The Koven Couloir is a long, varied route on the east face of Mt Owen which, at 12,928 feet, is the second-highest peak in the Teton Range. The Koven mixes steep snow, scrambling and low 5th class rock into a full-strength adventure that’ll have your thumbs sore from buckling and unbuckling crampons. And just getting to the base of this beautiful route is a workout.
The journey up the Koven begins at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, which is also the starting point of many routes up the Grand. A well-traveled trail switchbacks up 3,000 feet, leading to a pair of alpine lakes. Three camping permits are available for Surprise Lake and some climbers choose to base there. That would make for a very very long summit day.
After passing Surprise Lake, the trail continues about another quarter mile to Amphitheatre Lake. At that point, the official trail ends and most hikers don’t go any farther. However, a steep climber’s trail continues up a couple hundred feet to the saddle overlooking Glacier Gulch. We followed it as it descended into the gulch and traversed the north face of Disappointment Peak.
Hard snow and an ugly boulder field had to be dealt with (the trail fades out by this point), then we put our heads down and climbed the crumbling moraine. After that, things eased up for a traverse of the relatively flat Teton Glacier. We set up camp there. The next day we headed up the Koven just before dawn.
The route starts on a buttress between two waterfalls and this part could be 4th class or up to mid-5th, depending on how it’s tackled. We weren’t sure what to expect, so we roped up at the bottom and Bill went up the hardest way possible (not on purpose).
After clearing the buttress, we got into the couloir (crampons on) and found unexpectedly hard, icy snow. It was nothing like the perfect snow we found in the Whitetail Couloir last month. Since a slip in the Koven would have been catastrophic, we stayed roped up. After several hundred feet of steep, lung-busting snow, we escaped onto the 4th class ledges and did some scrambling (crampons off). Near the top of the couloir, we were forced back onto the snow, which was very steep at that point (crampons on). It was so steep, in fact, that we belayed it.
We climbed out of the couloir onto a steepish ridge. We hiked the ridge and then climbed steep, runneled snow to the base of a deep black chimney. It had warmed up by then and a waterfall was pouring down the chimney. No choice but to climb through it and I have no pics of that part as it just generally sucked too hard. But I will note that it was crampons off again, though I saw scratch marks on the rock from others who hadn’t bothered.
Once out of the chimney, we did a short stretch of scrambling to gain a snow bench. Crampons back on. We traversed the snow bench all the way around to where the ridge connects Mt. Owen to the Grand. Halfway across, we had to scramble a melted-out rock rib. Crampons off. We stopped to melt snow and take a short break, then eased back onto snow (crampons on). We climbed a long steep snow slope to the cliffs, then tried to figure out how to climb the summit block. Crampons off.
After a couple of false starts, we located and climbed what may or may not have been the crux chimney. It was supposed to be 5.4 but felt considerably harder. That might have been because we were climbing it in boots and kept banging our heads on our packs when we tried to look up.
Above the chimney, we got lost for a while, but eventually found a scramble that went all the way around to the west side of the mountain. As I was creeping along some ledges, trying to figure out a way to to the top, I was suddenly blinded by a ray of sunlight coming through a deep cleft beside me. Aha! The third and final chimney. (Or so we hoped).
Bill went up first and gave me a belay and I was thrilled to poke my head out of the chimney and find myself pulling up onto the summit. There was Teewinot way below us and the north face of the Grand looming above. I tried to do a woohoo but ran out of breath. The summit is just shy of 13,000 feet.
Since the hour was late and the wind was a-rippin’, we took a few shots and immediately started down. We scrambled and rappelled back to the top of the snow slope, only to find it a slippery, scary mess. Once again, a slip would have been catastrophic (ie. fatal), so we downclimbed with pickets for protection.
As you might expect, the descent was long and varied: slippery snow, a soaking in the waterfall chimney, and lots of tangled ropes as we tried to rappel. We got back to the tent looking a little bit wild-eyed, but totally stoked that we’d made it to the summit. With its variety of challenges and spectacular views, this was a climb we’ll probably never forget!
I was mostly pleased with my Salewa Rapace GTX boots, which did equally well front-pointing up hard snow and climbing low 5th class rock. I’ll review these boots more thoroughly in a separate post.