ContemplationI had started a trip report on my free-solo excursion on the Grand Teton and was not going to finish it since I did not have very many pictures to supplement my story; however the recent death of renowned free-soloist Michael Reardon has got me contemplating and reflecting about this form of climbing. When I first began climbing I immediately discounted free-soloists as crazy. These were obviously people on a power-trip and searching for the tingly feeling caused by an adrenaline rush. It was not until I had watched Return2Sender and had already been climbing for half a year that I began to open up and listen to what these extreme outliers had to say. In the film Michael Reardon explains that free-soloing is, to him, the ultimate form of climbing. It is a complete mastery of body and mind, and being able to control those two in unison is what allows him to climb sans cord. He continued by saying that he does nothing too crazy and is always aware of his limits; in fact he takes more care and is calmer without a rope than with one.
Some of this made a lot of sense to me, but I was still leary of solo climbing. Making the decision to take your life in your hands and pit it against a single climb was too much. Even if you are able to control yourself, both mentally and physically, how do you control factors such as rock fall, holds ripping off, bad weather, etc? For some reason though, I was drawn in by the concept of soloing. To me it looked beautiful and was the purest form of climbing possible. Just the rock and you. I continued to climb, always with these questions and thoughts in the back of my mind.
The DecisionI had all but forgotten this unresolved topic as my annual trip to Jackson Hole came around the corner. In the summers I work with the United States Geological Survey and help maintain and repair remote seismic sites around the country. For the past few years we have been upgrading the Jackson Hole Network, and luckily we get a day or two off to enjoy the surrounding Tetons. I had already climbed the Southwest Couloir on the Middle Teton last year with my fellow co-worker and SPer Jeff. We had set our sights on a higher goal this year and were to do the upper Exum on the Grand. I tried to convince Jeff to do the lower Exum as well since I wanted to climb a little harder than 5.5, but I could not and settled for the upper only. Jeff, unfortunately, began to become sick, and it was pretty clear at the end of the week that he was not going to be fit enough to do the climb.
I was truly bummed. I was in some regards angry. How could Jeff get sick? I had asked him earlier if he was up to climbing and could have posted a note at the Climber’s Ranch to find a partner! I was also very frustrated. I had been planning this for some time now, and I had not climbed in a week. I was going to go crazy, I needed to climb to relax and to train. Well, there was nothing much that I could do, and a little depressed I walked through the local mountaineering shop to look at books and dream. I stumbled upon a book that caught my eye. It was a chronicle of the life of Glenn Exum. I opened it up and looked at the slightly off-brown photos of him climbing the Grand in the 30’s. One picture in particular made me think a while. In the picture Glenn Exum is wearing baggy clothing, (undoubtedly made of cotton), a golfer-style cap, and large boots. He is on a vertical face and only protected by a thick, (and probably really heavy) rope attached with a bowline around his waist. This is incredible, how much faith he must have in his abilities and how much passion he must have to fuel his ground breaking climbing. I continued reading along and found that he had established the upper Exum ridge in one day, free-solo.
Motivation/ApprehensionI suddenly became motivated and that funny free-solo bug in the back of my mind jumped to the front and began to make more and more sense. If Glenn Exum did it, in that kind of gear, then I can surely do it. The upper is pretty straight forward and the climbing is well below my max limit of 5.11. This is really do-able. The frustration and anger of being in the Tetons and not being able to climb also helped to seal my decision to free-solo the route. Somehow I channeled my other problems and fears, (such as graduating from college soon, not being able to climb harder than I was, and a particular girl that I had been on a long roller-coaster ride with for some time now) into representing the Grand Teton as well. In the shop I made my decision, I am going to do this.
I came home and packed for the outing. I packed as light as humanly possible. Unfortunately I needed a rope to the mandatory rappels down the Owen-Spalding Decent Route. I also wanted to make sure that I could bail if I had to, and without a rope this might be difficult. Nevertheless, I was not too happy to be bringing up my 10mm 70m sport rope on the long trip. I also packed my LaSportiva Mythos and decided to wear the Raceblade Trailrunning shoe as an approach shoe. My plan was to switch to the Mythos at the base of the climb to help me move fast and safe. After I packed I tried to go to sleep, I knew I had to wake early, (2 in the a.m.) to get a good start. I was too nervous and excited though. I began to second guess myself and started playing out all the bad scenarios in my mind. Sure it is only 5.5, but what if I fall regardless? Not to mention this is alpine climbing, with near 3,000 feet of climbing. Do I really want to risk my life, I am only 21? After I calmed myself and relaxed I realized that the only way I could do this was to think positive and ignore everything else. I did so and ended up with a three or so hours of sleep before I started on my journey.
I got up and was still really nervous. I drove to the park playing the most positive and happiest music I could think of. I arrived at the Lupine Meadows lot listening to ‘Bohemian Like You’ and got out. It was dark and quite now, with the only light coming from my headlamp and the stars above. The morning went quick and I was soon already near the base of the Middle Teton. As the sun began to rise I headed north towards the lower saddle between the Middle and the Grand. The hiking was arduous, but I was focused and ready to get climbing. After taking a quick break at the saddle and borrowing another parties’ water filter to refill my Nalgene, I headed up. The Grand looked much different from this angle and I was not quite sure where to go. I guess in all my planning I should have taken along a route page to help clarify where I need to go.
The Climb/Further ReflectionI saw a ledge that spanned a large distance along the Grand and decided that this was Wall Street. I headed here and traversed to the east. Soon the ledge ended and I had to go up. I took out my rock shoes, laced up, then set off. The climbing was enjoyable and I found myself being intensely focused on the moment. I was completely aware of what I was doing, what I needed to do, and how I was to do it. Nothing else entered my mind, nothing about school, nothing about work, and nothing about the girl. I moved higher and higher, taking care to makes sure each foot and hand was solid. Soon the climbing became more vertical and I followed a crack system higher and higher. I looked down and saw that if I took a fall here, it would kill me. I moved higher and the climbing became harder and harder. I began to question if I was on the right route. After reaching a good ledge to rest, I heard some voices and moved towards them. I had found a roped team and asked them if they knew where they were on the face. They told me that they were still on the lower Exum, about two pitches from where it meets the upper. They looked at me a little confused since I was sans-rope and had no clue where I was. After realizing that I just soloed some of the lower Exum, it made sense why the climbing was so scary and seemed so hard. Had I done this with Jeff I would most definitely have roped up!
I thanked them and decided to follow the ledge I was on to the west where it appeared to ease off a little. I back-tracked and down climbed a little as well. Soon I was on rock that I once again felt comfortable with. I still had no clue where I was, but knew that if I moved upwards and to the west I would eventually run into the Owen-Spalding Route. I moved higher and found an old piton, a good sign that someone had climbed here at some point. I reached a large drop off to the west and knew that I had found the infamous ‘Belly Crawl’ section of the Owen Spalding Route. After this I was soon at the summit along with many others. I took some time on a rock to think about what I had just done.
It felt really easy, really smooth, and really right. I did it pretty quick too, car-to-car time was 12 and half hours for 15.5 miles and 7000' feet vertical elevation gain. I began to discredit my climb, something I usually do after sending something that is challenging for me. If I could do it, then it must not have been that hard. It is probably a good thing to keep my ego in check. I knew that many others had done what I just did. Heck, Glenn Exum did this in the 30’s without all of the fancy lightweight gear. Nevertheless, I could not help but feel proud and accomplished, and I knew that my trip would make for a good story. I had tasted some of what free-soloing is about and it was amazing. I know that soloing is dangerous and do not plan to do so in the near future, but after this trip, I will not necessarily say no to climbing a line solo. Only the future will tell…
A man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait. Henry David Thoreau