So far, I can't complain too much about this winter. Good trips, good times and good snow. Just back from Jackson, where the snow was fresh and buttery smooth, morale was high. However, there still lurked an inside urge to go out and find some virgin terrain that required an above average effort to get to: hence Mount Cowen.
In the sole guidebook for all of the greater yellowstone area, the approach is described as being 11 miles (though we're not sure) to elbow lake from the parking lot. Taking this into account, overnight gear was packed and an early start agreed upon.
On the morning of the 15th, I awoke at 3:20, met up with Kyle and Steve at 4:00 and we were skinning by 5:30 am. The weather forecast was snow for this first day, which was perfectly acceptable for the slog in. At 7:00, after skinning for maybe 3 miles, flakes started coming down from the sky with increasking frequency. It was still dark, but it felt as if we had already been skinning for half a day.
The trail to the lake sidehills gradually for a good portion of the way, with a short downhill section in the middle. At the start, snow coverage was only a few inches thick, but it gradually built up as more altitude was gained. Temps dropped from the mid thirties to the low twenties, then maybe even to the upper teens as we neared our destination.
Steve tripped up on a fallen branch
Steve with one of the few smiles on the way in
After a long, uneventful, exhausting skin, we were finally at Elbow Lake at 2 pm. We were all beat, as none of us had carried overnight packs for several months. All the way up, I was cursing myself for not alloting enough time to recover from a sickness a few days earlier. Searing lungs and a gushing nose made me wonder if I would be able to do anything the next day. Immediately across the lake loomed a gigantic rocky mass, which was rather foreboding.
Setting up camp
To finish off our day, we proceeded into the basin to dig pits. If I recall correctly, one pit on an East facing slope (admittedly a boulder field), revealed a shallow snowpack with facets on the bottom. Two other pits were dug on west facing slopes, which, while producing moderate shears, looked great in compression. There was a top layer 14-16" deep of very mild windslab with lower layers looking like layer-cake, but cohesive. Though wind must often make this slope treacherous, we decided that the effects while we were there were minimal.
The next day, we woke up at 6:30 or 7, and probably started skinning at around 8. The skies started out cloudy, dampening our spirits, but it was not long before sun breaks appeared along with smiles. I was feeling somewhat better, and the views did much to help. Unfortunately, Steve's skins were not sticking at all, even after keeping them in his sleeping bag overnight. As much as we wanted him up there with us, it simply would not have been feasible for him to bootpack the slope. Thus he stayed down low and did mini-laps, warming his skins to perform on the way out.
skinning up the first section
there are many routes on this mountain, and we were only able to sample one of them. Here is the Tanner-Coombs couloir.
skinning up with a nice couloir in the background
the last part of our skin
the views and scale of this mountain just blew our minds. It really is massive, and there is enough terrain to satisfy many ski trips.
somewhere up there is the top of Mount Cowen, which probably wouldn't be much fun to ski.
we skinned to the right side of the rocky face
me with the astounding views
this is actually in Montana. Just imagine the line that could be had from the mini-saddle. I will be back to tag this one for sure.
Intense rock: meenie, minie and moe. Note another couloir inbetween two of them
We didn't have enough time to get to the upper part of the run, visible here. Plus, the effects of the sun were visible near the rocks (see slide), which made us stick to the shade as much as possible.
Dropping into the Tanner-Coombs couloir. Inside, we found snow that was very funky, with a thin wind-slabbed upper layer that would slide for short distances. The wind must whip up the couloir more than other areas. However, it was not bad enough to cause much concer - it just made for difficult turns near the rocks in the middle.
Kyle coming out of the couloir
Kyle on a rocky outpost.
Steve coming back across elbow lake
I just had to stop and take this pic of the tasty looking snow. It just needs a snowboarder right in the middle "slashing the fucking shit" out of it (as Dave would say) to make it perfect.
Views on the way out.
The skin out took a surprisingly short 4 hrs. The one uphill section was brutal on our tired bodies, but the rest went quite smoothly.
All in all, this trip into a remote area went amazingly well. The only problem is that now I need to go back and ride all the other lines, of which there are many. This mountain, though difficult to access and rugged, can provide many days' worth of enjoyment if its slopes are respected, but would surely provide an unsuspecting traveler with a scary wakeup call.
Our contact with the ranch owner at 5:30 in the morning made us believe that we were the first party out here this season, and possible the only one for the last year. He mentioned a party last year not making it due to deep snow, and that was all. Hopefully, we'll also be the second party this year, and maybe the third....
that's one large pocket to slash the shit out of, that's for sure! i'll join you in the spring once you reset the skin track. nice work, and glad you made it out of there unscared. serious mtns out that far.