ONE GRAND ADVENTURE
A poor start…
It was 3:30 am and I was starting to sweat… and not from any effort on my part. Standing at The Grand Teton Lupine Meadow trailhead between the parking lot and the forbidding trail up the canyon, I asked myself why is it that so many adventures have to start out in the dark. Here I was, standing all alone, caught in the grip of excitement and, yes, I guess I can admit it now, FEAR. It was cold, damp and very dark and I wanted to turn and bolt for the safety of my little rental car. Steeling myself, I shouldered my pack, took the plunge, and headed up the trail into even deeper blackness.
In all fairness, my fear had some substance. I was all alone, (did I mention it was very dark?), headed up a trail I had never traveled, toward an adventure I had only dreamed of. And not least of all, into the realm of a momma bear and her cubs that had been hanging around the first 3 miles of this particular trail.
It really was the perfect meeting place for man and bear. A well worn trail past tumbling streams, through boulder strewn woods, and out across steep mountain slopes where, had there been enough light to see, there was no escape left or right. And so, with bears on my mind, my light feverishly sweeping in wild arcs, I started to sing… Loudly. And talk to myself… Loudly. And make every possible noise I could. Meanwhile the trail was beginning to gain some serious elevation, my cheap Aldi backpack seemed ridiculously heavy (that’s another story…I really do own a wonderful Osprey pack but it was at home) and in retrospect, the fear and exertion probably lead to my downfall later in the day.
Cursed with blessings…
How, you might ask, did you end up here? Well, several days earlier, in Rapid City S.D. I temporarily parted from my family… they to head north to visit relatives, I to answer the siren call. It was with no small trepidation, excitement, and moist eyes that I waved goodbye to my three tearful kids and patient wife, to spend a few days exploring an area that had been on my bucket list well before bucket lists were ever conceived.
I have to say that, as a kid, I was blessed with exposure to many wonderful places. My exposure may have been a bit distorted, given the character of those I call family, but by the time I was 10, I had traveled through much of the lower 48 states and Canada with my parents and beloved (ahem…) siblings. Unfortunately, I was also cursed with the desire to see more… wanting to return to every place I’d ever been, and lusting after the places I haven’t been yet.
One of those places, somehow missed, was to be the great state of Wyoming. The Snake River… Yellowstone… The TETONS… magical names that graced the centerfolds of dusty National Geographic books and haunted my dreams.
Opportunity grabbed by the horns…
As a teen (well, maybe into my 20’s and more…), I wolfed down climbing magazines, learned to climb and kayak and generally envied people who actually lived my dream.
But at 44, the thought of serious adventure was a distant desire. Reality is… well, reality.
But when the opportunity arose to visit family out west… an idea began to germinate in my little mind. If we were going to drive a thousand miles west, what would be wrong with going that “extra mile” to see over the distant horizon? I convinced myself I would be content with a little hiking, some photography, and a chance just to “see”.
So, armed with my camera, tent, sleeping bag, and a bit of climbing gear “just in case”, I parted from my family and headed off into the sunset, to see what awaited over the next 6 days and 1,800 miles.
After skirting massive hail storms, forest fires, and miles of rolling beauty, I finally sidled up, at long last, to the Teton Range. I won’t quickly forget my arrival… about 2am, illuminated by smoky moonlight, and wreathed in the haze of nearby forest fires, I just about ran headlong into a heard of Elk. The extra adrenaline boost probably was a good thing, chasing away the owl eyes of late night driving.
I won’t bore you with the activities of the next few days…. Suffice it to say, who needs sleep when there are pictures to take, and places to explore, and interesting people to meet. Early mornings and late nights, boiling cauldrons and buffalo, solitude and gridlock, the days passed in a blur.
So it was that, with little sleep, bear and excitement fueled nerves, I finally headed up the trail toward Garnet Canyon, exhausted before I started. But as the trail continued higher and higher, something special began to happen. Far below, beautiful Bradley and Taggart Lakes began to twinkle in the pre-dawn glow. From below the horizon, the sun began its explosive journey into a new day, and the trail took a turn into its own little section of paradise. Garnet Canyon…home to tumbled boulders, marmots, wildflowers, and a tumbling stream… all painted with the brush of a brand new sunrise held in Gods masterful hand.
Unfortunately, that is where heavily burdened trekkers run out of trail and smack into the infamous boulder field. Jumbles of massive boulders heaped and piled, daring you to invade. It’s where the sensible turn back… and the rest of us start to ache. (Its also where I started to think my lost $80 National Park Pass was meant as a sign I should stay home, but that, too, is another story.)
Having survived my first crossing of the boulder field, rested in my own personal mini-meadow, I finally, and delightedly, tiptoed across the stepping stones of Garnet creek to reach the Meadows… where I would set up camp. Here at the head of Garnet Canyon, two steep valleys descend into the Meadows. Surrounded by glaciers, towering mountains (The Middle and Grand), polka dotted with huge boulders and cut thru by a raging little stream, it really is a bit of paradise.
After a bit of exploring I found an empty campsite in the lee of a massive boulder. Assuming it hadn’t tumbled off the mountain above within the last few nights, I set up camp and started to think about my next conquest. It was 10:30a- only about 7 hours and 2,668’ into my day- but, looking up to those craggy heights above, I knew now that I could never climb the Grand on my own. The theoretical was now reality. Bowing to the sensible, I instead decided to head up the Middle Teton, a rough 4 hour or so scramble to its 12,804’ summit. It wasn’t long after starting, though, when something strange happened. Two hikers passed me. No problem I thought… their route finding skills were better; I only needed to follow along. But I couldn’t. Every step became a struggle. Keep going, I thought… just a little further… take a rest then climb a little… Two snow fields and a LOT of rest breaks later, I could see the saddle. So tantalizingly close. Let me see over into Idaho and I’ll turn around. Step… rest… step… sit…step… SIT…
As I lay in a heap on the ground I finally had an epiphany. I was done. Used up. Unable to move… and completely SICK. Giving up isn’t normally an option, so it was a strange experience to face the fact that I could go no further. Not even one foot. Too much sun, exhaustion, and elevation all fused into one obstacle I couldn’t overcome. The decision made, those first few feeble, crawling yards down the mountain were regretful, but kind of euphoric. Down there was my tent… rest… relief. It’s kind of hard to appreciate the beauty of a place when you are on your hands and knees throwing up, but it was beautiful. Even the marmots were staring… wondering what this strange creature was up to. Between bouts of nausea, I headed down in earnest. No bypassing the snowpack and ice this time; a direct path… kick and slip… kick and step… Every step a bit closer to victory.
A fortuitous meeting…
By suppertime I was getting bored; weak and tired, but I needed to get out and breathe… Feeling a little wobbly, but more human, I decided to retrieve a bit of food from the bear box. As I rounded my boulder and headed for the food cache, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Two new friendly faces, fresh up the trail were settling into camp for the night.
Mike and Blake had driven up from Utah and were looking forward to tackling the Grand the following morning. Hmmm… dare I dream? After a few minutes of friendly conversation (I swear I didn’t beg) the magical words were spoken… “If you want to come along with us…” YES! But could I do it? That I didn’t know. I could still hardly drag myself around, hadn’t eaten much since morning, and had no idea what tomorrow would hold. I again set my alarm for 3:00a, packed my gear, and went to bed. Not to sleep, but to lay there in nervous anticipation. What would it be like? Could I do it? Well, I would give it my best shot.
A tale of two Blakes…
There must be something about people named Blake that brings out the go-for-it in me. Years ago and far away I had another friend named Blake with whom I had many memorable adventures. You see, Blake #1 taught me how to rollerblade. We were going to school in Rome at the time and for some reason decided that an ancient city with lots of cobble streets would be a good place to skate. My very first time on blades started out at the old Olympic stadium (well after dark) because the marble sidewalks were somewhat smooth. After about an hour of gliding around, Blake was bored and decided it was time to teach me to really skate. Little did I know, but Blake loved jumping stairs… and going fast. After another hour of rollerblading down ramps, steps, and anything else he could find, he took off down a street to go exploring… with me in tow. And I mean down a street. I clearly remember the (first) terrifying experience of ending up, out-of-control, blasting through a busy intersection and flying the wrong way up 4 lanes of busy Rome traffic.
I also learned to ski by following Blake. I’m still not sure of his competence level when we started, but by the afternoon of day 1 in the Italian Alps we were sliding, falling, tumbling our way down the occasional black diamond run. I remember that morning on the lift, having to confess to Blake and Rob that I had never skied before. Oh well. We all survived. Then there was the night I ended up with a wrecked bike, sitting in an Italian police station, scared I was going to get thrown in jail… Guess I should have stuck with Blake that night… but that, too, is a story for another time.
So here I was, in the dark with yet another Blake, following the feeble glow of our headlamps up a mountain I had only dreamed of. Blake leading the way with Mike and I in tow. The sickness of yesterday seemed to be gone, but I still couldn’t eat and my muscles felt like lead. The problem with climbing a mountain is, well, you have to climb. Every step is work. By the time the sun peaked over the mountains, Mike knew he wasn’t going to make it. As much as we wanted to at least make the lower saddle together, knowing he was holding us back and might jeopardize our summit deadline, Mike selflessly urged us to go on without him. After divvying up the necessary gear, we again headed up the trail.
A memorable climb…
I won’t lie and tell you it was easy. It wasn’t. In fact, the next 10 or so hours were terribly demanding. I still couldn’t eat and the weariness from the days before was taking its toll. The other problem we faced was route finding. The mountain is covered in faint climber’s trails… many leading to destinations other than the summit. After a few false leads and several hundred feet of wasted elevation gain (and loss) we made it to the lower saddle headwall… an easy headwall section with a fixed rope to speed the ascent / decent. Before long we hit the lower saddle, a massive saddle between the Middle and Grand Teton peaks and the real beginning of the climb. Knowing that if we were going to make the summit before afternoon storms blew in, we only enjoyed a few minutes’ rest, filling water bottles from the spring, and soaking in the beautiful views.
A good companion…
From the broad lower saddle the trail headed UP and route-finding became paramount… and I began to really appreciate Blake’s leadership. Knowledgeable and well prepared, he led the way; past the black dyke, around and thru the eye-of-the-needle, and up rock choked gullies to the upper saddle.
For the first time, the weariness was forgotten, the adrenaline ramped up, and the climb became worth every minute of effort. Beautiful and fun, for the first time I started to really believe I might make it to the top.
Ahead, the sheer walls of the summit block reared into the sky, and to either side, awe inspiring drop-offs. To the north, Mt. Owen, and 5,000 ft below us, Cascade Canyon. Up we went… up the talus ridge, past the bottom of the rappel decent, to the beginning of the Owen Spalding route… the narrow ledge leading to the first technical part of the route, several exposed, detached slabs know as the Belly Roll and Crawl. Not difficult, just very exposed, we decided to rope up. Many people free climb this entire route, but as Blake said… ‘You have a family; I have a family, let’s be safe.” Amen. Clinging to the top of the slab, feet feeling for footholds on the outer face, and several thousand feet of open space below, it’s an awesome start up the summit block.
Up the double chimney we went, with Blake again leading the way. There was a little ice in the chimney but the climbing was easy. From there we headed across the exposed catwalk, found the top of the rappel for the trip down, and decided to bypass a few slower climbers by heading up Sargent’s Chimney, another easy climb. From there it was a simple scramble to the summit.
And what a summit it is! 13,770 ft. above sea level and we had it all to ourselves. The weariness, sweat, and doubt, all forgotten in the perfect 360 deg panorama encircling us.
Mount Owen, Jenny Lake, Jackson Lake, Middle Teton… north and south, east and west, up and down…the beauty of Gods creation spread before us. It was a pleasure to be there with Blake, a pleasure to have accomplished a dream, a pleasure to enjoy the artistry of Gods magnificent creation.
But the enjoyment couldn’t last forever. Afternoon storm clouds were building, the trip down would be long and arduous, and it was a long journey back to waiting family. We had heard stories of traffic jambs at the rappels, long delays in the cold wind, and vicious afternoon lightning storms, so we were ready head out.
As we headed for the rappels we began to see a few stragglers coming off other climbing routes. The company was welcome, making the route finding easier, and the decent to the first rappel was quick. Facing outward on the decent, the views, the elevation, the jelly-legs all become magnified and the rappels were a welcome respite. After a short wait for a few other teams to clear their ropes, we headed down the final (and free-hanging) rappel to the upper saddle.
From there the trip down became endless. Wooden legs, lead feet, and numb muscles; slippery rocks, loose shale, and snowflakes. Several hours of fast moving and we finally made it back to the spring at the upper saddle for a welcome drink. I still couldn’t seem to eat, but did my best to stay hydrated. After the chill winds and snowflakes of the higher mountain, the descent into the valley became hot and painstaking. What seemed like forever later, we finally made it to the top of Spalding Falls and my tiny yellow tent under the boulder came into view. So close yet so far away… I wasn’t quite sure if I could make it. It was with tremendous relief that we finally stumbled into camp.
Unsure of how soon I could resume the trip out, Blake decided to pack and head down the trail. Mike was waiting down there somewhere and they had a long drive ahead of them. For me, the ice cold stream was calling, and after soaking my weary feet and head, I fell into my tent for a rest. Ahhh, bliss. Except in the back of my mind I knew I needed to pack and head out. My permit was only for one night, I had rental boots and helmet that needed to be returned by 9pm, and I was ready to hit the road to see my family. Still collapsed on my sleeping bag I disassembled my tent around me. Some time later I managed to drag myself up and pack my gear… all 4,000# of it, filtered a bit more water, and tottered off down the trail, barely pushing one foot in front of the other. It was about then I discovered some magic in the side pocket of my pack. A forgotten pack of energy gels! I managed to get one down and started working on a second. By the time I reached the boulder field, I was almost feeling human.
When I finally exited the boulder field I was starting to feel the pain again, but from here the trail easy- 5.6 miles and downhill all the way. It was about the head of Garnet Canyon that I caught up with a group of 3 hikers headed in the same direction. Carrying only daypacks (and bear spray), they weren’t about to let an old guy with an overloaded pack pass them, so they picked up the pace. It was then I began to look at the time and worry I wouldn’t make my 9pm deadline. Momentum was doing the hard work and by then we were moving at a fast trot, my cheap pack squeaking and creaking at every step. It was almost 8pm and we had 4 miles to go. If we could hold a 12 minute pace, there just might be time to throw my gear in the car and get back to Moose by 9:00p.
A happy ending…
And then we found the bear. Racing around a curve in the trail we came to a screeching halt. A group of climbers (including Blake!) were all standing patiently in the trail, while up ahead, my nemesis of 41 hours earlier had decided to make an appearance with her cubs. There was no way around her so we just had to wait; and while my nerves were now justified, there was no way of making town on time. And so we waited. Eventually momma and her cubs moved off and we were able to resume the trek out.
I was delighted to finish the hike with Blake. That little stop took the wind out of my sails, momentum was gone, and I was played out. That last mile was a struggle but once again I had someone to set the pace. When we came around the last bend, there was Mike, graciously waiting; happy we had made successfully made the climb.
At that moment, while happy to have experienced summiting the Grand, I never wanted to do it again. The exhaustion, the sickness, the cramping muscles- once was enough. But just how hard was it really? Could I do it again without the sickness? With a rested body, bear spray for comfort, and another good climbing companion…. Hey, anybody want to go climb the Grand next season?
I owe a big thank you to Moosely Mountaineering for being ok with an unconventional gear return- I’m glad you found it safely. Thanks Mike, for allowing me to take your place- it was a pleasure meeting you. You are a class act.