In early September I went to Crested Butte for a Wilderness Advanced Life Support (WALS link) class. My friend and coworker, Noah, happened to take the same 2 weeks off from work, so he tagged along and went hiking, biking, etc. while I was in class.
Crested Butte was a blast and the class was really amazing. As an added bonus, I got to dress up like a hunter with very bad axe handling skills:
On the 9th I finished the class and Noah and I headed up to Jackson. We spent a terrifying night in Rock Springs, Wyoming, but thats a whole nother story... On the 10th we arrived in Jackson and picked up our backcountry permits for the following day.
The night of the 10th we slept in a teepee that I am saddened to admit I neglected to take a picture of. Suffice it to say that Noah has a friend who lives inside GTNP who has a teepee as a guest house. Very cool!
The morning of the 10th we slept in and then took a while to get breakfast and get to the trailhead. Around noon we started the scenic hike up to the Lower Saddle.
Well, that was the plan was to hike to the Lower Saddle anyway. Near the end of the day I was very trail weary and saw a hut that looked just like the Exum Lower Saddle hut, but it seemed to be in the wrong place. I changed course and headed for it anyway. Whoops!
So, we ended up at the Jacksosn Hole Mountain Guides high camp. A very helpful and friendly guide informed us of our error, and down we went to the moraine below the Lower Saddle. Upon looking up to the Lower Saddle, we decided the moraine was a perfectly acceptable place to spend the night.
Here you can see a great view of the Lower Saddle from our camp on the moraine:
The alarm went off at 4 AM and Noah and I were both grateful to no longer need to pretend to be sleeping. By 4:30 we were hiking under a half moon and a brilliantly clear field of stars. Walking across the moraine really felt like walking on the moon, especially with the simulated low-gravity affect of our summit packs.
Around sunrise I realized I had made a 2nd navigational error. We had cut right to early on our hike up from the Lower Saddle. On the bright side, I think we got a better view of the sunrise:
As I told Noah about my routefinding mistake, he decided that he wasnt really all that interested in climbing the Grand. This was his first big mountain experience and he might have bit off a little more than he wanted to chew. Im sure my routefinding wasnt exactly inspiring confidence either. At any rate, he took this really great picture of me after we had decided we werent going to continue on:
We did a quick rap and then walked back down to the Lower Saddle. As we were sitting down to rest, I asked Noah what he thought of me continuing up alone. He gave a surprisingly enthusiastic response, for which I was grateful.
So, at 11,500 Noah and I parted ways. I went on my way up to the actual start of the Exum Ridge and he went back down to our camp on the moraine. (I would later learn that he spent a rather relaxing morning napping at the Lower Saddle.)
It was now about 8 AM. The skies were still clear, the wind low, and the weather surprisingly warm. My pack contained my 10.2 lead rope, a couple extra layers, some snacks, a compass, guidebook photocopies and some snacks. I had on my harness with a couple lockers, a belay device, and some prussics. And of course, I kept my helmet on.
Around 9 AM I first caught site of the Wall Street Ledge. A few roped parties were making their way across. I figured that if I could manage the nerve to make that awkward move with 2,000 of air beneath me, I wouldnt have any trouble with the rest of the route.
I actually made the step across without giving it much thought. I was trying to figure out the easiest way to do it and just sort of ended up making the move without really realizing it. So, there I was, on the Exum Ridge, staring up at the Golden Stair. The morning light made the rock really live up to its name.
I climbed the beautiful knobby rock and passed the first group of three as they went up the easier crack system to the right. Going through the Wind Tunnel up to the Friction Pitch I passed another two groups of three and caught up to another group of three as they were struggling up the Friction Pitch. So far as I can tell the only people on the ridge on that day were these 4 groups of three, myself, and a party of 2 doing the Complete Exum.
The Friction Pitch turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Soloing 5.4 doesnt usually scare me very much, but I was to learn that it is a different thing entirely at 13,000 wearing a 20 pound pack. I almost threw up at the top of the pitch due to a combination of altitude sickness, nerves, and exhaustion. I snapped this picture above the Friction Pitch while waiting for the party in front of me to clear the Open Book:
I ended up staying behind that last party of three for a while as I was finding the added rest to be quite welcome and it was nice to let someone else do the difficult routefinding above the Open Book. They were three terrific guys named Ed, Art, and Hans. Ed and Art have been friends for decades since guiding heli-skiing trips in Alaska together. Hans is Eds 71 year-old Father-in-law completing his second trip up the Grand.
As we neared the summit block I finally passed them in hopes of getting a few minutes to myself on the summit. I wound my way up and around to the summit to find it completely unoccupied at about 11 AM. A flood of emotions swept over me as I stood atop the summit.
Six years ago I had done the Upper Exum with Exum Guides. It was basically my first rock climb and proved to be a life-transforming event. I consider that climb to be a pivotal influence on my decision to leave the corporate career track and seek a more meaningful and fulfilling life. I also remember being completely in awe of my guide who soloed the entire climb, and now I had done that myself.
It was also at this time that I first began to feel regret about leaving Noah behind at the Lower Saddle. Should I have gone down with him? Urged him to continue on? These thoughts would plague me for the entire descent.
Ed, Art, Hans, and myself teamed up for the descent. We figured it would be a good idea to combine our routefinding efforts and definitely our two ropes. We had the usual difficulties finding the descent but managed in a relatively timely manner. The Sergeants Chimney was choked with ice, so we decided to rap that, then found the 170 rappel that I very clearly remembered from 6 years ago. After that it was a slow scramble down the Owen-Spalding to the Lower Saddle.
Near the Lower Saddle I pulled away from Ed, Art, and Hans but promised them beers next time we met. I was in a hurry to get back to our camp and make sure Noah was all right.
Noah, was indeed alright and looked quite a bit fresher than I was feeling. We quickly packed up and headed down the hill. Beer and Pizza was calling very loudly.
We made one more routefinding error on the way down but quickly corrected back up with the herd path down to Lupine Meadows. Here you can see me admiring a waterfall on the way down... Actually, youll notice that you cant see my head because it is drooped in a tired and pitiful manner between my shoulders.
Anyway, we got back to the truck around 7 and made quick work of a couple beers we had left on ice in the cooler. Mmm... Beer... A little while later Ed, Art, and Hans made it down and I greeted them with ice cold beers. The funniest moment of the trip came when we were driving out of the parking lot. Hans was in the midst of changing and saluted us with his beer whilst his pants remained around his ankles. Quite the picture to end a trip on.