Climbing the Grand
July 8th - 10th, 2003
I learned how to rock climb in the shadows of the Tetons. My high school outdoor club had climbing trips 2 or 3 times a year and we frequently went over to Jackson Hole to climb. The Jackson Hole Mountain Guides taught us our knots and how to belay. They also taught us how to self arrest on glaciers and travel on steep snow.
At some point during these trips I realized that I wanted to climb the Grand Teton. I really didnít know too much about climbing but I enjoyed it. And the Grand was right there looming above me. I wondered, ďHow hard could it be?Ē
As the years passed I drifted away from climbing. Then I began to climb a bit in college, ironically far from the mountains at the University of Chicago. I started going to the gym once a week, then twice, then as often as I could. Soon most of my vacations were climbing oriented. After a few years of working and climbing I stopped working full time and started traveling and climbing full time.
After a year of traveling and climbing I had climbed numerous multi-pitch climbs all over the continent and done some that were of an advanced difficulty. I had gotten very fast at multi-pitch and was a strong climber. But I still hadnít climbed the Grand.
I had been talking with my friend Jeff about climbing the Grand Teton for a few years and it looked like this summer was going to work for both of us. Jeff had started climbing on the same outdoor club trips as me and had continued to climb through college and grad school. He had done quite a bit of alpine climbing and had quite a bit of experience in the mountains.
We chose the Upper Exum Ridge, which goes at 5.5x. With our combined experience and the low level of technical climbing difficulty on our chosen route up the Grand Teton, I thought it was going to be a breeze.
Day One Ė The Approach
As we hiked up and up we kept thinking we were looking at the Grand Teton, only to find that what we were seeing was just another rocky ridge. This happened again and again and soon we were looking down onto the towers we had mistaken for the Grand. Our sense of perspective was quite skewed in the alpine environment.
Next we passed by the Ice Caves where some climbers were bivying and then crossed over a talus field and had to work our way through some scary snowfields. The Rangers had told us that we probably could get away without ice-axes or crampons so we clutched long pointy rocks in our hands hoping they would allow us to self arrest if we fell. After the snowfields we were exhausted and ready to stop. We heard some voices and followed them up to an encampment. As it turned out we had climbed too high and were in the Jackson Hole Mountain Guides camp. We needed to scramble down quite a bit through rough talus to get to our bivy spot.
Upon arriving we were pleased to notice that there were plenty of walls made of piled rocks to act as windshields for our bivy sacks. We were not pleased to find a complete lack of running water. This meant that we would have to spend a lot of time and fuel melting snow for water. One of the lessons I learned on this trip is that it takes a lot of snow to make a little water. We also discovered that we had left our six sandwiches back in the fridge. To top it off, we had made a last minute decision not to bring an extra soup so we now had exactly enough food. If anything went wrong we would be really hungry.
After setting up camp and eating we felt really exhausted. I doubted that I could even hike up to the base of the climb much less do technical rock climbing. So much for the idea that this was going to be an easy climb. We decided that we would set the alarm for 4am and see how we felt in the morning. Hopefully, sleeping at 10,600 feet would help acclimatize us.
Day Two Ė Scouting the Route
To test the waters we decided to try to finish the approach and get to the base of the technical climbing, another 2,000 feet above us. There were a number of obstacles that we needed to overcome to get there. The first was how we were going to get to the lower saddle between the Middle and Grand Teton. It was directly above us but the tracks of previous parties went up a steep glacier and we were not prepared for glacial travel. I did not want to spend any prolonged amount of time on steep snow without at least an ice axe to self arrest myself if I fell.
As we approached the glacier it became apparent that a more direct way, using a fixed rope to ascend some wet 5th class terrain, was also being used. The snow had melted back just enough that the fixed lines were usable. This made the first obstacle a relatively easy one to overcome. We reached the top of the saddle and found a small tent city from the people camping on the exposed ridge. The view kept getting better as we got higher. We also were stopping to catch our breath more often so we were getting lots of opportunities to take it all in. We proceeded up the trail and passed a prominent band of basalt known as the black dike. A little higher the trail became more indistinct and we were not sure of the best way to proceed. We did quite a bit of wandering up and down finding the best path, which mostly involved staying alongside some high cliffs on our right.
The next major route finding obstacle we encountered was how to get over the cliffs we had been following on our right, so we could see where the technical climbing started. We were looking for something called the Eye of the Needle. The guidebook described it as a small hole that you crawl through on your belly, followed by a ledge that you roll across. We didnít really know where we were and we certainly didnít see anything that fit that description. The Grand saw enough climbing traffic that there were tracks everywhere. Eventually we found some 5.2 slabs that we heard the guides often bring clients up to bypass the Eye of the Needle. Jeff and I didnít want to rope up this early in the climb and we also didnít want to free solo since we were so worn out from the altitude.
As we continued exploring the ridgeline a little further up from the slabs we found an interesting rock formation. There was a black dike running through the rock and it was cleaved in such a way that it looked like a natural staircase. It looked too tempting to pass up even though the guidebook didnít mention it. We climbed up the natural stairs and at the top there was a piece of webbing blowing in the wind. As we looked around we realized that it was used as a handle to get to the ledge to our left. After pulling onto the ledge we were faced with a reasonably hard 5th class move. We discussed if we thought we could reverse it to get back down and decided to go forward.
The move ended up being rather easy at around 5.5 or 5.6 and we decided we had gone the right way due to the heavy traveled nature of the path ahead. We continued scrambling up the ridge and found nothing resembling the Eye of the Needle. So we decided our Black Staircase must be an alternative way up. When we reached the top of the ridge we saw Wall Street ledge across the gully from where we were standing. We were now at 12,600 feet, the same height as the Middle Teton.
It was time to turn around. We had figured out a path that would take us to the base of the technical climbing. It had taken us four hours to gain the 2,000 feet but we had done quite a bit of route finding and we would be better acclimatized tomorrow. On the other hand we would be carrying all of our gear and that was certain to slow us down.
After reaching our goal we began to descend. We spotted the Eye of the Needle just below the 5.2 slabs and saw that the hole you crawl through was full of snow. Now we were certain that the Black Staircase was the way we would go.
Getting all the way down proved to be quite quick. We walked into our base camp an hour and forty-five minutes after we started down. We cooked in the light and our spirits were high. Jeff and I both felt confidant that we would be able to give the summit a good attempt in the morning. We set our alarm for 4am and went to sleep long before it got dark.
Day 3 - The Summit Bid
Still we ate a good breakfast before we took off. Jeff and I felt that we were much better acclimatized now and we took off at a good pace after breakfast. As we hiked we realized we were gaining on the guided group quickly. They had snow axes and took the path up the glacier and we took the line up the fixed ropes. When we got to the top of the saddle we were well ahead of the group. All worries of them slowing us down were gone. We zipped up past the black dike and hiked along the cliffside. Before we knew it we were climbing the Black Staircase and scrambling to the top of the ridge.
We checked the time and it had been only two hours since we had started walking. We cut our time in half from the day before and we were fully loaded with our climbing gear. In fact we had ascended to our high point in just a little over the time it took us to go down the day before. Things were looking good.
Everything from now on was going to be new. We easily found a path down the gully and up the other side. Our pace had slowed due to quite a bit of loose rock but we felt good. The sun was beginning to rise and the Middle Teton was lit up with early dawn light.
From looking at Wall Street from the other side of the gully, we thought that we would want to rope up to walk up the ledge. But upon reaching it we realized that it was actually wider than a driveway and not as slanting as we thought. We reached an anchor and decided that it must be where parties tied in. A quick time check revealed we were going to start the technical climbing before 7:30am, amazingly ahead of schedule.
Jeff took the first lead. He moved around the corner and I was feeding out rope quickly. Then he stopped moving for a while. I heard, ďWatch Me!Ē and then shortly there after he let me know that he had built the first anchor. I remembered from the description that one of the hardest and exciting moves on the entire route was transitioning from Wall Street to the Exum Ridge.
I started off and soon was at the crux. A large featureless boulder sat at the end of Wall Street. It forced the climber to do a few insecure off-balance moves to get around it. Basically you had to hang your butt out over the 1000-foot drop and edge your way around with no good holds to hang onto. After spending a few seconds psyching up I scooted and stretched myself around the obstacle and was very happy to make it to the belay.
Golden granite rose in front of me and it was covered with knobs and chickenheads. It was my turn to lead and I got the pitch known as the Golden Stair. The delightful pitch was easy granite climbing at itís finest. Then Jeff led a pitch that took us up along the ridge. It was easy terrain but it wandered. Then we went up through the windy gully. Luckily the sun was keeping us warm and enough of the snow had melted that we were able to avoid it and stay on rock.
The climbing was nice but we were moving slow. Really slow. The leader would rest and catch his breath. And at every belay both of us would sit, take in the view, and try to breathe. We lost track of how many pitches we had climbed. It was getting hard to remember things and we were checking the route description often.
It was my turn to lead and the route looked pretty straightforward above me. As I climbed I noticed that the rock was getting smoother and that there was no more protection. At about 20 feet above my last piece I realized that I must be at the crux of the route, a 5.5x section of slab. There was a small protrusion sticking out of the rock that I was able to rest on and from that stance I was able to work out some tricky pro. With that under me I was able to enjoy the fantastic climbing a little better.
We continued up, pitch after pitch but we were still moving slowly and breathing was getting harder. The terrain was easy but a quick look at our watches let us know that we were way behind schedule. While the Exum Ridge itself is easy climbing, backing off the route is not. There are only three places on the route where one can rappel off and we had already passed two of them. We surveyed the weather and the comforting view of blue sky stretched for as long as we could see.
Soon we were at a pitch we could identify. The open book pitch is a beautiful dihedral with wicked exposure. It was Jeffís lead and he did it in style. The top of that pitch is where the summit ridge is and we assumed we were almost there.
As we continued up the ridge we encountered some black spiky rock and realized that we had no idea where to go. After about 15 minutes of exploration we committed to going right. There was a difficult looking short crack and it was my lead. I was tired and intimidated but it ended up being pretty easy. Shortly after that we found the last technical section, a short 5.5 crack splitting a large rock on the ridge. Jeff quickly dispensed with that and when we got to the other side we were shocked that we still were not at the top.
As we were discussing whether to stay roped up or not we heard some voices. We soon saw the other party and chatted with them for a few minutes. They told us that they had been to the summit a few times before. They advised us to unrope or simul-climb to the summit. We took their advice and decided to simul-climb. Soon the terrain was walk-able. Unfortunately it was also covered in snow. I was so tired I didnít want to stop and put my boots on so I was soon slipping and stumbling through snow in rock shoes. Once and awhile I broke through the crust and sank thigh deep in the snow.
Finally we could see a section of rock that had no more rock above it. We decided that this must be it, the 13,700-foot summit of the Grand Teton. We found the geological marker that confirmed our suspicion. It was 5:30pm and we had been climbing for ten hours.
We were really happy about getting to the summit and the views were unlike any I had seen before. I could see many lower peaks and lakes that I had hiked to growing up and I could see hundreds of miles into Wyoming and Idaho. The next highest mountain was the middle Teton and that was 1,000 feet below us. We really felt like we were on the top of the world.
Unfortunately we were only halfway done. We still had to get down and had about 4 hours of light to do it in. Luckily we had seen the direction the other party had walked off in. They told us we couldnít miss the one rappel that we need to do to get to the descent route.
Due to our fatigue and the extreme exposure, Jeff and I were quite careful as we tried to figure out how to get down. After wandering down some ledges we found a rappel station. However it didnít fit what the other party or guidebook had told us. We looked around for other options and decided that this must be the right one. After rappelling we found ourselves on a series of ledges with no clear way down. My stomach tightened as I contemplated that we might have rappelled at the wrong point and were now off route. After a couple minutes of looking around Jeff spotted a large block with about 10 slings around it. This was the rappel station we were looking for and it was a short 10-foot scramble below us.
This rap made us a little nervous. The guidebook implied that our rope would not be long enough to reach the ground. But everyone we had talked to, including a park ranger told us we would make it. We found that if you rapped off of the left side of the cliff you can barely make it with a 60-meter rope.
We had now made it to the upper saddle and a very defined trail. We started picking up momentum and soon we started recognizing the terrain around us. It was quite a relief to be on familiar ground. We walked into our base camp about two hours after we had reached the upper saddle from our second rappel. This trip was no longer in danger of becoming an epic.
I was completely exhausted and didnít want to break camp and hike all the way out. Jeff wanted to get down off the mountain. While we didnít have a permit for another night, I seriously doubted that we would get in trouble. Jeff wanted to sleep in comfortable bed. We ate dinner and discussed our options as the light began to fade. Jeff eventually persuaded me by saying that he would pay for a hotel room in Jackson.
After having rested for a half an hour and eaten I was feeling better. We started off at a good pace but soon found ourselves on some scary snowfields. They were not that steep of an angle but they led to a precipice and if one of us fell and failed to self-arrest we would probably die. Adrenalin shot through me as I realized that this was the most dangerous thing I had done all day. I clutched the rock I was hoping would substitute as an ice axe and focused as hard as I would walking a slack line. Crossing the snowfields seemed to take forever. By the time I was across I was completely mentally and physically exhausted. And we still had miles of trail to walk out.
Jeff gave me his trekking poles and we hiked for hours. Everything became a blur and I stumbled along at a slow pace. The poles kept me from falling over at times and frequent rests kept me from passing out. I had never felt so tired in my life and was moving like a zombie.
After what seemed like forever we finally reached the parking lot at 12:00am. We had been up and moving for 22 hours. Sitting in the car felt like a luxury after moving that long.
As we drove through Jackson looking for a hotel we realized that they were all priced way out of our range. This was high tourist season. We figured that if we had made it this far we could drive the hour and a half back to Idaho Falls. So Jeff loaded up on some caffeine and off we went. I stumbled into my house at 4:00am and after a 24-hour day, of pushing myself harder than ever before in my life, I passed out.
The technical climbing had been easy but the overall climb was probably harder than any I had done before. I was not prepared for the altitude or for pushing myself for that long. I was extremely sore for the next few days and had no interest in climbing anything. However, after a few days I began thinking about how we could have moved faster and what we could have done different. I realized I was already planning on doing another long committing alpine climb, maybe not this year, but definitely at some point in the not so distant future.