There we were at the trailhead for Granite Peak, Montana. Having just finished our climb of Granite Peak, myself and Eric (hendere) were anxious to get to the Climber’s Ranch at Grand Teton National Park and get a shower, a meal, some rest, then make an attempt on South and Middle Teton later that week. It looked like about a four hour drive through Yellowstone. Boy....was I wrong.
I had forgotten about how long it takes to get through Yellowstone. Not only is it 100 miles just through the park, but the speed limit is only 45 mph. The whole situation is compounded by every tourist from Pig’s Knuckle, Iowa who has to stop in the middle of the road to look at a herd of squirrels. With patience wearing thin and the speedometer pegged, seven hours later we pulled into the Climber’s Ranch.
The American Alpine Club Climber’s Ranch is a place every climber should see and stay at. The Ranch offers modest, rustic accommodations in six-person cabins. No heat. No air conditioning. No bedding. But for eight bucks a night you get a dry cabin, hot shower, washer/dryer, good beta, quick access to the hills, and comradery with other climbers. Like the Valley and Camp 4, the Tetons and the Climber’s Ranch has a long history in the climbing world. Many famous climbers have darkened the doors and stayed in the same cabins as you and I.
The reason is a lot like the Valley....the Teton range. When you see the Tetons, it’s like driving through the tunnel on the west side of Yosemite.....simply awe inspiring. Pictures do not do them justice. You must see them in person (then climb them) to appreciate the magnificence. The entire Grand Teton National Park is centered around the mountains.....that’s all....nothing else. There are a few other things to do in the area, but it’s the mountains that get the attention. And the Climber’s Ranch is at the center of the range. You can almost throw a rock from Cabin #5 and hit the Grand.
The Ranch host is up until 10:00 pm. It was a good thing too because we didn’t arrive until about 9:00. When we checked in, a nice note from Jerry (Iceaxeman) was waiting for us. They put us in the same cabin with Jerry. Things were slow at the Ranch after Labor Day, so Jerry, Eric, and I had the cabin to ourselves. We stayed up an hour or so getting to know each other. I could tell that we were going to have a great time together. Jerry had some great stories to tell and we all shared some good climbing tales.
Eric and I were up at 6:00 am the next morning to get our backcountry camping permits. You don’t have to have a permit to climb or hike, but you need one to camp, and only in designated areas. You can get a permit the day before your approach on a first-come-first-served basis. The ranger station opens at 8:00 am and we planned to be there at 6:30 am. Normally, you have to get there that early or all the good campsites are gone. However, this morning, we were the only ones there for the campsite we wanted. I guess after Labor Day things slow down quite a bit. After getting our permits, we spent the rest of the day taking it easy, washing clothes, washing the car, and shopping in town. Jerry originally planned to bag a walk-up, but later decided to go for a drive on the Idaho side of the range. In fact, while we were pulling into the visitor center later that afternoon, Jerry almost backed into us in the parking lot. Afterwards, we went to Moose and had a cold beer (maybe a couple). Anyway, while at the bar, the weather started to get dark. We watched a huge storm come in from the south and dump a boatload of snow on the Tetons. There was significant snow on the peaks and we wondered about the conditions on the South and Middle Tetons which were our goal.
The next morning, Lupine Meadows trailhead was crowded with cars as usual. A couple of young women were also at the trailhead and asked us about the South and Middle Tetons. They had plans to climb them both that day. Eric and I looked at each other. I informed them that normally people start at about 3:00 or 4:00 am to get both peaks from the trailhead. The Middle Teton was about a seven mile climb, 6000 feet of elevation gain, and took at least 7-9 hours from the trailhead. After summiting the Middle Teton, the South Teton takes an additional 3-4 hours to climb. Then, you have at least a 6 hour descent and hike out. The story with these two gals does not end here.
We made it to the Meadows camping area in about 3 hours. I had forgotten how easy the trail is to the meadows and figured it would take longer, but we arrived about 10:30. We considered a summit attempt that day, but dismissed it. We all agreed that an alpine start would increase our chances of getting both peaks.
The two girls from the trailhead were there with four other young women. They were all standing around putting on sunscreen and securing their camp. A couple of them came near us to hang their food (from the marmots). They announced that they were going to climb the Middle Teton. I asked them if they knew the route and they said they did. So around 11:00 am, all six of them left wearing only shorts, sports bras, no packs or gear, and heading in the wrong direction.
We set up camp, Jerry took a nap, and Eric took off to scout our approach so we could do it in the dark the next morning. It was a long afternoon and we spent the time watching “Fuzzy” and his son top-belaying a boulder next to us. We were also entertained by Fuzzy’s wife, Kathy, running out to the trail to “buy” food from hikers and climbers coming off the Grand Teton. Apparently, they attempted to gain the Lower Saddle the evening before and were caught by the same storm we observed from the bar. They descended to the Meadows and somehow were running out of food. She must have run out to the trail half a dozen times to buy food from people. They were very nice people, and we invited Kathy to join us for our Middle Teton climb. She thought about it, but declined, thinking she would not be able to keep our pace. We also met “Jim” who had made an attempt on the Middle the year before. He admitted he wasn’t much of a climber and that he was not in very good shape. He said that he and his friends would be leaving for the Middle at 3:30 am the next morning.
Towards evening, we began to worry about the young women attempting the Middle Teton. Two of the girls returned shortly after they left (the ones at the trailhead), which left four of them on the mountain. By 7:00 pm, the general consensus of everyone in the camping area was that if they weren’t back by sunset (8:00 pm) we would call the rangers. Once that happened, the rangers would shut the mountain down for everyone until the girls were found. At 7:30 they began to straggle in. Turns out, they went up the wrong route (duh), then got lost for three hours in the wrong couloir. They took no rain gear and were totally unprepared. The only thing that saved them was great weather. Had it been the day before, they would have been in serious trouble due to the snow storm. They claimed to have summited, but we doubted their story because the time factor did not add up. It took Jerry, Eric, and I just under eight hours tent-to-tent and we pushed hard. They were gone for 8.5 hours (remember.... they got lost for 3 hours). Anyway, as they straggled in, I gave one or two of them a piece of my mind. They quickly packed up and headed out to the trailhead.
We were up and on the approach at 5:09 am. Eric set a blistering pace and led us successfully through the first section. Jerry took the lead as it began to get light and we trudged on toward the saddle. At the saddle at 7:30 am, we met Jim and his buddies. They arrived shortly before us and appeared whipped. It took them about four hours to reach the saddle and they continued to rest while we headed up the southwest couloir. If you ever climb Middle Teton, make sure you continue until reaching the correct saddle. There are several false saddles and you will know you are there when you see Icefloe Lake on the west side of the range.
The southwest couloir is where the fun begins. Some nice class 3 with a few class 4 moves sprinkled in makes the couloir a joy to climb. After a hundred feet or so of scrambling, we arrived at a shoulder below the main couloir. Except for a few loose spots, the couloir is very solid, with nice holds and great views. We scrambled up to the airy summit around 9:00 am. The summit is very small and care must be taken not to superman off into Idaho. The highlight of the summit was when Eric took out a waterproof match (the candle), stuck it into a Clif bar (the cake), and we sang “Happy Birthday” to Jerry. Jerry turned 50 that day and he said he was glad to be on top of a mountain on his birthday. Eric gave him an old ‘biner tied with a bow for a gift. The day was perfect. No wind, sunny skies, good friends, and on a summit.
The descent: About halfway down, we met Jim and his buddies. They were having a little trouble. Seems that ol’ Jim was having difficulty with one of the class 4 spots. Some guy with huge ice axe and a tweed hat was standing above giving directions, while another guy scratched up the move while kicking boulders down on his buddies. These guys were obviously in over their heads and we doubted whether they should be there at all. After a couple of sharp comments from myself and Eric, we managed to negotiate our way through the mess one at a time. I would really like to know if Jim made it or not......he is a nice guy.
Upon arriving at the saddle, we met a teacher with three young high school students. The rest of their group (18 students) was on the South Teton with a guide. We could see them on the ridge above us as they scouted out the northwest couloir of the South Teton. Soon after, we observed the group of ants descending. Turns out, our suspicions of the South were correct. The northwest couloir was filled with ice and snow due to the recent snow storm. I was a definite “no go” but Jerry and Eric seriously considered an attempt. They discussed it, then decided to forgo the climb.
Our descent was uneventful except for me falling on my ass twice. One must cross a huge moraine and I managed to land on two loose boulders while rock hopping. Thus, I slowed down considerably and watched Eric and Jerry speed off to camp. When I arrived, Jerry was already packed. He was anxious to get on the road, so he headed off to the trailhead after handshakes and goodbyes. Eric and I broke the record for the hike back to the car. Pizza and a cold one never sounded better.
Eric and I spent the night at the ranch and headed out at 6:00 am the next morning for a marathon 20-hour drive to Oklahoma.
This trip concluded my summer climbing season. I have met many good people this year and Jerry was no exception. Thanks, Jerry, for making my last trip of the year fun and successful, and thanks for bringing all the goodies on the mountain.
Eric and I hardly knew each other before this trip. We saw each other at the gym a few times and climbed one day together at the crags. After 50 hours in the car together and nine days on the road, you get to know someone. I learned that nobody can eat more Clif Bars than Eric Henderson. He eats Clif Bars like you and I eat M&Ms. You think I am kidding, but he buys them by the case. Besides that little character flaw, he’s a great guy and a great friend. Thanks, Eric, for making this trip happen.
And....as always...thanks to the Tetons for being there, and especially to the Middle Teton for safe day, good weather, and great mountain experience. See you next year!