to ski.
The Pinnacle became a more appealing objective every time I visited Hatcher Pass, since it loomed above pretty much every other ridgeline or prominence I visited. Having climbed it once and avoided avalanching off a cliff, I’m not particularly tempted to revisit it.