As we entered Grand Teton National Park around 10:00PM, my excitement started blending with nervousness and anxiety. The sky was pitch black; the only light was an occasional meteor streaking across the endless sky. I peered out through the dusty windshield in hopes of catching the faintest outline of the Teton Range but was unable to make out anything recognizable. As we followed the long and winding roads through the park, I started thinking back to the inception of this trip.
The first time that I saw the Grand was exactly a year ago. I had come up to Jackson Hole on a family trip, and my father-in-law being an avid mountaineer, he insisted that we drive through Teton National Park so we could admire the majesty of these famous mountains. At that time I never gave climbing any of these peaks a second thought. I knew nothing about them, and at the time, I had very little mountain climbing experience. I never dreamed of even attempting to stand at the lofty summit of one of the country’s most prestigious peaks.
The slowing of the truck snapped me from my thoughts; we were approaching a ranger station. We received a map and some various documents about the park, and most importantly, directions to the climber’s ranch. We decided to shack up there the night before primarily because of its close proximity to the trailhead. As we rolled into the parking lot I roused the two weary climbers sitting in the back, they had been napping for a good portion of the drive, a luxury my nerves would not permit.
After getting out of the truck and stretching our legs, we took a minute to appreciate the stars and the Milky Way. I don’t think that I have ever seen that many stars in my life. It took us a few minutes to find our cabin in the darkness, and due to the late hour at which we arrived, we tried our best not to wake up those that had already turned in for the night. Our cabin was barren except for the wood-framed bunks; a piece of plywood wood serve as our mattress for the evening. We quickly retrieved whatever gear we needed for the night and turned out the light in hopes of getting some much needed rest.
I lay on the top bunk staring into the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. I thought about the route we were planning to take, the gear that I had packed, and the safest way to scale down the bunk to go to the bathroom. I didn’t want to risk the prospect of breaking a leg while trying to make my way outside, especially the night before our journey to the top would begin. I rolled over trying to find the softest piece of board; there was none. The systematic breathing of my bunkmates ignited feelings of envy. They lingered with me until around 2AM when I finally dozed off into a restless sleep, tossing and turning on what felt like the top of a picnic table.
I suddenly woke up, and scanned the darkness hoping for any sign that dawn was near. There was. The soft blue glow of light hugging the horizon was barely illuminating the Tetons, I was able to catch my first glimpse of the Grand. I stood out on the porch of our cabin and waited for the fiery alpenglow to light up the peaks. I listened for the noise of a rustling sleeping bag in hopes that one of my fellow climbers would come out and join me; they slept. I couldn’t blame them; if I had been able to fall asleep then I would still be inside with them.
We had breakfast at the grouping of picnic tables near our cabin, and checked all of our gear to make sure that we had everything. We had a good time talking with some of the other climbers staying at the ranch and we enjoyed hearing where they had come from and what their plans were. We informed them of our intention to climb the Grand Teton by the means of the Owen-Spalding route. After cleaning up from breakfast, we loaded up the truck and embarked on the dusty roads to the trail.
Trailhead to the Meadow
The parking lot is a few miles down the road from the ranch and it was full of cars from various parts of the country. It was a testament of how renowned this mountain is, not just in the Western States, but on the East Coast as well. We took care of some last minute preparations, had a brief team meeting, and then started walking over to the trail. There is a big sign with “Lupine Meadow Trailhead” at the top, and lots of warnings regarding the healthy bear population in the area. We all kept an eye out for them as we crossed through the expansive meadows that parallel the trail, and we luckily didn’t see any.
The trail meanders through thick pine forests and wide-open meadows for the first few miles. The gain in elevation is steady, but not steep, and incorporates switchbacks after the first mile or two. As we passed through some of the woods, we caught our last few glimpses of the Grand Teton summit through the trees, and would not see it again until reaching the upper saddle.
As we gained elevation, more and more of the small lakes and ponds became visible to us and we watched as the breeze blew circles of wake from shore to shore. We stopped frequently for water breaks and were continuously trading the lead with a number of other groups that surrounded us on the trail. We kept a steady pace and soon found ourselves at the base of a boulder field guarding us from the Lupine Meadow.
I stashed my trekking poles and pounded the remaining water in my nalgene bottle, then waited with a few other climbers for the rest of our group as they worked their way up the trail. The view down into the valley was tremendous and I marveled at what it would look like from the summit. After a brief team discussion, we decided to push through the boulder field to the meadow and then have lunch and refill our water bottles there. I couldn’t believe how massive some of the boulders were as we scrambled across them, and it was difficult maintaining balance especially while carrying a 50 lb. pack. All I could think about was tearing into the grilled-cheese sandwiches that were waiting for me in the top pocket of my pack. Smashed or not, I knew they were going to be tasty.
The meadow was a perfect place to stop. We leaned our packs up against some rocks and took a seat in the grass. Marmots gathered and looked on longingly for scraps of food, but our own hunger proved too much and nothing was left for them. The meadow was split in two by a small glacial stream flowing down from the side of the Middle Teton and we spent a while refilling everyone’s bottles from its cool waters.
Wild raspberry bushes sprung up from around the rocks, I stopped to pick a few. As we sat resting and preparing to push onward, dark grey clouds started skirting the tops of the surrounding peaks. It instantly created a sense of urgency in us; we needed to get up to the moraine as soon as possible and get some shelter set up for us and our gear. The last thing that we wanted to do was negotiate the moraine boulder field while the rocks were wet and slick.
Meadow to the Moraine
The trail from the meadow starts working to the right of the middle Teton, and begins a long series of switchbacks to the top. As we traversed from side to side up the steep trails, I heard a sound that quickly drew my attention up to the left. 3 or 4 fist-sized rocks were careening down the mountain, gaining speed and unpredictability as they ricocheted off of obstacles in their path. I dodged left, than right, and successfully outmaneuvered the falling debris; a fortune that would not grace one of our team members later up the trail. As we passed the hikers that had started the small slide, they apologized for their carelessness and complimented me on my “fake left, go right” move. I failed to find the humor as one of those rocks came very close to nailing me in the head.
As we climbed up the switchbacks the wind began picking up and more churning clouds started moving in over the mountains. Our team had split into two groups at this point and we waited for our second group at the caves. There is a small group of pine trees clumped across from the caves and some flat and groomed camping spots in-between them. Large wooden poles jut out from the rocks to serve as makeshift bear-bag pegs and I was surprised to learn that bears could still be a threat in this rugged rocky terrain. The second half of our group met us at this point, and we began the final climb to our camp for the evening.
The terrain is very similar to that before the meadow. Massive boulders piled randomly required careful steps and steady balance as our packs would tilt and try to tip us over. Some of the moves were difficult and required patience and careful maneuvering. As we worked our way up the moraine, a dark blue tent hidden in the piled rocks informed us that the campsites were near. We found a large spot big enough to put two of our tents side by side, and a single spot lower for the other members of our team. We cleared out some of the small rocks and stacked them up to bolster our wind-break, and started setting up our tents.
Luckily, the threatening clouds did just that as we only had a sprinkle of rain the entire day. The wind however was a different story. Every minute or so we would get a strong gust that made setting up the tents a challenge. The last thing that we wanted to do was chase a fugitive tent down the rocky slopes of the moraine. We set them and anchored them with our gear, and started boiling water for our dinners. We had packed in the dehydrated camping meals and were looking forward to our first and last hot meal of the trip. Despite it being only late afternoon, the sun was already beginning to sink below the rocky ridges towering above us, and the temperature was dropping along with it.
After cleaning up from dinner, and pumping some more water from an icy glacier pool, we began the frustrating task of trying to fall asleep in daylight. We had planned to wake up at 230AM to gear up and hit the trail around 3, and we turned in for the night around 730PM. I lay in the tent staring at the orange glowing fabric above me. I couldn’t hear any noise coming from our neighboring tent and I worried that this was going to be a repeat of last night; everyone asleep and me wide-awake.
I tossed and turned frequently, and the slightest bit of drowsiness was chased away by the sudden thrashing of our tent. I could hear small rockslides on the steep jagged walls surrounding our campsite and thought about the rock that almost clocked me in the head. I had a new appreciation for my helmet and planned on wearing it from my first step out of the tent in the morning. I ventured out into the wind for one last rest stop, more to break up the monotony of my endless shifting then of sheer necessity, and then retreated into the tent vowing that I would get some sleep. I inserted some ear plugs to keep the flapping tent from hampering my rest and surprisingly drifted off.
I woke up to an eerie whitish glow reflecting off of the top of the tent. I rolled over to find Peter sitting up and looking at his cell phone. I asked him what time it was, and he dryly replied 2:30AM. I rolled back over and heard Phil yell “Top of the morning” to us over the relentless wind. I slinked back down into my sleeping bag wanting to relish the last few moments of warmth that I would ultimately feel for the rest of the day.
I could hear the high-pitched roaring of Phil's camp stove as he heated water for some oatmeal. My stomach churned at the prospect of eating anything this early in the morning, it was still working on the culinary masterpiece of dehydrated lasagna that I had downed the night before. I sluggishly put on the layers of clothing that I had packed for summit day and hoped that they would be warm enough in this wind. We gathered around the tents for a brief discussion before departing, then set off into the frigid darkness.
Moraine to the Upper Saddle
We worked our way up the moraine to a band of cliffs that separate it from the upper saddle. We came to a point where the trail ends and the semi-steep rock face begins. The rope is not visible from this point and it is necessary to climb up to the right or left of some rocks, and the rope can be found hanging in the middle behind them. We hoisted ourselves up the side of the cliff and I found it to be a little bit trickier than I was expecting. One by one we reached the top and set off up the last section of the trail before reaching the saddle.
Upon reaching the middle of the saddle we could look down into Idaho for the first time. The wind picked up drastically and I found myself wondering what it would be like as we gained more and more elevation. As we looked up from the lower saddle, we could see small groups of headlamps slowly weaving up the switchbacks, like tiny glowing caterpillars clinging to the side of the mountain. We scoured the rocks for a small pool of water that bubbles up from and out of the mountain; our last opportunity to fill up until our return. With the assistance of some other climbers we were finally able to locate it, and sat crouched around it filling our bottles.
My lack of activity allowed the howling winds to overcome any heat that had been retained in my numerous layers of clothing. I looked forward to pushing on and getting warm again as we began our climb to the upper saddle. We could see a thin band of orange illuminating the horizon, the first light of the day, but more importantly, the promise of warming as the sun rose higher.
I found myself sink into some sort of climbing trance. My only brain operation was to keep putting one foot in front of the other while not tipping over from the increasing wind gusts. My headlamp locked on to the pair of feet climbing in front of me and I didn’t stop for anything. I periodically forced down a piece of cliff bar from fear that I would drain all of my energy, but the task of eating was almost as daunting as the climb itself. As the sun came up we had some tremendous views of alpenglow on the Middle Teton and on the horizon. At one point we looked out and could see the shadow of the Grand Teton against the pink hazy glow many miles away. We stopped and drank in this miraculous sight, one that I have never seen before in my life.
The climb kept going, and our route finding was marginal at best. Our lack of knowledge in regards to the proper route shined brightest as we were not sure which sloping chimney was the right one to take. We read the descriptions of others who had previously done the climb in an attempt to designate which route was correct, but our only option was to keep climbing up while finding the path of least resistance. We encountered some tricky moves along the way but took our time to ensure that we all negotiated them safely.
As we got closer to the top my brother-in-law and I started getting a little ahead of the group and took a route heading straight to the top. The rest of our team went towards the right, the correct way to go. We got to the top and found ourselves looking down the 4000+ feet of exposure to the bottom of the canyon. We backed off, and started working along the ridge towards the side of the summit cone. We came to a point where the only way to get down to our team was to down-climb a 30-foot cliff. From the top I took a picture looking across the exposure showing the ledge that has to be traversed, the belly-roll, the 120-foot rappel, and two tiny rock climbers working their way along the route.
Phil and Peter came to help us work our way down the cliff and we headed over to a grouping of boulders to hide from the wind as we suited up in our gear. We had hoped that the wind would die down as the sun rose and warmed up the atmosphere but our hopes were for naught. The wind continued and made the prospect of shuffling along the skimpy ledge intimidating. I couldn’t get the image of those two rock climbers literally hanging off the side of the mountain out of my head. Two of our team members decided to head down to camp because one of them was showing signs of altitude sickness, and Phil took a minute to get me fired up about the last push to the top.
Upper Saddle to the Summit
We slipped on our harnesses', broke out the rope, and started making our way over to the ledge. As we crossed under the rappel some climbers about to come down kicked some loose rocks off the edge and one careened down and smacked Phil in the finger. He winced at the pain and staggered over to some rocks out of the way of any more falling debris. We rushed around him to see how bad the damage was as he delicately pulled off his glove. The rock had busted open his fingernail and blood was oozing out of the wound. The backside of his finger had an immediate blister that slowly filled with fluid. We bandaged and taped his finger, slipped on his glove, and taped the top around his wrist to hold it in place. This was not the way we wanted to start off the most technical aspect of the climb, but he insisted he was fine and we worked our way over to the belly-roll.
The exposure off of the side was breath-taking. We situated ourselves so that my brother-in-law could anchor himself in a small crack and belay Phil across the top. The move basically consists of climbing up the side of a slab of rock wedged against the side of the mountain and then swinging yourself over and down back onto the ledge on the other side. After Phil had made his way across and anchored in, I tied a figure-8, clipped in, and proceeded to climb up and over the rock. The move went quickly, and was not as bad as I had anticipated. I unclipped and wedged myself in a small crack as I waited for the rest of the team to come across.
The view from our position on this ledge was surreal. Instead of looking out across at the mountains, we were looking down on them a few thousand feet from above. Everything appeared flat from our vantage point, it was like some sort of optical illusion. As we congregated on this tiny ledge, my brother-in-law anchored himself in again. Phil volunteered to go first and lead on the next move which was the crawl. There is a narrow gap in the rock that runs for about 15 feet or so, and the best way to traverse it is by sliding along the lip of the ridge while your right leg drags on the inside, and your left leg stabilizes on the outside.
After those first two moves we worked our way into position to climb up the first chimney. It was not comforting to look back and see the bottom of the chimney transition into a 4000+ foot straight drop-off. I focused my attention on finding the sometimes fleeting handholds.
There were numerous moves that required pushing off with your feet without any grips to stabilize yourself with your hands. After the first chimney we elected to climb up another one instead of traversing across the catwalk. Again, the chimney was misleading as it looked like a fairly easy climb, but consisted of a number of difficult moves. At the top of the third chimney we found some rappel anchors and were ecstatic at the prospect of not having to down-climb that section.
We saw a climber belaying himself down from the summit and we learned that we were only few minutes of scrambling away from the top. Our tired limbs surged with energy at the prospect of reaching the summit and we worked our way around and up to the top.
We each picked a rock to sit on and began pulling out some snacks for our victory celebration. I took pictures of each of us at the top, and some of the miraculous views down into Teton National Park. We could see a small sliver of sand on the valley floor that we identified as the parking lot. We had a long way to go if we wanted to reach the cars by tonight. We pulled out a cell phone in hopes of informing our loved ones of our success and we enjoyed the 360-degree view from our lofty vantage point.
Summit to the Bottom
A group of dense grey clouds moving in our direction hastened our decision to begin the descent and we decided not to linger up there any longer. We hoped for a quick descent to the upper saddle by utilizing the two different rappels along the way. The first rappel goes off of a large boulder and down, and then tapers towards the bottom. At the top we noticed that the rock the anchors hooked to was cracked around most of the base. We trusted in it because of the climbers that we had watched rappel off of it minutes before we got there, but we all had an uneasy feeling about its integrity.
After we had all reached the base of the first rappel, we walked along the ledge and started setting up for the main one. The wind started picking up as we worked one half of our rope through the anchor, and small icy flakes of snow began falling. We all had the same immediate thought; we need to get off of this mountain!
I was the second one to rappel and rather enjoyed working my way down to the bottom. The first 20-30 feet requires kicking off from the side of the cliff and the last 80 or so is a free hanging rappel. The snow kept pounding the side of the mountain and we watched as the rest of our team glided down the rope from the top. As I waited at the bottom of the rappel, I noticed a white climbing helmet poking up from the far side of some rocks. After we were all down and coiled the rope, we went over to investigate and see who it was.
We found a 17-year old Boy Scout that had been left behind by his team only an hour earlier; he had not been feeling well and elected to stay behind as they made a push for the summit. He was wearing sneakers, shorts, a t-shirt, and had a flannel hooded sweatshirt rapped around his legs; he was shivering. The snow had since let up and we asked him if he wanted to stay or come down with us. He didn’t want to leave his group wondering where he was, so we gave him some food and proceeded along the trail.
Not 5 minutes later, the snow began whipping across the upper saddle and Phil decided that we couldn’t leave him behind. He volunteered to give him his down parka to stay warm, but my brother-in-law went back and told him he had no choice but to come down with us. He had already slipped into the first stages of hypothermia and was coming dangerously close to incoherency all alone in the storm. The last two guys in our group helped him down the mountain and we slowly picked our way down to the Exum guiding huts on the lower saddle.
When we arrived we explained to some of the guides what had happened and we left him with them to wait for his group. The sick member of our team waiting down at the tents was also experiencing a deterioration of his health and we rushed down to pack up and go. Coming down the fixed rope-line was even trickier than coming up it; I think we were all glad about not having to use ropes for the rest of the descent once we reached the bottom.
Upon our arrival in camp, we re-filled our water, packed up our gear, and rested for about a half hour. We didn’t like the prospect of climbing down the moraine in the dark, so we left as soon as everyone had gotten a breather.
The climb down seemed to go quickly and we passed numerous parties on their way up to the saddle. We hoped for them that the daylight would hold out so they wouldn’t have to set up camp in the dark. The last few miles of the trail through the woods seemed 3 times longer than on the way up, and we blew whistles periodically to help warn any bears around of our presence. We were able to make it to the parking lot in the last few moments of light and did not have to break out our headlamps. With the little energy that we had left we hoisted our packs into the truck and began looking forward to a hot meal in Jackson.
I have been looking forward to this trip for so long and it is hard to believe that it is over. I have spent most of the summer running, lifting, and climbing peaks in the Wasatch Range in preparation for it and I feel a sense of emptiness now that it is over. I guess all I can do now is find another peak to bag.