Climbing the Centerpiece of my Home Range
Updated: Sep 14, 2018
The Grand… The Big Titty… El Grande, whatever you might refer to it as living here in Jackson’s Hole, The Grand Teton in not only the centerpiece of the range, but also the centerpiece of the whole area. Rising over 7000 feet out of the valley, its rocky summit can be seen from almost everywhere in Jackson, constantly taunting all who dream of climbing it. For almost two decades that has been me. Focused on skiing in the spring and riding bikes in the summer, I had on many occasions almost made the attempt in the summer, and on a few occasions I had contemplated joining some of my more aggressive friends and trying a spring ski descent, but alas, it had never come to fruition.
This year after probably my best season of riding, I had joined my ski partner Owen Leeper in carrying on into the park and bagging many of the lines we had talked about for years, spending more time in Teton Park that I have over the many years of exploring before. As the snow dissipated I continued to join Owen and other friends, venturing into new places, swimming in alpine lakes and getting to know the range better in one season than I have over the past 20 years of living here.
Excited for new adventures, I spread the word to my friends that I was up for any mission to lakes, or peaks that I had not visited, and while I didn’t dare to mention it, climbing The Grand was definitely in the back of my mind, and the front of my list. Unlike many of the other peaks in the range that have mellow scrambles to the summit, requiring little more than a helmet for rock fall, the Grand and its easiest route the OS, or Owen Spalding route, for people like me who are uncomfortable being unprotected on rock with death exposure below, requires protection on the exposed sections known as the Belly Roll and the upper chimneys. Knowing this for years, I had tried to get my competent, or badass climber friends to take me, never making it happen.
On Tuesdays I usually like to go to the Wort Hotel to do some two stepping to the country band that plays there each week. Grabbing a beer at the bar I ran into Brian Russ, a friend of a friend that I had done some early season snowboarding with. Brian had been exploring the park a lot this summer and we had talked about doing some hikes at some point. As I sat down just to chat the conversation turned to the fact that Brian had been researching the route and thought he would have a pretty go idea of what we’d need and how we’d find our way. And late that Tuesday evening, a few beers and whiskys deep I declared, “Well if your free Friday lets do it”.
I’m not sure either one of us took the agreed plan too seriously at the time, and the discussion, when it became serious, veered more towards just hiking to the complicated part of the rout and then maybe turning around and coming back more prepared for the actual climb. Either way a couple of days went by without another word of it until Thursday night, when knowing Friday would be Brian and I’s only chance this summer with his work schedule and my planned absence from the valley in September, I gave him a call and said if he was serious than I was as well.
At 9:30 pm on Thursday night it was decided, we’d meet at 6:30 the next morning and give it a go. Of course by the time we got snacks and made our way to the trailhead in Lupine Meadows it was 7:30, and while it had been warm in the valley for days, this day started out at a brisk 47 degrees. As we made our way up, the skies that were supposed to be clear until later in the afternoon, remained cloudy, and twice in the first few hours of our hike we encountered small rain showers that made us question our chances, wondering if it was snowing up high and if the rock would dry enough for us to climb safely.
The hike up Garnet Canyon to the meadows is familiar to me, having done it several times in both winter and summer, but I had never been up the North Fork of Garnet in the summer, so when we made our way through the meadows still covered in snow we made our first misstep. Not seeing the trail lead up the bushy north side of the drainage, assuming it was like the South Fork of the canyon where the meadows end and the rest of the climb to the saddle in between the Middle Teton and the South is an seemingly endless talus field, we headed up the North Fork, straight up the steep pile of rocks. On the way down we made the same mistake, only realizing there was a trial when back in the meadows we saw someone running down the trail we missed.
The trail does go all the way to the Lower Saddle that splits the Grand and Middle Teton, and from the meadows you usually get a good look at the summit, but today every look we got at the peak had it shrouded in thick clouds that looked so thick they might obscure our chances of attempting the summit. Having come this far, we decided to just keep going until we felt it was too dangerous for us to continue.
At the lower saddle we stopped to talk to an Exum guide to get a little more info. Armed with the knowledge that we would need to go hard left of the rappel if we are going to make it with just one 60m rope, and the positive reinforcement of other guides who were on their way down with clients, that had summited in the snow, we pushed on to the upper saddle into the clouds.
There is this thing called the needle and a rock hole called the Eye of the Needle that is supposed to help you stay on track to the upper saddle, but like the trail below we missed it on the way up, only realizing we had not been on track when we came across the obvious little hole on the way down. Continuing the slow scramble, stopping several times to look at where other people were coming down, we arrived at the upper saddle. High up in the exposed rocks the clouds moved fast in the high winds, obscuring our views and then clearing out for a moment before coming back in, the smoke from the fires out west blocking our ability to judge the weather that might be barreling towards us.
When we reached the infamous belly roll and pulled out the rope, it was the first time in our hike that I felt we might actually make the summit, but still I still worried about the incoming weather that we could not see and the fact that at this point my lack of preparation had left me drastically under dressed. With no gloves, only a light shell jacket over my t-shirt, and the only person on the mountain to be wearing shorts, I had gotten so cold in the wind and bad weather that my hands that were supposed to keep me from falling to my death were frozen solid.
Doing my best to be brave, I tied into one end of the rope and started making my way out sideways through the famously exposed section. By the time I got to the turn up the chimneys, the feeling of safety provided by the rope was long gone, knowing that the last anchor was far behind me and if I slipped, while I wouldn’t fall the thousand or so feet to my death, I would wind up doing the largest pendulum of my life, probably into some rocks on the wall below. Freezing my ass off and not feeling comfortable all alone, trying to decide which path to take up, and making the move without the confidence of two people who don’t know where they are going agreeing that “sure that looks like the way”, I build another anchor and tell Brian I will reel him in to me and we can talk about what the hell we are going to do next. Having been the one who had done all the research and also being better protected than myself during the belly roll, Brian makes the first moves up to the chimneys, which while they looked sketchy turned out to be quite easy.
As Brian made his way up the first chimney just as it started to get sketchy we came across a conveniently placed wire nut that provided just enough confidence to climb the rest of the exposed sections. In all reality people with less experience climb this route unprotected and while we did place a few anchors, the rope provided more of a peace of mind than the most solid security device.
Almost through the last of the technical climbing, the clouds that had obscured our views of the summit all day had cleared and while the smoke was so thick we could still not see what might be coming, we both smiled knowing that clouds, or no clouds, we’d be making the summit today.
Our adventure however was far from over, as everyone who climbs mountains has heard many stories of parties reaching the summit only to have disaster strike on the way down. Nearing the top, we ran into yet another party, this one led by Zahan Billamoria, an Exum guide who knows these mountains well. Crossing Z, as he’s known around the valley, we get a warning about the weather and the fact that we should not enjoy our time on the summit, as there was a lightning storm rolling in behind the smoke. I always joke when people act concerned about bears and being attacked that in Teton Park they are far more likely, statistically to slip and fall, or be struck by lightning than be attacked by a predator. With this in mind we hustled to the top, took the time to take a bunch of photos and enjoy our summit before wearily trying to quickly make our way down to the rappel before being struck by lightning.
Once again we wander around on the peak, following one apparent trail of dirty rocks, and then another, trying to find the easy and fun way down. Eventually we spot the crowd gathering on the ledge and join them to wait our turn for the rappel. The wind now so strong that when I set the camera down on an uneven rock a gust actually shifted it causing me to grab it in a panic thinking it was about to blow away.
There were seven people ahead of us when we arrive at the rappel, but luckily for me, Brian was more prepared than I, and when he noticed me shivering, he pulled out an extra layer that I happily threw on under my coat. Even with the layer the two of us cowered on the ledge that has little to no protection from the wind as we waited almost an hour for everyone in front of us to make it down safely.
When it was our turn we heeded the advice given and Brain tossed out the rope and made the move hard left over the ledge, hoping the information we were give was accurate and the rope if we go the right way would be long enough to get us safely to the ground.
As Brian disappeared out of sight under the overhanging ledge, I put the camera away and waited patiently for the rope to go slack. It seemed to take forever, as I continued to shiver all alone on the ledge, praying that my partner was about to make it safely and I could follow without incident. When the rope went slack and I saw Brian come out from the ledge, the trepidation that had twisted my stomach all day disappeared, as I fed the rope through my ATC and with a smile dropped over the ledge with a mix of relief and excitement, dangling in the air under the overhang.
Once below the technical climbing of the upper summit, no longer fearing the lightning that did not seem like it would materialize, we found our way down the proper route, squeezing through the eye of the needle and scrambling down to the lower saddle and back out the meadows. In the meadows we laughed at our misfortune of missing the trail, finally noticing where it stated to make its way up out of the snowfield, the hours we wasted of little concern, having without much planning, or belief that we’d make it, actually summiting The Grand Teton.