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Stepping Out In The Tetons: Nick Russell Reflects On Middle Teton And Mount Owen

Trip Reports / Nick Russell
Story by Nick Russell

February 14th, 2017

The rise and fall of the sun followed by glowing illuminations of the stars and moon let us know how long the day has truly been. Turning off my headlamp upon reaching Jenny lake, my eyes take a moment to adjust to the planetarium above.
It’s nearing 8pm and we have roughly seven more miles of skinning to get back to the parking lot.
"See that bright star to the right? Walk towards that," our lightning fast skier buddy Nick Malik tells me.
He rips his skins off and strides off into the darkness, I probably I won’t see him again until I reach the car. As I contently make my way across the lake, I look back towards the unmistakably defined skyline that is the Tetons. We had just rode the Northeast face on Mount Owen, perhaps one of the proudest lines I’ve ever ridden. Legs are tired and blisters are growing. Yesterday we had an equally crushing day, riding off the Middle Teton and down its East face. Happy to be safely off the mountain, the pulsing yellow star directs my trajectory towards town.

The Middle

An urge to step out of the comfort zone and onto more committing lines has led me from Lake Tahoe to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Receiving a promising conditions report from good friend and Exum guide Nathaniel "Murph" Murphy, I saw a perfect opportunity to build mountain skills and experience a proving ground that is synonymous with snowboard mountaineering.

Eyes are set on a large objective.
We move quickly across firm snow, gaining each bench comprised of sub-alpine trees. Jagged peaks poke above into the blue, all providing alternate perspectives with each new line of sight. Approaching higher into the canyon, the options reveal themselves. There are dozens of mid-elevation lines that often go overlooked in the mind of a peak bagger. I notice the lack of tracks. Murph points out two lone marks, him and his client’s from yesterday.

We see a group of three making their way down one of the southerly couloirs on the Middle.
“I bet we know them,” says Murph.
Sure enough, we both know someone in the crew. High fives are slapped and we continue up and around to a west facing climb that leads to the summit. Cresting the knife ridge, the Grand Teton rises with strength and beauty. Simply looking at the mountain brings contrasting feelings of fear and lure.

Last light on the Grand Teton.

Black pyramids from the range make shadows to the east in the valley of the buffalo below. The sun has left our line and is now setting behind us. An orange glow is reflected off the exposed rimmed rocks. We find a large piece of webbing (graciously left by another party) in place around a large solid rock for an anchor off the summit. There is roughly twenty meters of cliff and ice that must be descended via rappel before the entrance ramp.

Rappelling into the shadows on the Middle Teton.

I soak in the fresh air and exposure as I carefully move down the rope line. I have slight cold and excitement shivers strapping in. The face is steep and comprised of perfect boot-top powder. Although a generally straight forward line, certain rocks act as markers of where to avoid. Shivers turn to an endorphin release while an indescribable recollection ensues.

Climbing the upper ridge on Mount Owen.

Mount Owen

We are exhausted but power through and somehow get an even earlier start than yesterday. It takes a certain type of conditioning to be physically capable of putting in multiple days here in the Park. Murph is probably running on more than ten days straight. When not guiding, he spends his “rest” days on personal missions such as this one. Weather windows like this are truly special and must be taken advantage of when the opportunity arises.

First light graces the eastern faces of the peaks. Mount Owen is still hidden from view by Teewinot and other giants. My mind wanders as the hours pass, chipping up to higher elevations under a warming sun. Moving much slower than yesterday, seeing new contours of the map keeps motivation aplenty.

Climbing the Koven Couloir.

We ascend the south facing couloir to reach the Koven Col before climbing further up the ridge. Upon reaching the divide and seeing our line for the first time, we find protected powder on the NE face that we intend to ride. The line doesn’t officially top out on the summit so we dig in a notch to organize gear, strap in and put on our harnesses on.

This face is massive.
Steep and sustained, the shadows of the peaks once again create black points into the valley. The obvious crux is a sixty foot cliff about halfway down the face. A mistake above here could be deadly. Dropping one at a time, conservative turns are enjoyed down Owen’s exposed upper flanks. I try not to think about the dead end in the face as I descend. The snow is great. I move diagonally across the slope and occasionally pull up to let some small sluff pass.

L - Murph drops toward the anchor. R - Northeast Face of Mount Owen

We reach a point above the rappel and Malik puts Murph on belay, using a buried axe and a ski as an anchor.
Murph rides down to find an anchor above the cliff. Due to the exceptional winter thus far, many of the rocks are covered in snow and ice. It was at this moment when we realize we forgot to bring any ice screws.

We had some nuts and there were rocks to the rider’s right of us that had cracks for potential placements, but we knew the cliff below was too long for our rope. Without a bomber anchor, we briefly considered climbing back up our line, well more than 1,000 vertical feet above. Our timing would be terrible to climb back up. We’d have to descend the Koven Couloir, which would be roller balled, bullet proof and equally sketchy, not to mention it would be dark.

Above the crux on Mount Owen.

Thankfully we realized we did have the gear to make a relatively safe deadman anchor. The guys wound up filling two stuff sacks full of snow and burying them as deep as possible in the snowpack. The weight was equalized between the bags and Malik raps down backwards on his skis. I also opted to stay strapped in and backwards. I’d never done this before and was quite awkward to say the least. Touching down off the cliff, tensions were relieved and I received the honors of opening up the remaining couloir.

After twenty miles of travel over sixteen hours, we safely drop our packs at the car. Deep satisfaction overwhelms me as I reflect on the last two days. I’m so grateful to the mountains for allowing safe passage and appreciative of Murph and Malik’s knowledge that made this Teton trip such an unforgettable success. Only one thing left to do to make the mission complete, cruise back to town and devour pizza at Pinky G’s.

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Nick Russell
Trip Reports
Published on
8 May 2017

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