The Middle Teton (12,804') offers a varied alpine scramble and is a beautiful peak, even though it sits in the shadow of its big brother, the Grand. Although many would consider the Middle a pleasant day hike or warm-up climb, we chose the Middle for several reasons. First, it's the highest non-technical peak in the range, meaning we wouldn't have to haul ropes and climbing gear up from the valley floor, and if we had to retreat, we could do so without having to descend scary rock and possibly lose gear. Second, after spending our summer days off (working at a GTNP hotel) hiking, sport climbing, and trying out our alpine chops on some smaller beginner peaks, we wanted to climb a "big-name" peak in the range before heading home to Michigan, and with only two weekends left, the Middle offered us the greatest chance of success. Having previously had to turn back or abandon several previous peaks, we wanted something attainable. Third, the approach is up the well-traveled but beautiful Garnet Canyon, and would involve a night of enjoyable backpacking in new terrain.
Some good backpacking
After Hanging Canyon, this trail was a breeze
Day one was a fairly easy approach halfway up the canyon. I know this peak is a half-day warm-up for some, but we decided to take it easy since we had two days off and wanted to be able to stop for pictures. We woke up, drove down to rent snow gear, and started up the trail around 10:30. The trail up the wooded ridge is nothing special, especially in August when it's full of dayhikers in Chacos on their way up to Amphitheater Lake and packs of wide-eyed tourists being guided in groups of 15 or 20 to have their affluent butts hauled up the Grand.
Happy to be done with vertical gain for the day.
Despite the crowds, Garnet Canyon is still a spectacular sight. I asked a ranger if Garnet Canyon was closer to Hanging or Death Canyon, and he said "neither." He was right. It's a large, glacial canyon like others, but with a decidedly more "big mountain" feel. The requisite mountain stream was clear and fast as always, but was often out of sight winding its way under huge granite boulder fields. The canyon walls were bigger than anything we'd seen yet; with thousands of feet of talus slopes and sheer cliffs rising up to form intricate arêtes, gullies, pillars, notches, ridges, and peaks.
Spalding Falls. Not pictured: group of 20 being led by Exum Guides.
We were not alone, but it was good company.
Our campsite, the meadows, was located at the junction of the South and North canyon forks, and is the launching point for all three of "Les Trois Tetons." The North Fork features a winding climber's trail full of guided groups and individuals headed up to their high camps or down from the popular routes on the Grand, as well as the glacier routes on the Middle and Mount Owen. The South Fork leads up to the saddle between the South and Middle Tetons, and is the approach for the easiest routes up both. After checking out the route for the next morning, (which we planned to start with headlamps) we entertained ourselves with some light bouldering in our campsite, then enjoyed a nice meal of dehydrated pad thai and went to bed at 8:00, when the whole canyon had slipped into shade.
Just hearing one of these guys squeak makes me smile
The Fun Part, with an alpine start.
It was not a good day to get an early start on the Grand, either.
The next morning we woke up in the dark at 4:30. We were reluctant since it spat on us a few times during the night, but since it wasn't CURRENTLY raining, we decided to give it a go. Soon after we got going, but too far to head back to the tent, it started drizzling again. Traversing a wet granite boulder field is bad in daylight, but since we were relying on one headlamp (dropped the other one of a cliff in Hanging Canyon, that's another story), we decided to find a nice shelter boulder, and wait it out, proceeding when the rocks dried up enough for us. This sequence continued onward between numerous boulder caves (some more roomy than others) for several hours, and it took us way longer to get up the canyon than it should have.
That little gap in the clouds was our green light.
Since it was misty and our direction was dictated by where we could find shelter, we wound up on the wrong side of the canyon, and it became clear why the guidebook said to keep north. Difficult boulder fields, wet sections of scrambling, and a few steep snow fields (by far the more preferable of the three, especially with crampons) eventually got us back on the right (correct) side.
A nice water source, but it's a bit far off.
From then on, the trip up to the saddle was a steep but pleasant trip, and just when we were beginning to have doubts about visibility, a patch of blue sky crept into the canyon, Idaho's little gift to us. Looking west out of the saddle we could see more clouds, but decided we'd have enough time to make it up and down, since the route (and the summit) were now in full view. In addition to the weather, the view out of the saddle showed us a drop straight down to a glacier-fed lake still full of ice chunks, as well as the sloping cliffs of the western part of the range, a view not had by the average car-tourist. The first part of the route was a sweeping snow climb up the main ridge, after which we spat out onto a large, flat area where we could inspect the rest of the couloir, take off our crampons, and take one last break before the push for the summit.
From the saddle
from the flat area above the saddle. a good point to scope out the route (and take a break) before getting into the proper scrambling
A bonus is that you can see west for the last 1500 feet, so it's harder for the weather to sneak up on you.
The first half of the scramble was one part goat path, one part scrambling on loose rock and dirt, and several parts being amazed by how abundant some of the delicate (yet hardy) alpine life is. Wildflowers persisted beyond 12,000 feet. Several pikas scurried about collecting food for the winter. Flies buzzed around our sweaty heads. A bird screamed at us for coming too close to its nest and even gave us a warning fly-by. About halfway up, the walls narrowed in to form the couloir that would give us passage to the summit. There was nothing too steep or exposed, and only a few “spicy" moves to be negotiated, but the steep walls of the gully did funnel a LOT of loose rock. I was glad for our helmets. At the top of the steep section there were several ridges to choose from, but luckily we chose the one that led to top.
Token summit block shot of the author
I scrambled up to the lofty, windy summit, gave the USGS benchmark a pat, and shouted to let my girlfriend and climbing partner know that we chose wisely and that the end was near. As we took in the panorama, panting for air and exhausted from climbing higher than we'd ever been before, thinking we were on top of the world, a butterfly floated lazily in front of us. Several ravens circled effortlessly on thermals above the summit, just to remind us that even though we thought we were defying gravity, we were still attached to the rocks and dirt that thrust us up into the sky. We had climbed the mountain, but would never conquer it.
Another bonus is an imposing glance at the classic routes up the Grand.
If you're looking for motivation to hike the Teton crest trail, here ya go.
What goes up...
It looks so close.
From peak to parking lot we were now staring at 6000 vertical feet that had to be taken knee-blasting step by blister-inducing step. Occasionally a climber's trail or a brief butt-slide (excuse me... glissaaaade) on the compacted summer snow would give us a respite from the pounding, jarring boulders, but more time was spent on the rock than off. Our only break for the first few hours was when we hid under a boulder dugout for ten minutes to get out of a cold, wind-driven rainstorm.
Thunder, wind, and drizzle threatened for the rest of the evening, but only caught us once. By the time we reached our packs back in the meadows, all I could think about was the promise of soft Tevas and a plate full of nachos. However painful for the toes, the latter half flew by mostly on moderate trail, and we were down before we knew it, to watch one of the most spectacular Teton sunsets I have seen yet.