This ridiculous pile of rotten rock has intrigued me ever since I first came to the Tetons two years ago. I'm not sure what it is that fascinates me with this mountain; perhaps it is the number of epic tales I've heard from climbers on the mountain, or the fact that I rarely hear about a climb on Teewinot that wasn't epic (I've now got a small collection of them myself!). Maybe it's the spectacular view from the summit. Whatever it is, I love this mountain.
After a long day of work at Teton Mountaineering in Jackson, I headed down to Pica's for some delicious Mexican food and to discuss the weekend's upcoming adventure with my good friend and climbing partner, John. And there he sat outside at a table, with the Teton Bible (Renny Jackson and Leigh Ortenburger's A Climber's Guide to the Teton Range) open to a picture of Teewinot's West Aspect. I seated myself with my plate of enchiladas and looked with curiosity as to what he was planning. He pointed to a line "B" that more or less zig-zagged up the mountain's sharp northwest arête. The Northwest Ridge; var: Direct Buttress. The beautiful, exposed, and committing line immediately grabbed my attention. We decided that this would be our weekend's climb.
Unfortunately, it was in the middle of spring and after scouting out the approach which involved crossing Cascade Creek and bushwhacking up the Teewinot-Owen Cirque, we decided to put it off for a few weeks. The thought of crossing neck-deep spring run-off at 4 in the morning was less than desirable. The summer continued on, plans fell through again and again because of scheduling, visiting friends/relatives, and so forth. Finally, the date was set: Sunday, August 20th.
Another problem arose when John didn't get his truck fixed in time for the climb. Ideally, we would have driven one car to the Lupine Meadows trailhead and left it, then continued on to String Lake to start the hike. We couldn't find anyone else to bring us to the trailhead in the wee hours of the morning, so we ultimately ended up with a longer approach and a longer descent, opting to take just my 4-Runner to South Jenny Lake. We figure it added about 3 easy miles to the day. Easy, but still 3 miles. We left the trailhead at about 4 a.m. and started the long trudge around Jenny Lake and up Cascade Canyon. It barely started to get light as we came to a good place to cross Cascade Creek. Thankfully it was knee deep at most this time of year and didn't prove to be much trouble to cross. John just started wading across in his approach shoes, but I stopped to take mine off because of my terribly blister-prone feet. I managed to keep my shoes dry but without the added traction I slipped and fell in. I was awake after that-- it was cold! Luckily my clothes dried fast and my feet were warm, happy, and blister-free for the remainder of the climb. The sun was just starting to shed some light on what was waiting for us in the Cirque. I slipped my shoes back on and shouldered my pack. John and I looked at each other and laughed at our all-too-familiar situation. (See my trip report on the Mt. Moran page "Incurably bent on self-abuse") We plunged into the brush mostly unphased; we'd done worse bushwhacks! Well... ok, this might have been worse than the SW side of Leigh Lake. The same amount of thick, nasty brush but this time it was on a 60 degree slope.
Nevertheless, we continued on up the cirque making good time and neared the snowfield just as the alpenglow was fading from the summits of the northern peaks. We traveled on the snowfield until it became too steep for us to safely continue without ice axes, then moved onto the scree-field. The loose, chossy scree began to test our patience as we continued on to find the base of the climb. We found the ridge at last and continued 3rd and 4th class scrambling to find the "band of yellow rock" that marked the base of the climb.
A few more minutes passed and I heard John yell "ON BELAY!". I gladly dismantled the belay anchor and climbed up to him where he was trying not to move on the scree covered slab. I took the remainder of his gear and led the next pitch back to where we believed the real route was. In reality, we probably never did actually find the route, but instead did many different sections of several routes. The sky was fairly clear and we still had plenty of time so we continued on up (not that we could have gone down anyway). We would do a pitch, trade leads, climb some more, belay, dodge terrifying rock slides, pick up the rope and scramble up the easier 4th and lower 5th class sections, and repeat. The higher we went, the more beautiful the views got. The North Face of the Grand began to peek up between the East Prong and Owen. We continued for a couple more hours, during which time the sky began to produce large, ominous, dark clouds. We kept climbing because there was nothing we could do about it; the only way down was to summit and then descend the East Face.
We came to a small grassy ledge where it was my lead. Our intended route was supposed to be anywhere from 5.4 to 5.7, but this pitch was most certainly 5.8. Now, nearly two months after climbing I realize that it's probably the first pitch of the "Chockstone Chimney" variation that is described in the Teton Climber's Bible:
"...a deep, 10 foot wide, vertical chimney containing a large chockstone will be found about 30 ft. north of the shallower chimney of the original route. This variation follows this chimney, which is easily distinguished as the deepest break in the middle of the smoothest and most nearly vertical section of the west face. The top of the chimney breaks into two roughly parallel cracks that continue upward. The first 5.8 lead (130 feet) climbs past the chockstone on the left, going over a small overhang and up the left-hand crack of the chimney to a good belay...."
I started up the chimney feeling very good about my gear placements and was excited to be leading something that was finally clean and more difficult where I wasn't fearing for my life because of the loose rock. About halfway up a mixture of snow and sleet and graupel began to fall on us. Still in good spirits and warm from exertion, I looked down at John who sat shivering on the belay ledge. I smiled and yelled "John, it's SNOWING!" If the cloud had been much bigger I wouldn't have been so thrilled, but I love snow and it always adds a thrilling touch to an already terrifying alpine climb-- as long as it doesn't stick around too long. John yelled back at me something along the lines of "Yeah, I noticed, shut the f*ck up and climb, I'm cold!"
I scrambled on top of the chockstone and looked around for a good gear placement. I found nothing. I strattled the chockstone and leaned down to have a look underneath. I was about 25 to 30 ft above my last piece and the next part looked difficult. A large crack about a foot down below the chockstone caught my eye. I leaned over and shoved the #5 Camalot into the crack and it fit perfectly. Still, as I stood on top of the chockstone I was 8 feet above it. The parallel overhanging cracks were less than enticing for my ice cold hands so I opted for the easier but unprotected face to the right. After desperately searching for a better placement and finding none, I knew I'd have to make a committing move and hope for a good hold. Now becoming a little rushed for time, I barndoored onto the face and found the much needed jug that I was looking for. I scrambled up to the belay ledge and set up my anchor. We continued on again from there, sometimes roping up, other times scrambling.
Several pitches later, around 6:00 p.m., we came to the group of 6 or so gigantic pinnacles that make up Teewinot's summit. Some were obviously not the true summit, and it came down to 3 that we had to decide on. We made an educated guess based on the location of the prominent notch easily seen from the valley and John took the final lead. He seemed to be taking a long time on it which made me wonder how difficult the last pitch would be. After several sketchy placements in rotten rock (a common trend on this mountain it seems) he disappeared from sight. The next thing I heard was:
A slightly higher pitched "F***CK!"
My heart sank. I know what this meant. I still managed to laugh and yell up: "This isn't the right pinnacle, is it?"
"NO. F*CK this, we gotta get off this mountain." I took him off belay and he pulled up the rope and rappelled off an already established rappel anchor (apparently we weren't the only ones to make the same mistake). We downclimbed to the notch and were relieved to find that it took us directly to the East Face. We looked up and pondered our situation. Over 15 pitches in 15 hours of the most terrifying choss we'd ever experienced and now a false summit. It was late; about 7:30 p.m. and getting dark fast.
"Well... it would take us about 10 minutes to scramble to the summit from here..." I said. After pondering this for a minute or so, we looked at each other and I said "We've both been there before, lets get out of here." We began our long descent down the East Face which, even though it is supposed to be only 4th class, is no joke... especially when it's getting dark. We made it down to the Idol and Worshipper (two large gendarmes in the middle of the mountain) just as it became dark enough to put our headlamps on. We choked down the burrito and snicker's bar we had been saving for the summit and started down the Apex trail (arguably the steepest established trail in the Tetons, if not anywhere), but a trail it was, and we were glad for it because the last one we had seen was just before we crossed Cascade Creek nearly 17 hours before.
Continuous pounding down the trail wore on our knees and feet (eventually resulting in a possible stress fracture in my foot) and toward the end we were so tired that we periodically slipped and tumbled down the trail. It felt so good to lay on the ground that it was hard to get back up! Finally we reached flat ground and the Lupine Meadows parking area. I wanted so badly to crawl into the back of my 4-Runner and sleep, but we still had to walk all the way back to South Jenny Lake. We originally hoped to get back in time to hitchhike, but now at nearly 1 a.m., there was no such luck. We arrived back in town at around 2:00 and happily munched on hotdogs from Mavericks gas station. I woke up a few hours later and went to work at back at Teton Mountaineering. After a grueling 22 hour day, I was pretty much worthless while working a 10 hour shift during the biggest sale of the year. Not even 3 shots of espresso could touch me.
Overall, this was an awesome and fun experience, despite being scared shitless almost the entire time. Was it a great climbing route? Well... not really. It was a bowling alley of loose rock. It was definitely a mountaineer's rock climb, and a good mountaineering route if you like adventure. There were a couple good pitches and I would probably do it again (but there's a whole lot on my list before I'd be forced to go back). Thank God for climbing helmets.
John told me he's had enough of Teewinot. We drove by a few days later and all he had to say was "f*cking chosspile..."
But I'll be back, Teewinot.