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Drew Tabke Ticks Mt. Owen During 72 Hours in the Tetons
Posted on March 24, 2016

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When we bought Eddie Bauer athlete Drew Tabke a ticket to the Tetons, we told him to get after it in three days. He landed in Jackson and linked up with guide Kent McBride and photographer Chris Figenshau, who have earned a life list of impressive ascents in this impressive range. Then Tabke did just that—ticking off 12,926-foot Mt. Owen via the West Ledges and Koven routes just two days removed from catching his flight. His long weekend climbing trip turned into a master class on mountaineering, earning a coveted summit, then retreating to lower elevations for some flyfishing and a climb on The Worshipper as the weather took a Teton turn for the worse. This is his in-72-plus-hour trip report. —LYA Editor

Simul climbing on the final ridge of Owen.

Words by Drew Tabke, Captions by Kent McBride, Images by Chris Figenshau

Thursday—Travel Day

I pack a duffel for a weekend of alpine climbing in the Tetons and take light rail from my house in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport. My flight is at 4 p.m. and I’m in Jackson Hole by 9 p.m. Kent McBride picks me up at the airport and we head to Cutty’s Bar in town to meet our third team member, photographer Chris “Figs” Figenshau, to make plans for our weekend climb. I crash on Kent’s floor.

Friday—The Approach

We meet up in the morning, buy supplies, and pile into Kent’s road-worn Nissan pickup, which appears to be held together with J-B Weld, bailing wire, and ATV replacement parts. We head into Grand Teton National Park and register our overnight trip to climb Mt. Owen at the Moose Visitor Center. The ranger informs us that no one has been up the Grand Teton or Owen since recent storms blanketed the upper mountain in snow and ice. “We’ll see what we find,” we reply. We head to Jenny Lake trailhead and are hiking up the Cascade Canyon trail by 11:30 a.m.

Mt. Owen towers above us from the bottom of Cascade Canyon, and we hike about five miles before beginning to look for the climbers’ trail up into Valhalla Canyon. This will give us access to our intended route up the West Ledges. Shortly before the point where we plan to leave the main trail, a group of hikers hurriedly pass us heading downhill, warning us of an angry-sounding bear in the bush ahead. We go another 50 feet and hear (but don’t see) the grunting, bellowing Ursus americanus in alarmingly close proximity. We retreat and beat our own path across the creek, eventually relocating the climbers’ trail to take us upward. About 5,500 feet of steep forest, talus, slabs, and rock climbing separate us from the summit of Mt. Owen.

 

Though both Kent and Figs are 40-something-year-olds with kids at home, I’m hard-pressed to keep pace with their rapid upward ascent. This massive alpine realm is their backyard playground and office, and between them they have thousands of days and summits on these majestic peaks, and it shows in their fitness and mountain goat-like surefootedness. We climb into Valhalla Canyon without a rest, emerging beneath the spectacular Black Ice Couloir, which slashes down thousands of feet of granite on the northwest face of the Grand Teton. This place feels sacred: it is one of the more remote and rugged places in the Tetons.

We trend left and locate the start of the West Slabs route, putting thousands of feet below us as we push for our intended camp on the ridge above us. Until now the day has gone without a hitch, but as we climb higher our progress is slowed by ice on the steeper passages through the slabs, and we take the rope out and begin to belay the more insecure sections. The sun dips lower and it begins to appear unlikely we’ll make our intended ridgetop bivouac before sundown. We reach snowline and the shadier sides of the terrain hold half a foot of dry snow, while the sunward slabs are snow-free and dry. Soon we arrive at a point where the route splits into two options – the left surmounts a vertical step and heads towards a snow-filled couloir hundreds of feet higher; the right crosses an ice-covered granite slab and disappears around the corner into unknown terrain above. As we’re debating and scouting the two options, we watch the sun set spectacularly over the plains of Idaho to the west. Though the ledge we’ve stopped on doesn’t offer any obvious bivouac spots, there is a large snowdrift that we stamp a flat and comfortable (if exposed) tent platform into, and prepare to pass the night.

We’re disappointed we haven’t reached the ridgetop bivouac as planned. But from our protected and surprisingly comfortable ledge on the west face of Mt. Owen, I can hear wind ripping from the east across the ridge above us, while where we sit it is dead calm. Perhaps this deviation from the plan was a blessing in disguise. We share warm dinner and a few sips of whiskey for dessert, and watch the starry sky that is punctuated by a few impressive meteorites before retiring to our sleeping bags.

 

Saturday—The Summit

We dreaded a chilly morning, as we wouldn’t feel the sun’s warming rays until reaching the ridge, but upon rising found calm and balmy weather. Breakfast and (2x) coffee down the gullet, we geared up and headed for the first, left option, surmounting the vertical step and heading for the snow couloir, feeling great after a good night’s rest and with lighter packs on our back. I was again impressed by Kent and Figs—they have a preternatural sense for routefinding, and led us flawlessly through the convoluted, maze-like terrain, as well as seamlessly switching between ropeless scrambling, simul-climbing, and belayed climbing without losing a second. My climbing trip to the Tetons was beginning to feel more like a master class on mountaineering.

We climbed the last pitch up the snow-filled couloir and emerged on the ridge. The contrast was stunning—from the wintry shadows of the snow-filled couloir we stepped in to downright hot, sun-drenched weather on dry, golden granite. We were tempted to ogle the views of the North Face of the Grand Teton, the Teton Glacier, and the Jackson Valley all day, but with mixed weather forecasted to arrive that afternoon, we had to keep moving fast. My two partners pointed out legendary ski and climbing lines on the surrounding monoliths as we scrambled up towards the summit, connecting with the Koven Route. A final passage through a chimney behind a detached block had us standing on the summit around 1 p.m. Success! We allowed a few minutes for snacks and selfies, and then it was time to rig rappels and get started on the 6,150 vertical feet between us and the truck.

Mt. Owen is the second highest peak in the Teton range, but still sits 800 feet below the Grand.

Reversing the route went quickly, and we were soon back at our cache of camping gear on the snowy ledge. We took some time to brew another hot drink and repack our bivy gear into our packs, and then headed down, down, down the ledges into Valhalla Canyon. Partway through our descent, a rockfall on the Grand Teton’s opposing wall sent a thunderous report reverberating around the cirque. Though we were at a safe distance, it was an adrenaline-worthy reminder of the seriousness of the environment we were navigating.

Rapping off Owen with the might Grand Teton in the background and the Enclosure in the foreground.

Darkness caught us again, and we navigated the climbers’ trail through the forest back to Cascade Canyon by headlamp. We soaked our feet in the icy creek before hefting packs for the final five-mile grind. Figs started out in front and immediately nearly crashed headlong into a large bull moose standing in the trail, with at least two more of the monstrous, prehistoric-looking animals nearby. We beat a hasty retreat back uphill, and were forced to detour through the same forest where we’d heard the disgruntled bear the day before. We passed through the zone where we were the possible dinner of hungry mammals, and began to think of what we were going to eat ourselves. Figs called the Snake River Brewery and confirmed that the kitchen was open till 11 p.m., putting a bit of extra spring in our step for the last couple of annoyingly-long miles around Jenny Lake. We made it back to town in time, and the burgers and beers tasted particularly well deserved.

Sunday and Monday—The Recovery

Gully routefinding between the Worshipper and Idol.

 

It rained a ton all morning, so we dried gear, sorted gear and made a plan. I went and met my buddy that afternoon and we went on a hike up Granite Canyon next to JHMR. It rained even more and I followed Kent and Figs to Idaho to go fishing. We floated the Henry’s Fork outside of Ashton, ID. It rained so damn hard. We saw a ton of fish and felt a ton of nibbles but didn’t catch anything. Figs a white fish or two.

It rained and snowed a lot more on Monday. So we went alpine rock climbing about halfway up Teewinot Mountain on a formation called the Worshipper. It was snow-covered rock climbing. We all froze our hands and got good and wet, but had a great time. It was a fitting end to a trip before an early Tuesday flight back to Seattle.

Live like Liz.

Check out more exceptional writing from Drew Tabke at blog.eddiebauer.com.

 

Author: - Thursday, March 24th, 2016
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  1. Eddie Bauer Social

    Hi Norman. Sorry to hear you’re concerned about the quality of our products. Please know that we guarantee everything we sell will give you complete satisfaction or you may return it for a full refund.

  2. Tyler

    Just wondering where the “fragile arch” is located. its a landmark ive never seen and have spent a lot of time in the Tetons. Great post!


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