The plan was to attempt the Grand Traverse (a link-up of the nine major summits in the Teton chain) in three days. Scott, Carl and I arrive within a half hour of each other in Salt Lake City, at around 11:00 a.m. The plan was to wait for Jerry, who was scheduled to arrive at 11:30 a.m., get the rental car, which I had booked for noon, and crank up to Jackson Hole (about 5 - 5 1/2 hours away) for a hearty dinner and a solid night's rest before setting out early Friday morning to do the Grand Traverse. Only Jerry's nowhere to be found at noon. Checking our cell phones, Carl and I discover (via messages from Scott's girlfriend) that Jerry's flight has been delayed, and that he won't be in until 3:30 p.m. A setback, to be sure, but not a crucial one, as we'd still have a good chance of being in Jackson by 9:00 p.m. With time to kill, we set off for a tour of the Black Diamond climbing equipment factory in Salt Lake City, arranged by Scott's Atlanta-climbing-store-owner-friend, Chris Watford. It was pretty damn cool to see 'biners, hexes, stoppers and cams being manufactured. We'd hope to see them test some of the products, but didn't get to. BD is a very cool company with a totally relaxed attitude about work attire and office behavior, staffed predominantly by climbers and skiiers -- my kind of company.
Back at the airport, we discover that Jerry has once again been delayed, estimated arrival time now 6:10 p.m. This was a major wrench in the works. Now we were looking at arriving in Jackson Hole at sometime well after midnight, meaning that we'd get minimal rest, after having already been up very early for our flights that morning, and suffering from a bit of jet lag. As it turned out, we got to Jackson Hole at nearly 2 a.m., pulled in to the American Alpine Club's Climbers' Ranch, and crashed in the grass beside the parking lot (we didn't have reservations for the Ranch).
Next morning, we show up at the Jenny Lake Ranger's station at 6 a.m. to pick up our backcountry permits, only to find out that they don't open until 8 a.m. Again, another bad development. Into town we went for a big breakfast. When we returned, there were only a few people in line, so we figured it would go quick. Not so. The Rangers take a lot of time to discuss park rules and register you for bivouac sites on the mountain (they only issue a fixed number of permits). By the time we were legal, packed up and ready to hit the trail, it was 10:00 a.m.!
It became evident very early on that Jerry, despite his ability on technical rock, was in no shape to hump a pack 5,600 vertical feet to the summit of 12,300-foot Teewinot, our first mountain. His slowness caused us more delay, and he finally had to give up somewhere below 10,000 feet. Scott, Carl and I continued on. After a long approach on trail and some scree, we finally hit the rock, 3rd and 4th class stuff. The exposure on many of the sections -- the rock was tiered or terraced in sections of 10-30 feet of climbing, with the occasional path or scramble in between the tiers/terraces -- was pretty cool. One 30 or so foot section was pretty scary; the rock was 5th class and the exposure was butt-clenching. I felt pretty comfortable on it, but I was worried about Carl, who was not accustomed to this sort of thing. He made it through, although not without some trepidation, but hell, I wasn't exactly unconcerned myself. Eventually, we reached the saddle below the summit of Teewinot, dropped our packs, and traversed around the upper face and to the TINY summit. By tiny I mean that there was not even room for one person to stand on it -- okay, maybe there was room for one person, but it would be a person with balls the size of Evil Kneivel's. Mere mortals cautiously crawl out on to the top and hug the thing like a Titanic survivor clinging to a life raft. Looking down the backside from the summit, there was not a thing but 2,000 feet of thin air between me and the ground. Yikes.
After photo ops, we repaired back to the saddle to weigh our options. Ahead of us still for today lay the Koven Route on Mt. Owen, a tricky looking 5.6 climb with a section of low-angled snow. We had hoped to descend Owen and bivy at the "Grandstand" area below the Grand's North Ridge, the crux of the Traverse (11 pitches, 5.8). Realizing the near impossibility of getting to the Grandstand before dark, not knowing for sure exactly how to make the sketchy traverse to the saddle at the base of Owen, and bemoaning the events that led to our late (and tired) start, we realized that our objective was all but lost. Also, Carl was once again hard hit by altitude (he's been wracked with AMS symptoms on most high peaks he's done). In the ensuing discussions, it was decided that we would return to the trailhead and shoot for another plan, namely, to climb Irene's Arete (8 pitches, 5.8 - 5.10, depending on the variation) on Disappointment Peak and the Direct Exum (5.7, 12 pitches) on the Grand.
Miraculously, we managed to get in touch with Jerry, who was just sitting down for a nice cold beer at Dornan's, on his cell phone, through third and fourth party intermediaries (we didn't have his number!). When we finally hit the trailhead at nearly 9:00 p.m., we were completely exhausted. Foregoing food, we opted for sleep instead -- but not before I knocked back a nice cold Teton Ale, courtesy of Jerry. This being bear country (there is no shortage of signs to remind you of that fact), images of bears dominated my thoughts in the moments before the onset of slumber. I did manage to sleep though, between the bouts of coyote banter -- raucous, cacophonic howling and yelping -- that woke me up every few hours.
Next morning, we drove in to Jackson for breakfast again, and talked about our plans. Carl was concerned about his ability to follow on Irene's Arete, and Jerry was not yet feeling up to attempting another long approach. In the end, we settled upon this plan: Scott and I would hike in and climb Irene's Arete, then bivy in Petzoldt's Caves for the night. Carl and Jerry would attempt to hike in the next morning and meet us at the lower saddle between the Grand and Middle Tetons, the jumping off point for the Direct Exum route, by 8:30 a.m.
Scott and I made the beautiful approach hike in to Petzoldt's Caves -- without question the most stunning natural setting I've ever been in. A spectacular waterfall spills down to a river lined with lush green flora in the midst of the majestic, savage beauty of the weather-worn granite of surrounding peaks. Situated just above the waterfall, the Caves provided splendid shelter with a view to the valley floor and glacial lake at the terminus of the moraine. One day spent in the presence of such beauty alone was worth the price of the trip. I vowed then that I would return to this place again (and again, and again . . .).
On the climbing side of things, our difficulties continued. Not having the guidebook, a weight saving measure, proved to be a major mistake. Although we had made xeroxed copies of the route along the Grand Traverse, we had not done so for our alternate objectives. Instead, we merely replicated the route topos on paper with a felt-tip marker (we didn't have a pen). Figuring the approaches would be straightforward and well-trodden, we hadn't bothered to make much notation on the subject. After dropping our bivy gear at the Caves and sorting our climbing gear, we set out for Irene's Arete, which the guidebook said was "up and right of the Caves." So, we headed UP (towards the Grand) and right, where we saw not one, but two prominent aretes, some 1,000 vertical feet or so above us. After nearly an hour of approaching the base of the nearest arete, we crossed paths with a guided group returning from the summit of the Grand. When, in response to the guide's question about what we intended to climb, we said Irene's Arete, she bewilderedly stated, "What? Irene's Arete is way back there!" and pointed back in the direction from whence we came. Sonofabitching thing was 1,500 feet below us, "up and right" alright, but in the opposite direction! It seems "up and right" meant up and right as you faced the right side of the moraine, not the upper mountain itself. It being already nearly 4:00 p.m., we cursed another failed objective. The ambience of the Caves offered some consolation, but our disappointment was palpable. Sleep came mercifully easy in the comfort of the cave.
Next morning, we made way for the Lower Saddle at around 7:00 a.m. The trail was easy to follow for the first hour or so. Then we came to a confusing spot where the path ended and rock scrambling began. Our instincts and some key indicators -- a team of three resting off to the right and a guide hut above to the right -- guided us up and to the right (yet again). Following a few cairns and definite signs of footprints, we continued up for some time. Before long, we were fairly certain that we were in the wrong place, as there was not a soul or tent site to be found. We were below the base of the Grand alright, but we were below the east face. The Direct Exum starts near the base of the southeast flank of the mountain. Figuring that we might be able to make our way around the mountain, after circumventing Tepee Peak, we continued. Retracing our steps back at that point would have cost us the summit anyway, we figured, because of the lost time, so we deigned to keep pushing on in the direction we were headed, until we either found the right place, or were stymied. We traversed across some exposed, crumbly ledges toward a large snowfield flanking the lower east slope of the Grand. Continuing up on steep scree, we crossed the snowfield, a daunting task of kicking steps across steep snow, with no ice axe or crampons. Below us, there was just enough snow to guarantee a speedy exit off the snow field and onto the steep scree where a body would likely continue tumbling or sliding for several hundred yards or more (i.e., to the bottom) before it might come to rest, bruised and battered. Safely across the snow, we continued up on first orange and then black rock, 3rd and 4th class terrain. Eventually, we hit the 5th class terrain, the continuous, unbroken rock face of the upper mountain. Scott took the first lead, a 180-foot corner crack system that led to a belay stance where Scott found, amazingly, two pitons. Following, I'd guess that the pitch was maybe 5.5 - 5.6, but boy did the altitude make it seem much harder. Every 3rd or 4th move would leave me virtually breathless, and I didn't have much breath to spare, as the exposure had already claimed most of it. I took the next lead, which turned out to be easy 5th class scrambling. I only bothered to place one piece of pro, and about 120 feet later, I came to a crossroads. The section of face that we were climbing topped out, and below was a giant chasm separating us from the main body of the Grand. Directly above to my right, the rock rose up in a menacing looking corner, albeit one that looked climbable, but long. From this vantage point, I could see that the face we were climbing on was largely detached from the main east face of the Grand, basically a ridge emanating from the top. Our only hope looked like a traverse around this obstacle, directly above the chasm, and an eventual rappel into the chasm in order to hike over to the base of the Direct Exum, which we knew was just around the corner to the left, based on the position of a climbing team of two across the way on the Petzoldt Ridge.
Scott led the traverse over to a stance, below a narrow chimney in which a chockstone rested, very tenuously, it looked to me. I donated my 7mm cordalette to the cause, and Scott slung the block and tested it gingerly at first, then placed his weight on it and gave it a bounce or two. It didn't budge, but that did next to nothing to lower my anxiety level. Scott rapped off and made it to the base of the gully, or rather the base of one of the many tiers of the gully. When I rapped off, I could see that water was flowing liberally through the gully/couloir, and was iced over in the deepest recesses. The gully was sunless and cold.
The fun really began when we couldn't get the rope to budge from our position. Scott had to put himself back on rappel and hand over hand it back up the rope over the wet rock to a position above, on the next tier. From there, he struggled mightily, cursing with every effort, to pull the rope. It gave in little by little, with Scott's Herculean effort, but when it finally slipped through the biner on the rap sling on the chimney block, the rope plummeted into the gully and got caught up in the rocks, on the tier above Scott. Frustrated and unable to budge the rope, Scott put me on belay so I could climb up to join him (essentially I was on toprope), so that could in turn put him on belay in order for him to lead up over the next tier and retrieve the rope. Well, when I got up to Scott, he realized that he had left his rock shoes in his pack on the tier below, and since I still had my shoes on, the honor of ascending to the next ledge fell to me. At first, I tried going up the left side of the gully, where a promising weakness hinted at a passage up the wall and over to the next tier. I managed to get up to a point about 20 feet up, along which a delicate friction traverse looked possible, but was shut down by the water and ice on the section of rock to be traversed. I reluctantly tried to make the first moves into the traverse, but my last piece of pro was a good 8 feet away, thus rendering a long, arcing pendulum fall should I grease off, which was a near certainty given the ice and water. I was forced to back off and give the wall on the right side a go.
There was a series of decent looking handholds rising directly above the belay, on slightly overhanging rock, that looked like it might protect well a little higher off the deck. Such was not the case however, and I found myself struggling on what felt like, based on my experience, 5.8+ climbing. I was scared shitless but had nowhere to go but up. Pumping out fast I grunted and cursed my way up, driven by fear and adrenaline. A fall here would have been a major catastrophe. Broken bones were a certainty, and rescue would have been a long time in coming, assuming Scott could make his way down for help. With this in mind, I continued up in spite of all internal admonishment to the contrary. Reaching a small ledge, I leaned my upper torso onto it and rested, my feet on decent holds, but my position precarious nonetheless. I searched for a fissure to place some pro, any pro, anywhere for chrissakes . . . At last a small recess appeared just below me, that I had missed in my haste to find a resting position. I buried two cams, one good, one not so good. Slightly relieved, but still not happy with the fact that only these two closely placed pieces stood between me and the ground, I started the traverse left to the upper tier. It dawned on me that, not only would I swing in a wide arc outward, away from the gully if I slipped off the rock, but if my protection gave out, I would likely swing out over the lip of the tier and crash onto the tier below, for a nice 40-50 foot groundfall. Ugh. Nothing to do at this point but go on. Running out of hand and foot holds, I stemmed my left foot way out wide onto the big boulder that was wedged in the gully at the lip of the next tier. When I finally mustered the sack to make the move, I rejoiced in loud, profane utterances directed primarily at Scott as I reached safety: "F@#k you Scott, you motherf$#ker!!! (for forgetting his shoes, for me having to climb this nightmare, for us being in this situation -- none of it his fault, to be clear -- but just because I had to vent on someone!!). I retrieved the rope, threaded it through a biner on a piton rap sling assembly left behind by some previous unlucky bastard, and rapped down to where Scott was.
The next rappel found us lowering through running water over a completely iced over surface, so that every time you tried to place your feet on the walls of the gully, one or both would slip and cause you to careen into the rock, and under the waterfall. To make matters worse, the rope was now thoroughly wet, and mostly frozen. Which of course froze your hands stiff as you rapped, praying that your braking hand would not slip off the rope and cause you to lose control of the rappel and land in a heap on the floor of the gully. Finally -- hallelujah! -- we made it into the sun at the base of the gully, and then onto the scree and talus slope below the Petzoldt Ridge, soaked and beaten. We located a path up to the left (climber's left) obviously used to gain the Petzoldt Ridge. Reaching a small saddle from which we could finally see the Lower Saddle bivy area, and the start of the Direct Exum route, we laid ourselves and the rope out to dry for a good half hour.
It was by now much too late, and we were much too fatigued, to attempt the Direct Exum. We also had Jerry and Carl, hopefully, waiting for us at the trailhead with our salvation -- the car and our wallets, our only means to obtain food, blessed food! (they had never made it up that morning).
The descent was long and uneventful, as is typical of many mountains, although navigating one 50-foot section of 5th class rock with the aid of a thick, braided hemp rope (the kind used for mooring Navy vessels) was fairly exciting. We did manage to locate the exact spot where we took a wrong turn earlier that morning. I, for the life of me, don't know how we missed it.
In the end, we made it down safe and sound, much the wiser to the ways of Teton routefinding. In the process, we managed to have a little unplanned adventure. And, hey, that's what it's all about, right -- adventure?
we're all living proof that nothing lasts