Brian and I had been climbing together off-and-on for just under a year. This was sufficient experience to trust our lives to one-another on belay, but not enough time to become good friends. We were ready for a big adventure to build a lasting adventure friendship. A friend of mine from Chicago, Mark, had just finished and raved about his late-July trip to the Tetons; it was the obvious choice.
Our big adventure began on Saturday, August 14, 1997 with an eight-hour drive to Grand Teton National Park, just outside of Jackson, Wyoming. We were planning to climb the Grand Teton and whatever else we could fit into our week of freedom. Our expectations were soaring, but reality was even better; the forthcoming combination of suffering and success was a classic alpine adventure!
Our initial plans were designed to work around the four problems reported by my friend, Mark, based on his recent trip:
- Close-in camp space was impossible to find: full for the summer
- Permits for the Grand Teton were hard to get: be lucky or climb another
- Snow and ice covered nearly every route up the higher Tetons: bring ice gear
- It stormed every afternoon: prepare for bad weather
It seemed luck was going to play a larger part than normal in our Teton adventure.
Brian and I left the Denver area late Saturday morning. The plan was to find a campsite somewhere near the Grand Teton National Park Rangers Station so we could make an early visit on Sunday to acquire our backcountry permits.
Approaching the park, 8 hours later, we could see the impressive mountain range. This was my first visit to the Tetons and the sight reminded me of the Alps — the jagged rocks thrust up violently and suddenly from an otherwise calm flatland area. I couldn’t wait to stand on top of the Grand Teton.
We arrived at the Park entrance at Moose Junction at about 6:30pm and to collect a 7-day entrance pass and to check out the campsite availability. Consistent with Mark’s experience, all close-in campgrounds were full. Our only option was Gros Ventre, which was 15 miles away. But all that really mattered was the permit; we planned an early start to be first in line.
At 7:20am, we got in line to await the 8am opening of the Ranger Station. When the Ranger Bob showed up 40 minutes later, we were fourth in a line of fifteen parties. We listened in on the negotiation of those ahead of us — they were getting permits for the Grand for Monday and Tuesday. It was going to work out. At 8:30am, we got our turn with Ranger Bob. We told him we wanted the Grand for Monday. He nodded reassuringly and checked his computer. Nothing was available on Monday. And nothing was available on Tuesday. And we couldn’t reserve a camp site more than 2 days in advance. ”Oh well” he says, “I guess the other permit issuing site is giving away all the permits.”
My heart raced and my vision clouded…’what other permit issuing site?’…’what are we going to do now?’ I think I was about to pass out, when Ranger Bob said that if we have something else we want to do first, he could get us into the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton later in the week on the same permit.
“Okay, we want to do the CMC route on Mt. Moran, so give us the CMC campground for Sunday night and then we want to do the South Buttress on Mt. Moran so give us Lake Leigh campground 14 for Monday & Tuesday and then give us the Lower Saddle on the Grand for Wednesday & Thursday.” Yes, yes, yes. A complete reversal of fortune, only 30 seconds later. Life is good.
With the permit obstacle behind us, and me recovered from my fainting spell, we needed only to get ready to start hiking. And then it started raining, and, off we went into the wild gray yonder . . . with wet everything and high hopes.
Now, any fool with 10 minutes of research could tell you that the problem with Mt. Moran is accessibility; there is no trail to the foot of the mountain. The only reasonable way to approach the CMC camp is to rent a canoe, paddle for 1-2 hours, stash the canoe for 2-3 days, carry the paddles with you to keep the canoe secure, etc. But we were in a hurry to go; and we didn’t know where to rent canoes. We decided to just hike it. I made a joke about Chef’s line in Apocalypse Now, ‘Never get out of the boat,’ he said. We laughed like the fools we were.
We hit the trail about 1:45pm. The rain was still falling and the mud was unbelievable. Yet, despite 75-pound packs, we both felt light and nimble with adrenaline. It felt good to get started.
Since there is no trail directly to the climb, we planned to make the best of the only trail in the area. Our great plan was to hike the Leigh Lake trail for 3 miles (and up 1,000 feet), then divine the right spot to leave the trail and head down 1,000 feet to Leigh Lake. This approach was planned to set us up to angle over to the gully that we’ll hike up 3,200 feet to the CMC campground. We didn’t have GPS in those days, so we just had to wing it.
Visibility was poor due to the rain, and with the trees obscuring the view of the lake it was impossible to tell when to cut over. Our logic dictated that something of a trail would have developed with people cutting over — not everybody takes canoes, right? And the guide book mentioned an abandoned NPS trail that we might be able to find. What could go wrong?
After a time, we abandoned the search for a trail and cut over. Down the slippery slope, through muck and mud. This was the worst terrain I have ever walked in and it was made all the worse by 75 pounds on my back. Twice, my foot sunk in mud after stepping over a fallen tree causing my knee to hyper extend. I started to think that getting out of the Tetons with my health would be an unlikely success.
As we neared the bottom of the slope, it became clear that we had over shot the lake by a half mile. So we had to hike back a half mile through wet, tangled undergrowth and over fallen trees. Eventually, I gave up the drainage creek I was following and climbed up the next ridge (about 50 feet tall) to try to see an easier way. On the other side of the ridge was another, bigger creek, however, along the top of the ridge itself was a deer path that had better footing and had less vegetation than anywhere else. Following this track, we made our way to the Leigh lake. All that was left was to cross the various creeks via fallen trees to make our way over to the Mt. Moran ascent gully.
We finally reached the Mt. Moran ascent gully at 4pm, leaving us 5 hours of light to find the CMC camp. But we still had roughtly 3,200 feet of elevation to gain over loose boulders and wet rocks. Oh well, at least the rain had stopped.
As the hours ticked by, I was moving slower and slower. We were worried about finding the camp in the dark and so Brian moved ahead to see if he could find it. My legs were spent — hours ago — and I had to rest every 15 minutes. With dusk approaching, I kept looking left for Brian. Finally, I was barely able to make out his silhouette waiving his arms; his voice was lost in the wind. I had climbed too high. To reach Brian, I had to do a descending traverse 300 yards left to reach a dirt trail that would take me up 150 feet to the CMC campsite.
About halfway, as I was stepping carefully across a steep, wet, grassy slope, when, shiiiiiiiiiiit! Down I went, sliding down the grass in my self-arrest position with no way to create friction on the slick grass. After 50 feet, the slope angle lessened and I was able to grab at some long grass to stop myself. No injuries, but all my clothing, which had dried over the past 5 hours, were soaked and I was now covered in mud. I could have been pleased at my luck to avoid injury, but instead I was pissed off. But the anger stirred up enough energy to get me into camp before total darkness.
Setting up camp was pure torture, with the cold wind and dripping trees tormenting us. And once we could lie down, the cramps started. We were doomed to toss and turn until early morning.
Our adventure had become a nightmare.
We left camp about 8:30am, which was about 3-4 hours late. Neither of us could get out of the tent at first, and then only I couldn’t. But after our late start we took off pretty fast, following the footsteps of the party ahead of us. We reached the base of the climb at noon, just as the 1st party was turning around. “We just called the weather service; storms should be coming in around 2:30pm.” It was a 3-4 hour climb, so it was a prudent decision. But we had gone to too much trouble to get here to give up without a serious fight. Up we went.
The climb was very easy. The route finding was fairly simple and mistakes cost nearly nothing; many paths worked. Seven pitches later, Brian finished with a simul-climb of about 300 feet.
We summitted around 3pm . . . no weather at all.
From the top, as from below, Mt. Moran is a majestic peak. It is built like a giant U-shaped fortress with monstrous pillars at each of the ends. A glacier rests in the middle and temps adventure for another day. And, it was a beautifully flat summit. While sitting on top, I had a feeling of great relief; we had avoided a “no summit” fate. Time to go down.
The required scrambling was fairly safe with only a few exposed moves. About half way down, we found some rap anchors and descended easily with only a single stuck-rope incident. We got off of the technical section and back up Drizzlepuss to the packs at about 6pm — when I felt a couple of drops.
Within 10 minutes, the worst hailstorm I’ve ever been caught in began to beat the living hell out of us. I put my helmet on to preserve my skull and suddenly had the feeling that I was in Ray Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man” on the rainy planet where the astronauts were going deaf and crazy from the rain beating on their helmets. Of course, my hands continued to be beaten as I scrambled down the rocks to the trail. Within seconds, the ground was covered in ice — a white blanket covering the ground, obscuring the holds, and eliminating all friction. It was quite a mess.
We reached camp at 7:30pm for an 11-hour round trip. The weather-feared party greeted us with news of their bets that we wouldn’t have made it back until much later (or at all?). I was delighted to surprise them.
The tent beckoned and I did not refuse. Before long, Brian had the courage to speak of our planned climb of the South Buttress. In fact, our bivy permit for this night was at Leigh Lake, site 14. But I was a beaten man and had no intention of going any further that evening. Brian continued to try to persuade me until another rain shower settled the question. A bite to eat, and then, nothing.
The next morning, we had clear skies and, by dawn, sunshine. It was a gift from Heaven. We couldn’t resist laying out all of our wet, nasty clothes and gear in the sun. The sun felt so good. A little after sunrise, we started down the drainage gully, needing to lose 3,200 feet of elevation to reach Leigh lake.
It took us only 1.5 hours to get down to the lake, but it was still a God awful effort and misery. We hit camp 14 by 11am, and took a break. Brian stripped down to just his bibs, pretending to be an extra from Deliverance and attempting to dry the rest of his clothing. I filtered some water and tried to remember what it was like to be young and strong.
We still had to ascend 1,000 feet of elevation, up that trail-less muck to escape the Wild. As we started up again, it became all too clear that every drop of water that had fallen for the last 3 days was waiting on the leaves of the underbrush, just for us. Rather quickly we were soaked again. And without the rain, this crossing of the jungle was accompanied by a plague of mosquitoes. Thank God for bug juice. But even when the bastards don’t bite, they still hang over and all around your head in a black cloud. I bet I still have some in my lungs.
We did eventually make it out of the jungle. God, what a misery. As we stepped out onto the trail, two attractive women hiked by with big smiles on their faces. “Great day, isn’t it?” they said. All we could do was smile in return, thinking, ‘Never get out of the boat.’
If only we had Wikipedia back then:
Mount Moran is a massive and impressive mountain which would make it an attractive prize for mountaineers. However, the comparative difficulty of the approach to the climbs makes it a much less popular climb than Grand Teton and the other peaks which surround that summit. No trails to the region around Mount Moran have been maintained for over twenty years, and any approach overland requires a great deal of bushwacking through vegetation, deadfalls and bogs along the perimeter of Leigh Lake. Instead, most climbers choose to canoe from String Lake, across Leigh Lake and then pick their way to their respective route; but even this may require some overland route finding. As a result, most climbs on Mount Moran tend to take several days even when the technical portion of the climb is comparatively brief.
A few easy miles later, we reached the car and our dry clothes & socks. Oh, the joy of conventional things long taken for granted.
We headed into Jackson for supplies and food, and then back to set up camp at Gros Venture. After setting up, we once again laid our wet clothes over every bush in the site. While the sun was not hot (too late), the wind was stiff and dried our clothes and gear very well. We spent the late afternoon planning our gear and packing — determined to make the packs lighter this time. It was a nice rest until a storm hit at dusk. It was so fierce that I thought I would be hit by lightning while lying in my tent.
We broke camp in time to hit the trailhead at first light. We found a parking stop right at the trailhead — a good sign. The fog was thick . . . thick as soup. I hoped for a long, flat warm-up before the elevation gains began. But it was steep right away. While disappointing, this was probably for the best. We had to go from 6,700 feet to 11,000 feet in about 7 miles.
Four hours later, we hit the Meadows . . . the first campground and the best for climbs on Disappointment Peak. Our excitement was beginning to build again. We were really going to do it. The weather was cooperating. . everything was good.
Yet, we had much altitude yet to gain. I kept making progress, but the trail was another endless hell. Higher and higher. Forever and ever.
We agreed to take in a rest at the start of the Moraines campground. Despite everything, we had made good time and could afford a good rest. I wished out loud for another day to rest before the climb. I badly needed time to fully recover.
While it seemed like forever, it really only took 6 hours to reach the Lower Saddle campground. It was similar to climbing the staircase on the Sears Tower three times with 70 pounds on your back.
At the Lower Saddle, we picked out a site with substantial protection from the wind and set up for a hurricane. We were done by 3pm and had nothing to do for hours — a great change of pace.
In order to be productive, we spent some time scanning the rock formations for the Lower Exum start. Our plan was to do the entire Exum ridge — a Grade IV climb — so we needed to have a flawless, early start in poor light. The rock looked pretty good and we wired the approach.
Suddenly, the weather started to change. It was hail again, and it hit us hard. We scrambled into the tent and hoped it would pass. The storm reminded me of Hurricane Andrew, which I lived through in Miami. But we were tired and now used to going to sleep by 8pm, and the storm soon faded from our consciousness.
Morning came quickly, and thankfully, we were well rested. I suppose our bodies were just getting used to the abuse.
It was still pre-dawn, but the lack of stars foretold weather problems. Eventually we could tell that the ground was white and the air was white with fog. And it was cold. We agreed to bail on the Direct Exum route, and try only for upper Exum Ridge. “We’ll do the lower Exum tomorrow,” we said to each other. We were the only party to head out. We were thinking that the weather would clear by 9-10am, and then we’d be in position to summit.
Up we went, feeling our way higher and higher. We’d find a trail and lose it, again and again. The rock was completely covered in ice and snow. We managed to move higher up the snowy, icy rocks without ice ax or crampons (which we left in the car to save weight). But there was no way to reverse those moves, so I scavenged every rap anchor I could find.
We reached the top of the gully we were in at about 11am. The fog was still thick so we weren’t sure where we were. After a bit of scrambling around, we finally found the Upper Saddle. So we had missed the Wall Street and the start of the Exum ridge some time back. Our only remaining option, that we knew, was the Owens-Spalding route. So, we moved over to the start to see if we could figure it out.
But once we stepped over to the Southeast side of the Upper Saddle, the wind was at hurricane speed and the apparent temperature intolerable. We were freezing. There was no way to stand in it for climbing or to belay. But we didn’t want to bail prematurely. To be sure the day was really lost, we spent a miserable hour waiting for the weather to improve.
On the one hand, this was an incredible adventure — the mountain to ourselves, total whiteout, etc.; on the other hand, we could die very easily.
I could not remember giving up on a climb before, but it did seem like the right thing to do. So down we went. But this time we had to find the trail. We could not go down the way we came up — no way.
Two steps into the decent, Brian asked where the trail was. I lifted by head (and took my eyes off of the icy trail) to tell him that I had placed rocks to mark our trail when suddenly I was falling. And hitting the ground, I continued moving, sliding on the ice toward the precipice over the North face. Somehow, I managed to trade a left shoulder muscle for my life and stopped the slide. We renewed caution, we managed to find our way down in a fog that never lifted.
Back at camp, I took a 3-hour nap before waking from hunger. I was running short of food. I had brought too little for 2 days, and then needed to ration it into a 3.5 days supply. My wait for dinner was agony. And the rest of the trip promised to be body fat burning experience. Finally, it was time to go to sleep to the wild sounds of my tent being torn to pieces by the hurricane winds. Nature is beautiful.
In the morning, the ground and sky were clear. I ate two of my last four PR Bars. We took an early start to avoid being caught behind large or otherwise slow moving groups and with a clear day and our new experience on the mountain, our route finding was much improved. We decided to focus on the Upper Exum Ridge to maximize our chance of reaching the summit. We moved quickly up the mountain and found Wall Street without much effort. Everything was good.
We were the first on mountain — route finding all the way since no footprints could guide the way. It was a beautiful and cold alpine experience. Brian and I made very good time despite.
Our progress slowed a bit when the snow and ice accumulations blocked the normal route, or when the route took us to the north ridge where the winds were bitterly cold and very strong. But what a feeling: the mountain was ours and the adventure absolute. Still, we knew that a serious weather change or a minor fall could mean a failure to return home. We relied on our wits and each other to survive.
As we reach the top of the “friction pitch” we saw a lone, red helmeted climber below us. Our sense of serenity was gone. But what courage! The rock was very slippery and he was wearing hiking boots!
It turned out the guy was an experienced soloist. During our short conversation (while I belayed and he rested), I described our previous day’s adventure. I was explaining that we were lost and in the wrong gully, when he interrupted with “not Death Canyon?” Further discussion determined that we were not in Death Canyon, which he explained has only one safe crossing, which is right at Wall Street. Not a friendly place.
Our paths finally diverged when Brian opted for a new route (harder, but protectible) instead of the snow/ice filled chimney on the standard Exum Ridge route. Our route took a bit longer and by the time we summitted, he was gone. The mountain was ours once more and the summit views were as majestic as imagined. From a 3 by 4-foot perch, we could see the whole world. But the wind was deadly. Accordingly, we could not stand it long, and soon headed down.
We hoped our new friend’s footprints led to the rap station, since we didn’t have a good idea how else to get down. They did. The raps were covered in ice, but we prevailed and soon stood within a few feet of the previous day’s farthest progress. Still, nothing looked familiar.
Scrambling and sliding down loose rock and ice covered slabs; we slowly worked our way down. I yelled to Brian that I thought we were in the wrong gully, but he assured me that we were in the right place. Some time later, I could see far below us the crossing to Wall Street . . . we were in Death Canyon. Oh shit!
But we made it.
At that point, Brian and I were prepared to write a book about the Grand Teton entitled, “How to do everything wrong, yet summit and survive.”
Ten hours after leaving camp we returned triumphant. It was such a great accomplishment in our minds, it seemed inappropriate that no one else knew or cared. But we knew that we had summited on two Tetons despite all of our problems — weather, logistics, permits, food, pack weight — the feeling of accomplishment was total. The trip had been supremely satisfying.
Even though we got back to camp around 3pm, we were too tired to hike out the 7 miles and 4,500 feet to the car and deal with finding a place to sleep. So we decided to stay another night and hope the rangers didn’t find out.
But the real issue was food. I only had a single freeze dried dinner left, and that would be gone soon. And I was already starving. I had been living on only 2,000 calories a day for 2 days — and Saturday was going to be very lean. My pants did not stay up very well anymore.
Dinner at 6pm, sleep at 8pm.
We woke after 11 hours of blissful sleep. I never slept as well before or since. There was no reason to hurry, except that I had no food for breakfast or thereafter. I had yet to beg Brian for mercy, but it would not be long before I’d kill him for what he had left or even to eat his leg raw.
By 9am we were hiking, and Brian was thinking about his pending sacrifice. Down we went, and down, and down, and down. At least the weather was nice, finally. Halfway down, Brian pulled out a package of pepperoni slices he could live without. It was the best meal I’d ever eaten. It was the best decision Brian ever made.
Four hours later, we hit the parking lot and I had freedom from the oppression of my pack. Despite people in cars waiting for us to leave, we could not bring ourselves to move quickly. We enjoyed the small pleasures of fresh clothes, sandals, water and food. Total heaven.
We decided that 8 hours confined in a car was too much for 2 men without a shower for 7 days, even for very good friends. So we drove to the campers’ shower, and enjoyed another forgotten pleasure remembered. Clean, we drove to Jackson to find a celebratory lunch before the long drive home; we each ate a large pizza.
The heroes arrived home to empty apartments, but with thoughts of their next adventure. And Brian and I have been adventuring 40-45 weekends a year for the 12 years since; and we are great friends as well.