Its been a busy few weeks with my good friend Rob Schnare’s bachelor party out at Cannon Beach, OR over Labor Day weekend followed by a long overdue trip back to the Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, WY with my good friends Bill Larson, Reid Jennings, and Mike Santoro. The Grand is one of America’s most iconic mountains jutting over 7,000′ from the valley floor of Jackson Hole. The Grand holds a special place in my heart. It was in fact my first “real” mountain I ever climbed back in 9th grade or when I was around maybe 15 years old. My family always vacationed to Jackson Hole when my sister and I were in middle school & high school every summer for about two weeks at a time. This is where I fell in love with the mountains. My Dad and I would hike our brains out for two weeks during these wonderful summer vacations. Then, one summer, my Dad & I coupled with my good friend Art Pue and his father decided to do a father/son climb of the Grand Teton. We went guided through the highly respected & accomplished Exum Guides and took the one day rock climbing school before the two day Grand Teton climb. Unfortunately, Mr. Pue sliced his leg during the rock climbing school and couldn’t make the backpack into the Lower Saddle (11,660′). My Dad unfortunately got altitude sickness at the Lower Saddle during the night with a pretty bad headache and nausea and so remained at the Exum hut while Art and myself climbed to the summit via the classic Upper Exum ridge (5.7). It was the best day of my life thus far and it made me feel so good. We both couldn’t believe at the time we had climbed the Grand. It was like summiting Mt. Everest for us. This climb up the Grand really jump-started my passion for climbing and being in the mountains. Fast-forward to Labor Day weekend 2006. Kristine & I were good climbing buds at the time and we planned a trip to the Grand with other good friends J Weingast, Jesse Hill, & Lizzie Lokey. We climbed the really fun original Owen-Spaulding route (5.4) with Owen Chimney variation (5.5). The trip went very well with great weather despite the route being a bit crowded. It was after all a holiday weekend.
My good friend Bill Larson, who is an engineer at Beaudin Ganze with me, had always wanted to climb the Grand. Bill does most of his work up in Jackson Hole so he has been up there at least twice a month for years now. Bill & I used to do a lot of climbing and mountaineering together back in the day when I first moved to Vail in 2003. Bill was even on our El Pico de Orizaba, Mexico trip in December 2004. He has since started a family and has two awesome young boys that have kept him pretty busy. Nonetheless, the Grand was always in the back of his mind and so we finally set a date and made it happen in September 2013. My good friend Reid was on board and Mike Santoro definitely wanted in as well. So, we would have two roped teams of two, which would be perfect. Since none of them had ever climbed in the Tetons, much less the Grand, we decided to do the original Owen-Spaulding route again with Owen Chimney variation since I knew it pretty well. Other than being a bit colder and perhaps more crowded, it really is no different than the Upper Exum from a technical perspective. It would work out well. Bill was already up in Jackson for work since Tuesday, so Mike & I left early Thursday morning from Vail and drove the 8 hrs to Jackson. Reid flew up from Denver and we all met out at the airport since Bill needed to return his rental car. We all shopped around town for last minute food and supplies and watched the Broncos & Peyton Manning demolish last year’s Superbowl champs at the Snake River Brewery. It was so very nice to be back in Jackson Hole since I have so many fond memories here with my family and friends. We all crashed at Bill’s Super 8 motel room and after a nice breakfast/brunch at the Bunnery in Jackson, we made our way to the familiar Lupine Meadows trailhead in the early afternoon. Billy had secured us two nights of backcountry camping at the Meadows (9,200′) about 4.5 miles in from the trailhead in Garnet Canyon. The backpack approach was great. The weather looked a bit threatening but held off until we were able to find a campsite and set up our tents. Apparently, bears have become more of a problem than I remember and everyone carries bear spray now and so Bill bought a bottle and kept it on him. Despite the fact that Billy wanted to see a Grizz (I sure as heck did not), fortunately any bears steered clear of us on the approach and on the way out.
Once at our camp in the Meadows, it hailed marble-sized hail stones for a good 10 minutes at which point I was concerned for my Bibler tent. It soon let up and just rained for a good hour or two. Mike & Bill came into my Bibler with Reid & I and we all played the card game Hearts to our hearts’ content. The weather soon cleared a bit and it stopped raining. We got out of the tent and were greeted with amazing alpenglow from the setting sun bouncing off the clouds and Tetons. It created a real “glow” in Garnet Canyon and was absolutely awesome and such a treat.
However great the alpenglow moment was, we soon heard the search and rescue (SAR) helicopter’s blades whipping the humid air coming up into Garnet Canyon. We knew there had been some sort of accident. The chopper made a pass at a small cliff next to the waterfall below the campsite called the Ledges about 300 vertical feet above us on the trail to the Lower saddle. It then landed in the Meadows and dispatched a few SAR guys who quickly hiked up to the base of the small cliff. They were all there for a good two hours with us wondering what was going on.
Finally, two SAR guys walked past us and told us the poor guy had “pitched off” and did not make it. We really didn’t know what that exactly meant and obviously did not ask the SAR fellows, but we did read two days later that the 40 year old fellow from Boulder had been searching for a campsite in the same hail storm and had fallen off the small cliff. Unfortunately, he did not make it. Its moments like these that really are so very tragic and make you realize the seriousness and unforgiving power of the mountains. And not just the Tetons – really, any mountains. We all have to be so careful. The accident definitely put a somber mood around our camp, but we soon tried to psyche ourselves up for the next day and be positive for our upcoming climb. We had gotten two nights of camping just in case Saturday turned out to be too stormy for a summit day and by 11pm that evening I think we all were beginning to think we would be going for the summit Sunday. The rain really came down for a good hour, which did not help raise our spirits too much. Nevertheless, it stopped, we all tossed and turned, and got up around 2am for a 3am start. It was clear out and we could see stars, so we decided to go for it. We made good time up the trail past the Ledges and into the North Fork of Garnet Canyon in the dark by headlamp. Its a steep trail, that’s for sure, but everyone did well. Routefinding up this trail in the dark is never easy, but we found our way after getting off route once or twice. We made it to the fixed ropes, which are set up to provide an easy ascent of a 75 ft class 4/5 rock band. We soon hit the Lower saddle around 5am still in the dark no less. The wind picked up and Billy had a bad cramp in his leg so I quickly massaged his quad for him and I guess I had the magic touch as he soon after felt a lot better. There were definitely several other parties on the trail and stirring in the Exum hut at the Lower saddle and so we quickly headed up the trail to the Black Dike, a feature on the way up to the Upper Saddle. Now the route between the Lower & Upper Saddles is about as far from straightforward as it gets. It seems I go a different way each time I climb the Grand. Its especially tough in the dark. In 2007, it was light by the time we were heading up to the Upper Saddle which made things a lot easier. Nonetheless, we made our way up trying to avoid being too easterly towards the point where climber’s access the Upper Exum ridge. We followed a small climber’s trail between class 3 and 4 moves. I remembered certain features from before but again the dark really played havoc on our routefinding abilities. We then climbed a 10 ft class 4 slab onto a very loose scree field and followed another team of three up to a point below a 30 ft class 5 chimney up a very wet mini-waterfall of sorts. Sam, the leader of the group, ascended the chimney and I took off after him scoping it out for Billy, Reid, & Mike. I made it up and searched around, but did not remember having to make these moves at all from before, so I downclimbed the sketchy, wet chimney back to the boys. This downclimb was likely the most dangerous climbing I did all day. There was definitely a better way.
We descended 100 vertical feet or so back to the short class 4 slab. By that time, it was getting light enough that we could see storm clouds in the distance and it was ever so lightly spitting snow on us. This again did not inspire confidence in us continuing our climb. We called it off for all of about 2 minutes when we looked up and it all seemed to be clearing and the snow stopped. We turned around and headed up and now that it was light enough, we found the class 4 slabs/chimney (maybe a low 5th class move or two) I remembered climbing in 2007 just to the right of the waterfall chimney I had climbed and downclimbed a few minutes ago. Now this familiar route did inspire confidence.
We then all set off up the slabs/chimney for a few hundred vertical feet and topped out on more remnants of a faint climber’s trail, which eventually led to much easier access to the Upper Saddle.
Once at the Upper saddle, spirits were high again and we regrouped, got something to eat and drink, flaked out the ropes, and racked up for the technical portion of the climb. The views were incredible, better than I remembered, and the rising sun’s rays on the other peaks of the Tetons and Idaho were unbelievable.
Reid & I were the lead rope team while Bill & Mike were the second rope team. I went off and only placed one sling around a rock horn to protect the first Belly Roll pitch. I quickly built an anchor and belayed Reid up. Now, it was chilly out, especially on the west side of the mountain which receives no direct sunlight until later in the day. I climbed without my gloves but belayed with them on. The plan was just to leave all my gear in so Mike could efficiently lead for the second rope team. This worked out pretty well.
We had to wait a bit for the team of three ahead of us. The longer we waited, the colder we got, but it is what it is. They were very nice folks and I chatted with them quite a bit as I was the closest one to them.
I set out across the very exposed yet easy Belly Crawl pitch placing 3 cams total for the Belly Crawl & Double Chimney.
I belayed Reid from on top of the Double Chimney and Mike soon followed Reid leading for his team. The climbing up until this point was at most 5.4. So, still technical with lots of exposure yet easy and fun climbing all the same.
I then told Sam to climb the awesome Owen Chimney instead of taking the Catwalk slabs around and they did just that. I hope they enjoyed it. I think they did. I took off up the fun 5.5 Owen Chimney placing two cams and clipping a fixed piton and set up an anchor at the top of the chimney and brought Reid up.
Mike was on Reid’s tail and then he brought Billy up.
I think we had a pretty speedy and efficient method going here for sure. From this point, we coiled the ropes, stowed them in our packs, and set off scrambling up Sargeant’s Chimney and then the really fun upper class 3 slabs to the Grand’s summit. The last few hundred vertical feet to the summit are really fun, low consequential scrambling.
I reached the summit around 10:15am and took a video of the boys topping out. It was a very special moment to see the three of them so excited and accomplished. I just love it.
Here is a short video of the boys reaching the Grand’s summit:
We stayed up top for a good half hour admiring the views, taking pictures, and soaking in the moment. The weather had really held off this day. We all felt very lucky and fortunate. It was a very pleasing summit.
We soon gathered our gear and I wanted us down to the Upper Saddle by noon to avoid any possibility of storms settling down on us while we were still on the technical portions of the mountain. The scrambling down to Sargeant’s Chimney rappel went well and I quickly set up the first “warm-up” rappel.
We all then scrambled down to the main 120 ft rappel, which dumped you back at the Upper Saddle. There was no waiting in line here like we did for an hour back in 2007. Mike and I set up the double-rope rappel and I was the first to set off with Mike bringing up the rear. The exhilaration you feel and fun you have on the 90 ft free-hanging portion of the rappel is definitely one of the technical highlights of the climb. Its just so much fun. The guys loved it.
We then took a break, ate some snacks, drank some Gatorade, coiled and stowed the ropes, and de-racked our gear. We kept our helmets on for the descent to the Lower Saddle because of the potential for class 4/low 5th class moves and loose rock. No matter how hard we tried, I think we still got off route a bit and had to perform some class 4/low 5th class downclimbs and routefind quite a bit. Whatever. It is what it is. We eventually made it to the Lower Saddle and regrouped with some food and water. If the Tetons can’t teach you how to scramble, I’m not sure what mountain range can. If you can scramble here, I honestly believe you can scramble anywhere.
We made it back to camp around 3pm, packed up, and started the backpack out around 4pm finally arriving back at Bill’s jeep around 6pm capping off a 15 hour day. Not too bad. I wanted us to head straight to Dornan’s restaurant’s rooftop deck in Moose for beers and dinner for good ole times’ sake. I always loved going here with my Dad and family and enjoying the great views of the Tetons. It did not disappoint. It capped off a wonderful 36 hrs in the Tetons with my great friends.
We drove to Pinedale that evening after dinner, got a motel room and very quickly passed out, and then made the remaining drive home to Vail Sunday morning. It was good to be home, but sad to cap off a great trip with Bill, Reid, & Mike. I am so proud of these guys. It was an honor to be up on the Grand with them.