A Trip Up the Grand Teton
The clock reads 8PM as I lay in bed and the light filters into my room. 10 hours earlier I agreed to meet a friend on the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton at 7AM. Falling asleep while it’s still light out poses a challenge but the knowledge that my alarm clock will be blaring at 1:30AM keeps me in bed. I fall into a restless sleep, dreaming of a combination of mountain adventures and work, the two things that seem to be ruling my life this summer (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
At 1:30AM I heat up my breakfast, let the dog out and pack up the car. My fiance, Jared, and I decided last year that we wanted to climb the Grand Teton last year before our wedding on August 17th. Also, since I don’t sleep well in a tent and we are both a little on the crazy side we decided that we wanted to do it in a day. 16 miles and 8,300 vertical feet in one day? Totally doable. As we drive by the town square we see plenty of revelers standing around on the sidewalk deciding their next move as the bars are closing. We are reminded again of how insane what we are doing really is.
At 2:10AM we pull into the Lupine Meadows trail head. People packing their bags by headlamp indicate that there are 2 other groups preparing for their ascent of the Grand. We do one last check through all of our gear, strap on our packs and then start up the trail. For 3 hours we hike through the dark, following the small spot illuminated by our headlamp in front of us. The trail is peaceful. There is no wind, no birds, no noise whatsoever. There is also no moon so we continue through the darkness and talk about our goals for the day. Obviously a summit would be nice, but nothing in mountaineering is ever guaranteed.
We reach the meadows in Garnet Canyon around 5AM. By now the horizon has started to brighten. We refill our water by using a filter and pumping water straight out of the stream. After a brief snack we start up the steep switchbacks that lead to the lower saddle. As the sun rises the surrounding mountains get enveloped in a gorgeous alpenglow. I look at the Middle and South Teton and think about how high they look from where I am. Then I remember that if we summit the Grand Teton we will be about 1,000 feet higher than that Middle Teton. I quickly push the thought from my mind because from where I stand the thought of reaching that altitude is daunting.
After hiking for another hour and a half we reach a large snowfield at the foot of the Lower Saddle. The time is 6:45 and it looks like we will be right on time for our 7AM rendezvous time. The snow is firm. Much firmmer than we thought that it was going to be. We break out our ice axes and start climbing the field, kicking steps as we go. The snow is so firm that we can barely get our axes to go more than 2 inches into the snow. With extreme caution and concentration we continue up the snow field. As we near the top we hear our friend, Charles, call our names. We look over and see him by his campsite with 3 other friends. Relieved to be off of the snow, we head towards his camp.
We take a short break and stuff as many calories into our body as we can before leaving the lower saddle for the summit of the Grand Teton. As we start ascending the trail my stomach starts yelling at me “why did you think it was okay to drink a smoothie, eat beef jerky, trail mix and a powdery gatorade substance that tasted like pixie sticks?! All within a 10 minute span!” I decide to slow down my pace a hair to allow my stomach to digest so I pull up the rear of the group.
The route finding is a bit of a challenge but fortunately patches of snow can be avoided. We decided to climb the Owen-Spaulding route, the original route up the Grand Teton. After a steep scramble up to the upper saddle we break out our ropes, climbing shoes and prepare for our first climb, the Belly Roll. Honestly, with a name like the Belly Roll I had no idea what to expect. The climb traverses the side of the Grand with a substantial drop into Valhalla Canyon below. It’s difficult to see or hear each other on this part of the climb so it is recommended that you bring a set of walkie talkies so the people at the beginning of the climb and end of the climb can communicate.
The portion that the climb is named after is a small crawl space that is located between an overhanging rock and another rock, creating a small space which you can crawl on your belly across if you are scared of the exposure. In the photo to the right I decided to straddle the rock and take this photo.
None of the climbs on the Owen-Spaulding route (also known as the OS) are rated higher than a 5.4. After we Belly Crawled we ascended another 50 feet or so to Sergeant’s Chimney, the second and final climb. This wide chimney has plenty of foot and hand holds. After 20 to 30 minutes of waiting in the cold shade of the Grand for my team to climb the chimney I started to shiver. Fortunately, I was next to climb. I scrambled up the chimney doing my best to warm myself up. After the chimney it’s another short scramble to the summit. We saw one guided group coming down as we were about 100 feet from the summit.
I was one of the first of my group to reach the summit. The summit block is actually surprisingly large. Fortunately, we only had to share the summit with another party of 2 people. The view from the top made me feel like I was looking outside of an airplane window. The valley looked miles away, which I guess is pretty accurate. It is about 8 miles from the trail head to the top of the Grand Teton and we were standing at 13,770 feet. Jared and I had started our hike at 2:30AM and reached the summit at 11AM. 8.5 hours in and we were only halfway through our hike/climb. Fortunately, there was barely any wind, the sun was shining and there was no bad weather on the horizon so we spent an hour hanging out at the top of the world, snacking and taking turns taking photos of each other. Some of our group drank whiskey from a Gatorade bottle which they passed around.
Knowing that we were only at the halfway point and were running out of our “good weather” window we started the long hike back to the car. I was actually more afraid of going down the Grand than I was going up. The reason being is that there are a lot of loose rocks that can easily be kicked off and sent traveling through midair towards your friends below. Once again we waited, this time in the sunshine, as my group took turns rappelling during the first pitch, and then the next.
The second pitch incorporated a hanging rappel. I was prepped before I dropped in but nothing can prepare you for standing on top of a rock and seeing your friends 100 feet below you with nothing but thin air and a rope separating you.
Finally we could change out of our climbing shoes into our boots that we had stashed at the bottom of the rappel. As we headed towards the lower saddle we came across some loose ground. All of a sudden I took a step and sent a rock the size of a football headed straight for Charles’ head. He was about 25 feet below me and I screamed “Rock, Charles, ROCKKKKK!!” As if in slow motion he looked up towards me and ducked, nearly missing the rock that I had sent hurtling towards his head. After apologizing profusely and taking a few deep breaths we continued down the mountain.
We reach the lower saddle at 3PM and leave our friends to pack up their camp. We refuel and begin the long slog back to the car. Finally, at 7:30PM we reach the car. Our entire hike/climb lasted 17 hours and boy were we happy to see the car! After a high five and some stretching we loaded up the car and headed home physically and mentally exhausted.
NOTES ABOUT THE GRAND:
- If you are not experienced with route finding, mountaineering, climbing or reading weather please use a guided service to take you up the Grand Teton. The two most respected guiding services in Jackson are Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.
- Jared and I are in excellent physical condition and are experienced mountaineers, we do not suggest doing the Grand Teton in one day unless you are experienced, acclimated and in good physical condition.
- The Grand Teton, as with any other mountain in the Tetons should be respected. Many people have died on the Grand Teton. There are many high consequence decisions that need to be made when on the Grand and you should not take the climb lightly. But it is an amazing experience which I suggest anyone interested in mountaineering or climbing should partake in, just with the necessary precautions.