Tetons: Cathedral Traverse with Jason 8/4/201708/28/2017
(Warning: extremely beta-intensive post. More for my benefit than anything. Though if you’re looking to do the Grand Traverse, I hope this helps a little.)
After somewhat unexpectedly running the last eight peaks of the Grand Traverse—the Grand Teton (via Upper Exum Ridge), Middle Teton, South Teton, Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, Spalding Tower, Cloudveil Dome, and New Perce—on my birthday, Tuesday August 2nd, without my foot totally blowing up, I texted my buddy Jason Dorais the next day and wondered if he would want to come up to the Tetons a day early to scout the Cathedral Traverse with me.
I’ve been wanting to cover this terrain—from Teewinot to the summit of the Grand (all of which can be seen in the photo above, with Jason on the summit of Teewinot)—for literally five years now, so when Jason immediately agreed to head up to the Tetons on Thursday evening to give it a go with me (he was already planning on a very mellow-paced summit of the Grand with other friends for Saturday) I was super excited. I think we were both pretty optimistic about our ability to move quickly on it—we wouldn’t be fully onsighting, Jason had covered it all five years ago, plus we had beta from Rolo and Brian H—so we decided on a casual 6:30ish morning departure time, especially given Jason’s late evening arrival at Lupine Meadows from Salt Lake City. Not exactly alpine, but no worries.
At the trailhead that morning we debated gear choices as the sun rose brilliantly over the meadows to the east. Jason had a 7.3mm x 60m Beal Gully half-rope (36g/m!!) that he was thinking we should bring, while I was reluctant to carry so much and convinced him that we’d be fine with my 9.0mm x 30m Petzl Volta single rope (55g/m). Cutting the extra pound of weight was nice, but the shorter rope would definitely raise stress levels later in the morning.
The other main question was the matter of traction. From my cruise up Teewinot earlier in the week I knew there was still a bunch of snow around Owen, so the night before I had suggested to Jason that he bring some Kahtoola Microspikes or even some lightweight crampons. I only had Microspikes with me in Wyoming. We both had very lightweight axes. Jason showed up with a pair of Petzl Leopard aluminum crampons, which a few hours later we were both very glad he’d purchased the night before.
Finally, I debated footwear choice. Jason was committed to bringing rock shoes (TC Pros), while I was reluctant, mostly because I knew I would eventually want to be comfortable on this line without them. We were both going to be wearing La Sportiva TX2 approach shoes no matter what (the non-aggressive soles of which were the main reason I convinced myself to bring Microspikes). Ultimately, I also brought my pair of TC Pros because I had the (in retrospect, somewhat ambitious) hope of ending our day with a lap up the super classic Irene’s Arete on Disappointment Peak. This would seem almost laughably optimistic as our day went on.
Beyond this, we brought a single rack from 0.3-#2, harnesses (Petzl Altitude for me) and belay devices, chalk bags, and helmets (Petzl Sirocco). I also carried an empty 0.5L flask for filling with water along the way (I didn’t want to carry any on the initial 5600′ grunt to the summit of Teewinot) and 600 calories. I would eat two gels (and a couple gummy bears from Jason) all day.
We made good time up Teewinot, quickly getting drenched in sweat. Jason is very fit and one of the few partners I’ve been in the mountains with that has had no trouble keeping up. In fact, I felt bad sometimes like maybe I was holding him back. There was still a small snowfield at the base of the technical difficulties 1500′ below the summit of Teewinot, and then above there we took an odd, farther-to-the-right-than-usual line to the summit, but still got there in 1h42. Seemed about right considering the ~10lbs we each were carrying and our determined-but-not-racing mindsight.
From here, you reverse back down the east face of Teewinot a couple hundred feet, angling to the south to get into the gully/notch that splits the east face. Descend through that and onto the western aspect of the mountain, taking Class 2 and 3 terrain down to the talusy tundra that leads to the first major technical obstacle of the route—descending off Peak 11840.
The beta here was either a series of rappels down the southwest aspect of the peak or a steep, loose, but perhaps 5.4-6ish downclimb in a chimney on the northwest aspect. We went directly to the western point of the peak and just to the northern side of it saw a couple of parties rappelling below us. It was a chimney, it looked semi-reasonable from above, it was technically just on the northern side of the western prow of the peak, let’s give it a go.
I went first, carefully stemming and jamming my way down the chimney until quickly it became quite steep and I wasn’t feeling comfortable. Ok, this can’t be it, let’s look around some more.
I climbed back out and looking a few more dozen yards to the north Jason and I found another slot that descended down to the same slab. We could see an intermediate rap anchor at the bottom of that slab so figured why not give it a go. This initial down climb was more reasonable—but definitely heads up with plenty of exposure and some awkward 5.6-ish moves. But soon we were both down on the slab and looking at the next pitch—oof, if Nick (Elson, Grand Traverse record holder) and Rolo had downclimbed that, more power to them…oih. It seemed steep and serious, though the holds were still pretty positive.
Reluctantly, we got out the rope and did the short rap down this to the next section of slab. Either this wasn’t the standard downclimb or we just weren’t strong/bold enough scramblers. Positioned at the next set of rap anchors, however, we were confronted with a new challenge—our rope didn’t reach, and, seriously, the terrain it dropped down was overhanging…probably a 5.8-10 downclimb. Ugh. If only I’d listened to Jason and brought the longer rope! Thirty-five meters would’ve done it.
Eventually, I navigated this impasse by doing a sideways rappel to skier’s right to get onto the slab much higher. This required trundling some big blocks that would’ve cut loose when I pulled the rope and then downclimbing an exposed, sketchy slab that had many a nerve-wracking loose block and boulder perched on it. With much care, however, we both finally made our way down.
Next up was the scramble up and over the East Prong. This was pretty straightforward, and we passed a couple of guided parties through here. After losing nearly an hour to all of our rappelling shenanigans our pace and focus were suddenly much more casual. For the most part, we just strolled about, sort of bumbling through the micro-routefinding and pausing plenty for photos and jokes. The micro-routefinding was non-trivial, though, and it felt complicated to find the most expeditious line down the northwestern aspect of the EP to gain the steep snow slope that would take us down to the Koven Col.
There was a lot of snow here, and it was much more firm than I had expected (but this shouldn’t have been surprising, given its northern aspect). Jason—with his actual crampons—took the lead here and kicked steps down the icy slope, a non-trivial task in the soft-toed TX2’s, even with crampons. I followed and was very glad for both my Microspikes and axe, and Jason’s kicked steps. Thanks dude! In a situation like this, I think the axe is the mandatory piece of equipment as it gives you at least one completely bomber point of attachment to the snow when sunk to its head for each move. And, I suppose, at least the theoretical opportunity for self-arrest should the unthinkable happen.
The snow from the actual Koven Col continued nearly all the way up the east face of Owen, with only a short stretch—maybe 100′?—of exposed rock, which basically had a waterfall coming down it. I’ve always thought that this section of the traverse looked cruxy (the east face of Owen), but it’s actually pretty kicked back and just low-5th Class no matter which way you go.
After a short bit of scrambling, the snow resumed, so Jason and I took the opportunity to fill up on water and get some calories before changing back into snow-travel mode—axes and spiky things. The extensive snow wrapped around onto the south side of Owen and we traversed here to find the Koven Chimney on the westerly aspect of the peak. This, too, was much more straightforward scrambling than I had anticipated and we were soon on the summit of Owen with incredible views of both where we’d come from (Teewinot, 11840, East Prong), and where we were going (Gunsight, Grandstand, Grand Teton).
In keeping with our now-casual attitude, we spent a full 15min on the summit enjoying the view and scoping the way forward. The descent from Owen down into the Gunsight is apparently one of the route-finding cruxes of the whole line. It’s very complicated and exposed terrain. Harder had given us some pretty hilarious beta about the rising sun shooting through the Gunsight and illuminating the correct traversing ledge, you know, if you happened to be in the right place at the right time. We shared a good laugh at that.
As it was, here is what I can remember from our descent into the Gunsight; we were both psyched to pretty much nail it and to not ever feel the need to get the rope out for a rappel.
After reversing the Koven Chimney we headed down onto the narrow, gendarmed ridge that leads to the Gunsight, staying on the east side (only side that makes sense). The first notch/chute to the west seemed to not make sense for whatever reason, and I think we took the second one. In the moment it seemed obvious—mellow (maybe loose Class 3) and well-traveled. Really just hiking down a gully with a bunch of rubble in the bottom.
Heading down this onto the shady west side dumped us out onto the many-tiered system of ledges there, and I think in general you should head as far west/down as possible before it obviously becomes a huge death drop cliff. Go farther west than what initially looks necessary. Farther west/down than if you are planning on rappelling into the Gunsight. Upon doing that we traversed south to the Gunsight itself and were able to traverse back east a few dozen feet on a very narrow ledge that we both hand-traversed. Low-5th Class. This deposited us at the top of a loose chimney that we downclimbed back to the west (skier’s right). I think Rolo maybe calls this 5.6, but it didn’t seem quite that hard. It was loose, but that could be overcome with judicious stemming. I think there was one more kinda cruxy downclimb crack from here that deposited us into the actual Gunsight couloir, about 50′ vertical below the actual col, to the west.
(The above left photo is Jason downclimbing the loose chimney that accesses the Gunsight Couloir (snow seen below). The photo on the right is taken from the same stance, looking back west at the small ledge we’d just handtraversed to get to where I’m standing at the top of the loose chimney. These seemed to be the key landmarks/passages for the improbable drop into the Gunsight.)
Out of the actual Gunsight, it was a short easy scramble up to a ledge from which an obvious pitch of white and golden, right-leaning strata is required to get up and out of the notch.
I led up this with our single rack and stubbornly stayed in my TX2’s, instead of changing into my TC Pros. I placed a single 0.5 cam at about 25-30′ up at a bulge-y, cruxy feeling section and then mis-read the terrain (going too far right), so placed a 0.4 cam to protect the awkward downclimb moves back into the easiest move and sent it to the top, clipping an in situ sling anchor at the top with a MicroTraxion to belay Jason up. This <100′ pitch is technically moderate, but definitely steep and, at least to me, didn’t feel locker for soloing onsight. I was glad to have a cam placed for that little bulge. It’ll definitely take me a couple more laps before it feels totally solid for soloing, especially in approach shoes.
At the top of this pitch is a great ledge on the east face of the Grandstand. We elected to solo straight up on a spectacular golden pitch of vertical 5.6 cracks and knobs, but I’m pretty sure one could also traverse a few dozen yards farther south on the ledge and take a much more moderate grassy ramp around the difficulties. From here it was a few hundred feet of 3rd-4th Class-ish scrambling to the top of the Grandstand. Finally we were at the base of the North Ridge!
The imposing north face of the Grand definitely looks intimidating from this vantage, but overall I think it’s actually a bit more moderate and secure than the pitch out of the Gunsight. There was a party of three climbers roping up at the base who were on their third (!!) day on route; they jovially let Jason and I scramble past them. The route starts with 4th-easy-5th scrambling up a couple dozen feet before passing behind a giant flake, squeezing out the other (east) side, and then continuing over an exposed cruxy bulge with a fixed pin. I would put these 20′ of climbing at 5.7, and with huge consequence. It was enough to make me back off and finally change into my TC Pros. Above there it was easy-5th scrambling up and left into a giant right-leaning gully at the top of which there was a small patch of ice and a decision to go right or left. Jason and I paused here to pull up some topos and eventually traversed left around a couple chunks of black rock and to the base of a super fun and positive 5.6 off-width in crystal white rock. This is the beginning of the Italian Cracks (if we’d continued climber’s right at the patch of ice we would’ve gone into the original North Ridge chimneys).
However, at the top of this offwidth I’m pretty sure we went off route, as I headed straight up a steep dihedral with a finger crack in it, inexplicably not even bothering to look around the corner to the left (east) on a good ledge. I’m pretty sure the actual Italian Cracks variation continues over there and not on the dihedral we headed up.
Maybe 10′ up this I decided a rope would be a good idea, so I placed a bomber yellow C3 in the finger crack, clipped into it, and had Jason toss me up the rope to tie into. Heading up this long corner I placed two more pieces—a 0.75 when the rock became disconcertingly suspect and licheny, and then a #1 in a right-leaning handcrack to protect a cruxy move over an exit bulge. The climbing was probably no harder than 5.8+ or so, but I was happy to be on a rope for this, mostly because the rock didn’t seem great, nor traveled.
At the top of this we ended up traversing/downclimbing to the east in a big ledge/gully system before climbing basically straight up to the “2nd Ledge” that allows you to escape onto the west face and take the Owen Spalding route to the summit.
When we reached this ledge Jason and I both were a bit disappointed to have not followed the standard Italian Cracks in their entirety as we had been hoping to scope our comfort on them without a rope—it had been going very well until we got off-route. In retrospect, I wish we’d taken just a minute at the top of the white offwidth crack to look out around to the left/east and see what was over there. Oh well, next time we’ll know better.
Once we were back in the sun on the west face, the major technical difficulties were over. We traversed the continuation of the north face “2nd Ledge” all the way over to the Owen Spalding chimneys and went up to the summit. To traverse this ledge required stemming across one bit of icy couloir and one small downclimb move where there was a very old fixed rope.
On the summit we bumped into Zahan Billimoria and Ben Hoyt who were guiding a couple of teenagers, chatted with them for a good half-hour or so, and then bumbled our way back down to Lupine Meadows. I was just psyched to be able to run the whole way out in TX2’s with 10lb packs without my right arch blowing up, never mind the pace.
All in all, this was really one of the more spectacular days in the mountains I’ve ever had and Jason was a perfect partner. Super fit, totally comfortable scrambling very high consequence terrain, and a real pleasure to spend a day out in the hills with. I look forward to hopefully going back and getting around the full Grand Traverse with him!