This year has been one full of adventure, but for the last few months I have been intent on getting ready for the one most recent: climbing the Grand Teton. Last January around the time of my wedding, Ben Stuckey (one of my groomsmen) suggested to me that he was thinking about planning a trip to Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton. Ben is an accomplished mountaineer, with several large peaks on his resume, and he and I have been trying to get together to climb something for quite a while. Needless to say when he mentioned that idea, I was ready to go right away.
As the months drew to weeks prior to the trip I began to really feel the pressure to get in shape for the trip, as I knew that this would be one of the more difficult climbs I have ever done. I began going to the gym 3-5 times a week, with the occasional run outside in the blazing Houston heat. I even spent as much as 4 and 1/2 hours on the stair-climber (in one go!), seeing as how that was the most similar exercise to climbing that I could do. By the time I was ready to leave I really felt that I was finally ready for a challenge (unlike my last big over-night climb).
The day finally came for me to fly to Denver where Ben collected me at the airport and helped me make sure that I had everything that I would need. We made a last-minute trip to REI just to get a couple of things that would complete my gear. As it turns out he and I have the same pack, but he has a slightly smaller one also that he was able to get all of his gear into, allowing him to have a lighter pack altogether. My pack, after adding a rope weighed in at just about 41 pounds (or 18.5 Kg if you prefer). I think Ben’s was about 5 pounds lighter. Oh well. It’s good training.
We set out early the next day and met up with Lewie and Val Foltz, Stephanie Laube, and Jerry and Denise Verbeck, before setting out north and west for Grand Teton National Park. We had a great drive out there, stopping a few times a long the way for a break. When we stopped in Lander, Wyoming, we stopped in at NOLS, which was pretty cool.
We made it to the park but decided to continue on to Jackson, which is the only town nearby, where we stopped for one last good meal before the climb would begin. We then went into the park, found ourselves a place to park in a strategic manor so as to wait for the opening of the Ranger Station at 8 am. Camping in designated areas in the park is okay, so we decided that we were not really going to camp out, but rather we were simply making ourselves comfortable while waiting, and if we happened to fall asleep in our sleeping bags on the pavement, well, that would just be real nice too.
The next morning we got up and fired up the stove for a little oatmeal with brown sugar, sunflower seeds, and raisins before heading over to the Ranger station for a brief orientation. Unfortunately some of us didn’t get fully oriented, mostly due to not being over there when we were supposed to be. (Sorry about that, Ben.)
The Lupine Meadows Trail head was our next stop, and that was where we began to finally get the show on the road. [Some readers might be wondering when this story is going to do that ;-).]
We hiked for just over 1/2 hour when we almost ran into a small bear on the trail! I’m not even sure that Ben saw it until I yelled at him- it was just sitting there blocking the trail and munching on a branch about 50 feet in front of us. It looked up and wandered off the trail to our right, paying little mind to us, but boy did we ever pay attention to it!
Two hours later we were in the Meadows, one of the nicest camping sites on the mountain. Swift moving water from higher up flows through there into Garnet Canyon, making it an area that stays pretty green this time of year. Unfortunately for us, some of that water was rain water, and soon we were getting some rain here and there. We took another hour and a half to get up into the area called the moraine, named for how a glacier had carved its way through many years back. There is a lot of loose rock and boulders that make it somewhat difficult to get through, especially when one looses the main trail. Ben was a little ahead of us, so when we came onto the moraine we had only cairns to guide us. Unfortunately for us, they were not as easy to spot as we thought they should be, and soon we were off trail. That would not have been so bad except that it was starting to rain harder, making it more dangerous and more miserable. By the time I got to where Ben was waiting, he had already chosen the best campsite in the area for us. We were all wet, but soon enough we were all together and starting to figure out what to do next.
At this point I prayed (or rather begged) that the Lord would let His light shine down upon us because we were so cold and wet. Lo and behold about 30 minutes passed and the rain stopped. Soon afterwards the sun broke through and before we could say, “Stuckleberry,” we were simply roasting. All of our things were dry in an hour, we made camp, had a nice dinner, and just relaxed. What a great day.
Six o’clock came quickly and the sun passed below the lower saddle just above us, so it began to cool off. That’s when we went to bed, because 2 AM is an early wake-up call. I slept reasonably well, but every time I opened my eyes I had to check out the stars. They were absolutely amazing. I could get used to that.
By 2:30 AM we were back on the trail, or at least 5 of us were. Val stayed behind to watch the camp so we could climb without concern. Plus she got to sleep in, which had to be a nice thing compared to putting on a pack and hiking at that time. But that’s just what we did, shedding as much extra weight as we could, taking only those things that were necessary, leaving anything that was not. We made the lower saddle soon after that, and then did our best to follow the cairns in the dark up towards the upper saddle, which is around the northwest side of the mountain. By this time we had hiked over 7.5 miles (about 12 Km) and gained almost 5000 feet (something in meters) since we left that trail head. And we still had a long ways to go.
We made our way up 3rd class and some 4th class rock for a bit but were soon at an impasse- it was clear that in the dark we could not go any further. We traversed to the right some and with the help of another group found the way. For a while anyhow. We went up for at least another hour until we came to an area that was just above and left of the upper saddle. By this time the dawn was coming on and we could see that we were off route. Again. We were able to find a way to rappel down a small drop-off and then get over to the upper saddle from which we would begin to climb the more technical routes. I think we were a little frustrated that we had wasted 45 minutes or more in getting there, but having the added light to do this part was really good. The only other downside was that it meant we would be running into other groups at a place where all had to go through slowly and roped up. This part did actually take a long time, and for the first time in a long time, I was cold.
The climbing here, once I was able to do it, was really more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Perhaps that was because of being cold, having wet hands from the snow-melt, and the lack of good footholds on dry rock while wearing hiking boots. Needless to say I was glad that Jerry was comfortable leading those pitches, because I would have really struggled to protect those routes.
Well finally we got to a place where Ben had set up a belay for Jerry and me to ascend and join the others. From there we had a little scramble and voilà, we were at the summit! 13,770 feet! What a great experience that was! We only spent a few minutes there, as it is not really that big, and several others wanted their moments in the sun as well. We decided to get moving and soon came to the big rappel that required two ropes to reach the bottom. That was a fun rappel, but I think we all would have enjoyed wearing rappelling gloves instead of just bare-handing it. Ouch! That burns!
From there we began to go down the nearest gully, thinking that the route we had missed would have come up that, but when we were a few hundred feet down, one of the guides with a private group saw us going that way and yelled to us that it would not get us down (at least not in one piece, as it ended in scree and a cliff), so we had to climb back up to a ridge; after that we just followed his group down through all the rubble and rock that was so difficult in the dark. Turns out it is hard in the light as well.
Well, down-climbing is my least favorite part of climbing but certainly has to be done if you go up at all. There are no elevators or escalators in the mountains. It took all the energy that I had to get through the toughest sections, because by this time my thighs were absolutely on fire, and the soles of my feet were burning as well. Once we got through the scrambling and could see the lower saddle, we all seemed to feel better, and soon after that we were back in camp. It was 1:30 pm. Eleven hours (round trip) of climbing from our upper camp.
So we all collapsed for a bit and ate, drank water, and just tried to recover. The plan was to pack up and then go back down to the Meadows to camp for the night, leaving us about 5.5 miles to hike out in the morning. Then someone suggested that we pack up and just go all the way to the trail head and leave for Jackson.
“How can I do this?” I thought. “There’s no way! My legs are too weak, and my feet are never going to survive.”
I raised an objection, but as I was the only one who really didn’t want to go, I was clearly outvoted. So we got our gear together and began to hike at 2:45. Soon after that I broke on of my trekking poles, which at that point were like crutches for me. I was so glad that Val was there and offered me her poles- they were a lifesaver! Lewie hung back with me while the rest continued on. He and I had a great time walking a little slower and resting a bit more often. I really felt better as we got down lower in elevation, so that helped too.
Eventually we made it to the parking area at Lupine Meadows. It was about 7:15 pm on Saturday. We had been up to the top and all the way back down in less than 35 hours. Wow! I couldn’t believe it! What an awesome challenge and adventure! I can’t wait to do something like this again.
Or, well, I guess I’ll wait until my blisters are all healed up first.