Summitting the South Teton
It’s 5am and I’m thinking about how everyone is warm in their bed, dead asleep and I am on trail putting following the spot of brightness illuminated by my head lamp. I can’t decide where I’d rather be – and then the sun rises. A giant red orb slowly takes to the sky and it takes all of 5 seconds to realize that if I were in bed I would not be enjoying a beautiful sunrise.
With the weather forecasting 90 degree temperatures in the valley, Jared and I have decided to beat the heat and head high up in the mountains of Grand Teton National Park for some natural AC. We have set our sights on the South Teton – standing at 12,514 feet, it is the fifth highest peak in the Teton Range.
As we make our way up the trail to Garnet Canyon Jared and I are in deep conversation when all of a sudden he comes to a stop. I almost run into the back of him. Curious about what has caused him to stop I strain my body to look around him. “Umm, yeah, that’s a yearling” he says. And sure enough, a black bear yearling is picking at a dead log, scavenging for bugs. He looks at us and then goes about his business. After taking the safety off of the bear spray we slowly pass, watching the yearly and coaxing it to keep picking at bugs and not pay any attention to us. Phew.
As we continue up the trail with long switchbacks we are musing about where momma may be, when Jared points out something black uphill from us. “That rock there, umm, it’s moving.” Sure enough, that large black “rock” was momma. We watched her head downhill and then start on the trail in front of us. She ambled along the trail for a few paces and then headed back uphill – followed closely by another smaller black blur – her cub. Since she had a cub with her we took our time passing them. While being calm and using soothing voices we tiptoed up the trail and into the clear.
We are happy to see snow when we reach Garnet Canyon. The South Fork has a fair amount of talus and scree so it is typically slow going once the snow melts. The snow was soft enough that we didn’t need crampons so we just kicked steps and headed onward. While gasping for air around 10,000 feet a Jenny Lake Ranger cruised by us, headed for Nez Perce. A few other hikers were out enjoying the day – headed for Middle Teton and South Teton but for the most part we had the South Fork to ourselves.
Getting away from the crowds and off of the beaten path is not achieved without some pain. As your lungs constrict and your legs get tired you start wondering what drives someone to put themselves through so much pain. It’s as much of a physical game as a mental game. Being able to stay in a good mood and motivated is key. Once you starting doubting yourself or abilities it’s all downhill.
We reached the end of the South Fork around 10am and headed up the ridge towards our objective – the South Teton. The route requires a snowfield crossing, which has dense snow but it very exposed. Focusing on the steps in front of you instead of the significant drop on your left is a challenge. It’s one thing to walk a straight line on solid ground and quite another to walk a line suspended above a 300 foot snowfield.
After the snow field crossing we reach the scree filled couloir. After a half hour of scrambling we have reached the summit. Who would have thought that the summit was comprised of a bunch of individual boulders and smaller rocks as opposed to one solid piece of rock? Spending time on the summit is enjoyable – you can see the patchwork fields of Idaho, the blue pristine waters of some unknown (to me) high altitude lakes, the cars like ants below, exploring the Park. All is quiet except for the whistling of the wind.
After some beef jerky and a Cliff Bar we are on our way down. Once you summit all you want is to be back at your car. Too bad that your car is 7 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation away. I start to zone out, one foot in front of another, until an unbalanced boulder jolts me back into reality. You can’t go into autopilot in a boulder/scree field, unless you want to end up with a sprained ankle (or worse).
Once we reach the mouth of Garnet Canyon we start cruising on the established trail – no more boulders or scree. As we descend the popular Surprise Lake trail we run into a lot of visitors who are hiking up to the high altitude lake. They give us strange looks – where were we that we needed ice axes, crampons and large backpacks? We just push on, mentally fading with every step as we get closer to the car.
We finally make it back to the car at 3pm, 10 hours after we started. What a productive day! We drive home staring out the window in awe up at the summit we were just upon. It’s an amazing feeling that I hope you get to experience one day.
**Please do not attempt to ascend the South Teton without proper gear or knowledge. Speak with the Jenny Lake Rangers before going to determine what gear is needed and if your ability is a good match**