Yes, this post is on a financial website. No, this post has nothing to do with finances. In fact, most of my regular blog readers will never read this. But it's the easiest place for me to host this article, this article needs to be written, and who knows, maybe its readers will visit some of my advertisers or read some other stuff on the site while they're here.
Cathedral Traverse Beta
I've been climbing in the Tetons occasionally for the last 20 years. I've done perhaps eight or ten trips there over the years. I had a short bucket list of climbs I'd like to do. These include summiting Mt. Moran by any route, the Grand Traverse, and the East Ridge, the Black Ice Couloir, the North Ridge, and the North Face of the Grand Teton. A friend, Braden, invited me to join him and two others on a one day trip to do the Complete Exum (South) Ridge of the Grand Teton recently. I turned him down for two reasons. First, I had a couple of shifts in the emergency department I was scheduled for and second, I'd done that climb before (most of it several times), at least in parts. If I'm going to spend time in Garnet Canyon and on the Exum ridge again, I'd rather do it with my kids rather than a “buddies trip.” After looking at my clinical schedule to see if it was an even an option for me to go on that trip, I realized I had 5 days in a row off during the first week of August. I texted him back and asked if he was interested in the The Cathedral Traverse. He had no idea what I was talking about, but after looking it up replied with four short words, “This must be done.” Unfortunately, he was saving up his vacation for a big trip this Winter so he couldn't do it the traditional way — a two-day trip hauling camp and spending a night on the Grandstand between Mt. Owen and the Grand Teton. That meant our only option was to do it all in one push.
Why This Article Needed To Be Written
The problem with the Cathedral Traverse (and its big brother, The Grand Traverse) is that the information available out there to do it is so limited. None of the guidebooks really include any sort of step by step instructions and topos like they do for most routes and the information online either isn't written for mere mortals or doesn't include any significant amount of beta (i.e. directions, time estimates etc.)
A One-Day Guide for Mere Mortals
What do I mean when I refer to ourselves as “mere mortals?” Well, you see there are plenty of people out there who have done the Cathedral Traverse in a day. Such as this guy. The problem is two-fold. First, this guy basically runs up and down the Tetons. We walk. Because we're mortal. Second, this guy climbs without a rope. We use a rope. Because we're mortal. That doesn't make his directions worthless, but adjustments do need to be made when using them. It's the same problem with trip reports like this one, where they describe 2,000 vertical feet an hour as “casual” or this one where they reached the summit of Teewinot (typically described as a 7-10 hour day round trip) in 1 hr 42 minutes.
We wanted to complete this climb in one day, but we were not going to summit Teewinot in 2 hours and we weren't going to solo even moderate exposed fifth class terrain. People climb for different reasons, I suppose, but we've both got wives and small kids who are kind of counting on us being there. Plus, we're not that good of rock climbers. I mean, if I'm climbing 5.10 there better be some awfully good protection within about 6 feet below me. Sure, I do 5.6-5.7 runouts all the time, but falling on a 5.9 is a legitimate concern.
So this page will detail what we did to stack the odds in our favor, patch up some of the holes in the beta out there, give some trip report kind of details, and provide some tips to help you avoid the mistakes we made.
The Cathedral Traverse
[Note: Images that are not ours are credited. I attempted to contact the owners of the images and linked to their sites. If you own one of these sites and object to my using your images, let me know and I'll remove them. I did try to contact you.]
First, let's start with a basic description of the Cathedral Traverse.
This handy picture from Mark Thomas found at Shane and Stormy's adventures shows the Tetons in all their glory. The Grand Traverse, originally done from South to North (left to right) is now traditionally done North to South (right to left). It involves ascending:
- Teewinot (usually by the East Face route)
- Peak 11,840 (not shown)
- East Prong (not shown)
- Mt. Owen (by the Koven route)
- Grand Teton (by the North Ridge route)
- Middle Teton (by the North Ridge route)
- South Teton (by the Northwest Couloir)
- Ice Cream Cone
- Gilkey Tower
- Spalding Peak
- Cloudveil Dome
- Nez Perce
The Grand Traverse is traditionally divided into two parts, The Cathedral Traverse and The Cloudveil Traverse, with the Middle Teton functioning as the divider (and curiously not included in either half!) So completing the Cathedral Traverse means going up Teewinot, traveling along the ridge between Teewinot and Owen over Peak 11,870 and the East Prong, and then carefully working down into the notch between Mt. Owen and the Grandstand. The grandstand is then ascended to the base of the North Ridge route of the Grand Teton. Ascending the North Ridge, descending the Owen-Spalding route, and then hiking 5.8 miles (and descending another 5,000 vertical feet) down the Garnet Canyon trail from the Lower Saddle completes the loop.
Can You Do This?
I don't know. I can tell you what our experience and fitness levels were like and hopefully that will help you decide whether this is a reasonable objective for you. There are really four factors you should possess before trying something like this:
Rock Climbing Ability
We've both been rock climbing for twenty years, both at local crags and in the mountains. We can cover a 150 foot 5.7 trad pitch in about a half hour, including leading and cleaning/following. If I'm climbing a hard 5.10 sport route, I'm probably hanging on most of the bolts. Braden is a little stronger sport climber, but a less experienced trad climber. We're pretty comfortable soloing fourth class terrain, and non-exposed easy fifth class terrain. We're actually pretty good downclimbers thanks to spending a lot of time doing hard canyoneering.
We decided to go do this about 10 days before the trip. Needless to say, there wasn't a lot of time to train, so we were mostly relying on our underlying fitness abilities. In my case, that means going for a 4 mile run a couple of times a week, doing some air squats and lunges, riding a road or mountain bike once or twice a week, and maybe lifting weights every now and then. In order to convince myself I was fit enough to do this, 5 days before I climbed Lone Peak (11,253 feet high in Utah's Wasatch Mountains). Wearing a camelback and working hard, I was ascending 2000 feet per hour on trail and reached the summit in 4 hours 15 minutes via the Bell's Canyon approach (scrambling up the Southeast Ridge) and then down to the Jacob's Ladder trail head in another 2 hours 45 minutes. I walked nearly the entire way with just a little jogging on the way down. Strava tells me I did 6,800 vertical feet that day. I was feeling pretty good but was sore the next day. I also did a little hiking with a heavier pack to 11,000 feet 3 days before up by Alta Ski Resort to help acclimate to the altitude. I was hoping that would keep the altitude from bothering me as it often does above 12,000 feet in the Tetons. I'm 43 years old.
Braden did the complete Exum car to car seven days before; it took them about 23 hours. He admits they got lost twice, losing about an hour each time. He was in the Tetons two other times in the previous month, including a one-day solo ascent of the Owen-Spalding. Braden is 37 years old.
We've spent some time snow-climbing, including ascents of Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier and in my case, Denali. Braden took up ice climbing in the last year or two. I've done it a handful of times. I've been up the South Teton a couple of times, two routes on the Middle Teton, a failed ascent (weather) of Mt. Moran, the Petzoldt Ridge, the Exum Ridge a handful of times including the Lower Exum once, Teewinot via two routes, the East Ridge of Owen, Irene's Arete, Open Book, and Guide's Wall. Braden's Teton experience was more limited than mine. He had never ascended Teewinot or Owen. Neither of us have ever been to the Grandstand by any route, much less climbed the North Ridge.
I place motivation on this list because I view it as being just as important, if not more important, than the other factors. There will be significant time, effort, and probably money expended on doing the Cathedral Traverse. There will be some pain involved. There will also be significant risk (primarily soloing on rock +/- snow) that must be run in order to do it in a day. If you are not highly motivated, put this off until a time when you are. Needless to say, we were both pretty jazzed to do this and didn't think about much else the week before.
What We Did To Prepare
I can't emphasize the importance of preparation for this task. The ideal preparation, of course, is having done it before! So if you can talk someone into doing it again, I highly recommend it. If you can't find a partner that has done it before, then find the next best thing – a partner that is also as prepared as possible. This isn't something I would take my wife or kid on, even though I'm confident that with an appropriate belay and enough time my wife could climb the entire route.
Our physical and experiential preparation was detailed in the above section. In this section, I'll discuss the other preparation. First, we read everything we could about the route. That includes all the trip reports and beta on the internet and the route descriptions in the various Teton guidebooks. Be aware there are significant gaps in the route descriptions available out there. Also note that there are multiple paths in several sections of the route and that not one of the trip reports on the internet went the same way as the others. I'm sure you'll find your own path. That's part of the fun.
Second, we considered the date and the snow level in the Tetons. Despite Utah having one of its worst ever snow years, the Tetons actually still had A LOT of snow on August 4th compared to usual. For example, Braden noted the week before that people were still camping on snow in the Meadows of Garnet Canyon. More snow makes the Cathedral Traverse significantly harder. You'll notice that those who guide it start in Mid-August and end by Labor Day. There's a reason for that. Snow slows you down, not only because it takes more time to climb it and because it takes time to put on and take off axe, boots, and crampons, but also because you have to carry that gear in the first place. How much snow gear to take will be one of your major decisions.
Third, we were ruthless about weight. We spent significant amounts of money to buy lighter gear (carabiners, cams, rope, backpacks, shoes, slings, helmet) than we previously owned. We carefully calculated out how much water, food, and clothing we thought we'd need. My pack ended up being 28 lbs and Braden's was 25 lbs. I took a little more food and clothing and the rack I was carrying was slightly heavier than the rope he was carrying.
My gear list included:
- Climbing pants
- Thin socks
- Hiking shoes and climbing shoes (Braden wore approach shoes but still took climbing shoes)
- Thermal underwear top
- Fleece jacket
- Down puffy jacket (small Patagonia style)
- Shell (Marmot Precip)
- Warm hat
- Latex gripper gloves (they work so well canyoneering, I thought I'd try them climbing)
- Lightweight helmet
- 2 lb climbing pack
- One ice tool
- Strap on crampons
- Self-rescue gear (two prussiks, a double length sling, microtraxion pulley, 2 locking biners)
- ATC/Locking biner
- 4 quickdraws
- 4 mountain quickdraws
- Metolius ultralight mastercams # 1, 2, 3, 4 (All gear racked on nano 22 carabiners)
- 1 set of stoppers
- Black Diamond Ultralight camalots # 0.5, 0.75, 1 (x2), 2, 3
- A cordilette
- Small knife
- Half roll of tape
- 3 bandaids
- 2 pieces of moleskin
- Bladder (holds 3 liters, put 2 in it to start)
- Ibuprofen, Caffeine
- Cell phone on airplane mode for pictures and emergencies
- Food (one sandwich, 4 sticks beef jerky, 3 cheese sticks, 6 candy bars, 6 granola bars, 4 bags of fruit snacks, one bag of trail mix, 8 packs of Cliff Bloks) I ate about 3/4 of this food.
The goal was to take enough clothing, food, and water that I could spend the night on the mountain and not die but no more and enough climbing gear that the route could be completed safely, but no more. Over the course of a long day, 3-5 lbs of weight makes a huge difference in how you will feel and 10 lbs too much may mean a night out. Speed is safety. As the old adage goes, if you take bivy gear, you WILL bivy.
Fourth, we demanded a perfect weather forecast to go. There was a 0% chance of precipitation and winds and temperature were typical for early August (i.e. ideal time to be in the Tetons.) One of the scariest things about the Cathedral Traverse is the nature of its commitment. By the time you're 1/4 of the way into it, the easiest way off it might be to just complete it. This has serious implications in the event of even minor injury and certainly bad weather. The other issue with weather is that we are mere mortals- we were going to need most/all of the daylight we had to complete the route. Spending even a couple of hours under space blankets in a storm would likely mean spending an uncomfortable night somewhere on the route rather than being back at the safety of the trailhead.
It was difficult for us to find a time table online that would help us estimate how long this would take. This table shows what our projected times were and what our actual times were.
As you can see, we were a little slower than we expected on every segment. A good way to think about the Cathedral Traverse is a 6 hour rock climb with a 14 hour approach and a 6 hour descent.
At any rate, working backward from our estimated times, what was most important to us was to have enough daylight to do the North Ridge climb before sunset. We were confident we could find our way off the Grand Teton by headlamp. But we also wanted to have as much daylight as possible to help us navigate through the tricky route finding sections of the route, primarily between the end of the snowfield ascending Teewinot and Koven Col, and between the summit of Owen and the Grandstand. We decided we would wake up at 1 am to get going. We drove up the afternoon before, and were at the trailhead attempting to sleep by 9 pm. Please note that performance enhancing drugs might be illegal in the Tour de France, but they are not in the Cathedral Traverse. Copious amounts of Benadryl (the night before), caffeine, and ibuprofen were ingested during this ascent.
The Trip Report and Beta
We were both awake before 1 am and after slugging down whatever food we could, we hit the trail at 1:15 am. If you're like most who will attempt the Cathedral Traverse, this won't be your first time waking up in the middle of the night to start climbing. There were 2 headlamps ahead of us. There was a half-moon rising. We were jazzed to be really doing it, but trying to pace ourselves knowing this was going to be a long day.
I was a little faster than Braden, but we were still covering about 1500 feet an hour. After a couple of hours, we passed those two headlamps while they were off the trail taking a break of some kind. Unfortunate. We could have really used them ahead of us. Shortly above the snowfield on Teewinot, and despite very carefully trying to stay just right of the main couloir, we veered too far right in the dark and ended up cliffed out. This cost us about a half hour to climb down and over and get back on route. We ended up turning off the headlamps about a half hour or so before we reached the summit of Teewinot. This was a climb I had done before, but in the daylight. Don't underestimate the difficulty of navigating the last thousand feet of Teewinot in the dark.
Veteran's Tip: Gaia GPS App has a trail marked on it to the summit of Teewinot.
While there is no trail that last 1,000-2,000 feet, the line is pretty accurate. If we had checked it before getting lost, we could have saved a little time. There is some required fourth class/easy fifth class climbing required in this section. I think it is slightly easier to the right of the couloir, but if you're pulling out a rope on Teewinot, you might want to turn around now. There will be a lot of terrain like this during the rest of the day. You simply don't have time to belay it all if you wish to complete this route in a day.
If you're faster than us, you might consider timing your departure such that you are only 3/4 of the way up Teewinot when the sun comes up.
We took the obligatory summit pictures (best summit in the Tetons as always) as the sun came up. As we left the summit, we met the party we had passed in the dark, two brothers from Boulder planning on a three-day trip over the Grand Traverse. We would be seeing a lot of them today.
The route finding from Teewinot summit down to Peak 11,840 was not particularly complicated, especially since I had done part of it before when I did the Southwest Couloir of Teewinot. You do not have to drop all the way to the bottom of the eternal snowfield on the East side of Teewinot that reaches nearly up to the notch, but do have to drop a couple of hundred of feet back the way you came before you can traverse over. Be sure you FIRST go through the notch on to the West side of Teewinot and THEN go South through the first notch you come to. These notches are no more than 50 feet apart or so. You do not go through the notch and then straight down Teewinot. You'll likely pick up a trail here you can follow for a while down to the football field. From there, it is quite straightforward and non-technical to reach the summit of Peak 11,840. It is downhill almost the whole way from Teewinot.
Getting over Peak 11,840 is likely the first significant technical challenge you will run into. Per Garibotti's instructions, there are three choices, 3-4 rappels (depends on who you ask) beginning not far from the summit, climbing around on steep dirt (couldn't figure this one out) or downclimbing a chimney. I was all ready to rappel when Braden convinced me the chimney downclimb was no big deal. We thought we could save significant time doing the downclimb, so we went for it. It wasn't that bad. It also wasn't that fast. We could hear the party behind us rappeling as we down climbed, and I'm convinced both options took about the same amount of time. Part of the reason was that after downclimbing the chimney, we had several areas of steep snow we had to cross and ended up pulling out the axe and crampons to do so.
Of note, there was a third party that day that apparently rappelled the wrong way off the top and had to reascend their rope on the first rappel. I'm still not sure which way you go from that first rappel, but you will have to choose to go either North or South. Here's Garibotti's picture, it is one of the more helpful pieces of beta on the internet for this route. It looks like you rap South at the first rappel, but I'm not sure that first rappel station I found nearly at the summit is even on this picture, which might be what messed that party up.
Between the bottom of Peak 11,840 and the East Prong, there is a small hump in the ridge. Find the line of least resistance on the North side of the ridge. It will involve loose rock, some ledges, and depending on snowpack, some steep snow requiring axe and crampons.
The East Prong
The East Prong is the next area of notable difficulty on the Cathedral Traverse. There will be a few short sections of easy fifth class climbing +/- snow en route to the summit. We did not feel a need to pull a rope or crampons/axe out for these. The bigger challenge will likely be getting OFF the East Prong to the West. Again, we decided that down climbing would be faster than rappelling. That was probably a mistake, since the party behind us essentially caught us again by rappelling. The two rappels are straightforward and nearly eliminate the scariest obstacle of our day. We downclimbed a little rock (easier than it looks in Garibotti's photo on the day of our ascent), put on our crampons and started traversing across the snow. Here is where our greatest mistake of the whole trip nearly caught up with us.
Braden took a light traditional ice axe and I brought an ice tool. I brought the one without the adze thinking it would be a little lighter. We also brought strap on crampons with the plan to strap them on to our shoes. Unfortunately, the sizing on Braden's was a little off (truth be told I used the pair he thought he had brought for himself) and the pair I was using kept coming apart. But the bigger problem we discovered was that these crampons suck for front pointing unless they're attached to a stiff mountain boot, which we did not bring. They're fine for lower angle stuff, but not if it is steep enough to front point. Here's a picture of me trying not to die.
This snow is facing North and quite hard. Braden asked me to cut steps for him, but there was no way I could do it. No adze and I was too gripped anyway. I was really wishing I had brought my other tool and mountain boots. It would have been a lot smarter for Braden to have belayed me across using both of our axes, then pulled them back across to him on the rope (along with the better fitting crampons.) Of course, even smarter would have been to have just skipped all this and rappelled.
Here is Braden coming across. If you look carefully, you can see the other party rappelling on the rock to his right.
This seems like a good place to drop Garibotti's Beta Photo. Note that he doesn't recommend even touching that snow we're on. Guess we should have looked at this picture a little more closely. But seriously, just do the rappels. You're not Rolando and they're pretty quick. In fact, if we had just done the rappels off of Peak 11,840 and the East Prong, we would have been fine with Kahtoolas. That was all one of the guys behind us had and he was fine even in this relatively high snow year. He was belayed a couple of times by his partner.
There was just as much water coming down off Mt. Owen as we expected and we easily filled the bladders up, figuring 3 liters would get us to the lower saddle. We didn't see any other convenient water gathering places, but I'm sure something could be found coming out of the snowfields higher on Owen and on the Grandstand. I took 2 liters up Teewinot, put 3 liters in here, and another 1.5 L at the lower saddle.
The chimney had a waterfall coming down it, the rock to the left of the chimney was completely wet, and the rock to the right was dry. I soloed up the chimney (snow 3/4 of the way, then duck through the waterfall coming in the left side quickly and squeeze up behind the chockstone) because I knew it from my previous ascent. Braden soloed up the right side which was dry. He said it wasn't too bad, whatever that means. The chimney was definitely faster and my shell and pants dried quickly in the morning sun.
We had little trouble moving around the bottom of the upper snowfield. At one point we did have to take a few steps on snow due to the heavy snow year. As we got around below the Koven chimney, we had to decide whether to try to scoot around the snowfield to the left or go straight up it. It was much lower angle than the snow we were on previously, and it didn't look that easy to get around it, so we went straight up it. No big deal. The party behind us tried to go around but ended up having to cross a shorter but steeper part of it. The Kahtoola guy was belayed again. We soloed a chimney, then a face, then an easier chimney to the summit of Owen, hitting the summit at something like 11:30 am, then rapped twice coming back down the Koven chimney. Our 60m rope easily reached both times. That section was actually one of my favorite parts of the whole day.
Getting to the Notch
Now for the most difficult routefinding of the day. Honestly though, I thought it was really straightforward until the very end. You go through the “U shaped Notch” which is actually pretty easy to find, even if it looks like the third of four places you could use to cross the Southwest ridge of Owen from East to West, the first being right at the bottom of the Koven Chimney rappel. I looked at all of them, and this one definitely looks the most reasonable for downclimbing. I am not convinced that all of the other trip reports I read beforehand went through this same notch. In fact, this one definitely did not:
We went through the notch directly under the tent symbol for “Owen Camp”. We downclimbed for quite a ways, no harder than that chimney on Peak 11,840, then came to a rappel. Some easier downclimbing for quite a way led to a very short rappel that put us down on the wide ledge on the West Face. It seemed no big deal at this point. We walked up the big wide ledge toward the notch expecting a short rappel into the notch only to face a 250-300 foot drop down to the notch! We debated going back and trying to find a way to downclimb at least part of the way, but in the end decided to just rappel. A short rappel, two long rappels, and another short rappel deposited us in the Notch. I looked around a fair amount knowing this area was the route finding crux for the traverse and I'll be honest, that looked like the easiest way to do this section. It didn't take too long, but it was three more rappels than we were expecting.
The Grandstand should not be underestimated, especially in early season or a high snow year. As segments of this route go, moving from the summit of Owen to the summit of the Grandstand was the one that surprised me the most as far as how much time and effort it took compared to our expectations. The first pitch is relatively straightforward. First you scramble right and up and then left and up onto a big ledge. You start climbing probably 30 vertical feet up and 30 feet left of the highest part of the notch. It's nice, steep 5.7, one of the better pitches of the day. There was a fixed nut anchor at the bottom (not sure why) and some fixed slings at the top (again, no sure why) making the routefinding even more straightforward. Braden had the next lead, and totally blew it. He should have gone very slightly up and left out of the belay and then straight up the way. Instead, and primarily based on that picture above, he went essentially straight left for 200 feet. When I got out there, it was pretty clear we were off route. We could reverse that traversing pitch, go own 30 feet to a big ledge then ascend steep snow (not very appealing given the crampon situation) or climb up another waterfall. We took the waterfall and gained the large ledge system that the pitch Braden should have led would have taken us to. Carefully examine the two pictures above and you'll see that the Grandstand is a very different proposition when there is a lot of snow.
Fourth class climbing led us to the summit of the Grandstand. It was 3:45 pm. Sunset was at 8:45 pm. We expected to spend about 6 hours climbing the North Ridge (via the Italian Cracks variation) but neither of us had done it before. We had no bivy gear, but we did have headlamp batteries. We figured that even if we had to use headlamps, we had to make the Second Ledge where we could traverse off to the Owen-Spalding route. Time to kick it into high gear, even though we were at 12,700 feet and 14 1/2 hours into our day.
The North Ridge
The routefinding at this point becomes a lot more straightforward. I mean, we had three or four topos and guidebook descriptions for this section. Compared to what we had been doing all day, this was going to be easy. We easily found the big block/flake everyone talks about and I belayed behind it. Braden led up the 5.6 pitch and continued up the third class (lots of snow here, probably covering whatever the guidebook authors call third class) pitch. When I ran out of rope, I simul-climbed for 60 feet or so before I felt him put me on belay. I led the traversing pitch. Over, up 5.6, over again. We knew this was an area where a lot of people had gotten off route, so I studied it hard and really paid attention. Still, it was surprising just how far left one must go to get to the Italian Cracks. However, once you get there it is VERY obvious you are there. There is a decent size ledge with a wide 5.9 chimney going up the left side of it (part of the harder American Cracks route) and an easy right-slanting ramp to a 5.5/5.7 corner off the right side of it. If there is any doubt that you are looking at the easiest way up this part of the wall, you are in the wrong place. You are very unlikely to go too far left on this pitch but it would be easy to not go far enough. I had pretty terrible rope drag by the time I got to the belay. Here's a picture from the belay, it's looking West up the ramp toward the corner.
That first pitch of the Italian Cracks is spectacular and well-protected. The next two pitches, which I ran together, were also spectacular, but not so well-protected. Still, 5.7 was a fair rating and the holds were “all there.” Besides, after soloing all day, the runouts didn't seem to bother me much. I pulled a couple of roofs and eventually stopped on a loose ledge 30 feet below the second ledge on the North Face. When Braden arrived, we moved the belay up to and along the second ledge and he led around the corner into the sun and up a 5.5 chimney. It should be noted that many guidebooks and trip reports mention the Italian Cracks as being sunny. I assure you that they see no sun whatsoever at 5 pm the first week of August. However, once you come around the corner of the buttress and off the North Face, every thing seems sunnier, lower angle, and much less serious. The routefinding becomes a lot trickier though. I'm pretty sure I was onroute for my next lead up a 5.7 chimney or two, but from the fourth ledge we really have no idea where the route was supposed to go. You could go back out onto the North Face and climb the upper part of that route, go straight up out of my belay up a crack that was probably 5.9ish (piton noted there), go up a chimney 30 feet to the right that at least seemed 5.9ish at 8 pm, or traverse even further right on easier ground until it seemed safe to scramble. Braden tried the chimney for a while, but between his difficulties and the increasing cold (I had everything I had brought on at that point and didn't want to stay in that belay any longer than I had to), we eventually just went to the right. Note that traversing to the Owen-Spalding at this point was not an option. You must go up to the summit first which involved a tiny bit of snow, some steep rock, a fair amount of not so steep rock, and more routefinding than expected. We summited in time to watch the sunset. Sunrise on Teewinot and Sunset on the Grand. I can't think of a more scenic day I've ever spent in the mountains.
Of course, we were burning daylight in a hurry at this point and I wanted to at least make the Upper Saddle before we ran out of it. We barely did, stripping our rock shoes and harnesses and packing away the rope before beginning the descent to the Lower Saddle. This was much more challenging to do by headlamp than I expected. Still, we more or less stayed on route until near the Black Dike when we realized we were aiming too far East after spotting a headlamp down at the Lower Saddle. A slight course correction brought us back on to the trail we had lost below the needle.
After filling up water at the Lower Saddle, we began the long, arduous trek to the car. I couldn't believe how long it took. It felt like it took twice as long as usual. Part of it was our exhaustion and part of it was the darkness, but the worst part was just the discomfort of being without sleep for over 24 hours. It is really an unpleasant sensation. We hit the car just after 3 am and crawled into our sleeping bags. At that point, I'm not sure I would have given a positive report of our experience. 5-6 hours later when we awoke, however, we were stoked at what we had accomplished! It was definitely my longest day in the mountains and certainly ranked among the hardest. More than most days, it was a route that I thought I could do, but wasn't quite 100% sure. There was no single part that was all that hard, but putting it all together into one push was psychologically and physically very challenging and thus rewarding. The need to do it in one push also increased the risk quite a bit, as just stopping and bivying wasn't really an option.
- The amount of snow on the route is all important for your planning. Mid to late August in a low snow year is ideal. You want just enough snow to be able to fill water bottles on Owen and no more. If you are not able to do that, plan on full alpine gear- i.e. axe, boots, and crampons. If you are able to have ideal conditions and willing to rappel, Kahtoola Microspikes are probably fine. I would take an axe of some kind in all but the most ideal conditions by someone who has done the route before and is planning to run significant parts of the route. If you bring an ice tool instead, bring the one with the adze, just in case.
- You certainly don't need a rack larger than what we took. We never used a stopper outside of a belay. While we did place the #3 Camalot once, you could probably safely leave it behind. You might be surprised how willing you are to run it out after doing 12+ hours of soloing.
- Pick your partner wisely. There's enough risk involved here that you don't need to add any more with an unprepared or unmotivated partner. There are no easy ways down, particularly once you start rappelling toward the notch between Mt. Owen and the Grandstand.
Have a great time and climb safely!