The original inspiration for this climb can be traced indirectly to the Georgetown Loop Railroad. Please, suffer through my explanation. Towards the conclusion of our summer vacation in July '03, my family and I paid a beggar's ransom for the "privilege" of riding a silly little antique train on old tracks through narrow passes and over creaky bridges. There were many oohs and ahs from the captive gallery of camera-toting geriatrics. Gummy little kids gawked incessantly at the faux conductor(How many times can a retiree don this costume before their self-esteem is permanently impaired? You better fund your 401(k)!!) with the polished brass buttons and handlebar moustache.....something was missing.
After the excursion, we had a killer dinner at The Red Ram Restaurant and your author quaffed several pints of the local brew. High marks for the buffalo burger. As we wound through the town en route to I-70 for the return trip to Breckenridge, I spied a sign pointing the way to Guanella Pass some thirteen miles away. With a reticent bridal unit in tow, I carefully navigated the trashed out road until we emerged into a parking lot at the top of the pass. Out of the van, I saw a sign posted by the authorities that provided a crude route description to the summit of Mount Bierstadt. The texture of future summers changed on the dime.
Once back in Breck, I visited one of the moutain gear shops and proudly announced to a stunned Rastafarian my intent to summit Bierstadt on the following day. I asked him what I would need. My plans stalled and my eyes glassed over as the price tag parade caused my tight ass to contract on the spot. Further, the nappy-headed fellow cautioned me on my apparent lack of conditioning and asked me if I had ever had practical experience with the phrase "sucking wind" at 14,000 feet.
Forlorn, I trudged out of his shop and directly to the nearest trough to ponder my considerable list of inadequacies over more pints of Fat Tire. I had made one purchase before my departure: a now tattered copy of Gerry Roach's Colorado Fourteeners.
The next year found me frequenting moutaineering communities on the web, hanging out in the only gear shop in Kansas City, and reading Roach's book in its entirety. My first peak was going to be Mount Quandary and in December of '03, I taped a color print of it to the wall in my office. To anyone who would listen, I proclaimed that I would stand on its summit on or about noon on 07/05/04. I bagged the summit at 10:30 that morning. Later, in the same week, I completed the Decalibron (Democrat, Lincoln, Cameron, and Bross in one long day).
I was ecstatic. The surge in self-esteem was immediate and long-lasitng. My physical fitness was, likewise, at a muti-year high. On returning home, I began to conspire immediately on how I could bribe my girls to return to Colorado for yet a third year in a row. I also immersed myself deeper into the online climbing community and determined that my resume needed a radical uptick ASAP. The Grand Teton became a crystal clear icon for my ambitions shortly thereafter.
After a climbing a couple of fourteeners as tune ups in early July, I arrived in Jackson, Wyoming by way of puddle jumper on Sunday, 7/24. Having no experience with technical climbing, I opted for the services of Exum Mountain Guides. After two days of serious climbing curriculum, my partner and I were ready for the two day assault on The Grand Teton.
On Wednesday night, prior to our departure from Lupine Meadows, I had made the mistake of reading "A Windy Day on Grand Teton", a trip report filed right here on 7/16. It was not a very encouraging read; my posterior contracted further with each ensuing passage. I proceeded to dine on an impressive array of prescription drugs and OTC meds in an effort to overcome the literary trauma and get a good night's sleep. I was successful. Rick was not.
Let's pause for a word from our sponsors about Rick. A client of mine, he was in my office months ago quizzing me about, among other things, my newfound obsession with the mountains. At meeting's end, he asked if I would mind having a partner for the trip. I was up for the idea; I just hadn't considered it possible to find someone else quite as crazed as myself. Like myself, Rick is 44; prior to The Grand Teton, he had never climbed before. He began training aggressively right away and by the time we arrived in Jackson, he had actually surpassed my own level of fitness. He's a swell guy to have around. He dates an MD, so he's teeming with free medical advice. He beats travel agents, hotel clerks, desk managers, bartenders, and waitresses to death for concessions on everything from a glass of tea to a night's accomodations. He laughs at all of your jokes, even the ones that are not funny. He is quite clearly a normally-aspirated heterosexual, though he confessed to a life long urge to cross dress just once. I told him to save it for another trip.
On Thursday morning, we scurried about the condo in Jackson checking our packs one final time, gulping reams of cheap coffee (good job, Snow King) , checking stock quotes. My eyes were bigger than jelly rolls as the realization began to set in that I was about to ascend to the summit of The Grand Teton and become the stuff of legend in my own home.
We arrived at Exum headquarters at 9:45 a.m. fifteen minutes late after one last frantic dash through the aisles of a minimart looking for mountain nutrition. No worry. There is plenty of time on day one to be a couple of minutes late. The hike- in through Garnett Canyon takes anywhere from six to eight hours, is eight miles long, and encompasses 5500 feet of elevation gain. Rick and I were in two separate parties. Brian Hardner, his guide, was taking him and Joe up The Exum Ridge. Kevin Mahoney would take myself and two others, Ken and Robert, to the summit via Owens Spalding.
Let the games begin. We departed the Lupine Meadows trailhead at 10:55 a.m. with sweet anticipation, both parties together for the slog through Garnett Canyon. As advertised, the guides set an eminently manageable pace at the outset during the persistent ascent up an unending parade of switchbacks through the heavily-vegetated terrain. Ken and Robert chatted with the guide Kevin with little or no pause while I withdrew into my own private world of inner consciousness. I had ample time to consider the folly of my stock market methodologies, whether or not to auction my ColdPlay tickets on Ebay, the utter incompetence of David Glass' KC Royals, and what a tumble down the cliffs of The Grand would mean to my future performance (or lack, thereof) in the sack.
After several hours, the forest yields to the majesty of Garnett Canyon. Nez Perce, Middle Teton, and Disappointment Peak reveal their magnaminity as one plies deeper into their inner sanctum. Gentle terrain yields to a combination of scree, talus, and at times, some very fun bouldering problems. Mountain runoff from snowmelt creates flowing streams of crystalline water that occasionally tumble forcefully over the rock-strewn terrain and present a wide variety of waterfalls in all sizes. Looking high and deep into the canyon towards the headwall that separates us from the lower saddle, I began to appreciate the futility of using photos as a means of relating this experience to others. Looking towards the ground and immediately in front of you, every stone and boulder(some the size of office buildings) tells its own tale of the geological events that have been taking place here for millions upon millions of years. Namely, gravity beckons and rocks fall. I couldn't help but think how comical my Exum-provided helmet was at this point.
We took several breaks along the way to snack and hydrate. Without trepidation, I frequently filled my liter bottles from the streams and drank the water straight without treatment. What a sweet release from a daily life of obsessive risk control.
Approximately 5:30 p.m., we approached the headwall that seemingly serves as a rock moat placed there by The Grand herself to impede progress to her lower saddle. Kevin and Brian were quite explicit in their warning regarding falling rock in this area. Both had seen with some regularity large rock dancing down the canyon like ping pong balls.There was a logjam, with several guided parties waiting for their turn to use the thick fixed rope to climb the near vertical staircase of fractured gneiss. Problematically, there were two or three groups who were descending as well.
At this juncture, rigamortis is beginning to set in and unless I get to the hut soon for a hot meal, I may be fodder for the mortician's table by midnight. I became increasingly frustrated by the pace. Finally, we conquered the pitch and after another twenty minutes of talus navigation we were at The Hut.
Nondescript. Not your father's Holiday Inn. Not your mom's Motel 6. Room for sixteen to sleep on the floor, arranged like sardines. Exum provides the sleeping bags and pads and a three burner gas-operated stove for heating water. Paper towels and defecation kits. That's it. After milling about and getting acquainted with our sleeping quarters, Kevin called a meeting and laid out the agenda for Friday's summit attempt. We would rise at three and begin climbing by four, achieve the summit before 8:30 and after a three to four hour descent, be back at the hut by noon. Nice plan.
With everyone's packs reorganized, hot meals ingested, and marching orders disseminated, we retired to our packs. I took a sleeping pill, inserted ear plugs, shut my eyes and proceeded to lay in my pack for 6.5 hours sleeping nary a minute. Ten climbers shifting, nine hikers sniffling, eight marmots searching, seven cowards crying, six people coughing, five guides were talking, four geezers farting, two lovers giggling.....one jackass snoring. At 12:30 a.m., to make matters worse, the wind started pounding the hut mercilessly. I guess the majority of the gusts were in the 50 mph range, with some hitting the 60-70 mph mark.
As promised, the guides lit the lantern at 3:00 a.m. and put the water on the boil. The wind was still howling with rude and ominous authority. The Exum team was unflappable. They did decide early on that no parties would attempt Exum Ridge on this day, opting instead for everyone to use the Owens Spalding Route.
We embarked. Immediately, the terrain is steep as you approach The Black Dike. As a flatlander operating on no sleep since 6:00 a.m. the previous day, I had precious little strength and the first thirty minutes kicked my rear. At the dike, Kevin made it clear that this would be the last chance to return to the hut without a guide. During the ascent to this point, I had ruminated seriously about the prospect of turning back. The weather scared me, the darkness was intimidating, my gas tank (while hydrated) felt empty, and Pelucid's account from a few days prior played on my courage. Nevertheless, overpowering these myriad concerns were the twelve months of proclamations to anyone who would listen that I was going to conquer the The Grand. In short, I didn't want to be labeled a quitter. Or, a blowhard. I would place my unequivocal faith in the guide.
After The Black Dike, we roped up and started walking in coils. Then we began the ascent of a number of vertical pitches on belay. With each pitch, the exposure became more breathtaking. One has no choice but to look, but then turn your attention to the climbing pitch above and start moving. The weather was deteriorating rapidly. The overcast clouds, unusual for July, started spitting rain. The rain then became steady. We stopped and everyone in the party pulled their rain protection out of the packs and put in on along with extra layers of synthetic apparel. It was getting colder and colder. Kevin insisted on a unremitting pace for the climbing out of concern for the weather. The pace, the exposure, and fears of a weather-related tragedy were collectively weighing on my psyche. I was, all at once: despondent, anxiety-ridden, excited, hopeful, shocked, and humbled by the complexity of The Grand Teton's southwest face. On this day, she was extracting a high price of admission for the privilege of standing on her summit.
I felt overmatched. But, I continued at Kevin's behest.
Soon, we reached The Belly Roll. Yikes. The exposure is 1500 feet and the width of the ledge is roughly equivalent to a couple of skateboards. In the past, people assumed an almost canine-like posture and crawled through, hugging the moutain as close as possible. Kevin told us that this was not practical with our packs and our size. He wanted us to smear across the face while holding rock; I wanted to hug the mountain and I crawled through, not looking below even once on this pitch. Soon, we all made it through and I was very relieved as all of my reading had suggested that this was the crux of the entire day. Now, at the upper saddle, we up climbed several interesting and steep chimney's. The rock at this elevation is a sight to behold. Solid granite, polished my millions upon millions of years of ice, snow, rain, sleet, wind, silt, and sand. Fractured in an incredible array of formations. Impermeable, and excellent to climb on. I could taste the summit. Suddenly, I believed. My emotions were turning more positive. I was experiencing a surge in pride that is indescribable. The anticipation was sweet. After only two seasons of bagging fourteeners in Colorado, I was about to claim The Grand.
A final push and there we were!! Kevin announced our arrival and I was on Cloud Nine. The fun didn't last long, however. As I reached for my camera in order to take the ever important summit pics, Kevin hurriedly ushered us to the west face for an urgent descent: He had experienced a feeling of electricity in his clothes. When he said this, I, too felt the strange sensation. It even has a sound; like a very low frequency hum from a cheap transistor radio. I was PETRIFIED. Kevin instructed me to go first and down climb this exceptionally steep face. Steep is an understatement; to me, it seemed nearly vertical. I crab walked down about two pitches; Kevin belayed me from above. Soon, we were at the rappel point. Sooner than I might have liked. With all the precision of a mechanical engineer, Kevin made the elaborate preparations for our 150 foot rappel to get off of the Upper Saddle. Again, I was first. To save time, Kevin would lower me and the teammates. Having no function other than to essentially fall off of the moutain and let myself descend to a, as yet, invisible ledge was at once liberating and horrifying. There was a butterfly convention taking place in my lower intestine. I did it. After a second of trauma, I released all of my anxiety and replaced it with sheer ecstasy when I realized I was going to be safe. I arrived on the ledge, untied so that Kevin could retrieve the gear, and started crying. I don't know where it came from. But, it felt good. It was, I believe, a reaction to the fact that I was out of danger for the moment, I had reached the summit, and I had at least ten minutes of rest before the other members of my party would join me. The rest was sorely needed.
This story is becoming too long and the best parts are behind me. Two hours later, we were at the hut, had a hot meal, rested somewhat, and began the seven hour trek to our car. The trek out was not unenventful. Robert fell and dislocated his shoulder. Joe fell forward during a bouldering problem and did a face plant, splitting his nose. My feet became two throbbing appendages of swollen pain. The push for the car was primal. It represented everything that would bring me the comfort that I had surrendered for the past two days. Not to mention that it would take me to a watering hole where Rick and I could luxuriate in our achievement and pound pints of beer.
I flew out of Jackson Hole the next day and returned home to Kansas City. While in the airport restaurant waiting for my departure, I looked out at The Grand Teton and wondered how I ever managed to stand on the summit. One step at a time is how. It's a good lesson by which to live our lives. You can achieve any lofty goal. ONE STEP AT A TIME.
"So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."
--Peter Gibbons (Office Space)