Nick is the ALN Technology Manager and Producer of the ALN Th@4 online program of informal, online chats every Thursday at 4 pm Eastern.
Daniel is a good friend and an excellent adventure partner. We have gone on some of the most far-out, epic adventures I could imagine because he consistently suggests things that I would probably never think of, because they seem too big, too challenging, too scary. But, Daniel is a master of the mountains – he has almost 20 years experience climbing, and again and again, he shows how well he understands his own abilities and mine – so, I have made a point to entertain his suggestions.
Two weeks ago he suggested we climb the Grand Teton: one of the most striking and iconic mountains in the world. It sits in north western Wyoming, only a few hours drive from my hometown Lander, so it has been on my radar for some time.
The Grand is actually quite a popular mountain to climb. There is a route which doesn’t require much technical climbing, so almost any fit person can be guided up to the top with the right planning and preparation. And while the elevation (13,776′) is not so stunning compared to the 14ers of Colorado, the summit of the Grand sits 6000+ feet above the end of the road, and so provides quite a journey to reach the top, and a stunning view once you arrive.
Of course, Daniel suggested we take a slightly more challenging route to the summit. He also suggested we do it in a day. So, rather than hiking the 7 miles to base camp one day, and climbing the next day, we woke at 2am to begin an 18-hour push of hiking, climbing, descending, and more hiking back to the car.
We started hiking at 330am and quickly hiked 6 miles and gained 2000 feet of elevation to where the trail ended in a giant moraine (glacially deposited boulder field). After traversing the boulder field, the sun rose to help us dry our sweaty shirts and underwear from the mornings exertion. Then we geared up, tied in to our rope, and started climbing upwards.
The easiest route up the Grand is called the Owen-Spalding (for the first ascentionists) and where this route would already have a line of guided parties on it by 7am, Daniel and I had the whole East Ridge of the Grand Teton to ourselves. One might ask: why wouldn’t other people choose to avoid the crowds and take the less traveled path? The answer being: this route up the East Ridge is 2000+ more feet of technical rock climbing than the Owen-Spalding (our route was a similar length to the tallest lines up Yosemite’s El Capitan)! And, our route is capped by a few hundred feet of climbing in a snow-field, so we had to bring a mountaineering axe and crampons, which only weighed 5 pounds or so, but 5 extra pounds carried up and down 6000+ feet certainly added to the bodily strain.
For more than 8 hours we climbed and scrambled and crawled up rock and snow and occasionally wet/dirty/broken rock (my least favorite). At times we pondered which way to go – where is the path of least resistance on this massive ridge? – at least once I had to downclimb 50 feet after taking a path that led to a precipice. We certainly had to stop and eat and drink occasionally, but for the most part, we were in constant movement. And then…the summit!
At 4pm, we had made it. We had pushed through the miles of hiking and climbing with a heavy pack, the gear we brought had been adequate, the weather had held, and our minds and bodies had stood up to the challenges we faced. We were joyful and amazed by the view…But quickly our thoughts turned to the long road ahead. At the moment of our triumph we were forced to realize that we were also the farthest from home. So we began the slow and sometimes fickle work of picking our way down the mountain. In our depleted state we had to go slower and take more precautions, knowing that the descent is where most accidents occur.
At 6pm, when we finally clambered off the last boulder and saw the well-worn trail ahead, we knew we had made it. Even if someone twisted an ankle, or dark fell upon us, we knew we could follow this trail back to civilization. The next few hours were a blur as we talked, sang, yelled, and were silent – anything to keep our minds from the chafing of our shoulder straps, and the heat on the soles of our feet, and the ache of altitude and dehydration behind our eyes.
In the last leg of the journey, we broke into a jog, wanting nothing in the whole world more than to see the parking lot, take off our shoes, and take a long draught from an ice cold beverage. Of course it turned out we were still a quarter of a mile from the trailhead, but at that point we were too stubborn to start walking again, so just before 930 pm we let out a cry – the car had been spotted. We stopped jogging and ambled the last few meters to salvation.
The day was done. We had safely reached the summit of the Grand Teton (and back) by way of 15+ miles and 13000+ feet of elevation change. I have done more miles in a day before, and I have climbed more technically challenging pieces of rock, but writing this, a day later, I am certain that i have never been this sore before. I think I will need at least a few weeks before I can entertain another of Daniel’s bold ideas.