The SetupThis past summer, I received a job as a wildlife biologist for the Jackson office of the U.S. Forest Service serving Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson, WY. Being from western Pennsylvania, this was a great gig for me; allowing me to get out into some nice mountains and to see some neat sights. I was excited to have the opportunity to climb a few nice peaks, but being a rookie and easterner, my climbing is usually limited to class 4 or some easy class 5 at most. Wanting to respect this but still get to a nice lofty alpine peak, I started targeting the southwest couloir route to the summit of the Middle Teton. Throughout the summer I climbed a number of incredible peaks, including a few in the Gros Ventres, but the main goal was always the Middle Teton.
With little snow travel experience, I wanted to avoid snowfields as much as possible, so I decided to wait until late in the season to make the climb. Luckily, this coincided perfectly with the planning of some college friends back home who were trying to work out a week where they could come out and visit. The best week for them looked to be the first week in August, and they wanted to get some climbing in as well so we all decided to give the Middle a shot.
Now, aside from one (in a group of three), these guys have never seen any real mountains, and the one who has hasn't seen anything past the Black Hills in South Dakota. They've all had extensive outdoor experience with hiking/camping, two of them are eagle scouts, and we've done a little bit of rock climbing while in college but I was still a little nervous that they weren't quite sure what they were in for (after all, pictures don't often give a mountain justice). I told them to get as much hiking/cardio as they could throughout the summer leading up to the trip. Having to hike 40 hours a week for work (gotta love it!) and doing some climbing and mountain biking on the weekends, I wasn't too worried about my level of fitness. My friends did what they could and before we knew it, the trip was upon us.
The 2008 Middle Teton Expedition Day 1Fortunately, I was able to secure the entire week off of work! Gotta love it. My friends arrived first thing Sunday morning (at 2 am) and we immediately set off on the first adventure, a nice little fishing trip out in the Gros Ventres. I decided to make the climb a two-day trip at the end of the week so to allow them to get used to the higher altitude a little bit beforehand. Thus, the week was filled with fun; fishing trips, some biking, checking out town, checking out Yellowstone (just touristy, though, no backcountry trips unfortunately) and other hikes around on the trails behind my cabin.
Finally, the big day came around and we headed out to the park to get our backcountry permit and get started. We got to the Jenny Lake ranger station to find it closed due to everyone being out on a search for a missing hiker (he was found, safe, later that day) and we were directed to ranger station in Moose. Once we got our permit we headed for the Lupine Meadows TH and started the looong, long hike upwards.
We kept a pretty decent pace up the trail, following the measly map we were given at the ranger station to the meadows. The main distraction was the presence of the huckleberries along the sides of the trail. About halfway to Garnet Canyon we ran into another being interested in the huckleberries, a smallish black bear with a radio collar around his neck. He was walking down the center of the trail as we were walking up. However, as soon as he saw us he slowly veered off and plodded away, but not before stopping at a rotten log and ripping it in half looking for an insect meal. The strength and casualness that he exhibited in tearing that log apart drove the point home to respect bear space, regardless of size.
After that "close" encounter, we made our way to Garnet Canyon and then up towards the meadows. As we got closer to the meadows, the skies started to grow a little bit darker behind the peaks and low thunder could be heard in the distance. We hustled our way to camp, running into one route finding problem and having to cross the stream one more time than necessary. We got there though and secured a nice large spot near the stream. It had started to rain lightly as we arrived and began setting up, but it didn't last very long. We hung out in the tent and cooked up some dinner and by the time we were finished eating, the skies were clear again.
After lounging around camp and BS'ing, we finally turned in at the late hour of around 9 pm, preparing for a 6 am rise to make the peak the following day.
Day 2: Summit DayWe arose before sunrise and got our stuff together for the scrambling to the summit. The sun started to rise as we left the meadows, bathing the peak in orange light.
We made our way up and around to the left of the very, very steep snowfield just west of the meadows. About halfway up to the saddle one of our group decided to turn around since he was having a hard time with the scrambling. He was the one that I was most concerned about since he had the least experience of the four of us. We were proud of him for reaching as high as he did and we took a break to watch him descend back down to camp for awhile.
As soon as he was back down to the meadows, we continued on to the saddle. We crossed a few snowfields, but nothing too steep or treacherous. We tried to skirt above and around them when possible. We caught up with another group of climbers, a guy and a girl, and we scrambled with them to the saddle where we stopped to take in the views over Iceflow Lake and the Alaska Basin.
At this point, another in our group decided to throw in the towel. He had given all he had to get to the saddle and, upon seeing the route up the couloir, figured he wouldn't have the energy to make it back. He told the two of us to get the summit and then meet him at the saddle on the way down. I told him it would be a couple hours wait, but he said it was ok. The weather was completely clear and supposed to be free of rain and it was still early, so I didn't think anything of it. I told him to turn around and head towards camp if he felt he had to for any reason, and then my last remaining partner and I headed onwards.
As we made our way up the couloir, the altitude really started taking a toll on my friend and I. His highest peak at that point had been the 7,242 ft. summit of Harney Peak in South Dakota and my highest had been the neighboring Buck Mountain at 11,938 ft. I was a little more used to the effects at this point, but my buddy ALMOST turned around halfway up the couloir due to the strenuousness of the scrambling. I convinced him not too, however, and soon we reached the summit.
Crawling up onto that little rock and peering down over into Jackson Hole was a new level of euphoria for both of us. Over the past few months I had summited a few peaks in the area, but nothing compared to this one since I had done it with three of my closest friends. We sat up there and took it all in for a half hour or so before deciding to turn around and meet up with our buddy waiting at the saddle.
As we started our way down the couloir, we ran into the boy and girl climbers we had met earlier on their way up. I asked them if there was anyone behind them and the boy mentioned that he thought our buddy was following them up. I said that was impossible, since he had decided to stop, but the boy insisted. Sure enough, I peered down over the ledge we were resting on and saw him slowly making his way up the couloir. We cheered him on from our perch and watched as he made his way up to us. He met up with us there, about 400 feet below the summit, and told us that he realized he was better than stopping at the saddle. He commented on not knowing when he'd have another opportunity like this again and that he realized he had what it took to continue. We were very proud of him; he really hit a new level.
We realized we couldn't let him go to the summit alone, so we turned around and climbed the rest of the way back up with him a second time. We met up with the couple on the summit and the five of us took in the views (and the oxygen). It was great to share the summit with two of my best buddies.
The DescentAs euphoric as sitting atop the summit was, the trip down just plain sucked. As I'm sure many of you know, it was just a pain in the butt. Every inch of our bodies ached with every step and we had many, many steps to go to get down to the meadows to meet up with our third party member. The three of us were getting pretty tired of scrambling atop the rocks and were looking forward to the dirt trail past the meadows. There's not much else to write here for this part... we pretty much kept to ourselves and just trudged on.
One of my buddies made the unfortunate discovery that his camelbak bladder was slowly, but surely, leaking water. My filter was left at the camp as I figured we wouldn't run into any water above the meadows. We rationed the water from the rest of our bladders so we'd all have some till we arrived back at the campsite. Lots of scrambling and some light glissading later, and we arrived.
We filled our fourth party member in about the trip to the summit and how hard it was while taking down camp. I filtered some water (I swear it's the best water in the world) and we all filled up before beginning the hike down. We were all sore for the hike down, but once we reached the dirt trails it got a little better. We sang a few songs and ate a bunch of huckleberries on the way down to pass the time. Arriving at the truck 30 hours after leaving it, we threw our junk in and went to town to fill up on food and beer, which one of us (not me, luckily) ended up throwing up.
All in all, how much better could it get?