Grand Teton - Upper Exum
"Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever."
- "My First Summer in the Sierra", John Muir (1911)
“Fuck!” That’s not the word you want to hear as you are belaying your buddy across the Wall Street “step around” - the famous spot where Glen Exum insanely leapt unroped over a gap with about 2,000 vertical feet of air under his feet. That was back in 1931. At this moment, on July 18, 2012 at 5:30am I’m tied into the same rope that Jamie Fidler is now taking over that same exposed stretch. He’s out of my line of sight but I’ve seen the photos of what he’s looking at. The photos give you vertigo. I’m not sure what’s worse, leading that section, or looking woefully at the protection stuffed into the rocks between myself and him and the anchor that I built, hoping it all holds if he falls. Knowing that if it doesn’t, he’ll only fall about 200 feet before the rope pulls me right off the narrow ledge I’m sitting on and I join him for the ride down.
This whole thing got started maybe 6 months ago after Jamie invited me to climb the Grand Teton with him. We’ve been tailoring our climbing for this moment ever since. There aren’t mountains in Iowa so we practice in parks, climbing from one Frisbee golf tee to another, working on rope management and belay transitions.
The weekend before we left for Wyoming, we actually did a multi pitch “alpine type” climb on Turk’s Head Ridge at Devil’s Lake, WI. However, on that route, no pitch is really more than 40 feet off the ground. Jamie has climbed the Grand before but under the guidance of a much more experienced climber and I think the most exposed climbing I’ve done in my year of climbing has been maybe 100 feet off the deck. Multiple people have said they’d be the 3rd man for this adventure but for one reason or another they’ve all dropped out and now Jamie and I are on the mountain - insignificant fleas on the rump of a beast.
It wasn’t easy getting here. I’ve been backpacking in the Teton range with Nikki and Trevor the past 4 days and although I’m acclimatized, my feet are trashed. Jamie just showed up on Sunday and we started up the long slog up Garnet Canyon to the Lower Saddle loaded with heavy packs. His feet are fine but the altitude is getting to him. We actually made it up to the highest section of the route above the moraine with decent weather. With just an hour to go, we were maybe 15-20 minutes above the moraine looking up at the Lower Saddle when we saw dark, evil looking tendrils of cloud begin streaming over the Saddle and heading down towards us. It looked like someone poured a lake full of hate right down the side of the mountain. Shortly after, lightning flickered in the air. We looked at each other, remembered seeing the last camp site in the moraine had a huge sloping boulder overhanging it and took off running.Within a few minutes, we were running in a hail storm. The hail was mercifully small but was coming down in sheets and we put our helmets and glasses on to protect ourselves. Once we crawled under the overhanging boulder, we threw all our gear with metal to the other side and waited out the hail. In 10 minutes the sky was bright blue and we were looking at the best rainbow either of us had ever seen. Mountain weather - it’s something to behold.
We finally got to our camp on the Lower Saddle at 8pm and promptly abandoned our original plan of climbing the Grand the next day and doing a traverse of the Middle and South Teton’s the next day. Who did we think we were, Pete Cutler and John Anderson? We had a permit for two nights at the Saddle and the weather the next day was going to be iffy at best but the next 3 days were predicted to be sunny and clear. We ended up cooling our heels all the next day and resting for our attempt on Wednesday when we awoke at 3:15am and got on the trail at 4am.
Just before Jamie set off on the first technical pitch, we had been sitting on the Wall Street ledge. We were held up in the wind and the cold waiting on a narrow, sloping ledge for a guided group to be coddled across the tricky spot by a couple of the famed Exum Guides. The guys in the guided group were looking at us like we were a couple of crack mountaineers
while their guides went about setting their ropes for them. Jamie and I did everything we could to create the illusion of competency. We pretended to wait magnanimously for these bumbling tourists while being secretly pleased that we might actually be able to follow them the whole way and thus not get lost. I thought about talking in a Crocodile Dundee voice.
“G’day mate! My what a tiny mountain!” I think I alternately felt like spitting on these pretenders who merely paid someone to hold their hand while they “climbed” the Grand and
another part of me wished I had my credit card on me and could join them.
We are climbing the Upper Exum route. There is a much easier route called the Owen Spaulding that at any time if you don’t like what you are doing, you can turn right around and go back down. Not only is the Upper Exum a much, much longer route to the top, it’s also very difficult to escape from once you go across that exposed Wall Street move. As they say, the best way down is up. You have to go up and then down climb the Owen Spaulding route on the other side. We both realize this fact and before we commit, we both secretly wish the other would suggest going back to the tent for a nap. A ship is safe when it stays in the harbor but staying in the harbor isn’t what ships are built for. Taking naps in tents isn’t what we came to do either and we know the weather is supposed to be golden for the next few days so we decide to go for it.When the last guided member disappears, we build our anchor and get started. Jamie places a few pieces of gear into a crack and then slithers over the edge and out of view. I keep paying out rope and then feel it stop. I hear Jamie’s sketched out curse and feel like vomiting. I shout some encouragement into the wind hoping Jamie makes it. He better make it. The rope begins to move again and I know that he has. When the rope pulls tight on me it will be my turn to go across the gap. As I break down my anchor I know it will be easier for me with the benefit of being belayed from above. I actually amaze myself by forcing myself to look down while I’m traversing the gap. I can see the ground 2,000 feet below and feel strangely detached from it. I don’t savor the moment however, and quickly return my focus to where my feet and hands are going. A few delicate moves later, I’m sitting next to Jamie and start pondering the next lead - mine, of the Golden Staircase.
The group that had only moments before been piled up in front of us was now nowhere to be seen. The Exum guides had whisked them on up the mountain with blazing speed and reassuring confidence. Two attributes that we were severely lacking in. We were now on our own to figure out the way ahead of us. When you see aerial photos of the route, it
looks pretty straightforward. When you are actually on the ridge, you realize how absolutely huge it is and can see all kinds of ways to proceed. You have to be careful that you don’t wander onto some off route area that is significantly above your climbing abilities and has poor possibilities for placing protection.
At the top of the Golden Stair is a section of class 3 scrambling. The guide books say it’s around 2 rope lengths but it seems much longer. This section is the Wind Tunnel. It’s basically a broken up, rock filled gully with lots of options but we go the easiest way that we can see. We keep the rope out in Kiwi coils and belay each other for the trickier exposed moves. We spot snow in several places but notice no foot prints. Did the Exum group go this way? Are we off route??? We agonize over this all the way up the gully and at the top when we expect to see the friction pitch, we see only a couple of cracked dihedrals to the left of a huge lumpy face. Is this still considered scrambling? It looks like sustained class 5 terrain to us! Do we go around the right side of the face? The face itself? The dihedrals? Is this the Friction Pitch?I think it was at this point that the fear and nausea was at its worst. I recalled an interview question I’ve been asked in the past and decided to share it with Jamie as much for my benefit as for his. “How do you respond to pressure?” was the question. “Appropriately” was my response. I fixed Jamie with the bravest and calmest expression I could conjure up and said: “We know how to climb, we know how to manage the roped safety system and we are just going to keep repeating those things until we get to the top of this thing. We are moving very slowly but the weather is clear and we have all day to do this. All we have to do is just keep going, keep our fecal matter coalesced, and we will make it.”
At about this time we were relieved to see a pair of climbers come over the ridge and start going up the cracked dihedral I was now in the middle of leading. Neither of them was using a rope and they quickly passed us up and disappeared above us. It was at least a reassurance that we weren’t on some back woods section of the mountain and for a moment, however
brief, we weren’t alone. Towards the top of the dihedral, I made a tricky traverse where I had seen the other two climbers go and was very glad I had a rope while doing it. I hauled myself up onto a protected ledge, brought Jamie up and then he lead the next section.
We had decided from the beginning that Jamie would lead the Step Across and the Friction Pitch and I would lead Golden Stair and the V Pitch. I knew he was freaked but I had no intention of letting him out of it. Me lead the Friction Pitch? Screw that!I gave him my best speech. “This is the moment you were born for Mr. Fidler. You are a great climber and this route is rated 5.5. Never mind all that rot about this pitch being unprotectable.” I even pulled out the route description and re-read the section that says “after the first 25 feet, the difficulties ease considerably”. Amazingly enough, he was able to place an alien about 15 feet up, then slung a chicken head and climbed out of sight. The rope ran about another 10 feet and the cursing started again. “Aren’t the difficulties easing considerably yet?” I shouted. “*&%&* NO!” came the reply. Then shortly after, he yelled “I see a piton!” “Clip it!” I shouted. “Oh I’m clipping the shit out of it!!!” he yelled with renewed confidence. Once he brought me up to the top of the Friction Pitch, I think we both really started to believe we were going to pull this off. I had even felt good enough while seconding the Friction Pitch to pull out my camera and shoot a picture of Jamie’s new best rusty friend, the piton. Up until this point, there had been no thought of photography. All of our attention was focused on the climb and what we needed to do to successfully navigate it.
Above the Friction Pitch lies even more scrambling until you reach the V Pitch. The Ortenberger book considers the V Pitch to be the crux even though most think the Friction Pitch is harder. The V Pitch is an open dihedral right on the corner of the ridge near the top. It’s the most exposed climbing on the entire route. You are scrambling along on a huge slab and you have to go right over to the left edge of the slab where the west face drops straight down for almost 3,000 feet. There is a small ledge of loose rock that leads you off the slab and into the base of the dihedral. I’m looking up at it and thinking it looks nothing like the pictures I’ve seen.We both convince ourselves that this must be it as it’s the only thing that remotely resembles the famous dihedral. I set an anchor and then climb to the top of it and back over onto the slab where I bring Jamie up to me. We scramble another section and come to another dihedral that we then recognize as being unmistakably the V Pitch. Since I hadn’t let Jamie out of the Friction Pitch, I wasn’t about to back down from this one even though I had already climbed what we both thought was the pitch.
Jamie actually seemed to be offering me a break by asking if I was sure I was up to it. I wanted to be taking a nap in the tent instead but I just built another anchor and started up the V
Pitch. The exposure on the V Pitch is described as “exhilarating” and although I had been sneaking glances at the surrounding horizon by this point and occasional looks down at the ground, I have no idea what the V Pitch exposure looks like. I was firmly back on Turk’s Head Ridge again and I climbed the entire pitch looking only at where my hands and feet were
going. Before I knew it, I was on easy sloping ground above and I practically ran to a huge block where I set an anchor to bring Jamie up to me.
After this, there is one more technical section known as the Petzold Lieback. Jamie led this section and I really thought the summit would be ours shortly after. As soon as Jamie brought me up to him I was dismayed to see some HUGE blocks making up the summit ridge with no easy looking way to surmount them. We decided at this point to just stow the rope in favor of unrestricted and faster scrambling and went around the summit blocks below and to the West. We kept traversing just below the ridgeline until I spotted an easier line to start going back up. Up and up I went until there was just no other way to keep going up. The ridge fell away on the other side and the geological summit marker was in plain view 15 feet away! I sat down on it and waited to welcome Jamie Fidler back to the summit of the Grand.
It was 3pm, the weather was still great but we had run out of water just above the V Pitch. We took time to snap a few pictures at the top but both of us knew we needed to start
down immediately. It’s hard to describe the sensation of being on top of a mountain. You want to stay and enjoy the spectacular view but you see all the green below and know that that is where life is. You don’t belong up here and you need to get back down.
We started down, taking the initial way we had come up to the summit and within 15 minutes encountered a couple coming up the Owen Spaulding route. We had assumed we were
the last ones still up there so we were happy to see people again. They gave us some of their water and we pointed out the remaining way to the summit and kept descending. We were trying to find what is known as Sergeant’s Chimney where there is a rappel station but the ranger at the permit station had recommended that we downclimb it. I found a chimney, spotted a fixed rap setup about a ¼ of the way down and down climbed to it. I could see the rest of the way down the chimney and knew I would never try down climbing something like that. As I was inspecting the fixed gear (two pitons and a nut) and the rigging, the couple who gave us some water caught up to us. They weren’t sure this was the same chimney that they had come up (Sergeant’s) and they had left their rope and equipment farther below.
I didn’t want to see anyone try down climbing this thing so I convinced them to hitch a ride on our rope and Jamie was able to loan each of them a large locking biner so they could do a munter hitch rappel. We then joined forces for the rest of the descent. At the bottom of this unknown chimney, we scrambled around until the couple located their stashed rope and gear. At this point, it was easy to locate the main rappel down to the upper saddle. We had originally planned to do this 40 meter rappel using a 6mm retrieval line and a single 60m rope. With our new friends, we were able to just join our two ropes and do a standard, double strand rappel.
Once we were all down on the upper saddle, it was just a matter of carefully descending class 3 to 4 terrain for another 2 hours to reach our tents at the lower saddle. It was 7pm by the time we got to the tent and we were both exhausted. I barely had the energy to filter enough water to get us reasonably hydrated again. We ate what food we could manage and even though we had no permit to stay at the Lower Saddle another night, we crashed and hiked out the next day.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VucQcEN2LxE&feature=plcp
All in all, I’m glad we did it. It would be much, much easier doing it with a guide but the process would have been completely different. A line in a John Prine song goes “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.” I think our day was a bit like that. The entire experience seemed to be too huge but when broken down into segments, each of them were within our ability. Our success was due to our ability to remain calm, see the difficulties in front of us and respond appropriately to them. Going through that process was far more valuable to me than the view from the summit. I saw enough of the guided group early on in the day to realize I wouldn’t enjoy being dragged up the mountain like that. I think we both could improve a lot with our anchor building efficiency and changeovers and probably won’t climb another mountain until those areas see marked improvement.