Leigh LakeAfter a long day of work at the Colter Bay Marina, I headed up the road to tent village and plopped down into a chair next to my friend, Sven.
"So I was thinking of climbing the South Teton this weekend. Would you be interested?"
Sven, an experienced climber, had taken me up the Middle Teton a couple weeks before. I was sick as a dog but wouldn't turn around because I knew it would probably be my only shot at getting to climb with these guys. So I summited. And now he thought I was hardcore. Crap.
"Oh, well.... you should come climb Mt. Moran with us instead. It will be way more fun," he said.
"I don't think I'm in good enough shape to do that... isn't it the second hardest mountain in the range?" I asked.
"You'll be fine"
I have a tendancy to underestimate my abilities, so I trusted Sven and agreed to go.
On Sunday afternoon, I headed off to Dornans to meet Sven and to pick up the canoe. As I was driving in, Sven was driving away. This can't be good I thought. Things went downhill from here. He pulled over to talk to me.
"It's too expensive" he said. "Will you do me a favor and drive into town to see if you can find some sort of inflatable raft or kayak at K-Mart?"
"No, Sven. You're an idiot. That will never, never, EVER work. We have 3 people and 3 people's worth of climbing gear and tents, and sleeping bags, and--"
"Ok, ok. Get two."
I rolled my eyes and headed into town. I stared at the tiny raft for 5 minutes, debating whether or not it would hold us, much less get us across the lake. Finally, I broke down and bought two of them, then drove back to Colter Bay. Sven was having some sort of girlfriend drama and told John and I to go ahead with one of the rafts. I think I met John once before we climbed the Middle, but once again we were split into different groups and I didn't know him at all, really. We parked at the String Lake trailhead, which was full of rich hikers exhausted from walking 2 miles to Hidden Falls, and yet still acted like they were the greatest outdoorsmen in the country. John and I pulled the stupid K-Mart raft out of the box. All we could do was laugh at what we were about to try. Our battery pump was broken, so we started blowing futily with our mouths. A lady across the parking lot saw our plight, and brought over a foot pump.
"Thanks a lot!" we said.
"You're welcome," she said, and then gave us a curious look. "Where are you going with this? String Lake?"
I smiled a goofy smile and said: "We're climbing Mt. Moran!"
She turned a little pale and wished us luck. John and I got our last few things packed and put the raft into String lake to test it out. We got about 25 feet before we realized that it wasn't going to work. We took it out and began to discuss our options. We took out our guidebook and read what it had to say, which wasn't much. "If travel by canoe is ruled out (and you better have a good reason)... for those incurably bent on self-abuse, this area may also be reached by a devastating bushwhack along the southwest shore of Leigh Lake." John and I looked at each other, shrugged, and read it again, just to make sure.
"How bad could it be?"
It was indeed THAT BAD.
We ditched the boat in the woods, shouldered our burdens, and plunged into the woods. "Devastating bushwhack" cannot even begin to describe what we went through. 45-50 lb. packs, wet, boggy shrubland, and hundreds of fallen trees stood between us and the base of Mt. Moran. It was too hot to trade our shorts for long pants, and the thorns tore at our bare legs. Wet black gelatenous muck filled our approach shoes (good thing I rented mine from Dornans!) and horse flies swarmed around our heads. At one point, we became so disgusted with our situation that we held our packs above our heads, jumped into the lake, and waded for about a quarter mile until it got too deep for us to wade. 3 long hours and we finally made it to the base of the washout where there sat 5 or 6 canoes, one of those was the group of 3 that left before us. We sat and cursed about them for a while; it would have been so easy for them to make one trip, then come back and pick up the remaining people, but no... it would have taken one extra lousy hour. John and I contemplated our situation and seriously considered stealing their canoe and going home, leaving them to the fate that we had just encountered. Furthermore, there was still no sign of Sven, who was carrying a good amount of our climbing gear. After pondering this for a while, we finally decided that we might as well just get up to the campsite, build a fire, and sleep there; the sun was already beginning to set.
We started up the scree trail that led up to the CMC campsite. It was soon dark enough that we needed our headlamps. I pulled mine out only to discover that it was broken. There was no moon, but the stars were bright so we continued on using just John's headlamp. Unfortunately, the stars only lasted for about 15 minutes when the clouds rolled in and began dumping rain on us. We somehow got off route and found ourselves on steep, grassy, wet slopes, barely able to keep ourselves from sliding downhill. We were tired, wet, and had no idea which direction the camp was in, so I suggested that we find a flat spot to pitch the tent.
There are no flat spots on Mt. Moran.
Luckily we were well prepared, other than the boat and the headlamp. Not so were some other descending climbers who yelled to us "Do you have any extra sleeping bags or food or water?" We obviously didn't. We got out our waterproof sleeping bags and scrambled up to a cliff. There was a small pine tree there, bent from soil creep, and I sat on it with my head in a thorn bush all night, periodically sliding off because of my nylon sleeping bag on the wet grass. The next morning we found the trail and the campsite, but no Sven. That was it... we were tired and didn't have enough gear, and we started to head down. Just as we made that descision, we heard a "BERGAGERT" from above. (Bergagert is the Colter Bay Climber's call. I have no idea where that stupid word came from, and neither do any of the guys who use it. But by golly, it works. A simple bergagert is all we need to determine where someone is, who they are, and what kind of mood they're in.) Somehow we had crossed paths with him and he saw us starting to descend. Sven was planning on soloing the CMC route. John was so exhausted that he decided to go down anyway. And I was caught somewhere in the middle. I wasn't sure if I had the energy to make the climb, but I didn't want to turn around after all that effort. Sven convinced me to at least come to Drizzlepuss with him to take a look.
Well, we got to Drizzlepuss. And it hailed on us, so that was the end of that. We began the descent back to the lake.
"So Sven... how the heck did you get across the lake?"
"Well... I used the same raft you guys tried, but I popped it when I got to this side."
My heart sank. There was no way I was bushwhacking again. I was firmly set on stealing the canoe. But Sven assured me everything would be all right... after all, he patched it with bubble gum.
We got down to the lake and lightened our load into just the essentials, leaving the rest in our friends' canoe for them to take back. The raft hadn't lost much air (thanks to the gum) so we decided to take our chances. We used a tent patching kit and some athletic tape to reinforce it and stuck some more gum in our mouths for the trip across the lake... just in case. The winds shifted directions (of course) and we were fighting to get away from shore. Waves splashed over the edges of the raft, soaking us and our remaining belongings. We finally made it to the other side of the lake, which cut off most of the bushwhack. We found the other boat a while later and made it back to my 4-Runner, exhausted and hungry. We went to climb Baxter's Pinnacle the next morning, but since we had to be at work by 1:00 and there was another party on it already, we had no choice but to abandon that, too.
We made up for it though; a couple weeks later Sven and I got off work at midnight, summitted the Grand Teton (free-solo) at sunrise, and ran down to get to work at 1:00.
All things considered, it was a great learning experience, a good story, and a great adventure. I do admit that some of the things we did were pretty crazy and pretty stupid, but I'm glad we made those mistakes so we won't make them again. Next time we'll kick in the extra $40 per day for the canoe, get Sven a better girlfriend, trust the guidebook, and bring an extra headlamp. The other group, by the way, had a great time, summitted, and brought back our extra stuff.
I'll get you this summer, Mt. Moran.