I deliberately waited a while to write this trip report. The day I got off the mountain, I was so shaken up and full of crazy emotions that I knew I would regret anything I would write. Therefore, I forced myself to put my buddy's computer down and wait. I have had time to think objectively about what happened, and now can explain, without hysteria or existential thoughts (mostly) how I almost really screwed myself up. I'd like this to serve as an informational piece and warning, or at least heads up, to others, so I'll try to avoid hyperbole. Enjoy! (Or something like that).
So it begins.
Long story short, I flew into Jackson on the 16th of July. I had been planning this trip for a while, memorizing route descriptions, and basically obsessing over the peaks I was hoping to attempt: Teewinot and Grand Teton. Some of you probably replied to some of my questions a few weeks before. The pilot on our plane announced we would prepare to descend, so I knew the mountains were near. I strained my neck to see out the tiny plane window, spotting a few jagged peaks in the distance. Were those the Tetons?
I thought I could make out the profile of the Grand, but I wasn't sure. The plane turned a little more and I could see a much larger group. Those must be them.
I laugh at myself now. Finally the plane made a huge left and the Teton range stood about eye-level with me, rising out of the valley with such ferocity; like nothing I'd ever seen except maybe the Sierra Nevada. They literally took my breath away. Someone in the seat behind me said "Holy shit," and I agreed wholeheartedly.
We go to Teewinot.
After a day of cragging at Rodeo Wall, my buddy Hugh and I left Jackson before dawn to do our "warm-up" climb: Teewinot Mountain's East Face. Before I get lectured, let me say that in no way did I shrug off Teewinot as a milk run. I had been following the ranger blog online, well aware of the recent accident up there on the snowfield. I remembered clearly the danger of the snowfield (and afternoon storms, etc) from the Teewinot page on this site. I was very aware of what I was doing, and very comfortable with the level of risk. Anyway, it didn't matter in the end.
We decided to wear approach shoes instead of boots, for speed, and to bring gaiters and ice axes for the snowfield. We did not, however, bring any rock shoes, rock pro, or rope, save a few long slings in case a short old-school shoulder rappel was needed. I had no intention of ever taking those slings out, and never did.
Up the trail. Peak wildflower season, evidently.
Car to Apex.
The trail was steep, but not too bad. I had been training for this a lot, so I never really got out of breath. Hugh and I made good time to the apex, never stopping. The higher we got, the more excited I became as the upper mountain loomed from above and the valley below fell away thousands of feet in such a short horizontal distance. These mountains truly come out of nowhere.
The upper mountain looms from the Apex.
Apex to scramble.
From the Apex, there was a bit of off trail travel to reach the start of the snowfield. Once there, we stashed our trekking poles and put on our helmets. This would be the best decision I made all day, or possibly in my entire outdoor career. (The helmet part). I let Hugh lead the way so I could get some pictures (haha, works every time!) and fell into the familiar "axe, step, step, axe, step step" that is snow climbing. I made sure to really stuff my axe in for the so-called "self belay" and felt absolutely ecstatic to be doing a real climb in the Tetons. The quiet of the mountain, the wind blowing, the cold of the snow: all wonderful breaks from the drudgery that is my life in the Southeast in the summer. It was a perfect day and a beautiful place. I had to say something.
"Dude, this is the best climb ever!" I shouted up to Hugh, about 20 yards above. I think Teewinot heard me and decided that this Georgia boy was getting off too easy. More to come on that.
Snowfield to (almost) summit.
The snow ended on some granite, and I decided I'd had enough of the slow going and was ready to scramble. I knew at some point we would have to head to the right of the gully, but at this point in the climb the rocks to the left looked solid and easy, so I started up.
Right off the bat we encountered class 4 terrain. Soon after low class 5. I am comfortable enough scrambling up this kind of thing, so I kept going. The climbing was great, easy enough in approach shoes, and we made great time. Hugh is more cautious than I am, so he took his time. I got a little ahead of him and eventually stopped and looked at my situation. I was all alone, scrambling on a classic Teton peak, thousands of feet above the valley. I had the whole mountain to myself and somehow I just knew we would easily make the summit and descend with enough time to take a long nap before dinner. I just knew it. I crossed the gulley and headed up, up, up, within a few hundred feet of the summit (according to our altimeter), and then it all went to hell.
Scrambling at altitude.
Before the fall.
Hugh caught up with me just below the upper snowfield when a huge black cloud glided over the summit towers and blocked out the sun. It was only 11:00 or so. Shit.
I couldn't believe it. The reader should know that the one thing that makes my skin crawl and knees buckle is not the thought of a grizzly bear or mountain lion, but that of a thunderstorm above treeline. Three years ago I was caught in a hail/lighning/horror show at Upper Boy Scout Lake on Mount Whitney. Never again, I swore. Hugh and I looked at each other when the second monster cloud (from our POV) flew over us, and we said "Screw this".
It's ironic now that in my trying to be safe, give up a summit and turn around and descend quickly is probably what led to my personal #1 f**k up of all time. I was heading down quickly, alternating from facing in and doing the crab crawl, but being pretty careful. Overall it wasn't all that bad and I felt mostly comfortable. At times, however, I was downclimbing areas that were much too dangerous. Somehow I avoided incident and was close to the Idol and Worshipper and looking for a way down to the snowfield. I waited on Hugh as more and more clouds rolled in. He caught up with me and I headed down what looked like a reasonable gully that led to the snowfield. At one point I turned around but didn't see him anymore. "Hugh!" I called. Nothing. "Huuuuuugh!!!" Nothing. I knew he had fallen. Why else wouldn't he answer? I looked around but couldn't see him, as I was in a strange chute / gully. I needed to get to the snow so I could see.
The last calm moment.
I turned a corner and stopped. Before me was a rappel sling. Hmm. I had no rope.
"Well," I thought. "I'll go down a little ways and see how bad it is." I figured this was the class 4 "crux" that I had been warned about, but I was going to check it out anyway. Oops.
I started down facing in, the snowfield maybe 30 feet below. I slipped for a split second and caught myself on the slab. I knew I was screwed. Below me, the gully ended up disappearing onto a granite face, smooth and impossible to downclimb. I looked up and saw no way to put a foot up enough to climb out of that position. I was doomed and I knew it. I remember very clearly saying out loud: I am going to fall now. And I did.
Somehow while sliding off the ledge, I managed to turn myself around so that I would land on my feet, facing downhill. I screamed like a 10 year old girl (just ask Hugh, he heard it from the proper way down) and saw the rock disappear, and then there was nothing between me and the snow but air. It was so fast. I hit hard on my left foot, just on the lip of the snow which was receding from the rock, and flipped forwards, out of control, down the snowfield. Very clearly I thought, "My leg is broken." The rest is a blur. What I do remember is at least 2 more sommersaults, hitting my head at least twice, and not being able to stop. I have never felt so out of control in my life. I thought "I am going to die here". Finally, I did stop, halting at last in a sitting position.
My own "Touching the Void" moment.
I sat up and watched my glasses sliding down the snowfield, lost forever. They were knocked from my face. I checked my hands first: OK. I moved my neck and back: bruised, no doubt, but seemingly OK. I took off the helmet and felt my head: OK. There were at least two big scrapes on the helmet, but I knew I had just hit snow. Then, I faced the elephant in the room. I stood up on my left foot. Shit. There was a lot of pain; throbbing pain, but I could just put weight on it.
I was still very far up on the snowfield, and I knew the going down was going to be hell. Hugh appeared at the top of the ledge, at least 100 feet above me now, and waved. I waved that I was OK. I started down the snowfield alone, just wanting to get to the trail and away from the still-impending storm. I faced in, and began stepping in and going down. The snow had become soft, and suffice it to say that the climb down sucked, involved some self-arresting, and would have been extremely dangerous had I not still had my ice axe. Finally I made it to the end of the snow, and I collapsed on the rock and was able to take a deep breath.
Off the snow at last.
Worst hike out. Ever. Period.
I took of my shoe and Hugh and I looked at the damage. I had a big, fat, left foot. Bruising, etc. It hurt like hell. We had no proper ace bandage or Sam splint (cause I'm an idiot) so I did the best I could to take it with gause. For a second or two I considered calling SAR: we were still 3000 vertical feet from the car and I certainly had a sprain at the very least. But then I had a moment of clarity. Screw that. I got myself into this. I can put weight on the foot, albeit not much. I had my trekking poles. I was going to get myself out of this mess. I gave Hugh my daypack and started down.
Epilogue: Lessons Learned.
Not much else to say about the climb. Every step hurt. All the way to the car. There were a few moments when I thought I would never actually make it. It seemed too daunting. But, somehow we finally did arrive at the car, many hours later, and I collapsed on the ground and almost wept.
The next day I woke to pain all over my body. My neck wouldn't turn, my back hurt, and I could barely walk. I had scrapes and bruises everywhere. I did acquire crutches and a proper bandage the next day, and thus began my recovery. I decided not to go to the doctor. Once I got back to Athens, I did get and x-ray: no breaks, just some torn tendons. I'm out 6-8 weeks.
Teewinot is a real mountain. Be careful with route finding.
Storms are a question mark. Falling is a certainty. Our clouds never yielded a single thunder roll and not more than a few drops of rain. They still freak me out though.
Take your time on descent, ESPECIALLY if it's above class 3. It's 10 times easier to navigate up rocks than down.
So that's my long story. I still have to say, however, that that day in the Tetons will remain among one of the best climbs I've done, despite the accident. I can't wait to heal up and get back out there, maybe a bit safer this time.
Poor foot. Fall or marmot attack?