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Grand Teton Climb


"The power of such a mountain is so great and yet so subtle that, without compulsion, people are drawn to it from near and far, as if by the force of some invisible magnet: and they will undergo untold hardships and privations in their inexplicable urge to approach and to worship the center of this sacred power."

— Lama Govinda, Way of the White Clouds

Tom and I decided to head up to Wyoming and climb the Grand, but we wanted to do it right. This was a mountain that deserved, even demanded, respect. As any good pilgrims would do, we decided to hike a leisurely 50 mile loop around the mountain before attempting a climb. This would allow us time to tune into the mountain and introduce ourselves properly, humbly asking for permission to climb and unlock its mysteries. The loop trip we planned from our maps in Boulder turned out to be absolutely stunning in real life. I felt totally taken by the landscape. Most of the loop was above tree-line with spacious views in all directions – gorgeous green tundra grasses, dark conifers, white patches of snow and clouds, bright blue sky and lakes, gray/brown rock. And as we traveled through this magical land, the hulking mass of the Grand Teton dominated both the landscape and our thoughts. By the time we finished the loop on the afternoon of the fourth day, we felt that enlivening mix of inner tension and excitement all climbers know.

We started up from the Snake River the morning of the fifth day. Man it was steep, and we were carrying heavy climbing gear. My excitement fueled me and I charged up the trail with a vengeance. By the time we had walked a few miles, poor Tom was obviously annoyed. "What’s the rush!" he yelled up to me. "Just excited," I responded. Clearly, I had broken that very important rule in the climbing world which says, "Never piss off your climbing partner." I slowed down. We had a vertical mile to climb up to the infamous Lower Saddle where we planned to spend the night. At 11,600ft., the Lower Saddle was perfectly positioned for the final 2000ft technical climb to the summit the following day. We got up to the saddle by 1 o’clock in the afternoon. "Now we can relax and enjoy the afternoon," I said sheepishly. Tom just shook his head and laughed.

We set up camp and surveyed the scene. To the West, the slope dropped away steeply revealing 11,106ft. Table Mountain. Beyond Table Mountain were the plains of southern Idaho – potato country. I imagined potato farmers working in their fields occasionally looking up to the Tetons. I wondered if any of them had ever stood on the Lower Saddle, or were they so immersed in their potato farming that they’d never considered exploring the holy Teton temples above them? To the east, we spied the Snake River a mile below us, slowly winding along the plains on its way to the Pacific. To the north was tomorrow. The 2000ft cliffs above us looked fierce. I tried not to think too much about it and just enjoyed the views. What a place to call home for the night!

And then I noticed the bathroom. So many people camped on top of the Lower Saddle in the course of a year that the Park Service had built a bathroom. Talk about a bathroom with a view! We had each been given a plastic bag at the Ranger Station near the trailhead and told to "pack out your poop." What a lovely thought. Apparently, the whole mountain had been turned into a poop-free zone. We were supposed to lift up the toilet seat, lay down the bag, put the seat back down so it held the bag in place and then do our business. Normally, I wouldn’t be too excited about something like that, but with that view, I was almost looking forward to my morning recycling. I practically anticipated a religious experience.

We spent the afternoon lazily watching clouds and feeling grateful for our ability to visit a place such as this. As afternoon turned into evening, we ate our dinner and positioned ourselves for sunset viewing. Plenty of clouds around. It looked like the sunset had potential. What happened in the next few hours I’ll never forget. The sky caught fire. Words could never do justice to the beauty I was privileged to witness that evening. At one point, it seemed like the Grand Teton above us was on fire as well.

In retrospect, a little fire would have been nice. That night was bitter cold. And when the alarm went off at 4AM, I didn’t want to budge. I hadn’t slept well. It was a mixture of the cold and the adrenaline anticipation of the coming climb. As I listened to a light rain/sleet slam into the tent a few feet above my head, I just didn’t want to leave the little bit of comfort in my sleeping bag. The wind was up as well, and the tent fly flapped loudly. I repositioned myself to reach my food bag and ate some dates and almonds. We’d planned to be walking with headlamps by 4:30AM. This would get us to the scrambling sections on the lower part of the face by sunrise. The idea was to reach the summit by 11AM to avoid possible lightning danger from afternoon thunderstorms.

4:15AM and I knew it was time for my religious experience. I put on all my clothes, turned on my headlamp and climbed out into the night. Cold. I got down to the bathroom with a view and set up my bag, but the wind was blowing so hard that the bag was flying like a parachute up through the toilet seat. This just wouldn’t do. I took my bag and headed down the slope to a sheltered area between some rocks to take care of business. I vowed to never take a civilized bathroom for granted again.

4:30AM and Tom had roused from his comfort cocoon and was ready to roll. The weather looked scary. We’d planned to do the Upper Exum ridge – 7 or 8 pitches of lower 5th class rock. But with the clouds, wind and rain, we backed off and decided to do a 5.6 variation of the standard route up the mountain which only had two technical pitches. We walked silently up the hill. We were cold and hoped to warm up as we climbed. We scrambled 1500ft. up the face to the base of the technical sections and roped up. The sun had risen in the east, but we were still in shadow on the west side of the summit block. We were still cold. Technical climbing with gloves wasn’t in the plan, but we didn’t have much of a choice - bare hands in the wind on the cold rock was not an option. The route we choose mostly went up V-shaped dihedral formations that could be stemmed with our feet and hands applying pressure on opposite sides of the V. This kind of climbing was doable with gloves. It was a spectacular two pitches of roped climbing with stunning exposure. From there, it was another couple hundred feet of scrambling with some route-finding challenges. We cruised it and stood on the summit at 9AM – first ones at 13,770ft. that day. It was the best view I’ve ever seen on top of a mountain. And the weather had cleared somewhat so we finally got a bit of warming sun. After an hour of bliss on the summit, Tom said, "Hey man, let’s head down to a real bathroom." I guess packing out the garbage wasn’t too appealing. We left the summit hastily, rappelled through the technical sections, and were back to our car by the Snake River by 3PM. What a man will do for a decent bathroom! The port-a-potty by the trailhead was a welcome site.? What a week it had been - I was alive again!

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

- Mark Twain

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