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#3131 - 10/02/01 03:10 AM A Grand Experience

Here is a little something, well a lot of typing about my friend and I climbing the grand teton this July. I had to write a personal experience for english class, I'm a freshman at UVM. Everyone else in my class wrote about something bad that has happened to them. I was one of the few who wrote about one of the best experieces in my life. Sorry about the length.

A light goes on making the tent seem like a glowing pumpkin during Halloween. “Get up man its time, it’s already after 3:30 AM,” John clamors. Trying to respond I only get out a half-assed mumbling. I am still half asleep. Rolling off my comfy ¾ length therm-a-rest I reach into the mesh side pocket of the tent and grab my head lamp. It is dark and cold.

Rising over 7,000 feet off the valley floor, the Grand Teton is an awe inspiring view. It is surrounded in a panorama of snow capped granite peaks, and for some reason I am amidst these mountains. Perched high above the valley floor I am in a tent. My goal of being here is to summit the Grand Teton via the Upper Exum Ridge II 5.4, first climbed in 1931 by Glenn Exum. Today is the day I will be able to try.

I layer on as many clothes as possible. On go my heavy ski socks, hiking pants, sweatshirt, synthetic parka jacket, and gloves. I grab a lighter and head for the door of the tent. The comforting noise of the tent zipper opening breaks the serenity of morning. I put on my cold shoes and crawl out.

I emerge into a bitter, dark, inhospitable landscape. Boulders around me sit like parked cars at the grocery store. The massive field of weathered granite is expansive. Looming to my left is the Middle Teton Glacier. Behind me is the pile of rocks that I arranged to act as a table and chairs. Much to the amusement of my friends, the previous day I scrambled about looking for the perfect size rock to act as a tabletop. They weren’t laughing anymore as they sat down to dinner last night, in their comfy rock recliners.

At times one may wonder why one would be in places such as this. At the moment I may have been wondering why. But now I know exactly why I put myself through such times. After the hard work and initial joy is over, it takes on a whole new meaning. To be in such a wild place surrounded by towering peaks. This is why I am here.

I walk towards the stove on the table. I turn on the tiny gas dial on the fuel bottle; the smell of white gas permeates through the air. The bottom chamber of the stove is full with gas; I turn of the stove to stop it from overflowing. I fumble a match with my cold fingers, and then light the gas. After the stove is primed I turn the stove on again. The roar is like the sound of a blowtorch. I put on the water, which quickly comes to a boil, and mix in the instant oatmeal. John walks over and sits by the stove trying to get warm. “Isn’t that stuff done yet,” he says. We finish breakfast quickly, wanting to be off the summit by noon. I walk back to the tent a gather my pack, climbing gear, food, and water.

We are lucky enough to be able to look at a beautiful crescent moon, in a vast field of brilliant stars shining an incandescent glow. The moon is just to the right of a huge spire of rock called Tepee Pillar. Behind us is the roaring water of Middle Teton Glacier. At 12,000 feet the stars are so bright it feels like you could reach out and grab one and put it in your pocket to treasure later.

Fat on oatmeal we are on the trail at 4:30 AM. We start at a brisk pace to get the blood flowing and warm ourselves up. The trail is loose rock, which makes for difficult footing. The path gradually increases in grade until it turns into quick switchbacks. Here the trail is even more treacherous. With each step you need extra care not to slip and knock down loose rock.

We make excellent time up to the saddle, which is a huge area on which links the Grand to the Middle Teton. Others have camped here; we pass by many tents and people. From the saddle you can see out into Idaho. “Toby look over there that’s gotta be Idaho Falls airport,” John exclaims. I reply, “Its at least seventy miles away. Wow I can’t believe the view.” The red runway lights blinking are an amazing sight, as well as the other cities and towns in the area. This is the first chance we have to see how the weather will be for the day, as for the weather moves in from the Idaho side. There are very few clouds in the sky and they don’t look too threatening. Today will be the perfect day. Excited by our recent meteorological determination I turn and look back down into the Garnett Canyon.

On the right of the saddle is Middle Teton glacier. Large and overpowering it is now lurking below. The light from the moon is reflecting off the dirtied snow and shining as bright as day. From a distance the glacier seems smooth and clean, but up close it reveals its flaws, dirty snow, crevasses, and glacial debris. The water we are carrying was taken from the glacier the previous day. Further down the valley are the other climber’s lights dancing through the dark Wyoming night.
From the saddle the trail steepens and narrows. I feel as if I am in a labyrinth. The trail keeps splitting and intersecting. The sky is slowly transforming into a shade of pink. I follow the path that looks most worn. However, in the end I think all of them will lead to basically the same spot. We take a quick rest for some water at the base of the black dike, which is a massive strip of rock that is black. Up and over the dike we go and continue with the maze of route finding.

Up and over a ridge, and down the other side. Again we go up, and from the top of the second ridge we see other climbers on the other side. What we are seeing is called Wall Street. It is a ramp in the side of a sheer cliff; it looks as if it’s tilted at close to a 45-degree angle. Trying to illustrate its steepness someone said it could be rode down on a mountain bike. We traverse down into the gully and over to Wall Street which involves a gut-wrenching exposed traverse out across a skinny ledge.
We walk up Wall Street and as we continue it gets narrower. Near the end I pull out of my pack the rope that I am carrying; John gets out the rest of our gear. The party ahead of us makes us wait. There is a party of three and I think they will be going slow. The last guy to start climbing is unsure of his knot to tie into the rope, which gives me pause for thought. “I pray that they don’t have an epic up here,” I mutter to John. Soon enough it is our turn to traverse off Wall Street.

The end of Wall Street drops into nothingness. It is a straight 2,000 feet to the valley. The climbing isn’t hard but with that much air below you it gets a bit hairy. John quickly crosses this section and I follow him onto a ledge. This is the base of the real climbing; it is called the yellow stair. It is called this for the obvious reason that it is yellow. However it is possibly the most beautiful rock in the national park, a brilliant shade of yellow and orange and supplying many hand and foot holds. We are just starting to be engulfed in the sun which still has yet to warm us. The time is just past 6:00AM. We are 1,500 feet of technical, although easy, rock to the summit.

John belays me as I go up the yellow stair, which is one of the few technical climbing pitches. We have left our climbing shoes in the car and are climbing in or ordinary sneakers, which makes it a bit more interesting and difficult. I am soon at the top and belay John. As I gaze out upon the alpine surroundings the view is unexplainable. A picture can’t even come close to capturing the magnitude; it is something to be experienced. Everything is in alpine glow. The rock is glowing orange and the snow is glistening. John joins me and we quickly move on, time is essential. If a bad storm was to move in, which it could in the mountains in a matter of minutes, we could get stuck, benighted, or worse.

Up we go, usually climbing together, with little or no safety gear placed in between us. The climbing is mellow enough not to really worry, however to fall with no safety gear at this position could be fatal, possible for both because we are roped together. The day goes on without a hitch. We pass the party that made us wait earlier. I go around their leader on the left of a huge face of easy rock. After awhile of easy climbing we come to the friction pitch. It is supposed to be the crux, or hard part of the climb. It is called the friction pitch because lack of hand and foot holds, however the angle is so that you have to smear your shoes and try to grab onto anything and keep going up. Another problem is there are minimal protection opportunities on the climb due to the nature of the rock. There is a guided party on the pitch so we wait. They have a good pace and we only wait for a short while. It is still cold; John’s hands are getting chilly so I give him my gloves. John again belays for this part and up I go. As I am in the middle of the pitch, which I didn’t think was very hard, and the guide from the party above climbs down without a rope to right above me and takes out some of his gear which his client left behind. I can’t believe what is happening.

We pass through the wind tunnel, the friction pitch, the V pitch, and the boulder problem in the sky. All probably named by the guides to give their clients an idea of where they are and make the experience more memorable. All of the climbers know where and what these things are, they are legendary to the climb.

Soon we are on the final summit ridge. The view is unsurpassed. John and I take a few quick pictures. They followed us to the summit, which was an easy walk and scramble across a massive snow field. We were at the top at 9:30AM, which is good time. Unfortunately the summit is crowded with the other guided parties, so the top doesn’t feel as special as I had expected. We had worked so hard to get here and now there is a bunch of people who basically had the summit handed to them here.

At 13,771 feet we do the usual summit things, which includes eating summit candy bar, not just a Powerbar or Cliff Bar, but a king sized Kit Kat bar, also drinking some water, touching the bench mark and, taking the group summit photos.
John taps me the shoulder, and shows me where Paul Petzolt engraved his name. I start thinking about the history of this mountain. How the pioneers of climbing first climbed here over 50 years ago with primitive gear. Petzolt engraved his name in the rock when he was just 15 years old. Petzolt is a legend. He was one of the most influential people who climbed in the Tetons. We are now standing in the same position. After a few more minutes we leave the summit, and start the slow decent of over ten miles and 7,000 vertical feet to the car.

There are a few things in which I could do differently on that day. I wish I could have slowed down and taken in the position in which I was more so. It is not the top that matters, it is the journey taken and experiences on the journey that matters. The summit is just a place. Grand Teton National Park is a place I have come to love in a short time. I have had some of my greatest experiences there. The next chance I have I will go back. There are tons of more experiences like this one for me. Soon enough I will experience more.

Thanks for reading the whole things,


#3132 - 12/16/01 05:47 PM Re: A Grand Experience

Hey Toby,

It was fun to read about your experiences on the Grand. Back when I lived in Wyo, I and my two partners made it to the northernmost part of the ramp up from the saddle, and then had to turn back because the rock was covered with new snow and a thin layer of ice. It was still snowing, and we had to be back at the truck that afternoon, so we decided it would be unsafe to continue. The day before, we had sweated like crazy in the heat during the hike up from the valley floor. When we turned in that night, we had one of those crystal clear evenings like you described where you could see for miles west into Idaho. Such are the vagaries of the weather in the Wyoming mountains in early September, or any time of the year for that matter. Unfortunately, I didn't get to go back.

#3133 - 01/14/02 06:13 PM Re: A Grand Experience
Daniel Offline

Registered: 05/23/01
Posts: 1515
Thanks for your your Grand report; I'm glad you had a good trip, and it's a wonderful route. I climbed the Exum route several years ago as a part of my first climbing episode, a four day program with Exum Mountain Guides. We had a perfect summit day, and have to say climbing the Grand was one of the greatest experiences in my life.

But I must comment that I don't think that those of us who were guided to the summit felt had it "handed" to us. The clients have to do every move that the guides do, and, at least with Exum, the clients usually belay each other as well. Of course, we didn't have any leading or routefinding responsibilities, but I don't think a second's efforts and achievements should be downplayed; I still take pride seconding climbs at the Gunks that I can't lead yet. The three clients on my rope certainly felt that we earned our summit on the Grand that day, especially as new climbers.

My own story from the climb: clouds had threatened during the afternoon hike up to the Lower Saddle but had cleared by evening, so we had a picture perfect sunset with the shadow of the Teton Range extending over the broad valley floor 5,000 feet below. As the sky darkened and the stars came out, several clients and guides looked into Idaho and saw the lights of three or four towns in the distance. We turned around to look into Wyoming and saw . . . nothing. Pitch black. Not a light to be seen. After a few moments of peering into the emptiness, our guide broke the silence and said, "Man, you just gotta love Wyoming."

After the climb, I was so excited that I wanted to tell people about it, but, being new to the sport, I didn't know very many who would appreciate it. But I did know this guy, about 65 years old, who was a climber (he had climbed Huascaran, 22,205 ft., in Peru just 3 years earlier), so I gave him a call. "Chad, I just climbed Grand Teton with Exum Mountain Guides!" "You know," he replied, "the Grand was the first mountain I ever climbed, back when I was a teenager. And you know who my guide was? Glenn Exum." Chad had arrived in town, said he wanted to climb the Grand, and was told to go to the guide's shack and talk to Glenn. The next day, up they went. Of course, this was before Exum was a big name in the climbing biz. Very cool.


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