The North Ridge is one of three on the list of Roper and Steck’s 50 Classic Climbs of North America that are located on the Grand Teton (Exum and North Face being the other two). Although still much easier than many of the other contributions to the list, the North Ridge is the 2nd most difficult of the Wyoming collection which totals 7. I have climbed them all and, only the North Face is a longer and more difficult proposition (snow, ice, more rock and much more difficult descent back to bivy). Most of the N. Ridge's difficulty is due to the route finding involved with a fair amount of consequential approach hazards from either approach option. Although considered safer in terms of rock fall than the Teton Glacier, the Valhalla Traverse is full of intricate route finding, suspect rock, snow and ice conditions. As stated in the local guide, “this remote route is protected by one of the longer and more technical approaches in the Park”.
Roper and Steck’s 1970’s guide list the route at 5.8 IV. The Teton Rock Climbs guide, 2012, labels it as 5.9, IV. The lower part of the main chimney is 5.9 by modern standards. Add the ice box effect at 13K+, you might think it is even sandbagged at that. Interesting enough, the only other party I have known to climb it recently, thought the final 5.7 chimney pitches near the end were sandbagged, but I believe that had more to do with that party’s inexperience with chimneys. The first pitch of the main chimney offers by far the most challenging climbing on this route. The rest of the actual ridge climbing is straight forward and fast. MP.com list the ridge at 12 pitches but we climbed it in a comfortable 6 pitches.
The Valhalla Traverse is not well traveled. The rangers and guides were full of advice about conditions on the traverse, but none really matched what we found and much of the offered information seemed 2nd and 3rd hand. The guides, and there are many on this mountain, the most I have seen on any peak, like talking about the North Ridge because they are no doubt bored of guiding the Exum and other easy routes up the Grand Teton. But comparing any comments we had heard from them to the actual traverse, it became apparent that few have actually been to the North Ridge. The biggest question regarding the approach for us was where to leave the traverse to reach the notch (Grandstand) below the north ridge. That will become more evident to you once you see it from the west. The real issue is to pick as safe a route as possible on a choss ridden rib of rock sandwiched between ice that eventually lands you atop the Grandstand.
Start by taking a left fork from the Owen-Spalding and Exum "highway" trail above the lower saddle and below the black rock. Start traversing west, losing elevation down a ramp below red rock. Any sign of a trail peters out early. Continue traversing and descending around various obstacles. You do reach a ledge with bivies in relatively short order. Right when everything appears civil for a moment, you round a corner facing north and are faced with descending a ramp into the chaos of ice, snow, choss and falling rock. The first ice obstacle we ran into, instead of donning crampons, we simply climbed up rock until we could cross snow in our shoes. That landed us on a rib of rock that stood out in the ice. We did use crampons in late July to cross one icy portion higher up, but for the most part we could bypass icy sections by locating easier snow options. You constantly trend up and left, but there is also quite a bit if zig zagging to locate the easier weaknesses. The feature that keeps you true is a steep snow and ice couloir to the north. Stay well south of that feature, picking your way through the loose rubble to the obvious notch to the north of the obvious north ridge directly above (the Grandstand).
1st-2nd Pitches- 200+’-5.7/ From atop the grandstand, meander up decent rock trending left on the ridge. There are pitons to be found with ample gear as well. Various lines can be taken, but if you just follow the 5.7 ground, it trends left. You land a significant sloping ledge. Some simul-climbing will be necessary with a 60m rope if you want to set up a gear belay in the wall ahead.
3rd Pitch- 130’-5.8/ The belayer has the option of backing away from the wall and belaying on a broad ledge to stay in the sun in the am. Move right and up the dark rock through a steep section (fixed cam 2022), then trend back right and up to a shaded and cold belay on a small ledge at the base of the tall chimney via a piton (2022) and small gear belay.
4th-5th Pitches- 200’-5.9/ Crux of the route and main feature on the North Ridge. Likely climb a few meters of snow (even late season) to start the long chimney pitch. Start on the right wall with a finger crack, following several pitons and placing ample gear. At times you can stem but the crux is where you are forced to climb the crack on the right wall before pulling into the chimney at a stance. Continue up the chimney’s right wall at a easier grade following more pitons to a small ledge below a low angled slab up and left with a dihedral on its right side. The snow and ice in the chimney make this a cold lead regardless of time of year or day.
6th-7th Pitches- 200+’-5.7/ Follow the slab above protecting in the dihedral to the right. This is easy slab but can have drainage (water or ice) on it depending on the time of year. Keep trending left as the dihedral goes. Continue up easy but steep face when the slab runs out. Trend up and right on easy ground to a ledge on the upper northwest arete of the ridge.
8th Pitch- 195’-5.7/ Climb the solid rock face above aiming for a short and fat pillar that creates a chimney on each side. I stemmed between the two until I could pull over the left chockstone, but you can climb either side. Continue to an obvious ledge with a piton (2022) and gear options out right.
9th Pitch- 190’-5.7/ Continue up an obvious chimney system. When you pull out onto a large ledge above, a flat gear belay ledge is found up and left.
Scramble up and right (4th5th class) to the summit in about 300’.
The standard Owen-Spalding descent. Two raps early, the 2nd of which requires a full 60m rope. Many braided trails on descent, several options get your down to the lower saddle regardless of which path you take. 4th-5th class downclimbing sections to be encountered. Follow the path of least resistance.
60m rope. Single to #2 is plenty for a competent team. There were still quite a few old pitons in place as of 2022. Most all of the route and its belays stay shaded until noon in late July. Despite the calorie burning warmth of either approach option, you will no doubt prefer a light puffy on this route regardless of time of year. Aluminum crampons and ice axe were used for just a few meters of ice/snow in late July, 2022. I would assume in typical global warming August conditions that one could gamble without. There is plenty of ice and snow encountered, but we climbed rock around most all of it.