[By special request, this post has more details and (as an experiment, interstitial) pictures than usual. — ed.]
After the Grand Teton, Owen is my second-most-climbed peak in the range, perhaps because there is no easy route to its summit, and it sees little traffic compared to its neighbors, Teewinot and the Grand. I have previously approached it from the southeast via the standard Koven couloir, but Bill put the big, rarely-done northeast snowfield route on my radar a couple of years ago. This route links together the several snowfields on the huge face visible from Cascade Canyon and Symmetry Spire, with its character and difficulty varying considerably over the course of the season. It is normally only “in” in late spring, right after avalanche season, and in late summer, when nights start to cool off. This year I finally had the time, fitness, and conditions to pull it off.
Though not long by e.g. Sierra standards, the route is somewhat challenging to do in a day: the approach requires a several mile, nearly-flat hike around Jenny Lake and up Cascade Canyon, then a crossing of raging Cascade Creek, and the snow on this east-facing route quickly deteriorates in the morning sun. Having run up Cascade to locate a suitable crossing log the day before, I set my alarm for a grim 3:00 AM, then managed to get about four hours of sleep, waking up at 2:58. After “breakfast,” I drove up to the Jenny Lake boat dock, and was on the trail by 3:40.
After crossing my log around 5:00, I put away my headlamp, put on my up-armored mountaineering boots (thanks, Scott!) and crampons, and started up the forested south side of the canyon, aiming for one of two avalanche chutes I had seen higher up.
I eventually found the one leading to the base of the golden buttress forming the northwest side of the Owen-Teewinot bowl, and enjoyed perfect crampon-ing on snow that had yet to see the sun.
Reaching the buttress, I stowed my spikes and traversed southeast around the corner, then dropped down a short 4th-class section (probably avoidable lower down) into the snow bowl.
From the bowl to the first constriction up Owen, the route is a low-angle walk. Though not annoying, the snow was already fairly soft at 7:00 AM. I was surprised to see a boot- and a butt-track descending through the bowl, and relieved to see them coming from a col near the East Prong; it would have killed the feeling of adventure to follow a boot-pack. The constriction would have presented the first rock difficulty, but there was still just enough snow in the main channel to pass it easily.
Once across, I followed the main snow-channel to a second step with a waterfall to one side, this time not bridged by snow. Mindful that a fall would pitch me into the moat, I carefully made my way up the decaying snow to its left, then across a narrow rock ledge to easier rock and turf, from which I could regain the snow channel.
From here, I followed what seemed like the “main” snow channel through various branches and lobes, and was fortunate not to run into a cul-de-sac. Teewinot looks especially sharp from this angle, and I often looked back while I rested to see if I could pick someone out on the summit.
I passed the next snow-free step via a chimney filled with a mixture of snow, ice, rock, and turf. Above this was the only fixed gear I saw on the route, a ridiculous Franken-anchor with one pin, two fixed nuts, two dangling nuts (which I, um, bootied), and a mess of cord.
A traverse along a wet, ascending ledge led back to the main snowfield, which steepens here near the summit.
The snow was becoming annoyingly soft at this point, and I was slowing down, so I hunted for harder sections in minor runnels and stopped more frequently to rest.
While it may be possible to traverse around the summit knob to the southeast side at this point and follow the standard Koven route, I wanted to do something different. I had not memorized the route description, but I remembered from the topo that it gained the north ridge before the summit.
Choosing a likely-looking notch, I climbed a bit of steep rock and snow, only to be greeted by blasting wind and a cold and unpromising traverse along the west side of the ridge.
Descending from the notch, I traversed south and ascended the left-hand side of the bowl, heading more-or-less directly for the summit. This section featured varied but consistently spicy climbing on mixed terrain. Highlights include a near-vertical snow step, some steep and rotten slopes, and a mixed tunnel with some solid icicles.
Just above the tunnel I reached the bare rock of the summit knob. The direct approach required climbing 8-10 feet of steep face with few positive holds, after which there were plenty of features. I tried this with bare hands and crampons (to balance on tiny features), but could not quite make it to easier ground. Backing off, I traversed left and found a seam and crack with two old pins next to a more featureful face. After trying unsuccessfully to climb the crack, I traversed carefully left to a shallow dish in the face, then up to easier ground and the summit. This felt like a harder version of the “friction pitch” on the Upper Exum; looking it up in the guidebook, I found it rated 5.6, and was pleased to have climbed it in boots.
Though there was a good wind coming from the west, Owen’s summit has a perfect windbreak in that direction; basking in the sun in my down jacket, I nearly took a summit nap.
The Koven route was in decent shape on the descent: the tunnel was partly filled with snow, and the crux slabs were dry. Most of the snow was an annoying-to-treacherous mess. Getting lazy and hoping I could kick steps across the snowfield below the summit knob, I found that it is surprisingly hard to self-arrest in 2″ of slush over hard snow. And even though it was still in the shade, the Koven couloir itself was softer than I have ever experienced it.
The Amphitheater Lake trail was, fortunately, nearly nonexistent, so I boot-skied straight down the ravine to where the snow gave out, switched back to running shoes, and continued cross-country nearly to the Lupine Meadows trail junction. I learned a bit about the state of modern China while walking the long trail and road to the boat dock, reaching my car a bit before 2:00 PM.