Mt. Owen – Koven Route: June 30, 2014
So, this is the first trip report I’ve written so far that doesn’t involve a ski/snowboard descent…slightly out of place on TetonBC, but snowy enough and rad enough that I decided to include it. My original plan for this time of year was to continue guiding summit climbs in California through Shasta Mountain Guides, but a broken finger makes that short rope sound awfully scary still. Instead, I’m continuing to live in Jackson, and with our everlasting summer snowpack there’s plenty of snow climbing to be had close to home. Perhaps this will be the first of many snowboard-free trip reports…we’ll see.
Mt. Owen is considered by many to be the toughest Teton summit to reach, and I’d never before stood on top of it. In April, Kevin and I ended up 1000 – 1500 ft beneath the summit when we skied the Diagonal Couloir, but never had intentions of topping out on that trip. This time, we set out on an actual summit attempt, but on a route that unfortunately is not often very conducive to skiing. The climb starts and ends with easy 5th class rock, but is most safely climbed when the upper Koven Couloir is still filled with snow, as it’s otherwise just a bunch of steep talus. Current snow conditions up high seemed right for a summit attempt, so we embraced the light packs and headed on up.
Transitioning to crampons and departing Delta Lake by 5 am, we began to make our way to the Teton Glacier and the base of the lower Koven. In April, we had been able to climb directly up the steep, icy couloir, but where we had previously climbed was now a running waterfall. Instead, we climbed the rock slabs off to the side (easy 5th) to bypass this feature, and continued up the Koven. On our first trip, the upper Koven was just as icy as the lower, and each step required a half dozen strong kicks before feeling strong enough to proceed upward. This time, some old tracks led up the couloir, and where we were able to follow them, getting our front points in was a whole lot easier. Even so, melting had erased many of the steps and we had to kick our own steps in the firm snow for roughly half of the couloir.
Reaching the top of the Koven (and the high point of our previous adventure), we caught our first direct rays from the sun and immediately noticed that the snow up here was softening quite quickly. We’d brought along a single rope and small rack of rock gear with hopes of climbing the East Ridge, but this would have involved a few pitches of roped climbing, all of which were harder than the alternative, the Koven Route. Feeling pressure from the clock, we booted furiously up a short chimney to reach the large hanging snowfield on the south side of the mountain. Traversing the snowfield, our feet penetrated the snow easily (a nice break from the beating our toes had taken in the Koven), but the snow was unsupportive and we still had to kick in repeatedly to some of our steps to get to the firmer snow beneath the mank. This portion of the route puts the climber above 2000 ft cliffs, and we had to balance moving quickly with moving carefully. Overall we made good time here, and in the interest of continuing to move quickly we decided to solo another pitch or two worth of 5.4 rock up to the summit. Cams and rock shoes remained in our packs, pointlessly carried to the top. Oh well.
After hasty summit photos and a little bit of vomit out of Kevin, we rapped down to the top of the snowfield and began our descent. It was only 9:45, but the warming snow was worrying. Trying to French step down the moderate slopes at the top of the snowfield, I slipped out and had to perform the first truly mandatory self-arrest of my life. Kinda scary. From that point on, we faced in to downclimb and traversed on our toes, again making damn sure to kick deep steps in the steeper portion of the traverse.
Upon reaching the Koven Col, we found firmer snow in the couloir that we could have safely downclimbed, but neither of us really felt like kicking more steps, and we figured it would take us about the same amount of time to rappel anyway. Preexisting single-point anchors were found from time to time, but we still left behind plenty of nuts and cord of our own. After rapping down to the bottom of the upper Koven, we downclimbed the snowy bench to the top of the lower Koven (again, facing in despite the moderate angle), and completed our final rappels down the rocky lower Koven, putting us just a short glissade away from the flat portion of the Teton Glacier. At last, it was time to put the rope and harnesses away for good.
Easy walking and several nice glissades brought us back down to the snowline at Delta Lake, where we dug our chilled beer out of the snow and indulged in a nice long break by the water. Realizing that our full descent would end up being a couple hours longer than our ascent by the time we reached the trailhead (!!!), we packed up and started slowly walking back towards the car (and perhaps more importantly, those luxurious vault toilets).