Mount Owen’s North Ridge is one of the longest, most aesthetic, yet equally demanding mountaineering routes in Grand Teton National Park, tucked away on the western flanks of the seldom traveled Owen-Teewinot Cirque. The route encompasses over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, half of which is considered “technical” – 4th class and above – and 13 or more roped pitches up to 5.9 – often rife with steep snow. A brutal approach involving dicy creek crossings, hours of dense bushwhacking and vast, obscure, occasionally loose, big mountain terrain solidify this full spectrum, undeniably classic, Teton alpine route – the first of it’s class for my resume – an adventure I surely won’t forget anytime soon.
The North Ridge
Climbing the North Ridge of Mount Owen represented a serious notch in my Teton alpine climbing belt. I had never come close to attempting anything of its’ magnitude, and had the true extent of the business been known I may have looked elsewhere for weekend recreation. Liam Wiley and I packed for a two day outing – summit on day one with a bivouac somewhere along the Koven Route, and descent to Lupine Meadows on day two. After mutual fits of sleeplessness confirmed via text message at 1:05AM, we met an hour early and were walking from the South Jenny Lake trailhead by 3:45. A crystal clear sky showed no signs of the 50mph winds forecasted later that Saturday as we marched along the starlight shores of Jenny Lake into Cascade Canyon. We crossed Cascade Creek following old GPX tracks from my past ski tours in the Owen-Teewinot cirque, just upstream of the main drainage. Liam kept shoes on and paid the price, pitching from a mossy log into the drink only yards from the shore. Luckily the creek was running quite low, perhaps only knee thigh deep, but 4:30AM on a 45 degree late August morning is no time for a soak. I promptly popped off my footwear and waded across. The bushwhack from Cascade Creek into the cirque proved all-time masochist, a battle against mountain hardened Amazonian overgrowth barely suitable for snakes. Progress was slow as we battled up the steep hillside, seemingly inches by the minute. Intermittent boulder fields provided some relief, but ultimately the game was three hours of puff n’ grunt, thorn bushes, mossy slabs and all, rubbing our minds raw as sandpaper. The only consolation prize? Wild raspberries – and plenty of them – yes
The glacial cirque on the north side of Mount Teewinot and Owen is a remote amphitheater of epic proportions, home to perhaps the largest collection of challenging ski mountaineering, ice climbing and rock climbing lines in the range. It is a commanding zone of inspiration, intimidation and alpine folklore. I have skied three of the four classic descents in this cirque, the Tallboy Couloir, Tallboy’s Evil Twin and the East Ridge/Briggs Diagonal, but never the Northeast Snowfields, nor climbed the “famous” Run Don’t Walk Ice Couloir or any of the testy summer rock lines. From how I remember the cirque, clad in white, she looks just as badass in summer attire.
A pre-conceived basal understanding of landmarks in this zone, including the Run Don’t Walk Couloir, Northeast Snowfields and McCain’s Pillar will help tremendously with navigation and deciphering guidebook instructions, though it’s relatively “easy” to piece the first-hand scene together once the Crescent Arete is identified. From what I could distill from the Ortenburger-Jackson and Gams guides, the recommended approach to the North Ridge begins near the base of the Crescent Arete, northwest of the primary Northeast Snowfields drainage, on a broad west trending ramp system traversing above a band of rotten cliffs, towards and eventually across the Run Don’t Walk Couloir. Unfortunately, access to the ramp was barred by a severely rotten glacier sporting a few scary cracks. We had crampons, axes and the means to use them, but reasonable looking slabs directly overhead seduced us into a shortcut attempt. Instead of taking the time to safely negotiate the snow, we spent the next two hours battling up wretched gullies of loose scree, risking our necks over junk rock and 60 degree fourth-class kitty litter slabs. To my surprise we found fixed anchors above the two “pitches” it took to reach the eastern rib of the Run Don’t Walk, though I would assume these are descent anchors from winter or early summer, when perhaps the gullies are still glued by snow and ice, and could be the preferred ascent? North Ridge takeaway number one: Shortcuts on alpine routes rarely, if ever, are a good idea – or even a shortcut.
Just as we crossed the Run Don’t Walk Couloir (RDW), still generously flowing with some of the most delicious mineral water on planet earth, the forecasted winds revved into fifth gear and by the time we neared the base of the roped climbing, about 10,400 feet, mounting dark clouds overhead spoke loud and clear. We had no reliable bivouac or water beta for the upper ridge and vertical progress, with this level of fatigue, in a building storm, was sure to be slow. At 2:00PM we waved the white flag, fixed a single strand rappel back to the RDW and settled into a comfortable, mildly sheltered, kitchen-sized grassy ledge that would become our home for the next 16 hours.
After six hours of building sleeping platforms and wind walls, refilling water and hiding in our plastic body bags, we barely overcame the weather for a pot of boiling water, enjoyed a warm meal and tucked in for the evening. Sleep came in bouts, interrupted by the machine-gun-esque ripples of the bivi-sack every time father wind had an outcry. The sunset over Mount Teewinot and Jenny Lake was spectacular, and the morning glow of sunrise even more breathtaking, especially knowing we were sleeping at the literal toe of the North Ridge – no approach required. We climbed the fixed line by headlamp the following morning, retrieved our stashed metal implements from the day before and tied in for the first of 11 North Ridge pitches by first light.
The roped climbing, assuming one is comfortable with low-fifth class free soloing, begins about 100 feet west and several hundred feet below the obvious, several hundred foot tall “open book” gully west of the Run Don’t Walk Couloir, leading to a sightline notch high on the ridge crest (see photo above). The first pitch is a short corner and delicate 5.7 hand traverse to good a ledge. After bumping the belay to the east, a short 30 foot double crack system with two pitons leads to easy black slabs and eventually, the base of the gully. Though only 5.8, the double cracks were steep and strenuous with numb extremities and a fully loaded pack. At the crux, a slight bulge requiring a mantle on thin feet, I sunk a bomber off-set stopper, lowered to the ground and tied off my backpack instead of risking an early morning winger. I proceeded to lead the crack and haul my bag from a tagline before continuing on easier terrain above. Gone goes the on-sight, but those ego games are for cragging anyways.
We climbed the gully in two proper pitches and two stretches of easy-simul. The crux was two different 5.7 chimneys that preferred the absence of backpacks and offered piddly protection. We reached the notch on the ridge-crest around 11:00AM and continued onto the broken west face of the ridge, traversing southwest and up following the line of least resistance, generally fourth class, loose and delicate. Above this “pitch” sits the top of the Run Don’t Walk Couloir, the stunning Great Yellow Tower and our first glimpses of sunlight – a great excuse for a snack.
There are two options to surmount the Great Yellow Tower, a “5.7 chimney” on the northwest face, and a 5.8 finger crack, supposedly just around the west face, which we never did locate. By default we found ourselves trudging up the former, which felt more like 5.9 with gusty winds, heavy packs and the deleterious effects of altitude. The crack is somewhere between a chimney and an off-width, not skinny enough to jam, but hardly wide enough for back-to-the-wall tactics. We both hauled packs from our belay loops, breaking the beast into two short pitches at the hands of rope drag. Liam’s share was severely runout – the lower half – but the upper wasn’t exactly sport climbing either. From the top of the chimney, just below the tower summit (of which there seems no easy way to conquer), convenient third class ledges wound around the east aspect, to a short down climb and ultimately the scenic notch separating the Great Yellow Tower from the rest of the North Ridge, and the northwest toe of the classic Northeast Snowfields. One short-fifth class down-step, which Liam easily dispatched but left me less certain, can be avoided via a short rappel from a sizable horn with a sling.
After short deliberation over water, food and daylight, we decided to stop short and bivouac for a second night on the Northeast Snowfields. The time was 5:30PM, and racing to a twilight summit without promise of water was too much to swallow. Shorthand calculations revealed we had enough food to ration for an additional day, and thus the choice, absent of ego, was once again obvious. We constructed stopper walls to keep us from sleep-rolling 2,000 feet into the approach cirque below, and enjoyed a scanty 200 calorie dinner of oatmeal, pretzel dust and cigarettes as crimson light once again fell on Mount Teewinot and the rest of the Northern Tetons. Despite being incredibly cold, hungry and generally uncomfortable, this sub-freezing night spent at 12,300 feet on Mount Owen’s Northeast Snowfields earns the grand prize for most beautiful sleeping location of my life.
Day three began with a less than satisfying breakfast of bone chillingly cold electrolyte powder, half a frozen RX Bar and half a vanilla GU gel, some route finding difficulties and several hundred feet of fifth class soloing in gullies east of the ridge, until eventually reaching the notch separating the Serendipity Arete and the final tower of the North Ridge. The route’s crux, a mean looking 5.9 OW with scanty gear, stared directly back at us. On any other day I would’ve been stubbornly dancing with the greased hog, pursuing the nebulous virtue of aesthetic purity, but with only 200 calories in both our pockets there was no more time to waste. To avoid the OW, a short 30 foot rappel from a slung boulder took us back onto the shady west face, where we traversed south and climbed two more pitches of generally easy fare, though precariously loose, to the second pitch of the upper Koven Route, the famous “elevator shaft” Koven Chimney and ultimate summit. No rock shoes were needed on day three, for which our numb toes were grateful.
The energy atop the summit block was sublime. We had succeeded, and emerged without injury. Two Cathedral Traverse candidates joined us for photos, and after a short celebration we made no haste in expediting our descent. We reached the SE Face of Mount Owen via two 25M rappels south of the summit block, and enjoyed dry conditions for the remainder of the Koven Route. We probably could’ve stashed the rope for the weekend, but given our extreme fatigue and lack of calories we made use of nearly every rappel station we came across. We used two rappels for descent down the lower east ridge and about seven in the Koven Couloir, which still involved plenty of spicy 5th class down-slabbing. Teton Glacier was melted beyond the requirement of axes or crampons. We followed the guidebook recommendation to traverse ascend the lower north face of Disappointment Peak from Glacial Gulch to Amphitheater Lake, of which we were not disappointed. This retreat strategy involved minimal vertical gain and saved us a sizeable chunk of talus hopping to Delta Lake. We returned to the parking lot around 5:30PM, some 63 hours after leaving South Jenny Lake on Saturday. Shoutout to Hillary from Jackson for giving us two ProBars each at Surprise Lake, for putting a dent in our multi-thousand calorie deficit – I cannot wait to return the favor.
The North Ridge of Mount Owen was a seminal climb for me. The route smashed personal records in approach intensity, route-finding, number of roped climbing pitches and number of on-route bivouacs. One of the biggest takeaways I brought home from the North Ridge was just how poorly route grades represent big mountain climbs. Our line on the North Ridge would be classified (5.8, IV), and though I have lead climbed up to the 5.10 difficulty on grade IV routes in under 12 hours car-to-car, the North Ridge packed a significant punch in so many unconsidered categories that the ultimate burden was far, far greater. We figured that with 90% of the climbing on the North Ridge clocking 5.7 and under, a difficulty several grades below our typical crag day warm-ups, that the route, once we found it, would fall like dominoes. But after altitude, pack weight, fatigue, weather and some old-school Teton sandbagging had their say, we may as well have been crawling up Mount Owen.
The second takeaway from our North Ridge experience was the importance of packing extra calories, especially on off-the-beaten path alpine climbs. Both Liam and I only packed sufficient calories for two big days. The caloric rationing required to spend a third-night on the route wasn’t dangerous, but it sure was unpleasant. On our second evening I was hungry enough that stomach cramps woke me several times. Though highly unlikely, had an accident occurred forcing a third overnight we would have been in a serious pickle. Weight is an important consideration in alpine climbing, but for an extra half pound per person we each could have enjoyed 1,700 calories of mixed nuts, seeds or nut butter. Another half pound could have been 800 calories of dates, figs and apricots – or even more calories from refined carbohydrate products like energy gels and commercial bars. Point is, for one measly pound we could have been exponentially more comfortable, and left ourselves an emergency buffer. In the future I am going to consider carrying a “just in case” stash of lightweight, calorie dense food – a stash I pretend isn’t there, if only for times like these and especially on longer routes, where the risk of emergency bivouac increases exponentially.
Takeaway number three emphasizes the incredible benefit of having the “right” partner along for the ride. Liam checked every partner box in spades – reliable, trustworthy, motivated, competent and capable of keeping a straight attitude in the face of adversity, discomfort and the unknown. Having knocked off a string of shorter routes together this summer with great success, I had a feeling we’d jive in the bigger realms – and jive we did. Beyond pure safety, having a solid team just makes the whole dance more fun.
Last Thoughts, Rack & Guidebooks
Perhaps Aaron Gams was right when he said something along the lines of “this route is best for parties with at least some prior knowledge of the area.” For a party completely new to Cascade Canyon and the Owen-Teewinot Cirque, let alone the Tetons, this route could easily be considered grade V – part of me is surprised it isn’t anyways. The North Ridge really is more of a big-mountain climb than a “rock climb”, and should be approached as such. Had we not gotten snuffed by high winds on day one, two days would have been a comfortable car-to-car pace. For the life of me I cannot imagine this route as a one day endeavor, short of extensive soloing and super dialed approach beta. Questionable rock quality cleans up steadily with altitude, and the best pitches are located above the “open book” gully, on the Great Yellow Tower and Koven Route. Though no pitches are particularly outstanding, the route earns its’ classic destination in remoteness, aesthetics and the sheer multitude of climbing styles and skillsets needed to succeed. This will be a climb I remember forever, and potentially one I consider repeating, perhaps the upper half in conjunction with the Run Don’t Walk Couloir come late spring.
Rack & Gear
For a rack we brought a single set of cams from 0.3 to 2 inches, one full set of BD stoppers, handful of off-set stoppers and one large DMM torque-nut hex (#3 camalot equivalent). This rack served us well, and if packing for a repeat I would probably just ditch the hex. No special gear was required for any pitch. Small nuts help protect the chimneys in the “open book” gully, not that you would leave those buggers behind anyways. Snow is almost always present on this route, so crampons and axes should almost always be considered mandatory.
- Teton Rock Climbs, Aaron Gams (pictures, topo)
- A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, Ortenburger & Jackson
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Ski mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing and all other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but I am only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading.