by Shaun RoundyChris, Brent and I stopped a hundred yards shy of the Teepe Pillar’s east face and read the route descriptions again from Chris' old Tetons guidebook.
When I say ‘old,’ I mean it. The binding was coming loose, the spine barely holding some pages in place. The illustrations were sparse and about as detailed as prehistoric cave paintings.
We read the three separate route descriptions for the east face and tried to match them up with the 1,200’ rock face parked above us. The sentence that most caught my attention said something like “Stay on route or you’ll be in big trouble.”
We finally settled on what we thought was the route we wanted and Brent led the first pitch. Chris took the next one up relatively easy rock with decent pro. I caught up to them next to an impressive 120-degree overhang jutting out twenty feet and glanced upward to evaluate what would be my lead.
“We think we’re off route,” Chris said matter-of-factly.
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “Where do we want to be?”
Brent pointed north, below the overhang. I shifted positions and considered how I would get us over there. The wall below was blank enough that my route became obvious by the process of elimination. I would dangle from an off-width crack that split the rock immediately above the overhang. With no pieces large enough to fill the eighteen-inch gap, I would climb at least twenty feet before I could put anything in. A slip meant I would pendulum back against the main wall hard enough to…well, I chose not to think about that.
“Anybody else want this lead?” I asked hopefully. Chris and Brent shook their heads slightly as if reluctant to even acknowledge my question. With nowhere to go but up, out, and around, I took a deep breath and said “Climbing.”
The edge of the slanted chiminey was positive enough and I experimented with holding on with finger tips or my entire left forearm. I hooked my left heel over the lip and pushed myself forward with my right foot on the rock below.
Progress was awkward and slow but steady and secure. As I approached the sharp tip marking the end of the jutting overhang, I looked down. Three hundred feet of unbroken exposure hung nervously in the air. I felt a small tingle in my throat that told me I was getting my money’s worth.
I glanced past my feet back to my belay and saw the line drooping through space. I quickly tired of getting my money’s worth and slipped a webbing loop from around my neck and one arm and slid it over the sharp rock point. I clipped a biner to it and breathed more easily once it snapped shut around the rope.
“That wasn’t so bad,” I shouted back. With the intimidating challenge behind me, I was free to appreciate how fun and exciting it was. I knew I could expect the same from the entire expedition. For the moment, I was slightly chilled and uncomfortable and nervous about what I might have to lead next. The rear-view mirror of time would obscure all that and leave only beautiful memories.
“It’s even easier once you get around the point.” With a few more moves I reached a class three scramble which I followed to the base of the next vertical section.
Brent was an experienced Teton climber, having summitted numerous times on various routes. He had three children who he had led to the top on his last outting. A fast-moving storm had chased them off the mountain with lightning slamming down against high aretes and sending small but terrifying bursts of voltage down their ropes as they dropped hastily down the Owen-Spalding exit rappels.
Chris was also an experienced mountaineer who began climbing young when it was still a new sport. He was still more comfortable placing hexes than the newer technology of cams, which worked to his advantage on the flared cracks of the Grand’s southern routes. I met Chris a few months earlier near the top of 11,750’ Mount Timpanogos above our homes in Utah Valley when I first climbed it with his sister. “Shaun climbs,” she mentioned, and after a test run up a tall crack, I found myself invited on this Grand expedition.
Chris’ brother Chad and Brent’s sister Carol had also come along and summited the Grand yesterday. Today they opted for some R&R while the three of us got in another route before heading home in the morning.
Brent led the next vertical pitch. I stemmed a comfortable chimney when I reached the next belay while Chris lead and Brent went second. A cold late-August wind blew up the mountain but didn’t threaten to numb our fingers like yesterday’s pre-dawn cold. After Brent started up, I moved over to his more wind-sheltered chimney, sat on one heel with the other foot pressed against the far chimney wall, and buried my face in my coat collar to await my turn to climb again.
The climb seemed to be moving along well. The pro was reasonable – though nothing I’d care to fall on. Before arriving for my first Teton experience, I had entertained thoughts of looking down and taking a fifteen-footer with a thousand feet of nothing below me. It would be an unforgettable thrill. Once here, all such thoughts vanished. Not only did the Full Exxum never offer such continuous exposure, but I never set a single piece I would have cared to risk falling on for fear of blowing it out of the shallow, flared cracks.
A fist-sized rock caught my attention as it sailed over the chimney where I had been stemmed a few minutes earlier.
Brent was only about twenty feet out and I could hear the fear in his voice. “What’s wrong?!” I shouted up.
“Damn it! Son of a bitch!”
“Brent!” I shouted again. “What’s up?” I couldn’t imagine what the problem could be. He was top roped by Chris above. After a handful of additional curses, Brent told me what was wrong. He and Chris had opted to leave the main crack and friction over a large bulge before returning to it. When Brent passed a boulder immediately above where he last saw me – where he thought I was still stemmed – he tapped it and it began to slide “like it had ball bearings under it.”
Brent caught the boulder with his toe and held on with everything he had – which wasn’t much. If he let go, or if it got away from him or pulled him off the wall, the fifty-pound rock would drop right into the slot where he thought my head was waiting to receive it.
“I moved!” I tried to assure him. “I moved over to where you were! I saw that last little rock go down – I’m clear!”
It took a minute but Brent finally believed that I was safe. He was also concerned about the boulder catching the line tied between us, and together we whipped the rope till it got clear. He released the rock with his toe and I watched it drop over the lip and fall straight down over a hundred and fifty feet where it exploded against the large ledge at the base of the pitch.
The cold wind carried the smell of burnt granite to my nostrils and a few people wandered slowly from the guide huts below to gaze up the slope and see what had made so much noise.
"Good thing you were wearing a helmet," Chris joked at the next belay.
"Yeah," I agreed. "That could have made the difference between an open and closed-casket funeral."
Everyone was safe, but not fine. From that moment on, the nature of our climb changed in very important ways. Brent was now officially sketched.
I took the next lead to finish off the vertical part of our meandering route after using up less than half the rope. I leaned over the north face for a moment to enjoy the thousand-foot exposure above the Teepe Glacier, then cut south to climb an easy slab crack and join (as far as I could tell) the third route of the day. We named my overhang “Zig” and the friction traverse where Brent dislodged the rock “Zag” on the off chance that we were the first ones to ever climb them. This third route interconnect wasn’t worth naming.
In a way, the guidebook had been right – “If you get off route, you’ll be in trouble” – but not for the reasons it implied. Back in the day the book was published, some of the moves we had done may have been dangerous, and they may not have had the pro to make our variations safe, but they must have had just as much of the loose rock that presents the most dangerous element of climbing here.
From my belay – the only sturdy spot I could find among loose, broken rock – it was only a quick jaunt to the summit. Chris and Brent arrived and Brent’s emotional state had deteriorated considerably. He talked about how we were behind schedule – not quite raving – and we had to get off this mountain quickly. He passed my belay without collecting the rack of pro and I had to call him back. “Dammit, Brent, slow down! You’re going to get someone killed!”
Brent returned and collected the sling, then spent several minutes negotiating a five-foot cliff of rotten rock. “It’s no good!” he said over and over, when it was actually extremely simple to mantle and high step across. He traversed north and the mountain sloped off even more.
When I followed around, third again, Brent insisted that we didn’t have time to hike the final hundred feet to the summit. In retrospect, I wish I’d have taken the four minutes and gone anyway, but we traversed to the top anchors and began rappelling down the west face. Stations were obvious and comfortable and the route looked easy and fun to climb. Another day, perhaps I will return this way and complete the last few steps to the top.
Brent’s spirits seemed to rise as our elevation fell. We weren’t sure how easily we could traverse in the fading light back to the west face (snow to the north, steep talus to the south) so we climbed through the Glencoe Col and retreated by the same route we had approached the Exxum Ridge the day before.
We reached camp in the moraine in the dark, slept hard, and hiked out in the morning. Chad and Carol got engaged and later married. Chris and I continue to climb together and I count his family as some of my closest friends.
I sometimes wonder about Brent and the Tetons – whether he has returned and what lasting impact our near accident and other close calls may continue to have on his feelings toward them.
It would be a shame to scrap such a long-term relationship just because things got rocky for a while, but any honest mountaineer has to admit that mountains like the Tetons can not be trusted. They are unstable. They are moody. They are demanding and confusing and dangerous.
But they are beautiful, and no matter what happens, we will never leave them alone.