Summit Elevation (m): 3083
Trip Date: October 01, 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 2140
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 27.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Easy hiking and scrambling with some route finding in big terrain. Easier than expected via my route.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Ever since I read So Nakagawa’s trip report from Mount Owen in 2013 it’s been sitting on my mountain list. If you ask my scrambling friends about it they’ll probably roll their eyes since it has come up EVERY single year since then as a possible fall objective. So why did it take me 9 freaking years to finally go for it? There are a few reasons. First and foremost, I always wanted to scramble it in the fall. I thought it might have great views over the Lake O’Hara area – specifically Park Mountain and Odaray Mountain and the McArthur Pass region. I was hoping that this would translate into larch views since that area is replete with them. Because I kept saving Owen for the fall, it kept getting dumps of snow before I could actually get to it! So’s trip report didn’t make it sound that easy and I wasn’t sure how snow would impact the route so it kept getting delayed. Other reasons for the delay include so many other competing priorities and the simple fact that most of my friends didn’t have quite the hankering that I did for this peak. After seeing it from several trips to the McArthur Lake area I was only more enamored with Owen – it is a beautiful looking mountain from the north.
As the years ticked by with no trips up Owen I realized that I’d likely end up soloing it. I was fine with that other than the lengthy bike ride through Grizzly country – I am much more nervous biking through bear country than walking through it. The fall of 2022 has been one of the driest and warmest I can remember and after completing a great trip to the Assiniboine area with Wietse at the end of September I was ready to tackle Owen on Saturday, October 1 as my week off came to a close. And wouldn’t you know it? A friend in the scrambling community, Ephraim Roberts bagged the dang peak a day before I was planning to do it. We’d planned a trip already in 2021 that fell through due to weather, so I’d been in contact with him and knew he was going for it. I messaged him Friday night and his enthusiastic response got me excited for the following day – he really enjoyed it and even called it one of the best scrambles he’d done this year.
I didn’t get much route beta from Eph, other than to ask about the bike ride. He said the road was very bikable which was a relief. I was planning to roughly follow So’s descent route despite his warning against such a move. Eph did indicate that he descended a gully further east than So and Raf did. After an early wake-up time of 04:30, I was driving through the Banff park gates at 06:00 and picking up a new annual park pass. (Getting your pass on the 1st of the month effectively gives you 13 months instead of 12…) I was parking in the small lot off the TCH at 07:15 just as it was light enough to bike without a headlamp. I started the ride with an uphill section, quickly warming despite the cool temperatures hovering near the freezing mark. I knew from my planning that the bike ride was a 400 meter gain with some height loss and was expecting it to be some work. The road was in excellent condition – one of my smoothest approach rides of 2022, likely the smoothest. The only downside of the ride was all the corners and bush alongside the road – I found myself yelling a LOT to avoid running headfirst into a bruin along the way. Most of the ride was well above the Ottertail River so that was a good thing as far as surprising a distracted bear was concerned. Another good thing was the nature of the height losses on approach. There were two main downhill sections, the first was quite long all the way back down to the river and the second was also back down to the river. The 12 kilometer ride took me about 70 minutes of steady riding – much quicker than walking would have been!
So indicates a “bushwhack” near the bottom of his exit route and indeed, I started up in light forest. Within a few minutes things got pretty thick as I started to run into some major avalanche debris coming off the immense SW face and gully of the mountain. On return I found a better line which is reflected in my GPX track attached to this report and on the map above. I didn’t find the piled tangle of trees that bad. I balanced my way carefully over the mess and soon found myself in a debris-free narrow, shallow gully snaking its way up the face. I didn’t realize it at the time but you can see the summit cliffs right from the bottom of the gully – a vertical mile above! The next 90 minutes were a slow grind, first up the gully and then across open SW slopes roughly following So’s descent track to treeline. On ascent I wondered why I should bother traversing climber’s right, across the SW avalanche slopes and on descent I didn’t bother. Again – my track reflects the better route, straight up the gully the entire way to the summit cliffs.
Because So was descending a different route than he climbed he didn’t take the most efficient line. I knew this was likely the case and was trying to keep it mind as I ascended but the entire SW face of Owen is so huge it’s hard to know just where you are on it or even where the heck you’re going! Eventually I realized that I was staring way up at the summit cliffs the whole time and could spot a sweet looking traverse off the SW face under the cliffs to the SSE ridge to the summit. There were a myriad of ways to the upper traverse but in general staying around the original SW ascent gully is easiest. Firm(ish) ground can be found out of the gully to climber’s right. I traversed back to my left towards the upper gully and ascended blocky terrain to the traverse. This took me another 90 minutes of figuring out a good route and taking care on the loose, blocky terrain. So’s descent line was off to my right at this point and didn’t look that attractive to me on a mix of boulders, rubble and dirty scree. My ascent route felt much more solid than I was expecting.
Upon reaching the upper rubble and dirt / scree slopes under the summit cliffs my traverse and escape route to the SSE ridge was obvious and very easy looking. Thankfully it was all as simple as it looked and soon I was on the SSE ridge looking up sharp, shale slopes to the summit, still high above at this point. It took me roughly 3 hours to ascend all the way from my bike to the SSE summit ridge. Another 30 minutes scrambling up loose, sharp shale and I was on top of Mount Owen.
Views from the top of Mount Owen are part of this mountain’s attraction and they did not disappoint! Despite some haze in the distance (presumably from forest fires burning late in the year in BC), I could see many distant giants including Temple, Hungabee, Assiniboine and even Mount Sir Donald and many of the Columbia and Selkirk mountains to the west.
After 30 or 40 minutes on the summit taking way too many photos and signing Ephraim’s register from his ascent the day before, it was time to start my steep descent. The SSE ridge to the upper face traverse was quick and easy, as was the upper face and gully until almost treeline. At this point the gully firmed up and the walking slowed to careful balancing and classic Rockies boulder and slab “parkour”. It didn’t take long to reach the bottom of the huge SW avalanche slope where I found a slightly less choked exit to forested slopes in turn leading to the fire road. It took me less than two hours from the summit back to the bike and that’s with at least two substantial water and food breaks.
The bike ride back to the small parking area along hwy #1 was very quick and easy, other than the two uphill sections that had me pushing my 2-wheel steed. The sun was remarkably hot for October and I mused about how crazy this season has been, first with a super late spring and now a long, warm fall. It felt great to finally scramble this mountain that’s been on my radar for so many years and planned so many times over those years. If I have to be honest, Owen was a bit too easy considering what I thought it would be like. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but I was expecting more of a challenge from this peak. In the end it’s about as easy as peaks over 3,000 meters come. Simply bike 12kms up a road, turn left and go up and up and up a gully on a huge avalanche path. Keep going up steeper scree and rubble. Traverse to your right to SSE ridge and then go up again to the left on easy dinner plate shale. Boom! You’re there. Mount Owen is the “easy Mount Stephen” – similar height gains and simple route lines with stellar views with a much easier scramble and no permits required. A very highly recommended bike, hike ‘n scramble for the Rockies crowd.