Cathedral Traverse – 8/1

With temperatures in Salt Lake City peaking well into the 100’s, Taryn and I decided to escape to Jackson for another weekend away. We initially discussed attempting the Cloudveil Traverse as our run up Middle and South Teton had left us inspired to complete that section of the ridge line, but as the weekend grew nearer I began to research the Cathedral Traverse more. A couple of great days scrambling in the Wasatch (Thunderbolt Ridge, worth the approach!) and an upcoming trip to the Sierras left me motivated to spend as much time on technical terrain as possible. Luckily Taryn was down as always.

We arrived at the Lupine Meadows at around 10:30pm on Friday and settled in for a short night of sleep. The alarms went off at around 3:15am and we were on the trail a bit after 3:30am. The goal was to get the bulk of the Teewinot approach done in the dark and arrive at the more technical scrambling just as it was becoming light enough to turn the headlamps off. We just about nailed it.

The scrambling up Teewinot was more straightforward than expected (both in terms of route-finding and in terms of exposure), but I think our decision to time it like we did was a wise one; multiple trip reports describe losing time coming up Teewinot, and we saw the headlamps of a party ahead of us downclimbing after ending up too far right of the correct gully.

We dropped our packs at the notch between the north and south summit and cruised the final couple hundred feet to the summit. We arrived at the summit of Teewinot at around 6:30am and got our first views of the terrain ahead. Seeing the Grand’s east flank at sunrise was a beautiful new experience and the traverse’s name seemed especially fitting. We hung out for a couple minutes, appreciating the sunrise and the posing on top of the exposed summit block, before reversing back to our packs and heading down Teewinot’s south flank towards Peak 11,840.

It took us about 20 minutes to get to the summit of Peak 11,840 and up to this point we were feeling great; we had caught up to the parties ahead of us and were generally feeling fast and fit. This changed on the descent off Peak 11,840. When we arrived at the summit one party was rapping down the southwest face (the rappels described here) while another party was just setting up for a rap off the west face (the nice obvious shiny bolts). Some friends who had climbed the ridge through to the Koven Couloir had reported coming up short using the raps for the west face so we decided to rap the southwest face. While down-climbing to the first rap station, I proceeded to kick off a loose rock that luckily funneled off to the south face. We then made one rappel and were setting up for a second when we discovered an overhand knot had somehow made its way to the middle of our rope. While fixing that issue, the tail of our rope kicked a small rock free that fell and hit the party below us. Luckily they were uninjured. We made two more rappels, each slowed by tangles in the rope while pulling, and finally made it to the ground, rattled and ashamed.

Some takeaways from that experience:
1) Don’t rappel the southwest face with parties below you. The first rock was careless, the second was not. Either way, the mountains don’t care about your excuses. The rappel line sits in a gully that funnels rocks down it. If you choose to go this way and there are people below, take a breather and let them clear out.
2) Don’t rappel the southwest face. The party who took the west face rap was down and onto the next peak by the time we got through the first two rappels. I can’t vouch for the simplicity of the west face rap, but it certainly seemed faster.
3) Consider the northwest chimney downclimb. We did not scope this option from the summit, but it looked reasonable from below. With warm temps and proper traction it seems reasonable to bypass the rappels on East Prong (more on this below), and not pulling out the ropes until descending off Mount Owen would be a nice time saver.

The scrambling from Peak 11,840 to East Prong was great, one of my favorite sections of the day, and the ridge line passed in a blur of solid rock and just the right amount of exposure. It took us about 20 minutes to reach to summit of East Prong. We again elected to rappel, and again, with hindsight I think this was a mistake. The snow was fairly soft at this point and with ice axes it would have been quicker to just downclimb the short section of steep snow. At least the snow rappels went more smoothly this time, and we soon found ourselves heading up the east ridge of Mount Owen.

I was pleasantly surprised at how casual the Koven Route up Mount Owen was. The snow slopes and southeast flank of Mount Owen look steep and foreboding from the valley, but prove to be far less exposed than they appear. The sun was beating down, however, and by the time I got to the summit of Mount Owen I was in the middle of a serious bonk. I felt woozy, nauseous, and out of breath, and felt those brief fluttering of panic one gets when far from the car and the easiest way home is forward.

Taryn stepped up big time and led the way down Mount Owen, pulling and coiling ropes so I could sit and rest. We followed the descent outlined by Rolo and it proved intuitive, if perhaps not the most direct. A guided party behind us took the descent outlined by Steph Abegg and I think I would try that approach if I was to do it again. It took us three rappels to get to the flatter terrain on Mount Owen’s west face, whereas it took the other party only one. We also dropped too far before traversing to the rappels into Gunsight Notch, forcing us to do some treacherous scrambling, one foot stemmed on loose dirt, the other on hard ice, back into the notch. The guided party behind us rapped from anchors straight above the notch and caught us as we were roping up to head up the Grandstand.

We found the climbing up the Grandstand to be just as delightful as reported in other trip reports. While its possible to escape out left into 3rd and 4th class terrain after the first pitch, the 2nd pitch is well worth doing. The glorious section of vertical, golden granite somehow clocks in at only 5.6, and the giant knobs and ample cracks combined with the wild exposure and position make it a memorable pitch. From there to the base of the Grand is blocky 3rd class and Taryn was kind enough to drag me and the rope up it.

It was a relief to arrive at the base of the Grand. Despite my focus on running this summer, my relative strength is still probably in climbing, and I was excited to have an excuse to slow down and just cruise up some alpine granite. We pretty much immediately caught back up to the guided party ahead of us and hung on their tails for the first four or five pitches. At first it was a relief to turn my route-finding brain off, but as the afternoon advanced the delay soon grew annoying. The guided party was using a 40m rope so we often found ourselves stopped at subpar belays. This, compounded with increasingly moody clouds, made it hard to get into the rhythm of the climb. I found the North Ridge enjoyable but generally a bit monotonous and forgettable. The views were amazing and its a cool line to check off, but I can’t imagine suffering through any of the approach options if the goal is only to climb the North Ridge.

We had decided ahead of time to cut out on the 2nd ledge to the Owen Spalding, as both Taryn and I wanted to scope out the route to see how it would feel unroped in running shoes during a run up the Grand. As we were approaching the base of the Double Chimney we heard some rolling thunder. The wind picked up as a squall moved over Jenny Lake, and we decided to continue traversing to the Upper Saddle. Arriving at the Upper Saddle we tried to make peace with the idea that we might have come all this way only to be turned around just short of the Grand summit by weather. We decided to sit down and wait in the hopes the weather would clear up.

Our patience was rewarded, and after about 30 minutes, the storm had completely passed to the east of the Grand. We ditched our packs and simuled quickly up the Owen Spalding, summiting at around 5:30pm. After the delays on the North Ridge, it felt so liberating to once again move quickly in the mountains. We snapped a few pictures, chatted with some other parties on the summit, and began the long descent back to the car.

The descent went smoothly, but both Taryn and I were exhausted after having been on the move for 14 hours (with only 4 hours of sleep the night before). We made it to the switchbacks before the sun set and then turned off our brains and stumbled down the trail. Some hallucinations and a general stubbornness against pulling out headlamps two times in a day kept the descent interesting, but we arrived safely back at the car just before 10pm, a touch over 18 hours after we had left. Luckily the Albertsons in Jackson is open until midnight so we drove there, wandered the aisles like zombies, and then feasted and slept in the parking lot.

Some general thoughts on the Cathedral Traverse:

What a beautiful and aesthetic line! Its pretty cool driving in the valley and being able to look up at all those sharp jagged peaks on the skyline knowing you climbed them. That being said, like a lot of stuff in the Tetons, I think the Cathedral Traverse is more aesthetic from afar. While there were some great sections of scrambling and a few great pitches of climbing, a vast majority of the day is spent slogging on loose rock or relatively forgettable climbing. Definitely a worthwhile objective and an amazing day out! Just slightly less enjoyable than, say, the Cirque Traverse in my opinion.

More than other alpine routes I’ve experienced, I would also say this route has a very large margin between completing it and completing it efficiently. We were definitely more in the “just completing it” category. Going into it, I was stressed about the difficulty of both the scrambling and route finding. In reality, I thought there was very little heads up scrambling and the route more or less goes if you just follow your nose. The real challenge is finding the most efficient way through each section and we definitely left a lot on the table there. I believe no determined and fit party should be deterred by the scrambling or route finding found on this traverse.

Some numbers:

* ~23 miles and 9,100 feet of vert (watch died at the meadows on the descent)
* 18 hours and 15 minutes car to car
* Rack: Singles of .1-3 with doubles of .75, 3 nuts, 9 single slings, 3 double slings (this felt a bit excessive, but we probably would have done longer pitches if not stuck behind parties)
* Splits:
** Car to summit of Teewinot: ~2:50
** Teewinot to Peak 11,840: ~25
** Peak 11,840 to East Prong: ~1:15
** East Prong to Mount Owen: ~1:50
** Mount Owen to Gunsight: ~1:30
** Gunsight to base of North Ridge: ~1:40
** North Ridge to Upper Saddle: ~4:00
** Upper Saddle to Summit of the Grand: ~25
** Summit of the Grand to Car: ~4:30