It was 9:00am on a perfectly clear, beautiful day. We were high up on the mountain, crossing the south summit ridge of the Grand Teton. Karen, our guide, and Seth had already started across, and now it was my turn. On flat ground I would have walked across without even thinking about it. Here, though, nearly 7,000 ft above the valley floor, all I could feel was the air around us, and the steep drop on either side of the ridge.
I took two steps. “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” I heard those words coming out of my mouth and quickly changed them. “I can do this. I can do this.” I took a deep breath and joined my team.
We summited via the Upper Exum Ridge, a 5.5 climbing route on the south side of the mountain. I whimpered twice on the climb, once on the summit ridge and once near the top of the Petzoldt Lieback pitch. The lieback was one of the airiest pitches of the climb, moving up the edge of the ridge itself, with a significant drop-off on the other side. Despite the whimpering, it was my favorite pitch of the route.
There were twelve pitches of climbing, with bits of walking and scrambling mixed in between pitches. When climbing, first, Karen would disappear. Then Seth. Eventually my rope would become tight. “That’s me, Seth!” “Climb, Elizabeth!” “Climbing Seth!” Sometimes, if they were at a point where they were waiting for me, the voice that yelled down to me would be Karen’s. She would take the belay and I’d hear her sing “Climb, Eee-Liz!”
Climbing above 12,000 ft, the lack of oxygen made my limbs feel weak. I’d leverage my body weight, move my feet up. Stand up. Rest. Repeat. I’d arrive at the next belay panting for air. There would be a minute of rest while Seth climbed and then it was my turn once more.
Up and up we went. Golden Staircase, Wind Tunnel, Friction Pitch, Petzoldt Lieback, Boulder Problem in the Sky. After the “Dark Side,” we coiled the ropes and crossed the summit ridge. I was exhausted, but ready to keep going for as long as it was going to take. Karen and Seth stopped. “Would you do the honor of leading us to the summit?” Karen pointed upwards. I looked at her and broke into tears. “Is that it?” “Yep,” with a huge grin on her face. I wiped the tears and climbed that last 20 ft to the summit.
I remember driving into view of the Tetons for the first time just a few days prior. The mountains are spectacular. They jut right out of the valley floor without the help of foothills. They are stark and pointy and gorgeous. When we saw them that day, we both thought to ourselves, “what have we gotten ourselves into?”
I feel a great sense of pride for pushing myself and getting to the top of that mountain. As someone who only began climbing a few years ago, it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done, both physically and mentally. The whole experience didn’t fully digest for a few days. I’m not sure it’s finished yet. All I know is that I want to do more.
A thank you to my husband, who stepped out of his comfort zone with me. Thank you, also, to Exum Mountain Guides. They taught us the skills we needed to be part of a team, instead of just two people following a guide. Finally, much thanks to our fantastic guide, Karen, for setting a steady pace, getting us to the summit and back down safely, and teaching us skills along the way that we could take home with us.