By the light of a bright crescent moon and a few alkaline-powered LEDs, my buddy Nicholas and I departed from the Lupine Meadows trailhead in Grand Teton National Park in the wee-hours of July 27. We were stocked with a full rack of cams and nuts, a few liters of water, enough Clif Bars to feed a small tribe, and unwavering ambition. Our plan was an ascent of the Complete (or Direct) Exum Ridge ( III, 5.7/8, 10 pitches). This uber-classic, known around the world as one of the finest moderate climbs in North America, has stalked me since my arrival in Jackson. Note: This climb, first completed in 1936 by Jack Durrance and Ken Henderson, connects the Lower Exum with the Upper Exum. The upper Exum is named after the famous Tetons mountaineer, Glen Exum. He soloed the Upper ( 5.4) wearing football cleats in July of 1931. He made a famous leap over what is now called "Wall Street," a ledge that traverses from the original route called the Owen-Spalding.
We departed at 2:30am, and I was satisfied with my 1.5 hours of intermittent sleep (Nicholas, on the other hand, went to a Harry Potter release party, and slept not even a wink). I desired more, but like a wide-eyed child on the night of December 24th, I only envisioned the gifts and surprises the following day would bring. I have done little big-mountain climbs, and this is a challenging climb, especially in one-day, even for experienced mountaineers. We cruised the hike to the lower saddle, stopping only a couple times for breaks to gossip about office politics. We arrived sluggishly, however, feeling a bit the effects of a poor nights' sleep at 6am. The lower saddle is a base camp for the Exum Mountain Guides (one of the most famous mountain guide agencies in the world - co-founded by Glen Exum and Paul Petzoldt in 1931), as well as climbers who lazily need more than one day to bag over 20 miles and 7000' of vertical gain.
Nicholas was not feeling great at this point, thinking he left the catfish out a bit long before inhaling it as I stepped into his apartment that morning at 1:30am. After a while resting and making sure Nicholas would survive, we headed out. The air was freezing cold up there, and the sharp wind pierced our sweaty skin. We both put on all of our layers, including long johns, gloves, and hats. The climb begins along the base of the Grand, and starts from a long traverse that does not require roping up. I had brought along a picture of each of the pitches, so that our climbing would always be on-route, thereby reducing the unnecessary stress of analyzing the ambiguous guidebook/topo description with the reality of a huge, meandering rock face.
We began the climb up a large, chockstone-filled chimney at 8:30am.
Early Morning Sun
The climbing went smoothly, with Nicholas confidently and aptly leading the pitches, and I following behind with a pack full of extra layers, water, Clif Bars, gloves, hats, headlamps, a med kit, approach shoes, a couple Werther Originals, some climbing beta, a Teton climbing book, and a fragmented rock which wasted space but gave me sentimental joy. Each of the pitches were unique, and it was exciting getting to each belay ledge, high above the Jackson "skyline."
The fifth pitch, called the "Black Face," is a beautiful 80° face of smooth black rock that is hugely exposed but very well protected. It was far and away my favorite pitch, and I had a huge perma-grin the whole way up. After our final pitch, we reached the Wall Street step across (which is that picture from earlier). I had my pack on, and attempted to hand-traverse the famed step. But fear grabbed me as I pinched the slippery boulder, and I could not muster the courage to do the tricky step with the pack (and rope) on my back. My eyes watered with uncertainty as Nicholas counseled my steps to a wider ledge below. I unstrapped the pack, and tied a couple pieces of rope to the handle. After Nicholas slyly slipped around, in good alpine style, I tossed him the rope and he pulled the bag across. Finally, I managed to place my feet on the inches of rock that protected me from the 1000s of feet below and moved around to the ledge. It was freaking scary; the most intimidating move of the day.
After that move we arrived at the Upper Exum ridge at 2:10. We began on the Golden Staircase: a sweet knobby pitch with little protection and huge exposure.
Top of Golden Staircase
This section of the Grand is easy enough for good, headstrong climbers to free-solo, so I coiled the rope and strapped it to my back as we ascended some beautiful 5.4 golden Teton granite. Although not too technically difficult, the Upper Exum is highly exposed at points and even the easy stuff felt insane when there was 4000' below my fragile body. We had run out of water, but were still fairly well hydrated from the mornings' climb. Still feeling good, we decided to go unroped for the entire Upper Exum. My bag was heavy with the gear and rope, and my mind equally sogged with thoughts of a slip. The crux, called the "Friction Pitch" is a slab of granite, with almost no protection, that has tiny crimps as hand-holds.
Freeing the Friction Pitch After Friction Pitch
It is nicely sloped though, and we traversed it like sea-crabs, only more scared and less accustomed to moving our bodies like crustaceans. We managed it, and after that pitch, the climb was a breeze. Maybe a strong breeze though, because I was dead tired and my feet were aching from the multiple hours in rock shoes.
We summited at 4:15, 7.5 hours after we began the climb. We were psyched that we did the Upper so fast, and made it to the summit in decent time. On the summit were some dudes we saw in the parking lot that morning who had climbed the North Face (5.8); a sketchy, flaky climb that I am I dead afraid of climbing due to the high amount of rockfall. They were a welcome site, and even more so because we had no idea how to descend, and they had summited before. Our fallout was the lack of knowledge of the descent, and the entire climb we hoped to find someone on the summit.
Kickin it on the summit
It was hot up there with almost no wind, and the view was stunning. We looked upon the Teton Crest Trail to our west that we had hiked a couple weekends before, as well as the surrounding valley that gives the area its name. We stood atop the beautiful 360 summit, like nothing I had stood on before, high above the world. We were blown away (not literally) by the weather that day. Many people turn around, get into trouble, and even die from the storms that can quickly approach the range. But we received perfect weather: just wide, blue Wyoming sky and a bright sun heating our tired, but extremely happy faces. We hung out on the summit for almost 45 minutes because of how awesome it felt up there, and because sitting was equally as awesome. The guys up there told us about their day, and it was fun to exchange stories while they passed around a joint, laughing and talking as though the summit was their dorm room.
After a tiring, hand burning 120' rappel from a couple slings, we descended the mountain via the old Owen-Spalding route (originally climbed in the late 1890s by a Coloardo reverend and a Jackson surveyor). The descent from there was brutal: slippery dirt and rock combination, a lot of down-climbing and a very meandering trail. Finally, at about 6:30pm, we reached the lower saddle.
I had left my pack there that morning, and had filled up a camelback of 3 liters of water for our descent. We slumped down and looked up at our accomplishment shining in the evening like a proud father smiling down at his sons. We chilled for about 25 minutes at the lower saddle, choking down Clif Bars, slurping some much-needed water, and talking about how awesome the climb turned out to be.
The last four hours are a blur. Our legs had been pounded, our arms tested and strained. Our hands were chalky and dry, healing themselves slowly from the hand jams that had given them cuts and scrapes. I uncomfortably slung one foot out at a time, landing un-athletically and painfully with every step. The hike that morning seemed easy, but now it was like hiking the brutal Turkey Pin at age 4, but without loving parents to give me a carry whenever I felt tired. We laid ourselves down at "The Meadows", a beautiful alpine meadow about 3 hours from the car. The meadow is gorgeous, complete with a picturesque waterfall cascading fiercely down a smooth granite ledge. Nicholas and I had camped here before our attempt of Irene's Arete a few weeks earlier. We both remember falling asleep for like 3 minutes, and neither of us can remember how we ever woke ourselves up to continue. But somehow, we pushed forth through the boulder fields, the rocky slopes and eventually the soft, groomed trail. The dirt felt like a plush pillow beneath my feat compared with everything else we had traveled through that day, and we pushed ourselves hard to finally get off the mountain once on this seemingly soft terrain.
11:00pm--21 hours later
We arrived back to his Saab at 11:05, which had been resting there lazily since our departure that morning. It welcomed us to its sloping frame, and we accepted its invitation to toss our bags off of our own sloping frames into its spacious trunk, 21 hours after our start. Nicholas drove us back to his house, where we cooked up some Annie's mac and cheese and slogged root beers in celebration (we both wanted an actual beer, but knew that one sip would make us instantly drunk due to our famine and sleep-deprivation, so we opted for the second-best). After the well-deserved meal, I drove home exhausted, thirsty, and in-pain, thinking that this
is mountaineering, this
is what it's all about, this
is what sets me free.