After a week of mentally grueling meetings at the Murie Ranch I was ready for a day of hiking. South Teton was my objective. My alarm went off at 4:00 and slipped quietly out of the cabin, packed up my stuff, filled up with water, and took off for the trailhead. The parking lot at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead was half full when I arrived and there were several other groups of climbers getting sorted out. I tossed on my pack and hit the trail at 4:45.
I had opted to start off sans pant legs, gloves, or a cap and the first few minutes were a bit brisk. After a while though my body began to generate enough heat and I warmed up. I hiked along in the dark with my headlamp creating a little sphere of light around me. It felt like the trail wandered south for a little bit before finding a little ridge to follow uphill. By the time I had made it to the switchbacks it was light enough to see without my headlamp and I paused to stash it in my pack.
I continued onward up the switchback and by 6:20 I had reached the Amphitheatre Lake Trail junction. I took a left and headed for Garnet Canyon. By this time it was fairly light out and as I entered Garnet Canyon I was able to enjoy the views (although it was still too dark for photos). I made my way past Cleft Falls to the point where you can cross over the stream to the platform camping spots. At this point the trail disappeared through a section of car-sized boulders. I scrambled through these and after a little bit of searching found the trail on the opposite side. I continued hiking up the trail and arrived at Meadows camping area at 7:00.
There were several parties stirring out of their campsites as I made my way up the trail. The trail veered toward the north and Spalding Falls. When I noticed that it was going to switchback on the east side of the falls I had the sneaking suspicion I was on the wrong trail. I got out my route description and realized that I should have cut straight through the Meadows camping area and continued straight up Garnet Canyon. Instead I lost a bit of elevation, crossed the stream and traversed my way across the boulders and talus on the north side of the canyon. In places there was the illusion of a trail and a tiny cairn here and there but for the most part I just chose the path of least resistance.
Progress was slow and it seemed to take forever for me to make it over this initial headwall. I finally surmounted it at 8:00. In hindsight there was a snowfield that went right up the center of the valley and had I brought my crampons with me (I hadn't) this probably would have been the optimal way to progress up this section of Garnet Canyon. However, with only an ice axe I probably wouldn't have been able to kick deep enough steps into the very firm snow to make this a viable option.
I took a snack break and admired the views of Cloudveil Dome and Nez Perce. There was also a proliferation of pretty yellow flowers and I snapped a few photos. The contrast of blue sky and yellow flowers was really pleasing. After my break I continued up the canyon. I did my best to follow the trail but I lost it often only to regain it later. After another hour of hiking I arrived at the saddle between South Teton and Middle Teton at 9:00.
The wind was really gusty up on the saddle and I began to get a little chilly so I put on my thermal top, cap, and fingerless gloves for the ascent of South Teton. At times I considered putting on the legs to my pants and my rain jacket but resisted the temptation. I ascended the talus slope just under the ridge crest in hopes that this would shelter me from the brunt of the wind. It didn't take long to reach the permanent snowfield guarding the mouth of the Northwest Couloir. I had brought my ice axe and helmet because I'd heard that traversing this snowfield was no trivial matter. However, this late in the season the snowfield had melted down enough so that I could completely avoid it by scrambling along the boulders and talus above it. This made my helmet and ice axe unnecessary and I left them in my pack.
Soon I was in the Northwest Couloir. The couloir was very short and consisted of boulders and talus. I scramble up it and quickly reached the top where the couloir dumped me out onto the south side of the mountain. From there it was an easy class two scramble to the summit and I arrived at 10:00. I thought the class three rating was a little soft and possibly only applies when one must deal with the snowfield guarding the base of the Northwest Couloir. When this obstacle is not present I'd say the route is class two. I enjoyed the views in all directions and had a snack and drink on the summit. I particularly studied Wister from my perch atop South Teton - specifically I tried to pick out the point at which I'd turned around during my attempt the previous Monday. It was a bit difficult to pinpoint (I wished I had binoculars) and I concluded that I either reached the west summit or a point just a little ways west of the west summit.
After a short break I began to get cold just sitting on the summit and retraced my steps back down off the mountain. When I got down into the Northwest Couloir I discovered the talus to be a lot looser than I had thought it was during the ascent and I found myself needing to be much more careful that it didn't slide out from under me. After the couloir the going was straightforward back down the South Teton - Middle Teton saddle. While I made my way down I watched a group of hikers reach the saddle and then another appear coming up the canyon.
When I got down to the saddle I briefly contemplated going after Middle Teton. It was still fairly early and I probably could have made it without trouble. The only problem was that I had a long drive ahead of me back to Fort Collins. As it was I would probably get home pretty late. If I tackled Middle Teton that would probably take an additional three hours. I decided to save it for another time and just head back down Garnet Canyon.
The descent back down the canyon went smoothly and I passed many parties headed up the canyon. When I arrived at the top of the headwall I decided I would try to glissade the large snowfield that led straight down toward to the Meadows camping area. I retrieved my ice axe and put on my Gortex pants. The top of the snowfield was perfect for glissading - pretty firm snow but not too steep. I made two quick glissades down this and moved into the center of the snowfield after each one. As I made progress down the snowfield it began to get steeper - make each glissade a little scarier. If the snow had been a little softer, or the slope a little less steep it would have been great but the combination of the two made it just a little too fast and a little to difficult to stay in control. I finally got to a point where it just wasn't fun any more and I opted to try and downclimb the snowfield. Unfortunately the snow was too firm to kick very good steps in and I continually slipped, forcing me to hold onto my axe for dear life. The next vertical hundred feet where not pretty - I descended using an ugly combination of downclimbing, glissading, and self arresting. When I made it to the bottom of the snowfield I stowed my Goretex pants and axe and removed the snow that had found its way into all the nooks and crannies.
As I approached the Meadows camping area through the boulder field I encountered a couple of hikers that planned to ascend the canyon by passing along its south side (whereas I had gone along its north side). I'm not sure which is easier, but it appeared to me that the south side was a lot looser - mostly scree and dirt compared to the larger rocks along the north edge. Regardless, I think the snowfield in the center would be the preferable means of advancing up the canyon.
I made my way through the Meadows camping area at 12:30 and continued my downward progress on the nice trail. I was feeling strong and made it back to the Amphitheatre Lake Trail junction in just a half an hour.
The rest of the hike was uneventful but I crossed paths with many people of all types coming up the trail. There were families with little kids, couples on the beginning end of backpacking trips, foreigners, elderly couples, etc. Some looked to be enjoying themselves but others looked like they were on grim death marches. That might be understandable at the end of a long day but these people were just starting out! This is supposed to be fun!
I reached the trailhead at 14:00 and peeled off my boots and other smelly clothing and transitioned into clothes for the long drive home. The parking lot was completely filled and there were several cars pacing up and down like vultures waiting for me to leave my spot. After I got everything situated I took off for Jackson where I grabbed a bite to eat and stocked up on some Moose Drool (the Smith's on the south end of town is quite reasonable). Big Sky Brewing beer is unavailable in Colorado so it's always a treat to share with friends whenever I can get my hands on some.
Again, the drive from Jackson to Fort Collins took about six and a half hours and I was home and in the shower by 22:00. It was a great trip and I looked forward to my next excursion into the Tetons which was fast approaching in less than a month!