Owen (Koven route, 5.4, 6100ft, 5h10 up, 9h45 RT)

Owen, from below the Teton glacier's moraine.

The Koven route on Owen is much improved by snow, but is currently in transition. The first pitch off the glacier is dry rock, but the rest of the route is mostly a good snow climb, with a bit of mixed and genuine ice thrown in to add spice. The crux was either the mixed/ice climbing or the initial rock pitch (probably because I was wearing clunky mountaineering boots).

This was my first “real” Teton climb, and indeed my first technically challenging day since probably Blanca last month, so I was apprehensive. But I managed it without too much difficulty, so I’m more confident that I can handle the Grand. It was the first peak I have climbed in awhile that really stretched my ability, and expanded my idea of what I can handle in the mountains. I could not, however, have done it without actual crampons, so I’m grateful to whoever dropped them for me on Snowmass.

Longer version, or “learning mixed climbing on the job”

The mosquitoes were so terrible at Lupine Meadows that I could either sleep covered in DEET or with all windows closed. I chose the latter, but managed a decent alpine start (4:30) despite the unpleasantness. I cruised past a couple carrying skis to the Middle Teton glacier and arrived at the trail junction in an hour — a respectable uphill 3 MPH. However, either the signed mileage was wrong, or I was much slower on the section up past Surprise and Amphitheater lakes. After a bit of bumbling around looking for the use trail, I made my way down to the snowfield below Disappointment and put on crampons.

The route meanders either along arms of snow or across a moraine to the body of the Teton glacier, east of the ridge connecting Owen to the Grand. The snow is clearly preferable, despite having to cover a bit more distance to stay close to the eastern and southern walls. The glacier would be a great hard dayhike for someone not mountain-inclined, being situated between the Grand, Owen, and Teewinot. Most of the tourists seem to stop at Amphitheater lake or the ridge shortly beyond it.

The Koven couloir intimidated me as I approached: the lower rock pitch looked doable, but the upper snow pitch looked awfully steep. However, reaching the base of the rock, I realized it is not nearly as steep as it looks from across the glacier. I went through the nuisance of reattaching axe and crampons to my Camelbak, then got down to business. I found the rock was surprisingly challenging for its pitch, being worn smooth by snow and water, and lacking many positive holds. No doubt my clunky boots and lack of serious climbing of late contributed as well. As I climbed, I listened to the constant rockfall along the Grand’s east ridge, and almost wished I had a helmet.

From closer up, the snow looked less steep, but still intimidating. It was time to see what these new crampons could do. The pitch up to the upper cliffs was mostly moderate, and the snow was perfect for crampons to bite. As it steepened beneath the overhanging eastern cliff, I found a decent boot track that helped somewhat, but it was still slow, tiring front-pointing. As the snow narrowed and steepened, I began using my axe as a poor man’s ice tool, gripping the head and driving the point into the snow, rather than sinking the spike and shaft.

Then came a quick tutorial in mixed climbing. The couloir is melting quickly, and one portion is currently a mixture of bare rock and alpine ice. It was time for caution, since there was no chance of self-arrest — the axe sometimes wouldn’t bite even when swung full-armed while holding the shaft. I quickly got the hang of driving the two horizontal front points into the ice, and made do with a mixture of hacking the axe into the ice, grabbing a few protruding rocks, and sometimes wedging the axe point or adze into various cracks. It was slow, but it worked.

The ice soon softened to snow, but remained steep, and I tried to move like Ueli Steck on a speed-solo (only much slower), as if climbing a ladder while alternately driving the axe point into the snow and fumbling uselessly with my other hand. I eventually topped out to a spectacular view along the snow-covered ridge. From here to the summit block, the route is a moderate climb, though the steep snow shelf around the summit might have given me pause in summer gear.

After leaving my axe and crampons at the top of the snow, I found the route to the summit more complex than I had expected. You need to climb a very short chimney, then make your way to the ridge at left along ledges and slabs. Once you cross the ridge, make your way up the face while looking for a crack or tunnel in the summit rock to the right, on its west side. I blew right by this and wasted time flailing around an overhanging move to the northwest, ruining my chance to summit in under five hours. The summit itself is large, with a comfortable seat next to the USGS marker.

The snow on the ridge and glacier was slushy on the way back, but the couloir was still mostly shaded: a long icy, hard, careful, inward-facing downclimb. Soon after recrossing the ridge and regaining the glacier, I ran into the first of many tourists, apparently finding some pleasure in trudging up the long switchbacks to the bog, lakes, and ridge.

Or perhaps they were paying more attention to their surroundings, as a group of them pointed out a strange, black-furred marmot. I asked a ranger later, and it turns out that they are the same as the normal yellow-bellied marmots, but sometimes one is born black. I’m not sure this happens elsewhere, since I have never seen one among countless marmots in California and Colorado.

A note on Teton climbing

As in many places, snow improves the climbing if you have a few necessary bits of gear. The routes I have climbed so far would have much less pleasant with exposed scree. Also, unlike in the Sierra, consolidated snow may actually make rock routes easier here, since at least some of the rock seems to have fewer positive holds than Sierra granite. If I came back, I would probably come earlier, as soon after the last major snowstorm as possible.

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