I’m sitting at 12,804 feet above sea level, which is as high as I have ever been with my feet still planted on the big sphere that we call earth. It wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t even have dreamed of sitting here on top of the Middle Teton. That all changed a few years ago as I started evolving from “soccer dad” back to my roots of being in the mountains. Initially, I was focused on finding peaks that I would ascend and ski, but what soon became apparent was that for me, the skiing was the “easy part”. It was the climbing that I lacked both skill and stamina.
Unsuccessful summit attempts of Mt. Moran and Teewinot here in the Tetons helped hammer that home to me. These were winter ski mountaineering ventures, but what I have now realized, (or more correctly been told by the ski guides), is that I need to commit to climbing year-around. My first love is climbing a mountain and skiing from the summit, but now I realize how fun it is to "just climb it" too!!!
This summer, I decided that I would begin climbing some of the big peaks that have moderate routes to hone my climbing skills and get me in shape for some of these future ski mountaineering ventures. I was primarily interested in Mount Borah, Idaho's tallest peak, but when my co-worker, Daniel Watrous, told me he was going to head over to the Tetons and climb the “Middle”, and would I be interested in coming along, I immediately started scheming to figure out how to make it work. It took a little bit of scrambling to get schedules worked out, but once again my scheming paid off. Plus, I think I can still get Borah in during September.
There were 4 of us on the team, and the youngest, Daniel, was 36. I’m 55, (we made the climb on my birthday), and the other two guys are turning 69 this year. I met Tom and Lee for the first time on this climb, (Tom is Daniel’s dad).
I draw inspiration from lots of people that spend time in the mountains, and these two guys just got added to that list. They are a great example of living a fit, healthy lifestyle, and the resulting freedom that you are rewarded with.
The Southwest Route of the Middle Teton is the “easiest” route on this 12,804 foot peak that is an integral part of what is known as the “Cathedral Group of the Tetons”. I use quotes around the word “easiest”, because that doesn’t imply that it is a simple hike to the top. A lot of people that climb this set of peaks do so from a series of base camps in the 9,000 – 10,500 foot range. In our case, we climbed it in one long day from the parking lot trail head, Lupine Meadows in GTNP. This means approximately 6,000 vertical in one day, with the last 1,000 being a class 3 scramble up the Southwest Couloir.
The original plan was for Daniel and I, (with my wife and daughter along for some other fun in Jackson Hole), to leave Boise on Tuesday after work and drive to Jackson from Boise. Daniel’s dad and his friend were coming in from Salt Lake City. We would hook up early on Wednesday, make the climb and head back to Boise that afternoon.
The plan started out OK, but then we hit the trail at 7:00 AM, about an hour later than what we wanted. Our progress up to the Meadows was steady, but as we began the climb into the South Fork of Garnet, we were somewhat hampered by choosing a route around to the left and above a lingering snow field that lies just to the left of the Cave Couloir base. We then had to cross a boulder field to get back on route. While the diversion was fun, (hoping VW sized boulders), it added time to our climb. As it turned out, we could have stayed literally right on the edge of the snow field and had a more direct route. We discovered this on the descent by studying the terrain and picking up the climbers "trails". And with legs getting tired, we trying to avoid as much rock hoping as possible.
The climb up through the south fork of the canyon is not technical, but it is important to hold high to the north side of the canyon. This allows you to avoid some of the larger boulder fields.
For the most part there is a climbers trail, but it is easy to lose it and get off track. If you look at the GPS data that I have on my website, (Middle Teton via Southwest Couloir Route), you will see that we also strayed to the middle of the canyon on the descent and we had to work back to the higher, north route. It has been pointed out on the Route page for the Middle Teton that you should hold high and north. This is good advice. I climbed this route last winter on a ski mountaineering training session and it was definitely easier for me on skis. The one constant that I encountered is the continual, howling wind. The canyon is a huge natural wind tunnel that picks up and funnels the wind currents that build up steam coming across the Snake River Plain in Idaho. Although I've actually only been in the canyon twice, I suspect that there aren't many days that the wind doesn't blow here in the upper canyon.
Once we hit the saddle, we needed a short break to rest and refuel. This worked out fairly well, because there were about a dozen other climbers that had already bagged the summit and were on their descent. The positive to this is that they cleared out of the couloir, which is narrow and has a fair amount of loose rock. The potential drawback is that if there had been thunder storms, we would have been pushing the limit for getting up and down before they arrived. This day however, the weather was perfect and thunder storms were never even a risk. The views down into Ice Flow Lake are breathtaking, and you can see for miles out over the plains into Idaho. Due to it being fire season, we weren't able to see the Lemhi's or the Lost River's, but the closer views of the Teton range and canyons were superb.
The climb up through the couloir is great fun and a nice challenge for an amateur such as myself. We were climbing right behind a couple of young guys from Wisconsin. They did great and didn’t send any loose rock down on us. One interesting note, of all the people that were in the couloir that day, I was the only one that donned a helmet. (I don’t have a “real” climbing helmet, but I figured my modified ski helmet is better than nothing). There was rock fall in the couloir at various times from the other groups, and we even had a couple of close calls on our descent. My personal recommendation would be to go the safe route and put on some added protection. There are a couple of choke points and almost every step offers multiple route alternatives. The only exposure was within a hundred feet of the summit, there is a precipitous drop into another couloir. Just stay to the left here on the climb. Our group all made the summit within a few minutes of each other, about 7 hours after leaving the trail-head.
After a ½ hour break, we headed back down the mountain. We were able to cut 2 hours off of our ascent time, and hit the parking lot for a car-to-car, 6,000 foot climb of 12 ½ hours total. As we neared the lower levels of the trail, we were able to see a number of deer beginning to emerge for the evening grazing. No other big game sightings and no bear on this trip.
One again, the climb met the criteria for success in the mountains; friendships were made, everyone had a great time, and we all came back safe and sound, (well Daniel had some pretty good blisters from a poor choice in climbing boots). I’d say it was a very successful climb for a “bunch of old guys”!
We were all extremely satisfied with the successful climb, but we were pretty tired and ready for some food and sleep. This is where “plan B” quickly materialized. I knew there was no way we were going to drive back to Boise that night, so we stayed and I had a great birthday meal with my wife, daughter and aunt at the Calico Pizza restaurant in Wilson Wyoming.
The following video is a visual TR and focuses primarily on the south fork of the canyon and the couloir portion of the climb.
As a final note, I have also referenced this video that documents a ski descent on the Middle Teton Glacier from the dike about 500 feet below the summit. I added this in to contrast the difference in the amount of snow in the canyon. The ski mountaineering trip was done in 2011, on August 12th, and the climb for this TR was done on August 14th of 2013. The winter of 2010-11 was one of the biggest snow years in the Tetons, and this year was an extremely low snow year. The contrast shows how routes and climbing conditions can vary from year to year.
Google Earth view of the route: