Often, we go into the mountains with goals. To summit, to explore, to climb a new route, a classic route, to simply have a good time. The list goes on. Once in a while the goal changes due to unforeseen factors. Sometimes the goal becomes simply not to die. We call these epics. In mid-July, that is exactly what happened to my two partners and I on the Beyer East Face (I) on the Grand Teton.
Glencoe Spire on the approach to the Beyer East Face
I had just settled into the bed in the back of my Toyota 4-Runner (my home for three and a half months this summer) in the Albertson’s parking lot late at night when I got a phone call from Toby. Apparently we were meeting at the Brewpub for beer and to discuss climbing plans for the next three days. I crawled back into the front seat and drove to the pub where Toby and Tim introduced me to Neil, who would be joining us. Several pints later, our plan was set: Tim and Neil would climb the Gold Face on the Lower Exum Ridge, while Toby and I climbed Corkscrew on Fairshare Tower on Monday. Tim would go down that night and Neil, Toby and I would set up a base camp on the Moraine and do Beyer East Face I on the Grand Tuesday, and the Jackson-Woodmency Dihedral on the north face of the Middle Teton on Wednesday.
Toby and I started hiking up to Fairshare Tower at around 8:30 Monday morning, shouldering very heavy loads of tents, climbing gear, food, etc. Of course, it was blistering hot while we were switchbacking up the terminal moraine, but as soon as we ditched the packs near the trail and geared up, the clouds moved in. This was an amazing and fun climb; I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for something to do while they are hiking up into the North Fork of Garnet. I led the first pitch (or first two, since I decided to link them), Toby took the beautiful and exposed 5.7 hand crack, and I took the 5.8 crux pitch. After a little more easy 5th class soloing, we walked off and down to our packs and lugged them just a little further to our nice camping spot on the moraine, which Neil had saved for us. Neil’s day didn’t go so great since Tim wasn’t feeling well when they got to the first pitch of the Gold Face and they left. After setting up camp, filtering water, and cooking a ramen-potato-pesto-meat stick mixture, we set our alarms and went to bed.
Cloudveil Dome alpenglow.
When our alarms went off at 3:30 we heard some loud rumbling in the distance. Figuring it was either thunder or rockfall, we nervously poked our heads out of the tent to find only a star filled sky. At about 4:00 in the morning we started hiking up to the Lower Saddle. We looked off to the West and our hearts sank. Dark stratus clouds were starting to form over Idaho. After sitting and pondering it for a while, we convinced ourselves that it only looked bad because it was just barely getting light. Other people were obviously doing the same thing since we saw several other parties moving up toward the Black Dike. Renny Jackson (author of A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range) was also up climbing some obscure aid route on the Grand that day. And so, we continued… up to the dike, then traversing past the Exum, Petzoldt, and Underhill ridges, through Glencoe Col, above Teepe Glacier, and around the base of our climb.
Red rain on the approach.
The weather, though somewhat ominous looking, didn’t look that bad, and besides… the beautiful golden granite on the East face was calling out our names. Based on some beta and the topos, we figured that it would only be about 4 double-rope rappels back down the face, should we need to bail.
Looking to the south from halfway up the Beyer East Face.
We climbed quickly and efficiently, belaying 2 seconds at the same time. Toby took the first 5.9; Neil took the amazing and arguably the most splitter 5.8+ handcrack in the range. Renny writes in his book: “This important and excellent climb is in the same class as, perhaps even better than the Lower Exum Ridge.”
Neil begins the lead up to the handcrack.
Arguably the most splitter hand/fist crack in the entire range.
5.8 hand/fist crack. "The Money Pitch"
Those are big words… but definitely justified by the quality rock and varied climbing. We continued to enjoy the blue skies and more good pitches including a 5.9 dihedral (Toby) a 5.6 ramp (me).
While Neil led the last 5.7 dihedral pitch, things started to turn ugly. When we got to the top of the climb (where we would descend a bit, then continue on the upper east face to the summit), we contemplated our options. We could wait, see if it cleared, and continue to the summit, stay put, or get the heck out of there. Within five minutes, it became very clear that we had gambled with the weather for too long.
Toby leading the crux 5.9 dihedral.
Toby said, pointing, “There are clouds there (east), there (south), and there (west). They are all dumping rain and they’re coming right here, right now.” A frantic search for an anchor began. Minutes later, our gear began to buzz with electricity. My ice axe stuck out from my pack like a giant lightning rod, making a terrifying noise and the hair on the back of my neck stood out.
A last look at the summit.
“My ice axe is BUZZING,” I said.
“We have to go RIGHT NOW.”
Toby discovered a sling around a rock. We figured it led somewhat to the right place so we backed it up, left a locking biner, and tossed the ropes. Lightning crashed around us, striking the summits of the Grand, Middle, and Teepe Pillar. Hail pummeled us as we set up the rappel. I will never forget the look of horror on my climbing partners’ faces, and I’m sure they won’t forget mine.
EPIC. The look on Neil's face says it all... and notice all the hail built up on the slings around toby's shoulder.
Toby left first, lowering into the great unknown. The rock began to shock Neil and I, and we took off our packs and crouched on them waiting for out turns. We must have waited five minutes, but it seemed like hours. I backed up my rappel with a prusik knot and attached my still-buzzing ATC Guide to the ropes. I touched the rock only twice on this radically overhanging rappel. The wet, skinny 8.1mm half ropes slid quickly through the belay device and soon I was on a small ledge with Toby, staring at the Stettner Couloir, and realizing we had made a terrible mistake. While Neil rappelled, Toby and I watched the Stettner Hell Gully spew down unending mud and rock avalanches; 200-300lb boulders smashed down through the freezing waterfalls fed by the several inches of hail and rain. We silently acknowledged the fact that getting into the heart of the couloir would be extremely perilous. Neil finished his rappel and joined us on the hail filled ledge, drenched and exhausted. We cut one of the cordelletes to fit around a large horn and made another traversing rappel. All of us were becoming somewhat hypothermic and shivering uncontrollably.
Neil rappelling into the Stettner.
We made a couple more rappels, (a total of 5 or 6) all of them at about 45 degree angles in an attempt to avoid the Stettner. It was extremely difficult to make traversing rappels on the wet, icy slabs so we helped each other out by giving fireman’s belays. At one point, the three of us ended up on a 3ft x 1ft. ledge, huddled together clipped to an anchor Toby had constructed. In an effort to leave as little gear as possibly, we reconfigured it to two bomber nuts for the rappel. We cut a couple runners and slid them through the wires until we had a very good anchor. However, we were all out of non-crucial locking biners. Of course we could have left two non-lockers, but Toby asked: “Does anyone have any tape?” Neil presented a roll of black duct tape, which served to create “poor-man’s lockers”.
Neil awaits his turn on one of the rappels
After constructing a satisfactory rappel anchor, we started to pull the ropes from the last rappel. I gave it a try, but it wasn’t even beginning to budge. Toby and Neil, on either side of me, both started to pull and it gave a little but sprang back up again; it was just rope stretch. We all silently acknowledged that if we didn’t get these ropes down, we were pretty much screwed. They tried again, and then again, and finally it popped and gave a little. I attached my tibloc to the rope and my harness and fed the slack through to keep it from bouncing back up. After what seemed like hours, the knot finally appeared over the lip. A few more tugs and we finally had them back.
Now that we had the ropes, however, we had to decide where to throw them. At this point, we had no choice but to throw them into the bottom of the Stettner, about 35 ft. below us. We tossed them down into the water and hoped for the best. Neil went first, still traversing as much as possible. He got over a bulge and yelled something we couldn’t understand. We hoped and prayed that the rockslides would stop long enough for him to get into a safe spot. After about ten minutes, “Off Rappel!” echoed through the couloir. I was up next. I rapped down about 15 feet and realized what Neil had been so concerned about. A twenty-five foot waterfall was crashing over a gigantic chockstone in a place where the couloir narrowed and became steeper. This wasn’t any little trickle of rain coming off of it either… it was snow runoff fed by the torrential rain and hail we were experiencing—absolutely massive. The ropes were pulling me into the waterfall and I was trying everything in my power to stay out of it. I tried to stretch my legs across the chimney with the waterfall going between my legs, which worked until it got too wide. I smeared my feet desperately on the slippery wall trying as long as possible to avoid the inevitable.
Toby in the Stettner. This picture doesn't do it justice, but I was trying too hard not to die while rappelling through the waterfall, so sorry, no pictures of that.
It happened so fast; my feet slipped, the rope dragged across the slab of granite. I swung under the chockstone, into the waterfall, and back out. The force of the waterfall was almost enough to knock me senseless, and if I wasn’t already wet enough, every inch of my body was now completely soaked. Neil told us later that he did the same thing, only he had to re-stack the ropes while he was behind the waterfall, then run back out and throw them. I continued down the couloir, constantly looking up to see if I had to dodge any rocks, which thankfully had stopped for the time being. I rappelled in a couple more waterfalls, not really even trying to avoid them now, because it was too late.
Neil had found an already established anchor in a well-protected spot. We rejoiced, because we knew it would be our last rappel, straight onto the black dike. Everything went smoothly (despite having to rappel through a few more waterfalls) and we were finally safe. We moved quickly to try to warm up and raced back to the saddle, arriving at around 6:00 pm. Neil pulled out a packet of dry Ramen, which we all happily ate. We were happy to be alive, and any sort of food tasted great. Back at camp, we sat and stared at the north face of the Middle Teton, contemplating what we should do the next day. The golden granite of the Jackson-Woodmency Dihedral looked amazing, but we decided that it wouldn’t really be possible. Everything we owned was soaked, not to mention that we were pretty exhausted. The ropes were of questionable quality, and we discovered some soft spots and very worn sections of the sheaths. They were so full of silt that they wore grooves in a brand new biner after only five rappels. The next morning, of course, we woke up to beautiful blue skies while we packed up and walked to the car; to home.
You can usually count on about three weeks of absolutely flawless weather in July. This year there was five weeks, and one of the only days it stormed during that period was the day we were on the East Face. Epics like this are something I value most out of all my experiences in the mountains. Though they aren’t fun, I learn more from one failure than from ten good experiences. There are definitely things I would do differently now that I look back on it, but hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it?
I would not have rappelled right away. What we should have done is descend to the col at the top of the Stettner and crouch down on our packs for a while to let the storm clear out. Ropes will conduct electricity... luckily it didn't strike them. Waiting, though it would have been terrifying (heh... as if rappelling wasn't bad enough) may have been the safer thing to do, not to mention it would have given us time to figure out a better descent route. Despite all this, there were a lot of things that we did right. We worked well together and made things work. We didn't hesitate to leave gear when the time came. Everything was as safe as possible given our situation.
you nicely avoid the excesses of dramatizing, no need here, and tell a story important to be circulated about the Tetons, which are blessedly welcoming most of July, but can turn fast to fierce challenges.
I'm glad you made it down safely. I was on the Grand on this fateful day in July 2003, but made it down before the weather turned bad. You're very lucky to have survived the experience and I'm sure you'll be all the wiser for it.
"You cannot stay on the mountain forever. You have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know."