On Wednesday April 12th, Connor James and I got caught in a storm atop Mount Owen’s Northeast Snowfields. We down-climbed the lower East Ridge and made a successful ski descent, my second and partner’s first, of the Diagonal Couloir into Cascade Canyon.
I’ve been keen on objective skiing lately, and moved several life pieces around to pounce on a marginal weather window between a deep thaw and incoming freeze. The plan was to catch reverse re-freeze conditions for a south facing ascent of the Koven Couloir, and hopefully nail the coveted Northeast Snowfields of Mount Owen in preserved powder. Other options for an extended link-up were squandered at the sight of solar sloughing on east aspects up to at least 12,500 feet. Even the Hossack-McGowan route on the Grand Teton was dusted with rollerballs from the East Face above.
Connor James was my partner for the day, his first 2023 Grand Teton National Park ski tour after tearing his meniscus around Christmas – ambitious! Together we biked the closed park road to Jenny Lake and set out around 7:00AM. The low country did not receive anything close to a freeze after two days of mid-sixty degree weather, rendering travel difficult and isothermal up to 10,000 feet. We freestyle contoured the southern flanks of Teewinot Mountain into Glacial Gulch, Delta Lake and eventually climber’s right to the north moraine of Teton Glacier. From here we ripped skins and traversed to the base of the Koven.
On the toes of winter resurgence the day was projected to cool with time, playing in our favor, along with cloud cover and burly winds. The snow hadn’t completely refrozen in the south facing Koven, but was stable enough for relatively easy cuff-deep boot-packing, coupled with a few moments of firm neve in the shadiest spots. As we reached the top of the couloir it was becoming increasingly clear that Connor had not been above 11,000 feet this season, but plow forward we did to the East Prong/Owen Col. From here, 700 feet of relatively easy snow-climbing through a small notch on the lower East Ridge brought us to the toe of the technical upper East Ridge and the southern terminus of the Northeast Snowfields, approximately 12,500 feet.
Summitting was never on the agenda due to heavy forecasted southwesterly winds, and was especially nixed by dense cloud cover above 12,000 feet. We dug a trench atop the Snowfields and sat patiently as fog intermittently engulfed Mount Owen, spiraling from the depths of Cascade Canyon and reducing visibility to less than 30 feet. With our intended ski line so technical in nature, sporting 50 degree skiing above terraced cliffs and at least one mondo rappel, clear skies were paramount. The cruelest tease of our ultimate demise was the two feet of brilliant cold powder that sat stacked, right side up, on one of the most prized Teton ski lines – but alas, today would not be the day. Had we more time we would have waited longer, but by the time 4:15 rolled around, 25 minutes after our arrival, it was time to head for terra firma. We could see better visibility along the East Ridge and knew the Diagonal Couloir would provide “safe” passage to the valley floor.
We elected not to ski the East Ridge, as it’s exposed easterly aspect earned a heinous breakable crust during the recent warm spell. We downclimbed 700 feet to the top of the Koven before clicking into skis. I had skied the Diagonal once before on my first complete winter summit and ski descent of Owen, and was well acquainted with the hair raising traverse required to reach the top of the couloir – frankly, I swore I’d never ski it again, but alas here I stood – let’s set the scene. From col directly west of the East Prong, atop the Koven Couloir, the Diagonal lies just to the ENE, reached by a dead horizontal ski above hundreds of feet of cascading cliffs a mere heavy sneeze below. The traverse slope holds a slope angle nearing 60 degrees and demands utter certainty of the snowpack and one’s ability. We broke out the rope but quickly realized the traverse was much farther than 60 meters. and as the leader I unclipped, unsheathed my axe and continued on. Connor followed suit, where I was nothing short of ecstatic to see his smiling face round the corner.
After a quick debrief and packing of ropes we dipped into the entree’ of our descent, which turned out to ski far worse than possibly imaginable. The top was breakable crust and the bottom a mess of refrozen solar debris. I’ve skied a lot of poor snow above exposure this spring, which I guess worked to my favor this day. As we transitioned onto the northerly glacial apron below, snow quality steadily improved, plateaued, and deteriorated – a bell curve. Pockets of wet powder at 11,000 feet became something reminiscent of corn around 10,000 feet, sloppy corn by 9,000 feet and pure isothermal dread by 8,000 feet, all while the beautiful Northeast Snowfields taunted us from above. Fortunately the Cascade Creek crossing was still intact and we blasted to the customary break spot on the north shore by dusk. Exiting Cascade Canyon involved a water-bottle-dropped-in-the-creek retrieval mission, hours of isothermal trail breaking, rotten skiing on rock slabs above a waterfall, 1.5 miles of Jenny Lake crossing through a few inches of standing water and a four mile bike to the car in a moderate-to-intense rainstorm, ending somewhere around 10:00PM. To say we were shattered would be an understatement.
Well, what went wrong? Technically nothing. We made it up and down in one piece, with epic views and a great story. Playing hooky with a Teton storm is considered bad practice for a reason, and we got bit in the ass. However, had we been an hour or two, or four, earlier, we likely would have scored the Northeast Snowfields in all time conditions – oh well! And as far as the Diagonal, this was my second descent in crunchy conditions. Maybe one day I’ll ski er’ in soft snow as well – though far, far, far less a priority. Mount Owen stands as a peak of tremendous inspiration for me, and I will almost certainly be returning at least once this spring.
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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.
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