Friday, August 28, 2009

A big day in the Mountains

The Teton range begs to be climbed. From my camp, the mountains appear to rise up and form a vertical wall just a few miles across the plains. The massive jagged peaks are at once forbidding, yet accessible.

Wednesday dawned clear and chilly, perfect for my first day in the Tetons. I had a small pack of water, food, and a jacket; it would be a solo mission. Destination: the biggest, Grand-est peak around. Leaving the trailhead just after sun's rise, I was psyched to be bathed in its first warming rays. The easy trail quickly gained elevation, and in no time I had covered the first four miles and entered the beautiful Garnet Canyon, where wildflowers and waterfalls abound. After a long summer of climbing in Yosemite and the Sierra, I was grateful to have been living at such high altitudes, and both my lungs and legs felt great.

The view from the Saddle looking West. Dad- (and other Teton Crest Trail veterans), can you spot Hurricane Pass and Schoolroom Glacier?

Soon, the trail wound up to a high saddle, perched between Middle Teton and the Grand. Here the NPS and various guide services maintain tents and huts, but the area seemed abandoned; everyone was already up on the mountain. After a short rest to refill my water bottle at the convenient spring, I began to pick my way up the steep rocky gully that leads to the Grand. I had neglected to bring any maps or topos for the area, thinking that there would be more than enough people up here, I could just follow the crowds. I guess they had all camped here, though, and started early, for they were all much higher on the mountain. I had to find my way through the tricky terrain, but it ended up being lucky. I had meant to climb the Owen-Spalding route, which is the easiest route on the peak at 5.4. Upon getting lost-ish in the steep gully system, though, I came around a corner and spotted the Exum Ridge route. The Exum is the next easiest route at 5.5, and it follows a much more striking feature: the south arete of the peak. Moreover, I was now at the base of it, and it was in the sun! I looked over at the shady, cold looking West face where the O-S goes, and quickly made the desicion to change routes and climb the Exum. Best of all, I could see multiple parties on the lower pitches, so I knew I would be able to find my way.

Dutch Oven cooking in camp. The Exum ridge is the left-side skyline of the the Grand, the highest peak visible.

The Exum Ridge is not only a fantastic route, but the history of its first ascent is one of the more inspiring stories in Teton climbing lore. In 1931, young Glenn Exum, only 18, went up the Grand one day with no rope and a borrowed pair of too-big cleated leather football shoes. Instead of following the established route up the West face, he traverse out a prominent ledge called Wall Street. Near the end of the ledge, a gap confronted him, which he passed with a flying leap. Once on the other side, the ridge unfolded above him and he made the first ascent of the route that now bears his name. Later on the same day, Paul Petzoldt, who had just finished guideing two clients up the Owen-Spalding route, made the second ascent of the ridge. These guys were pretty comfortable in the mountains.

So, back to the present, I was following in Glenn Exum's cleated footprints by onsight soloing the Exum ridge. The only differences, of course, were that I knew there was an easy route here, I had sticky rubber shoes, and the route had been climbed and cleaned by thousand of people in the last 78 years. I did re-create Exum's famous leap, though, to the entertainment of the other climbers all waiting to get started. I guess most people use some holds and climb across the gap.

Anyways, the route was amazing, with gorgeous golden rock studded with plentiful holds. The position commands the entire range, with views to both sides: Idaho to the left, Wyoming to the right. In no time I was at the summit, which thankfully had only two other people on it (the mountain was crowded, I would guess there were 30+ folks on it throughout the day). After a while spent chatting and soaking in the view, I started to head down. Here came the more uncertain part of the day. One of the other reasons I had so readily switched plans from the Owen-Spalding route to the Exum was that I'd heard the O-S had a considerable amount of ice on it. It doesn't get much sun, and at 13,770' it stays cold all summer. Now I was faced with downclimbing it, though. The O-S is the standard descent route, but every other party up there had a rope and would rappel past the steeper sections. The unknown is always nerve-wracking, but it never ends up being as bad as you think, so I quickly started down. True enough, it was all pretty casual, and I was soon past the difficulties and back on walking terrain.

A Grand summit photo.

Heading back down Garnet canyon, it was only early afternoon, and another climb had gained my interest. Dissapointment Peak is not much to look at, especially since it's usually overshadowed by the larger peaks all around it, but it does offer some stellar climbing, the best of which might be "Irene's Arete". It was harder than Exum, with difficulties up to 5.9, but the route-finding was straightforward. Again, the exposure and the views were stellar, with tons of air on all sides. The climbing is near vertical for the most part, but ample holds and great cracks make it feel quite secure. Near the top, I passed a roped party and sat to chat for a while. Out soloing all day, I was always eager for conversation with someone other than myself.

Irene's take the central prow for six quality pitches of 5.7-5.9

After an easy descent, I was back at the base of the route, and I was getting hungry. The gentle trail made for a fast hike back to the trailhead, and I was back at camp making burritos by 6pm. All in all, it had been an unforgettable day in the mountains, and I knew my knees would be feeling the 8000 feet of vertical gain (and another 8000' of descent) and 12+ miles of hiking. I love the Tetons!

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