The Grandest of Tetons
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Base Elevation: 6,732
Summit Elevation: 13,775
Elevation Gain: 7,043 to summit (7,795 round trip)
Round Trip Distance: 18.4
Moving Time: 13:16
Date: September 1, 2020
I have skied Jackson Hole many times over the years and like everyone else, I have marveled at the stunning beauty of “The Grand”. In my opinion, the Tetons are the most impressive and spectacular mountain range in the lower 48 yet it never crossed my mind to climb the Grand until this year. I guess I can blame that on turning 50.
I asked numerous of my friends to be my climbing partner but only man stepped up to the challenge: Court Durling. Neither one of us had any rock climbing experience and we didn’t know exactly what we were getting ourselves into – ignorance is bliss. With that said, Exum Mountain Guides’ website says they have “guided hundreds of climbers to the summit of the Grand Teton every summer – most of whom have never climbed prior to their first day of instruction with us”. So we conclude that we might as well be one of those hundreds.
Day 1: Training
The first day was a training day which on paper sounds rather boring but it turned out to be very fun and highly valuable. We took the Jenny’s Lake ferry across the lake and began bouldering in the Cascade Canyon area. Our guide was Joel Kauffman, who is an 11 year veteran with Exum and has guided the Grand over 100 times, so we felt like we were in good hands. Joel began teaching us various bouldering techniques from lay-backing, mantle, jam hands, smear… We also learned how to properly down climbing (nose over toes). Exum requires that you rent their approach shoes and let me tell you- these shoes were critical to our overall success. The shoes make you feel like spiderman as they stick to the dry rock like glue.
After we got the hang of bouldering, we moved onto rope climbing and this was definitely a step up from bouldering. The three of us were tied into one rope with Joel at the head and Court and I at the tail. Court and I were separated by about 3 feet thus requiring us to climb in tandem. Joel would attach himself to an anchor that was already in the wall and as he climbed, he would strategically insert a few cams into the rock. Once he reached the top of a pitch, Court and I would start climbing. This was our first taste of exposure and true consequence as we got 200-300 feet above the ground. There were a few moves were I was stepping on a crack no bigger than my small toe and I recall saying to myself, “trust the shoes and stand up”. Once we got to the top, we turned around and practiced down climbing and then we rappelled down a 75 foot wall. The guide rappels first and there is nothing more terrifying than being at the top without your guide and having to walk off a cliff backwards. But we got it done and with each successful move, our confidence rose. I can’t emphasis enough how valuable the training day is because without it there would be no way to summit the Grand. Trying to learn technical maneuvers at 12,500 feet with a 3,000 foot drop below you is not effective.
Luckily our training day wasn’t the approach or summit day because it started to rain at the base and we could see that it was snowing at the summit of the Grand.
Day 2: The Hike
The mission of the 2nd day was to hike to base camp at the Lower Saddle (11,600) from the Lupine Meadows trailhead (6,732).
The total hike is 7 miles and you gain just under 5,000 feet. We started hiking at 10:30 and our packs weighed about 30 pounds which consisted of food, multiple layers of clothes (all of which were used), water, a harness and a helmet.
The trail started out flat for the first ½ mile then it began to climb. At about the 1.3 mile marker, the Grand came into perspective and it looked so far away that you can’t imagine that you will be summiting this beast the following day. A little further up the trail, Bradley and Taggart Lake came into view below.
At the 3 mile point, we came to the Garnet Canyon & Amphitheater Lake Trail junction. We headed left towards Garnet Canyon which is 1.1 miles away. This section is relatively flat until we entered the mouth of the Garnet Canyon. Upon entering the Garnet Canyon, we were welcomed to spectacular views of Nez Perce (11,901) and the Middle Teton (12,804).
At the 3.8 mile point, we encountered a giant boulder field. This section is not technical and no scrambling is required. About .9 miles beyond the boulder field, we entered the Meadows and we stopped here for lunch and to replenish our water supplies which was much needed as the next section was very steep along the Spalding Falls. At the 5.5 miles, we arrived at the Petzoldt’s Caves (10,000) and there were a few hidden campsites here. About another 7 tenths of a mile we came upon the Moraine Camp and someone literally parked a tent on the trail which goes to show you how limiting this camp site is. At 6.9 miles, we approached the Ropes section and we had to put on our harness and helmet. The Ropes section is appropriately named because there was a permanent rope that was bolted into the rock which offered a nice assistance up this short 300 vertical climb. This section is a class 4 pitch so it wasn’t that challenging but it was good to do some climbing after such a long hike.
As we crested the Ropes section, we saw the large barrack style tents and we knew we had arrived at the Lower Saddle.
It had snowed about 6” the night before and Mike, the manager of the Exum campsite, said some snow drifts were 16”. Luckily, all of the snow had melted by the time we arrived at 4:30. However, the wind was fierce and if you ventured over the ridge to the west, the wind was blowing at 40mph+. Our tents were somewhat protected on the eastern side of the ridge and the sturdy Black Diamond tents held up no problem.
There is not much to do at base camp so we got in our tent for a short rest before our guide brought us some boiling water that we used to make dinner (rice and noodles). I reluctantly crawled out of my warm sleeping bag to witness one of the most amazing sunsets.
The sun was setting in the west (dah) while the full moon was rising above the Wind River mountain range in the east.
After the sunset, I attempted to get some sleep but the wind was rattling the tent causing the sides to flap against my head. The winds did die down somewhat after midnight but I was too anxious to get any sleep.
Day 3: Summit Day
Joel suggested not to set our alarms as he would wake us up but no alarm was needed as I tossed and turned all night. Joel informed us that we were going to take the Upper Exum route as opposed to the Owen Spaulding (OS) route. Court and I were somewhat oblivious as to what that meant but Joel had enough faith in our ability to take us on the more “fun” route. We would soon learn that fun meant more challenging and without a doubt a more forbidding and exposed route. Fortunately we didn’t really know that as it would have just stressed us out more.
We had some hot oatmeal and a few bars and it was go time around 5:15. The full moon was sitting directly overhead acting as a natural headlamp so we decided to hike the first hour under the moonlight.
From camp, we headed north along the saddle towards the Black Dike. After passing the Black Dike, we entered a scramble section and Joel politely told us that this was the last place we could turn around without his assistance and in fact, a lady from another group ahead of us did turn around. The Upper Exum and OS route head to the west of the Needle and then the Upper Exum route diverts from the OS route and heads east towards our first big exposure called Wall Street. We were all roped together with the guide at the front of the rope and Court and I were separated at the back by about 3 feet. As such, Court and I would climb in tandem with him going first and me following right behind him. Communication was paramount because if I had a hold and Court went to fast- he could pull me right off that hold which would then pull him off the rock as well. When we approached Wall Street, I quickly realized how vulnerable we were. Wall Street is a very narrow ledge and the drop off behind us is several thousand feet. I did my best not to look down and to focus on the next step. The Wall Street move requires matching feet across the ledge and then we headed down to the lower Step Across before climbing back up. After completing this move, I felt a sense of adrenaline and jubilation but that moment of glory was short lived as the next pitch is around the corner. We turned the corner from the southern side of the Grand to the eastern face and this was where the real exposure began. The next pitch was called the Golden Staircase and it was the first vertical climbing pitch of the day and my nerves really started to kickin. This pitch was more psychologically intimidating than technical as there were plenty of hand and foot holds but the sheer drop-off behind us was very daunting. Court and I both scrambled up this pitch with no problem and our confidence in each other and ourselves continued to grow.
We took a quick 2 minute rest as I could tell that Joel didn't want us to become complacent.
The next pitch is called Friction Pitch and this is where our training from the day before came in handy. In order to climb the Friction, we needed to enact the smear technique which is pressing the entire sole of your climbing shoe directly onto the rock and using the traction to gain vertical ground. What was so imposing about this pitch was that there was essential no holds and you just had to trust your shoes and yourself which was a large leap of faith for a newbie climber. But it worked with no incident and we progressed up the mountain. My growing confidence quickly met its match when we approached the Unsoeld’s Lieback pitch. Court and I were standing on a small ledge accessing the challenge in front of us and neither one of us could see an obvious hold. The face was virtually smooth but that didn’t deter Court from jump on it. Now it was my turn and I stood there dumbfounded. I yelled to Court, “stop - I don’t see a hold”. Court had been as cool as a cucumber all day but he yelled back in a terrified voice, “I can’t hold on, I am going to slip off this face! You have to go NOW”. Oh SHIT, I thought, and in a sheer panic, I jumped onto the face like a frightened cat and miraculously I didn't fall. In a state of freight, Court and I quickly scrambled up this pitch. Our guide rarely gave us any compliments and he would never comment on whether a pitch was hard or not as he didn’t want us to freak-out or become to relaxed but I was more than relieved to have accomplished Lieback’s. The technical pitches weren’t done as the Boulder Problem in the Sky lie ahead. The “Problem” requires a series of moves consisting of climbing outwards 90 degrees onto a face of rock that has a precarious drop hundreds of feet below. But after tackling Lieback’s, Court and I crushed the Boulder Problem. After solving the Problem, the technical pitches were now behind us and the summit was only a short scramble away which was much welcomed as the stress of climbing was becoming overwhelming.
Stepping foot on the summit was an overwhelming sigh of relief. I recorded a video on the summit and I became chocked up with emotion as I voiced that I loved my wife and kids. When you go through something as intense and stressful as climbing the Grand, you become overwhelmed with bottled up emotions that are released when you come out the other side.
We descended down the Owen Spaulding route which is mostly just a down climb but there was one big rappel that wap very intimidating. The rappel dropped over an overhang and we couldn't see the landing zone so our viewpoint was a 3,000 foot drop off in the distance. Joel methodically setup the rappel and I asked for a “quick rappel refresher” and Joel responded with, “just like we did yesterday”. I ask a second time for some advice and he pushed off the ledge saying, “just like yesterday”. Court and I were now alone on top of this nerve-racking ledge. The most daunting aspect of rappelling is that it is counterintuitive to everything we do as human beings. It requires you to walk off a ledge backwards while placing all of your weight in your harness and leaning back thus positioning your body perpendicular to the wall. All the while, slowly and steadily releasing the rope through the rappelling device. Despite our nerves peaking, Court and I executed this section without flaw (you don’t have a choice).
The rest of the way down to the Lower Saddle felt like a casual hike after the technical climbing that we already encountered. We arrived back at the campsite about 6 hours after our morning departure. After a short rest and refueling, we packed up and headed down the 7 mile exit hike feeling emboldened by our accomplishments.
In retrospective, I am not sure I would have signed up for this climb if I knew how precarious it would be. It was not necessarily physically challenging for me but it was very taxing mentally given the massive exposures. This climb is a true test of your mettle and you discover things about yourself that you didn’t know you were capable of. There are very few things in today’s modern society where you can’t call for help, But when you are on Unsoeld's Liebacks- it is 100% up to you. You can’t ask the guide for help. You can’t call 911. You can’t turn around. You simply have to step up and do it yourself. It is all on you.