It is in many ways the ultimate mountain. Rising 7000 feet from its base in a jagged sweep of ridges, towers and aretes, the Grand Teton is the very symbol of the American West: Rugged, uncompromising and stoic. There is no easy way to its summit, every single route requires technical skills, and it is nearly impossible to get down without a rappel or two. Just getting to base camp at the Lower Saddle requires a seven mile hike with 5000 feet of elevation gain across boulder fields, scree and a 100 foot-high headwall. Sound imposing? It is a daunting mountain.
I had the good fortune to climb this mountain in August of 2010. My friend Harold met me at my house early in the morning, and we departed. We left Roseburg and headed north on Interstate 5, veering east on I-105 along the Columbia river, stopping for a short time around noon for lunch and a stretch. Then we we continued on, driving across nearly the entire width of Idaho before stopping for the night at Massacre State Park after 18 hours of driving. Rising early the next day, it took us another 3 hours to arrive in Grand Teton National Park, and seeing the mountains rising without the normal intermediary of foothills is a staggering sight, to say the least. We pulled over so I could take some pictures.
We continued on to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, where we would be meeting Harold’s younger brother Ron. We quickly found Ron, he and I were introduced and we wasted no time sorting gear and getting ready.
When we had all our gear ready, we drove to the Garnet Canyon trailhead, where I was dropped off to guard the packs, while the brothers drove close to a mile back where the first available parking spot was located (if you have ever been to any popular National Park you know what I am talking about.) In about fifeen minutes they were back, we shouldered our packs, and headed out.
The trail starts out relatively level and easy-going, which was good, considering I was horribly out of shape and we each had 55-65 pounds on our backs (we would be staying in the canyon for 5 days.) Beautiful boulders and stately Lodgepole Pines gave the area its amazing, picturesque beauty, while the mountains loomed above us. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them.
Soon the trail reared up and I almost immediately began to feel my lack of conditioning. Back then I was still dealing with severe chronic pain issues, especially in the winter and into spring, and so I had done very little in the way of physical preparation. Quite frankly, it was embarrassing. As the trail got steeper, I continually fell behind, and both Harold and Ron are something close to twenty years older than me. It was a sad performance. Luckily, I would redeem myself on summit day. We ground out the dusty, hot miles as the trail gained elevation, passing many people along the way, almost all of whom had something to say about the size of our ridiculous packs.
After multiple hours of grinding out miles on the trail, we finally arrived at the mouth of Garnet Canyon, where Garnet creek splashed through the valley floor and our campsite awaited – the Platforms. Named for the actual camping platforms that used to exist (before being wiped out in a huge rockfall many years earlier), this is the lowest of the several established camps in the area. Since Garnet Canyon is the epicenter for 90% of all Teton climbing activity, you are only allowed to camp in one of these established camps, and since it is so popular, reservations are a must.
Before crossing the creek (which wasn’t a simple matter), I decided to take my wide-brimmed sun hat, fill it with water and dump it on my scorching head. When I did this, I got the most immediate and painful ice-cream (or as I called it, Ice-creek) headache. I couldn’t believe how cold the water was.
We set up camp, stashed our food in the bear-boxes (heavy steel lockers set away from the campsites), and enjoyed a well-deserved rest. We took some time to relax, and once I felt better, I started bouldering (climbing only a few feet above the ground), then went exploring our surroundings. A little while later we made dinner, ate and crashed out. I have to admit, I was slightly worried about bears, but as it turned out, we never saw one the entire trip.
We got up early, made breakfast and were greeted by a glorious sunrise:
The only bad part of the morning was putting on the atrocities we were calling backpacks. Ugh. Unfortunately, I also found, once we set out, that I was still in terrible shape. The first thing we had to overcome was a huge boulder field, the first of several that would require careful traversing. When I say boulder field, this is what I mean: house-sized boulders (no joke), with smaller (ten foot) rocks to cross in between. There was literally no path to follow, it was a quarter mile of carefully stepping over wide gaps with the creek somewhere down below. All of this while wearing these stupid packs. Then we were past the first boulder field, and back on the trail.
Then we switchbacked up the north slope of Garnet Canyon, and came upon Spalding Falls, a pretty cascade in the heart of the canyon. Above it, we stopped for Lunch.
When lunch was over, we headed out, and promptly had to cross the second boulder field, which wasn’t as bad as the first, then headed up towards the Headwall, the last obstacle before reaching the Lower Saddle, our basecamp and destination for the next several days. The headwall is 100 feet high, and without heavy packs would be little more than a scramble. Unfortunately, we still had those horrible packs on, which meant that Ron and I had to climb while Harold waited at the base. Once we were in position, Harold tied the fixed rope to our packs, and we hauled each one of them up. Once this task was accomplished, Harold scrambled up to join us, we re-shouldered our burdens and straggled the last few hundred meters to the Lower Saddle.
We enjoyed the rest of our afternoon exploring, taking pictures and relaxing. It was an incredible place to be. At 11,600 feet, it is higher than Oregon’s highest mountain, Mt. Hood, and we would be here for two more days. Marmots darted from boulder to boulder and Ravens occasionally made an appearance. Tiny little flowering shrubs, more like hummocks, continually amazed us with both their colors and the realization that most, if not all of them were 2-300 years old. Due to the incredibly short growing season — a couple of months at best — they grow really slowly, but they are also hardy. Nevertheless, signs warn visitors to stick to paths or boulder-hop, and if you don’t, both the guides and rangers will remind you to do so.
We slept well that night, ready to take on the Grand Teton in the morning, but when we woke, a small storm had blown in, and we quickly realized today would not be the day. We got back in bed. Later, however, it cleared, and we decided to give it a go and see if we could make it to the summit. We also considered summiting The Enclosure, a sub-summit of the Grand Teton that has a curious, man-made structure (or what is left of it) on top. So we ambled on up, several hours later than we had intended to start, but at this point, due to the ugly early-morning weather, we had the mountain almost completely to ourselves.
As we climbed, I kept a nervous eye on some building storm clouds off to the southwest, where most of the weather comes from, and when we got a thousand feet above camp, I pointed them out to Harold. Realizing that they would be upon us in a few hours, we elected to go down. Shortly after returning to camp, a decent-sized thunderstorm broke loose, and I was glad we had retreated.
We spent the rest of that day relaxing, and sipping from a bottle of Makers Mark, my favorite whiskey.When the sun set, we were treated to a spectacular view:
The next morning dawned spectacularly. I think I knew from the start that this was going to be a good day.
We started out, and made excellent time. Without a massive pack, my lack of conditioning was no longer obvious and I had no problem keeping up with Harold and Ron. We did struggle a bit with route-finding, however, as the Grand is an incredibly complicated mountain, but eventually found the right way, marked by ‘The Eye of The Needle’, a small tunnel you have to pass through on the way to the Upper Saddle.
The route to the Upper Saddle is described by one guidebook as ‘little more than a steep hike’ turned into a lot more than we were expecting (especially lower down, when we were off-route), and above The Eye of The Needle it was lots of fun, but fairly exposed scrambling, nothing experienced mountaineers would find too challenging. Unfortunately, Ron is not an experienced mountaineer, and the strain was taking its toll. By the time we arrived at the Upper Saddle, where the actual technical climbing begins, he had decided he had had enough, and bowed out. It is a tough decision to make, but most climbers have made it at least once in their climbing careers. It would be Harold and I continuing on.
Harold and I got on our harnesses and prepared for the final couple hundred feet, which are the toughest part of the climb. A small bottleneck had already developed at the start of the normal route, and while we waited, we decided we would either do the Owen-Spalding route, the standard, or we would do the slightly harder, but more direct Wittich Cracks, depending on which one opened up first, since both routes (which essentially start from the same spot) were currently being climbed. As it turned out, the Wittich Cracks became available first, and so we headed up.
Harold led up the cracks, which, although rated only 5.6 on a technical scale, feel much more difficult at over 13,000 feet. But Harold made it look easy, and after ten minutes had finished the first pitch. Once he had me on belay, I followed him up, surprised by the challenge of the slick rock and the altitude. I made it through, however, and joined Harold in an alcove of sorts. Only one short technical pitch remained and we would have this mountain in the bag. Once more, Harold led out, this time on a somewhat unprotected, but significantly easier pitch, and in a moment he was out of sight. I followed him shortly afterwards, and once at the top of the second pitch, we coiled the rope, exchanged our climbing shoes for boots, and we knew we were about to experience success on the Grand Teton.
We scrambled up the last couple hundred feet, heard and then saw the crowd that had gathered on the second-highest spot in Wyoming, and we both smiled. Then we were there, we had done it! Myself for the first time, Harold for the second. It was a spectacular place to be, with views stretching away for hundreds of miles in each direction. It was also surprisingly warm, and so we were able to enjoy a good twenty minute stay.
Then it was time to get down, which is no easy feat. We found the rappel stations, and throwing the ends of our rope over the cliff, we were surprised and a little worried to find that it didn’t quite reach the ground. A nearby climber reassured us that with rope stretch (climbing ropes stretch quite a bit), it would reach. We looked at each other. I volunteered to go first, and found, to my delight, that it did indeed reach the ground, and I was a happy climber when I returned to the Upper Saddle. Then Harold came down, we pulled our rope and went to find Ron, who had moved to a sunny spot close by. After telling him about what we experienced, we all headed back down.
Once back at the Lower Saddle, we rested a short time (during which time I decided that when I returned to Oregon I would tell my girlfriend I was ready to have a child with her), then broke down our camp and headed further down the mountain. We set up our final camp at a place called The Moraine, and while there we experienced an earthquake, a thunderstorm and a small flash-flood (we would later find out that this was the first earthquake the Tetons had experienced in quite some time.)
The next morning we headed out for good, returning to the trailhead, where Harold and Ron said goodbye, and we began the long drive back to Oregon. When I returned, I told my girlfriend I was ready to have a child with her, and on May 26th of 2011, little Julia was born. That was the greatest gift I brought back from that climb – my baby girl.
I plan on returning to the Grand later this year.