The Northeast Snowfields is probably one of the most coveted routes for a ski mountaineer here in the Tetons. It is big, committing, and depending on conditions, requires at least one rappel. Lucky for me, I was invited to join climber/skiers Hans Johnstone and Brendan O’Neil for a ski descent in May of 2005.
We got a leisurely start after sunrise, and I remember thinking to myself that it was way too late. I kept my mouth shut cuz Hans and Brendan have way more experience in the mountains than I do and just went along with it. The road was now open and we were able to drive to the trailhead after some espresso at The Alpine House, run by Hans and Nancy. Snow conditions were getting thin, but not too bad, and we walked to the boat dock on Jenny Lake before donning the skis.
If you know where you’re going, traveling is pretty easy back in Cascade Canyon, and we moved quickly. Crossing the creek was still doable with skis on, which is extremely helpful in order to keep up the pace. We all knew the way up into the Teewinot/Owen Cirque from previous adventures, and we skinned into one of the coolest spots in the Tetons. The big relief of the two peaks really is inspiring from within the cirque, and worth a trip, winter…or summer.
We skinned to the beginning of the gullies that come off the north side of the Koven Col and NE Snowfields, and then switched to crampons and axes. I put on my helmet, they didn’t bring one, but we all put on the harnesses for the way down. The lower sections of the route were filled in quite well and we stayed on snow the whole way. A 100′ cliff, the main obstacle of the day, came into view as we turned up and right…under the big northeast face. We passed it by connecting a series of ledges and chimneys, Brendan lead the way and the rope stayed in the pack. We connected the dots and found the path of least resistance up the mountain.
We climbed higher and higher, switching leads breaking trail in about a foot of powder to the snow’s highest point. Brendan and Hans poked around for a line to the very summit of Mount Owen, but to no avail. We were all psyched and ready to ski this line already though, and it’s not like it ‘goes’ from the summit anyway. We got into our skis and planned the descent.
We first skied down a bit, to the top of the first snowfield. Hans lead the way after that, and skied a nice section, with great snow, down and to the right. We regrouped below an outcropping before skiing another pitch into the heart of the face. The snow was great, so it made the skiing pretty casual, but still committing. I can imagine what it’s like in mush or crust…yikes!
We crept our way down to the main cliff band that blocks the continuous descent. Brendan and I stayed back while Hans skied down to the edge to build the anchor. When we arrived, we built a quick bollard as backup since there was only one piece of protection in the rock. Hans rapped first and quickly realized that the rope wasn’t long enough. He rapidly made an anchor in some ice and called for us to come down. I was last off the top, but first on the second rappel, which was nice.
The guys rapped down without incident and we all knew it was in the bag…and we were psyched. Sometimes the lower section doesn’t fill-in and may require a rappel…or something, but it’s not really worth it then. A little more technical skiing was had skiing out of the main gully at the bottom, but the snow was still good and we sent it.
It amazed me that this day was a success. The Northeast Snowfields gets sun on it first thing in the morning, and the photo above is from that day at the trailhead in the morning. Lucky for us, some clouds rolled in and it snow on us lightly most of the way. I’d say we got a little lucky, but who knows when you’re skiing with Hans. It was a great day.