The Elbow Lake Trail is the usual approach for this and other routes on Mount Cowen. The trailhead is located at the end of the East Fork of Mill Creek Road. Follow this trail for about 2 miles, crossing the East Fork on a bridge to the junction with Sage Creek. The trail climbs up Sage Creek for several miles, then drops into the Elbow Creek drainage and eventually to Elbow Lake. The hike is about 8 miles and good camping can be found near the lake. Two main drainages flow into Elbow Lake. One flows down 600' Cowen falls from the cirque above, and the other comes in from the north. The northern creek is the one you want. Climb the short headwall, then cross the beautiful alpine basin to a pass. There are easy (2nd class) grass ledges that ascend to a broad saddle. From here the upper ridge is in plain view. The lower reaches are hidden behind a separate rib. Descend the west side, possibly crossing a snowfield. After a short scramble down, you should find an easily passable gully that stretches up and left to the base of the ridge. Climb this, then cross another, smaller gully to gain the arete.
Once on the Arete, the right side offers nice scrambling on good rock. As the ridge narrows, a small gendarme blocks easy passage on the crest of the ridge. A 5.6 crack on the left side, above a steep couloir, will pass this gendarme and into easier terrain. Above this, the climbing is much easier and less exposed. Follow the ridge crest as closely as you wish, bypassing difficulties on the right side. The route gains a large ledge, about 30 feet below the summit. Several small chimneys gain the actual summit from this ledge. To descend, follow the ledge around climbers right, and make one somewhat exposed 3rd class move down and onto the Standard route.
A slim alpine rack is enough to make this climb fun. A set of nuts, and a few cams (we had and used a #3 camalot, but it was not essential). A selection of 6 cams was more than sufficient for the pitches that we climbed. All of the crux sections are short, and a strong team could simul-climb a great deal of the route. Belay ledges are frequent and adequate. In early season, an ice axe may be required to negotiate the snowfield on the approach, and possibly aid in descent as well. If you hike an axe up to the lake, and you can see snow in the cirque from there (along the sides of the waterfall), it's likely that you will want an axe at some point.
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