Sunday, September 13, 2009

Stop 8, Tetons, The Grand

I climbed The Grand. Finally. After a month of looking at it from numerous angles in varying weather at differing times of the day, I was

able to look at it from above, staring down at its bulk and complexity. The 360° view in perfectly clear weather was unobstructed by other mountains, for the Grand Teton is the highest in the range (of course!) and the second highest mountain in Wyoming, just 29 feet shy of Gannett Peak's 13,799 feet.

The Grand was first (undisputedly) climbed in 1898, though attempts on it had been made or reported for over 50 years prior to that. With over a century of climbing activity, this is a mountain whose scenery is matched by its history. Famous names abound on the features, such as the Exum ridge, the Petzoldt Ridge, and the Beckey Couloir. Routes and pitches such as the Owen-Spalding, the Underhill Route and Unsoeld's Lieback celebrate the achievements of the namesakes, while the Teepe Pillar and the Rosenberg Slot are eponymous remembrance of those who there met untimely deaths. There are the stories of The Impossible Rescue in 1967 and Glen Exum's likely unrepeated 1932 jump across a death chasm which enabled him to establish, solo at the age of 21, the classic line of the mountain.

View of The Grand from The Saddle

My climb followed a typical ascent schedule—an unhurried hike on the first day to the Lower Saddle, a ridge that separates the Grand Teton from the Middle Teton, followed by the climb and descent on the second day. I was fortunate enough to have access to the Exum Guide hut and equipment located at the Lower Saddle, meaning that my partner Susan and I hiked in unencumbered with either camping or climbing gear.

The night was spent in one of the caves located just below the crest of the Saddle. The sunset as viewed from inside the cave, snugly ensconced in a sleeping bag, was soothing as the golden light gently played upon the features of our den for the night. Though Susan had never climbed the first portion of our route, the Lower Exum, she had spent considerable time on the second portion, the Upper Exum, and on the descent. We were not worried about route finding and, with a perfect forecast for the morrow, had no need of an alpine start (i.e. a three or four a.m. awakening).

Sunset view from inside our cave, above, and sleeping soundly, right

Sleeping soundly till 6, we were hiking by 7 and at the base of the climb by 8. Susan had been able to scope out the beginning of the route from the hut when we arrived, so she took the first lead. The first few pitches were still in shadow and the rock was cold but not unpleasant. But what a glorious feeling it was when we finally popped around an outcropping into sunlight! We instantly started shedding layers, and soon warmed up to the rock and to the rhythm of climbing.

Still in the shadows, but smiling

Susan in the sun and having fun!

After the Lower Exum, the climbing eases off and we changed into our more comfortable approach shoes and simul-climbed much of the Upper Exum, belaying here and there when needed. We were finally into our light and (relatively) fast mode, and we took turns leading up through the Golden Stair, the Wind Tunnel, the Double Cracks, the Friction Pitch, Unsoeld's Lieback, and The Boulder Problem In The Sky. The top came rather suddenly—I led up through some rocky terrain and...there we were, on top, a mile and a third above and a world away from our starting point the previous day. Susan and I lunched and lounged in the sun, celebrating my first trip to the top of the Grand, and our first climb together.


Jackson Hole, far below

We hung about the Exum hut for a while on the descent, returning borrowed gear and grabbing a quick bite before returning down the mountain. About halfway down from the Saddle, there is a flat area in the valley, a mini Shangri-La of streams, grasses, and alpine flowers, and ther we spotted an American Dipper, the only aquatic songbird in North America. We watched for several minutes as the Dipper bobbed up and down on a rock, and then ducked underneath the rushing waters to grab some grub. Several hours later I mimicked the Dipper, ducking underneath some rushing water from the cabin shower and grabbing my own grub, then retiring to sweet dreams of mountains and streams and sunlit skies.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Stop 8, Tetons, Part 2

Hair mimics mountain

Welcome to Jackson Hole. Prepare for your beating.

So goes a local bumper sticker; though probably directed towards skiers, the saying is apt for climbers as well. The climbing draw here is alpine climbing and comes with all the obstacles and hazards that alpine climbing involves. Long approaches, weather, route finding, and the requisite need for speed and efficiency are all part of the allure of alpine climbing.

The obstacles are somewhat tempered by the accessibility and compactness of the Tetons themselves; hundreds of climbs packed into a portion of the range measuring four miles wide by 12 miles long. The approaches are short by Cascade standards, and bushwacking generally means a route finding mistake in the Tetons, not a Cascadian prerequisite. And a local weatherman provides daily internet updates specifically for the mountain locales.

With all these moderations to the alpine realm comes the real danger; to not take these mountains seriously and to not appreciate that this is an alpine world can easily lead into, at best, objectives unmet and endless miles hiked with little to show for the effort. And that has been the story of my first few weeks in Jackson. Not a beating per se—I stayed out of the mountains with the merest threat of weather, and quickly modified my expectations based upon my—and my partner's—ability. But still, a lot of miles hiked and only a few moderate routes completed.

The Grand Teton from summit of Middle Teton; notice virga on right!

Not to complain, however! Every day has been an education, a new lesson to draw upon in the future. And simply being here is simply wonderful! The Tetons are the epitome of what a mountain range should look like. Towering mountains rise straight up out of a plain—in this case Jackson Hole, or as it was originally known, Jackson's Hole. The highest mountain in the range is the Grand Teton at 13,770 feet. The approach trail lies at 6,732 feet, requiring just over 7,000 vertical feet of hiking, scrambling, and climbing. Though I have yet to climb the Grand, it is on my list. The typical climb takes two days, though a fit climber can reasonably expect a car to car effort (i.e., not camping, just one long push). The record from the valley floor to the top and back is an unbelievable three hours and six minutes, a time which simply staggers my imagination. Disclaiming all false modesty, I am on the fast end of hikers and scramblers—but three hours? Simply incomprehensible!

Alpine climbing consists of not only a set of problems, but also of a set of joys unique to the alpine world. High among these joys are the flora and fauna found only among high mountain settings. Driving through Grand Teton National Park and the adjoining Yellowstone National Park, one can see bison, moose, elk, bears, and if one is lucky, even wolves. But only by getting out of the car and hiking up among the hills and mountains can one spy marmots and pikas and dozens of alpine wildflowers. A hike up any Teton trail is accompanied by a visual treat of color splashes of wildflowers, and an aural treat of bird cries, marmot whistles, and the pika's indescribably cute squeeze toy sound of alert.

Guide's Wall and Baxter's Pinnacle were two introductory climbs completed, along with a few days of sport climbing when the weather threatened. Open Book was the next step up in difficulty and commitment, along with a few more opportunities to learn. My partner on this climb was Nancy, on a climbing vacation from Vermont. We had difficulty in identifying the correct ridge, and only got onto the climb after two of her friends came by and gave us directions. The routefinding on the climb itself was more straightforward, but at one point Nancy became stuck, due to several factors. A party of climbers—two Exum guides, in fact—was just below her, and before I could get back down the rope to see what was going on (we were out of visual and audio range), they had helped her out. The rest of the climb went without difficulty, and we enjoyed a beautiful view of Amphitheatre Lake as we scrambled down the backside of the climb.

Yesterday (September 1st) I headed up for my first “summit” day—actually getting to the top of one of the major peaks, in this case the Middle Teton. Moving alone, I made good time and enjoyed the sheer physicality of the hike and scramble to the top. The last two thousand feet were slow—even though I have been here almost three weeks now, I am still not used to being above 10,000 feet and the air seems distinctively thinner. Though I pass a large group of hikers, I have the summit to myself. The forecast had called for 0% rain, but I spy several clouds dropping rain from great heights above the

mountains. The precipitation evaporated before hitting the ground, however, and I later learn the term for this weather phenomenon—virga. 12,804 feet above a faraway sea, and 6,000 feet above Jackson's Hole and the trailhead, I am a mere speck amidst a conflux of mountains and clouds and horizons. But I am a happy speck, content in the moment and in this conflux that is beginning to feel a little like home.