In my opinion, despite standing almost 800 feet shorter than the Grand Teton, Mount Owen is the true test-piece of Teton ski mountaineering. I have skied many of the major peaks in the Teton Range including the Grand, Middle and South Tetons, Buck Mountain, Teewinot, Wister and Static, and none instill fear in me like Owen. The comparatively long approach, sheer technical difficulty of both ascending and descending, unrelenting exposure and lack of information due to few winter summits makes the second tallest peak of the mighty Tetons an ultimate bear. Owen holds several classic ski lines, the Northeast Snowfields, Diagonal Couloir and Tallboy Couloir, but none connect directly to the summit. Instead, after tackling three sustained pitches of fifty to sixty degree snow and ice in the virtually un-skiable Koven Couloir, a winter summit entails a bootpack traverse across a gargantuan hanging southeast face (pictured above) and two roped pitches of mixed climbing on the traditional Koven Route (see Ortenburger Teton guide for more info), skis not included, wrapping around the south and eventually west faces of the summit block. A confident mixed climber in the right conditions could feasibly solo the route, but we opted to climb with rope and a slim rack of rock protection. From the summit, two 20-25 meter rappels returns a climber to their skis, where they have earned the right to make some of the most harrowing and exposed turns of their life on the upper east face, ultimately retracing their steps and choosing between the Northeast Snowfields and the Diagonal Couloir for an escape into to Cascade Canyon. The Koven has historically been descended on skis, but because of its’ aspect, narrowness and slope angle is typically avoided. The Tallboy is guarded by the East Prong, a several hundred foot rock protrusion emerging from the saddle between Teewinot Mountain and Owen, east of the Koven Couloir, and is usually an independent objective approached from the east. If a winter summit and ski descent of Mount Owen sounds like a wild, intimidating and extremely grueling adventure in the mountains, it’s because it is.
Another Botched Approach
I had no idea I would be skiing Mount Owen until mid-morning the day before. Sam Johnson, my partner for ski descents of The Grand Teton and Teewinot Mountain amongst many others, sent me a tempting text with the words “you should really just suck it up and help me bag my finally peak in the Cathedral Group.” I was suffering from chronic ankle pain, but at the sight of his message my ears perked. I knew exactly what he meant. He wanted to ski Mount Owen, the 12,926 foot behemoth I have both feared and salivated over for half a decade.
We left the parking lot around 2:30AM. Contrary to the majority of alpine ski adventures, I actually got a quality three hours of sleep in my van, awaking somewhat refreshed. Laying in a real bed trumps the cramped trunk of my old Hyundai hatchback sedan, which I ski-mountaineered out of for years. The morning was brutally frigid, cold enough to freeze eyelashes together. Low temperatures meant the high country received a solid freeze, crucial for safe springtime mountaineering, so we didn’t complain about numb extremities. Instead we silently marched through the night in the direction of Surprise Pinnacle, Glacier Gulch and ultimately, Mount Owen.
Navigating to Glacial Gulch, the access canyon for Mount Owen, is notoriously difficult. The terrain at the mouth of the canyon is far too thick, bushy and featured for efficient “ground up” travel. To nail the approach “properly” one must ascend a few thousand feet of Surprise Pinnacle, a subset of Disappointment Peak, eventually traversing the steep northern slopes into Glacial Gulch. Unfortunately we botched this traverse (what else is new), skiing onto an intimidating cliff band and doubling back. We had climbed too high, so rather than descend we finished the climb to Amphitheater Lake and skied the main Delta Lake Chute into the Glacial Gulch instead. At first I was a little intimidated to ski the relatively steep and committing shot by headlamp, but the snow was surprisingly soft and silky, making for excellent and well moderated turns through the cliffs and into the basin below. There was no doubt we’d lost at least thirty minutes and 1,000 vertical feet to this detour, but the skiing turned out to be the finest of the day.
Our predetermined checkpoint for the Koven Couloir was 7:00AM, and we reached the base at exactly 7:05. By now we’d been moving four and a half hours straight, the last hour with ski crampons on the bulletproof Teton Glacier. I was already beginning to feel the onset of fatigue in my legs. With no time to lose we transitioned to crampons, pulled out our axes and began the march up the avalanche debris ridden couloir. The Koven gets very narrow and quite steep almost immediately, and while considered one continuous couloir, is really a three part ascent route comprised of two very steep couloirs connected by one hanging snow ramp. The Koven pinches to the width of a residential hallway several times, both above and below the intermediate snow ramp. Bulges of firm alpine ice were found in the tightest nooks, unworthy of a rope but probably deserving of two tools. My whippet and aluminum axe combo surely felt less secure than Sam’s dual Petzl Quarks – but alas we make do, and live to fight another day.
The sun was well on it’s way to peak strength when we topped out the Koven, so there was no time to waste if we wanted a summit. From the saddle, a crusty old boot-pack led up a short but alarmingly steep micro-couloir and onto the glowing east ridge above. Though the sun was blasting full force and we were now stripped to our base-layers, the snow wasn’t showing any signs of softening. We made quick work of the east ridge, looked left and stopped dead in our tracks. Just as I’d imagined, the direct southeast face of Owen was terrifying. The unsupported snowfield oscillates in steepness between 40-45 degrees and squats above several thousand feet of cliffs. I’m not sure I’d seen, or stepped out on, anything quite like it.
Since entering the Koven we’d been living in a consistent no-fall zone, but the traverse across the southeast face ratcheted up the stakes another notch, or three. The bootpack quickly turned soft, so with each step we sunk well to our knees. The snow was steep enough enough that my hopes of arresting a fall, even with two picks, was highly unlikely. 100 feet below my ski boots the whole world sprawled into space. At times I wished I could be back in the safe confines of Glacier Gulch, but ultimately the southeast face was nothing more than a head game. Besides devilish exposure the boot-packing was routine and we made excellent time – that is, until the world dropped out beneath my feet.
Just before the terminus of our southeast face traverse, after Sam had passed well ahead, I stepped into his footprints and felt a trapdoor give way. “Sam!” I yelled as I free fell into the earth, stabbing the spike of my axe into the stable snow behind me and driving my crampons into the opposite wall of a gaping hole I was now wedged between, kind of like that classic cartoon where Santa Clause gets stuck in a chimney. I glanced between my legs and saw an icy slot plunging at least fifteen feet into the earth. “It’s a fucking hole!” I yelled, securing a stemming position by placing one crampon on the ice wall in front of me, one behind, and shimmying to safety. On glaciers teams typically travel roped together, incase one member breaks a snow bridge, takes an unarrestable fall or slips into a crevasse, but we weren’t in quintessential glacier terrain, so the rope was stashed in my pack. Had I gotten swallowed by Mount Owen, Sam would have been rope-less with no way to extract me, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog right now.
Consulting with my avalanche course instructor and local guide Mark Smiley, we believe this “hole” was bergshrund. Four men including Sam had stepped in that exact spot, but I was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Upon more diligent inspection, a subtle but relevant bulge stretched south across the entire span of the upper east face, where the snow angle likely exceeded 55 degrees for about 10 feet. According to Mark, “bergshrunds typically form where terrain transitions from very steep to less steep.” Because bergshrunds are most prevalent in highly glaciated terrain, the hazard wasn’t even on my radar. However, the east face of Mount Owen does harbor a small semi-permanent snowfield that was likely the perpetrator. With so many other dangers to manage we made the fatal mistake of “just following the boot-pack.” We were also in a rush to beat solar warming. In hindsight the rollover should have sparked concern, and deployment of a rope. We quite crudely learned that lesson, and to minimal act of our own lived to tell the tale.
After re-assessing the bergshrund and finding a safer area to cross, I joined Sam at the base of the Koven Chimney. A summit push would take at least an hour, the day was starting to warm and we were definitely behind schedule. If the face saw too much sun it would become a prime trigger zone for wet slab or perhaps a destructive persistent slab avalanche. To our pleasant surprise however, a light veil of clouds emerged to filter the sun, lessening the likelihood of warming. With more clouds stretching far to the west we decided to roll the dice, pull out the rope and start climbing. Though the climbing was only 5.3-5.4 at it’s hardest, crampons, gloves, ski boots, high altitude, patches of ice, plenty of snow and strong winds created quite the experience. On the first 30M pitch Sam placed a sole two nuts and belayed me off an obvious refrigerator sized block pinned between two boulders on the southern ridge. For the second pitch, I watched again as Sam braved minimal protection on meandering icy slabs, finishing in an aesthetic easy stem chimney. Following both of these pitches was a life-altering experience, with the chimney taking top prize for excitement, uniqueness and phenomenal exposure. We topped out together beneath a perfect early spring sky, hooting and hollering like wild animals, supercharged with stoke and amazement. Frankly, I couldn’t believe just how excited I was to be on the summit of Mount Owen. We took in the view and snapped pictures for only a brief moment before turning attention to the most important part of our day, escaping alive. My satellite phone read 11:05 – time to go home.
At first we couldn’t find the rappel station, but after some poking and digging Sam found a plethora of slings looped around a horn on the southern side of the summit block. Sam went first, tossing our doubled 50 meter rope, clipping in and slipping over the edge. I was elated to hear his scream “it reached!” I zinged down to him in a jiffy, negotiating an awkward mess of chossy blocks and slots, careful not to snag the rope or dislodge a tombstone. From the bottom of the first rappel we scrambled a few meters of snowy ledges to a second slung-horn anchor and repeated the dance. The fifty meter cord proved just what the doctor ordered, as both rappels landed us within ten feet of our stopper knots. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get any pictures of the climbing or rappelling. The entire Mount Owen summit experience was more of a Chinese Fire Drill than a laissez faire’ adventure, but that’s just the way she goes sometimes.
By the time I reached snow Sam was fully changed over and beginning to rip the skins from my skis. We packed our rock gear, tools and rope but left harnesses on “just in case”. The first turns on the upper face were as exposed and consequential as skiing gets, far surpassing the Grand Teton’s Ford Couloir. Cautiously we picked our way down through a smorgasbord of breakable crust, bulletproof ice, edge-able corn and damp powder. Despite the variable conditions we were pleased to see the snow had stayed plenty cold enough for a safe traverse. The ridge was mostly dust on bulletproof crust, prompting more cautious turns and eventually a 100 foot down-climb through a tight bottleneck crux with significant exposure. A handful of immaculate and steep turns on the northeast face returned us to the saddle and the site of our last major challenge, the Diagonal Couloir.
As mentioned above, the only feasible way of skiing off Mount Owen (west of the East Prong) is the Northeast Snowfields or Diagonal Couloir. For us, the choices were widdled to one, as we did not have enough rope for the N.E. Snowfields rappels. The crux of the Diagonal comes before you ever set skis to couloir. To gain entry a skier must ski-traverse northeast from the saddle approximately 100-150 feet on a hanging sixty degree snow ribbon that skirts the upper swaths of deadly and unforgiving cliffs. For good pictures of this traverse, check out Steve Romeo’s account on TetonAT. We chose not to belay this traverse, as the snow was plenty edge-able and we felt we were safer with less variables to manage – skiing on belay isn’t always the smoothest. That said, the severe nature of this short stretch will likely keep me from repeating the Diagonal Couloir again. The tension released once we gained the upper notch of the couloir. Even though the surface was wind hammered to hell, we had both skied many a steep line in crumby conditions, and dispatched the work methodically – steep jump turns, axes at the ready and smiles of deep appreciation.
After mindfully descending the Diagonal we veered north for the lower Tallboy Couloir, more of a massive gully. The snow was slightly more manageable, even powder in a few spots, but required restraint. The skiing went on and on, and on and on, for 37 whole minutes according to my GoPro helmet cam. By the time we reached Cascade Canyon my legs were so exhausted I deployed the notorious “pizza plow” to navigate a few patches of tight trees, just like I had when I was seven years old. Looking up at the north face of Mount Owen from Cascade Creek we both reveled in disbelief. We had made it. We had skied Mount Owen, and lived to tell the tale.
The day wound to close with a brutally long slog out the deviously flat Cascade Canyon, eloping through tight trees and long meadows in now slushy and sticky snow. We skinned, skated and even skied a short pitch of manky slop to the shores of Jenny Lake, where the real hoofing began. Three hours from the base of Owen we hit the parking lot, with a total elapsed time of sixteen-ish hours. On the way out we met a local old-time cross-country skiing who inquired about our adventure, spotting the ropes and ice gear hanging off our packs. When we told him of our travels he replied “Wow! Back in my day I skied the Otter Body on the Grand, but that peak (Owen) has always eluded me. Congratulations, great job gents!” With the Grand Teton’s Otter Body being one of the most technical, exposed and dangerous line in the Tetons skied only a few dozen times we were humbled, and definitely pulled off something worth eating an entire pizza over. Reaching the van closed the chapter on my second to last prominent peak of the Teton Range, with only Mount Moran, much less technical, left on the docket.
A Spiritual Take – “Body of Work” and Passion
While certainly not recommended, I had done virtually no mountaineering training in 2021 before Mount Owen. I had spent most of the winter traveling south to continue rock climbing, put off by an unfavorable snow-pack. Though certainly not in optimal shape, my ability to complete an 8,000 foot marathon day of winter mountaineering relatively under-prepared pointed to two overlooked components of any sport: body of work and passion. Though light on skiing this season, I have spent so many years logging hundreds of thousands, if not millions of feet of vertical gain. Rarely do I miss the chance to run, climb or squeeze in a quick core workout, and I hold myself to very high lifestyle and dietary standards. In short, even if you are under-prepared in the moment, I believe the body holds onto muscle memory and strength much longer than we believe. Combined with passion, the true “x-factor” in any great personal achievement, a driven and seasoned athlete has an exceptionally powerful toolbox to lean on, independent of the traditional fitness metrics. Being fit certainly doesn’t hurt, but in my experience, truly wanting to be out there, having the willingness to suffer and a body of work to reassure you of your capabilities in dark times is the best determinant of success.
Gear Check – What Did We Carry?
Below is the technical gear we carried for a winter summit of Mount Owen via the traditional Koven Route. Conditions in the high mountains are prone to changing at any moment, and as such, this list should be taken lightly, for framework purposes only. If you attempt this route, you may need more or less gear than we.
- Steel toed crampons
- 2 ice axes or tools
- 50 meter rope (no less!)
- Light Alpine Rack
- 6-8 medium-large nuts
- A few medium-large cams
- A few long runners
- Ski crampons
- A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range – Ortenburger & Jackson (book)
- TetonAT Trip Report (Diagonal Couloir)
A huge shout-out as always to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise for all the gear and love I use to explore these great mountains.
For anyone looking for great ski-mountaineering sticks, the Natural 101 was my katana of choice for this mission.