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Grand Teton: Up Exum, with Exum

July 22, 2009

Grand Teton: 13,770 feet
Round-trip distance: 17 miles (?)
Elevation gain: 7,050 feet

Part 1: July 19-21, 2009
Climbing the Grand Teton has been a goal of mine for quite a while. Iconic mountains such as this have always captured my imagination, but the primary obstacle keeping me from the summit was my lack of rock climbing experience. Now living on the East Coast, I remembered even less about trad climbing than I did a few years ago while living in Colorado. So when I discovered that Exum Guides offers a four-day crash course in rock climbing that culminates with a summit attempt at the Grand Teton, it caught my interest. When my friend Logan agreed the four-day rock climbing seminar sounded like a good idea, it was only a matter of time before we showed up at the doorstep of Exum Guides at South Jenny Lake.

Grand Teton

Our Destination

Two days of outdoor multi-pitch climbing ended with “Open Book” (5.5) and “The Tree Climb” (5.6) in Cascade Canyon, regular Exum teaching climbs that were a lot of fun. Plus we did a 100-foot open air rappel a couple of times to practice for the real thing on the mountain.

Logan Climbing

Logan climbing crux of "Tree Climb"

Logan was now in a different world, something he was not prepared for:
Part of me wants to help these mountain folk. I envy their drifter nature. They move from town to town living out of their backpacks. They scrounge their money to pay for epic trips and work five jobs that all depend upon the season. They are open and friendly by nature. The only downside is they do it to climb stuff. If I were to do it, I'd become a drifter without a cause. These days those people are known as homeless people, or the home impaired, as they like to be called.
But again, can't there be some sort of medication to keep humans from climbing stuff? Maybe a support group? An instructor asked today why people climb mountains. The old answer to their inside joke was because it is there; the new is because they can. We have all the support in the world for crack-heads but none for these mountain folk. It's a shame really that this horrible affliction affects so many people and gets zero attention.

Day 3 was the approach for the climb. From the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, we had 7 miles and 5,000 feet of trail to our camp at the Lower Saddle. The six hours of hiking wound through Garnet Canyon, full of wild-flowers, waterfalls, a glacier, clear water and green plants and trees. Besides miles of easy-walking trail through steep meadows, we also crossed a couple of snow fields, plenty of glacial moraine, and a 4th class fixed rope pitch.

Garnet Canyon

Spalding Falls, Garnet Canyon

Logan hated all of this:
My mind races with literary ideas on how to write up my suffering. I'd even counted on this happening and brought my idea-book to write them down. But every break I was busy. I had to drink water and shove fistfuls of trail mix in my mouth all while reapplying sunscreen and bug repellent.
Every iteration between breaks seemed like endless torment. With my mind in such a negative state, spewing litanies of discomfort, I realized it may be dragging this out a little. I started a mantra of saying in my head, "Don't think; Just move".
Left foot, "Don't think." Right foot, "Just move."
We walked past giant fields of yellow flowers with two blue lakes in the distance. That happened again and again, only a little higher each time, as is the horrid nature of switchbacks. Rick, the little goblin, seemed untiring with his pace. He'd quickly point at a flower, shout its name and ask it to be passed back.
"Blue Bells"
"Yellow Iron Root"
"Arrow Leaf"
Left foot, "Don't think." Right foot, "Just move."

Grand Teton

From the Lower Saddle hut

We made it to the Lower Saddle at 5pm, where we had a view into Idaho and an intimidating up-close look at the Grand Teton. We settled into camp and ate blessed hot food as our guides, Rick and Brian, related the specifics of the next day’s route to us. We have beautiful weather at 11,600 feet, but all of us climbers with Exum are crowding into a stuffy little hut to try to sleep.

Shadow of the Grand Teton

Shadow of the Tetons

Part 2: July 22, 2009
A warm morning, we were awake at 3am and hiking upward by 3:55. After crossing over the black dike, we scrambled up to our first rope pitch–a half-rope length climb around exposed slabs. Continuing upward in the darkness, we scrambled through more obstacles with exposure, including the “Belly Crawl,” until eventually we found ourselves perched on Wall Street–home to Glenn Exum’s famous leap at the “step-around move.”

Here was the first bottleneck. As our group of 7 (5 climbers, 2 guides) waited for the climbers ahead of us, a few other groups of climbers showed up behind us. As they sat sulking on Wall Street, I found it hard to believe they could be in such a hurry. It wasn’t even light yet, and with a good weather forecast I figured anyone up there would be more in a mood to enjoy the climb and the mountain scenery as opposed to getting all bent out of shape because of a slow pace. It is a world-renowned route in the middle of summer, what would you expect?

I did my best to ignore the impatience of the climbers behind me. I had no problem climbing quickly when it was my turn, but since I was last on our team’s rope I seemed to get all the angst from the other climbing parties. As the day went on this became less of a problem, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the climb of Upper Exum Ridge.

Exum Guides liberally ropes up for 13 pitches of roped climbing on this route. I don’t remember the details of all of it, but I will recount many memorable features:


Alpenglow on southern Tetons. Note climber lower-center

It came my turn for the step-around-move just as it was light enough to see the considerable exposure. However this was not as bad as I expected; the exposure and step didn’t bother me as much as trying to find a decent hand hold. But this did wake me up a little bit to the climbing for the rest of the day.

Immediately after the step-around, the next pitch, called the Golden Staircase, was a fun and easy climb up solid holds to the next ridge-line. And, in the alpenglow, it really was gold-colored. This next mostly-horizontal pitch included one tricky mantle move to gain the start to the next fairly vertical pitch, the Wind Tunnel. It was icy and cold here, with about a full rope’s length of climbing to the next belay ledge.


Matt mantles his way between the Golden Staircase and Wind Tunnel

Above this we were out in the warm sun for some more fun pitches of climbing. Then the guide behind me moved ahead and flipped our rope out of the way to take his clients up the easier path, causing my climb to turn into more of a 5.7. With approach shoes on, this was definitely harder stuff than I had done in the two days of vertical climbing in Cascade Canyon. At one point I had no good holds and fully expected to fall, but was not worried because Matt had me in a solid belay and I could feel the taut rope. The exposure was not bad here, but what is normally an easy pitch became the crux of the route for me.

Above the Wind Tunnel

Matt, above the Wind Tunnel

Just above this, the actual supposed crux of Upper Exum, the Friction Pitch, turned out to be not hard at all; maybe my height helped me find holds more easily than some.

Friction Pitch

A climber works her way up the Friction Pitch

Meanwhile the aforementioned guide had begun taking his clients up the “V” pitch. Continuing upward, we took a lieback pitch to the right of the “V” to stay out of the other team’s way. This pitch was interesting, with one moderately difficult move and a good bit of exposure–probably one of the most exhilarating pitches on the whole route. Looking at the mountain from the Lower Saddle camp, this knife edge ridge constitutes the tip of the visible false summit; the rest of the upper route is hidden from camp.

After this we had more unmemorable roped climbing and a lot of walking with coiled ropes uphill over ledges, until at last we came around a corner to what Rick calls the “Black Hole” pitch. Another cold and dark place, this fun pitch required a lieback in a tight spot where it was difficult to keep our packs from getting stuck.

Above the Wind Tunnel

The Lieback alternative to the "V" Pitch--fun climbing!

We gained another ledge above this to begin Boulder Problem in the Sky. The first move was exposed and challenging, but again I think my height helped make this move a little easier. I believe this is also called the Petzoldt lieback pitch.

And we were almost there! All that remained between us and the summit was an aesthetic horizontal knife edge ridge, some hiking along the top of a massive snowfield, and a final bit of scrambling. We topped out at 9:45 a.m., amidst perfect, warm, sunny weather, to enjoy the highest view in the Tetons.

It was a busy summit moment. Many of the teams on the mountain today, guided and non-guided, arrived just before or after us, forming quite a crowd. We did not stay very long, and before we knew it we were roped up again and scrambling back down toward the snowfield.

Summit 1

Summit photos

Summit 2

The descent was much more relaxed as our team of 7 was alone for most of the time, able to enjoy the time together as we slowly and carefully worked our way down the Owen-Spalding route. We did a lot of scrambling down ledges, which was not at all difficult, but because of the exposure our guides were obligated to provide belays using natural rock features as we went.

As we approached the rappel ledge, I stepped on a boulder that I thought was part of the wall. Matt followed suit behind me, and the boulder, which easily weighed hundreds of pounds, broke loose and began sliding. Fortunately it stopped against a smaller boulder after only a foot or so, but it was now precariously perched above the rappel. The rest of the day Rick and Brian made sure everyone on the mountain knew about that rock so as not to dislodge it; he was going to hopefully have someone from the park go up and knock the rock loose during the night.

The rappel itself was a fun 100 feet of exposure to ledges below, though it was not as open-aired as I expected. From the landing spot it was more and more scrambling downhill, one or two belays wherever there was significant exposure, and a rope belay-half-rappel down the slabs. After this the downhill scrambling mellowed out until at last we arrived at the black dike, where we followed the trail the rest of the way to camp for a much-deserved break.

Rappel 1

A closer look at the Owen-Spalding rappel

Rappel 2

There was another bottleneck at the fixed rope pitch below the saddle, and as we sat there we watched Stettner Couloir let loose with fury as we had seen many times over the past two days. This time one of the rocks that came crashing down was the size of a small house, until of course it shattered into thousands of pieces. The biggest remaining rock rolled all the way down onto the moraine near the trail below. This rock-fall was always a loud and exciting spectacle; I could never imagine taking that route up the mountain unless it is packed with solid snow.

Then it was time for the long trail out. Seven more miles of boulder-hopping and trail hiking on wearying feet and legs. Near the exit from Garnet Canyon, Brian took off his shoes and socks and hopped into the clear, flowing, skin-numbing glacier water, and all of us eagerly followed. The rest of the time was spent in conversation between Brian, Pam, Tom, Matt, Logan and myself (Rick had stayed at the camp for the next team). We had a fun group full of strong climbers, and I think we were all satisfied with how the climb turned out.

Bradley Lake

Bradley Lake

We had one final treat about a mile from the trailhead: a black bear and cub were foraging just off the trail. And just a few hundred yards down the trail, yet another bear was moseying around the lush woods looking for food. We also saw some foxes chasing each other up and down the trail. Animals here seem to pay no attention to humans.

To me, the climb was ceaselessly interesting. And while I did the climb guided, perhaps I can continue to hone my rock climbing skills and someday return to try the Direct Exum without paying the guides to show me the way. Logan thought the climb was okay but was badly sunburned and generally hated the idea of all the hiking. He was definitely in for more than he had expected. The whole trip was about exactly what I anticipated it would be; I just did not realize how different my friend’s expectations were. In any case, he made it:

We drove back to the Exum guide area with the A/C blasting. We turned our helmets back in and accepted our certificates saying we climbed the Grand Teton. Now whenever life hands me a lemon, I'll look over at my mounted and framed certificate of this ordeal and say, "I've got no problem making some lemonade. Anything's better than that climb."

Perspective is an amazing thing.