I was able to take two weeks off of work for this summer’s big trip, so after a week in the Cirque, there was an entire week left to play in the mountains before heading back home! (If you missed Wyoming Part 1, you can go back and read it here).
The Tetons, silhouetted against the night sky. Photo: Seth Iverson
After our hike out of the Cirque, Seth and I drove into Pinedale, WY, found a nice little hotel, and spent a day doing laundry and recovering. We met two guys who were in the middle of hiking the entire Continental Divide Trail, and we saw a rodeo, complete with Mutton Bustin’, my new favorite rodeo event (tiny kids riding sheep = awesome).
Then, up to Jackson we went to meet up with our friend Fred. Our objective was the Grand Teton, via the Owen Spalding route. Seth and I actually climbed the Grand two summers ago (that report is here). That was a guided climb, via the Upper Exum Ridge. This time, we wanted to do it on our own, and Fred agreed to join us! The weather forecast showed a perfect, two day weather window that matched our summit plans exactly. A relief, after being rained out in the Cirque the week before!
The Approach – Trailhead to Lower Saddle
The approach to the Lower Saddle, where we would camp the first night, is brutal. I’m not going to gloss over it, it’s hard. I had, apparently, blocked it out of my memory. We had more weight in our packs this time, carrying our own ropes, gear, tent, etc, so that added difficulty as well.
The trail begins on the valley floor, at Lupine Meadows Trailhead, elevation 6,732 ft. Over the course of six miles, you hike up to the Lower Saddle, at 11,600 ft. That’s nearly 5,000 ft of elevation gain. There’s very little relief, and it’s a mental and physical challenge just to get to the lower saddle.
Heading up Garnet Canyon. Photo: Seth Iverson
We were feeling good. We heard of a few bear sightings along the trail, but made some noise and didn’t encounter any ourselves. A couple miles in, I was dealing with a painful spot on my hip where my backpack was resting. It had bruised badly the week before in the Cirque and I had hoped a few days of rest would help. Seth came to the rescue and fashioned a piece of his foam sleeping pad to reduce that pressure point and it allowed me to forge ahead.
Our camp at the Lower Saddle
About 3/4 of the way up, somewhere around 10,000 ft, I began to feel some signs of mild altitude sickness. Nausea, weakness, headache… I had spent the entire week before between 9,500ft and 11,000 ft, so it didn’t make any sense to me. I had only been back down to 6,000 ft for a few days, so I felt like I should have been fine. We continued on, set up camp on the Lower Saddle at 11,600 ft, and hoped that some rest and a night of sleep was all I needed.
The three of us had dinner, prepped for the morning, rested up. Seth was feeling strong, so he went up and explored the couloir, our final approach to the technical climbing on the Owen Spalding route. When he returned, we were able to talk with the park rangers about the approach (the rangers have a little hut up in the camping zone, and were a great source of information). We felt that we were in a great place to start in the morning.
Mountain shadows over the valley
The Lower Saddle itself is worth the trek. I’ve camped there twice now, and it’s definitely the coolest place I’ve ever spent a night. It sits between the Middle Teton and the Grand Teton. On one side is a view of Jackson Hole, 5,000 ft below. On the other side looks out over a few smaller mountains, and Idaho stretching beyond. We had perfect weather. No wind, no clouds, not too cold… and it happened to be not only a full moon, but the *supermoon* that night. While the sun set over Idaho to the west, the supermoon rose over the Jackson Hole valley floor to the east. It was truly a sight to behold, and a magical evening on the mountain.
Supermoon rising at sunset (on the left)
Fred watching the sun set over Idaho Photo: Seth Iverson
The Climb – Grand Teton via the Owen Spalding route
Our alarms were set for 3:15, with plans to leave camp at 4:15. Some parties headed up as early as 3:45, most without even turning their headlamps on, because the moon was so bright (did I mention that conditions were perfect?).
That morning I still wasn’t feeling well. Nausea, no appetite, headache, and some dizziness as well. Mild altitude sickness is what we suspected. I had been planning this climb with Seth for over a year, we had done all of the prep together, studied the route a million different ways, talked through it over and over. We had planned to share leads; Seth would lead the first pitch (belly roll and crawl), and I would lead the chimneys that followed. A big part of this trip for me was not only summiting, but leading. Leading some pitches, leading the team.. it was really important to me.
After I forced some oatmeal down that morning, the three of us had a final check-in. I wanted to climb. My symptoms were mostly just uncomfortable, and a nuisance, not severe enough to be dangerous. We decided that all three of us would climb, but Seth suggested that if I was feeling at all dizzy, it wasn’t a good idea for me to lead. It was a decision not just for me, but for the team as a whole. I knew he was right, I knew that it was the best thing for our team of three, and I agreed. That was tough. Seth would be leading all of the pitches.
We headed out of camp at 4:15 and began our ascent up the moraine and into the Col, guided by our headlamps and the bright moonlight. A couple of hours later, we were at the first pitch of the Owen Spalding route. The infamous traverse that includes the “Belly Roll” and the “Crawl.” The climbing is very easy, but very exposed as well. An unprotected fall would mean a long drop into Idaho. Seth led the way and brought Fred and I over after him. Several parties lined up behind us, and we were glad that we got an early start!
Looking NW from the start of the Owen Spalding Route at sunrise. Photo: Seth Iverson
After that traverse was a short chimney pitch, the “Double Chimney,” and then an option to either do an exposed traverse or climb the “Owen Chimney.” We opted for the latter. The Owen Chimney was my favorite pitch of the climb. Oh, how great it would have been to lead it…. Seth did an amazing job, though.
Me at the base of the Double Chimney. Photo: Seth Iverson
Fred giving me a hip belay. Thanks, Fred! Photo: Seth Iverson
Above the Owen Chimney was Sargeant’s Chimney. Most people were climbing up a chimney to the left, but we climbed the chimney on the right, which definitely had some 5.6 or 5.7 moves in it. We learned later that we had taken the ‘true’ Sargeant’s Chimney, but now days most people take the easier variation to the left.
Above this last technical chimney were some slabs meandering back and forth, and then a patch of sunlight above. The first sunlight we had seen all morning, as the whole route is in the shade (and COLD because of it!). Seth offered for Fred to lead us to the summit. Fred couldn’t believe we were there, and I distinctly remember that feeling the first time we climbed it two years ago. We made our final steps up to the summit into the warmth of the sun, and enjoyed the view. We had done it!
Fred leading the final steps to the summit Photo: Seth Iverson
On the summit of the Grand Teton. Fred, me, Seth.
Twenty minutes on the summit, and it was time to head back down. We roped back up and started working our way back down the slabs. One short rappel down Sargeant’s Chimney took us to the big rappel, a 120 ft. mostly free-hanging rappel. We triple-checked everything and Seth headed down first, followed by Fred, myself, and a guy we met who had just free-soloed the Upper Exum route.
The rappel was more intense than I remembered, maybe because we were on our own and not with a guide this time. I quadruple checked everything, then checked again. The first 30 ft. walk down a face, and then the bottom comes into view, and the rope ends are WAY THE HECK DOWN THERE. Then the wall falls away, and the last half is free hanging. Exhilarating is a mild word to describe it.
After the rappel, the technical parts of the day were over. We made our way back down the col and arrived back at our tent on the lower saddle mid-afternoon.
Heading back down the col to camp. Photo: Seth Iverson
Fred at the Eye of the Needle. Photo: Seth Iverson
Seth going through the eye of the needle.
The three of us had lunch (I was finally able to eat a full meal for the first time that day), rested briefly, packed up camp, and began the long descent. We had a camping permit for the Meadows, about halfway down, but when we got there we decided to book it all the way back to the car. Our totals for the day were 2,000 ft of ascent, 7,000 ft of descent, and approx. 8 miles total. We arrived back at the trailhead at 9:30pm, making for 17 hours straight of physical activity. We were toasted.
We headed into Jackson for some pizza, and called it a night.
We climbed that mountain, a two day ordeal with route finding and technical climbing. We did it on our own, and we did it well. I feel immensely proud of that. It was a mental challenge, it was a physical challenge, and it was also a challenge of confidence. Can we actually do this? Having climbed that same mountain previously with a guide, I knew I could physically do it, but having a guide makes it still seem magical and mysterious somehow. Going on our own, doing the planning on our own, making sure we had the necessary skills, the fitness, studying everything over and over again, talking through scenarios and what-ifs… and then actually putting all of that into practice and doing it… and succeeding…. was empowering. And it took a lot of the magic away. I want to do MORE.
With that being said, I grappled quite a bit with the disappointment of not leading. Because I wasn’t feeling well, Seth led every pitch. It was awesome that he took the lead when the time called for it. I am grateful to him for that, and to have such a strong leader on our team. I had wanted to lead with him, though. And, even though I was involved in all of the prep and the decisions leading up to that morning, circumstances changed, and plans changed. I didn’t feel well, and Seth took my leads. For weeks afterwards, I struggled with a feeling that I didn’t contribute in the way that I wanted to. Instead of Seth and I co-leading, Seth led, and Fred and I followed. Even though we had successfully climbed the Grand, and we did it fully on our own, without a guide, I didn’t fully meet my personal goals. I felt that I had failed somehow and struggled with that quite a bit.
It’s been nearly a month since our summit, and I’ve had a chance to work through that disappointment and come to terms with it. I still believe that we made the right decision, based on how I felt that morning. When you’re part of a team doing something dangerous like climbing a mountain, every decision is about everybody, and not just about one person. The decision for Seth to lead wasn’t about me. It was about the safety of the team. And it was the right choice.
I’m so proud of the three of us, Fred, Seth, and myself, for our work together as a well-functioning team, and for our successful summit of the Grand Teton. It was an amazing experience, and I am so glad that I got to share it with two incredible people.
As for my personal disappointments? I’ll be heading to Boulder, CO with Seth for my birthday weekend, and I have plans to lead the *crap* out of some flatirons. Seth has already said that he will gladly follow. Wish us luck.
Summit selfie! Seth and me. Photo: Seth Iverson